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Cover Story Healthcare Heroes

Since BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, launched the recognition program known as Healthcare Heroes in 2017, the initiative has more than succeeded in its quest to identify true leaders — not to mention inspiring stories — within this region’s large and very important healthcare sector.
The award was created to recognize those whose contributions to the health and well-being of this region, while known to some, needed to become known to all. And that is certainly true this year.
They are leaders. In some cases innovators or collaborators. In all cases, inspirations — people and organizations that have devoted their lives to improving the quality of individual lives and the health of entire communities. We find these stories to be compelling and inspirational, and we’re sure you will as well.

Overall, everyone who was nominated this year is a hero, but in the minds of our judges — the editors and management at BusinessWest — eight of these stories stood out among the others. The Healthcare Heroes for 2022 are (click on the names to read their stories):

See the BusinessWest 2022 Healthcare Heroes Special Section HERE.

We’re excited to celebrate our Healthcare Heroes on Thursday, Oct. 27 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. Tickets cost $85 each, and tables of 10 or 12 are available.

The Healthcare Heroes program is being sponsored by presenting sponsors Elms College and Baystate Health/Health New England, and partner sponsors Trinity Health Of New England/Mercy Medical Center, American International College, and MiraVista Behavioral Health Center.

Presenting Sponsors

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Cover Story Sports & Leisure

Looking Sharp

Anneliese Townsend

Anneliese Townsend

 

“Never attempt to catch an axe.”

That’s one of a handful of rules printed above the targets in each of the 12 lanes at the Agawam Axe House. And while that’s just good common sense, said Anneliese Townsend, founder and co-owner of this intriguing business, this reminder is there for a reason.

“You would think that would be pretty obvious, but, in fact, it’s a natural instinct to put your foot out and try to stop something coming at you, so we have to remind people that it’s an axe,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, since she opened the doors in January 2018, no one has tried to catch an axe.

But many have tried to throw one.

Indeed, this unique enterprise, said to be the first of its kind in New England, the only one in Western Mass., and one of just six currently operating in the state, has seen, well, a sharp rise in interest since it opened, and the numbers — of both participants and revenue — continue to grow.

The venue has welcomed a wide range of constituencies, from companies large and small that are looking for a new and different kind of team-building exercise (a large contingent from LEGO was in recently) to birthday, bachelor, bachelorette, and divorce parties (axe throwing has become popular among women, as we’ll see); from leagues that compete weekly to individuals, many of them professionals, who are looking to blow off a little steam and rid themselves of some stress.

There are many days when Townsend will see all of the above.

“It’s absolutely massive, and it’s getting bigger every day,” she said of the sport of axe throwing, which she was introduced to while on a trip to Montreal with her boyfriend (and now business partner), Bob Manning.

“We Googled ‘things to do in Montreal,’” she recalled, “and the second and fourth items that came up were both axe throwing, and I thought that it was the best thing I’d ever heard of.”

the Burn Battle

The Agawam Axe House hosts a number of leagues and fund-raising events, such as the Burn Battle, which raises money for the American Cancer Society. Participants in last year’s ‘battle’ are seen here. The 2022 edition is set for Oct. 2.

They went to such a facility, but because they were with Manning’s children, they could not partake — it was an over-18 activity, and for obvious reasons. But Townsend was certainly intrigued, and upon returning to Western Mass., she did another Google search, this one to find axe-throwing venues near Agawam.

The closest one she found was in New Jersey. Instead of driving there, this entrepreneur — she’s been involved with an ice-cream shop and some other ventures in this community — eventually decided to open her own facility.

“We Googled ‘things to do in Montreal,’ and the second and fourth items that came up were both axe throwing, and I thought that it was the best thing I’d ever heard of.”

And from the day it opened, it’s been a hit. Or, as participants in this activity might say in this sport, it has stuck.

Business is brisk, and as the sport gets more exposure — from ESPN 8 or from the many who have already tried it — Townsend expects it will only continue to grow in popularity.

When people try it, they find that it’s not nearly as hard as it might look, and it has become a proven stress reliever — at a time when many are having issues with stress, for one reason or another.

“We have a lot of doctors from Noble Hospital [in Westfield] who come in,” she said. “They’re the most stressed people out there.”

This writer tried it, and, after a few throws to get a feel for it and stop trying to ‘flick the axe,’ as Townsend put it, managed to stick a few. Hundreds of other people have done the same, and that’s why Agawam Axe House is more than on target with its business projections.

For this issues and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with Townsend about the sport — and business — of axe throwing, and why she believes this is anything but a fad.

 

Gaining an Edge

When asked about axe throwing, or hatchet throwing, which is a more accurate description of the implement being used, as a leisure activity, Townsend described it as “a Canadian thing,” meaning that is where it started and is perhaps most popular.

She said urban axe throwing became a sport — and a business — in 2007 with the opening of Backyard Axe Throwing, or BATL, founded by Matt Wilson. It has grown from there, and there are now hundreds of venues across Canada, the U.S., Australia, Europe, and elsewhere, with more opening their doors every year.

Indeed, Townsend, a native of Australia whose parents still live there, said she keeps urging them to open an axe-throwing business in Sidney. They haven’t, but others have, much to her consternation.

Members of one of the leagues throwing at the Agawam Axe House

Members of one of the leagues throwing at the Agawam Axe House show off their axes, and their enthusiasm for the increasingly popular sport.

There are now actually two bodies governing the sport and promoting it on a global scale — the International Axe Throwing Federation (IATF), which the Agawam Axe House operates under, and the World Axe Throwing League (WATL).

Overall, the sport is catching on at many levels, everything from tournaments, including the U.S. Open, staged by the WATL — which took place in July in Minneapolis, with the finals airing on ESPN — and the International Axe Throwing Championship, which took place in June, to amateurs picking up the sport in places like the Agawam Axe House.

As for the business of axe throwing … getting off the ground was relatively easy, said Townsend, explaining that she acquired the location, secured the necessary permits (a liquor license was sought initially but not granted), and found insurance — a necessary but expensive item in this business sector, to be sure — through a company in Chicago that specializes in writing policies for axe-throwing establishments.

And, as noted, things got off to a fast start, and the company quickly built up some momentum.

But COVID brought things to a screeching halt in the spring of 2020, as it prompted the closing of all indoor sports facilities, said Townsend, adding that she and Manning eventually gained permission from the town to operate a few lanes outdoors, enabling the business to survive until restrictions were fully lifted in the spring of 2021.

Since then, business has been steady, with healthy amounts of new and repeat business, with both being vital to the success of any sports-related business.

Visitors to the Axe House, which now also boasts ‘foot bowling’ — bowling with a football — can use ‘house’ axes or bring their own, although it must meet certain specifications, especially with the size of the head and the material for the handle; it must be wood to control the amount of bounceback.

Many who partake, especially those in leagues, do own their own axes, which typically run for $80 to $90 — much more than a hatchet off the shelf at a hardware store would cost — and some go for as much as $200 to $300, with customized handles.

“That’s part of the fun; you come in thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ and you stick it, and the elation is … well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so addictive.”

But otherwise, the sport is very affordable, with lanes renting for $25 per hour, per person.

Townsend said axe throwing is growing in popularity for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that it really is much easier than people think and doesn’t take any real strength, agility, or athletic ability in order to excel. It’s been called the ‘great equalizer’ by one facility owner interviewed by USA Today. And Townsend agreed with that assessment.

“The reason many people don’t try it is because they assume you have to be strong, you have to be able to throw it fast, you have to have some throwing ability,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than one could imagine; people come in every day and say, ‘I’ll never be able to do it,’ and four or five throws later, they’re sticking it.

“It’s all about where you stand — I can make anyone stick it,” she went on, adding that instruction for first-timers is part of the package. “And that’s part of the fun; you come in thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ and you stick it, and the elation is … well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so addictive.”

What’s more, you can do this yourself or in groups of all kinds — leagues, a gathering of co-workers, those bachelor, bachelorette, and divorce parties (Townsend had two of them scheduled for the approaching weekend when she talked with BusinessWest), and fundraising events.

These include the upcoming Burn Battle, the second annual women’s tournament, slated for Oct. 2, that will raise funds for the American Cancer Society.

“Girls from all over New England and far away as New Jersey and Philadelphia come and throw and compete,” she said, adding that one of the bigger surprises thus far is how popular the Axe House, and the sport, has become with women. She estimates that perhaps 65% of customers are women. She’s not exactly sure why, although she has some theories.

“I think many women know that this is women-owned; the assumption, when you hear ‘axe throwing,’ is that it’s going to be a gentleman teaching you how to throw axes. I think that women find out it’s me, because I’ve been on the radio a few times, they’re much more comfortable coming in and trying it out,” she said. “Also, it’s an outlet — for everybody, not just women.”

Looking ahead, Townsend said there are no immediate plans to add additional locations or expand beyond Agawam. The immediate focus is on growing the business there and continuing to build the customer base by promoting the sport in any way she can.

 

All You Could Axe For

As for some of those other posted rules, they include “never run with an axe,” “no trick shots,” and “do not hold the axe by the blade.”

There is another rule — participants must wear close-toed shoes (again, for obvious reasons). Some show up not aware of this stipulation, said Townsend, adding that the Axe House has shoes (Crocs, actually) for rent.

“We call them shoes of shame, for obvious reasons — you weren’t smart enough to wear close-toed shoes throwing sharp objects,” she joked, adding that fewer people have to rent them these days, yet another sign that people are becoming aware of this activity and what it’s all about.

Suffice it to say this business venture is paying off, and that participants are not only sticking it, but sticking with it.

 

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

Community Spotlight Cover Story

Community Spotlight

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage soon to take shape in the city’s downtown.

‘Good traffic.’

That’s the phrase used by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno — who acknowledged that it is somewhat of an oxymoron — to describe traffic that is, well, positive in nature.

This would be traffic generated by vibrancy, by people coming into a city from somewhere else; traffic indicative of progress, as opposed to insufficient infrastructure, poor planning, or both.

Springfield saw quite a bit of this ‘good traffic’ prior to the pandemic, said Sarno, noting that it was generated by concerts at MGM Springfield’s venues, Thunderbirds games, conventions and college graduations at the MassMutual Center, special gatherings like the Winter Weekend staged by the Red Sox in early 2020, or any combination of the above. Sometimes, a random Friday night would be enough to generate such traffic.

And after two years of relative quiet in the wake of the pandemic, the ‘good traffic’ is starting to make a comeback, as is the city as a whole, said Sarno, Springfield’s longest-serving mayor, with 14 years in the corner office, adding that there is promise for a whole lot more in the months and years to come, as pieces to a puzzle come together — or back together, as the case may be.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

These pieces include everything from a resurgent Thunderbirds squad, which made it all the way the AHL finals after taking a full year off due to COVID, to new housing, including the long-delayed renovation of the former Court Square hotel; from a casino in comeback mode, buoyed by the promise of sports gambling, to the return of the Marriott brand downtown after more than $40 million in renovations to the property in Tower Square; from new restaurants and clubs on Worthington Street to a new parking garage soon to rise where an existing structure is being razed.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods. I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

The “state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly parking garage,” as Sarno described it, will be part of a larger development in the area around the MassMutual Center, an initiative aimed at bringing people to that site before, during, and perhaps after events (more on that later).

The city still faces a number of stern challenges, many of them COVID-related, said Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, citing such matters as the impact of remote work and hybrid schedules on downtown office buildings, an ongoing workforce crisis that has impacted in businesses in all sectors, and the pressing need to redevelop vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

But he, like the mayor, sees progress on many fronts and, overall, a pronounced recovery from a pandemic that hit the city very hard.

“We’re seeing many positive signs that Springfield is making its way back from the pandemic and the many challenges it created,” said Sheehan, who cited, among many yardsticks of momentum, a long line to get a table at Wahlburgers during a recent visit. “And we’re seeing these signs not only in the downtown, but the neighborhoods as well.”

Sarno agreed. He said that, over his lengthy tenure as mayor, the city has coped with a number of challenges and crises, from the June 2011 tornado to the November 2012 natural-gas explosion. But COVID has been different, and it has tested the city and its business community in many different ways.

“It’s been a difficult two years; the pandemic threw everyone a huge curveball,” he explained, adding that city leaders were trying to respond to an unprecedented health crisis while also making good use of state and especially federal money to help small businesses keep the lights on.

“My team has been tested, and, true, it’s been through a lot of disasters before,” he went on. “But this was like shadowboxing — it was surreal.”

COVID isn’t over, and challenges for small businesses remain, but in many respects, the city can get back to business, and it is doing just that.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Springfield, its ongoing bounce-back from COVID, and, yes, the return of that ‘good traffic.’

State of the City

It was affectionately known as the ‘dog and pony show.’

That’s what some called an annual gathering, orchestrated by the city in conjunction with the Springfield Regional Chamber, at which officials gave what amounted to a progress report on the city, with a large dollar amount attached to all the various economic-development and infrastructure projects — from MGM Springfield to the renovation of Union Station to the reconstruction of the I-91 viaduct — that were in progress or on the drawing board.

The city hasn’t staged one of these sessions in several years, mostly due to COVID, said Sarno, but one is being planned, probably for early next year. And there will be quite a bit to talk about, he went on, hinting at new developments at sites ranging from Union Station to the former Municipal Hospital on State Street, while offering what amounts to a preview of that gathering.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

And he started with the new, 1,000-space parking garage, which he and Sheehan anticipate will be much more than that.

Indeed, plans for the site include ‘activation’ — that’s a word you hear often when it comes to properties in the downtown — of a surface parking lot next to the present (and future) garage, and, overall, creation of an atmosphere similar, said the mayor, to what is seen at Fenway Park in Boston on game nights.

“Bruce Landon Way will be activated, and many times, it will be shut down,” said Sheehan, adding that the current surface lot, and Bruce Landon Way itself, will become extensions of the MassMutual Center.

“They can have their events literally flowing out to Bruce Landon Way, creating much more activation within the downtown,” he explained. “And it will be utilized for pre- and post-event programming.”

Elaborating, he said the current surface lot will be public space that the Convention Center Authority will lease out for various kinds of functions, bringing more people downtown.

Meanwhile, a new entrance to the MassMutual Center will be added at the corner of State and Main streets, providing the facility with two points of entry and, with this new addition, what the mayor likened to a “Broadway marquee,” a much stronger bridge to MGM Springfield and other businesses south of the arena.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself,” said Sheehan. “And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

That new entrance may help spur development of several vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from the MGM casino, said Sarno, adding that requests for proposals to redevelop these properties, now under city control, will be issued soon.

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield, says the facility was designed to reflect the history and culture of the city.

These developments, coupled with the ongoing renovation of 31 Elm St., the former Court Square Hotel, into market-rate apartments due to be ready for occupancy in roughly a year, are expected to create more interest in Springfield and its downtown within the development community, said the mayor, noting, again, that needed pieces are coming together.

These pieces include housing, which will create a larger population of people living in the downtown; restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses, a broad category that includes MGM Springfield, restaurants, and the Thunderbirds; and a vibrant business community.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself. And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

Individual pieces coming into place include not only 31 Elm, but the recently opened housing in the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street; some new restaurants and clubs on and around Worthington Street, including Dewey’s Lounge, the Del Raye, and Jackalope; and the planned new Big Y supermarket, which will address a recognized need in what has long been recognized as a food desert.

Staying Power

Then, there’s Tower Square and the Marriott flag that has been returned to the hotel several years after it was lost.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the two years worth of renovations to that hotel and planned reopening of the facility, Dinesh Patel showed off finishing-touch work in several areas, including the lobby, the fitness center, the pool room, and some of the meeting rooms.

He also opened the door the large ballroom, revealing a training session for dozens of the more than 180 people expected to be hired before the facility opens its doors. Like most of the renovation work itself, conducted at the height of the pandemic and its aftermath amid supply-chain issues and soaring prices for many products and materials, the hiring process has been a stern challenge as qualified help remains in short supply.

But for Patel and partner Mid Vitta, whose work to reclaim the Marriott flag — and reinvent Tower Square — earned them BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2022, it has been what amounts to a labor of love. The two saw an opportunity in the once-thriving but then-challenged retail and office complex in the heart of downtown, and have made the most of it, finding some imaginative reuse of many spaces. These include the recruitment of the YMCA, which has brought its childcare and fitness-center operations, as well as its administrative offices, to Tower Square. It also includes that new and decidedly different kind of Big Y store in space formerly occupied by CVS.

As for the hotel, which will open in time for the induction ceremonies for the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, Patel said the timing is good for the property to come back online.

“Gas prices are coming down, and people are traveling again,” he said. “They want to get out and go places; we see a lot of pent-up demand.”

As he offered a tour of the nearly-ready facility, Patel noted the many nods to Springfield, its history, and its culture, from the basketball-themed art in the fitness center to the wall coverings depicting blueprints of noted inventions that happened in Springfield (from the monkey wrench to rail cars) to the many photographs of ‘old Springfield’ found on the walls of the stairs leading to the meeting facilities on the sixth floor.

“We wanted to tell the story of Springfield,” Patel said. “And we tell that story all through the hotel.”

Increasingly, that story is one of progress and recovery from COVID, not only in the downtown, where much of the interest is focused, but in many other neighborhoods as well, said both Sarno and Sheehan, noting that neighborhood plans have been developed for many different sections of the city that address everything from sidewalks to lighting to beautification, with gathered suggestions then forwarded to an ARPA advisory committee.

Overall, new schools and libraries are being built, infrastructure improvements are being undertaken, and businesses continue to be supported as they face the lingering effects of COVID through initiatives such as the Prime the Pump program, which provided grants of various sizes to businesses in need.

The city has received nearly $124 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money to date, and it has distributed more than $50 million, including $4 million dispensed in the seventh round to date, earlier this month. Those funds went to small businesses, new businesses, nonprofits, neighborhoods, housing, capital projects, and direct financial assistance to households and seniors, said Sarno, adding that that the basic strategy has been put that money to use in ways where the impact can be dramatic and immediate.

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area is one of the highlights of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield.

“The majority of the monies that have been distributed have really helped a lot of minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses,” he explained. “It’s a very eclectic mix, from mom-and-pop businesses to larger ventures to direct assistance.”

There have been efforts in the broad category of workforce development as well, he went on, adding that businesses of all kinds continue to be impacted by an ultra-tight labor market, just as many are starting to see business pick up again.

Overall, there have been more than 30 meetings conducted with residents and business owners in attendance, said the mayor, adding that these listening sessions were staged to gain direct feedback on how federal COVID relief money can best be spent in Springfield.

Identified needs and challenges range from workforce issues to childcare to transportation, said Sheehan, adding that what has come from these sessions is dialogue, which has often led to action, on how the city can collaborate with other groups and agencies to address these matters. And it has been a very fruitful learning experience.

“It created an opportunity to look at things differently,” he noted. “And I do think it has caused people to look at how we can work collaboratively to solve some pretty significant problems.”

Bottom Line

To motorists who are stuck in it, there is really no such thing as ‘good traffic.’

But while drivers don’t use that phrase, elected officials and economic-development leaders certainly do. As Sarno told BusinessWest, good traffic is a barometer of a city’s vibrancy, a measure of whether, and to what degree, a community has become a destination.

For a long while, Springfield didn’t have much, if any, of this ‘good traffic,’ and then, in the 18 months or so before COVID, it did. The pandemic and its many side effects took much of that traffic away, but there are many signs that it’s back and here to stay.

As the mayor said, the city is starting to get its mojo back. 

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

Cover Story

High Flight

Nate Costa with the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy

Nate Costa with the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy and his AHL Finals jersey.

The Springfield Thunderbirds soared to new heights during the 2021-22 season, making the playoffs for the first time in their existence and taking Springfield to the championship round of the playoffs for the first time in three decades. As the franchise enters what will be an abbreviated offseason, it does so with momentum and a championship-caliber team to sell to a more engaged fan base, and management is laser-focused on taking full advantage of this opportunity.

Within the pantheon of ‘good problems to have,’ specifically in the world of professional sports, it doesn’t get much better than this. Although, yes, it does get a little better.

Indeed, after a lengthy playoff run that took the team to within a few wins of a Calder Cup, the Springfield Thunderbirds are looking at a short offseason — as in two full months shorter than the norm.

That’s a problem, said team President Nate Costa, because there’s a lot to do before the 2022-23 season starts, from season-ticket sales to scheduling promotions to lining up special guests and programs. But it’s a good problem, obviously, because of everything that happened during those aforementioned two months and what they mean to this franchise, and this brand, moving forward.

What happened, said Costa, is that the Thunderbirds, the franchise that brought pro hockey back to Springfield in 2016 after a brief time without a team, became “the talk of the town” during that playoff run. Elaborating, he told BusinessWest that the team took a huge leap forward in terms of visibility, prominence, and, yes, relevance. It always had a core of solid fans, but it hadn’t truly arrived. Until this spring.

“It all came to fruition when the playoff run happened,” he told BusinessWest. “All the stuff we thought could happen — that we would be the talk of the town, that we could be the focal point of downtown Springfield … it all came together. And now, it’s about trying to capture some of that momentum and keep things moving.”

The team took this huge step forward in large part because the team seized a huge opportunity during the playoffs to capitalize on the 11 extra games and the excitement generated with each passing round by promoting the brand in every way imaginable, from ceremonial posters and rally towels handed out at the home games to extensive social-media coverage of the team’s run to the Eastern Conference title and the brink of a Calder Cup.

The challenge — and huge opportunity — moving forward, as Costa said, is to build off this hard-earned momentum, and this is what management will be doing in this abbreviated offseason.

Thunderbirds

The extended playoff run gives the Thunderbirds a short offseason, but in the larger scheme of things, that’s a good problem to have.

“All the positives around the business now, and all the stuff that comes from having a nice run like this is … huge, and it’s something we’ve never had before — we’ve never even made the playoffs before in my time with the Thunderbirds,” he noted. “We’re in a good position to take advantage because we’ve laid a really solid foundation that we can build on.”

Looking back on a memorable season, one that earned the T-Birds Team of the Year honors (the President’s Award) from the AHL, Costa said it happened because many pieces fell in place and because all the various players — from the local ownership group that provided the needed resources to a parent team, the St. Louis Blues, that “understands the value of winning at this level,” as he put it, to the players and management — did their respective jobs.

Overall, he said the deep playoff run was and is validation of everything that management and ownership have done to not only bring hockey back to Springfield but to generate interest in hockey and build a successful brand.

“It all came to fruition when the playoff run happened. All the stuff we thought could happen — that we would be the talk of the town, that we could be the focal point of downtown Springfield … it all came together. And now, it’s about trying to capture some of that momentum and keep things moving.”

“It’s been a huge validation, not only for me personally, but for the owners, who stepped up for the city, made a big investment, and did it the right way,” he said. “To be able to get the Eastern Conference championship and do something that hadn’t been done in 30 years … that’s pretty special.

“Getting to the playoffs is really important to the development of these players; these guys are getting extra games, they’re getting extra high-pressure games … that all means a lot to development,” he added. “The really cool thing is that there is lot of continuity between last year’s team and this year’s team, which is a testament to the Blues — they’re bringing back a lot of guys.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Costa about the season — and postseason — that was, how the team made the most of that unique opportunity, and how it intends to build on all that was gained during the 2022-23 season and beyond.

 

Banner Year

One of the many items on the to-do list for Costa and his team this offseason is to order a ‘2022 Eastern Conference Champions’ banner to hang in the rafters at the soon-to-be-renamed MassMutual Center.

Costa said research revealed the name of a company in Waltham that makes such banners for a number of professional sports teams, and preliminary talks with that outfit will commence soon.

Thunderbirds fared well

While the playoffs are not a ticket to guaranteed financial success, the Thunderbirds fared well, selling out each of its three games in the Finals.

“We want to do it right — to go the company that does this for everyone,” he said. “I want to get their input — I want to get some direction on how to design this the right way, because it’s going to live in our rafters for a long time.”

Finding a company to make a banner for the rafters was about the last thing on anyone’s mind during a very challenging start to the 2021-22 season, said Costa, adding that this past year was a stern test on many different levels.

For starters, the team was starting up again after deciding not to play during the 2020-21 season, when COVID was at its height and the AHL was playing a shorter schedule with a host of restrictions and, for the most part, no fans. This meant assembling a team of employees (with many returnees from before COVID) and re-engaging with a fan base.

But mostly, it meant dealing with a pandemic that kept coming in waves and was still very much a disruptive force, especially for businesses dependent on bringing large numbers of people together in closed spaces.

“All the positives around the business now, and all the stuff that comes from having a nice run like this is … huge, and it’s something we’ve never had before — we’ve never even made the playoffs before in my time with the Thunderbirds.”

“It’s been a long year,” said Costa, putting heavy emphasis on that word ‘long.’ “We dealt with a lot of ups and downs; there were a lot of challenges. Groups were essentially non-existent because schools weren’t doing anything, and we were living in a real COVID world for half the year. January and February were some dark months where we still wearing masks and there were potential capacity limitations … we were dealing with that all year, and it was a really taxing and challenging environment to work through. It was exhausting.”

While dealing with these challenges, the Thunderbirds, thanks to a solid mix of established veterans and emerging prospects, established themselves as not only a playoff contender (23 of the league’s 31 teams would qualify for postseason play for the 2021-22 season following some changes to the format), but as a frontrunner. Indeed, the team forged its way near the top of the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference and stayed there for the bulk of the season.

By the spring, the team’s consistently solid play made a playoff birth likely, and then inevitable, giving Costa and his team a chance to start planning — as much as any organization can plan a playoff run, even with a bye in the first round, which the T-Birds earned by finishing second overall in the Atlantic Division.

Indeed, the playoffs are to be taken one series — and, in many respects, one game — at a time, he said, adding that, while a playoff run can benefit a team’s bottom line, there are many additional expenses, especially travel and logistics, and some challenges when it comes to ticket sales, including the loss of all-important group sales.

playoff experience different

Nate Costa says one of the team’s goals was to make the playoff experience different for the fans and the players, with rally towels and banners like this one.

“Every series is like a mini-season, the way we market it and the way you go through the process, because you don’t know what’s going to happen; it’s all dependent on your performance on the ice. At the beginning of the run, we wanted it to make it feel different and feel separate from the regular season, and so, from a marketing perspective, we put together an entire campaign around the playoffs,” Costa explained, including a hashtag slogan — Fly, Fight, Win! — that was a nod to the Air Force. “It was completely different from what our regular-season marketing campaign was.”

 

Winning Formula

Such marketing efforts included everything from lawn signs to new signage around the arena to stickers placed in the windows of downtown businesses, as well as that hashtag. They were a necessary expense, but ones with a very uncertain ROI.

“You can do all that planning and do all those things, and then get knocked out in the first round,” Costa explained. “We were really fortunate that we got to go all the way to the end, but every round you have to redo the schedule, get tickets up on sale, set the pricing on tickets, get the tickets sold, getting marketing in place and buying the advertising — and it all happens within a week.”

“The other blessing about going so late into the playoffs is that it’s only three months from the end of our year to the start of the new year. I think there’s still going to be a lot of pent-up excitement, especially with the number of guys we have coming back and the continuity with raising the banner and all that.”

And there are no guarantees that a playoff run will be a financial success, he said, noting that some teams in the playoffs — including the Chicago Wolves, who triumphed over the T-Birds in the Calder Cup Finals in five games — played before crowds that were far from sellouts, and one of the playoff teams from the Western Conference, Stockton, was averaging just over 1,000 per game.

“At this level, though tickets were in demand, you still have to grind, and you still have to have relationships with people in the region to try to move tickets,” Costa said. “And if you’re not prepared to do that at this level, you’re not going to succeed.

“The first two rounds are really challenging, and teams traditionally break even or lose,” he explained. “But you maximize those opportunities to build momentum for future rounds, if you can get there, and that’s what we did.”

Overall, the Thunderbirds did well with playoff ticket sales, he went on, noting that each of the three Finals games hosted in Springfield was a sellout (6,793 seats), and the earlier rounds averaged more than 5,000, with some games coming on weekdays and even Mondays.

Eastern Conference Champions’ hat.

There are many benefits to an extended playoff run, including merchandise, such as this ‘Eastern Conference Champions’ hat.

But beyond ticket sales, Costa said he saw the playoffs as an opportunity to build the Thunderbirds brand, and he invested heavily in many different initiatives.

For starters, he made sure all three of the team’s media members went to every playoff series to cover the Thunderbirds for social media.

“From the beginning, I wanted to feel like a pro hockey team, and that means getting photography, video, and social media on the road,” he said. “That’s what separates us from a lot of AHL teams; not many teams in this league are willing to invest in this stuff. But I think it’s important for perception of the brand.

“If you can do the little things like that, if you can let the players feel like real pros, then the fans, by extension, the people who are following your brand, can also feel that, and that gives you a lot to sell,” he went on. “The playoffs, to me, was all about maximizing the opportunity.”

 

Setting Sale

As he talked with BusinessWest, Costa was wearing a ‘Calder Cup Finals’ pullover. At one point in the proceedings, he paused to show off the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy, named for former AHL President Richard Canning.

These are just a few of the symbolic ways in which he and his team are still living in the moment, if you will.

But in most other ways, the team is putting its deep playoff run behind it and moving onto next season. Indeed, Costa made a point of referring to the 2021-22 campaign as ‘last season,’ and to 2022-23 as ‘this season.’

Which brought him back to the ‘good problem to have’ he mentioned at the top.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he said of the shortened offseason, noting that it’s too short for everyone involved — players, many of whom will be back with the team, as well as coaches and administrators.

But from a business perspective, and most all other perspectives, it certainly beats the alternative — another season with no playoffs.

“I’m going to take the playoff run and everything that came with it over a longer offseason,” he said, adding quickly that some, but not all, of the page-turning work that comes after a year’s final game is over had to wait until the playoff run ended.

The mission now is to make up for that lost time, and Costa and his team are now forging ahead with the plans for 2022-23. The schedule has been officially released, which means the team can now start slotting in everything from annual events to who will sing the national anthem at each game.

And, as he mentioned, there is momentum to build on, and it is already showing up in season-ticket sales; by mid-July, the team had more than 1,150 season tickets sold for the coming season, a jump of nearly 100 from last year, with more than 200 still to renew and a projected 80% of those coming back. That means the team is looking at perhaps a 30% increase in season-ticket volume.

And that should be just one area of growth, he said, adding that, overall, a short offseason isn’t beneficial only because of what it means about last season.

“The other blessing about going so late into the playoffs is that it’s only three months from the end of our year to the start of the new year,” Costa explained. “I think there’s still going to be a lot of pent-up excitement, especially with the number of guys we have coming back and the continuity with raising the banner and all that.

“Early on in the year is typically really hard for us,” he went on, adding that the team is competing with pro and college football and other sports as well. “But coming out of this, I think we’re going to have a lot of momentum. We don’t really hit our stride typically on the business side with big crowds until December, when people really start to turn the page and think hockey. This will help us early in the season; we’re going to come out of the gates strong.”

As the team continues its budgeting for the coming year, it will be aggressive as it sets goals for ticket sales and revenue because of last year’s success, Costa said, but it will also look for new areas in which to grow and improve, on both the revenue and expense sides.

“It’s just the maturation of the business,” he explained. “We’re in a healthy place now, and it’s all about how we take advantage of our momentum. When we took this over, it was obviously exciting, but there wasn’t a ton of value built up in the brand, and now we’ve gotten to the point where we have some value built into the brand, and we have to take advantage of that.

“Now, we have a winning team to talk about and a championship-caliber team,” he went on. “And that just adds to everything that we’re doing, and it makes our job easier.”

 

Soar Subject

Summing up the playoff run that was, from both a personal and professional perspective, Costa said it was, in a word, “special.”

“It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my career,” he said, noting that the team won the Eastern Conference title exactly six years from the day the new franchise was announced. “I’ve been in pro sports for more than 15 years now and had never gotten to that point — it was fulfilling on many levels.

“And that’s one of the things I hammered home with our staff. I said, ‘I know it’s exhausting, and I know we’re working extra games, but this doesn’t happen every year,’” he went on, adding that, when it does happen, a team has to take full advantage of the moment — and the momentum created by that moment.

And he and his team are fully committed to doing just that.

 

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

Cover Story

A Developing Story

 

architect’s rendering

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new courthouse, apartment complex, and marina for Springfield’s riverfront.

As he talked about the many real-estate development projects he’s been involved with over the years and how they’ve come to the drawing board and then off it, Peter Picknelly said simply, “they develop … and then they happen.”

That was a very simple explanation for what is often a very complex process, especially with some of the projects he and his team at the OPAL Real Estate Group have taken on over the years, many of which have involved public-private partnerships and have taken years, if not decades, to become reality.

What he meant was that each project starts with a concept, or a vision — the marriage of a location or an existing building with a new use, or uses, often with higher goals, such as sparking additional development in a given area or neighborhood, or bringing new life to dormant, sometimes historic properties.

This has been the case with many projects in the OPAL portfolio — from the transportation and education center in downtown Holyoke to the conversion of the former Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton into luxury apartments, to a similar but much more complicated effort to transform the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into market-rate housing.

Peter Picknelly says Springfield’s riverfront

Peter Picknelly says Springfield’s riverfront, and especially the stretch north of the Memorial Bridge, is an untapped resource and the ideal location for a new courthouse.

And this is the same general formula being applied to the most ambitious project yet undertaken by Picknelly and his team at OPAL Real Estate — the transformation of land on Springfield’s riverfront, north of the Memorial Bridge, into a home for a new Hampden County courthouse and, perhaps, an apartment complex and marina, a concept that comes with a price tag just under $500 million.

Plans for this concept were unveiled at an elaborate press conference last month, with Picknelly and others, including Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan, touting the proposed project as a potential economic catalyst for both the riverfront and Springfield’s North End.

And as a solution to what has become a huge health hazard in Springfield — the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse, which has been beset with problems ranging from mold and ventilation issues to alarming reports of employees getting sick and in some cases dying of cancers and other diseases linked to environmental concerns.

Indeed, a recent report by the state Trial Court’s Environmental Advisory Committee, made up of courthouse employees, said the courthouse is linked to more than 50 cancer diagnoses and five employees who have died of ALS.

Headlines announcing these reports and the state’s ongoing efforts to clean and perhaps renovate a building that people don’t want to go in — the Hampden Registry of Deeds and the district attorney’s office have relocated staff out of the building — prompted those at OPAL to create that vision that was announced last month, said Picknelly.

“It’s pretty clear to me that there is something wrong, very wrong, with that building,” he said. “There are 25,000 people who have been diagnosed with ALS; five have died in one building! That’s an amazing number. And 60 people have some form of cancer? We need a new courthouse, and anyone who cares about Springfield would have that on their radar.”

But there are very few spots in the city that can accommodate a new courthouse. Picknelly says he has one — or can assemble one.

The land in question has been considered for everything from a casino to a site for a UMass Springfield campus to the possible home for a minor-league baseball stadium. But it remains undeveloped and needs a spark to become a real asset for the city.

The proposed courthouse, a true public-private endeavor, could become that spark, he said, adding that this project, if it comes to fruition — and there are many hurdles to clear, as we’ll see — could lead to additional development along the riverfront and in the North End.

“I think this is an exciting opportunity for our city to expand its downtown area and open up the river, finally, for all sorts of activities,” said Picknelly, who called the Court Square initiative a ‘legacy project,’ and believes the same term could be applied to the courthouse endeavor. “We’ve always thought that our land on the riverfront was underutilized, and that, at some point, it should be developed, and this seemed like a great opportunity, so we’re running with it, and we think it has some legs.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at Picknelly’s impressive development track record and how this latest project would become an intriguing next chapter.

 

Right Place, Right Time

Picknelly said OPAL is an acronym, with those letters starting the names of his four children — Olivia, Peter, Alyssa, and Lauryn.

Over the years, it has become synonymous with large-scale, often difficult projects that often involve public-private partnerships. The Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center on Maple Street in Holyoke, which houses bus services on the ground floor and Holyoke Community College’s Adult Learning Center on the upper floors, is one example, while the Court Square project, which boasts an array of partners, including the state, MGM Springfield, Winn Development, and OPAL itself, is another.

“I think this is an exciting opportunity for our city to expand its downtown area and open up the river, finally, for all sorts of activities. We’ve always thought that our land on the riverfront was underutilized, and that, at some point, it should be developed, and this seemed like a great opportunity, so we’re running with it, and we think it has some legs.”

Picknelly said that he and his team at OPAL look for development opportunities across the region, often responding to requests for proposals for specific buildings and properties, as in Holyoke and Court Square, but often by being proactive, sometimes with property owned by Picknelly or Peter Pan.

Such is the case with the existing Hampden County courthouse and the need to find a solution to the ongoing health problems there.

Picknelly and his team at OPAL first became involved with the goal of perhaps finding a temporary home for the courthouse to be used while the existing property is cleaned and renovated. But amid the headlines about illness and death and the high costs of making the building safe, the thought process shifted to finding a permanent solution in the form of a new home.

“The more you looked into it, the worse it got,” he said. “So we asked, ‘where can you build a new one and keep it in the downtown area?’ Because this is important to Springfield.”

The solution that presented itself is the 14.5-acre parcel on the riverfront owned by Picknelly — as well as an adjoining parcel owned by the Republican Co., which is the planned location of the new courthouse; Picknelly is seeking to purchase that parcel.

The land owned by Picknelly is currently home to Peter Pan’s Coachbuilders repair and maintenance facility as well as a number of billboards, which are generating some revenue from lease deals.

As noted earlier, it has been considered for several different uses, including a baseball park — several different proposals for such a facility have been forwarded over the years. And Picknelly said UMass Amherst considered the site before it eventually located its downtown Springfield campus in Tower Square. It then became part of the parcel pieced together for a proposed Western Mass. casino, which was eventually built in the South End.

While the site has remained mostly idle, it has always had vast potential to bring life and business not only to an attractive stretch of the riverfront, but to the North End of the city, which has Union Station, but has long needed a catalyst that can attract different kinds of development.

A new courthouse could be that catalyst, said Picknelly, adding that, while such facilities are generally not thought of as economic development, they are worthy of that description, and for many reasons.

Start with the number 1,600. That’s how many people typically visit the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse on a daily basis — or would visit it if they were not afraid to venture inside, said Picknelly, adding that this kind of visitation, which includes those with business in the courts, court employees, jurors, and lawyers, could spawn different types of development, from restaurants to office buildings housing lawyers who want to be close to the courthouse.

“Your development is literally right on the water. Nowhere else in Springfield’s downtown can you have that.”

“I don’t think people realize how much activity a courthouse brings to a community,” he said. “It’s an economic-development driver.”

Ultimately, Picknelly believes the courthouse and apartment complex can do for the riverfront north of Memorial Bridge what the Basketball Hall of Fame complex has done for the area south of the bridge — in short, make it a destination.

“Before the Hall of Fame, there was essentially nothing there,” he said, referring to the collection of industrial properties that stood where the Hall is now. “Now, you have restaurants and vibrancy … the courthouse can do the same for the north side of the riverfront.”

It could potentially do even more, he went on, because on the south side of the bridge operating railroad tracks stand between the Hall of Fame and other businesses and the river itself. That problem doesn’t exist on the north side.

“Your development is literally right on the water,” he noted. “Nowhere else in Springfield’s downtown can you have that.”

While the proposed site — and the project envisioned for it — makes sense on many levels, said Picknelly, a number of pieces need to fall into place, especially at the state level.

 

Courting Opportunity

At present, the state and its Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) is still weighing whether to renovate the existing courthouse or move into a new one; a deep cleaning of the facility is currently underway.

Sarno and Picknelly have both questioned the wisdom of investing what could be hundreds of millions of dollars in a building that has reportedly been linked to serious illness and death.

“We think cleaning it is great, but ultimately, a new courthouse is needed in Springfield,” said Picknelly, adding that there are several options moving forward for the project and this parcel, with the best, in his view, being the property developed by OPAL and then leased by the state.

“It would be much faster if that was the chosen route,” he told BusinessWest. “Just the procurement process for securing the land would take two years; we can have shovels in the ground quickly. Ultimately, we believe the project can be done, start to finish, in four years.

“Right now, they’re talking about cleaning the building and renovating the current building — that will take seven years and probably cost $200 million when you factor in the cleaning of the facility and what they would have to do to move to the courts to a temporary facility for several years. That’s 70% of building new, and even if you do clean it, people are going to be very reluctant to go into it.”

former Court Square Hotel

OPAL Real Estate has become part of a number of ambitious public-private development initiatives, including the ongoing work to transform the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate housing.
Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Picknelly noted an additional benefit to building new is that Springfield gains an additional development site — the current courthouse location, in the heart of downtown and across State Street from the MGM casino complex.

If the courthouse moves to the riverfront, you then have that property to be developed for some other activity,” he said. “There are all sorts of opportunities; it’s great land that could be developed for other public purposes.”

When asked to give a timeline for the courthouse project, Picknelly said there are many factors that will play into if it happens and when it happens, from whether the current administration wants to address this problem or pass it on the next one, to how quickly DCAM can study and then weigh the costs and benefits of building new versus renovating what currently exists.

But he expects something — he’s not sure what — to happen within the next year, because of the severity of the health concerns in the current courthouse and the need to find a solution.

Much of his development activity over the past few decades falls into that category of ‘finding solutions,’ and this would certainly be another legacy project for the portfolio.

It is a developing story — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

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

Cover Story

A New Challenge

Diana Szynal

Diana Szynal

Diana Szynal recently made a successful transition from public service — she was a selectman in Hatfield and then a legislative aide — to running the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. Now, she’s making another transition, to leadership of the Springfield Regional Chamber. While Greater Springfield is a much larger area, she said the challenges facing businesses, and the basic mission of the chamber, are the same as they are in Franklin County, and she’s ready to put her experience to work in her new setting.

Diana Szynal says that within minutes of the announcement that she had been named the new president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce going out last spring, her phone started ringing and pinging.

There were calls and texts from area business leaders, government officials, and directors of area economic development agencies wanting to meet and talk.

“The calls started coming, and I’m still getting them,” said Szynal (pronounced Zy-nal), adding that her appointment book is quickly filling up for the next several weeks.

Those appointments are part of what she describes as a broad learning process as she takes the reins at the Springfield chamber, succeeding Nancy Creed, who has stepped down officially after several years at the helm, but is assisting in the transition.

Indeed, while Szynal, who most recently served as director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and before that served as a legislative aide to the late state Rep. Peter Kocot, is certainly familiar with Springfield and Hampden County in general, she admits that there will be a ‘getting acquainted’ period awaiting her as she assumes the leadership position at the Springfield Regional Chamber.

“I know that I don’t know everything about Springfield,” Szynal, who started her new job July 5, told BusinessWest. “But I do know that I’ve had dozens of local businesses and community leaders offer to help me with that; Springfield is the economic engine of Western Massachusetts, and we need to make sure that we’re at the forefront, always at the cutting edge, of what’s happening, business-wise and legislatively.”

“The pandemic really did shine a spotlight on how critical it is to be part of that larger group and have that support and have that information that was so important.”

While scheduling meetings with those who are now calling and texting her, Szynal is also putting together a to-do list, one that includes a return of the chamber’s popular Super 60 program this fall — nominations are currently being accepted for that honor — as well as a resumption of the chamber’s ambassadors program (put on the shelf due to COVID), and, further down the line, planning of the first in-person Outlook lunch since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020.

Also on the list is creation of a new strategic plan — the last one was undertaken before the pandemic — and continuing and building upon Creed’s strong track record for not only keeping members well-informed, but making sure their voices are heard on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill.

“Nancy was, and still is a great voice for this region,” said Szynal. “We need to continue to make sure that our voice is heard, and the way you do that is by engaging the legislators and forming good relationships with stage agencies. The legislative piece is really important, and that’s where the Springfield Regional Chamber has a leg up, because it spends so much time making sure that it has put together a solid legislative agenda that supports what businesses need and makes sure that the voice at this end of the state is heard.”

Overall, Szynal takes the reins at an intriguing time for this chamber, and chambers in general.

Indeed, she said that the pandemic provided an opportunity for chambers to show their true value to members — and potential members — when it comes to not only providing needed information (although there was plenty of that) but for being a true resource for, and advocate for, the business community.

“I think there was a real affirmation of the value of chamber membership, particularly during the pandemic,” she said. “In Franklin County, when we went into the shut-down and my phone was ringing, it was non-members who were reaching out. Members of chambers were getting a lot of information during that tumultuous time on matters such as the Payroll Protection Program, who qualified, and how the loans were processed.”

This ability to step up and elevate their game, if you will, resulted in chambers being able to retain members and actually add new ones at a time of real challenge for businesses of all sizes and in every business sector, she went on, adding that both the Franklin County chamber and the Springfield Regional chamber have posted solid numbers the past few years, better than those from before the pandemic.

Moving forward, she said she plans to build off this momentum — and that’s what she prefers to call it — while also strengthening existing relationships with both other chambers and other economic-development-related agencies.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Szynal about her new appointment, the state of the Springfield Regional chamber, and the prospects for all chambers in the post-pandemic world.

 

Getting Down to Business

Recalling her shift from public service — she was a selectman in Hatfield and then in county government before joining Kocot as an aide — to running a chamber of commerce, Szynal said it was a relatively smooth, almost seamless transition. That’s because the work is similar in many respects, she noted, adding that in both arenas, there are large amounts of listening and advocacy involved.

Elaborating, she said that in her municipal roles, she got to work with many area economic-development-related agencies, such as the regional employment boards (now MassHire agencies), the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and others. She was able to take those relationships, as well as her understanding of the state Legislature and relationships she forged there, to her work with the Franklin County chamber.

“It was while I was working for representative Kocot that I really cut my teeth on learning about workforce development, economic development, the importance of community organizations and nonprofits, and the importance of public-private partnerships,” she explained. “And how all of that fits into economic development.

region’s voice

Diana Szynal says one of her priorities moving forward is making sure this region’s voice is heard on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill.

“I was also able to develop at that time really important relationships with key stakeholders throughout the region,” she went on. “So when Rep. Kocot passed away, I went to the Franklin County chamber, and all of those relationships and learning experiences were invaluable in helping me execute the mission there.”

Szynal is expecting a similarly smooth transition as she moves from the Franklin County chamber to the one in Springfield, because, while the two regions are certainly different when it comes to population, the chambers are of similar size, membership-wise. Meanwhile, most all of the issues and challenges within the business communities are the same, and so is the basic mission of the organizations — to serve members and advocate on their behalf.

“The main focus of a chamber is communication, relationships, and business support,” said Szynal. “Each chamber is a little different, but most focus on the same things. Through events we facilitate networking and collaboration among members, and we give businesses some visibility through our membership directory, our website, member spotlights, all of those things. The business-to-business relationships, business-to-community relationships, those are things that most chambers focus on, although each chamber adds their own flavor.”

In Springfield, the size and makeup of the chamber reflects the diversity of the city and its recent upward trajectory, said Szynal, noting that, despite the pandemic and its impact on every sector of the economy, Springfield is in a growth mode and seeing vitality in most aspects of its economy.

“Springfield has so much going for it — there’s been so much revitalization in the area,” she said. “The sectors of healthcare and education, tourism and hospitality, manufacturing … all of those things are so vital and so critical here. I’m really looking forward to diving in and learning all that I don’t know and putting some fresh eyes on the chamber and the region.”

As noted earlier, she arrives at an intriguing time for this chamber, and all chambers. While most have become smaller staff-wise — several, including the Springfield Regional Chamber, are essentially one-person operations — there is a new vibrancy for many due to the relevancy gained during the pandemic.

“There is a lot of opportunity here. I have a lot on my to-do list, but I can’t wait to dive in.”

“The pandemic really did shine a spotlight on how critical it is to be part of that larger group and have that support and have that information that was so important,” Szynal told BusinessWest, adding that the challenge, and opportunity, moving forward is to hammer home the importance of chambers during what could be called more-normal, but still quite challenging times.

Indeed, Szynal said businesses large and small are still being impacted by a number of issues, many of them COVID after-effects including supply-chain issues, soaring prices, the early signs of recession, and, especially, a workforce crisis that doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

“Look at the challenges businesses are facing today that they didn’t have to before — supply chain issues, fuel prices are going to be crushing to some businesses, workforce issues, childcare, and more,” she said, adding that in such times, being part of an organization like the chamber, which can make its voice heard in Boston and Washington can be beneficial to businesses of all sizes.

Speaking of more normal, Szynal said the chamber will be turning back the clock to 2019 with regard to its events and many of its programs. On the events side of the ledger, the agency has started to stage in-person gatherings again — the annual meeting at the Springfield Sheraton drew more than 250 guests — and one of its largest annual get-togethers is back on the docket for the fall.

This is the program known as Super 60, a compilation of the region’s most successful companies based on performance in two categories — Total Revenue and Revenue Growth. One of the chamber’s most important revenue generators, Super 60 was put on ice in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, and Szynal believes the lengthy pause will generate some interest in the popular program, slated for Oct. 28 at the MassMutual Center.

The same could be said for the chamber’s annual Outlook lunch, the region’s largest gathering of area business leaders. It has been staged remotely the past two years, and Szynal is looking forward to that tradition, and many other annual gatherings, returning to an in-person format.

“Outlook, the Beacon Hill and Washington summits, the Government Reception, the Mayors Forum … it’s so important to get back to doing those again because they provide information and offer opportunities for businesses to be together,” she explained. “I’m looking forward to being back full steam.”

While planning those events, she has many other items on her to-do list, starting with those meetings with area civic, business, and economic development leaders.

And there will also be work to create a new strategic plan for the institution.

“The last one was done three years ago, so it would be time to do another one anyway,” she noted. “But with everything that’s happened in the last two and a half years, it’s a really good time to evaluate the mission of the chamber and how we’re meeting that mission.”

 

The Bottom Line

From a personal perspective, Szynal said she chooses to look at the next stop on her career path as an opportunity and not necessarily as a challenge.

It will be an opportunity to continue the kind of work she has been doing for the past several years in several different capacities.

“I really love connecting with people, learning about their business, and learning about their business needs,” she explained. “I love that aspect of any job, that’s why I loved working with Peter Kocot, because I did so much constituent work; this is what I’m looking forward to.
“There is a lot of opportunity here,” she went on. “I have a lot on my to-do list, but I can’t wait to dive in.”

 

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

Construction Cover Story

History in the Remaking

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Crews working on the $64 million initiative to transform the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into market-rate housing say the project takes them back in time. Actually, it takes them to several different periods of time — from the property’s days as prominent hotel to more recent days, when it hosted a popular tavern and several other businesses. While doing this time-traveling, these same crews are living in the present and confronting a number of challenges as they usher in the next chapter in this property’s intriguing history.

Dave Fontaine Jr. calls it a “cool memento.” Actually, it’s turned out to be more than that.

He was referring to a bid package submitted by his firm, Fontaine Bros. Inc., for redevelopment of the former Court Square Hotel in the heart of downtown Springfield. The date on the three-ring binder, crammed with interior and exterior photographs and other materials, is 2000.

And that wasn’t the first — or only — time the company had submitted a bid on a project to transform the property, now vacant for more than 25 years, for a different use — endeavors that never saw the light of day for one reason for another.

There have been so many in fact, that Fontaine, vice president of the company started by his great-grandfather and his brother, had some humorous material for use when he was asked to say a few words at one of the many ceremonies to mark milestones for the project that actually made it off the drawing board — a $64 million initiative to convert the property into 71 units of market-rate housing.

“I joked that I believe I’m the third generation of Fontaines to bid on the project,” he told BusinessWest, adding that both his father, Dave Sr., and grandfather, Lester, were involved with similar proposals. “We’ve been pricing it over decades, with at least a dozen iterations and many different planned uses.”

More than a quarter century after the first such bid, Fontaine is finally at work in Court Square, with one of its banners hanging on the front of the property. It’s an intriguing project, said Fontaine, one of many the company has handled that falls in the broad category of historical restoration. Others include the transformation of Classical High School into condominiums, Berkshire Hall at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, the public libraries in Holyoke and Shrewsbury, and even the conversion of 95 State St., visible out the windows of the Court Square property, into the home of MGM’s headquarters in Springfield.

Work at Court Square began early this year, he said, noting that the first phase involved weatherizing the property and making it structurally sound, significant steps for a building that was, in his words, in “terrible shape” when crews arrived and set up shop.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

Actually it was in terrible shape in 2000, as photos in that bid package reveal, he said, adding that conditions only worsened over the past two decades as the elements took their toll on the structure.

“It had been vacant for 20 or 30 years,” he explained. “When we got there, the envelope needed work — and there are still areas where water gets into the building when the weather is poor — and historically there has been no heat in the building in the winter. The building was really on its last legs.”

Repairing and renovating what Mother Nature has damaged is just one of many challenges on this project, said Fontaine, noting that, like all construction projects undertaken at this time, this one has had to contend with everything from supply-chain issues to often dramatic increases in the prices of materials and labor.

“I joked that I believe I’m the third generation of Fontaines to bid on the project. We’ve been pricing it over decades, with at least a dozen iterations and many different planned uses.”

So much so that the Springfield City Council approved an 11th-hour request for $6.5 million in emergency funding to handle cost overruns for the project which came to fruition through a public-private partnership that includes a number of players, from the state, to Wynn Development and Opal Development, to MGM Springfield.

Another challenge is implied in that phrase ‘historical renovation.’ Indeed, the property, which dates to the 1890s, is on several lists of historic properties, said Karl Beaumier, on-site superintendent for the project, adding that, in many respects, crews from Fontaine are dismantling what was in place in the old hotel rooms and other spaces, storing those pieces, and putting them back after mechanicals, equipment, and appliances are installed and finishing work is completed. Everything that goes into the renovated structure, including new windows (600 of them) must be reviewed by the National Park Service.

“We salvaged a tremendous amount of the wainscoting on the corridors — some of it was left here, some of it came off and it’s going back on,” said Beaumier. “All of the doors were salvaged, the door frames, the door cases, the window cases on all the exterior windows, the baseboard, the chair rail, the crown molding — all of that stuff got saved; there are 10 40-foot conex boxes (shipping containers) completely full of salvaged woodwork that has to go back in the building.

“It’s been carefully removed, catalogued, and stored,” he went on. “It will all go back as part of the historical renovation.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest took a hard-hat tour of the property, and talked with Fontaine and Beaumier about the massive undertaking and the steps still to come.

 

Past Due

As they started their tour on the ground floor of the property, most recently home to several storefronts and eventually to be the site of a restaurant, Beaumier and Fontaine said that for the on-site crews, going to work each day also means going back in time.

Or to several different times, to be more precise.

view out one of the windows on the sixth floor

This view out one of the windows on the sixth floor explains why there has always been interest in converting the property for residential use.

Indeed, on the ground floor, the areas housing the storefronts bear evidence of their former uses, especially the space that was home to the tavern known as the Bar Association, a name chosen to reference the many clients from the legal community, many with offices within a block or so from the courthouse just south of the Court Square property.

“It was like things were stuck in time from the late ’80s,” said Fontaine, noting such items as the stained-glass window in the Bar Association and a door that still had the ‘R’ from owner Tony Ravossa’s name. “It’s cool seeing the old storefronts.”

From the ground floor, Beaumier took BusinessWest to the basement, where collected water provided evidence of still-ongoing work to shore up the property, and then to the second floor, where the next use of the property is starting to come into focus.

There, and on the remaining floors, long rows of what used to be hotel rooms —most all of them with doors to the rooms on either side — have been essentially gutted, with the masonry walls that divided them (see photo, page 30) taken down and the groundwork laid for what will become one- and two-bedroom apartments. In one hallway, rows of shower units were waiting for eventual installation.

While the property will have a completely different use than it did a century ago, it will look, in almost all respects, as it did back then, Beaumier explained.

“When we’re done, and we look down this corridor, it’s supposed to look just like it did in 1900,” he told BusinessWest as he gestured down the narrow hallway of the wing of the property that runs north-south toward State Street. “All these doors that went into the individual hotel rooms … we’ve opened up the spaces, so there will probably be two dummy doors for each unit; the doors that we took off have to get pinned back in the wall so that when you look down this corridor, it looks the same as it did historically; every third door will actually open into a unit, the rest will be dummy doors.”

Elaborating, he said that the actual walls to the units were pushed back a foot from where they stood originally, because the original corridor is too narrow for a wheel chair to turn in, an example of how some adjustments have to be made to enable a century-old building to comply with modern building codes and state and federal regulations.

The tour then provided more glimpses into the past as it went to and then down one of the original staircases to what was the lobby area of the former hotel, complete with the remains of a revolving door, marble-covered walls, and a ceiling, now in an advanced state of decay, that will be restored.

“Right now, we’re getting the building structurally back to where it needs to be so we can do the mechanicals and other systems,” said Fontaine adding that the initial phases of this project have involved demolition, structural work, and salvaging a number of features. When these have been completed, crews will move onto installation of those mechanical systems, replacing hundreds of windows, building out the individual apartments, and putting the salvaged items back in.

When the tour reached the sixth floor, Beaumier pointed out one of the north-facing windows to dramatic views of Court Square (see photo, page 26), looks that help explain why there has always been interest in redeveloping the property for housing, and why there has been a high level of interest in this project.

As they walked and pointed out specific areas of note in the sprawling property, Fontaine and Beaumier talked about everything from the significance of the project to Springfield and its central business district to the many challenges involved with undertaking a project like this at this time of soaring prices, supply-chain issues, and a workforce crisis that has affected all sectors of the economy including construction.

Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Work to convert the property into a mix of residential and retail spaces is expected to be completed in the early fall of 2023. Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Fontaine, whose family has developed or redeveloped many properties downtown, from the aforementioned State Street project to the expansion of what is now known as the MassMutual Center, to the creation of MarketPlace, said the Court Square is an important next step in the revitalization of that area.

“That downtown area means a lot to us, we’ve handled a lot of projects in that area,” he said. “I grew up in this area, we’ll stay in this area; I want my daughters to be able to stay around here and work and live here if they choose to, and I this is a big step toward making downtown attractive to working professionals and people who want to be downown.”

As for the many challenges that come with building at this time, Fontaine said there have been some adjustments to make.

That includes the emergency funding from the City Council, he said, adding that the amount allocated should cover the escalating cost of the project. But it also includes longer lead times for items and, in some cases, having to use different products or materials because the lead times are too long.

“As with every construction project going on right now, there have been a lot of items with long lead times — significantly longer than normal,” he explained. “We’ve been working through that with the designers to use some products that do what we need them to do, but also get here within the lead times. With the mechanical systems, one of the manufacturers that was specified for the unit heaters had a 52-week lead time; we found something we could get in the time frame in which we needed them.”

 

Finishing Work

The elaborate project is expected to be completed in the early fall of 2023, said Fontaine.

There will certainly be an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony at that time, one that will close the book on the long, often-frustrating efforts to create a new life for the historic property, and usher in the next chapter.

Fontaine can also close the book — figuratively but also quite literally — on more than 25 years of bidding on projects to transform the property.

That binder from 2000 is, as Fontaine said, a cool memento, but it’s also a symbol of this property and how long its fate has been a critical issue in Springfield.

 

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

Alumni Achievement Award Cover Story

2022 Finalists Are Inspirational Leaders within the Community

 

In 2015, BusinessWest introduced a new award, an extension of its 40 Under Forty program. It’s called the Alumni Achievement Award, and as that name suggests, it recognizes previous honorees who continue to build on their resumes of outstanding achievement in their chosen field and in service to the community. Recently, a panel of three judges identified the three finalists for the 2022 award — Amanda Garcia, Anthony Gleason II, and Amy Royal. The winner for this year will be unveiled by Alumni Achievement Award presenting sponsor Health New England at the 40 Under Forty Gala on June 16 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. As the profiles that begin on page 7 reveal, these three finalists embody the spirit of this award. Their stories convey true leadership and are, in a word, inspiring.

Amanda Garcia

Associate Professor of Accounting and Finances, Director of the MBA Program, Elms College

 

Anthony Gleason II

President and Co-founder of the Gleason Johndrow

 

Amy Royal

Founder/CEO, the Royal Law Firm

 

 

Cover Story

Study in Determination

Hubert Benitez

Hubert Benitez

Hubert Benitez is a dentist by trade. He got into that field because he wanted to serve people — and because he wanted to make a difference. He eventually left dentistry for academia because … well, he still wanted to serve people and make a difference, but in an even more profound way, by creating pathways to higher education. This focus has become a passion, one that he brings to his new role as president of American International College.

At the recent commencement ceremonies for American International College, Hubert Benitez, DDS, the school’s president, was at the podium, handing out diplomas, and offering traditional greetings to the graduates — something along the lines of ‘congratulations, and good luck.’

And in what would have to be considered an unusual twist, many of them said the same thing back to him.

Indeed, Benitez had been on the job for only about a month before taking the stage at those ceremonies at the MassMutual Center — and delivering the commencement address while he was at it. Most all of the students accepting their diplomas knew that, and wanted to offer some words of encouragement.

“You don’t learn about an institution until you’ve talked to its people.”

Taking the helm just a few weeks before the end of a spring semester is highly unusual in higher education — most new presidents would prefer to start during the summer, when things are slower and they have time to ramp up, or at the start of a new school year. Benitez said he was given those options, but was also asked to consider starting in April by Board of Directors Chairman Frank Colaccino, a member of AIC’s Class of 1973 and member of the search committee that ultimately offered Benitez the job.

And he said he jumped at the opportunity, essentially because he couldn’t wait to get started with the next chapter in both his intriguing professional career — and in the history of the school, which first welcomed students in 1885.

“That is a non-traditional start date,” he acknowledged. “Because it’s a transitional phase — we’re closing, and also starting a new academic year. In retrospect, I think it’s been beneficial to start when I did, because I had the opportunity to work with my colleagues during a very stressful time — an academic year is ending, we’re close to commencement, we’re close to ending the fiscal year, and now we’re preparing the budget to present to the Board of Directors for approval.

the AIC campus

Hubert Benitez says his first visit to the AIC campus left him convinced that he wanted to be the school’s next president.

“It’s almost unheard of to start at that time, but I wanted to take up the challenge,” he went on. “And, more importantly, my colleagues were willing to welcome a new president in that time of flux.”

Benitez was anxious to start, and before that, he was anxious to apply, because in every way he can imagine, the school’s mission and its ongoing focus on first-generation students and those who may need a second chance to further their education reflects his own resume and his own focus within higher education.

He said that, throughout its history, AIC has created opportunities for many individuals and he wants to continue and build on this mission, making the school ever-more diverse and responsive to the challenges facing both traditional and non-traditional students.

He brings to that assignment an intriguing resume. Indeed, those letters after his name, DDS, indicate that he is a dentist by trade. He had a practice for more than 14 years, but eventually decided he couldn’t see himself “taking care of toothache for the rest of my life.”

Instead, he opted to change course and pursue a career in higher education, or “the academy,” as he called it, because it met a life-long desire to serve others while presenting many different opportunities to grow as an individual and lead others.

“I always saw my colleagues in higher education as individuals who were trying to find new directions, trying to research, trying to find new directions for healthcare for education … and that was something that was intriguing to me,” he said.

In his most recent position, Benitez served as vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation, and as acting chief inclusion officer at Rockhurst University (RU) in Kansas City, MO. Prior to Rockhurst, Benitez served as president and chief executive officer for Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences for almost five years, where he provided visionary and strategic leadership that included merging the school in Rockhurst (more on that later).

Hubert Benitez, right, was offering congratulations

While Hubert Benitez, right, was offering congratulations to students at commencement, they were offering it right back to him.

In his short but busy time at AIC, he has been “learning and doing,” as he put it and starting the hard work of creating an envisioning plan for the college, an effort involving many individuals and constituencies.

“Many people ask me, ‘what is your vision?’ he said. “I have a vision of what AIC will be, but the vision of AIC will be a shared vision, a vision created by faculty, staff, administrators, because I want to make sure everyone owns that vision.”

 

Something to Sink His Teeth Into

Benitez told BusinessWest that while he was at Rockhurst University, he was encouraged by recruiting firms to apply for various positions, most of them presidencies, across the broad spectrum of higher education. The presidency of AIC was not one of them.

“No one invited me to apply to AIC; I chose AIC, and I was hoping that AIC would choose me,” he said, adding that there were many things about the small, urban school that intrigued him, starting with the three words over the school’s banner: Access, Opportunity, and Diversity.

“When I see an institution that focuses on providing access to demographics of students, providing opportunities to students who haven’t been successful a first time, or a second time, and maybe this is their last opportunity, and when I see an institution that is working on maximizing the diversity of the future workforce … that is absolutely true to who I am, not only as a person, but as a professional.”

Elaborating, he said that the mission of AIC is true to his heart and a reflection of what he has devoted his career to in recent years. To understand those sentiments, we turn the clock back to his decision to transition from dentistry to higher education.

That transition occurred as he was pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship, when Benitez met a fellow DDS who became a mentor and eventually convinced him that his future shouldn’t be in dentistry.

“I believe in the value of mentorship, not only because it helps people move forward with their professional aspirations, but because mentors find in you what you may not have found in yourself,” he explained. “He saw in me a skill set, a desire for professional growth, a desire to work in higher education … he once told me ‘I don’t think you should stay in dental schools — I see you as a holistic administrator.”

This same mentor advised him that he would need a Ph.D., or another one, to be exact, this one in higher education administration, which he earned at Saint Louis University’s College of Education and Public Service.

He then “went through the academic ranks,” as he put in, serving in a number of capacities, including adjunct faculty, full-time faculty, program director, assistant dean, dean, provost, and chief academic officer, before becoming president and CEO of Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences.

There, as noted earlier, he helped orchestrate a merger with Rockhurst, a union that was different from many of this type because Saint Luke’s was successful at the time, not struggling as many schools are when they look to merge with a larger institution.

“This was the case of two very strong academic institutions, financially healthy academic institutions, coming together with a common vision,” he explained. “Our merger became an example of how two strong institutions can come together, as opposed to traditional mergers, where one institution has troubles and the other one does not, and I was proud to be part of that process.”

As noted, he would go on to vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation, and as acting chief inclusion officer at Rockhurst.

He was in that role, when, without the encouragement of any recruiters, he applied for the position of president at AIC, earned the opportunity to interview for it, and eventually visited the campus in January. It made quite a first impression, as he recalled.

“Sometimes when you visit a campus, and I’ve had the privilege of visiting many, you get a feeling, or you get what I call a vibe when you visit an academic institution,” he said. “My wife and I left this college and we looked at each other, and we knew it felt right.”

During that visit, he said he met with a number of faculty, staff, and students, who collectively presented a picture of what they were looking for in the school’s next president.

“My focus has always been on creating opportunities for access, for diversity, for equity, for inclusion.”

He summed it all up this way: “They said they were looking for someone who could help them and help this institution become prominent in the community while continuing to serve that demographic of student, and continue to provide that access,” he recalled. “If you hear that, and I look back at my story, you can’t be more mission-aligned and vision-aligned; it’s an alignment of the mission to who I am.”

 

Course of Action

Getting back to his unusual start date, Benitez said it has been beneficial in a number of ways, especially in the manner in which it has enabled him to get a head start on his work, and do a lot of that ‘learning and doing’ he mentioned.

The ‘doing’ part concerns everything from commencement to putting the budget together for the new year, he said, adding that the ‘learning’ takes many forms and is ongoing.

For starters, it involves meeting with every employee on the payroll, he said, adding that this is what he did when he was president of Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences, an exercise that became a tremendous learning experience.

“First and foremost, I need to know my colleagues’ aspirations — what are their needs?” he explained. “I always say that people come first, and if I can learn to understand each and every person’s personal and professional aspirations, I can serve them better. You don’t learn about an institution until you’ve talked to its people.”

Benitez said he’s already met with senior staff and many groups of employees, and has a schedule packed with one-on-one interviews for the next few months.

He’s also meeting with students, taking in events, meeting with the faculty senate and individual faculty members, all in an effort to learn more about the school, where its stakeholders want to take it, and how it will get there.

“But while learning, we’re also doing,” he said, adding that he and team members have been preparing for both the new school year and the first “envisioning exercise,” as he called it.

“We’re already gathering a group of faculty, staff, and administrators in a room and start to envision what the future of AIC is going to look like,” he said.

“There has to be ownership of the vision, “he went on. “It’s not ‘here’s the president’s vision and others will execute it’ — in my mind, that will never work; it will never have ownership. People need to feel that they belong and that they have a sense of ownership.”

As for his own vision for the school, Benitez said he wants an AIC that is heavily involved in the community and responsive to the constantly changing needs of its students, the community, and area businesses.

“It’s not ‘what can the community do for AIC?’ On the contrary; it’s ‘what can AIC do for the community?’” he explained. “I see an AIC that is vibrant, that creates an environment where, when I walk through the corridors of this institution, it feels like home for all. I should be able to walk the campus and say ‘do you feel at home here?’ If I hear everyone saying ‘yes,’ I think we’re doing our job.”

While working on the visioning process, and as part it, Benitez said he will continue and hopefully broaden AIC’s mission of providing access and opportunities, work that has become the focal point of his own career in higher education.

“My focus has always been on creating opportunities for access, for diversity, for equity, for inclusion,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s been on working with minority populations and creating pathways into higher education for demographics of students where higher education is not always seen as a viable option.

“Some of my colleagues will say ‘it makes sense to you — you come from a Latino background, a demographic group under-represented not only in the health professions but in education in general,’” he said. “And I say ‘yes, it does make sense to me, but it’s the right thing to do.’ And that’s why I’ve devoted the majority of my career to that work of creating transitions, pathways, and pipelines for students from under-represented backgrounds to arrive in higher education, earn a degree, and obtain a better way of living for themselves.”

 

Grade Expectations

Benitez said he shook more than 600 hands during those commencement exercises earlier this month, which he described as a humbling experience in many respects.

Most humbling were those wishes for good luck from the students, he said, adding that they certainly resonated with him.

He understands there are many challenges facing the school, from the uncertainties stemming from the pandemic, to ongoing enrollment issues stemming from smaller high school graduating classes and a host of other issues, to that ongoing task of creating more pathways to higher education.

He not only understands them, he embraces them and wants to tackle them head on. That’s why he took this job, and that’s why he took that early start. There’s plenty of work to do, and he wanted to get right to it.

 

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

Cover Story

Passing it On

Kasey Corsello

Kasey Corsello, a certified coach and co-owner of the Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton.

There are many components to the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, perhaps none more important than the small army of mentors who are passing on what they know to a growing number of people looking to work for themselves instead of someone else. They impart to these entrepreneurs everything from the importance of understanding a spreadsheet to the notion that failure is … well, not unexpected and something to be learned from.

When asked what she tries to impart to entrepreneurs as a mentor, or do for them as she counsels them, Kasey Corsello summed it all up by saying that she tries to “normalize the emotional experience of it all, so they don’t feel like there’s something wrong with them.”

Anyone who has ever owned a business or tried to launch one — or mentored anyone who has, for that matter — knows exactly what she’s talking about.

“It is scary to be in the face of uncertainty, so I help them access their own inner resources, their own wisdom of lift experience to be able to make sound decisions,” said Corsello, a certified coach, co-owner, with her husband, of the Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton, and mentor with participants in EforAll Holyoke’s accelerator programs. “I help pull out their confidence and get them thinking that they can do this.”

With that, she described one of the many ways that mentors work with their clients and, while doing so, contribute in powerful ways to the vibrancy of the region’s business community.

Indeed, there are many components to the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Western Mass., and one of the most important is the small army of mentors who pass on what they know and provide much-needed sets of eyes and ears (especially ears) to those looking to start or grow a business.

And for this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with several of them.

Individually, and collectively, they spoke of the various kinds of rewards — and there are many of them — that go with mentoring, and about the various ways they try to counsel those on the other side of the desk, or the telephone, as the case may be.

This counsel can be technical in nature, such as how to read a spreadsheet and understand the numbers of business.

“I tell them that numbers really matter — get to know the numbers,” said Bellamy Schmidt, a retired executive who worked for many years at General Electric before moving to Wall Street and the giant investment firms JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs and then Holyoke City Hall, where he served as auditor. “As much as people may find the numbers uncomfortable, they basically tell the story of a business.”

In other cases, it’s practical advice, everything from understanding one’s audience and meeting its needs, to the importance of networking and relationship-building.

“I tell them that networking is the key to building relationships,” said Yadira Pacheco, who owns a real estate agency and is a mentor in EforAll’s Spanish program, EparaTodos. “I tell them to network every chance they get; it doesn’t matter if it’s linked directly to their type of business — they’re going to find somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who’s going to connect with them because of what they do.”

Yadira Pacheco

Yadira Pacheco says she tells entrepreneurs to network every chance they get, because relationship-building is one of the keys to success.

And then, there’s advice, or counseling, that falls more in the category of psychology, if that’s even the right term, that Corsello referred to.

“I tell them not to be afraid of failing — and for obvious reasons,” said Bill Cole, owner of Tiger Web Designs and a serial entrepreneur himself. “The bottom line is this … if you interview all the super successful people in this world, you’ll find that a common thread is that they failed miserably many times before they got to be successful. And there’s a reason for that; some things you must learn the hard way in order to learn them well.”

How well someone copes with failure, and, overall, how well one can learn from it, will play a larger role in one’s ultimate success in business than any given product or service, said Cole, who told BusinessWest that he focuses on helping those that he mentors become good entrepreneurs much more than he counsels them on any specific idea they may have to change the world as we know it.

 

Getting the Idea

As he talked about his mentoring work, Cole said he “got the bug,” eight to 10 years ago.

That bug, as he called it, is a desire to give back to what is, by all accounts, a growing number of people who would rather work for themselves than for someone else. Or at least try to do just that.

What all who try find out is that this isn’t easy, and if it were, everyone would do it. The fact that not everyone does, speaks to just how hard this is, meaning every aspect of entrepreneurship, from conceptualizing ideas to bringing them to market, to coping with the known — things like competition and the laws of supply and demand — to dealing with the unknown and sometimes what can’t possibly be foreseen … like a global pandemic.

Bill Cole

Bill Cole

“I tell them not to be afraid of failing — and for obvious reasons. The bottom line is this … if you interview all the super successful people in this world, you’ll find that a common thread is that they failed miserably many times before they got to be successful. And there’s a reason for that; some things you must learn the hard way in order to learn them well.”

Overall, entrepreneurship is daunting, said those we spoke with, adding that it’s important to assist those who don’t know what they don’t know with the many important aspects of starting and then running a business, while also helping them deal with the roller-coaster ride that is entrepreneurship and all that comes with it.

“I force them to realize that they’re not alone, that they can rely on their mentors to help them,” said Schmidt. “That creates a sense of comfort; it’s not me against the world — I’ve got people who have my back.”

This ‘having one’s back’ aspect of mentoring is as important as any practical advice on a product or marketing, or reading a balance sheet, said those we spoke with, adding that they want to help people learn about themselves as much as they do about business.

“There’s a lot to learn, and when we’re in a space of learning, self-doubt comes in,” said Corsello. “And that creates an emotional response — ‘I can’t do it,’ or ‘I’m overwhelmed.’ There are some people who have a mindset for entrepreneurship and it’s very easy for them — they’re not afraid to fail, they’re not afraid to take risks; their natural strengths are geared toward entrepreneurship.

“There are others who have a hard time with uncertainty, who have a hard time taking risks, who have a hard time failing,” she went on. “I work with people to break down the steps and celebrate each and every small thing.”

There are many of these small things that are involved with starting a business and taking it to the next level — whatever that might be, said those we spoke with, adding that, overall, they work with their mentees to keep their eye on both the big picture and all the little things that contribute to a business being successful.

And while doing so, as Corsello noted, they try to make these entrepreneurs feel comfortable in their own skin. This in a nutshell, is what she strives to do as a mentor to entrepreneurs, a new role she accepted recently as part of the program known as Blueprint Easthampton, which she helped launch.

She said mentoring is like coaching, in that she’s helping build the confidence needed to get where they desire to go.

“I get to see people in their full light, essentially, and fully believe in them when they can’t believe in themselves,” she explained. “They’re realizing their vision and their dream, and they’re learning about themselves and gaining the tools they need to be resilient.”

Bellamy Schmidt

“I force them to realize that they’re not alone, that they can rely on their mentors to help them. That creates a sense of comfort; it’s not me against the world — I’ve got people who have my back.”

Elaborating, she said that entrepreneurship can be as isolating as it is challenging, and, as Schmidt said, these business owners need to know that they’re not alone. And beyond that, they need to understand that what they’re experiencing — the fears, the self-doubts, the seemingly endless hits to their self-confidence, are not unique.

“They need to understand that they’re not the only ones struggling with this,” she went on. “And that’s why I say that I normalize their experience.”

 

Rewards Program

Over the past decade or so, Cole has been a mentor for several of the agencies that are now part of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, including VVM, EforAll, SCORE, the Small Business Administration, and others. He’s worked with startups, mom-and-pop businesses, and some looking to get to the next level, and, because of his background, he’s often asked for advice on creating a website.

But his broad advice to entrepreneurs comes in many flavors, including that aforementioned counsel on failure, why it should be expected, why it’s normal, and, most importantly, why it shouldn’t bring an end to one’s dreams of owning their own business.

Overall, he said he advises those he mentors to work smart — and not just hard, although that is critically important as well.

“There’s a combination of working hard and working smart that has to happen,” he explained. “You can’t just work hard, you have to be smart, too. And ‘smart’ just means paying attention to what’s going on around you.

“We tend to have tunnel vision on what we’re trying to do — whatever that may be,” he went on. “If it’s a product, you may have tunnel vision on the product itself, when you have to think about things like how are you going to go to market with that product, or organize the business itself — how many people need to be hired, how much is it going to cost? There’s a difference between having a product idea and a business, and the difference is that most people have ideas that are expensive hobbies when it’s all said and done — it’s not really a business.”

Schmidt agreed, and said he stresses the importance of understanding who one’s customers are and what need is being met by their product or service.

“I try to force them to think about what it is the customer really wants,” said Schmidt. “Because often, a businessperson will want to do something that they want to do, and it might not be what the customer wants; if you have a business, it’s all about the customer, it’s not about you.”

Miguel Rivera, co-owner, with his wife, of Rewarding Insurance Agency in Holyoke, and another mentor in the EparaTodos program, concurred.

“Many people don’t have a target market,” he explained. “You ask them who their target market is, and they say ‘everyone.’ Then I try to teach them that their clients are not ‘everyone’; they must identify who their target market is so they can do the right marketing.”

When asked what they enjoy about mentoring, all those we spoke with said there are many kinds of rewards.

One obvious one is the satisfaction that comes from helping someone or some group take an idea and turn it into something successful.

“The first day I went to work after college, my new boss said to me something along the lines of … ‘the most important thing I get out of my job is a sense of accomplishment from helping move young people along in their careers and watching them grow,’” Schmidt recalled. “As naive as I was, I thought that was kind of a ridiculous answer. But as I matured, I realized how right he was; there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you see someone develop that you have helped.”

Rivera agreed. “I’m glad to see business owners doing their ribbon cuttings and grand openings — that’s what I enjoy the most,” he said. “And many of my clients are still in business — they’re doing well, and I take pride in that.”

Said Cole, “I love it when someone is successful and I had something to do with it — it’s a wonderful feeling. But I don’t mind being there when someone is struggling, either; I’ve been there, so I know.”

Pacheco has been there as well, and so she knows first-hand how daunting entrepreneurship is. And that’s why she mentors others.

“When I was starting my business, it was very difficult, because I didn’t have the support, the guidance, or a blueprint — anything,” she recalled. “So, I was literally thrown into it and had to figure it out for myself. And that’s one of the reasons why I help others. I know how difficult and stressful it can be when you’re trying to grow a business.”

 

The Bottom Line

Beyond that, though, mentors say that they inevitably learn from those they are mentoring, and this helps them become both better business owners — and better mentors.

“I’ve learned a tremendous number of things that I never would have learned otherwise,” said Cole. “The reality is I’m smarter for it and I have a lot more experience from it than I ever would have had if I just done my own little thing.

Pacheco agreed.

“You always learn something from each participant,” she told BusinessWest. “Everyone has a story; everyone’s background is different. In the process of me helping others, they are also helping me; it’s a learning experience on both sides.”

Such sentiments explain why mentoring is so rewarding — and why it’s so important, for all those involved.

 

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

Class of 2022 Cover Story

Celebrating 15 Years
of Excellence

Call it a trend. What it means … well, we don’t really know, but it’s there.

When BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty in 2007 to honor young professionals in Western Mass. — not only for their career achievements, but for their service to the community — that first class featured far more men than women.

In recent years, the opposite has been true. Indeed, in 2021, there were 26 women and 14 men. This year? The pendulum has swung even further, with 28 women in the Class of 2022 and 12 men.

Again, we don’t really know what that means. What we do know is that beyond this bit of statistical intrigue, this class of honorees is like the 15 that came before it, in that it is diverse, in every way imaginable — ethnically, geographically, and professionally.

Indeed, the members of this class took a number of paths to this honor. Many are professionals, but there are also several entrepreneurs. There are nonprofit managers, college administrators, and a few public servants as well.

 

Each story is uniquely different, but there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on how they can make this region better for all those who live and work here.

The judges for this year’s program — spotlighted below — reviewed more than 120 nominations, a number that speaks to the continued vibrancy of this program and the dedication of the region’s rising stars.

The class of 2022 will be celebrated on Thursday, June 16 at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. That gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the eighth annual Alumni Achievement Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges.


See the 2022 40 Under Forty Digital Issue Here

2022 40 Under Forty:

SAVE the DATE

Come party with us as we celebrate the 2022 40 Under Forty

June 16, 2022, 4-9 pm at the Log Cabin in Holyoke

2022 Presenting Sponsor

2022 Supporting Sponsors

2022 Presenting Sponsor Alumni Achievement Award

Partner

Meet Our Judges

Xiomara Albán DeLobato, a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2021, currently serves as chief of staff for the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, where she facilitates the growth and development of the regional economy by encouraging, influencing, and sustaining capital investment and quality job growth. She has dedicated her career and community involvement in serving as an active change agent and advocate for equitable access to economic and academic opportunities in the region and beyond.

Madeline Landrau, one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact in 2021, works on MassMutual’s Community Responsibility team as a Program Engagement Manager. She oversees MassMutual’s Home Office Giving portfolio and associated relationship management, working with nonprofit organizations primarily in MassMutual’s home office community of Springfield. She’s the lead for LifeBridgeSM, MassMutual’s program that offers free life insurance coverage to eligible parents for the benefit of their children’s education. Landrau mentors young Latinas, providing informal mentoring and coaching, guiding them to make sound decisions, develop socially and enhance their educational skills.

Ryan McCollum, a 40 Under 40 winner in 2012, is the owner of RMC Strategies, which provides full service political consulting to candidates, elected officials, nonprofits and for-profit institutions. A founder of YPS of Greater Springfield, he is on several area boards, including 16 Lyrics, Suit Up Springfield, Square One, Healing Racism Institute, ROCA, NCCJ, and the marketing committee of the Springfield Museums. He sat on Longmeadow’s Coalition for Racial Justice Task Force, and also serves on the Rian Immigrant Center, which helps immigrants assimilate to our country. 

Chad Moir, president and CEO of DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton, was honored by BusinessWest with both its 40 Under Forty and Difference Maker awards in 2021. A graduate of American International College and its Public Health program, Moir created DopaFit in 2015. The company uses exercise prograns to help people stop or slow down the progression of Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder that increasingly robs the body of dopamine, which is released during exercise.

Amy Roberts, executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank, has more than 18 years of experience working with business leaders to develop and implement people-management and talent-development strategies. An active member of the community, she has served on many boards including the United Way of Hampshire County, Leadership Pioneer Valley and CHD. She is a reader for the Link to Libraries program and serves on the Service Above Self Annual Luncheon Committee for the Springfield Rotary and Basketball Hall of Fame.

Alumni Achievement Award Judging Underway

When BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty program in 2007, it did so to identify rising stars across our region — individuals who were excelling in business and through involvement within the community — and celebrate their accomplishments.

In 2015, BusinessWest announced a new award, one that builds on the foundation upon which 40 Under Forty was created. It’s called the Alumni Achievement Award. As the name suggests, it is presented to the 40 Under Forty honoree who, in the eyes of an independent panel of judges, has most impressively continued and built upon his or her track record of accomplishment.

Past winners include: 2021: Anthony Gulluni, Hampden County district attorney (40 Under Forty class of 2015); 2020: Carla Cosenzi, president, TommyCar Auto Group (class of 2012), and Peter DePergola, director of Clinical Ethics, Baystate Health (class of 2015); 2019: Cinda Jones, president, W.D. Cowls Inc. (class of 2007); 2018: Samalid Hogan, regional director, Massachusetts Small Business Development Center (class of 2013); 2017: Scott Foster, attorney, Bulkley Richardson (class of 2011), and Nicole Griffin, owner, ManeHire (class of 2014); 2016: Dr. Jonathan Bayuk, president, Allergy & Immunology Associates of New England (class of 2008); 2015: Delcie Bean, president, Paragus Strategic IT (class of 2008).

This year’s nominees are currently being weighed by three independent judges, including last year’s honorees. They are:

Anthony Gulluni was sworn into office as Hampden District Attorney in January 2015 and is currently serving his second four-year term. He earned both his bachelor’s degree (2003) and juris doctorate (2007) from Western New England University. As D.A., he has promoted his vision of safer communities by innovative and significant investment in community building and outreach, crime prevention and education, and by focusing efforts on the smart prosecution of violent offenders. The Hampden D.A.’s Office has engaged with many community-based organizations, including Roca, the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley, and the YWCA to broaden its reach and provide equitable services to all communities in need.

Keith Ledoux is vice president, Commercial Line of Business and Business Development at Health New England, responsible for driving commercial sales, marketing, and business development. He has more than 25 years of experience in the insurance industry, and has a background in sales, healthcare information technology, and strategy development. Previously, he held leadership roles with MiHealth, Tufts Health Plan, Fallon Health, Minuteman Health, and Constitution Health. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Worcester State University and an MBA from Purdue in Health Care Adminsitration. He also completed the AHIP Executive Leadership Program at Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management.

Kimberly Williams is vice president of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for Stanley Black & Decker. She provides the center of excellence for the Stanley Black & Decker global DE&I community through the development and implementation of best practices, knowledge management, leadership development, and metrics that can be deployed by the local talent and affinity teams within each region. With more than 25 years of HR experience, she has supported and led DE&I initiatives in several organizations across industries, including, investment banking, health care, nonprofit, and aerospace manufacturing. She received her MBA in Human Resource Management from Syracuse University and her bachelor of Arts degree from American University.

Cover Story

The Next Chapter

Valley Venture Mentors has long had a singular but multi-faceted mission — to promote entrepreneurship in the region and provide various forms of assistance to help business owners take their venture to the next stage. Through a new and broader affiliation with the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, the agency has an opportunity to become, in the words of its director, even more of an advocate, a champion, and a “convener” within the region’s broad, and growing, entrepreneurship ecosystem.

VVM Executive Director Hope Ross Gibaldi

VVM Executive Director Hope Ross Gibaldi

As she talked about the new, broader, stronger relationship between Valley Venture Mentors and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), Hope Ross Gibaldi, VVM’s executive director, used the word ‘opportunity’ early and quite often.

She said the affiliation between the two agencies, or the deeper affiliation, as the case may be, gives VVM access to a larger pool of funding sources, some of them stemming from COVID-relief efforts, and, in general, a stronger platform from which to conduct its many programs — from its weekly ‘community nights’ to its student business accelerator to its entrepreneurial roundtables — and become an even more vital component of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“VVM has gone through a lot of evolution and many iterations, and with the course of the pandemic, that has really provided us with a chance to do some reflection,” Ross Gibaldi explained. “I think this new alignment with the EDC really positions VVM to be a convener regionally for the entrepreneurial ecosystem and be an advocate and a champion for entrepreneurship in the Western Mass. region. It’s a tremendous opportunity — for VVM and the region.”

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the EDC, agreed. He told BusinessWest that VVM, which will continue to be its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit and rely on many of its traditional funding sources, ranging from area foundations to long-time supporter Berkshire Bank, is now a “program” of the EDC, one that must ultimately pay for itself through fundraising, grants, program fees, and more, while taking full advantage of networking and funding opportunities presented by the EDC.

“Our economy here is really reliant on small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are generationally owned — the ownership is here in Western Massachusetts. And that’s what the future is going to be.”

Sullivan noted that entrepreneurship has always been one of planks, if you will, of the EDC’s platform when it comes to economic development. Elaborating, he said regions like Western Mass. can certainly hope to add all-important jobs by attracting major corporations. But a far more realistic strategy is to grow organically, by encouraging entrepreneurship and providing mentorship and several forms of assistance to companies at various stages of development and maturity.

“Our economy here is really reliant on small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are generationally owned — the ownership is here in Western Massachusetts,” he said. “And that’s what the future is going to be. A Fortune 50 company is not likely to build its headquarters here — our strength is the small-to medium-sized company that stays local, invests local, hires local, uses a supply chain that is also local. Do we all sit and hope that one of these companies that goes through VVM gets really big and stays here? Sure, but that is not the model.”

This explains why the EDC has always maintained a healthy relationship with VVM and why it has now made the agency one of its programs, or affiliates.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan says that promoting entrepreneurship and supporting the startup community is vital to the Western Mass. economy, which explains the affiliation between VVM and the EDC.

“The founders of VVM did a masterful job of getting it here and recognizing the importance of the startup community and small-business growth and the importance of that to the Western Mass. economy,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “We’re building off that leadership and vision and bringing in here. And I think it does align perfectly with the EDC, because it [VVM] is really looking to bring all the resources together for a common goal and put everyone under one umbrella. So I’m optimistic about the future of VVM.”

VVM now joins several other affiliates of the EDC, including the Springfield Regional Chamber, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Westmass Area Development Corp., the Springfield Business Improvement District, the Amherst Business Improvement District, Westover Airport, and the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce.

The new affiliation agreement provides a good opportunity (there’s that word again) to revisit the mission of VVM, which has entered another intriguing chapter in its history, and how it will carry that mission out.

Indeed, the stronger relationship with the EDC comes as the agency continues what Ross Gibaldi, who joined the agency two years ago and has grown into her current role, described as an evolutionary process, one impacted in many ways by the pandemic, and sometimes in a positive way.

Indeed, programs that were once limited to those who could attend in person are now accessible to anyone who can join via Zoom, which has greatly increased attendance in some cases and brought some new and different voices to the discussions.

“I see VVM stepping in to support a lot of these amazing initiatives that are helping to build that ecosystem.”

Meanwhile, as she noted, the new affiliation provides VVM with an opportunity to create more and stronger partnerships with other agencies in the ecosystem and enable that larger entity to better serve the region and its business community.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Ross Gibaldi and Sullivan about not only the new/old affiliation between the EDC and VVM, but also about the business plan moving forward for an agency that has been at the forefront of efforts to promote entrepreneurship and assist businesses as they work to get to that next level — whatever it might be.

 

Getting Down to Business ‘Dolphin tank pitches.’

That’s the very unofficial name given to one of the more intriguing elements of a summer student business-accelerator program VVM operates in conjunction with the Berthiaume Center at UMass Amherst.

And, yes, it’s a derivative of sorts of the popular television show Shark Tank.

Actually, “it’s a softer version of what you see on TV — it’s, well, not as sharky,” Ross Gibaldi told BusinesWest. “We’re lovingly critical … we’re not vicious. It’s not that we don’t want these entrepreneurs to get real feedback, because that’s an important part of building a venture — getting real, honest, transparent feedback from judges and mentors. But you also don’t want to break their spirit, so we’re trying to find a loving way to do it.”

The dolphin tank, even if it’s not really called that, is part of a broad network of programs that VVM conducts or is part of, all aimed at helping those in business or looking to start one clear hurdles and get to the next level. And it is just one example of how the agency is working to refine and strengthen all those roles Ross Gibaldi described earlier — from convener to advocate to champion of entrepreneurs.

Elaborating on these thoughts, Ross Gibaldi said that, as the entrepreneurship ecosystem continues to grow and evolve, VVM looks to play a broader role in forging partnerships with various players, create more awareness of specific initiatives (and the system itself), and bring a more unified, cohesive approach to the mission shared by these agencies.

“We’re all building a unified front for innovation and entrepreneurship across the region, and I think that fits very nicely with the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, and this new alignment puts VVM in a position to support some these ecosystem initiatives that are so drastically needed,” she explained. “But, as organizations and nonprofits that are so strapped, everyone is working with blinders on, which creates silos that people are working in and duplication of efforts. So when we’re able to clearly map out our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem, we can highlight where the gaps are and where we are not serving our entrepreneurs.

“What VVM’s programs will do from there is pull together the stakeholders, be the advocate to figure out how we get funding to support indepth initiatives that can really address the challenges and barriers for our entrepreneurs,” she went on. “I’ve been working very hard over the past few years to strengthen the relationship with other organizations in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, other technical-assistance providers, and all of the others operating in the space supporting entrepreneurs. I see VVM stepping in to support a lot of these amazing initiatives that are helping to build that ecosystem.”

As just one example, she cited the Blueprint Easthampton entrepreneurship program, an regional resource-mapping initiative launched by the city’s mayor, Nicole LaChapelle, to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and STEM education.

And there are countless others, she noted, adding that they often target specific communities or regions, sectors of the economy, or stages of starting and scaling a business.

Another example would be an initiative called the Western Mass Founders Network, funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and launched by the EDC in partnership with other agencies, including Greentown Labs.

The network was designed for companies that are more advanced, are looking for funding, or might already have received funding, said Sullivan, adding that the group meets monthly and hears from speakers on topics chosen by the business owners with the goal of helping them move to the next level.

“There’s also monthly meetings that are happening with resource partners such as SCORE, the Mass. Small Business Development Center, and other organizations that are supporting entrepreneurs,” said Ross Gibaldi, adding that one of her broad goals is to create more awareness of all that is happening within the ecosystem and create more partnerships to better serve the region.

“Supporting a lot of these initiatives and really threading them together to build out and strengthen our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of our priorities.”

“I found that, often, we as organizations are operating in silos and often are unaware of what’s happening with the other agencies,” she explained. “When that happens, we do a disservice to our entrepreneurs because we’re not fully aware of the opportunities in the Valley. And how are we supposed to take advantage of them and encourage our entrepreneurs to take advantage of them if we don’t know about them? So supporting a lot of these initiatives and really threading them together to build out and strengthen our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of our priorities.”

Meanwhile, VVM continues to offer its own broad slate of programs while partnering with other agencies on different initiatives. In that first category are VVM’s community nights, on the second Wednesday of each month. Now back in person after being virtual for two years because of the pandemic, they offer networking, mentoring opportunities, and elevator-pitch presentations. There’s also a weekly roundtable discussion with startup businesses on Tuesday nights, conducted via Zoom.

In that latter category are programs such as RiseUp Springfield, in which VVM partners with the city to provide a six-month program to help small business owners create scale and expand their ventures. There is also the Harold Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative, which involves all 14 area colleges and culminates with an annual spring Celebration of Entrepreneurship Spirit banquet.

There’s also the summer student business-accelerator program, which, because it has been run virtually the past few years, has been able to attract participants from across the country and around the world.

“We’ve found that making the program virtual makes it more accessible to people,” she explained. “Over the past few years, we’ve had people log in from outside the United States, which is really exciting; we’ve had people from Pakistan, France, India, and South Africa, and that’s been an amazing element, to broaden that accessibility for these entrepreneurs.”

And these lessons learned will carry over into the future, she said, adding that many programs will continue to have at least a virtual component to enable that improved accessibility to continue.

 

Venturing Forth

Overall, the new relationship between VVM and the EDC is difficult to put into words or describe with a single word.

In simple terms, it means that VVM now has a better, stronger platform for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

Time will tell, but it appears that the new relationship will enable it to take its mission to a different plane while perhaps bringing more continuity and cohesion to the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

As Ross Gibaldi said, it’s a big opportunity for both VVM and the region.

 

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

Cover Story

Sound Strategy

Barry Roberts and Gabrielle Gould outside the home of the Drake in downtown Amherst

Barry Roberts and Gabrielle Gould outside the home of the Drake in downtown Amherst

You might call it a development of note. That’s one poetic way to describe the transformation of the old High Horse restaurant space in the former First National Bank of Amherst building into a live performance and music space that will be called the Drake in a nod to a former downtown landmark. Like its namesake, a hotel with a famous bar, the new venue is expected to be a destination, a creator of lasting memories, and a key contributor to vibrancy downtown.

Barry Roberts isn’t sure how long the graffiti has been there.

He does know that it’s been a fixture — and a talking point — since long before he bought the property it graces, which now houses the Amherst Cinema, Amherst Coffee, and a number of other businesses in the heart of downtown Amherst, and that was 15 years ago.

And he suspects that this message has been ‘refreshed’ a few times over the years, because it’s as easy to read now as it was years ago.

It says ‘Save the Drake — for Willie, for Humanity,’ a reference to the legendary hotel and bar located in its basement, known as the Rathskeller, and its equally famous bartender, Willie. (Just about every student who attended UMass or Amherst College in the ’60s or ’70s has a Drake story. Or 100 of them.)

Roberts and others collaborating on an ambitious initiative in another property he owns, the former First National Bank of Amherst, are not exactly saving the Drake as most remember it. But they are reviving the name and creating a venue they expect will be just as successful when it comes to making memories that will live on for decades.

Indeed, the Drake is the name going over the door of a live performance and music venue that will go into space last occupied by the High Horse restaurant. The facility, to be operated by the Downtown Amherst Foundation (DAF), a 501(c)(3) that was founded to bring arts and culture to the Amherst area, is due to open April 26. and when it does, it is expected to have an immediate and profound impact on Amherst and its downtown, said Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the town’s Business Improvement District (BID), who played a key role in putting the many pieces of the puzzle together for this project.

She told BusinessWest that repeated studies revealed that what was missing from the landscape in Amherst’s downtown was a venue for live music, one that could compete with several such facilities across the Connecticut River in Northampton and not only keep Amherst residents and area college students in that community, but bring people from across Western Mass. — and perhaps the Northeast — to the town.

“We see people consistently going across the bridge and spending anywhere from $60 to $400 a night because of the amount of entertainment and music that is in that area,” Gould said. “For me, creating a vibrant downtown has to be experience-driven, and if you’re not providing arts and culture and experiences surrounding that, what is there to come here for?”

Roberts agreed.

“This is a game changer — an absolute game changer,” said Roberts, who is also president of the BID, adding that the facility has the potential to become what the Drake was — a landmark, a drawing card, and an attraction that will create memories for generations of people.

While doing that, the Drake will play a key role in an ongoing resurgence, or comeback story for downtown Amherst, said Gould, adding that the district lost a number of businesses — 15 by her count — during the pandemic. Many were restaurants, but there was some retail as well, she noted, adding that almost that many new businesses have been added in recent months, bringing vibrancy and excitement to the area.

The graffiti on the wall outside Amherst Coffee helped inspire the name of Amherst’s new live-performance and music venue.

Overall, she sees the Drake project as one very important chapter in an emerging story involving a new and more vibrant downtown Amherst, one that is well-positioned for what happens post-COVID.

“There’s a future here that is unlike anything that anyone could have envisioned five years ago,” she said, adding that the pieces are falling into place for this community that was so hard-hit by the pandemic.

As the work to ready the Drake for its opening enters its final stages, BusinessWest talked with Roberts and Gould about how this intriguing project came to fruition and what it means for a downtown that has been in search of a spark and now has one.

Landmark Decision

As she talked about the Drake project, Gould noted that it has been a product of good fortune, or good timing, in many respects.

Elaborating, she said ideal space (the former High Horse location) became available at essentially the same time resources, many of them in the form of pandemic-relief monies, were being made available to communities such as Amherst as they sought to recover from COVID and its many side effects.

“Right now, there’s a firehose of funds available — COVID funding, the Build Back Better plan … everything,” she said, adding that she doubts whether this project would have become reality so quickly in more normal times. “We’re not looking for silver linings, but we’ll take what we can get.”

The old Drake hotel

The old Drake hotel and its famous bar were a destination and creator of memories. The same is expected from what could be called the ‘new’ Drake.

But mostly, this project came about because of recognized need for such a facility in Amherst, she said, and a rare opportunity to make it happen. This need is spelled out in large letters — quite literally — on the website devoted to the Drake.

“When COVID hit, it really came to a place where we realized that we had a moment, and we needed to strike when the iron was hot.”

“For decades, the Amherst community as asked for, begged for, and sought out a space for a live performance and music venue,” the passage reads. “The Amherst BID and the Downtown Amherst Foundation have listened and are ready to build for the future. Arts and culture will be the economic and destination driver Amherst needs to head into 2022.”

It goes on to say the Drake is the first project toward building Amherst as a destination for locals and visitors alike, hinting strongly that there will be others, including a performance shell for the south common downtown, an initiative that has been a priority for the BID and the DAF for some time now and is still very much on the drawing board, said Gould.

But for now, the Drake is taking center stage, literally and figuratively.

“When COVID hit, it really came to a place where we realized that we had a moment, and we needed to strike when the iron was hot,” she said, noting, again, that this project is the byproduct of good timing and recognized need. “This was our opportunity; Barry having this space become available was just beyond perfect, because there really is no other available space in the downtown area that would lend itself as perfectly as this space to the concept that we wanted to go forward with.”

With the site secured, a proposal for a performance venue was put together and presented to a number of funding sources, Gould went on, adding that $175,000 in seed money was awarded to the Amherst BID by the Massachusetts Office of Business Development’s Regional Pilot Project. With that money, an attractive lease was secured, the architectural firm Kuhn Riddle was hired “at an incredibly reduced rate,” to design the venue, and additional fundraising efforts were initiated.

Gabrielle Gould says a live-performance venue has long been a priority for Amherst

Gabrielle Gould says a live-performance venue has long been a priority for Amherst, and it should provide a spark for its downtown.

Overall, the buildout costs for the project are a projected $750,000, said Gould, adding that the fundraising goal is $1.3 million, with just over $1 million secured to date.

It has come from a variety of sources, including $250,000 in local, community support in amounts ranging from $10 to $50,000; a $100,000 cash gift plus a Steinway piano from Amherst College; American Rescue Plan Act funds, local and state grants, and other sources. “You name it, we’ve gone after it,” Gould said.

Speaking of naming it, that was another task on the do-to list, said Gould, noting that there were several contenders being considered when someone suggested naming it after the famous bar immortalized in that graffiti, which is asked about on an almost daily basis at Amherst Coffee.

“And I thought, ‘why not play off that nostalgia of a bygone era?’” Gould told BusinessWest. “Another thing that will bring us together again after this pandemic is community and nostalgia, and going back a little bit. So while we’re going forward, let’s pay some homage to the past.”

While construction, fundraising, and naming efforts have been the most visible aspects of the project to date, the BID and DAF have also been putting together an operations plan, said Gould, noting that Laudable Productions, which already works with several area venues, has been hired to book performers for the Drake, which will be operated as a nonprofit, with all proceeds going to future performances.

A soft opening is set for April 26, featuring the Northampton Jazz Workshop, also known as the Green Street Trio, she noted, adding that the lineup for the spring and summer will be announced in early April.

“The idea is to program events for five or six nights a week,” said Roberts, adding that such a hefty slate of shows will have a profound impact on the downtown and the many types of businesses to be found there.

Indeed, while the Drake is about live performances and music, it is really about economic development, said both Roberts and Gould, noting that, while those phrases ‘game changer’ and ‘driving force’ are often used in business and development circles, they both apply here. Indeed, they believe this project will succeed in not only keeping people in Amherst or bringing more people to it, but propel the town forward as various constituencies work to bring a new parking facility to the downtown area.

“If you want retail to thrive, if you want restaurants to thrive, you can’t just be a shopping center — that’s what malls are for; they have free parking there, it’s great. We want to create something in Amherst that positions us as a destination for 300 miles and further from us.”

While Amherst still boasts a number of fine restaurants and a variety of retail, Gould said, it needs more — specifically in the form of arts and entertainment — to be a true destination on par with its neighbor across the Coolidge Bridge.

“If you want retail to thrive, if you want restaurants to thrive, you can’t just be a shopping center — that’s what malls are for; they have free parking there, it’s great,” she explained. “We want to create something in Amherst that positions us as a destination for 300 miles and further from us.

“We will bring performers into this really intimate, beautiful, small space that you will never get to see in a venue like this, and for the ticket price we’ll be able to offer,” she went on. “People will hopefully be coming from New York, Boston, Pennsylvania, and all over.”

Getting the Message

Getting back to that graffiti on the side of the Amherst Cinema building — which will be recreated in neon on one wall in the new Drake — Roberts doesn’t know when it was spray-painted there or by whom.

But he does know that he always wanted to save the message and maintain it for future generations even as he redeveloped the site for new uses. It is a link to the past, he said, and one that has also become an inspiration for those securing a vibrant future for this area.

The Drake, as tens of thousands of students and area residents remember it, isn’t being saved, technically speaking. But the spirit of that landmark, that institution, will live on in an important way.

Not as a name over a door, but as a powerful force in moving Amherst forward and making it a destination and source of memories.

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

Cover Story

The Great Return

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Over the past year or so, most companies have set — and then pushed back — the date when workers would return to the offices they left when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020. Now, such a return seems more real. But what’s also real is a commitment to flexibility among area employers, who recognize not only that employees can work effectively from home, but that hybrid, or fully remote, work schedules are becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining a workforce.

There was the Great Depression. And 75 years later, there was the Great Recession. We’re still struggling with what’s being called the Great Resignation, and now … we have what some are referring to as the Great Return.

This would be the return to the office of all those workers — tens of millions of them — who went home to work right around this time two years ago. Some have already returned, but many haven’t. There have been several scheduled returns over the past two years — indeed, most major corporations have moved back their return dates several times due to surges and new variants — but this time, by most all accounts, it seems real. Very real.

And it also seems complicated, or at least far different than most would have thought a return would look like two years ago.

That’s because the world of work has changed in a profound way, with the matter put in its proper perspective by Kristin Morales-Lemieux, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at Baystate Health.

“When we first sent everyone home, no one wanted to be there,” she said, adding that roughly 4,000 of the system’s employees were told to work remotely, if they could. “And for the first six months, we spent all of our time trying to hold back the tide of employees and managers who wanted to come back into the building, and, quite frankly, walking around and finding people who should not be there and shooing them back home again.

“As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

“But somewhere around that six-month mark …. there was a shift, and people starting saying, ‘I don’t want to go back,’ or ‘I certainly don’t want to go back full-time,’” she went on. “And in a few areas where we started to transition departments back, we started to notice that, not in large numbers, but here and there, we began losing people who were taking jobs with other organizations that allowed them to work remotely full-time.”

Kristin Morales-Lemieux

When they first went home, Kristin Morales-Lemieux says, employees were clamoring to come back to the office; six months later, most no longer wanted to.

This phenomenon explains why ‘flexibility’ is the watchword as the Great Return commences, and why the hybrid schedule — whereby people work in the office at least a few days of the week and remotely for the remainder — is becoming the norm among employers, and, increasingly, expected when it comes to employees.

At Monson Savings Bank, employees now have a number of options when it comes to working schedules, including a hybrid model that has them in the office at least two days a week, and a four-day work week. MSB President Dan Moriarty said such flexibility, at a time when most have proven they can work effectively from home, is a practical response to the changing work climate.

“We wanted to create some culture for retention for existing employees,” he said, echoing the thoughts of many we spoke with. “And as we compete against other companies in this region, but also well outside, that offer flexibility and remote working, we thought it was a good balance — for the organization and the employee.”

Meanwhile, MassMutual has put in place what it calls a “flexible workplace approach” that is comprised of three work arrangements — full-time in the office, full-time remote, and a hybrid of the two, with the majority of the financial-services giant’s employees working a hybrid arrangement.

“Flexibility is at the heart of our approach,” said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience for the company. “As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

Elaborating, she said the flexible-workplace approach has been in place since last summer with employees “testing” it over the past several months. They are now being asked to be at “a more regular cadence” by the beginning of April.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Chris Viale, president and CEO of the company, plans to bring employees back to work a hybrid schedule starting later this month. But the longer-term plan is to bring most employees back five days a week, he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s expecting some pushback, will listen to those giving it, and may ultimately change his mind.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID, we haven’t seen anything yet.”

But for now, that’s the plan, and for reasons that would resonate with many employers across the region.

“We’ve been grappling with this for quite some time,” Viale explained. “Right before the pandemic, we secured a much larger office space with a state-of-the-art call-center environment, and we committed to a seven-year lease, so we have that financial expense baked in to trying to do what’s right for everyone, trying to make sure the company is functioning as we need it to, trying to make sure we’re serving the consumers we’re serving, and meeting the needs of our staff. We’re trying to balance all that — somehow.”

Overall, there are many forces driving the flexibility being exhibited at most workplaces, but perhaps the most significant is common sense when it comes to the matter of attracting and retaining talent, especially at a time when businesses in virtually sector are struggling to do so.

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility with its return-to-the-workplace strategies, including hybrid schedules and the option of a four-day work week.

Morales-Lemieux noted that Baystate Health, which regularly employs roughly 13,000 employees, currently has about 1,900 vacancies, three times what might be considered normal and a powerful motivating force when it comes to establishing return-to-the-workplace strategies.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID,” she said, “we haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

Work in Progress

It’s called ‘Corporate Tuesday.’

That’s the name Monson Savings Bank has attached to the second day of the work week, a day when most, if not all, employees will be in the office, said Moriarty, adding that this is the day, considered better than Monday, or any other day, for that matter, when people would schedule in-person meetings, department meetings, and collaborations.

“The parking lot is pretty full,” he explained, adding that Corporate Tuesday has been in effect since Jan. 1, and has thus far been greeted with a generally positive response.

Beyond Corporate Tuesday and some similar initiatives, there is now unprecedented amounts of flexibility when it comes to work and work schedules, at companies both large and small, a new landscape that has been years (and not just the past two years) in the making.

Indeed, Morales-Lemieux echoed others when she said there was some movement in this direction before the pandemic, especially as the unemployment rate dropped and it became steadily more challenging to attract and retain talent.

Sarah Morgan

Sarah Morgan says employees at Health New England have shown they can be effective working remotely.

“Even pre-COVID, we were really starting to feel the pressure to move into a variety of more flexible work arrangements, even as it relates to our frontline workers,” she told BusinessWest. “As the unemployment rate had dropped over the past decade, coupled with our own unique challenges in Western Massachusetts, such as our aging population and the number of healthcare-related — and non-healthcare-related — companies that we compete with for workers, we had, in the year prior to the pandemic, been talking in earnest about how we needed to change in order to make sure that we could keep a workforce.”

Elaborating, she said this talk involved, among other things, remote-work scenarios not only for attractive job candidates from other states who do not wish to relocate to Massachusetts, but also candidates and existing employees already in the 413.

Suffice it to say the pandemic has served to open more eyes to this need to change and add several layers of urgency to the matter, despite the delayed nature of the return to work.

But change comes hard to many companies, said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, noting that, in this case, most employers she’s talked with have seen the wisdom of embracing flexibility and not trying to put in place a one-size — or one-schedule, to be more precise — fits-all policy or strategy.

Indeed, even most old-school managers who would certainly prefer to have everyone back in the office eight hours a day, five days a week, are recognizing the need to embrace the changing landscape and not fight it — for a number of very practical reasons, especially those workforce issues, she said.

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them. And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now.”

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them,” she explained. “And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now; there are enough employers that are offering hybrid arrangements that you could easily lose people if you put your foot down and say, ‘I need you here five days a week.’ Those workers can easily find someone who will be flexible and more accommodating.”

 

Balance Sheet

Those we spoke with said there have been a number of fits and starts when it comes to returning employees to the workplace. Most were ready to start the process last spring or last fall, but Delta and then Omicron ultimately pushed back those timetables.

Now, most are looking at later this month or early next month as a return date, although it appears the vast majority of workers will still be working remotely at least a few days a week.

At Health New England, Sarah Morgan, director of Human Resources and Organizational Development, said all but a handful of the company’s 385 employees are currently working remotely, and there is no set date for a return. As for a plan, it involves being flexible, giving employees an opportunity to “volunteer” to return if they should desire to do so and if the conditions with regard to the pandemic warrant such a return.

For many reasons, she said, returning everyone to the office full-time — essentially turning back the clock to early March 2020 — is not practical. For starters, even with COVID subsiding in many respects, the company is no rush for a return to pre-pandemic density levels in its office space in Monarch Place. But over the past two years, employees have shown they can effectively work remotely, she went on, which more than justifies flexible or hybrid work schedules.

“Our associates have proven that they’re capable of working remotely for quite some time; they’re meeting the standards and expectations and doing very, very well,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re meeting all the needs of our members, and so we’ve said that people like to work at home, we understand that, and we’re going to enable a certain amount of flexibility within teams and a hybrid approach.”

Like others, she said such flexibility is becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining employees, but also widening the pool of talent to include those from other regions of the country.

“We recognize that flexibility around remote work and hybrid work schedules is a way to honor the needs of people,” she said, using that word ‘needs’ in reference to everything from family matters to physical disabilities. “We’re seeing more people ask for that flexibility when they apply.”

And at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which employs roughly 150 people, 100 at the Agawam Corporate Center, there will be similar amounts of flexibility, said Jennifer Murphy, director of Human Resources, adding that the employees now working remotely, and that’s most of them, are slated to return in a hybrid format on April 4.

“Part of our new flexible-work policy involves a hybrid work model; when we return, people will be required to work 60% of the time in the office,” Murphy said, adding that this plan of action has been generally well-received by employees. Overall, it represents acknowledgement of both the emergence of remote work as being popular and effective and the importance of face-to-face interaction when it comes to office culture.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely,” she explained. “But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions. Overall, we’re trying to balance the value and importance of in-person work and collaboration with employees’ desire to also have that flexibility to work remotely.”

Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy says the 100 employees working at the offices of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation will be returning on April 4 and working hybrid schedules.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Viale said his plan to bring employees back to a hybrid schedule was greeted with a generally positive response. Overall, he’s not expecting the same when it comes to his plans to bring all or most employees (there will be exceptions for health considerations and other factors) back full-time.

Elaborating, and echoing Morales-Lemieux’s comments, he said that, as the months went by, employees became increasingly comfortable with working remotely, and increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of returning to the office.

But after weighing all the factors, including that seven-year lease on a significantly larger footprint and other considerations, he decided that bringing everyone back is the best course. But, as noted earlier, he will listen, and he may be open to changing his plans.

And what may be a deciding factor in his ultimate decision is his ability to maintain his workforce.

“What’s really challenging is just finding people to work,” he said. “I just heard an ad coming in to work this morning that Target is hiring people for $24 an hour; our starting wage is between $16 and $18 an hour.”

At Ware-based Country Bank, most all employees have been back to the office since last fall, said Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer for the institution, adding that she believes that the bank is among the first, if not the first, business of its kind to put a flexible work policy in place.

The employees who have returned are working three days in the office and two remotely, she said, adding that the new policy, or strategy, is not the result of COVID, necessarily, but rather recognition that times and needs are changing, and flexible schedules are the logical, responsible response to the current landscape.

“One of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore,” she said. “That has become our mantra in many ways.”

Elaborating, she said the pandemic helped drive home the need to communicate with employees, have them articulate their challenges and needs, and then work with them to the extent possible to accommodate those needs.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely. But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions.”

This is the right thing to do, Siegel said, but it’s also what many companies are willing to do, which is critical during what could only be called an ongoing workforce crisis.

“When you couple this remote-work situation with the Great Resignation, shifting priorities, and our challenge to retain people … we need to be listening to our employees and accommodate them when we can,” she said. “Because they’ll very quickly go somewhere else right now.”

At Baystate, as Morales-Lemieux noted, efforts to bring back — to the extent they are coming back — those 4,000 employees who left for home two years ago have been underway for some time.

There is now an organization-wide communication plan and strategy that will be launched in early April, she said, adding that there are still 3,000 people working “completely or largely” remotely.

 

Bottom Line

At all the workplaces we talked with, the new policies and strategies are in place for what would be called the time being.

Indeed, each company said it reserved to right to re-evaluate and change what is in place, depending on how things work out.

“The program we put in place — we keep the option open to revise or revoke if we don’t see good results,” Moriarty said. “But so far, so good.”

Murphy concurred. “When we initiated this policy and rolled it out, we said we would try it for one year and see how it works, and that we reserve the right to revisit it,” she said, adding that, while there is general confidence that this strategy will succeed given what’s happened over the past two years, it is still, on some levels, an experiment.

But overall, she’s not expecting many changes to the new policies — or to the current landscape in the workplace, for that matter.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see the trend turning back to fully in-person work for most people, especially those who work at a computer all day,” she said. “We’ve shown that that the remote model works; I think it’s here to stay.”

Morgan agreed. “We’re trending in that direction; HR professionals are talking about the trends, and the ‘new normal,’ and what will be the future of work,” she explained. “For so many reasons, we’re engaging in work in a different way; we’re fitting it into our lives in a different way than we could if we had a 30-minute commute to the office — and we’re finding that we can be even more productive.”

Those sentiments are among the many that make it clear that work has changed over the past two years — and probably changed forever.

And this will make the much-anticipated Great Return something to watch.

 

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

Cover Story

The Return of a Tradition

Marc Joyce

Marc Joyce, chairman of the 69th Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade

It’s been nearly 1,100 days since Holyoke has staged its St. Patrick’s Day Parade and accompanying road race. That’s way too long for the businesses that depend on those institutions for a large percentage of their annual revenue. And it’s way too long for a community that always gains a huge dose of civic pride when mid-March rolls around. The traditions are back for 2022, and for the city and the region, there is much to celebrate.

 

 

The cover to the program book for the 69th Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade was designed by an artist from Ireland.

Blended with the headline ‘The Season of Green,’ is a collection of the words that identify dozens of shades of green — from pistachio to lime; jade to shamrock — arranged in the shape of the Emerald Isle, and in those various colors.

It’s striking — and, yes, very green. But perhaps the most poignant thing about this publication is the date printed in smaller type to the side: March 22nd, 2020.

Indeed, this program book was published just over two years ago, and except for some minor updates in a supplement that will be inserted into the book, it remains profoundly unchanged. That goes from the date on the cover to all the advertisements inside to the ‘welcome’ from parade President Marc Joyce. In it, he thanks sponsors, the business community, and all those who helped make the parade possible. But there is no mention of the pandemic that kept this tradition from happening for two years.

“Civic engagement and pride in a community, any community, is critical. Any opportunity we can get to keep people excited about feeling good about the city they live in continues to help build on quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to have the parade back.”

Joyce told BusinessWest that the decision was made not to print another book, just that supplement, and to essentially pick up where the world, and Holyoke, left off when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shutdown of the state just a week or so before the 69th parade was to step off.

“We like to say that it’s the 2020 parade in 2022,” said Joyce, noting that, in most all respects, the date of the 69th parade has simply been moved up two years. Everything, or almost everything, is as it was then; he is still parade president (his has been a long, grueling three-year stint; normally, it’s one year); John (Jay) Driscoll, a prominent lawyer in Holyoke, is still the grand marshal, and Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Liberty Bank, is still recipient of the prestigious John F. Kennedy Award.

It is as if time has stood still in some ways. Only it hasn’t, obviously.

The program guide for the 69th annual parade

The program guide for the 69th annual parade, or what the event chairman calls “the 2020 parade in 2022.”

Holyoke has been without its greatest tradition for nearly 36 months now, and as it returns, many reflected on all that has been lost — and what has been regained as more than a month of parade-related events and gatherings have returned.

While those in the business community spoke of lost revenue — in some cases more than a third and perhaps even half of what they would generate in an entire year — and lost opportunities to introduce themselves to thousands of patrons (more on that later), all those we spoke with mentioned other, even more important losses, including a sense of identify and feelings of pride in the community.

As for what is being regained … the word that came up over and over and over again is ‘normalcy.’

“There’s a lot of pride in our community when it comes to parade weekend activity, when it comes to the parade and the road race, not just in this community, but across the region,” said Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia. “With quaranteening and all the other things we’ve had to deal with, this will bring back some kind of sense of normalcy.

“And that’s important, because civic engagement and pride in a community, any community, is critical,” he went on. “Any opportunity we can get to keep people excited about feeling good about the city they live in continues to help build on quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to have the parade back.”

Peter Rosskothen, owner of several hospitality-related businesses in Holyoke, including the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and others, agreed.

“It’s very good for business,” he said of the parade, the road race and the month of events and activities leading up to it. “But it’s also good for the morale of Holyoke; it’s bigger than business, it’s civic pride, it’s the community coming together. Holyoke is a city with some problems, but you kind of forget about that with the parade.”

Joyce concurred, noting that the losses are not restricted to dollars and cents.

“It’s in the mindset and emotions of people who have grown up with this,” he explained. “I’m 71 years old, and I’ve been on the committee for 45 years. And I remember the first parade I went to; my father was marching with the Post Office, and my mother and I would walk about a mile and a half downtown to watch the parade. When I was away at college, I missed a few parades, but other than that, I haven’t missed any.

“It’s a homecoming,” he went on. “People come back to the city, and you see people you haven’t seen since perhaps last year; it’s a wonderful family-oriented event.”

For this issue, BusinessWest puts the lost years of 2020 and 2021 into perspective, and looks ahead to what all are expecting to be a memorable month as Holyoke welcomes back a tradition.

 

Mummers the Word

As he reflected back on March 2020 and the parade that wasn’t, Joyce said he remembers many things from that turbulent, mostly forgettable month, including the weather, which, to all those involved with this tradition, is often a big part of the story.

Mid-March in New England can bring with it all kinds of weather, and the parade has seen just about everything over its long history — snow, cold, rain, sleet, wind, and, occasionally, some sun and spring-like conditions.

In a somewhat cruel bit of irony, there were two such warm, sunny days — for the parade and the accompanying road race — in 2020, said Joyce, adding that it was the same in 2021, a meteorological turn of events that would only add insult to the injury of having to call off the parade two years in a row, he noted.

Turning his attention to 2022, Joyce joked that there is now considerable pressure on Driscoll.

Damien Rivera

Damien Rivera says that, for bars and restaurants in downtown Holyoke, the parade and road race are like the Super Bowl.

“We always kid that the grand marshal is in charge of the weather, one way or the other,” he explained. “I kid with him and say, ‘Jay, you’re two for two; can you pull it off a third time?’ I’m hoping, for all of our sakes, that he can.”

Keeping one’s sense of humor hasn’t been easy for the past two years, but Joyce and others involved with the parade have had little choice. The alternative is too depressing.

Recapping the past two years, Joyce recalled that “all systems were go” for the 2020 parade even as the virus first detected in China made its way to this country.

“We know it was out there, but no one knew how serious it was going to be,” he said. “The parade that was going to be in 2020 was canceled about 10 days before the event. That was really tough; people were saying ‘Oh, you’re babies, don’t cancel it.’ The fact of the matter is, we didn’t cancel it. Alex Morse, who was mayor at the time, called me into his office; we met with the Board of Health, and the DPW, and the police and fire, and they explained clearly the science of this thing and the interconnectedness of everything. The Fire Department was concerned that if they lost half their force to COVID, they wouldn’t be able to protect the city of Holyoke appropriately, and it was the same with the police.

“This is an event when every bar can show off what they can do, and we missed out on that opportunity for two years.”

“That was a hard pill to swallow but we always figured that this would be over soon and we’d be back in 2021,” he went on. “But that didn’t happen, for obvious reasons; we actually approached the city right after the first of the year in 2021 — the directors met, we discussed it long and hard, and we just figured that the same reasons we canceled in 2020 still existed in 2021, and it just made no sense to go forward. We approached the city and said ‘this is just not going to work, and we’ll be back in 2022.’”

Joyce remembers sitting on his front porch on parade day 2021, soaking in the gorgeous weather, drinking a Guinness, and watching a few friends drive down the street honking their horns. “That was the extent of the parade.”

Over the course of the past two years, the parade committee has never really stopped preparing for the 69th parade, he went on, adding that some things have gone on as they normally would, like the annual past president’s raffle and a memorial mass for deceased members of the committee.

Meanwhile, there has been planning — much of it via Zoom — for events this year, such as a gala staged late last month at the Log Cabin, the annual Awards Night, and many others.

Nicole Ortiz, who opened Crave on High Street

Nicole Ortiz, who opened Crave on High Street just over a year ago, is looking forward to her first parade week of activities.

As for the parade itself, it will be roughly the size of previous parades, with 15,000 marchers expected, close to 30 musical units, and 19-20 floats. What Joyce and everyone else expects to be larger this year — as in much larger, is the level of anticipation for both the parade and the race.

“It’s really hard to describe,” said Joyce. “Anywhere I’ve gone over the past few years and especially the past six to eight months, people have walked up and said, ‘Marc, are we having a parade?’ ‘Are we having a parade next year?’ People are excited to have the parade back.”

That’s especially true within the business community and its hospitality sector, which has suffered mightily over the past 24 months, as we’ll see.

 

Glass Half Empty

‘Crazy.’

Wasting no time at all, that’s the word Damien Rivera used to describe road race day at the Unicorn Inn on High Street.

“Really crazy,” he went on, gesturing with his hand around the two rooms that comprise this cozy neighborhood bar, adding that, by late morning on race day both rooms would be crammed with standing patrons — standing because the establishment can fit more people in if there are no tables and chairs on the floor.

Elaborating on ‘crazy,’ Rivera, a long-time employee who once lived above the bar with his father, Bobby Rivera, the establishment’s bar manager, detailed all that goes into race day at the Unicorn, which is even bigger than parade day, because, as he noted, the race ends at that northern stretch of High Street, and that’s where people congregate; the parade, in contrast, is spread out over a larger area, and thus the crowd is more spread out as well.

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen

“It’s bigger than business, it’s civic pride, it’s the community coming together.”

He said that extra help is hired, a separate beer station is set up so that bartenders are not slowed by those who simply want a bottle of suds. There’s a DJ, and a deeper menu of food options is created, all in hopes of attracting race fans, who have a number of options when it comes to where to quench their thirst and whet their appetite.

Summing it all up, Rivera said simply “this is our Super Bowl — that’s the best way I can describe it,” meaning it’s the biggest, most lucrative time of the year. How big? Without giving specific numbers, he estimated that St. Patrick’s week — yes, it’s a week to many of those who celebrate it, especially when the holiday falls mid-or even early week and the parade as always, is on a Sunday — generates more than a third and perhaps even half of an entire year’s revenues.

What was it like to be without that week two years a row? Rivera simply shook his head and said “awful.” And by that, he was referencing more than just lost revenue.

“It’s a celebration,” he said of road race day, but also the entire week and beyond. “Holyoke is historically Irish, so when that week happens … it’s timely, it’s cheery, it’s a bright celebration of Irish culture, and for the businesses, this is our most important time.”

He said that establishments like the Unicorn depend on parade-week festivities for more than just revenue. It’s also a great marketing tool, a way to make introductions with potential new patrons.

“It brings people from so many places,” he explained. “If they didn’t know this place was here, they learned that it’s here. So not having the race and the parade meant that new people weren’t learning about this place as much as if we had it; this is an event when every bar can show off what they can do, and we missed out on that opportunity for two years.”

Nicole Ortiz is certainly looking to make some introductions during this year’s parade. She’s the owner of Crave restaurant on High Street, just across the street from City Hall — and the reviewing stand for the parade. She opened the establishment, which specializes in “modern and unique Puerto Rican food,” just over a year ago and missed out on a parade that year. In fact, Ortiz, who started with a food truck in early 2020, hasn’t experienced a parade as a business owner — although she’s heard quite a bit about the tradition from other business owners. She’s looking forward to the opportunity.

“They told me there’s tons of people down here, and they make tons of money,” she explained. “They say there’s tens of thousands of people down here for the race as well as the parade; it sounds pretty crazy.”

Rivera is looking forward to 2022 being a breakout year, and he’s not alone in that assessment.

Indeed, the phrase pent-up demand has been used in almost every context imaginable over the past 24 months, from cars to dining out to vacationing. And when it comes to the parade and the road race, pent-up demand is real.

Mayor Garcia drew parallels between this year’s parade and last year’s Big E. Both marked the return of an institution that the region had to do without, he said, adding that the Big E saw record attendance one Saturday during its run last year, and he’s expecting something similar with the parade.

Rosskothen agreed. “I feel that the parade is going to be bigger and better than it’s been in years,” he said. “I think people are ready to get out and do stuff. We’re handling the road race, and I’m preparing for a record breaker.”

“I feel that the parade is going to be bigger and better than it’s been in years,” he said. “I think people are ready to get out and do stuff. We’re handling the road race, and I’m preparing for a record breaker.”

Rosskothen, like others we spoke with, noted repeatedly that the parade and road race are not one day, or two days, as the case may be, but a week’s worth of celebration and, actually, several weeks’ worth of events, activities, and Irish-related food, drink, and culture leading up to the climax of mid-March.

“It’s a whole month,” he said. “We start playing Irish music at our venues, people go out, and in my case we start selling corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner packages in the beginning of March at Delaney’s Market. It’s all tied into the parade; it puts your Irish mindset on for lack of a better phrase.”

 

Bottom Line

Joyce said that there are only about 500 of the program books left to distribute at the parade. Those already given out have become a kind of dubious collector’s item — a guide to a parade that didn’t happen, or wouldn’t happen for two years.

In a way, they have become a symbol, not of what was lost or of a time that stood still, but of the community’s resilience and of the immense importance of this tradition to the city and the entire region. No one ever really doubted that importance; it was too obvious for that to happen. But three years removed from the last parade, it is now even easier to see all that the parade and the race mean to Holyoke.

It’s not just the revenue for those bars, restaurants, hotels, and banquet halls, although that’s a very big part of it. It’s the sense of community, the feeling of pride, the people coming back to this city year after year. It’s history. It’s tradition. It’s Holyoke.

It’s something else, too. It’s normal, and everyone involved is excited that it has returned.

 

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

Class of 2022 Cover Story

For 14 years now, BusinessWest has been recognizing the work of individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions through its Difference Makers program, with one goal in mind: to show the many ways one can, in fact, make a difference within their community. Their stories are sure to enlighten and also inspire others to find their own ways to make a difference.

View BusinessWest Difference Makers Special Section HERE

The 2022 Difference Makers

Click on each NAME to read their story!

Tara Brewster

Vice President of Business Development, Greenfield Savings Bank


The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts


Heriberto Flores

President, New England Farm Workers’ Council


John Greaney

Retired State Supreme Court Justice; Senior Counsel, Bulkley Richardson

Ruth Griggs

President, Northampton Jazz Festival; Principal, RC Communications


Ted Hebert

Founder and Owner, Teddy Bear Pools and Spas


I Found Light Against All Odds and Its Founder and CEO, Stefan Davis


Roca Holyoke and Springfield

Come party with us as we celebrate the 2022 Difference Makers

March 24, 2022, 5-8:30 pm at the Log Cabin in Holyoke

PURCHASE YOUR TICKETS HERE

Tickets cost $75 and can be ordered at businesswest.com. The sponsors for this year’s program are Burkhart Pizzanelli, the New England Farm Workers’ Council, the Royal Law Firm, TommyCar Auto Group, and Westfield Bank

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Cover Story

Ethics in Business

The two words ‘ethics’ and ‘business’ come together in the same sentence often, although what they mean when they are juxtaposed like that depends on whom you ask. A common refrain is that it means ‘doing the right thing.’ But even that becomes somewhat complicated amid questions concerning who we are doing the right thing for. And then, there’s the matter of profit, and the question of if, when, and under what circumstances it comes ahead of ethics. To get some answers, BusinessWest convened a panel of area business leaders for a virtual roundtable discussion. The comments, as might be expected, are thought-provoking, and lead to more questions. Our panelists include Peter DePergola, chief Ethics officer, senior director of Clinical Ethics, and chief of the Ethics Consultation Service, Baystate Health — and also Shaughness family chair for the study of the Humanities, associate professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities, and executive director of the St. Augustine Center for Ethics, Religion, and Culture at Elms College; Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University; Tom Loper, Associate Provost & Dean in the School of Arts, Science and Management, Bay Path University, and former business owner; Mark Cutting, president and CEO of C&D Electronics; Drew DiGiorgio, president and CEO, Wellfleet; and Patrick Leary, partner with MP CPAs.

Watch the video here:

 

BusinessWest: Let’s start with that phrase ‘ethics in business.’ What does that mean to you?

 

DePergola: “For me, ethics is the philosophical study of morality, and morality, at its heart, concerns how the actions we perform contribute to the persons we become. To me, ethics in business is the way we in which we express and articulate or moral character in business transactions — not just with consumers, but with one another on our teams. We’re a little slow in western culture to pay as much attention to ethics in business as we should; there’s the classic Freeman v. Freeman debate where we talk about the distinctions between profit and corporate social responsibility, and whether we should ever sacrifice things like profit in pursuit of greater common good. So I think the opportunity for business to pause and reflect on itself in a new way is somethings that’s evergreen. Ethics is something that’s been discussed and considered for a much longer time in things like medicine, starting with people like Hippocrates. Ethics in business is no less important than ethics at the bedside.”

Peter DePergola

“To me, ethics in business is the way we in which we express and articulate or moral character in business transactions — not just with consumers, but with one another on our teams.”

Doran: “I think any discussion of ethics also has to include a discussion of morals and values, because each one of those has its own place in how we think about things. Most people think of morals as a more personal aspect of their character and how they view things, the lens through which they look at the world. And when we think about ethics, it’s often framed more as an organization; what are the rules, what is the code that people are going to operate within as part of an organization? That’s a really important consideration for any business or organization: what is the lens, what is the framework? And how are we thinking about ethics in that context?”

 

Cutting: “I’m in the aerospace and defense industry; we service a majority of the prime contractors across the world. Ethics for me is … we are a small, minute part of the supply chain in that industry, and our hope is that, as a small business, we can be treated fairly and ethically. We understand our competition, and we understand that, because we’re small, we may be taken advantage of at some level. Those are the things we think about as we strategize and when we work with these big firms and negotiate contracts. We have to hope that the terms and conditions that apply to us apply to others. It’s a concern, and we hope that we’re on a level playing field. We just don’t know. We’re hoping that everyone who supports that industry is ethical at some level.”

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

“Most people think of morals as a more personal aspect of their character and how they view things, the lens through which they look at the world. And when we think about ethics, it’s often framed more as an organization; what are the rules, what is the code that people are going to operate within as part of an organization?”

DiGiorgio: “Our business, Wellfleet, provides health insurance, intangible goods; you can’t touch what we produce, so what we produce is a trust, a bond with our members, our clients. It’s all about ethics at the end of the day. Ethics, for us, means doing the right thing, quite simply put. We have contracts and agreements, and if anyone’s looked at a health-insurance policy, it’s 60 pages long; good luck with that. But there’s a lot of faith that you will act ethically about my claim. We’re part of Berkshire Hathaway, and when you’re trying to manage a conglomerate of companies like Warren [Buffett] does, you really just do it through ‘do the right thing.’ That’s the only way to manage at that level.”

 

Loper: “I like to break ethics down into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Are we doing something that’s good for folks that are stakeholders? Are we doing things that are not so good? Are we being open and honest? Are we being trustworthy and respectful? All those things are parts of a code of ethics that helps us to deliver on our promise and not come up short. Sometimes we all come up short, we all walk with a limp, as they say, but some people do things intentionally and break those bonds, the contract they’re supposed to have with their stakeholders, and when that’s done, that’s not good at all.”

 

Leary: In public accounting, our job is help other businesses succeed, so we’re privy to a lot of confidential information that is not out in the public realm, and we’ve very cognizant of that. As a public accountant, we’re required to participate in a periodic ethics training specifically on ethics issues, which is interesting because it gives you a chance to pause and look at various scenarios where ethics come into play — not that it doesn’t come into play every day.

“Looking back on my career, and when I’m talking to someone about personal tax planning, I have yet to find someone say, ‘hey, how can I pay the most in taxes?’ Usually, it’s ‘how do I reduce my taxes?’ You need to be careful that you’re playing within the rules, the regulations that are provided out there. There are people that would prefer to skirt those rules, but our job is to make sure that our clients are not doing that, as best we can. We are looking out for our clients, but it’s not just the business owner. It’s the stakeholders as well. Without employees, without customers, without suppliers, you don’t have business. So our business, Mark’s business, Bay Path … everyone here, you’re built on reputation, and it’s easy to lose your reputation and very hard to get it back.”

Tom Loper

“Sometimes we all come up short, we all walk with a limp, as they say, but some people do things intentionally and break those bonds, the contract they’re supposed to have with their stakeholders, and when that’s done, that’s not good at all.”

BusinessWest: We’ve heard the phrase ‘do the right thing’ a few times already. What exactly does that mean? Right for whom?

 

DiGiorgio: “You have to keep things simple from the standpoint of terminology, so people understand. You can talk to someone about ethics, and they may or may not understand how ethics works. But if you say ‘do the right thing,’ you can have a team that focuses on your customer, your member, your team. It’s about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s about treating people with respect, treating people the way you would want to be treated. There’s a lot of ways at looking at ‘do the right thing,’ but most of us understand that, at the end of the day, the ‘right thing’ is the right thing for the person you’re dealing with. Maybe that’s a member on a call with customer service, or maybe five minutes before your lunch break, and you know the call is going to take 10 minutes. Spend the 10 minutes; do the right thing.”

 

Doran: “At Bay Path, our focus is on the student, so we’re always talking about what’s best for the student. But the way we think about doing what’s best in terms of the customer, the student, is ‘how do we build a strong community?’ Because if we have a strong community that supports each other and is invested in everyone’s success, then people generally make the right decisions. If our students are not successful, we’re not successful; if our registrar isn’t successful, then our students are not successful. We’re really focused on this virtuous cycle of success.”

 

DePergola: “There are many different avenues to try to articulate the ‘right thing to do’ in a given scenario. One of the things we try to do is look at decisions to be made from a variety of different perspectives, understanding that our primary goal in that analysis is very likely, although not exclusively, to try to make the small decision 1,000 times to put someone else’s well-being ahead of our own, without sacrificing who we are as a person, what we stand for, at a base level. In the clinical world, we’re asking questions of whether what we’re doing is reasonable; we’re asking why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it — is it proportionate to the good we’re trying to accomplish? When are we doing it — is it the right time? Where are we doing it — is it the right place? We ask questions about ‘what if?’ — we project the foreseeable consequences of the decision, not just at the end of the day, but where does this leave our patient or our stakeholder or our shareholder six months from now?

“And then, there’s ‘what else?’ This is my favorite question of moral analysis because it’s the question of moral imagination. It helps us understand that, when we make a bad decision in business ethics, it’s not because we’re morally bankrupt in some way, but because we’ve been to unimaginative; we’ve focused on an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ option, and we failed to brainstorm for a ‘C’ or ‘D.’ So there are a variety of ways to get at what’s the right thing to do.”

Mark Cutting

Mark Cutting

“If I ship a bad product to a big customer like Boeing, and there’s failure, I’m destroyed in my business and in my industry. It’s a top-down, flow-down thing to make sure everyone’s on the same page concerning the ethics that you believe in.”

BusinessWest: Smith & Wesson recently announced that it will relocate its corporate headquarters from Springfield to Tennessee, a move that will presumably help the company but hurt families in this area and the region as whole. What does this case tell us about ethics and how it is often difficult deciding what it is the right thing to do?

 

Loper: “Smith & Wesson may have shut doors if it can’t move or cut 500 employees, and the people in Tennessee think it’s a great thing. In Springfield, to someone who just lost their job, it’s a bad thing. What is the right thing? It depends son your perspective.”

 

DePergola: “This is certainly my reality in the world of clinical ethics — that the good thing to do is very often, if not exclusively, the least bad thing to do. And I mean that in a very literal sense. It’s not a clear or easy decision between choosing something clearly good or something clearly bad; you don’t need an ethical analysis for that. It’s often choosing something that will have indirect and unintended consequences that are negative and that are unavoidable in pursuit of something good, like maintaining the structure of the company — somewhere. So, really, finding the good is very often a matter of trying to identify the least bad thing to do, knowing that a perfect solution is not possible.”

Patrick Leary

“You’re built on reputation, and it’s easy to lose your reputation and very hard to get it back.”

Cutting: “For the management staff at Smith & Wesson, it was a tough decision to make; you’re going to have to let some folks go, but you’re going to be able to maintain your stock value to your shareholders, which, under those conditions as a publicly traded company, is part of your mission statement. You’re there to provide the best and most absolute path to success for that company. It’s a slippery slope when we make decisions like that, and I think, unfortunately, maybe we need to look in the mirror in this state and say, ‘was that the right thing for us to? Maybe we should claw that back, re-embrace them, and change the law.’”

 

BusinessWest: Just how does leadership set the tone when it comes to business ethics?

 

Doran: “You have to show, not tell. Everything a leader does is under scrutiny — they’re being watched with a magnifying glass. But it’s equally important to have a written statement. We all have values, personal values, but it’s very important to have an organizational framework … it’s really important that everyone understands where an organization stands when it comes to things like integrity, inclusivity, and dealing honestly with everyone — in our case, students, faculty, staff, everyone in the ecosystem.

“Everyone in our university, whether you’re a trustee or alum, has a social compact to abide by a common value set and code of ethics, and that was really tested through COVID. Everyone had to support this code of conduct; it was testing, it was mask wearing, it was … maybe you have a relative in Rome and you want to visit them, but you can’t do that, because it’s not good for our community. So the code centered not on what’s good for you, but on what’s good for our community at large, and that was a really good example, I think, of this code of conduct and how leaders set the tone.”

 

Cutting: “When it comes to people being ethical or a company being ethical, it has to be top down. It starts at the top, and it has to flow down to everyone in the company. You talk about the reputation in the industry … it doesn’t take long to lose it. If I ship a bad product to a big customer like Boeing, and there’s failure, I’m destroyed in my business and in my industry. It’s a top-down, flow-down thing to make sure everyone’s on the same page concerning the ethics that you believe in.”

Drew DiGiorgio

“It’s about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s about treating people with respect, treating people the way you would want to be treated.”

Loper: “The recent decision by Smith & Wesson is a great example of how challenging it can be to make decisions in the business world, and by what yardstick. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror every day, and there are personal convictions that you have to relate to.

“One of the things I’ve found to be helpful — I’m not sure it’s a solution, but it certainly made it easier for me to look at things when I was in business — is to pull up from the situation that I found myself in as president and think about the different stakeholders and what they were expecting of the organization that I started up or developed, and what responsibilities I had to those stakeholders. That was true whether it was to the city that helped me to get the power that I needed delivered to a place where they had never delivered that much power before, or whether it was the people supplying the material from India, or whether it was putting an ad in the paper to attract people with certain skills to work on a certain piece of equipment — and then seeing people standing in line, waiting for an opportunity to work on that machine, knowing that it hurt other people because I was taking their best.

“I was constantly dealing with matters that bordered on ethical issues, and one of the things that helped me was this concept of conscious capitalism and the idea of thinking more broadly than my own business and trying to take a long view of what value creation is all about, and for whom. And there were constant tradeoffs, and I was always trying to look at bigger issues and make the best decision I could with the information that we had.”

 

DiGiorgio: “We have several keys at our business — security, empathy, honoring commitments, and then, fiscal responsibility. And they all flow together. And if we do those things, that’s going to produce the right results. But you have to establish those keys and set that culture. That’s where it begins.”

 

BusinessWest: Finally, profits and ethics. How do we balance these two important pillars of business?

 

Loper: “You have to take the long view; you can’t just take the short view, as with those quarterly profits. And that quarterly review process that larger corporations, the Fortune 500 companies, have to go through, makes it very difficult to make the right long-term decision. It’s very hard sometimes to make the right decision.

“When you talk about profits, I think you have to understand that there are short-term profits and long-term profits, and it’s not all measured in dollars and cents. Sometimes it’s measured in terms of forests being destroyed that could affect the climate or natural resources being exploited that are not replaceable. This whole concept of conscious capitalism that encourages us to think bigger is not just a theory; there’s a whole collection of major corporations that are part of that whole movement of shared value and conscious capitalism that are doing better on Wall Street than companies that don’t, that historically have focused on a much narrower definition of ‘corporate profit.’ And I think that this is showing the rest of the world that you can do that, and the more global we’ve become, the more influence we’re going to have on that notion of what ‘profit’ really is. We need to have broader measures of success as companies than just profits.”

 

Leary: “I agree. Short-term profits are not indicative of the long-term value of a company. With most companies on Wall Street, you’re looking at quick profits, and some of the biggest frauds that have committed at public companies were for short-term profit for people — and those companies are no longer around.

“When you look at the overall value of what you’ve created as a business owner, it’s not just dollars, or profits — it’s how many families have you helped feed, or how many kids have you sent to college, or what you’ve done for the community — that should all be part of the profit equation. You can do both — you can have profits, and you can have a successful company and an ethical company. You can balance those two; ethics and profits don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they should be working hand in hand. Ethical companies have a longer-term prospect than those looking at short-term gain, and we’ve seen that through history with companies that have failed. Why did they fail? It’s typically because of some short-term decision that someone made.”

 

Doran: “At Bay Path, our board is very focused on ESG [environmental, social, and governance] investing, and making sure that a company’s values align with our values, and of course we’re also very focused on making sure our portfolio performs, because it’s in the interest off our endowment that funds a large part of our scholarship program. And we’ve been doing some very technical comparisons [between] companies that are more ESG-focused and others that may not have it as a stated part of their practice … and the returns are very similar. That shows that profits and ethics do go hand in hand at many places. It should not be an anomaly, it should not be the exception, and I do not believe that it is.”

 

DePergola: “The real litmus test would be … if the profit started to significantly slow down, would we still do the right thing? I think that confronts us with who we are. And if we’re not sure if we would do the right thing if the profit slows down, then we should take a look at that. Overall, Patrick and Sandra are right: profits and ethics are not mutually exclusive. Doing the right thing consistently over time, getting buy-in, and anchoring things to the mission — what we’re going to stand for no matter what — that’s what people want to be part of. And I think profit follows from that decision to do the right thing.” u

Cover Story Top Entrepreneur

Towering Achievements

Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta Are Reimagining a Springfield Landmark

In 1996, BusinessWest introduced a new recognition program, one that pays homage to the entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined this region. Since then, the Top Entrepreneur honor has gone to small-business owners, college and hospital presidents, and even Holyoke’s municipal utility. This year’s recipients are Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta, true serial entrepreneurs who rolled the dice and purchased Tower Square, the iconic but troubled Springfield landmark, in 2018. Their efforts to change the landscape and reimagine the property have been slowed by COVID, and there are many chapters in this story still left to write. But there are signs of progress, and the partners’ patience, persistence, and entrepreneurial mettle are big reasons why.

Demetrios Panteleakis recalls his company being one of many commercial real-estate brokerage firms that were interviewed to represent the new ownership group at Tower Square as leasing agent.

He also recalls being rather surprised when the Macmillan Group won the contract. That’s because … well, he was rather candid in his assessment of what needed to be done with the downtown Springfield landmark.

Probably too candid, in his mind.

“I think I was pretty brutal when it comes to what needed to change and what types of investments needed to be made in the building,” he said, looking back more than three years. “I sent it to them kind of thinking, ‘they’re going to look at this and probably say, ‘forget this guy — there’s no way we’re doing all this.’

“But to my surprise, and to my surprise ever since, it’s been the complete opposite,” he went on. “They wanted to meet with me again, and they wanted me to go into detail on a marketing plan, they wanted me to go into detail on the improvements … the concept of doing away with traditional retail and doing more of a community-based approach for the tenants of the building and focusing on just the constant improvement of the building.”

Panteleakis said that this response to his “brutal assessment,” and the actions taken since, go a long way toward explaining why partners Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel have been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2022, the latest winners of an award first handed out in 1996.

Actually, this is the second time they’ve won the award — sort of. Indeed, they were, and still are, part of the ownership and management team of the Springfield Thunderbirds that took home the Top Entrepreneur award for 2017 for their efforts to not only bring hockey back to the city but make it a force in efforts to reinvigorate the downtown.

The two were already serial entrepreneurs at the time MassMutual was looking to sell the Tower Square complex in 2017, owning everything from hotels to fast-food restaurants; from an information-technology-solutions company to early-education facilities. But this was their first real joint venture and certainly their first class-A office tower, and Panteleakis said they entered this exercise with what he called a “thirst for learning.”

Demetrios Panteleakis stands in the space in Tower Square now occupied by Country Bank

Demetrios Panteleakis stands in the space in Tower Square now occupied by Country Bank, one of many new tenants to arrive since Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel acquired the downtown Springfield landmark.

“And that’s unusual,” he went on. “Most people who own buildings always think they know more than the broker; it’s rare for them to listen. I was shocked when they started instituting the plan, and they really stuck to it.”

While listening has been a major ingredient in their success at Tower Square — and in business in general — there are many others, the partners told BusinessWest, including patience, especially amid COVID-19, which has certainly slowed the pace of progress. But also watching and learning what has worked elsewhere (we’ll see some examples of that) and applying it to their venture.

Persistence and adherence to the plan are also keys, they said.

“We just keep moving and keep achieving one target at a time,” said Mitta in describing the overall strategy for the property. “Right now, we’re at 70% occupancy, compared to roughly 40% when we took over the building. So we still have another 30% to go, so we’re not there yet, and we work on a day-to-day basis based on the leads that we get. We’ve come this far, and we hope to go all the way to the finish line, to 100%.”

Patel concurred, noting that, while nothing has really been easy with this venture — undertaken mostly during the two years of COVID and made much expensive and complicated because of it (more on that later) — there are encouraging signs. Overall, the project has been a learning experience and has emboldened the partners in many ways.

“I think I was pretty brutal when it comes to what needed to change and what types of investments needed to be made in the building. I sent it to them kind of thinking, ‘they’re going to look at this and probably say, ‘forget this guy — there’s no way we’re doing all this.”

“This project has given us a lot of confidence,” he said. “If there’s a space, and the structure is good, like we have here, we know we can create something in our mind and move forward.”

Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief Development officer, lauded the work at Tower Square, saying that, in many respects, the partners’ efforts mirror the original mission of the property and take it a new and higher level at a different point in the city’s history.

“This is a critically important project for Springfield,” he said. “The whole impetus behind the building itself was to enliven the commercial business district of the downtown, and to enliven it by bringing businesses to the heart of the city, workers to the heart of the city, visitors, and supportive retail, and clearly the building has done that.

“When you look back at how this was conceived in the 1960s as part of a large urban-renewal effort, the contemplation of this building really started with a small group of civic and downtown business leaders, and ultimately it was advanced by MassMutual,” Sheehan continued. “So I guess you could say Tower Square continues to attract entrepreneurial investors to the property. And while the vision that those initial investors had was clearly bold, Dinesh and Vid’s vision to reposition the property is as bold, if not bolder.”

 

Background — Check

A quick look at the partners’ résumés and portfolios of business interests reveals why the phrase ‘serial entrepreneur’ applies to both.

A pharmacist by trade, Patel has become a prolific business owner and developer. His portfolio now includes several 99 Restaurant & Pub locations, including one in Greenfield; a Walgreens in Worcester; a CVS in Bridgewater, Conn.; three McDonald’s franchises, including one in Holyoke; several Hampden Inn & Suites locations across New England; a few adult day-care facilities; and even a self-storage operation.

As for Mitta, he started as a software programmer and has, over the past three decades or so, put together a broad and diverse portfolio of business interests known collectively as Mitta’s Group. Like Patel, he has properties in the hospitality realm, including several hotels within the Marriott, Hyatt, Choice, and Wyndham franchises, but also owns several early-education facilities operating under the name the Learning Experience, as well as Synergic Solutions, which provides information-technology solutions to businesses around the globe.

The new façade on the hotel at Tower Square

The new façade on the hotel at Tower Square is symbolic of the changes that have taken place at the property.

And they continue to invest in new ventures, including development of a 14-acre parcel in Windsor, Conn. into a mixed-use complex that will include a hotel, apartments, a gas station, a car wash, and other components. Work on the project, to be called Windsor Crossing, is set to commence next spring.

The top line on each résumé now, though, is Tower Square, and how these two came together to purchase the 50-year-old landmark is an intriguing story, which they summed up as a calculated risk well worth taking.

The two certainly knew each other well — as noted, they both had ownership stakes in the Thunderbirds, and Patel had sold some properties to Mitta — but they had never launched a joint venture together … until Tower Square came on the market in late 2017.

“Most people who own buildings always think they know more than the broker; it’s rare for them to listen.”

“When I came across this particular listing from MassMutual, I approached Dinesh and asked him what his thoughts were,” Mitta said. “He said that if I was interested, he was willing to partner, and that got the ball rolling.”

Patel recalls them having a lengthy discussion concerning the property — which came in two parts, the hotel and the retail/office complex adjoining it — on opening night of the Thunderbirds’ 2017-18 season, which came only a day before the deadline for submitting bids for the Tower Square property.

cover of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur issue

This is actually the second time Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel have been on the cover of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur issue. They’re part of the ownership and management group of the Springfield Thunderbirds that took home the honor in 2017.

“Between 4 and 5 o’clock, I was in Northampton on a bike ride, and I thought to myself, ‘I want to pull the trigger on this,’” he went on, adding that a bid was submitted mere minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline.

Bidding on Tower Square was certainly not a slam-dunk proposition at the time; in fact, it was far from it. While the building, which changed the downtown Springfield skyline in dramatic fashion when it opened in the late ’60s, had some core tenants in its retail space — UMass Amherst, Cambridge College, and a CVS, among others — and several more in its office tower, the complex had certainly seen better days.

MassMutual was soon to be vacating several floors in the office tower, many spaces in the retail portion of the building were vacant or underutilized, and the hotel on the property had lost the Marriott flag that had flown over it for decades and was now known as the Tower Square Hotel.

But while others were looking at a glass half-empty — or far worse — the two partners saw potential, and something else as well: an important property in a city that they had invested in and become part of.

“My wife and I were having lunch together and started talking about Tower Square,” Patel recalled. “She described it as an ‘iconic building’ in Springfield and a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ She said, ‘we need to figure out how to get this building.’”

Mitta recalls having similar thoughts, and noted that, while their initial interest was focused on the hotel, which they successfully bid on first, they eventually pursued the rest of the property as well, paying $17.5 million for both halves of the operation.

And they did so understanding that there would be much larger investments to come.

“We knew what we were getting into,” said Mitta, acknowledging that this comment covers considerable ground, meaning acknowledgement that large amounts of work needed to be done not only to get the Marriott flag back on the hotel, but to renovate the parking garage; repair and upgrade aging equipment, including the elevators; and undertake other improvements to bring new tenants, and new vibrancy, to the property.

 

Building Momentum

Elaborating, the two partners said they entered this joint venture with a plan of sorts, one that would take shape over the coming months and years.

That plan called for focusing less on traditional retail and more on creating something approaching a community, with pieces that would complement one another, said Patel, adding that, even before he and Mitta had finalized their commitment to bid on the property, he was talking with Dexter Johnson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield, about moving parts of that operation, specifically the fitness center and childcare facilities, to Tower Square.

“This project has given us a lot of confidence. If there’s a space, and the structure is good, like we have here, we know we can create something in our mind and move forward.”

Those operations would eventually become part of a larger plan that called for attracting businesses that would bring convenience, as well as needed products and services, to those working in the tower, but also the students attending classes there and those living in and around downtown, said the partners, adding that other components have come to include White Lion Brewing Co., a spa (SkinCatering), and even the wine exchange that recently opened in the space next to the Hot Table restaurant.

“We never thought that this would come back as a retail building,” Mitta said. “But when we purchased the property, we knew that MassMutual had already put UMass and Cambridge College into the retail mall, and that gave us a good start toward bringing more semi-retail businesses into the mall, so it would be a win-win situation for all of us.”

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

2020: Golden Years Homecare Services
2019: Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc.
2018: Antonacci Family, owners of USA Hauling, GreatHorse, and Sonny’s Place
2017: Owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds
2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

Patel concurred, noting how he and Mitta have seen the ‘education hub’ concept work in Worcester, and they believe it can work in Springfield as well.

In the office tower, said Panteleakis, the goal has been to take advantage of the attractive class-A space, including the floors vacated by MassMutual, as well as other amenities, such as on-site parking, those aforementioned service businesses, and a safer, more vibrant downtown to bring some of the businesses that had left Springfield back to its central business district while also bringing some new names to that area.

And that has happened with the addition of Wellfleet, which now has its name and logo on the building, as well as Farm Credit Financial Partners, the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office, Country Bank, several state offices, and many other new tenants.

“We’ve replaced 150,000 square feet vacated by MassMutual with 140,000 square feet of new tenants,” Panteleakis said, adding that there is one more full floor to fill and several “smaller pockets” that remain vacant.

The partners said that, while there is certainly a plan in place, the simple objective moving forward is to continue adding complementary pieces and creating a destination — something Tower Square was decades ago but hasn’t been for some time.

“If you look at the building today, it efficiently serves the needs of modern office tenants, and that’s been though significant upgrades to that space,” Sheehan said. “The investment of more than $20 million in completely refurbishing the hotel and restoring the Marriott flag will attract new and more visitors to downtown and enhance the city’s attractiveness as a meeting and convention destination. Additionally, they’ve created a sense of excitement — I don’t think you can use any other word — about what the building’s public space could actually be.”

While progress has been made on many different levels at the Tower Square property, the pandemic has certainly slowed its pace, due to everything from the soaring cost of materials to labor shortages, said the partners, adding that it has also made improvements and enhancements more expensive — and far more expensive, in many cases.

That’s especially true with the ongoing work at the hotel, where supply-chain issues have made it difficult to obtain needed materials in a timely fashion. Overall, the project, with a price tag that has risen past $30 million, is well behind the original schedule, which had the hotel reopening last year, but the partners are confident that the facility will be welcoming guests by the end of the second quarter of this year.

“COVID has hurt us because the cost of construction has shot up, and the cost of raw materials has shot up as well,” Mitta said. “Every time we import things from China or some other country, the container fees alone are almost four to five times what they used to be two or three years back. We don’t want to stop, so we had to pay these higher prices and keep going.”

As just one example, Patel noted that steel prices have risen 48% this year, an increase that could not have been foreseen when they bought the property.

“Increases of 10% or so, you anticipate that; you can factor that in,” he noted. “But 48% to 50%, you can’t plan for that. It’s all about supply and demand.”

Despite the skyrocketing cost of the project, the partners remain optimistic about the hotel and its prospects for the future. They said COVID will eventually relent, and when it does, people — if not businesses — will be ready and willing to travel again.

“People are coming back,” Mitta said. “They’re traveling, they’re using hotels, and the travel industry is coming back — especially when it’s not related to business travel.”

COVID has also brought a halt to any plans to develop the parcel across Main Street from Tower Square, known to many as the ‘Steiger’s lot’ because that’s where the department store once stood.

The rooftop area at Tower Square

The rooftop area at Tower Square is one of many that have a new look.

Original plans called for building a Hyatt on that property, but the pandemic and its deep impact on travel of all kinds put that initiative on ice, said Patel, adding that their plans will be revisited once the Marriott opens.

Meanwhile, they’re advancing plans for Windsor Crossing and continually looking for new entrepreneurial opportunities. That thirst for new opportunities brought them to Tower Square in the first place, and it has seen them through this challenging but ultimately fulfilling time.

“It’s been exciting,” Mitta said. “Every day is a new adventure.”

 

Landmark Decision

Flashing back to when the partners acquired the Tower Square property, Mitta noted that they had both a plan as well as a backup plan, one that called for converting the office tower into residential space if the office market didn’t develop as anticipated.

That backup plan wasn’t needed, obviously, although there have been some struggles, and COVID certainly has brought many unanticipated challenges.

Instead, the partners are moving forward, as Mitta noted, achieving one target at a time. The larger goal is not to turn back the clock and make Tower Square exactly what it was decades ago, but turn it back to the extent that the landmark is a destination and center of vibrancy.

There is still work to do, but if Mitta and Patel have proven anything, it’s that they are persistent and determined to make the plan they put on the drawing board more than four years ago a reality.

They’ve also shown that they’re quite worthy of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur honor.

 

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

Cover Story Economic Outlook

COVID Complicates Generally Optimistic Projections

A year ago, business and economic development leaders were looking beyond a surge in COVID to what they were seeing as better times — when the pandemic would be a thing of the past, the economy would rebound, and ‘normal,’ as in the life we experienced before March of 2020, would return. Most of that, especially the parts about COVID being over and returning to normal, didn’t happen. And that explains why, a year later, amidst another strong surge in COVID cases, there is quite a bit of optimism about the year ahead, but also some hedging of bets. This past year showed that we just can’t predict what will happen with this pandemic or with many of its side effects, everything from an unprecedented workforce shortage to inflation and supply chain woes, to a still white-hot housing market. In the stories that begin on page 16, area business leaders look ahead and project a year in which most all of the stern challenges from 2021, and especially the pandemic, will linger. But they also see a new and perhaps better chance to more effectively move on from COVID.

The Economy >>

Optimism Abounds, but Many Factors Make It Difficult to Project


The Region >>

There Were Glimpses of Progress in 2021, and More Are Expected


Small Business >>

Many Are Busy, But Challenges Linger as the New Year Dawns



Higher Education >>

Region’s Colleges, Universities Face More Stern Tests in 2022


Healthcare >>

The Prognosis Is for Another Year of Stern Challenges in 2022


Tourism >>

Sector Is on the Rebound, but Hospitality Still Faces Staffing Issues


Cover Story

Standing Out in His Field

Myke Connolly is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing.

Myke Connolly is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing.

Myke Connolly, known to some as Mr. Stinky Cakes, is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing. His latest venture is a business that brings that message to light, figuratively but also quite literally. Stand Out Truck has now attracted clients ranging from parents of high-school graduates to the local shop to President Biden — or at least one of his marketing teams. The goal is to make this a national brand, and he’s well down that road.

Myke Connolly says the e-mail found its way into his inbox around 2 that Monday afternoon.

The firm handling some marketing and promotion work for the Biden administration wanted to know if Connolly and his team at Stand Out Truck could have one of his vehicles — pickup trucks outfitted to carry digital wording and imaging — in New Hampshire the next day to present a message promoting the president’s Build Back Better plan of action.

The quick answer, as it almost always is with such inquiries, was ‘yes.’

By early that evening, the message “Better Roads. Better Bridges. Better Jobs. — Brought to you by Joe Biden” — complete with a picture of the 46th president — had been readied, and before dawn the next morning, a crew was on its way to the Granite State.

“We spent some time in Manchester, then we went to Woodstock, where the president spoke in front of that bridge, and then we went back to Manchester, and then back to Springfield — it was an eight-hour campaign,” he noted, adding that, other than the name on the account, this was much like most of his gigs to date.

The assignment from the Biden camp gives Connolly and Stand Out Truck (SOT) a new and impressive top line for its growing list of clients, and a new example of how quickly the company can respond to client needs and present a message to an intended audience.

And since this serial entrepreneur known to some as ‘Mr. Stinky Cakes’ launched this venture just as the pandemic was arriving in this region (more on that later), there have been all kinds of messages — and all kinds of audiences.

In that first category, there’s been everything from birthday wishes and congratulations to a high-school or college graduate to last-minute messages from political candidates; from invites to a pitch contest to welcome messages from a bank with a new branch in the neighborhood. The audiences, meanwhile, have ranged from families to groups attending a VFW-sponsored car show to cities and counties, as in New Hampshire.

Stand Out Truck landed a high-profile assignment helping President Biden promote his Build Back Better plan.

Stand Out Truck landed a high-profile assignment helping President Biden promote his Build Back Better plan.

And while the concept is gathering speed, as well as clients, Connolly believes he’s just getting started. Indeed, while he has one eye on the present and his two trucks on the road, his other is on the future and prospects for taking the business to the regional and even national levels, with perhaps licensing options (there’s already one of those in place) and franchising.

“The goal is to build a national brand — eventually, I want to take my company public,” he said, adding that he’s building for the long term and striving for steady growth.

Meanwhile, Connolly, 39, lives by what he encourages his clients to do — aggressively marketing his business. He said the Biden camp found him not by accident, but because he’s visible and always promoting what he does. And he advises businesses — and those politicians — to do the same; indeed, Stand Out Truck is an offshoot, or expansion, of a marketing business he started called Launch and Stand Out Agency. That’s the same title he put on a book he wrote in 2013.

“We make ourselves so visible and so accessible, we have some high-profile people that reach out to us all the time,” he explained, he said, adding that his business model is all about getting a message across — figuratively, but, in the case of his trucks, also quite literally.

“The goal is to build a national brand — eventually, I want to take my company public.”

And this new venture is the culmination of three decades (yes, he started when he was in grammar school) of being in business and marketing himself and his products and services.

“I always tell people … it’s not the truck,” he said. “It’s everything behind it; that’s why it works.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Connolly about his latest venture, a lifetime (almost) of entrepreneurship, and how, in his words, he’s marketing “in slow motion.”

 

Seeing His Name in Lights

Connolly’s relatively new mailing address is a small suite in the Venture X complex — a co-working space — in Holyoke. Along one wall of that space is a collection of more than 100 photos of his Stand Out Trucks in action.

The wall is almost entirely full, and these framed images speak to just how far this venture has come in almost two years. And as he talked, Connolly kept gesturing … to the Biden assignment. To his message to an employee enjoying a birthday — “his phone was ringing all day because people were seeing the truck.” To at least a half-dozen political candidates and their messages. To several corporate clients with various messages. To high-school graduates … the list goes on.

One wall of Myke Connolly’s space at Venture X

One wall of Myke Connolly’s space at Venture X is covered by photos of his Stand Out Trucks in action.

The road to filling that wall has been a long one, with a number of twists and turns.

As noted earlier, Connolly is a serial entrepreneur. He’s been in business and marketing, and also studying business and marketing, to some extent since he was 9.

Connolly grew up in the Bahamas and spent a lot of his time with his stepfather, who owned a pest-control business. He remembers a lot about those days, but especially what he saw on the coffee tables and TVs of clients, especially the wealthy ones. The coffee tables boasted business magazines, and the TVs had shows with the stock-market crawler at the bottom.

“I would go home and watch the TV show with the ticker,” he recalled. “I understood nothing, but I knew enough to know that all these successful people were doing the same thing — and watching that ticker — so there had to be something to that.”

While watching, he did a lot of reading and learned about successful entrepreneurs like Yankee Candle founder Mike Kittredge, Vermont Teddy Bear founder John Sortino, and many others — stories he said he could understand as a young person and draw inspiration from.

When, in 2008, he started his first business, Stinky Cakes, which offered practical gifts to new parents such as cakes shaped from diapers (hence the name), he would call on Kittredge, Sortino, and some of the others to talk about marketing, brand building, and much more.

“In month two, they started canceling graduations. So I said, ‘forget about selling ad space to businesses … I’m just going to go celebrate all these kids that I know.’ I turned it into a graduation truck.”

“These guys were in my phone; when I had questions, I would call them,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s why I encourage kids today to read and to learn about entrepreneurs, and to reach out to them; truly successful people always want to find a way to help.”

As for marketing, Connolly says he’s been doing that since he was 9, when he would take some of the candy his grandmother would bring back from trips to Florida and sell it to classmates in school.

“I had flavors, like Jolly Ranchers, that the school store didn’t have,” he explained. “I didn’t know it was marketing at the time, but I started giving the candy to kids in my class. That’s how simple marketing is — showing people that would buy what you have that you have what they want.”

As a result of his success in business and marketing, Connolly was asked to do some teaching, guest lecturing, and mentoring of young entrepreneurs by groups like Valley Venture Mentors and EforAll Holyoke.

He focuses heavily on building credit, creating solid cash flow, and sound money management. “If you don’t know how to manage your money, none of this will ever work,” he said. “I say, ‘you can be making $1 million a year, but it you’re spending $1.5 million … then you’re in big trouble.’”

One course he’s taught is called the “100 Grand Plan,” which, as that name suggests, advises those taking it on how to make their first $100,000. Among the keys to doing so, and one that is often overlooked, is marketing.

“In order to make money, you have to understand marketing, but no matter how much we laid it out and taught them, some of them just didn’t get it,” he told BusinessWest. “So some of them started asking me to do their marketing for them.”

This led to the creation of the Launch and Stand Out agency, he went on, adding that one of his clients wanted to feature children on billboards across the country and hired him to do some of the buying of space on those boards.

This experience prompted him to want become part of what’s known as the ‘out-of-home’ advertising business, and, specifically, digital billboards — in this case, ones that move.

“I had a group of really intelligent engineers put together the truck … and we just started,” he said, joking that he could have bought two Ferraris for what he spent on the trucks and the related equipment.

 

The Road to Success

A big component of any business venture is timing, said Connolly, adding that, with Stand Out Truck, his was awful. For the most part, anyway.

He launched on March 9, 2020, a carefully chosen date that coincides with the death (in 1997) of rapper Biggie Smalls. Unfortunately, it also coincided with the arrival of COVID-19. Indeed, just as he was putting his trucks on the road, the state and most all businesses were shutting down, and people across the region were hunkering down.

Myke Connolly’s clients run the gamut

Myke Connolly’s clients run the gamut from local organizations to national brands.

It was a tough time to start, but Connelly, again practicing what he preaches — in lectures to college students, advice to young entrepreneurs, and also in the book he wrote called Launch and Stand Out — made sure he started out with enough capital to withstand what he expected would be a few soft months of getting his name and product out and building up the business.

Business turned out to even softer than he anticipated. But he was helped by some of those connections he made teaching and lecturing in area colleges.

“In month two, they started canceling graduations,” he recalled. “So I said, ‘forget about selling ad space to businesses … I’m just going to go celebrate all these kids that I know.’ I turned it into a graduation truck.”

Elaborating, he said he essentially covered half the cost of hiring one of his trucks to celebrate a graduate himself, charging the rest to families looking for a unique way to honor a son or daughter not able to walk across a stage to pick up a diploma.

“I made it super affordable,” he recalled. “Kids were being celebrated on the truck for $75, and that included photography, editing the photos, everything; we gave them something really special. We probably did more than 500 of those.”

Since that adventurous start, the company has been steadily building its client base, which now includes everything from the local pizza shop to national brands (Texas Roadhouse, for example) to the president, and the goal is the same with all of them — to help get the message out, but in a unique and somewhat powerful way.

The concept caught the attention of PeoplesBank, which first used one of Connolly’s trucks to drive applications to the EforAll Holyoke class last spring. The bank used the company for its own business for the opening of a branch in West Hartford, hiring SOT to generate awareness around the banking-center location prior to its official opening, and also to appear at the grand-opening party and a nearby ‘build day’ undertaken in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity in Hartford.

“Mychal is a ‘hustler’ in the very best sense of the word,” said Matt Bannister, senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility for the bank. “He has endless energy and enthusiasm, tremendous work ethic, and a strong focus on getting results for his customers. The SOT allows us to bring our message to places it might not ordinarily reach, and the quality of the images on the truck is a good representation of the brand.”

Moving forward, Connolly, who now boasts a team of 10, including designers, drivers, and those managing the equipment, wants to earn more testimonials like that. With them, he believes his goal of taking the company national — and eventually going public — are perhaps within reach.

“Some people think we’re a guy with a truck. We’re not — we’re a startup, and we’re looking to build the right way,” he said, adding that, while there are digital billboards in virtually every market, his concept is relatively unique. Meanwhile, he brings strong marketing experience to the table that can help clients create a strategy, not merely a message on wheels.

“I’m not just a guy with a truck — I’ve been doing marketing since I was 9 years old,” he went on. “I love marketing, and I respect the craft of marketing, and I love giving that to my clients. It’s not just about putting a picture on a truck and driving around.”

 

To a Higher Gear

In addition to all those framed pictures of his trucks in action, Connolly’s office also sports a small sign that serves to inform and inspire both his students and himself.

It features numbers breaking down what $1 million a year in revenue equates to, as in … $83,333 a month, $19,230 a week, and $2,739 a day. There’s then a poignant tagline: ‘Dreams Don’t Work Unless You Do.’

Connolly has lived by that credo all his life, and Stand Out Truck is the latest example. He doesn’t know where he can go with this concept, but he’s allowing himself to think, and dream, big.

That’s the message he drives home to his students and mentees, and now … well, he’s driving home all kinds of messages. And, in doing so, writing another stirring chapter in the book that is his life.

 

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

Cover Story

Changing Course

Susan Beaudry, founder of Beau Co. Wine

Susan Beaudry, founder of Beau Co. Wine

Among the many side effects of COVID and the so-called Great Resignation that has accompanied it has been a recognized surge in entrepreneurial activity. It has manifested itself in many ways, from soaring registration for the “Basics of Starting a Business” course at the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center to the absorption of many vacant storefronts, to area chambers filling their calendars with ribbon cuttings. Each story is different, but there are some common threads, including a desire to use the time and inclination provided by the pandemic to realize what’s important. And in many cases, it’s starting that business that one has always dreamed about.

 

Susan Beaudry says there’s a story behind every wine label she distributes.

That’s certainly the case with one called Sophie, a product of South Africa.

“The locals … their accents couldn’t pronounce sauvignon blanc,” she explained. “And it kept coming out ‘Sophie,’ so they named the wine Sophie. The wife of the husband-and-wife team that own it created this beautiful young woman that’s on the label — Sophie. The tagline is ‘the most beautiful woman that never was.’”

It is these stories — and, again, she has dozens of them — that go a long way toward explaining Beaudry’s fascination for wine, and her dream of creating a business that brings labels like Sophie to the 413.

It’s a dream she’s had for some time now, and one that became real because of COVID-19 — at least in some respects.

Beaudry, as many readers may know, was the executive director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, which was essentially shut down by COVID in early 2020, and there are now questions about when and if it will return to the place in regional culture it occupied before COVID arrived.

But that’s another story.

This one is about how Beaudry found the time — and the inclination — during COVID to move ahead and make that dream, called Beau Co. Wine, reality.

“Toward the end of 2020, we started seeing many people who were either laid off or who had left their jobs, for whatever reason, who wanted to start their own businesses.”

The wines she imports can be found, among other places, at the Springfield Wine Exchange, a new storefront in Tower Square owned by Carlo Bonavita, who is part of this movement, if we can call it that, as well. He decided a few years ago to go back into business — the liquor-selling business — for himself and found some additional motivation during the pandemic (more on that later).

Beaudry and Bonavita are far from the only ones to use this crack in time to pause, re-evaluate, and perhaps fulfill an entrepreneurial urge, said Samalid Hogan, executive director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Western Mass. office. But not for much longer, which we’ll get to in a minute.

She told BusinessWest that, as a result of a number of colliding factors — from people losing their jobs to individuals losing interest in what they were doing, to remote workers not at all excited about orders to return to the office — there has been a surge in entrepreneurial energy.

“Toward the end of 2020, we started seeing many people who were either laid off or who had left their jobs, for whatever reason, who wanted to start their own businesses,” she explained. “And in 2021, we’re seeing a huge surge in people calling the office looking for help in starting a business. There were so many that we had to create another ‘Basics of Starting a Business’ class; we usually offer one a month, but we had to double up and increase the number of registrations from 30 people to 40 people.”

And now, she is part of this story, although she certainly doesn’t need the “Basics” course.

Indeed, she will be stepping down from her role with the MSBDC later this month to start her own consulting business.

Samalid Hogan

Samalid Hogan says many people reached a crossroads during the pandemic and chose the road to business ownership — and she’s one of them.

She said that, like others during this time of COVID, she did a lot of thinking about what was important and what she wanted to do with her life. And she decided that now was the time to put her own name in the door.

Actually, that name will be Greylock Management Consulting, a nod to the highest mountain in the state, a venture that will be focused on both existing businesses and the agencies providing services to startups, especially minority-owned ventures.

Hogan said she is launching this venture with both eyes open, and full acknowledgement of the fact that consulting is often a challenging way to earn a living and a significant departure from a steady job with a steady paycheck. But it’s a gamble she’s ready to take.

Actually, she’s taking two gambles. In addition to her own business, she has become chief operating officer for the Latino Marketing Agency, launched by Veronica Garcia, who also fits the profile of someone who found time and inspiration during the pandemic to move ahead with an entrepreneurial venture.

A television producer, soap-opera actress, and influencer in the Latino community, she worked for many years at New England Public Media, where she was the host of a popular and award-winning bilingual series named Presencia. In April of this year, when NEPM announced it could no longer produce the show, she left the station to start to Viviendo Sin Limites (Living Without Limits), with the goal of having it become the go-to resource for mental health and emotional well-being for the Spanish-speaking population. She also started the Latino Marketing Agency, in conjunction with Hogan, to help Hispanic-owned businesses with that critical aspect of their operations.

“I now have the privilege to know many entrepreneurs in this region, and I’ve found that marketing is one of the areas where they need assistance, especially Latino businesses,” she said, adding that, like Hogan, she is confident that her change of course career-wise, from steady paycheck to the uncertainty of being a business owner, is the right course.

 

Proof Positive

As noted, Bonavita is no stranger to wines and the liquor business. Indeed, his family owned and operated several liquor stores in the area, including Riverside Liquors in Agawam, and he worked at them for a number of years.

When he left in 2002, he signed a non-compete agreement that was 15 years in duration. It wasn’t long before he started counting the years down, and after a decade or so of working in property management, specifically condominium projects, he was quite ready to go back to working for himself.

COVID only served to accelerate the process further.

Veronica Garcia has launched two new ventures

Veronica Garcia has launched two new ventures, Latino Marketing Agency and a platform called Viviendo Sin Limites — Living Without Limits.

“When COVID hit, it changed the way we did business a zillion percent,” he explained. “It meant more hours, more everything, and at the age I was getting to, I was getting burned out and tired of this. I knew it was time to do what I wanted to do.”

And that was to open another business of his own, one he calls the Wine Exchange. He has a wide variety of labels with price tags from $7.99 to $115, and features a variety of gift baskets as well. He opened in October, good timing considering the approaching holidays, and said he’s off to a good start thanks to those who are returning to the office tower in his building and the others in the downtown area.

As for his decision to strike out on his own?

“I absolutely love it — I really do,” he said. “I’m not a guy who could retire completely, and I couldn’t sit at home. So this is perfect; it’s where I want to be at this point in my life.”

Beaudry, who provides most of the labels on his shelves and in his racks, said essentially the same thing, but her story — her dream of becoming a wine wholesaler, importer, distributor, and ‘enthusiast’ — is much different and took a lot longer to become reality.

“I was getting burned out and tired of this. I knew it was time to do what I wanted to do.”

She said her love of wine developed over time and especially when she was traveling extensively for her former employer, Simplex. Her travels would take her to its various branch offices around this country and other countries, and would inevitably involve visits to local attractions — and restaurants, preferably the ‘hole in the wall’ she asked to be taken to.

The good food she encountered was almost always accompanied by good wine as well. She would attempt to replicate what she encountered, food and beverage-wise, at dinner parties that would grow in size over time, with many of the attendees encouraging her to start her own restaurant or other related business.

She said she long desired to venture into wine importing and distributing, but life and family responsibilities made it difficult to leave a steady paycheck and take that leap.

“I think COVID presented the opportunity, with the symphony not performing and all the employees furloughed,” she explained. “Meanwhile, my daughter had just completed her first year of college, so the stars were aligned for me; I went ahead and got started.”

There are many stories like these being written in the region at this unprecedented time, when many have been sidelined by COVID and others have taken stock of their lives and decided they wanted — and needed — something different. The so-called Great Resignation (Bonavita and others we spoke to could be considered part of that) has prompted some to leave for other jobs, but others to absorb some risk and go into business for themselves, Hogan said.

The phenomenon has manifested itself in many ways, from new beer labels to the absorption of vacant storefronts, to area chambers of commerce giving their giant ceremonial scissors a workout with seemingly non-stop ribbon cuttings.

And also those soaring registration numbers for the MSBDC’s “Basics of Starting a Business” class, which is now offered online because of the pandemic, said Hogan, adding that she has seen a very diverse group of individuals gravitate to that offering.

By that she meant both older and younger men and women, those representing many ethnic groups, and people with varied backgrounds, from professionals to retirees, to some not far removed from the college classroom.

The class, as might be gleaned from its title, focuses on the basics — writing a business plan, legal considerations, licensing, insurance, business entities, and much more.

Many of the labels Susan Beaudry now distributes can be found at the Springfield Wine Exchange, founded by Carlo Bonavita, left.

“We don’t give advice during the class,” she stressed. “The goal is to give information to the attendees so they understand all that is involved with starting a business from an administrative, practical point of view; we don’t get into business models, and we don’t get into whether you have a good idea or not.”

Many who sign up for that class will eventually reach out for one-on-one advisory services from the agency, she said, adding that there has been a decided uptick in the number of people seeking such services.

 

Grape Expectations

As for her own venture, Greylock Consulting, Hogan is confident she has a good idea, one born from a desire help more small-business owners, especially minority-owned businesses. Her plan is to consult for individual businesses and also the various groups assisting such businesses and help streamline and improve the programs they provide.

She said she has several clients in the pipeline and is confident she can succeed in the challenging world of consulting.

“I’ve done consulting before,” she said. “You have to have a good, healthy pipeline of clients, there’s a lot of proposal writing involved, a lot of meetings prior to revenue-generating activities that you have to be willing to do and invest your time in. It’s a different world, but I like it.”

It’s a different world for Beaudry, as well, but one that she long desired to be in.

That said, she acknowledged that starting her importing and distribution company required more than time and inclination. It also requires capital, and a lot of contacts.

“It took a lot of tenacity — finding a warehouse, securing the insurances, the licenses, and everything else you need,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s really just been about working my contacts, people I know who tell me, ‘this is where we buy our great wines; the person who owns it is this … go introduce yourself.’ It’s been typical sales-call daily activity: going out, shaking hands, letting people know who I’m representing and some of the wines that I have available.

“It’s also very new — it’s just starting to gain momentum now,” she went on, adding that there have been distribution issues to contend with and other challenges, but, overall, she is making steady progress.

The next step is to create her own import activities, Beaudry said, adding that she will soon be traveling to Europe to meet with some small, boutique vineyard owners and winemakers, with the goal of importing some labels on her own.

She has a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Westfield, one she hopes — and expects — to outgrow in only a year or two, and plans to distribute the wines she brings there to restaurants, country clubs, liquor stores, concert arenas, “anywhere you can buy a glass of wine.”

At present, she carries 58 different SKUs, and she’s connected with another distributor who will give her another 100, all them small, boutique winemakers that have a story.

“These are small businesses, family-owned, multiple generations for many of them,” she said. “I want to stick with these family-owned small options that have a lot of historic value — and they have interesting stories; the further back the history of the vineyard goes, the more interesting the story is, and a lot of people who love wines also love the stories.”

As for Garcia’s story, it’s another one where the opportunity and inclination were there to propel her to her current status as business owner.

She said she has long understood that, in general, and within the Hispanic community in particular, mental illness is something that isn’t talked about — or really understood. And she has long desired to create a forum where such issues could be discussed and both information and inspirational stories could be presented. So when NEPM announced that it would no longer produce Presencia, she gave her notice and created Viviendo Sin Limites.

Its stated mission is to “motivate, inspire, educate, and inform in a dynamic environment through interviews, blogs, conferences, sharing personal experiences related to our emotions and well-being, and offer tools to have an open, lively, positive, creative, and joyful mind,” and the goal is to be one of the first talk shows in New England for the Latino community through social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

As for the Latino Marketing Agency, it has already signed on a few clients to provide marketing and consulting services, she said, adding that she believes there is enormous potential for such a venture in this market — for both Hispanic-owned businesses and companies looking to market effectively to the region’s growing Hispanic community.

 

Dream Weavers

Summing up what she’s seeing, hearing — and doing herself, Hogan said that, because of the pandemic and issues springing from it, including those leading to all those resignations, many people are finding themselves at a crossroads.

And increasingly, they’re taking the road to entrepreneurship, one that certainly has its share of dangerous curves, speed bumps, hills, and dips. This road is not for the faint of heart, but in this climate, many people are finding they have what it takes to at least start down that road and pursue a long-held dream.

That’s how it is for Beaudry, who spends a good amount of time telling stories like the one about the Sophie label from South Africa and countless others now in her warehouse and on area shelves.

As for her own story, it’s still being written, and like the many others now generating some entrepreneurial energy, she’s finding each chapter to be everything she hoped it would be, and more.

 

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

Cannabis Cover Story

Rolling Along

Matt Yee and Mark Cutting of Enlite in Northampton

Matt Yee and Mark Cutting of Enlite in Northampton

Massachusetts had already legalized medical marijuana when voters were faced with another question in late 2016: whether to legalize cannabis for recreational use. The vote wasn’t close, sailing through on talk of jobs, tax revenue, and, well, people wanting to light up legally. Reality doesn’t always live up to promise, but in this case, it has. Yes, the industry is still facing growing pains, particularly when it comes to creating a level playing field for entrepreneurs. But when it comes to this new industry’s impact on jobs, real-estate investment, municipal tax revenue, and more, these are truly high times.

 

David Narkewicz wasn’t just a supporter of cannabis coming to Northampton. He was the first customer.

That was three years ago, when NETA opened on Conz Street and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis. Today, with cannabis businesses proliferating in the city and across Massachusetts, the outgoing mayor believes his initial enthusiasm was justified.

“We saw the experience of other states, and a lot of the Massachusetts law, when they were trying to put together the regulatory framework, was based on looking at laws in other states,” Narkewicz said. “First and foremost, I supported legalization just as a public-policy meaure, but I also saw an opportunity for investment in the community.”

Elaborating, he said the city is known as a destination with a vibrant retail sector, arts and culture establishments, and plenty of restaurants and bars. “So my sense, and my hope, was that this would be a new investment in the community and a new source of jobs and revenue, and another reason to come to Northampton. I think we took a pretty forward-looking approach to this.”

Today, Northampton is home to eight retail dispensaries for adult-use cannabis, seven manufacturers, four cultivation facilities, and a testing lab. Those numbers grow seemingly by the month.

Meanwhile, three years of excise taxes on adult-use cannabis have brought in more than $4.3 million. “That helps us continue funding schools, police, fire, DPW, all the services we provide as a city.”

Mark Cutting and Matt Yee certainly saw potential, not only in the state’s legalization of cannabis, but Northampton’s embrace of it. Just last week, they opened the city’s eighth adult-use dispensary, Enlite, just off the Coolidge Bridge rotary — and they have a long-term vision for it based on the idea that this is a still-evolving industry.

“Our getting into cannabis was really just another attempt on our part to find jobs that people can get into at the entry level, or get a better job. It’s imperative that we find people who are unemployed, underemployed, those with limited education, limited work history, and get them into employment and on a career track.”

“We thought that, with our background in business and the Yee family’s background in restaurants and entertainment, there may be potential beyond even the retail space,” Cutting said. “There may be opportunities to have some type of dining or some type of entertainment along with cannabis partaking at some point in time — though that’s not legal here yet.”

Yee noted that the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts — almost 190 and counting, not just in retail, but in cultivation, manufacturing, and wholesaling — is making it easier for all players to succeed, because of the cross-pollination. It’s why Enlite has adopted the model of many area dispensaries of partnering with boutique makers of cannabis products.

“Early on, it was difficult because [product] availability was so low, you had to be vertically integrated to supply yourself,” he noted. “But Western Mass. has been really kind to small-scale producers, and we’re really happy to showcase them here at this location.”

Cutting added that “a lot of the multi-state operators don’t necessarily like companies like that to sit on their shelves. But we’re basically an open market for some of these producers to share shelf space and advertise their product here locally.”

With each business open, total sales in Massachusetts increase — crossing the $2 billion mark, in fact, earlier this month, a number even proponents might not have expected so soon after voters approved legalizing recreational cannabis in November 2016, four years after giving a similar go-ahead to medical marijuana.

Jeff Hayden

Jeff Hayden says cannabis has created fertile ground for hundreds of new jobs in Holyoke — and an impressive diversity of them.

And those businesses mean jobs, said Jeffrey Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

“We’ve experienced high levels of unemployment during the pandemic; both Springfield and Holyoke unemployment have been ahead of the federal and state average. In both communities, we see a strong need to connect people to the workforce,” Hayden told BusinessWest.

That’s one reason HCC became a lead partner in the creation of the Cannabis Career Center in late 2019. If HCC exists to give people the skills they need to get into jobs, he reasoned, then the potential of cannabis couldn’t be ignored — especially in a city rivaled only, perhaps, by Northampton in its full-on embrace of this new industry.

“Our getting into cannabis was really just another attempt on our part to find jobs that people can get into at the entry level, or get a better job,” he explained. “It’s imperative that we find people who are unemployed, underemployed, those with limited education, limited work history, and get them into employment and on a career track.”

But cannabis is changing Holyoke in other ways, too, notably in its canal district, where long-neglected mill buildings are springing to life with cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, and sales.

David Narkewicz

David Narkewicz

“We put in place zoning regulations that were not onerous; we’re essentially allowing retail cannabis anywhere we allowed retail, and it was generally the same for manufacturing.”

“The private investment in Holyoke as a result of this industry coming to Massachusetts has been extremely significant,” Hayden said. “Cannabis companies are buying properties that have been long underutilized — and it’s not like acquiring a building and leaving it as is; they’re investing significant dollars to improve it and create new jobs in the city, literally hundreds of jobs already. And, obviously, the tax revenue generated for the city is significant. This is a growing industry in Massachusetts.”

That’s true — literally and figuratively. Five years after that critical vote and three years after businesses started opening, cannabis has proven to be a hardy economic driver, one that not only survived the pandemic, but thrived throughout it. And no one really knows what the ceiling may be.

 

Ironing Out the Issues

Not everything has been smooth in what is becoming a hyper-competitive market. Enlite is the state’s first Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) applicant to open its doors, and Yee concedes that the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to MBE and social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results.

“It’s a really big topic in the industry. We’ve had a lot of commissioners change out in the last year or so, and a lot of people in the program saw CCC failing them as far as getting those applicants to the finish line,” Yee explained. “It’s a combination of things: operators with not a lot of resources can be an issue. Obviously you’ve got your multi-state operators with a million dollars allocated to their lawyers and legal teams, so they’re able to have the resources to get them pushed through a little bit faster. Those are big issues.”

Holyoke’s mill district

Holyoke’s mill district has become a promising location for cannabis cultivation for companies like GTI.

But things are changing, he added, with new commissioners “really focusing on those applicants and assisting them, figuring out where the pain points are and getting them to the finish line and open. We’ve been seeing some traction on that.”

The process can be a tricky one (see related story on page 22).

“The biggest issue — because it’s not federally legal — is access to capital,” Cutting said. “It’s a journey getting through the CCC, and if you do make a mistake and don’t dot your I’s and cross your T’s, it gets rejected, and you have to start all over again, and you don’t necessarily go back to the same queue you were in — you may go to the bottom of the pile. And it can be a long, painful process to get back to the top of the pile. And God forbid you make a mistake again.”

It helped, he said, to deal with a city that didn’t limit the number of application approvals. “We sat down with the mayor, and it was the most seamless, easiest process you can ever imagine, versus other cities that either opted out, or there’s a lottery, or they really capped the number of cultivators or retailers they’re allowing.”

In Narkewicz’s eyes, Northampton’s voters approved cannabis — first medical, then recreational — at a much higher percentage than the state average, and the city’s leaders took their cue from that.

“We put in place zoning regulations that were not onerous; we’re essentially allowing retail cannabis anywhere we allowed retail, and it was generally the same for manufacturing,” the mayor said. “And I think we saw a pretty strong response — lots of people wanting to locate here in Northampton.”

He does hear questions from people wondering if the market is too saturated, and has a quick response. “Northampton has 17 liquor stores. I have yet to hear anyone complain that we have too many liquor stores. To me, this is a legal industry, and it’s the free market, which is why I opposed caps on liquor licenses for years, because they hold back economic development in a city like Northampton and only drive up the cost of those licenses and make it harder for entrepreneurs.

“There’s opportunity to get in on the ground floor and also opportunity to grow in these occupations. It’s not like we’ve got 100 people in Holyoke who are cultivators, or 50 people who have strong customer-service experience in retail dispensaries. No one has 10 years of experience in this area. So in Massachusetts, for the job seeker, it’s all about what they bring to the occupation.”

“In an industry like cannabis, which is trying to focus on equity and economic empowerment, particularly for populations that were disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of cannabis and the war on drugs,” he went on, “putting up barriers like that defeats the purpose and works against the goals of this new industry.”

Narkewicz also noted that each new business may be 20 or 25 new local jobs as well.

In Holyoke, cannabis means hundreds of new jobs in a short period of time. And the variety of jobs is appealing to us,” Hayden added, noting that someone with strong customer-service skills could become an effective patient advocate, while someone with an agricultural background could work in cultivation, and someone with a knack for science could work in extraction and infusion.

The appealing thing, he noted, is that companies are looking for workers with broad skills who just need, and want, to be trained in the intricacies of this field and their specific roles.

“There’s opportunity to get in on the ground floor and also opportunity to grow in these occupations,” Hayden said. “It’s not like we’ve got 100 people in Holyoke who are cultivators, or 50 people who have strong customer-service experience in retail dispensaries. No one has 10 years of experience in this area. So in Massachusetts, for the job seeker, it’s all about what they bring to the occupation.”

Kathleen Proper, chief Human Resources officer at Canna Provisions in Holyoke, said as much at a panel discussion that preceded a recent Cannabis Career Fair at HCC, titled “Cultivating an Industry.”

“Our biggest thing is providing outstanding customer service,” she noted. “So if you’ve got experience doing customer service, whether you’ve worked retail, worked in a restaurant, waited tables, tended bar, all of those skills work out really well. Even though cannabis retail is a different animal than other retail … we tend to do really well with people who have waited tables or tended bar.”

 

Word on the Street

Yee isn’t worried about the ninth dispensary that will open in Northampton, or the 10th or 11th. Like Narkewicz, he believes the legal cannabis industry is thriving, with the saturation point well in the distance.

“I always say our biggest competitor is the black market. Many consumers are still shopping on the black market because the pricing is far better,” he said, noting that an eighth-ounce of cannabis may cost $50 in a store and $30 on the street, with no tax.

“A lot of folks who are stuck in their ways, they know the brands they like on that market, they know the cultivators they want to work with … the black market is still very, very strong,” he went on. “As we see more interesting products hit the shelves here at a commercial dispensary and prices begin to drop — and we are seeing a little more of that — we’ll see folks moving over from the black market to the commercial market. So there’s still a massive untapped customer base out there.”

Cutting agreed that, as the legal cannabis industry matures and deepens, the sheer volume of product will lower prices, and that — as well as the aesthetic and educational experience that many cannabis shops tout — will draw more people in.

“Additionally, all the product on our shelves has been tested; you know what’s in the product. On the black market, you don’t have test results and don’t know what metals or pesticides or mold or yeast are in their product. They don’t have to test — they just roll and sell their product from whatever location they’re growing in.

“Here, it’s a safe, friendly environment,” Cutting went on. “You’re not looking over your shoulder buying something off the black market. And I think that market will eventually snuff itself out. Not entirely, but I think, over time, you’ll see it. The question some will ask is, ‘hey, do I want to be safe, or roll with this and take the risk of an untested product?’ I think most people will want to be on the safe side.”

As for public safety, Narkewicz said concerns from cannabis opponents — regarding surging crime and diversion problems — simply haven’t come to pass. And looking back, he’s proud to have been the first customer in the city’s newest growth industry.

“Obviously, in the early going, we had a little traffic crunch and parking crunch, but I don’t know many mayors worried about too many people wanting to visit their city,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a good problem to have.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Health Care

Critical Condition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiros Hatiras

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

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

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

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

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

 

Heightened Competition

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Berman

Adam Berman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Priming the Pump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Women of Impact Women of Impact 2021

Women of Impact Awards Ceremony

Thursday, December 9, 2021 • 5- 8 p.m. • Sheraton Springfield

Tickets $85 per person • Call: (413) 781-8600 or Email [email protected]

Honorees to Be Saluted on Dec. 9

Leader. Inspiration. Pioneer. Mentor.

You will read plenty of words like these over the next eight profiles as BusinessWest introduces its fourth annual cohort of a program called, appropriately enough, Women of Impact.

Appropriate, because these women aren’t only business successes and community leaders; they are, indeed, impactful — in ways that reverberate far beyond their office, their sector, and even this present time.

These are compelling stories about remarkable women, and as you read them, you’ll quickly understand why BusinessWest added Women of Impact to its list of annual recognition programs four years ago. In short, these stories need to be told — or told in a different way than you’ve heard before.

These eight stories detail not only what these women do for a living, but what they’ve done with their lives. Specifically, they’ve become innovators in their fields, leaders within the community, and, most importantly, inspirations to all those around them. Crucially, they’re creating a legacy for other women to build upon.

The stories are all different, but there are many common denominators: these are women and leaders who have vision, passion, drive to excel, and a desire to put their considerable talents to work mentoring and helping others.

 

Individually and especially together, they’re making this a much better place to live, work, raise a family, and run a business.

And they will be celebrated on Dec. 9 at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel. So, after reading their stories, we invite you to come and applaud some truly impactful women. The 2021 honorees are:

• Jessica Collins

Executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts;

Elizabeth Dineen

CEO of the YWCA of Western Massachusetts;

Charlene Elvers

Director of the Center for Service and Leadership at Springfield College;

Karin Jeffers

President and CEO of Clinical and Support Options;

• Elizabeth Keen

Owner of Indian Line Farm;

• Madeline Landrau

Program Engagement manager at MassMutual;

• Shannon Mumblo

Executive director of Christina’s House;

• Tracye Whitfield

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer for the town of West Springfield; and Springfield City Councilor.

Thank You to Our Sponsors!

Presenting Sponsors

Supporting Sponsors

Meet the Judges

Michele Cabral

Michele Cabral is interim executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at Holyoke Community College and director of Training & Workforce Options. She started her career as a CPA for KPMG Peat Marwick, graduated from the Leadership Development Program at CIGNA Insurance Companies, and joined Farm Credit Financial Partners Inc. as CFO and COO. At HCC, Cabral has held positions as an Accounting professor, then dean of the Business and Technology Division, and she currently leads the HCC Women’s Leadership Series.

Dawn Fleury

Dawn Fleury is the first senior vice president of Corporate Risk at Country Bank in Ware. In her current role, she oversees the bank’s comprehensive risk-management programs. Before joining Country Bank, she had a 21-year career with the FDIC as a commissioned senior bank examiner in the Division of Supervision. Fleury serves on the board of Christina’s House in Springfield, which provides transitional housing for women and their children, as well as educational programming as families transition from homelessness to permanent, stable living environments.

Ellen Freyman

Ellen Freyman is a shareholder with Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C. in Springfield. Her practice is concentrated in all aspects of commercial real estate: acquisitions and sales, development, leasing, permitting, environmental, and financing. She has been recognized for her community work and was named to Difference Makers and Women of Impact by BusinessWest, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Excellence in the Law, and the Professional Women’s Chamber Women of the Year. She also earned a Pynchon Award from the Ad Club of Western Massachusetts.

Cover Story Event Galleries Healthcare Heroes Special Coverage

We celebrated our 2021 Healthcare Heroes on Thursday, Oct. 21 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke.

View the 2021 Healthcare Heroes Program Guide HERE

This year’s Healthcare Heroes program was  sponsored by: presenting sponsors Elms College and Baystate Health/Health New England, and partner sponsor Trinity Health Of New England/Mercy Medical Center.

Watch the Thursday, Oct. 21 Healthcare Heroes Event HERE!

Presenting Sponsors

Partner Sponsors

Cover Story

Portrait of the Artist

 

When he was in college and developing his skills as a photographer, Lenny Underwood recalls being told to ‘get a real job.’ He thought he already had one, and eventually built a successful business. A decade or so later, he created another one, Upscale Socks, which is turning heads with its products while also helping to bring attention to everything from breast cancer to mental-health issues. These days, while growing his two ventures, Underwood is also passing on what he’s learned and doing important work to encourage entrepreneurship, especially among young people.

 

MAKING QUICK WORK OF IT.

That was the puzzle Lenny Underwood had to solve when he advanced to the bonus round of an episode of Wheel of Fortune that aired in May 2018 — three years after he first auditioned to be on the popular show.

With the few letters that had been revealed — Underwood doesn’t remember which ones they were (he could choose three consonants and a vowel) — he wasn’t able to come up with the phrase. But he noted that he wasn’t familiar with it and had never used it himself, so he was at a real disadvantage. (He also failed to solve another puzzle — WKRP IN CINCINNATI — claiming he’s too young to recall the late-’70s sitcom.)

But, overall, his appearance — he and a good friend competed together — was a success on many levels. He did win a trip to Guatemala for advancing to the bonus round, along with some press — both before the show and after it — and some fond memories from the experience, which came at a point in his life (the audition part, anyway) when he had much more time and inclination for such escapades.

“We did a lot of things like that — we were interested in adventures,” he told BusinessWest. “Things like skydiving, being audience members for TV shows, meeting celebrities, going to book signings … things that were interesting. We would say, ‘let’s audition for this,’ or ‘maybe The Amazing Race,’ things I could add to the arsenal of things that I enjoy doing.

“I’ve been in business for 17 years, nine full-time, but I guess, for whatever reason, socks are more provocative or sexy or interesting.”

“But that was before Upscale Socks,” he went on, referring to what would be described as his latest entrepreneurial venture. It is, as that name indicates, a sock venture, but one with some distinctive artistic and philanthropic flares to it.

Indeed, since launching his line, he has designed sock patterns that do everything from identifying many of Springfield’s many ‘firsts’ — basketball and the monkey wrench are on that list — to drawing attention to breast cancer and mental-health issues. His latest design — he’s planning a press conference to announce it — is what he calls a ‘Massachusetts sock,’ complete with many symbols of the state, including mountains, cranberries, the mayflower, and art connoting higher education.

There is far less time now for things like Wheel of Fortune as Underwood continues to adjust the business plan for both his sock venture and his photography studio, another artistic enterprise he launched 17 years ago, one that suffered greatly during the pandemic, as all such businesses did, but has bounced back in 2021 as the world returns to normal — in most respects.

Meanwhile, there are other matters competing for hours in the day, he noted, listing a growing number of mentoring initiatives with young entrepreneurs, including many aspiring photographers; involvement with Valley Venture Mentors, EforAll Holyoke (he recently judged a final competition among participants in its latest accelerator cohort), and other agencies working with entrepreneurs; and teaching assignments within the broad spectrum of business and entrepreneurship. He’s also writing a children’s book on entrepreneurship.

He used to get a few requests for such work years ago, but the number grew quickly and profoundly after he got into the sock business.

“I’ve been in business for 17 years, nine full-time, but I guess, for whatever reason, socks are more provocative or sexy or interesting,” he said with a laugh and a shrug of his shoulders, adding that his calendar is getting even busier as photo assignments come back and requests to partner on initiatives involving his socks arrive with greater frequency.

Lenny Underwood, seen here talking with a UMass Amherst student

Lenny Underwood, seen here talking with a UMass Amherst student at a pitch contest he judged, has become a mentor to many aspiring entrepreneurs.

Overall, this is an intriguing success story already — on many levels. Equally intriguing is where all this could go, especially Upscale Socks. At the moment, it is mostly a regional phenomenon, although the socks are sold online and in outlets in other parts of the country. But Underwood is looking to go next level.

“I’m hoping to attend some conventions and trade shows so I can get in more stores throughout other parts of the country,” he said. “I’ve done pretty well organically; a number of stores have reached out to me — they discover me on social media and they reach out because they’re interested — but I know that, if I want to expand into larger markets and places I’ve never heard of, I need to get in more stores and make more connections.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Underwood — about socks, photography, entrepreneurship, mentorship, that full calendar of his, and how it’s all become an adventure unto itself.

 

Dream Weaver

By now, most people know the story; Underwood has told it many, many times.

Upscale Socks is a dream come true. Quite literally.

He said it was probably seven years ago that he had a dream that he started a company making and selling socks. He said he usually doesn’t remember his dreams, and he didn’t recall all of this one. Just the main theme.

“It was really vague,” he recalled. “I just remember being the owner of this business and selling socks; the dream wasn’t to have a store, but just to have them available in stores and online as well. And that was it.”

He ran the concept by the friend who auditioned with him for Wheel of Fortune, and they agreed it was an idea with merit and potential. But there was a lot of learning to do and hurdles to clear.

“Many have a purpose behind them, and others are more artistic or wacky or funky, as some people call them.”

“I knew nothing about retail,” he acknowledged. “I didn’t do anything for maybe a year but toy with the idea and do some light searching on social media. Nothing really materialized.”

Eventually, he connected with Paul Silva, then-director of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), who steered him to SPARK (now EforAll) in Holyoke. Mentors at that agency helped take the concept from the fuzzy dream stage to reality, he told BusinessWest, by compelling him to ask the hard questions, conduct customer discovery, and work to determine if there was a real market for the product.

“They held me accountable to look for manufacturing, so I researched probably 30 around the world,” he recalled. “They gave me more insight on numbers and data to work with; it was very helpful.”

The venture started slowly, but it has taken off. The socks, now seen on the feet of a number of area business and civic leaders, have become a fashion statement — but, as noted earlier, perhaps the real key to success has been that these socks often have a purpose well beyond comfort and fashion.

“Many have a purpose behind them, and others are more artistic or wacky or funky, as some people call them,” he noted, adding that many of his socks are attached to causes.

As an example, Underwood held up a pink sock designed to bring attention to breast cancer and Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October). He’s also working on one focused on AIDS awareness. Another initiative, undertaken in conjunction with the Mental Health Assoc., was the creation of socks designed to bring awareness to mental-health issues during Mental Health Awareness Month in May and help remove the stigmas attached to seeking help for mental illness.

“They’re very purposeful,” he said of his socks, adding that his relationships with area nonprofits and organizations, elected officials, and visitors’ bureaus bring many benefits. They create awareness for his products, but they also put a face — or a sock, to be more precise — on many of the issues of the day.

Lenny Underwood says Upscale Socks now has more than 75 designs, and many of them have a “purpose.”

Lenny Underwood says Upscale Socks now has more than 75 designs, and many of them have a “purpose.”

Overall, he has more than 75 current styles, and the number continues to grow, as with that Massachusetts sock. There are seasonal socks, for Halloween and Christmas, for example, and products for children — with matching styles for their parents.

“I hope to grow that collection in the future,” he told BusinessWest. “When I first started the children’s collection in 2016, I didn’t do as much field work to really discover what children like and dislike, so they’re not as colorful and fun as the adult socks; that’s a line I really want to grow, and I think there’s a lot of potential there.”

At present, he said he’s selling perhaps as many as 15,000 pairs a year through his website, the stores he’s in, and the many partnership efforts he’s made with nonprofits and other agencies.

When asked what that number could be someday, Underwood said the sky’s the limit — “as long as I remain authentic to what I’m offering,” he added, noting that the business plan is being continuously revised, and he’s working to create new partnerships and new avenues for visibility and growth.

 

Getting His Foot in the Door

While his businesses keep him busy — too busy to fly out to California on a moment’s notice to tape an episode of Wheel of Fortune, for example — Underwood says he tries to make time to do the occasional book signing and meet those who have forged successful careers in everything from entertainment to fashion design to literature.

“I still try to break away on a weekday if I can,” he said. “I like art, and I gain inspiration from hearing their stories — their life and how they were able to attain success and grow their business.”

Lenny Underwood, seen here donating 200 pairs of his socks to Square One

Lenny Underwood, seen here donating 200 pairs of his socks to Square One, has long made philanthropy and working with area nonprofits to help advance their causes part of his business plan.

As an example, he mentioned meeting Ruth Carter, the Oscar-winning costume designer who grew up in Springfield. “I gave her a pair of my socks, and we talked about business and designs,” he recalled. “Those are really good networking opportunities — and learning experiences.”

While listening to and learning from others, Underwood is passing on what he’s learned to others as a mentor, teacher, and advisor.

He told BusinessWest he’s been doing much more of this work in recent years, especially within the minority community and with groups like VVM and EforAll. He said it’s been a mission of sorts to not only talk about entrepreneurship and all that comes with choosing that route, but encouraging it as a career option as well.

“It’s a cool experience to share my experience and offer some advice on how to obtain success with whatever they’re looking to do,” he said, adding that, over this past summer, he was one of several invited to teach business to middle- and high-school students in Springfield. He’s also been part of programs at the college level, at Springfield College, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst, and other schools.

He finds it rewarding on many levels to pass on what he knows and to try and inspire others to get started with their own ventures or get over the hump and to the proverbial next level, just as he is doing in many ways.

And then, there’s the children’s book. He’s still finalizing a title, but the work is essentially done.

“It’s about teaching children how to become entrepreneurs at a young age,” he explained. “There will be key words throughout the book and definitions, so when they hear the word ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘branding’ or ‘prototype,’ they’ll be familiar with that language, and they’ll have the confidence, hopefully, to embark on something.”

Imparting such lessons is important, he said, noting that he didn’t have that kind of encouragement when he was younger.

“When I was a child, I tried a lemonade stand and tried to sell things like Blow Pops and water balloons in the summer months, but I didn’t think that was a business, and it wasn’t instilled in me to start a business,” he recalled. “Even in college, when I was doing photography, I was told, ‘get a real job — that’s just something you do for fun; that’s not something you can do as a career.’”

 

Developing Story

If Underwood had solved that puzzle in the bonus round of Wheel of Fortune, he would have won a pair of Mini Coopers. Looking back, he can say with hindsight that he’s not sure what he would have done with them — probably sell them.

It’s a moot point because, as he said at the top, he wasn’t familiar with the phrase in question and certainly couldn’t nail it with the few letters at his disposal.

As for the ongoing puzzle of entrepreneurship that he’s currently trying to solve … it’s equally difficult in some respects, but he has a better handle on the answer. And it has nothing to do with making quick work of anything. Instead, it’s about handling myriad challenges, pivoting when necessary, and, in the case of socks, having designs on success — in every respect. u

 

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

Cover Story

Setting Some New Goals

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2021-22 promotional schedule is filled with favorites

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Safety First

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

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

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

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

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

During the pandemic, the Thunderbirds partnered with local restaurants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 of 38 home games scheduled for Friday or Saturday night

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

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

 

Silver Lining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

A Different Kind of Gig

For roughly two decades, Richard Swift hop scotched the country on a series of interim assignments during which he shared his considerable expertise with several different health plans. As fruitful as this niche has been for Swift, he has traded his ‘interim’ tag for something permanent at Health New England — the role of president and CEO — and at a very unique and challenging time, for him and the company.

Richard Swift says he applied for the position of interim chief financial officer at Health New England with the expectation that this assignment would be like all the other longer-term interim gigs that had dominated his résumé for the previous few decades.

To say that things haven’t turned out as he originally thought would be a huge understatement.

For starters, while he interviewed for the position at Health New England’s offices in Monarch Place in downtown Springfield and had the opportunity to meet many of those in the finance team before starting, once he was awarded the job, he wouldn’t set foot in those offices for close to six months, and only then for short, very infrequent stops.

His arrival coincided almost exactly with that of COVID, which would put him in a working environment unlike anything he was used to.

“I’m told I was the first person they remotely onboarded,” he said, adding that several days before his scheduled start date the company had begun “experimenting” with employees working remotely, experiments that went very well. “They said, ‘I guess we’ll just send you a laptop.’ They sent me a computer, the IT folks hooked me up … the first time I came into the office was in August.”

While that was a huge adjustment for him, there was an even bigger one to come later.

Indeed, he would soon lose the word ‘interim’ from his business card — only he never actually had any in the CFO role, to the best of his recollection — not only from that title, but from the one he would be given roughly a year ago — president and CEO, succeeding Marion McGowan, who would become executive vice president and chief operating officer at Baystate Health, which owns Health New England.

After roughly 20 years of taking on year-long assignments as president of Medwise Partners and flying home every weekend from wherever he was stationed to his home in Arizona, he was planting roots; he even bought one of the Classical High Condominiums. When asked why, and why at Health New England, he said, “this was the right opportunity at the right place at the right time.”

It’s certainly been a whirlwind 18 months for Swift, whose tenure has, indeed, been dominated by the pandemic in every way imaginable, from its impact on Health New England and all health plans, to how and where the 380 employees at the company get work done, to the company’s work within the community and how it has changed in some ways but not in any of the ones that matter.

In a wide-ranging interview from his office at Monarch — he’s been there for several months now, usually without much company — Swift talked about all of the above. And in so doing, he provided some keen insight into what it’s been like to manage during a period unlike anything that a business manager has seen before.

“One size is not going to fit all. And for the 360 of our 380 employees who have been remote for the past year and a half, it’s been an almost seamless process. So given the fact that it’s been successful, it makes it hard to say ‘you have to come back, because it hasn’t been successful and that’s the only way to make it work.’”

“We need to be sensitive to our diverse workforce and their diverse and different needs,” he said, while summing up the challenge of leading at this time. “As a leader, I need to be sensitive to these varying needs, and I need to make sure the organization is sensitive to them. One of the things this experience has taught me is the need to be adaptable — both personally, for myself, and the organization and everyone within it — and accessible.”

As for the pandemic and health plans like Health New England, he said COVID and the changes resulting from it have brought challenges in many shapes and sizes, including to the bottom line. Indeed, while 2020 saw insurers facing far fewer claims than would be considered normal, and most eventually issuing rebates to members, 2021 has seen a surge in claims, with many health plans posting losses in the second quarter.

Swift said Health New England posted losses in that quarter as well (specific numbers were not available), but it has been able to avoid layoffs and cutbacks while actually increasing its involvement in the community, financially and otherwise (more on that later).

As for where and how people work, Swift said the pandemic gave him a first-hand look at how effective employees can be when working from their home office or dining-room table.

And he is using that experience as he goes about setting policy for the company. Above all else, he said he’s learned that managers must be practical and flexible in such matters.

“One size is not going to fit all,” he noted. “And for the 360 of our 380 employees who have been remote for the past year and a half, it’s been an almost seamless process. So given the fact that it’s been successful, it makes it hard to say ‘you have to come back, because it hasn’t been successful and that’s the only way to make it work.’”

 

Assignment Desk

As he talked about his lengthy tenure as a consultant to a number of different health plans and life as an ‘interim,’ Swift said he thoroughly enjoyed what he considered a ‘niche,’ and a successful one at that.

“For me, it was fun to parachute in somewhere and learn new people, new things, and new places; I liked to travel — it was fun to go back and forth,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his various gigs took him to all corners of the country and for assignments — usually as CFO but also CEO and COO — that varied with the health plan in question.

“Sometimes they were eight months long, sometimes they were for a couple of years,” he explained. “In some cases, people left suddenly; in other cases, it wasn’t suddenly, but they realized that they didn’t necessarily have the successor they thought they had, or they knew they didn’t have one and were going into a search process.

“Sometimes they were successful, strong health plans that just needed some expertise, and some of them were turn-arounds,” he went on. “What I brought to the table was that experience of running that business.”

Health New England was looking to tap into that experience early in 2020 when its CFO announced his retirement and a search for a successor had commenced. As noted earlier, Health New England was going to be another one of those interim assignments.

“When I looked at what was going on here, and at the opportunities that Baystate has with Health New England and that Health New England has with Baystate, I realized that there is so much that we can do together in the Western Massachusetts market.”

But things didn’t go according to script, starting with day one — or actually, even before day one.

Indeed, Swift was scheduled to start in April of 2020. COVID, as we all know, made its arrival in the 413 in mid-March, abruptly changing the landscape for the company and its new CFO (he quickly lost the interim tag), who wouldn’t have to get on a plane to take on his latest assignment.

He recalls that leadership at the company was going to use March 13, 2020, a Friday, as an experiment to see how effectively people worked remotely. That experiment went so well, and COVID invaded so suddenly, that workers never came back. In his case, he never arrived.

“I remember that conversation about ‘we’ll just send you a computer and you’ll work remotely,’ and how stunned I was at the time,” he recalled. “Because in 20 years of interim work, I pretty much got on a plane every week and flew out to my client. I was in my office in whatever city it was, on site. So the notion of doing all this remotely … it took me a while to wrap my head around it.”

While making these adjustments, Swift would soon have to make some others as well.

Indeed, in June, as McGowan was assuming some duties at Baystate while still serving as president and CEO at Health New England, Swift picked up some additional responsibilities for the company. And in October of last year, as McGowan moved to Baystate full time, he was asked to become CEO — again, without the ‘interim’ before the title.

When asked what he saw in Health New England that made him accept a permanent position — he had declined a few offers of that type in the past — he said it was a combination of things, including the team that was in place at Health New England and the opportunities he saw to partner with Baystate in meaningful ways.

“When I looked at what was going on here, and at the opportunities that Baystate has with Health New England and that Health New England has with Baystate, I realized that there is so much that we can do together in the Western Massachusetts market,” he said. “And I was really excited by those possibilities.”

 

By the Numbers

Looking back on his first 18 months with the company — and ahead to what might come next — Swift said this has obviously been a different and very challenging time for Health New England, and all health plans.

And the pandemic is just one reason why, albeit a big reason. At first, it contributed to a steep decline in claims because people were not visiting the doctor or seeking help even if they needed it. And then, it prompted a huge surge as people went back to the doctor and the emergency room, often with conditions made more serious by not seeking care through most of 2020. Meanwhile, treating COVID itself has often required lengthy and very expensive hospital stays.

“We’re certainly seeing more members having more claims and more services, and more-costly services than we did in 2019,” he said, adding that all this certainly contributed to the company’s second-quarter losses.

Richard Swift

Richard Swift

“COVID has brought a tremendous level of uncertainty. So all of us who put plans and benefits and rates in place for 2021 did that in the summer of 2020 in the middle of COVID, trying to understand what that would look like, and we’re doing it now for 2022, and we don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone six months from now.”

But mostly, the pandemic has created uncertainty and even greater difficulty forecasting into the future, which creates problems for health plans, Swift noted.

“We set rates well in advance based on what we think our costs are going to be, and we don’t really have a chance to revisit those until the next year,” he explained. “And we obviously don’t know what the services are going to be or what new technologies are going to emerge.”

Elaborating, he said that telehealth technology certainly came of age during COVID, and Health New England, like many health plans, had previously created a telehealth benefit for members.

“In all of 2019, we had something like 850 or 900 total claims for telehealth visits; over the past year, it has averaged almost 30,000 per month,” he noted, citing this as just one example of how quickly and profoundly the landscape can change and health plans can be impacted by those changes.

Vaccines are another example, he said, adding that health plans couldn’t anticipate a two-dose vaccine when they set rates for 2021 last year, and they couldn’t have anticipated a booster, or third shot, as they set rates for next year.

“COVID has brought a tremendous level of uncertainty,” Swift went on. “So all of us who put plans and benefits and rates in place for 2021 did that in the summer of 2020 in the middle of COVID, trying to understand what that would look like, and we’re doing it now for 2022, and we don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone six months from now.”

As noted earlier, the surge in claims and other factors have generated losses for some health plans in recent quarters and prompted layoffs and cutbacks as well.

Health New England has been able to avoid such cuts, he said, adding that, in the meantime, it has been able to maintain and, in many ways, increase its financial support to the community and its business community, something Swift takes great pride in.
“Even with everything going on with COVID, we’ve continued, and increased, the community support in terms of activities, foundations, grants, and actually providing PPE and hand sanitizer to people who didn’t have the wherewithal and the ability to get it themselves,” he said. “A lot of companies have turned inward, and many of them have laid people off; we made a conscious decision not to lay people off if we could at all avoid it, and fortunately, we have been able to avoid that.”

Elaborating, he said the company adjusted some of its sponsorship activity to accommodate what it would call “COVID mini grants,” roughly $300,000 worth of them that were awarded to community organizations that needed support to address their COVID-related needs.

In addition, the company created Where Health Matters grants, multi-year grants totaling $50,000 to $150,000 awarded to organizations to help offset the effects of COVID on their operations.

 

Giving the Forecast

Moving forward, Swift said the company would continue its pattern of flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions as a fall shrouded by uncertainty approaches.

As he talked with BusinessWest, he noted that he was one of very few employees in the building that day, and things would probably remain that way for the foreseeable future. Employees were slated to return, in a hybrid format, by this time, he went on, but there is now more of a wait-and-see approach than a definitive schedule.

Meanwhile, Health New England has joined a growing number of businesses, especially in the broad healthcare realm, that have made vaccination a requirement for employment, a step taken in the interest of maintaining the safety of employees and customers alike.

“One of the things we’ve said concerning our coming back to the office is that we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said. “The only thing we know for sure is that things are going to change.”

And with those sentiments, he summed up both the short term and what could be called the post-pandemic world — whenever that arrives. When it does, said Swift, noting that, in some respects, it is already here, it won’t look like the pre-pandemic world.

And that goes for everything from how and where employees work to how people will access healthcare.

With regard to the latter, telehealth will almost certainly continue to increase in popularity, he said, adding that while the numbers have fluctuated as the pandemic has waned and surged, the technology has gained a broad level of acceptance.

“I do think you’ll see a lot more movement to leverage the technology that’s out there and technology that’s being developed for care without having to traditionally go back and see your doctor in the office on their schedule,” he explained.

As for the office setting and what it will look like, Swift said things simply won’t go back to the way they were in 2019. Companies have learned that employees can work effectively in remote settings, and thus it only makes good business sense to allow them to continue doing so, either in a fully remote fashion or in a hybrid format now being tried by many area businesses of all sizes.

“We have some departments that, by and large, were partially remote before and will be partially, or maybe completely remote in the future,” he explained. “The work they’re doing is such that it’s fine remotely, and they’ll stay that way.

“We have not come out with any edicts that people have to be here on ‘x’ amount of days,” he went on. “Because we know that one size does not fit all and there are certain departments and functions that have very different needs than others; we came to the conclusion that an edict was as arbitrary as pre-COVID, Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, in some respects.”

And there’s a competitive aspect to creating flexibility with working conditions, he said, adding that Health New England can now hire talented individuals from outside the 413 and even outside the state because they have the ability to work remotely.

As for business strategy and long-term planning, Swift said COVID has certainly made such exercises more difficult. But companies still have to plan, he noted, adding that there must be layers of flexibility built into such plans.

“I think that COVID requires us to plan even further ahead, but be more nimble with those plans,” he explained. “Our original date for returning to the office was Sept. 1; with what’s happened over the past several weeks, we’ve pushed that back. But in the spring, we threw out that date of Sept. 1 as the one we were targeting, again with the caveat that everything is subject to change.”

 

Bottom Line

Swift told BusinessWest that, a few weeks back, his sister called him asking for recommendations on restaurants in Detroit, which she would soon be visiting.

He was able to help her, because that was one of the places he parachuted into while doing his consulting work.

That life has ended, at least temporarily, with a permanent assignment, one that is a far cry from what he thought he was originally signing up for back in March of 2020.

He was, by most accounts, the first Health New England employee to be onboarded remotely, but he certainly wasn’t the last. His first 18 months have been a learning experience on myriad levels, and in all ways it is still ongoing.

 

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

Cover Story

Fair Amount of Intrigue

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

As the calendar turns to late summer, all eyes in the region turn to the Big E in West Springfield and the much-anticipated 2021 edition of the fair. The show did not go on in 2020 due to COVID-19, a decision that impacted businesses across a number of sectors. There will be a fair this year, and the goal is to make it as normal — there’s that word again — as possible. But it will be different in some respects. Meanwhile, as COVID cases surge in other parts of the country and uncertainty about the fall grows with each passing day, the anticipation for the fair comes with a healthy dose of anxiety.

 

In a normal year — and this isn’t one, to be sure — what keeps Gene Cassidy up most at night is the weather.

Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, has been quoted many, many times over the years saying that just a few days of steady rain — especially if they come on weekends — can turn a great fair, attendance- and revenue-wise, into an average one, or worse, just like that. So even though there’s nothing he can do about the weather, he frets about it. A lot.

This year … while ‘afterthought’ might be too strong a word when it comes to the weather, it might not be, either.

Indeed, Cassidy has other matters to keep him up at night, including a pandemic that is entering a dangerous and unpredictable stage, a workforce crisis that has already forced the cancellation of a giant Ferris wheel that was scheduled for this year’s fair and may pose a real challenge for vendors and other participating businesses during the fair’s 17 days, and even concerns about whether one of the organizers of his massive car show can get into this country (he’s been given the AstraZeneca vaccine, which isn’t recognized in the U.S.).

“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure,” he noted. “And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair because the vacuum that would occur in our economy is nearly three quarters of a billion dollars, and there’s no way that anyone is going to able to replace that.”

“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure. And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair.”

As the Big E enters the final countdown before it kicks off on Sept. 17, there are equal amounts of anticipation and anxiety. The former is natural given the fact that the region hasn’t gone without a fair, as it did in 2020, since World War II; Cassidy noted that advance ticket sales are “off the charts,” and running 80% higher than in 2019, which was a record-setting year for the Big E.

The fair will offer a welcome escape for all those who have spent much of the past 18 months cooped up and not doing the things they would traditionally be doing. And it will provide a much-needed boost for businesses in several sectors, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting enterprises, for those homeowners in the area who turn their backyards into parking lots, and for countless vendors who had a big hole in their schedule (actually, lots of holes) last year.

People like Sharon Berthiaume.

The Chicopee resident has been coming to the Big E with her booth, A Shopper’s Dream — which features animal-themed merchandise (mugs, ornaments, floormats, metal signs, etc.) — for 30 years now. She said the Big E is by far the biggest show on her annual slate, and one she and others sorely missed last year.

“It was a major loss, a huge disappointment last year,” she said. “We’ve been coming back for so many years, and we have a lot of regulars who come back year after year looking to see if we have anything new. I’m looking forward to being back.”

But the anxiety comes naturally as well. Indeed, the tents, ticket booths, and other facilities are going up — more slowly, in some cases, because of a lack of workers — as COVID-19 cases are spiking and as states and individual communities are pondering mask mandates, vaccination passports, and other steps.

While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other area events and gatherings that might be impacted in some way by the changing tide of the pandemic, from weddings to the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies early next month, none will be watched more closely than the Big E.

Gene Cassidy says there is pent-up demand for the Big E

Gene Cassidy says there is pent-up demand for the Big E, but because of the pandemic and fears among some people about being in crowds, he’s not expecting to set any attendance records this year.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

Cassidy told BusinessWest he watches and reads the news every day. He’s concerned by the trends regarding the virus, but buoyed by the fact that fairs of this type have been going off, mostly without hitches, across the country. And the turnouts have certainly verified a high level of pent-up demand for such events.

Overall, the sentiment within the region, and the business community, concerning the Big E and the fate of this year’s fair was perhaps best summed up Stacey Gravanis, general manager of the Sheraton Springfield.

“It’s huge … and it’s not just the business side, it’s the emotional side as well,” she said of the Big E and losing it for 2020, “because it’s been around for so many years. It’s something we’ve looked forward to every year for as long as I can remember. So we’re super happy to have it back this year, and we all have our fingers crossed right now.”

And their toes as well. That’s how important the Big E is to the region and its business community.

 

The Ride Stuff

As he talked with BusinessWest about the upcoming fair and ongoing planning for it, Cassidy joked about how much he and his staff had to tap their memory banks after their forced and certainly unwanted hiatus.

“It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget,” he said, noting quickly that institutional memory has certainly kicked in for the staff of 26, down from 31 — a nod to one of the many ways the pandemic has impacted the Big E.

It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget.”

And while getting the show ready for primetime, Cassidy, who also chairs the International Assoc. of Fairs and Expositions, a worldwide trade association, has been on the phone and in Zoom meetings with others from his industry. Such conversations have gone on with those in this time zone and others with institutions on the other side of the world. And the reports cover a broad spectrum.

“Australia has shut itself down again — after only nine deaths from this Delta variant,” he said. “And that’s a scary development; I think there are 24 million people in Australia, and to have that country impacted like that … it’s been devastating to their economy, and people are quite anxious there.”

Closer to home, and as noted earlier, the news has been much better.

It’s been a very long 18 months for the vendors who work the Big E

It’s been a very long 18 months for the vendors who work the Big E, and they are among the many people happy to have the 17-day fair back on the slate.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

“At the fairs that have been produced, the crowds have not been diminished,” he said, listing successful events in Indiana, Wisconsin, and California as evidence. “At those fairs that have run, people have really returned — and in a large way; there have been a lot of attendance records set.”

At home, those off-the-charts advance ticket sales tell Cassidy that some people are interested in eliminating some contact points and avoiding the crowds at the ticket booths. But mostly, they tell him there is certainly pent-up demand for the fair.

“People are ready to get back to normal,” he said, adding, again, that the overriding goal for the staff was, and is, to make the fair as normal — as much like previous years — as possible.

But more important than normal is the safety of attendees and employees, said Cassidy, noting that a wide range of cleaning and sanitizing protocols are being put in place, and steps are being taken to try to thin crowding in some areas.

“We’ve have intentionally thinned out the grounds a little bit,” he explained. “There’s going to be roughly 10% more space on the fairgrounds as we have tried to space things out a little bit.”

Elaborating, he said there has been some attrition when it comes to food and other types of vendors, and some of the “lower performers,” as he called them, have been eliminated.

“We thought that space was more important than that commercial activity,” he explained, adding quickly, though, that the science is inexact regarding whether creating more space reduces lines and points of contact.

Gene Cassidy says his overriding goal is to make the 2021 Big E as ‘normal’ as possible.

Gene Cassidy says his overriding goal is to make the 2021 Big E as ‘normal’ as possible.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

When asked about what he expects for attendance this year, Cassidy said he believes last year’s record of 1.62 million is, in all likelihood, not in danger of being broken, because there are some — how many, he just doesn’t know — who will not want to be part of large crowds of people this year. He’d like to see 1.4 million, and notes that he needs 1.2 million to pay for the fair.

“My goal is simply to provide a great, healthy, family experience for the fairgoing public,” he said, adding that several factors will determine overall turnout. “Our demographic is a little bit older than in other parts of the country, and I think some people are going to be hesitant about large crowds, and I think that will have an impact on us. At the same time, if you look at some of the other events, their popularity has been very high. So I suppose it can go either way, but I think we will see some scaling back of attendance, and that’s OK.”

While crowd control is an issue, there are other concerns as well, as Cassidy, especially workforce, which will be more of a challenge for vendors than for the Big E itself, which has seen most of the regular workforce it hires come back again this year.

Indeed, he noted that work on several of the larger tents that dot the fairgrounds started earlier this year because vendors had fewer people to handle that work. This trend, coupled with cancellation of the Ferris wheel, which demands large operating crews, obviously leaves reason for concern.

However, Cassidy believes the clock, or the calendar, to be more precise, may be working in the favor of employees.

“We open on Sept. 17, and the unemployment bonus checks will cease in the first week of September,” he said. “So, hopefully, people will be wanting to get back to work.”

 

Impact Statement

While there is anticipation and some anxiety within the confines of the Big E, there’s plenty of both outside the gates as well.

As was noted earlier and in countless stories on these pages over the years, the Big E impacts the local economy, and many individual businesses, in a profound way. Gravanis tried to quantify and qualify it.

“It’s thousands of dollars in room and beverage revenue,” she said. “It’s keeping our people employed on a full-time basis. It’s seeing these people, these vendors, that we’ve worked with over the past 20 to 30 years — we missed them last year. It has both financial and impact for our staff and our local businesses.”

The Avenue of States will be open for business at the Big E

The Avenue of States will be open for business at the Big E, which is seeing record numbers of advance ticket sales for the 2021 fair.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

Elaborating, she said the hotel, like all others, suffered a seemingly endless string of hits last year as events were canceled, tourism came to a screeching halt, and airlines (who book crews into the hotel on a nightly basis) all but shut down. But the Big E, because of its duration and scope, was perhaps the biggest single hit of all.

Which is why having it back is so important, and also why those fingers are crossed.

“We get hundreds, if not thousands, of room nights, as well as the incremental spending in our restaurants — it’s extensive,” said Gravanis. “We sell out every weekend of the year with a combination of vendors and attendees; right now, there are very few rooms left.”

Berthiaume certainly has her fingers crossed. She told BusinessWest that the return of fairs, and especially the Big E, could not have come soon enough for vendors like her. She said the Charleston (R.I.) Seafood Festival, staged earlier this month, was the first event she’d worked in roughly 18 months, and it has been a long, rough ride since gatherings started getting canceled in March 2020.

“It was crazy last year because you couldn’t plan — life was in limbo,” she said, adding that events were postponed early in the year and there was general uncertainty about when or if they would be held. This year, there was less uncertainty, but also nothing in the calendar, for most, until very recently.

She said a good number of vendors have been forced to pack it in or take their businesses online. “I know a lot of people who have gone out of business because of this. Many had been in business, like us, for 30 years or more, and they figured, ‘what the heck, I’m not going to do this anymore — it’s too hard.’”

Like Cassidy, she senses a strong urge on the part of many people to get back to doing the things they’ve missed for the past year and half, and she cited the seafood festival as solid evidence.

“They had people waiting for two hours to get off the highway to get in — the traffic was so backed up,” Berthiaume recalled. “We hadn’t seen people like that in maybe five years.

“Everyone is ready to get out there,” she went on, with some enthusiasm in her voice. “People are just so happy to be out in public. So the Big E, based on what I’ve seen with their tickets for the concerts … everyone is ready to roll; everyone is waiting for the Big E.”

 

Fair Weathered Friends

Getting back to the weather … yes, Cassidy is still concerned about it on some levels. And why not? There has been record rainfall this summer and extreme conditions in other parts of the country and across the globe.

He’s hoping all that is in the past tense, with the same going for the very worst that this pandemic can dish out.

The weather can never be an afterthought at the Big E, but this year it is well down the big list of things that keep organizers up at night.

Indeed, this is a time of anticipation and anxiety — and for keeping those fingers crossed.

 

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

Cover Story

The Road Ahead

In late May, after 15 months of living through a global pandemic, the state entered into a phrase the governor called “a new normal.” A few months later, most businesspeople would say this ‘normal’ isn’t everything they expected or wanted. Indeed, while business has picked up in many sectors, from hospitality to healthcare, there are myriad challenges facing the business community, from what can only be called a workforce crisis to shortages of goods and rising prices; from a new and very potent strain of the coronavirus to issues with when and how to bring employees back to the office. To get a sense of where things are and, especially, where we may be headed, BusinessWest convened a panel of area business leaders — Deborah Bitsoli, president of Mercy Medical Center; Harry Dumay, president of Elms College; Patrick Leary, a partner with MP CPAs; Elizabeth Paquette, president of Rock Valley Tool in Easthampton; Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank; and Edison Yee, a principal of the Bean Restaurant Group. Their answers to a series of questions on the economy and the forces shaping it are certainly eye-opening.

 

BusinessWest: How is the process of returning to ‘normal’ proceeding at your business?

 

Bitsoli: “It does appear that patients are coming back; our Emergency Department is really returning back to the volumes it had before the pandemic. On the surgical side, the same thing is occurring. I do think there is a lot of caution about the fall, but for the time being, patients are seeking the appropriate level of care, including a lot of the screenings they put off. That’s the good news in terms of a public-health policy standpoint. At the hospital, we’re still wearing masks, and we’re still relying heavily on Webex; we have some meetings face to face, but we still have masks on. As for returning to normal, we continue to have a focus on patient safety, and we have an expansion planned in our Emergency Department. Overall, we are trying to return to normal, but everyone is looking to the fall, and there is caution there. The one big difficulty is hiring staff.”

 

Dumay: “At the college, ‘normal’ for us would mean getting back to the high-touch, nurturing, vibrant, in-person environment for teaching and learning. Returning to normal means having everyone on campus in the same mode we had pre-pandemic. The process for preparing for that is the same as we had last year, with the ElmsSafe Plan for making sure that employees and students are safe. That begins with a level of vaccination that we need to accomplish. That’s why we came out very early and required vaccinations for our students and employees. The challenges are to ensure that we’re getting to that level of vaccination that the state considers optimal for campuses, which is roughly 90%. We are gearing up for the fall, to have full in-person learning and all of our faculty and staff on campus. We have a task force that is meeting on a regular basis to come up with all the elements of the ElmsSafe plan so that we can make sure our campus is safe and as back to ‘normal’ as possible.”

 

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

“For the traditional undergraduate, first-time freshman, we had a record deposit year, and we are looking at potentially a record enrollment year for first-time freshmen, so that has come back better than it was before.”

 

Leary: “We have found that our biggest challenge to returning to normal is a big investment in software. When we all went remote in March of 2020, we found the flaws in our system, we found out where we were falling down and where our system couldn’t handle the stress of people working remotely, etc. So we had a big investment in software across the board — we’ve replaced really all of our systems, so we met the challenge of not only keeping up with workload, but having people keep up with workload while also learning new software. The other challenge involves getting back to the office; being a CPA, we can work from just about anywhere — I can be in my office, or I can be sitting in the Caribbean, which, unfortunately, is not what I’m doing now. This presents us with a lot of challenges. We have a very young workforce — half our staff is 30 or younger — so they’re very much tuned into the social aspects of being in the office and like being in the office, which is great. Our greatest challenge is going to be how we incorporate our client-service work with the protocols of each of our clients; each one presents its own unique circumstances — our staff can’t be stagnant and say ‘this is how we’re going to do things.’

 

Paquette: “We’re a machine shop that manufactures parts for aerospace, defense, sports, and leisure, blow-mold and extrusion. When everything hit in the spring of 2020, we were getting letters from larger customers saying ‘you can’t shut down — you have to stay working.” So we were very busy, but at the same time, we had seven of our 43 employees leave for one reason or another due to COVID, so we had this intense workload, and we had to scrounge and fill the gaps in our workforce. And then, in mid-June, our largest aerospace customer said, ‘we don’t have anything to send anymore,’ and by the end of the summer, we had laid off a total of 13. Now, with things a little more normalized, we’ve been able to bring back some of those we had to lay off. So when we talk about returning to normal, we’re just trying to work our way through this crisis and keep people’s mental health in mind and … just keep working.”

 

Senecal: “Overall, I don’t know if ‘normal’ is the right word at this point — it certainly is a new normal. We’re going back to a hybrid method for our workforce — we’re going to allow people to work from home as well as work in our building. I’m a firm believer in culture, and I’m a firm believer in some sort of work in the office. The challenges with that hybrid workforce include dealing with office space — that’s going to affect a lot of our customers — and technology needs; how do we adapt to technology, and how do we use technology? One of the biggest ones is communicating expectations when you go to a hybrid model — how do you communicate with people expectations of what is expected of them, for meetings, for hours worked, for a lot of things? How do you evaluate good performance from a remote-workforce perspective? Those are all a challenge. Also, getting people comfortable with and without facemasks — we’re going back to work in this new normal, and people aren’t sure of the expectations when it comes to facemasks. It’s challenging getting people comfortable in those settings.

 

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“I think we’re all going in the right direction, and there’s nothing but good news ahead as long as inflation stays in check.”

 

Yee: “For restaurants, it’s a new normal as well. Outdoor dining is very much prevalent, but customers are starting to return to the dining rooms. And while they are beginning to feel more comfortable doing so, not everyone has made that transition — although a lot of them have. Our late-night business has not come back yet, but we feel that might change as time progresses. But to be frank, it was a messy way to get into COVID, and coming out of it has been messy as well, with lots of disruption in supply chain, with labor shortages, and other issues. We’re adjusting, as we always do, in the restaurant business, with much more takeout business as part of our overall sales, and with using technology to help us smooth out the rough edges from not having enough frontline workers.”

 

BusinessWest: How has this year been business-wise, and what is your forecast for the rest of this year?

 

Bitsoli: “Business is almost back to normal, but it will very interesting to see what happens in the fall when we hit flu season and everyone goes back into the office. And we still have a large number of people who haven’t been vaccinated. Directionally, we’re moving back to normal, but everyone is looking to see what happens when we migrate back inside. Internally, while the volumes of business have returned, people are tired because of the duration of this and the expectation of what’s going to happen in the fall. So we’re investing a lot of resources right now in things like a Zen room, spot yoga, massage chairs … so that is a new normal for us in terms of something we’re going to need to continue on with until we come to the end of this pandemic.”

 

Dumay: “For the traditional undergraduate, first-time freshman, we had a record deposit year, and we are looking at potentially a record enrollment year for first-time freshmen, so that has come back better than it was before. For continuing-education students, those who come to us from community colleges, that’s a population that often doesn’t enroll until the last minute, so we’re still watching that, but it looks a little softer than it had been previously. And graduate-school enrollment is very much looking to be a record year in terms of enrollment. One area where students and families may still be hesitating is a return to residential living.”

 

Yee: “For restaurants, we like to compare numbers to 2019, our last ‘normal’ year. And for quarter one, it was lower, when you’re looking at year-over-year numbers. It wasn’t until the vaccinations reached the general population that things started improving; in the second quarter, the sales have bounced back to a much higher level, better than 2019. We anticipate that this trend will continue.

 

Edison Yee

Edison Yee

“We’re very optimistic about the last two quarters of the year and going into 2022. We’ve seen a lot of positive results during this summer, which is traditionally our slower time of year. It’s been a very strong summer to date and much higher than 2019 levels.”

 

Paquette: “While we had lost work in aerospace, we’ve started to see some of it comes back. For us, workload is good and steady, and we project that this will continue through the rest of the year. The workload is good for the number of people we have.”

 

Senecal: “In the past 18 months, our deposits are through the roof. We are up more than 35% in a little over a year. And the balances are not going down. As we talk about demand and this influx of demand and a surge in spending, I’m not seeing it from people’s deposit accounts — those numbers are not going down. We’re up over a little more than $1 billion over the past 18 months in deposits. That’s a function of a lot of things — PPP money, stimulus money, people not going out and spending. We have an enormous amount of money in the system, and the government continues to put money into the economy. That adjusts to inflation, and that’s showing up everywhere in our economy — food, transportation, supplies, inventory, computer chips … it’s showing up everywhere, and I think it’s going to have an impact. We see good times ahead as long as inflation can be kept in check and interest rates stay relatively low.”

 

Leary: “The need for our services greatly increased in 2020 because of the PPP program and other initiatives and trying to help clients understand the rules, what qualifies for forgiveness, and so on. There was great demand for our services, and it’s continued into this year. As for our customers … most of them are doing OK post-pandemic, but I’m concerned that the federal money that these businesses have received is masking how they are doing financially. And as demand starts to grow, will these businesses be able to find the staffing to supply the products and provide the services?

 

BusinessWest: That’s a good segue to the next question. Attracting and retaining workers has become the dominant challenge for 2021. How has your business been impacted?

 

Yee: “There is virtually no one applying for jobs, and the people we do have working are tired from working extended hours, so we’re trying to give them breaks by closing an extra day during the week or sometimes two, which we’ve never done in the past. But we’ve found that’s one of the only ways we can deal with this labor shortage — giving people some extra time for that work-life balance.

 

Senecal: “I received a résumé the other day from a headhunter for a position we were looking to fill … the person was very well-qualified and has all the right skill sets. But in big, bold letters on the résumé, it said this person is only interested in working remotely. I don’t think I’ve ever seen on that on a résumé before, but it’s an indication of the world to come.”

 

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary

“I’m optimistic about the rest of 2021 and 2022, at least the first half. It will be interesting when the government programs start to dry up and slow down and we see how people react to that when it comes to their spending habits.”

 

Leary: “We’re seeing the same thing many of our customers are seeing. As tax laws change and accounting rules change, we have a great demand for people, and it’s not for entry-level people, but more experienced people. And it’s very challenging to find them. But what we’ve found is that, because of the ability to work remotely, instead of searching for someone and saying, ‘we want you to work in our Springfield office or our Connecticut office,’ we can say, ‘you can work anywhere in the country — we have the ability to let you work wherever you want.’”

 

Dumay: “I haven’t looked at the comparisons closely, but it certainly seems, anecdotally, that we have more open positions than we normally have. For some, we’re seeing good pools of candidates, and for others, the pools are not as strong as we would like. So in many ways, we’re like everyone else. There is a higher level of vacancy at the college, and for many positions, the pool of applicants is simply not as robust.”

 

Bitsoli: “From a business standpoint, the thing that’s very different for us and most all businesses is the staffing. It really is different. There are people who retired early, people who decided to change career paths … so we’re dealing with quite a few staffing challenges, like everyone else. One of the things I’ve heard anecdotally is that, because of the incentives being offered by the state, for people at a lower level, like dietary, housekeeping, nurse aides, and other positions, it’s almost better for them financially to stay at home than it is to work. I’ve also heard anecdotally that there’s a group of people that are gathering resilience over the summer, and they plan on coming back after Labor Day.”

 

BusinessWest: What are the forces — workforce, inflation, inventory, COVID, and more — that will determine where the local economy goes?

 

Senecal: “I think we’re all going in the right direction, and there’s nothing but good news ahead as long as inflation stays in check. Businesses are opening and growing, and with the levels of demand we’re seeing, that’s a good problem to have. And I think things will start to open up from a supply-chain perspective. We talked a little about unemployment benefits ending in September; let’s see if that pushes people back to work and brings the labor situation closer to normal. Overall, as long as COVID stays under control and we don’t go back to shutdowns — such shutdowns are devastating for the economy — I feel very positive about the fourth quarter and going into 2022.”

 

Dumay: “I second that optimism and emphasize the ‘as long as’ comment regarding COVID. The only thing that is sobering or bringing caution to my optimism is the slowdown in the rate of vaccination across the country, especially in areas of the country where it’s very low. Also, with the CDC looking at potential mask mandates and people getting alarmed about another surge … that could slow down what is looking to be an optimistic time and an opportunity to really get back to normal.”

 

Yee: “We’re very optimistic about the last two quarters of the year and going into 2022. We’ve seen a lot of positive results during this summer, which is traditionally our slower time of year. It’s been a very strong summer to date and much higher than 2019 levels. We’re really positive about what’s to come, but there are many challenges that could slow things down moving forward, like labor shortages, inflation, and supply-chain disruptions … those are all major concerns. We’re eager for everyone to get to normal so we can see a higher level of business than we have and, we hope the pent-up demand generates business across the area.”

 

Bitsoli: “People are looking for optimism, and I think as long as the economy holds out, and if we can get more people vaccinated, things should continue to improve. With the new variants out there are certainly concerns, and there are questions about whether the vaccines are going to continue to keep people healthy even when they’re exposed to the variants and keep them out of the hospitals and from getting severe complications.”

 

Deborah Bitsoli

Deborah Bitsoli

“As a leader, what I’ve learned is the importance of that human connection. We’ve all talked about the fact that Webex is great from a technology standpoint, but that relationship building and that ability to look someone in the eye … I really realize that there’s something to that, and it’s quite big.”

 

Paquette: “It’s really business as usual for us now. Our biggest concern is trying to hire people who are skilled — which means we’re like everyone else. But we’re seeing a lot of people who are interested in growing their skill set, and that, to me, is a positive; I’ve never had as many people enrolled in school and training programs as we do now. We’re rebuilding, we’re in a good space, and we’re growing. It feels much different than a year ago.”

 

Elizabeth Paquette

Elizabeth Paquette

“I had to spend a chunk of my time with a remote first-grader, so I had that stress at home while trying to be at work. So I found that employees function better if we’re able to meet them where they’re at.”

 

Leary: “I’m optimistic about the rest of 2021 and 2022, at least the first half. It will be interesting when the government programs start to dry up and slow down and we see how people react to that when it comes to their spending habits. But as we heard, deposits are way up, which means people have money to spend; they have disposable income. So I think people will start to spend as they get out and feel more comfortable going to restaurants or getting on an airplane. I see that continuing for the next year or so, but who knows after that what will happen? We need to have supplies free up, and we need to push for everyone to get vaccinated.”

 

BusinessWest: Finally, what have you learned during this pandemic, and how has this made you a different and perhaps better leader?

 

Bitsoili: “As a leader, what I’ve learned is the importance of that human connection. We’ve all talked about t the fact that Webex is great from a technology standpoint, but that relationship building and that ability to look someone in the eye … I really realize that there’s something to that, and it’s quite big. Also, I knew this before, but now I really know it: you really have to lead from the heart because employees want to feel the empathy and the caring from leadership. Lastly, it’s visibility and the ability to connect with people on their turf and really be able to listen to issues and immediately follow up with resolution. These are all things I knew, but this pandemic has caused me to reflect and overemphasize the need to do those things.”

 

Dumay: “I realized the importance of connecting with the people with whom I work, the faculty and staff at Elms College, and be present and pay attention to what people are experiencing and have that be relevant to my decision making. Also, I’ve learned the importance of giving people some answers, even if they don’t have the complete answer. There was a lot of uncertainty during the past year, and people were looking for the leaders of organizations to provide some answers. For someone who likes to completely process things and share them when they’re finalized, I had to learn to provide answers that are sometimes incomplete and need to be finalized. That was important to me.”

 

Leary: “One thing that I learned is that each person is very unique with regard to what their circumstances are — they might be a single parent with high-school children, or they may have a newborn … there are so many factors, and we can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy. We have to be flexible when it comes to work-life balance.”

 

Paquette: “I had to spend a chunk of my time with a remote first-grader, so I had that stress at home while trying to be at work. So I found that employees function better if we’re able to meet them we’re they’re at. Everything was remote to me outside the shop, but in the shop, it just seemed important that people had someone that they could look to make them feel better. We definitely improved our transparency with employees to let them know where we were at. It was probably so scary to see so many people laid off, some by choice, but some by our choice. I held meetings with people just so they would know what was going on and that they had as much information as I had in that moment. And the response was pretty good. Most people stayed, and they kept at it at a time when it was hard to keep at it.”

 

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

Alumni Achievement Award Cover Story

In 2015, BusinessWest introduced a new award, an extension of its 40 Under Forty program. It’s called the Alumni Achievement Award, and as that name suggests, it recognizes previous honorees who continue to build on their résumés of outstanding achievement in their chosen field and in service to the community. Recently, a panel of three judges identified the five finalists for the 2021 award — Tara Brewster, Gregg Desmarais, Anthony Gulluni, Eric Lesser, and Meghan Rothschild. The winner for this year will be unveiled with Alumni Achievement Award presenting sponsor Health New England at the 40 Under Forty Gala on Sept. 23 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. As the profiles that begin on page 7 reveal, all five finalists embody the spirit of this award. Their stories convey true leadership and are truly inspiring.

 

Tara Brewster

Vice President of Business Development, Greenfield Savings Bank


Gregg Desmarais

Vice President and Senior Private Client Relationship Manager


Anthony Gulluni

Hampden County District Attorney


Eric Lesser

State Senator, First Hampden and Hampshire District


Meghan Rothschild

President and Owner, Chikmedia

 


Past Alumni Achievement Award Winners:

2020

Carla Cosenzi
President, TommyCar Auto Group, Class of 2012
Peter DePergola
Director of Clinical Ethics, Baystate Health, Class of 2015

2019

Cinda Jones
President, W. D. Cowls, Inc., Class of 2007

2018

Samalid Hogan
Regional Director, Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, Class of 2013

2017

Scott Foster
Attorney, Bulkley Richardson, Class of 2011
Nicole Griffin
Owner, ManeHire, Class of 2014

2016

Dr. Jonathan Bayuk
President of Allergy and Immunology Associates of Western Mass. & Chief of Allergy and Immunology at Baystate Medical Center, Class of 2008

2015

Delcie Bean
President, Paragus Strategic IT, Class of 2008

Cover Story

Study In Entrepreneurship

 

Bob Lowry calls it his ‘list-in-the-back-pocket’ technique.

That’s because it concerns a list he used to keep his back pocket — a list of ideas about how to make his emerging chain of fresh-Mex restaurants, Bueno Y Sano, better and more responsive to customers. It wasn’t what was on the list at any given time that was important, but rather how he handled the discussions that came up with employees about these items.

“Especially early on,” Lowry explained, “when we had a million things to figure out, I would keep a list in my pocket of the things I observed around our operation that we could improve or change; if I had an idea, I’d put it on the list. We’d have more or less regular meetings — every couple of weeks, we’d sit down as a staff, and I would ask them for their ideas.

“I’d say, ‘what do we need to do?’ ‘What do we need to change?’ ‘How do we get more organized?’” he went on. “They would have their ideas, and half of their ideas were the same ideas that I had. But instead of saying, ‘I already had that on my list,’ I’d say, ‘good idea, we’ll do it.’ In that way, it’s their idea, not my idea.”

Lowry talks about this technique often, and especially with the students in the “Introduction to Entrepreneurship” class that he teaches at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. He uses it to demonstrate the power of positive reinforcement, the kind that was drilled into him when he first read Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, which serves as the textbook, if you will, for that class.

“Back then, the food at UMass was terrible. Most universities were already off to the races, but UMass was still stuck with food that wasn’t that great. So everyone was starving.”

“That notion of making the other person feel that the idea is theirs is right out of How to Make Friends — it’s a chapter,” Lowry told BusinessWest, adding that positive reinforcement is just one of the principles he focuses on not only in the classroom, but in his business. You might say he practices what he teaches.

All of which has helped him take Bueno Y Sano from that single store he started with in Amherst back in 1995 to what could be called a chain.

There are now locations that he owns in Amherst, Northampton, South Deerfield, and West Springfield. There is also a location in South Burlington, Vt., managed by Lowry’s brother, Will; another in Springfield owned by a business partner; and a store in Acton, Mass., owned by Lowry’s stepbrother.

It’s a thriving enterprise — one that actually managed to increase sales at some of its locations during the pandemic — that keeps Lowry busy enough so that he’s unsure if and to what degree there will be more expansion.

“Those things tend to pop up out of nowhere — it’s an organic thing,” he explained, adding that there are ongoing discussions about another location in the Acton area. “We’re not in a rush to have a big company at all. We have enough restaurants; we might have more, we might not.”

These days, Lowry spends his time “troubleshooting,” as he put it.

That’s how he described the practice of driving back and forth between locations, talking with staff, dealing with problems and issues that may arise, and, yes, coming up with ideas that go on a list, one that now resides in his briefcase and not in his back pocket.

He’s still giving employees credit for the ideas that he had already written down on his list, and that’s one of many reasons he’s quite content with a personal and professional life that meets a basic requirement he set a long time ago — working for himself rather than someone else.

The West Springfield location in the Riverdale Shops

The West Springfield location in the Riverdale Shops is one of the later additions to the growing portfolio of Bueno Y Sano locations in Western Mass. and beyond.

“I knew I did not want to work for a company — it was deep within me … I just knew that wasn’t going to be fun for me,” he recalled. “I might have been wrong — I’m sure there are jobs out there that would have been fine — but still, it wasn’t what I wanted. And I knew that when I was 12. I knew I wanted to do fun stuff, and jobs didn’t seem like fun to me.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Lowry about what he did want, and did get: the opportunity to work for himself. We also talked about what he’s learned and now passes on to students and a few mentors, especially about that concept of success in business, how it’s defined, and how it’s achieved.

As one might say in his industry, it’s food for thought.

 

Taste of Success

Lowry was quick to note that, at one time — soon after graduation from UMass Amherst — he did, in fact, have a job.

It was with State Street Bank as a mutual fund administrator.

“I got an interview through somebody’s girlfriend; she knew someone who could get me an interview,” he recalled. “They hired me because they needed people — they hired like 500 people a year. I wasn’t good at the job, but I didn’t die, though, and I would have been OK, but…

He voice trailed off, and he didn’t really finish the sentence, because he wasn’t in that job long before he came back to the Amherst area to visit friends who had not yet graduated. And it was on that trip that he famously spotted a ‘for-rent’ sign on a property in downtown Amherst and began thinking seriously about a burrito shop there.

Many in this region now know the story of how Lowry called the number on that sign, found out the location was already (or soon to be) under contract, but kept on pursuing the dream at another nearby location. With a rough business plan and a $20,000 investment from his father, the 24-year-old Lowry opened Bueno Y Sano just four months after he originally started thinking about his concept.

That thinking was blended with solid research in the form of surveys that revealed a real need for such an establishment, said Lowry, who noted that, upon opening, the Amherst location struggled mightily to keep up with heavy demand — and for a reason.

Indeed, this was 1995, years before UMass Dining reinvented itself and eventually earned a place near and then at the top of the annual rankings for best on-campus food.

“Back then, the food at UMass was terrible,” Lowry recalled, speaking from personal experience and anecdotal information. “Most universities were already off to the races, but UMass was still stuck with food that wasn’t that great. So everyone was starving.

“We couldn’t keep up — for years,” he went on. “Back then, we were doing three times the business we’re doing now in Amherst, adjusted for inflation. We were serving three times as many people back then as we do now, because UMass food is now some of the best in the world, so students don’t go out to eat as much.”

Still, the Amherst location, and the others as well, are faring quite well amid what has become a boom in Mexican fare, and especially fresh-Mex food, one that has helped fuel expansion of Bueno Y Sano well beyond its downtown Amherst roots.

Bob Lowry

Bob Lowry says he long ago learned the importance of positive reinforcement, and he passes that message along to those he teaches and mentors.

Indeed, while a location that opened in Boston not far from Boston University quickly proved a bust — “we didn’t do any business in the evening because BU had awesome food” — the others have generally thrived, although the location in West Springfield in the Riverdale Shops hasn’t generated the traffic that was anticipated.

“We’re not a college-town place,” Lowry explained. “It’s a very broad market that we serve. Mexican food … if it’s not the biggest sector right now, it’s going to be, and soon. And we’re fresh Mex, quick service, which has grown like a weed ever since the day we started. There are probably 250 fresh-Mex, quick-service places in Massachusetts right now, where back then, there were probably 10, including us.”

The popularity of fresh Mex certainly helped Bueno Y Sano weather the pandemic, said Lowry, adding that, in 2020, the company registered roughly 75% of the sales it would during a normal year by focusing entirely on takeout and benefiting greatly from an online ordering system that was put in place before COVID-19 but not used extensively until the pandemic arrived.

“The Acton and Springfield locations actually did better than they did the year before,” he explained, adding that the company continues to do a great deal of business via the takeout route, with perhaps 80% of sales coming that way, while before the pandemic, it was probably 50%.

 

Hot Stuff

Flashing back to the days when he conceived Bueno Y Sano, Lowry said fresh Mex was a solid idea and, as things have turned out, a solid business proposition.

But it was also a means to an end — an opportunity to do what he wanted and not do what, deep down, he knew he couldn’t do — work for someone else.

“The things that go with a job were not motivating to me,” he explained. “I wanted to be the boss. I wanted to make decisions and do the fun stuff if I wanted to.”

Elaborating, and putting to work a phrase one hears often these days, Lowry wanted a business he could work on, not in.

“The vast majority of entrepreneurs get stuck working in the business as opposed to on it, and that’s a big trick,” he told BusinessWest. “That was part of my vision from the very, very first thought: I’m going to work on it, and other people can work in it. And it’s going to be fun, and people are going to like working for me because I’m not going to step on my feet by discouraging people.”

Expanding on that thought, Bueno Y Sano has become the kind of business he can work on, not in, he said, adding that he’s involved day to day, but there isn’t anything approaching micromanagement. He has put aside time to do other things, like teaching entreptreneurship, which creates an important balance — and often more fun.

He said the class, which he’s been teaching since 2006, has several components, including a pitch contest, the textbook, and guest entrepreneurs (he’s one of them) who will share experiences from their ventures and adventures. Over the years, a number of students, maybe 40 to 50 by his count, have gone on to start their own businesses.

Lowry said the teaching has been … well, a learning experience for him while standing at the front of the classroom, one that has given him great clarity about what works in all workplaces, and especially his.

“When they’re the boss, most people have as their first reaction the thought that their job is to catch people doing things wrong and tell them about it. But with just a small adjustment in philosophy, they could understand that their job is to catch people doing things right and tell everyone about it. And if they did that, they would be much more successful.”

With that, he returned to his chosen textbook, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which is subtitled The Only Book You Need to Lead You to Success, commentary he agrees with wholeheartedly.

Slicing through its 288 pages, he said it provides a roadmap for being not necessarily a popular leader (although that, too), but an effective one.

“Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain,” he said, while listing some of the tenets he has long lived by. “Show people genuine appreciation; let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers; give people a reputation to live up to; avoid arguments; be a great listener. These are the things you need to do as a leader and business owner.

“I’m always learning to be a better listener, and I’m always learning to take advantage of positive reinforcement,” he went on. “When they’re the boss, most people have as their first reaction the thought that their job is to catch people doing things wrong and tell them about it. But with just a small adjustment in philosophy, they could understand that their job is to catch people doing things right and tell everyone about it. And if they did that, they would be much more successful.”

And while this approach, or attitude, is one that works for entrepreneurs, it does for everyone else as well, he noted.

“If I can help them see what works with people, then I will have succeeded,” Lowry said in conclusion. “Because all of them will use it in their lives, whether they’re entrepreneurs or not. Positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement. If you take it to heart, you can enjoy management and help people grow. The success of the people in your business is your success.”

 

Bottom Line

Getting back to that list of ideas that he used to keep his back pocket and that now mostly resides in his briefcase, Lowry said that, during those staff meetings — both years ago and quite recently — he would often get around to some of those items he had written down that hadn’t been addressed to that point.

“Half the time, they had a better idea than me, but at the end, I would have a few ideas left on my list, and I would say, ‘what do you think about this, and what do you think about that?’” he explained. “People are much more open to things after you’ve listened to their ideas.”

That’s another lesson that he passes on to his students, many of whom share his lack of enthusiasm, if not fear, of working for someone else.

In his case, that fear led to opportunity, and a chance to not only be successful in business, but also impart lessons to others on how to do the same.

In both cases, Lowry has certainly been a class act.

 

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

Cover Story

Beyond the Firewall

The recent spate of high-profile cyberattacks, many involving paid ransoms featuring six or seven zeroes, has brought an ongoing, and escalating, problem even more to the forefront. Businesses are being advised that the problem needs to be managed — before the worst happens. That means having a detailed plan involving many layers to keep things safe.

 

As he talks about cybersecurity, Charlie Christianson, owner of CMD Technology Group, equates that art and science (mostly science) to an onion.

By that, he means it has layers — many of them — with each one being important to the desired end in this matter: keeping one’s data, business, financial information, and perhaps life and livelihood safe.

“The goal isn’t to have one be-all, end-all product or solution that’s going to protect you — it’s a variety of things,” he explained. “It’s about trying to put as many layers between the threat on the outside and the asset, which is at the core.

“Most people understand the firewall discussion,” he went on. “But what they’re starting to understand is that it’s not just the stuff that protects you — it’s your staff, it’s your people, it’s the training, it’s the education, it’s the policies, and having all that in place.”

Christenson, like everyone else in this business, has been making this onion analogy — or whatever phraseology they use to get their points across — quite often these days. That’s because cybersecurity — mostly in the form of high-profile, as in very high-profile, attacks — has been in the news lately. Again. Or still, to be more accurate.

These attacks have come one after another: the Colonial Pipeline, the steamship service to the islands in Massachusetts, the meat company JBS, and many others.

Collectively, what these hacks have shown that businesses across all sectors are vulnerable, and this isn’t a problem for other people to worry about.

That has always been the case, said those we spoke with, but the recent spate of cyberattacks and the relentless coverage of them have served as a needed wakeup call for business owners of all sizes, most of which — the number varies depending on who you talk to, but it’s at least 50% — are simply not ready to handle or respond to the kind of attacks seen lately.

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson likens cybersecurity to an onion; both have, or should have, many layers.

Which brings Christianson back to his onion, and Phil Bianco to diabetes, or type 2 diabetes, to be exact.

“It’s always easier to prevent diabetes than to treat it after the fact,” said Bianco, chief technical officer with Melillo Consulting, which has three offices in the Northeast, including one in Springfield. “It’s the same thing with security — it’s always easier to manage things prior to the incident and be prepared for that and act appropriately.”

Elaborating, he said there are many elements to the process of managing before something bad happens, everything from having your system assessed so that vulnerabilities can be identified to acting on the recommendations listed in that assessment; from training employees on how spot suspicious e-mails to knowing what to do and whom to call when your system is attacked.

And while Melillo and all other firms in this business sector will do remediation — coming in after the hack and putting things back as they were, to the extent possible — and “stop the bleeding,” as Bianco put it, businesses would find it much better, and cheaper, if they hired the same company to handle preparation and prevention and work to eliminate the cuts that cause the bleeding.

“The goal isn’t to have one be-all, end-all product or solution that’s going to protect you — it’s a variety of things. It’s about trying to put as many layers between the threat on the outside and the asset, which is at the core.”

The high-profile cyberattacks of the past few weeks are an indication of how widespread the problem is, but they are also misleading to some extent, said those we spoke with, because they have involved mostly larger businesses and entities with very deep pockets, as evidenced by the size of the ransoms they paid. The sobering reality is that small businesses are a more attractive target because they are likely to be less prepared for such an attack.

“Cyberattacks are really a numbers game, and small businesses are less likely to invest in the cybersecurity practices, so they’re seen as low-hanging fruit,” said Lauren Ostberg, an attorney with the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson (and a member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2021), who helped spearhead the launch of the firm’s cybersecurity practice.

Lauren Ostberg

Lauren Ostberg says small businesses, many without IT teams or sophisticated cybersecurity systems, are low-hanging fruit for hackers.

“And these attackers also sell each other pre-made malware, so less sophisticated attackers can just send out 100 different phishing e-mails, see what sticks, and then attack there,” she explained. “So nonprofits are at risk, small- to medium-sized businesses are at risk, and, in most cases, they don’t have the insurance to back them up to minimize that risk, and they don’t realize how vulnerable they are.”

Everyone should now understand just how vulnerable they are, said those we spoke with, adding quickly that some remain slow to take action and adjust to what is a troubling new world order. Those who don’t adjust do so at their peril, said these experts, adding that recent events show just how easy it is to be attacked, and how painful, costly, and time-consuming it is to repair the damage that’s been done.

 

What the Hack?

As they talked about those behind all the cyberattacks going on in the world right now, those we spoke with used a wide array of descriptive adjectives to let people know just whom they’re dealing with.

Words like sophisticated, diabolical, persistent, and relentless were used early and quite often, as was another that should get the hair up on every business owner: automated.

“It is only a matter of time before any organization falls victim to one of these attacks,” said Joel Mollison, president of Westfield-based Northeast IT, who said this inevitability shouldn’t prompt paralysis, but instead well-thought-out action to prevent (to the extent possible) such an attack, and then recover as quickly and painlessly as possible if an attack does occur.

“It’s always easier to prevent diabetes than to treat it after the fact. It’s the same thing with security — it’s always easier to manage things prior to the incident and be prepared for that and act appropriately.”

Mollison puts it in clear perspective, if anyone wasn’t already sure.

“Typically, we find that most organizations have basic security measures in place, but rarely understand their level of potential exposure or impact on operations during such an event,” he said. “The ability to recover from one of these events varies widely based on size of the organization, data volume, and locations of data and services. Even in the best-case scenarios, this process can take many days or weeks.

“Business operations are almost always crippled to a marginal capacity while systems are recovered,” he went on. “The financial impact, even without having to pay a ransom, is often devastating, and most cyber liability policies are underfunded, which compounds the problem. There are also compliance, reporting, and legal factors that are part of the recovery process that are often overlooked.”

Stan Bates, director of Business Development for Melillo, agreed. Relating some recent and current cases his firm is handling, he said they effectively communicate how widespread the problem is, what issues and problems are confronting business owners, the costs involved (and there are many of them), and the direction this matter is taking.

Joel Mollison

Given the sophistication and persistence of today’s cybercriminals, Joel Mollison says it’s only a matter of time before any organization falls victim to an attack.

One involves a large nonprofit in the healthcare sector, he said, adding that this client found out the hard way all that can be involved with returning things to the way they were before the attack.

“It got hit really hard, and they called us to help fix the situation,” Bates recalled. “They were hacked, they put their system down, they were out of e-mail, they were out of just about everything you can think of. The sad part was they weren’t prepared to know what to do, and to top it off, their insurance company forced them to use their security group, which had a limited knowledge of their network, and pay for those services, while also paying us to come in and help those guys understand what they had and fix it.

“They’re up and running,” he went on. “But it took about two weeks.”

Another case involves a small machine shop in the Hartford area, he said, adding that this small business has been informed that, if it wants to keep getting contracts from the federal government, it must meet a series of guidelines regarding cyberattacks and being fully prepared for them. “It’s going to run about $4,000 to $5,000 a month for us to monitor and secure his system and hit the score the federal government is telling him to hit.”

 

Something’s Phishy

These anecdotes are just some of many that help tell the story of how cybersecurity is becoming a huge issue for business owners and managers, one they can no longer ignore — not that they could really ignore it before.

Indeed, such sobering messages have been delivered with increasing frequency over the past several weeks as the high-profile attacks — and the ransom payments that include six and sometimes seven zeroes — come with increasing regularity. And they have certainly stimulated some interest within the business community, and also government offices and nonprofits, to be ready, or at least more ready.

“The conversations have changed. In the past, there were certain people you could talk to until you were blue in the face, and it was purely a dollars-and-cents discussion: ‘you want me to spend how much in a firewall, or this piece of software?’ Now, it’s ‘what can we do?’”

“The conversations have changed,” Christianson said. “In the past, there were certain people you could talk to until you were blue in the face, and it was purely a dollars-and-cents discussion: ‘you want me to spend how much in a firewall, or this piece of software?’ Now, it’s ‘what can we do?’”

Ostberg agreed. “People are taking the matter more seriously, and they’re taking me more seriously when I tell them they have to plan for cybersecurity incidents,” she said. “I’ve noticed an increase in concern, especially about ransomware, which can really cripple a business.

“The Massachusetts regulations and the advice I give my clients provide a lot of good ideas about ways to prevent or mitigate some of the risk that would be caused by some of the hacks we’re seeing,” she went on. “And it’s focused on building layers of prevention.”

At or near the top of any list of prevention measures is training, specifically involving the detection of phishing e-mails, which comprise the entry point for most of the hacks that occur today, according to those we spoke with.

Melillo Consulting

Members of the team at Melillo Consulting, from left, Phil Bianco, Doug Morrison, and Stan Bates.

As they talked about these e-mails, they summoned some of those same adjectives as they tried to convey just how sophisticated they have become.

“The phishing is getting more elaborate, and the social engineering that goes behind it is far more advanced than what we’ve seen in the past,” said Doug Morrison, practice director for the Development Operations team at Melillo. “It used to be that the e-mails were intentionally easy to sleuth out, because that way they could weed out the people they didn’t want; they wanted the people who were easily fooled to click on the link. But now, it’s getting very elaborate and very difficult to tell real e-mails from the fake e-mails.”

With this level of sophistication, Bianco said, it really is only a matter of time before someone makes a mistake and opens the door for a cyberattacker. But training and knowing to be on alert and skeptical of everything remotely suspicious are still critical to help minimize such incidents.

“Know who you’re doing business with,” he said. “Trust an e-mail if it’s someone you’ve done business with in the past. And if it isn’t someone you’ve done business with in the past, be skeptical of that; if you’re in question, send it over to your IT team, and let them take a look at it. If they see a bad e-mail, they can tell you immediately, ‘hey, we’ve seen this before, this is not something you should work with — please delete this or quarantine this,’ or, if they haven’t seen it, they can send it on to an anti-spam or anti-virus protection service that they’ve engaged with, and that individual or group can look at it across multiple things that they’ve seen.”

In dealing with suspicious e-mails, Bates cited his own firm as an example of the kind of rigorous training that can and should go on.

“We do quarterly training — each employee has to take a test and pass it,” he explained. “It’s terribly difficult, but it instills in your mind some of the things that are going on out there. Just the other day, we got hit, but everyone in the organization was smart enough, because of their training, to delete before they opened.”

 

Backup Plan

Because of the seeming inevitability that these sophisticated phishing attacks will succeed, businesses of all sizes need to have all the other layers of that onion to fully protect themselves from attacks — the training and the policies, in addition to the hardware and software.

“You have to have all the other layers in place because you simply cannot rely on humans not to click on e-mails at the pace that they’re required to do,” said Morrison, noting, as others did, that subsequent layers include a firewall, backing up all information, and encryption of information.

As noted, there are layers to backing up information, said the experts we spoke with, noting that the best solution is to isolate the backups as much as possible from the main network.

“Most companies do back up, but these malwares that do ransomware are pretty sophisticated,” Bianco explained. “The average time that that individual has compromised your network is typically a month or more. And in that month or more, they can go through and encrypt your backups as well as your production-installed system, your code bases, and things like that.

“Know who you’re doing business with. Trust an e-mail if it’s someone you’ve done business with in the past. And if it isn’t someone you’ve done business with in the past, be skeptical of that.”

“And they have a pretty sophisticated map of what your environment looks like, so we’ve been working with customers to do what’s called air-gabbing backups,” he went on. “Once that infrastructure is backed up, it’s completely separated from your network, so it can’t be encrypted.”

Christianson agreed, and noted that such independent, often off-site backup systems need to not only be in place, but be monitored as well.

“We’ve all heard the stories … people think they’re backing up for a long period of time, only to find out that, when they need it, the backups are not working,” he said. “That’s why people are starting to realize that it’s really important to have these systems monitored in some fashion, and that there are multiple layers.”

As for whether to pay that ransom … most consultants, and lawyers like Ostberg, certainly recommend against that practice, although that hasn’t stopped many of those who have been attacked from paying out millions in Bitcoin.

“One of the things that’s just awful is seeing people pay the ransom,” Christianson said, “because that’s not the answer. You’re just encouraging them to come back — and they will come back, not to mention the fact that they give you the key and you get your data, but you have no idea what they dropped in there and left for a back door.

“Honestly, in some cases, the only way to know is to reformat it, reinstall it all, scan the heck out of the data, and bring it back from the ground up,” he went on. “Or, manage a good disaster-recovery backup plan.”

Which brings him all the way back to that onion he referenced at the top. It should have many, many layers, he said, with more added as they become available and necessary, because what worked and what was enough a few years ago probably isn’t enough now, and certainly won’t be enough a few years and maybe even a few months from now.

That’s how quickly and profoundly the scene is changing when it comes to cybersecurity and protecting a business, nonprofit, school system, government agency, or household from those who would do it harm.

Managing the problem is all-important, said those who spoke with, but what’s most important is managing it before the worst happens — because doing so can often prevent the worst from happening.

 

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

Cover Story

The Next Stage

The governor calls the last phase of his reopening plan the ‘new normal.’ It’s a phrase people are already tired of, even if they use it themselves. Life in the new normal isn’t like it was during the pandemic, and it isn’t like it was in 2019, either. As the stories below reveal, it’s a different time — a time everyone has been waiting for since workers packed up their things and headed home to work in March 2020. It’s a time of opportunity and a chance to recover some of what’s been lost. But there are still a number of challenges and questions to be answered, involving everything from workforce issues to when business travel will resume, to just how much pent-up demand there is for products and services.

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This Berkshires staple has exhibited patience and flexibility

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At these eateries, guests will determine pace of reopening

 

 

Cover Story

The Rising Cost of … Everything

To understand what’s happening in today’s global economy, one UMass economist said it’s helpful to picture it as a grid filled with connected nodes. When one of those nodes — manufacturing, distribution, shipping, you name it — is disrupted, the impact is felt by everyone. These days, those disruptions are occurring across the supply chain, and for many different reasons, causing costs to soar — both for businesses and their customers. It’s a major concern with no simple solution, and some worry that rising prices may derail what is otherwise looking like an economy in recovery.

When people sit down at a restaurant, Bryan Graham says, they don’t usually consider how their favorite meals and ingredients get there. They just expect them to be there.

It’s not always a smooth process, and the last couple months, especially, have been a challenge.

“There have been shortages on everything — things you wouldn’t think about, everything from the beverage side to the food side,” said Graham, regional manager for the Bean Restaurant Group, which boasts a family of 11 eateries throughout the region, from Johnny’s Tavern in Amherst to the Boathouse in South Hadley to the Student Prince in Springfield.

And those shortages have a financial impact, he went on. “Increases in prices have gone through the roof — to the point where we’ve moved some things off the menu because we can’t keep up with the prices; we’re losing money.”

The company has taken to switching menu items or brands of ingredients to keep up with price fluctuations, Graham added. “We’d always purchase one brand of canned tomatoes or one brand of ketchup, but we’re seeing brands being short, so we have to switch brands to get by without running out of product day to day.”

It makes for an odd market, he said. “You place your order, and you don’t really know if it’s all coming in until you open the truck and you’re short one or two items.”

It’s not something customers typically notice — until their favorite appetizer is suddenly unavailable. “Ninety percent of our customers are really understanding. The other 10% are like, ‘what do you mean I can’t have this?’ Unfortunately, we don’t want to charge you $40 for 10 chicken wings. Most people are pretty good about it.”

Bryan Graham says high food prices have forced the occasional menu change

Bryan Graham says high food prices have forced the occasional menu change because the Bean Restaurant Group doesn’t want to pass exorbitant costs to customers.

Nationally, food prices rose 0.4% in April, both at restaurants and on grocery shelves. Prices are up 2.4% from May 2020.

But it’s not just food. Rising prices for … well, almost everything have become one of the leading economic stories of 2021. One reason is a positive of sorts — the economy is reopening at high speed. Unfortunately, in some cases, supply chains have been slow to respond to growing consumer demand.

For example, American steel manufacturers all but shut down production last spring as the pandemic took hold and the economy imploded. But as the recovery ramped up, mills were slow to resume full production, creating a massive steel shortage, one that has severely impacted building costs.

Meanwhile, sawmills also shut down lumber production last spring to brace for a housing slump that never arrived — and now, with the housing market on fire, both in new construction and home improvement, lumber shortages have sent consumer prices soaring. In fact, the median sale price of existing homes nationwide surged by 17.2% in March to a record $329,100.

Anna Nagurney, the Eugene M. Isenberg chair in Integrative Studies at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, said soaring prices in construction are a natural result of home-improvement activity increasing during the pandemic, while home buying never really slowed.

“People haven’t been traveling or anything, so they’ve been improving their homes, building decks, and so on,” she said. “Now we’ve seen the price of lumber has escalated dramatically in the last couple of months.”

The pandemic messed with supply and demand in unexpected ways, but now that the economy is reopening and consumers want to go out and spend (and, in many cases, have been saving those stimulus checks for that purpose), supply has run into a number of roadblocks, from the slow ramp-up of the lumber and steel industries to serious delays in freight shipping (more on that later) to a shortage of workers putting additional strain on businesses.

“People want bigger homes, better homes, they have more money, the federal government has been pretty good to people … there’s just much more demand for products,” Nagurney said.

Anna Nagurney

Anna Nagurney

“People haven’t been traveling or anything, so they’ve been improving their homes, building decks, and so on. Now we’ve seen the price of lumber has escalated dramatically in the last couple of months.”

She noted that the Trump administration was more overt about pursuing trade wars, and while back-and-forth tariffs haven’t been as much of an issue lately, the U.S. is still not on great terms with China, which significantly impacts the cost of steel, aluminum, and rare-earth metals. “The geopolitics is scary.”

Gas prices are on the rise as well, which impacts every sector of the economy, said Peter Picknelly, chairman and CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines.

“Rising fuel has an effect on everyone — people have to ship things, produce things … it’s not just gas, but everything we buy,” he said. “Chicken and beef and produce, they all need machinery to harvest; that’s all fuel. You have to transport it; that’s all fuel. Rising fuel costs are a significant hit to the average consumer.”

 

Easing the Burden

In the case of lumber, the shortage has been exacerbated by existing tariffs. In the spring of 2017, the Trump administration hit Canada with tariffs of up to 24% on lumber. During the final months of his presidency, those tariffs were slashed to 9%, but the National Assoc. of Home Builders is calling on the Biden administration to temporarily remove the 9% tariff on Canadian lumber to help ease price volatility.

Supply-chain issues aren’t helping, from the six-day Suez Canal shutdown in March to clear the container ship Ever Given to the cyberattack that shut down the Colonial Pipeline earlier this month, to a critical shortage of shipping containers worldwide, particularly in Asia. Companies are waiting weeks for containers to become available and paying premium rates to secure them, causing shipping costs to skyrocket.

Peter Picknelly says fuel prices affect more than the transportation sector he works in

Peter Picknelly says fuel prices affect more than the transportation sector he works in, impacting everything from manufactured goods to the processing and delivery of food.

“The containers are not where they’re supposed to be,” Nagurney said. “It’s like a puzzle. We need to move them. That’s one of the reasons we can’t get some of the goods from China, like furniture. The prices of shipping containers have gone up as a result because they’re not where they should be.”

Margeaux MacDonald knows that well. As imports manager for East Coast Tile, which supplies Best Tile in Springfield, she is dealing with significant delays in bringing material in from Europe and Asia.

“There are huge delays right now,” she said. “We could have a booking on an actual boat and might not have a container to put the material in. Or, we’ve been bumped from boats because the vessel is overbooked. It’s frustrating — it’s taking four weeks, depending on where the stuff is. In Portugal, the booking is awful; it’s taking forever to get on the boat.”

The backups are affecting shipping costs — significantly. As one example, she cited a container from Turkey that currently costs four times as much to book as it did only a few months ago. “That’s just to pay for the container to get on the ocean carrier.”

Not all locations have gone up as dramatically, MacDonald added, noting that rates from Italy have more or less doubled — not as bad as the Turkey situation, but not ideal. “And we’re not the only ones seeing delays,” she said, citing a company she works with that’s trying to get a container of material from Brazil to New York, and has been delayed more than a month.

“I’m relatively new in this position, but I’ve definitely picked the brains of veterans across the industry, and a lot of people have said to me, ‘I’ve never seen this — I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, and I’ve never seen the volume and delays coming right now.’”

“I’m relatively new in this position, but I’ve definitely picked the brains of veterans across the industry, and a lot of people have said to me, ‘I’ve never seen this — I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, and I’ve never seen the volume and delays coming right now.’”

The problem doesn’t end when the product is shipped, she added. With huge backups in ports, truckers are sometimes waiting hours to load, and instead of hauling two or three loads a day, they might get only one. And returning empty containers to port has become more difficult as well. All these factors raise prices down the supply line. “There are a lot of moving pieces.”

It’s helpful to think about supply chains holistically to convey what’s going on, Nagurney said, describing the global economy as a grid of connected nodes representing manufacturing sites, warehouses, freight service providers, distribution centers, and demand points. A disruption at any of those nodes reverberates throughout the grid — and the economy has endured many such disruptions over the past year, on both the supply and demand sides.

“We’ve seen all sorts of shocks — supply shocks, different kinds of demand shocks, and, more recently, what’s happening with freight issues, from port congestion to the Ever Given blocking freight in the Suez Canal.

“With lumber, some of it has to do with higher tariffs on Canadian lumber,” she went on. “We don’t have containers in the right places to ship lumber. Freight costs are going up, and there’s all sorts of demand on imports from Europe.”

In short, things are chaotic right now, and that globally connected grid is under plenty of stress.

 

Inflation Spikes

Which brings us back to rising prices on, again, almost everything. U.S. consumer prices in April increased 4.2% from a year earlier, more than the 3.6% economists had predicted, and the largest 12-month increase since September 2008.

The biggest driver of last month’s inflation jump, CNN reported, was a 10% increase in used cars and trucks, which accounted for more than one-third of the overall inflation increase. Over the past year, used-car prices rose 21%, due in large part to a spike in demand — as people sought to travel last year without relying on public transit — just as car manufacturers were closed or running at diminished capacity.

Other factors in April’s inflation report include rising costs for furniture — a casualty of the shipping backlog — and hotels, airline tickets, and recreational activities, a trend that speaks to growing demand among Americans to get back to normal life.

Restaurants are feeling that demand, and are struggling, in many cases, to staff up to meet it.

“More places are reopening, and restrictions are being lifted,” Graham said. “That goes to supply and demand — demand was down for so long, and now it’s back up.”

However, he noted, federal unemployment benefits have kept service workers — who are in some cases, being paid more for not working — away from available jobs.

Bob Bolduc knows this story well. The CEO of Pride Stores said he recently shuttered four stores because he didn’t have anyone to staff them — and he blames unrealistically generous unemployment benefits.

“We’ve been competing with the government for 15 months now, and we’re not getting through to them,” he said. “The real story is how much the government is paying, and how that’s driving prices up unrealistically.

“We’re all paying the same people, for the same labor, two to five dollars an hour more than we normally do, and the definition of inflation is when you pay a lot more but don’t get anything more for it,” he went on. “The biggest factor is that we’re competing with the government for labor — the government is paying people to stay home, and we’re trying to get them to come back to work.”

The frustration is palpable, Bolduc said. “People say they can’t get a job, but we offer them jobs, and they don’t show up. They just want to come in and apply to say they applied. And nobody checks; they’re just giving it away. It’s been that way for 15 months now, and it’s worse than you realize. People have no idea.”

State officials have heard such complaints from business owners, however, and announced last week that, starting in mid-June, Massachusetts will more diligently require proof of genuine job-search activity as a condition of accessing unemployment benefits.

At the same time, Bolduc said, “other prices are going crazy — on everything. Convenience items and food are up at least 10%, maybe pushing 15%, and I don’t see an end in sight.”

For some industries, rising prices can be a benefit.

“We always view our largest competitor as passenger automobiles,” Peter Pan’s Picknelly said. “Historically, when fuel starts going over $3.50, we see a significant increase in passengers because it’s just too expensive for people to travel, so they look for alternatives in the bus.”

If anything, rising fuel prices — married to a desire among people to get away this summer — has benefited Peter Pan’s business, Picknelly explained, noting that Cape Cod trips are almost 100% booked, while he sees similar interest in destinations like New York and Washington, D.C. The reason is that people are looking to travel a little closer to home — in range of a drive, not a flight — and see bus travel as an affordable, low-stress option.

High gas prices should also benefit the company’s commuter buses by making public transit more attractive, he said, noting that the average city bus gets about 280 passenger miles to the gallon, as opposed to about one-tenth of that for cars.

 

The Struggle Continues

That makes for an environmentally friendly byproduct of a challenging economic season. And Nagurney doesn’t separate the economy from the environment — in fact, she believes business and industry leaders need to adopt techniques from disaster management because climate change remains a factor in the global economy.

“Things aren’t going to get better — we’ll see more storms, more floods, more hurricanes, sea levels rising, even more things like the fires we had on the West Coast. Climate change will lead to a greater frequency of natural disasters, and that will affect global supply chains, and it’ll take longer to get products.”

For now, though, most businesses are just focused on when the short-term stress will end. And no one really knows the answer to that.

“In January, we thought this will probably last until March,” MacDonald said of the shipping delays. “In March, we heard it might fizzle out by the summer. We’re almost to summertime, and I’m releasing things from Spain that can’t get a booking until the beginning of July.

“And we’re seeing a huge increase in sales, too,” she added. “There’s a huge need in the United States, and we’re trying to pump as much material as we can into the States, but it’s a struggle.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Class of 2021 Cover Story

When BusinessWest launched a program in 2007 to honor young professionals in Western Mass. — not only for their career achievements, but for their service to the community — there was little concern the initial flow of nominations might slow to a trickle years later.

We were right. In fact, 40 Under Forty has become such a coveted honor in the region’s business community that the flow has turned into an annual flood, with almost 200 unique nominations arriving this year — a near-record — making the task of five independent judges tougher than ever.

But it was also an inspiring task, as these nominations testified to the continued vibrancy and dedication of the region’s young professionals, even during a year that has been unusual at the best of times and, for many industries, crushing during the worst.


View this year’s 40 Under Forty digital flipbook here!


As usual, the honorees — 26 women and 14 men — hail from a host of different industries, from law to engineering; from education to healthcare; from energy to media, just to name a few. But there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on what else they do in each of those realms.

The class of 2021 will be celebrated on Thursday, Sept. 23 at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. That gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the seventh annual Alumni Achievement Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges.

Presenting Sponsor

Sponsors

Alumni Achievement Award

When BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty program in 2007, it did so to identify rising stars across our region – individuals who were excelling in business and through involvement within the community –and celebrate their accomplishments. In 2015, BusinessWest announced a new award, one that builds on the foundation upon which 40 Under Forty was created. It’s called the Alumni Achievement Award (formerly the Continued Excellence Award). as the name suggests, will be presented to the 40 Under Forty honoree who, in the eyes of an independent panel of judges, has most impressively continued and built upon their track record of accomplishment.

This year’s nominations are CLOSED. Nominate next year’s Alumni Achievement Award recipient HERE.

2021 Alumni Achievement Award Presenting Sponsor

Cover Story COVID-19

Help Wanted

Long before COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass., businesses across many sectors were struggling to find adequate supplies of good help. But now, just as the economy seems ready to surge, the problem, fueled increasingly by unemployment benefits that are conspiring to keep workers on the sidelines, is getting considerably worse, with no real end in sight.

 

Steve Corrigan has been in the landscaping business for more than 40 years now, and for most of that time, finding good help has been a challenge — to one degree or another.

But he says he’s never seen anything quite like this.

“Between our Chicopee location, a small branch we have in Wilbraham, and the office we have in Manchester, Conn., we probably have 12 to 15 positions we could fill tomorrow if we could find the people,” said Corrigan, president of Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare, adding that this is a mighty big ‘if’ at the moment. “It’s crazy what’s going on — and it’s across the board.”

Indeed, his company is one of countless businesses across virtually every sector of the economy that are struggling mightily to fill positions, even as unemployment remains somewhat high in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many reasons for this imbalance between open positions and adequate supplies of qualified help, but the main culprit comes in the form of federal unemployment benefits, including a $300 weekly bonus that is part of the American Rescue Plan. These benefits, say area employers, are serving as a strong deterrent to putting people back into the workforce.

“When you do the math, if you took a person making $20 an hour … with their normal unemployment, they’d be getting $500 to $600 a week,” said Corrigan. “Throw another 300 bucks on top of it … and why would you go to work for $20 an hour? It doesn’t make sense.”

Employers have been posing similar questions since the first stimulus-related unemployment benefits — complete with a $600 weekly bonus — were approved roughly a year ago. But the situation is even more precarious now, because the economy, after a slow to very slow 2020, depending on the sector of the economy, is starting to rev up again. And just as companies are looking forward to consumers going back out again and spending some of the money they’ve been saving over the past 14 months, businesses are being hit with pervasive hiring issues — and deep concerns about if and when the situation might improve.

As noted, the problem exists across the board — with landscapers, home-improvement companies, and pool installers; restaurants and banquet facilities; golf courses and local farm stands; manufacturers and service businesses.

In response to the problem, employers have tried a number of strategies — from sign-on bonuses to higher wages to rewards for referrals that lead to new hires. Meanwhile, most all forms of marketing for businesses in a variety of sectors now include references to looking for help, being a great place to work, or both.

For the most part, these strategies seem to be generating lukewarm results, with those unemployment benefits being just one of many issues to contend with. Another is the inability, or unwillingness, on the part of most states, including this one, to enforce the basic rules pertaining to unemployment eligibility.

Greg Omasta, right, seen here with his son, Chris, at the new Walsh Park in Springfield

Greg Omasta, right, seen here with his son, Chris, at the new Walsh Park in Springfield, says his company has responded to the ongoing challenge of finding workers by hiking wages above the average for this region.

“Most of the states have done away with the requirement that people on unemployment actively look for work,” said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, which has seen its hotline handle a number of calls related to this matter and a host of related issues. “In pre-pandemic times, if people were on unemployment, they had to prove that they were physically out there looking for work — applying for jobs, looking at the help-wanted ads, and actively seeking work. And those with the state would occasionally ask them to prove that they were doing all this. With the pandemic, the employment offices have been overrun, and states took away that requirement that you were looking for work.”

Perhaps the best hopes for area employers are that returning college students and area high-school students soon to be off for the summer might increase the pool of applicants — and that the unemployment benefits are due to expire in September.

But even those hopes are tempered by the realization that September is a ways off, and the benefits may well be extended by elected officials who have already shown a willingness to do that.

“It’s crazy what’s going on — and it’s across the board.”

So companies, some of them with the help of EANE and even area marketing companies, are honing their messages and updating their hiring strategies in the hope they will have enough warm bodies to take advantage of what is expected to be an uptick — if not a surge — in the economy.

For this issue, we look at what they’re up against and what they doing in the face of this growing challenge to their ongoing success.

 

Labor Pains

As they talked with BusinessWest about the hiring challenges they’re now facing, business owners, almost with one voice, said that COVID has simply exacerbated a problem that has existed for some time now.

Indeed, the phrase ‘skills gap’ has been a part of the local lexicon for years now, with many businesses, especially those in manufacturing, but in other sectors as well, struggling to find adequate supplies of help, with the degree of difficulty varying with the relative condition of the economy.

Chad Jzyk, HR business partner for Charter Next Generation (CNG), a Turners Falls-based manufacturer of plastic blown film for the medical industry, said the company has been challenged to find help for several years now. But the problem has reached a new level in recent months.

“There’s not a huge availability of workers — the pipeline of basic-skilled applicants is really non-existent,” he noted, adding that the company has been running with one and a half to two open positions monthly on an almost constant basis for some time now. COVID has made the situation worse, at a time when the opposite might be expected because of the number of people out of work, and for several reasons, he said.

“With the stimulus checks and unemployment extension, the availability of workers has been impacted in a negative way,” he said, referring to both the number of applicants in the pool and their willingness to accept an employment opportunity.

“We’ve tried to engage with a couple of temporary agencies,” he went on. “In the past, it was common that you would have an applicant pool of temporary workers of between 15 and 20 people that were already pre-screened and ready to go — you’d call the employment agency and, pretty much on the spot, get someone in 24 hours. Working with a few local agencies that we’ve traditionally worked with … there’s no applicant pool; they’re seeing the same thing.”

Jzyk said the company’s hiring challenges have yet to directly impact production or limit its ability to take on new orders. However, he said it does limit CNG’s ability to be more “proactive,” as he put it, and do more when it comes to training and flexibility with employees’ responsibilities.

For other employers, the shortage of workers represents a real threat to day-to-day operations and especially the ability to handle the larger volumes of business expected as the region returns to something approaching normal as vaccinations rise and consumers venture back out to restaurants, bars, museums, stores, and more.

Nadim Kashouh, owner of Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill in downtown Springfield, said he’s looking forward to the return of shows to the MassMutual Center and other forms of vibrancy, but he quickly, as in very quickly, changed to the subject of staffing and his ongoing concerns about whether he can find enough help to handle whatever surge comes.

Meredith Wise says the escalating challenges facing employers looking to hire are prompting wage skirmishes in some sectors.

“I hesitate to get too excited because one of the things we’re dealing with right now is the lack of people who want to work,” he told BusinessWest, gesturing to a lighted message board behind the bar. Among the many messages being delivered is that help is wanted — and that display is just one of many ways that point is being made.

“We have created a commercial that focuses on how our patio will be open soon,” he said. “But it also notes that we’re looking to hire people — we need to keep letting people know that.”

Fran Beaulieu, second-generation president of Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement in Chicopee, said the hiring crunch, which is certainly nothing new for that sector, has resulted from a number of factors, with COVID-related issues being only the latest additions.

Overall, fewer people have been getting into the trades, he said, and this has left the region with a shortage of carpenters and other specialists.

“You basically have an entire generation that didn’t get into the trade,” he noted, adding that, despite a wide-ranging effort involving social media and other strategies, the company has a workforce that is 30% short of what is needed. And this harsh reality is certainly impacting the firm’s ability to take on jobs — at a time when jobs are plentiful, again, due to COVID and people home so much and often of a mind to improve their surroundings.

“Finding projects has never been the problem; the problem has been managing your labor in accordance with how many projects you have sold,” Beaulieu said. “You almost have to stop selling after a while because you just don’t have the help.”

 

Hire Power

In the wake of the ongoing struggle to find adequate supplies of help, area businesses are taking a number of steps, with aggressive marketing of their staffing needs being just one of them.

Indeed, companies have initiated hiring bonuses and rewards for those who refer candidates who eventually sign on. Meanwhile, others are hiking wages, said Wise, adding that, in some sectors, wage skirmishes have arisen, the likes of which have not been seen in some time, if ever.

“What we’re seeing happening, and it’s a little scary, is that, for some positions, wage battles have ensued,” she said. “People are saying, ‘I’ll pay you $2 more an hour to come work for me because I need the help,’ and the employee goes back to his employer and says, ‘they’re willing to give me $2 more an hour; will you give me $3 more an hour to stay here?’

“There are some positions where people are willing to pay a premium to get individuals to come to work,” she went on. “And it’s starting to affect different kinds of businesses.”

One of them is the broad landscaping and lawncare sector, she noted, which has historically faced challenges to maintaining adequate staffing and is now seeing its problems escalate due to the many aspects of COVID.

Greg Omasta, owner of Hadley-based Omasta Landscaping Inc., said this has certainly been a trying year.

“Most of the states have done away with the requirement that people on unemployment actively look for work.”

“The government incentives allow people to stay home and get paid more than if they actually went to their job on a daily basis — so some of the problems small businesses are facing in this country are inflicted by our government,” he told BusinessWest, adding that some of those the company had to lay off at the end of last season have opted not to come back when offered the chance, instead choosing to collect unemployment. “But there’s a general lack of people out there in the labor force who want to work hard, like in the trade we’re in, the landscaping business. A lot of people want to sit beyond a computer screen and punch a keyboard all day.”

Historically, the company, like others in this sector, has relied heavily on legal immigrants, many from Mexico and Guatemala, he said, adding that even this pipeline has become less reliable in recent years.

As a result of this ongoing challenge, he said the company has changed the way it compensates employees, with the goal of attracting and retaining better candidates. By and large, it’s a strategy that has worked, although this year, given the many additional COVID-related challenges and responses within the industry, it is certainly being tested.

“We’re probably one of the higher-paying landscape contractors in the area,” said Omasta, whose company handles a number of large commercial accounts and municipal facilities, such as the recently reopened Pynchon Plaza in downtown Springfield, as well as residential customers. “We do that because we try to attract better people and keep those people here. Paying that higher hourly wage makes a difference in the people that we’re able to find, keep, and employ.”

Corrigan, who can certainly relate to all that, said his company hired someone to handle recruiting full-time just before COVID hit. To say her job has become difficult, and frustrating, in the wake of the pandemic and the various stimulus packages would be an understatement.

“She’s at her wit’s end with people right now,” he said, adding that, between a hesitancy to work among many people and drug tests often standing in the way of those do want to work, the talent pool has become increasingly smaller.

Chad Jzyk

Chad Jzyk

“There’s not a huge availability of workers — the pipeline of basic-skilled applicants is really non-existent.”

And this shrinking pool has definitely impacted Mountain View’s ability to expand the commercial side of its business and grow.

“We’ve had discussions — heated discussions — in our budgeting processes,” Corrigan said. “We ask ourselves, ‘how can you grow if you can’t get the help?’ And the obvious answer is, ‘you can’t.’”

 

The Job at Hand

It is that obvious answer that is keeping many business owners and managers awake at night.

Indeed, at a time when the challenges seem to be mounting for businesses of all sizes and in most all sectors — Omasta referenced the rising cost of materials such as lumber, still-escalating fuel prices, the specter of inflation, and the very real possibility of higher corporate taxes — finding good help is the one that poses the biggest threat to companies at a time when many are poised to break out from pandemic-induced doldrums.

What will happen between now and September, and even after September, remains to be seen, but it seems clear that these scary times, as Wise and others called them, are certainly far from over.

 

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

Cover Story The Cannabis Industry

Creating a Buzz

Every week, it seems, brings news of another cannabis establishment opening its doors or planning to set down roots in Western Mass. So, how does one stand out in an increasingly crowded field? For this issue, we talked with three women who own or co-own new enterprises in the region. By emphasizing facets of the business from sustainable growth to community gatherings to social equity, they make it clear that not all ‘pot shops’ are the same — that, in fact, there are many ways to make a mark on an increasingly robust cannabis ecosystem.

Helen Gomez Andrews and Chris Andrews of the High End

Sustaining a Plan

The High End Takes a Natural Approach to Edibles and Much More

Stephanie McNair of Turning Leaf Centers

Budding Connections

Turning Leaf Centers Plants Itself Firmly in the Community

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

Hire Calling

Community Growth Partners Builds on Model of Social Equity

Cover Story

Lessons Learned from COVID

It’s been said time and again that, for businesses large and small, the pandemic provided a number of learning opportunities. Companies learned new ways to do things — mostly out of necessity — while also learning that the ‘old’ way may not be the best way. Meanwhile, the pandemic provided opportunities that didn’t exist before — especially when it comes to hiring — and accelerated the pace of needed change. All that means the landscape has been altered for the long term.

Drew DiGiorgio, president and CEO of Wellfleet

Drew DiGiorgio, president and CEO of Wellfleet, in the company’s mostly unoccupied space in Tower Square.

They’re called ‘insurance bibles.’

That’s the name those at HUB Insurance have attached to the large binders — some of them containing 700 pages or more, in the case of large commercial accounts — that tell clients everything, as in everything, about what’s in their policy, what’s covered, what isn’t, and on and on.

As he held one up, Timm Marini, president of HUB International New England LLC, noted that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, bibles only came in the printed variety. Now, if a client wants one — and some of them don’t — a digital file is sent, in part because a client can’t pick one up, and HUB can’t drop one off.

And, by and large, things will stay this way, said Marini, noting that COVID has shown those at the company that they don’t need to kill trees and use up expensive toner to provide a client with their insurance bible.

“Now, you can do it all electronically,” he explained. “And you probably could before COVID, but COVID made us do it more.”

This is just one of the many things companies large and small have learned during the pandemic, lessons that will carry over to the time when COVID is referred to in the past tense. Others involve everything from not having to scan documents for tax preparers to not necessarily limiting a candidate search to those living in the 413, to not having people travel to a conference on the other side of the state if they can instead take it in via Zoom.

“It’s a mix, but many certainly want to come back. They’re lonely … they actually want to work in more of a community setting.”

In a word, the pandemic has shown area businesses and nonprofits that they have more options than maybe they thought they had, when it comes to how and where people work and just how things are done.

For this issue and its focus on the modern office, we talked with a number of business owners and managers about what’s been learned over the past 12 months or so and how COVID has actually made companies more efficient and enabled them to reduce costs in some areas. The observations were telling.

“The audit side of our practice generally required teams of people here to go visit on site at other locations,” said Sarah Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruitment manager at the Holyoke-based CPA firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka. “Because of COVID, we learned we could do these remotely, which is something we’ve never done; this was a first-time experience not just for us, but for people in our industry. We’ve learned that it’s fine, it is efficient, and with some businesses, we’ll keep doing it this way moving forward.”

Timm Marini holds up an ‘insurance bible’

Timm Marini holds up an ‘insurance bible’ — the printed variety. Those at HUB have had to send digital documents during the pandemic, and that trend will continue into the future.

For Springfield-based Wellfleet, now with offices in Tower Square, the pandemic has provided ample evidence that employees in many positions can work effectively and remotely, and this enables the company to expand its horizons when it comes to hiring.

“You can expand your pool when it comes to workforce; we can hire someone not from the Springfield area and have them be successful with the tools that we’ve developed,” said Drew DiGiorgio, the company’s CEO, adding that the company has already hired some people from other parts of the country. Meanwhile, it is working on plans to have other employees work a hybrid schedule, with some days in the office and others remotely.

Chuck Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank, said that, prior to COVID, HR Director Susie Brown and IT Director Drew Weibel were already hard on work on plans to position the bank to be more flexible with its workforce in terms of where and how it worked. The pandemic served to accelerate that process.

“Even though we’re Lee Bank, a lot of our employees come in from other markets,” he noted, adding that these lengthy commutes prompted talk and then creation of plans for remote work and hybrid schedules. “We were already thinking about it, and COVID forced us to be more deliberate in our approach and our policies and procedures.”

But even with these options in place and far more flexibility with work schedules than ever before, the bank is tilting strongly toward having people work on site — with some exceptions — and it’s also seeing most of its employees want to come back, which is another thing companies are learning as they work their way through COVID.

“It’s a mix, but many certainly want to come back,” Weibel said. “They’re lonely … they actually want to work in more of a community setting. They want to come back, but some find it easier to work at home until the school situation is worked out and their children are back in the classroom.”

Stack agreed. “When the shutdown first happened, everyone was excited to work from home, so a lot of people exercised that option, and some people have found they’re more efficient from home, cutting out that commute,” she said. “But while some still work from home, the majority of people, like 97% of the people at MBK, choose to come into the office every day because they don’t want to work from home.”

Work in Progress

DiGiorgio said it’s somewhat frustrating to walk around his company’s offices in Tower Square.

More than 200 employees moved into the well-appointed space covering three full floors in the late summer of 2019, only to see pretty much everyone pack up and go home to work in mid-March.

“We love it — we wish we could be in it more,” he said with a laugh. “It’s great space — open-floor design, all the things you probably don’t want with COVID. It will be great to get back to it.”

Indeed, that’s a lot of fairly expensive (for this market) downtown Springfield real estate that is not being used. But DiGiorgio doesn’t dwell on matters that are out of his control.

Instead, he’s more focused on what the future will look like — and applying all the lessons learned during the pandemic.

As for that real estate … he said this is a growing company that took three floors with the intention of perhaps soon absorbing a fourth. Need for that additional space is less likely now, he acknowledged, but the company will still need the space it’s now leasing because he fully expects most of his employees to be back in that space.

But not all will have to come back, he went on, and some, as he noted, will never have to sit at a desk there.

“We have, over the past year, hired people in Florida, Tennessee, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Upstate New York … we have a pretty remote workforce,” he said, adding that some of these hires took place before COVID because the tools were in place, but the pandemic has highlighted how effective people can be working remotely, and thus, as he said, broadened and deepened the talent pool.

“We have a billing person who’s in Tennessee. I feel more comfortable now that she can hire people in Tennessee or wherever she needs to; they may not need to be in Springfield, which is what our initial thought was. COVID has opened up our thinking to where we hire people.”

Marini agreed. “We have employees in Wisconsin who work for New England,” he explained. “We have people who decided to move to Florida and still work for New England. We had a little of that before COVID, but what we realized was that, with our ability to get our automation up and running, our digital offerings, that really expanded our talent pool; there have been some relocations during COVID and some new hires during COVID that are not Western Mass.-based. And we have some people in Western Mass. who work for some of our Eastern Mass. locations and even one in New York.”

COVID has reinforced this premise, as it has many others, while accelerating some trends and pretty much forcing companies to do some things they never considered before.

Like those virtual audits at Meyers Brothers Kalicka.

Stack said the firm’s teams have undertaken a number of them, while, in other cases, it has adopted a hybrid approach for some audits, going to the client site for some of the work while handing the rest remotely. Thanks in large part to COVID, there are now several options for handling such work, she said, adding that other lessons have been learned and other new ways of doing things revealed.

“On the tax side of our practice, we used to have clients in the building all day, every day, from February 1 through tax day, and now, maybe three people a day drop off their boxes of papers; the vast majority of people just e-mail us their material,” she explained. “They’re happy with it, it’s efficient, and it saves us a step. Instead of having to take tons and tons of paperwork and scan it into our digital system, it’s already coming to us in that format.

“We used to have to hire a scanner for tax season — a whole person whose job was to take all this paper that people would drop off and scan it,” she went on. “We didn’t have to hire a scanner this season, and that was definitely a positive change.”

Will Dávila, executive director and CEO of the Children’s Study Home in Springfield, said the pandemic has led to positive change in many forms at his agency and most all businesses and nonprofits. He echoed others when he said that COVID has served to heighten the awareness of how technology can be used to improve efficiency and save time, such as when traveling to conferences or meetings in other cities.

Will Dávila, executive director of the Children’s Study Home

Will Dávila, executive director of the Children’s Study Home, says his agency has learned a number of lessons during the pandemic, many of them involving better use of technology.

“We now have more of a comfort level with working remotely and working via Zoom,” he said, adding that this technology existed long before COVID, but few businesses took full advantage of it. “The lesson for us, and I’m not sure we have it completely figured out yet — it will likely take us some time — is that we can do more with technology than we thought we could before. I’ve been in places where we would talk about technology and teleconferencing and telehealth, and people would balk at it. And now, we’ve been forced to take another look, and we’ve embraced it.”

Looking ahead, he said that, while most people look forward to the day when they can gather and attend conferences and meetings in person, they know there are options — there’s that word again — and they won’t be hesitant to take full advantage of them if the circumstances permit.

Caution Signs

As he walked with BusinessWest through HUB’s headquarters facility on Shaker Road in East Longmeadow, Marini pointed to a number of unoccupied workstations, some of them marked off with the yellow ‘caution’ tape usually associated with crime scenes and construction sites. Such tape can be seen throughout the suite of offices, he said, noting that the space — which was occupied by just over 50 employees prior to the pandemic — has hosted around seven a day on average, with a high of 14, by his count.

Sectioning off such areas became part of life during COVID, he noted, adding that there are myriad ways the pandemic changed the landscape for the company. Overall, there’s been a huge shift; a place once teeming with employees and visiting customers now sees very few of either.

And that has brought challenges — and some opportunities, mostly in the form of learning how to do things remotely and without reams of paper. As he talked about these opportunities, Marini gave a nod — sort of, anyway — to an organization his business works closely with, obviously: the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

“Even the Registry of Motor Vehicles here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has become more digitized, more automated, and more flexible, and that’s something I never thought I’d see after 33 or 34 years of doing this,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, in some ways, his company has been inspired by the RMV, as it automates and digitizes many processes that once involved paper and in-person sessions.

As for the challenges, they came in waves, Marini explained, from equipping everyone to work at home, which was expensive and difficult logistically, to helping employees cope with everything from feelings of isolation to simply filling their days with work, even though they were home.

CHuck Leach

Chuck Leach

“Even though we’re Lee Bank, a lot of our employees come in from other markets. We were already thinking about it, and COVID forced us to be more deliberate in our approach and our policies and procedures.”

“We were too accessible when we were home, so there were no breaks for our people,” he explained. “We started having big conversations and hiring professionals to come in to coach us to make sure we took breaks and that there was separation between home and work.”

What will things look like several months from now, especially if the pandemic continues to ease? Marini isn’t exactly sure, but he acknowledged that he spends a lot of time thinking about it and working with corporate to prepare for that day.

He does know that more business will be handled virtually in the future, and there will be little, if any, need for those printed insurance bibles.

As for employees, like others we spoke with, he expected that they will come back, because the company wants them back, but also because they want to be back in that office setting.

Such sentiments were echoed by many of those we spoke with. They noted that it seem logical that, after getting a taste of working at home, many employees would prefer that option, but what employers are generally seeing is the opposite reaction.

“People are sick of remote everything,” said Stack, noting that Meyers Brothers Kalicka has a younger team within the audit department that could do its work from home, but instead it has reserved the firm’s huge boardroom for the past six weeks so the members can work together, but safely and well spread out.

“They have music playing on Spotify every time you walk in there,” she said. “They just want to be in the same space — they think they’re more efficient that way, and they can ask questions of each other faster and stay on track better because they’re all together. It’s not something we told them they had to do; they’ve chosen to do it.”

Dávila agreed, although he noted that he has some employees who are quite happy working at home, and are “working on it” when it comes to returning to the office. By that, he meant he’s offering some flexibility on this matter and not rushing anyone back who doesn’t want to rush back.

“I think it’s partly generational — people who have been in the field for 15 or 20 years or more and are used to those in-person interactions, they’re used to having that time by the water cooler when they’re getting a cup of coffee. I consider those valuable interactions that help with morale,” he told BusinessWest. “But we also have younger staff who are very comfortable with technology and embrace the idea of working remotely.”

But, ultimately, they will come back, probably by the end of the calendar year. “I don’t want to say absolutely not,” he said when asked about hybrid arrangements that offer a mix of remote and in-office work. “But my preference is that we get people back to a schedule where they can see each other and interact.”

Lee Bank’s Susie Brown agreed. “When it comes to Lee Bank, I think everyone enjoys being together,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of people who are unwilling to come back; those that are unwilling are those that have other challenges at home with their children.”

Bottom Line

COVID is far from over, and there are certainly more lessons to be learned as companies large and small continue to cope with an unprecedented challenge.

But it’s already evident that this battle has prompted changes that will live on long after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror. As they were forced to do things differently, companies learned that, in many cases, these different ways are better than the old ways.

Like the insurance bible. Clients, at least some of them, will still need one. But they won’t need to thumb through 700 pages of printed material to find an answer.

COVID has changed all that — and it keeps on changing the landscape.

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

Cover Story

But MGM Springfield Leader Optimistic About the Next Chapter

Chris Kelley had just arrived in Springfield and was still getting acclimated to the region when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived almost exactly a year ago.

Then, he had to get acclimated to something else — something no one in the casino industry had ever seen or been forced to endure before.

“These facilities just weren’t meant to be closed,” said Kelley, president of MGM Resorts’ Northeast Group, which includes MGM Springfield. But they were, of course — for four long, brutal months, before finally reopening in July, but only at one-third capacity and with a number of restrictions in place. Later, the state’s casinos had to reduce hours and close at 10 p.m. as a late-year surge in cases moved the goalposts again.

Now, some restrictions are being eased, and later this month, the state will enter what is known as step 1 of phase 4, prompting Kelley to glance toward the future with optimism in his voice. But in all ways, and by all accounts, the ‘ramping-up’ period for MGM Springfield — the one we all heard so much about in the months before COVID dramatically changed the landscape — has been turned on its ear.

“People are just really excited to be part of bringing downtown West Springfield back.”

In some ways, it will be like starting over for this operation, which recently reopened its hotel for weekends and also its sports bar, and is waiting with what can only be called bated breath to see if and to what degree patrons will return to the blackjack tables, slot machines, bars, and, eventually (but no one really knows when) large-scale events like concerts, shows, and fundraising galas.

In a wide-ranging interview, Kelley, who has remained mostly quiet, from a press perspective, since arriving in this region, talked with BusinessWest about the past year, but mostly about what comes next for this highly visible, nearly $1 billion business that opened to great expectations 32 months ago.

That look back was understandably painful, although he said the past year has certainly been a somewhat beneficial learning experience on many levels (more on that later) and a time when changes coming to the industry were greatly accelerated.

As for the future … it is obviously clouded by question marks that involve everything from how much pent-up demand there will be for everything a casino has to offer, to the fate of sports gambling in the Bay State.

Chris Kelley says, it feels like starting over

In some ways, Chris Kelley says, it feels like starting over at MGM Springfield.

Kelley is optimistic about both.

He said Las Vegas has recently returned to its 24/7 character and something rapidly approaching conditions that existed pre-COVID — and the early indications are certainly positive.

“With vaccine distribution ramping up around the country, there’s good reason for cautious optimism as we look at our ability to gather in larger numbers, and for our industry, in the broader sense, to see improvement as opposed what it was experiencing only a few months ago. As we look at the calendar year 2021, I think we see significant opportunities for improvement, especially as we move into the second half of the year.”

As for sports betting, he said several bills are in various stages of talk and progression through the Legislature, and he’s optimistic that the state will ultimately pass one, especially with other states already doing so, with revenue flowing to them as a result. More important than simply approving a bill, though, is passing legislation that will enable the state to effectively compete and ultimately become an industry leader in this realm. Such a bill might bring $50 million in additional tax revenues to the state annually, he projected.

“We’re looking for Massachusetts to be able to compete with all of the surrounding states that have or soon will have sports betting,” he said, noting that Connecticut will soon be in that category. “A level playing field for MGM and the other casinos in the state is very important, as is giving our customers an amenity, and an experience, that they’ve been asking for now for years.”

 

Doubling Down

Reflecting on the past year, what it was like, and even what he’s learned as a manager, Kelley started by flashing back to what were the darkest of days — when the casino was closed and there was no indication of when it might open again.

“It’s a very uncomfortable experience to walk through these facilities when they’re dark and there’s no activity and action — the sights and sounds that ultimately drew us all into this industry,” he told BusinessWest, noting, again, that once a casino cuts the proverbial grand-opening ribbon, its doors are never locked.

The fact that they had to be locked was just the first in a string of unprecedented steps that defined the next several months, from the shuttering of the hotel and restaurants to the cancellation of scores of events that were on the books, to ultimately laying off two-thirds of the employees working at the casino before the pandemic arrived.

Overall, Kelley said, this has been a humbling experience in some ways — a challenging time, to be sure, but also a learning experience and an opportunity to accelerate, out of necessity, some changes that were coming to the industry anyway.

“No business model for any company will be exactly the same, post-COVID,” he explained. “We have innovated along the way, adopting best practices, and many of those will remain, to the benefit of the guests,” he told BusinessWest. “Digital innovations are an area I would point to; MGM Resorts and MGM Springfield were already headed toward many digital innovations pre-COVID, but the pandemic really accelerated the implementation of those efforts — things like digital menus, the use of QR codes, mobile check-in, and digital keys; those things will remain, and those are a positive part of the guest experience today and moving forward.”

Elaborating on what was learned and how the casino and its staff responded to the rapidly changing landscape, Kelley said some valuable experience was gained that should benefit his team moving forward, especially when it comes to — here’s that word again — pivoting.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there.”

“When the pandemic hit, it was a huge learning experience for everyone in this industry,” he said. “We all had to create new ways of operating and coping with restrictions that we had never experienced before. We put an emphasis on internal communications and external communications with our guests, and we found ways to stay in contact with our teams virtually. And through this process, we’ve been working hand-in-hand with our state and local officials and our community partners to weather this experience with the strength and support of each other. That ability to come together as a community during times like this is the silver lining to a very difficult period.

“As a team, we recently discussed the importance of leadership agility,” he went on, “because we have had to learn how to be very nimble and adjust to ever-changing conditions, which I believe will ultimately benefit the business in coming out of all this.”

Barriers at the gaming tables and social-distancing reminders have been facts of life

Barriers at the gaming tables and social-distancing reminders have been facts of life during the pandemic at MGM Springfield.

In recent months, business — and gross gaming revenues — have steadily improved, said Kelley, and this has been while the hotel and some restaurants have been closed. Looking forward, he expects this trend to continue and for there to be a good amount of pent-up demand for casino-style entertainment.

“It remains to be seen what the reaction of our communities will be to a vaccinated population, but we’re optimistic that we’ll see the return of guests to our property,” he said. “We had seen resiliency even during this time.”

The hotel reopened on a limited basis the first weekend in March, he went on, with the goal being to gauge guest demand and comfort levels and then adjust the business model accordingly. He said initial bookings have been positive, and he expects improvement to come gradually.

As for events in the casino’s various venues — gatherings have brought people and energy to the downtown area and business to a number of hospitality-related ventures — Kelley said it is too early to know when this aspect can resume.

“Ultimately, that will be up to the state to determine,” he noted. “What we can do is make sure that we’re as prepared as possible for that day; we do discuss those things frequently, and we’re actively engaged in planning for the return of those amenities.”

 

Plenty of Wild Cards

Speaking of being prepared … this is exactly what the casino is striving to do when it comes to another key focal point moving forward — sports betting.

New Hampshire became the 16th state to legalize such betting (there are now 22) in July 2019, and officially went live in late December that year. Meanwhile, Connecticut has taken huge steps in this direction, although some complicated negotiations remain between the many parties involved when it comes to where venues will be located, how many there will be, and who will operate them.

As for the Bay State, Kelley counts himself among those who believe it’s a question of when — not if — sports betting gets the green light, and he obviously considers that step pivotal if the state’s casinos are going to going to tap the full potential of what has long been considered an attractive market.

But he stressed repeatedly that his focus is not simply on working with state legislators to pass a bill, but to create a playing field on which the state’s casino can effectively compete. And this is the consistent message he and others with MGM have been delivering to state officials.

“We’re encouraged by the number of sports-betting bills that have already been introduced, and each of the bills that has been drafted has been tailored to the unique interests of the sponsor,” he explained. “So we’ve been focused on advising lawmakers on what our experience has shown us.”

Elaborating, he said this experience has shown that the lower the tax rates are on sports-gambling revenues, the better one’s odds are of effectively competing against what he called the “illegal markets,” and also against the growing number of neighboring states already in or soon to get in this game.

“We want to create a competitive operating model, and so a tax rate that is on the lower side is helpful in creating the best payouts for the guests, and also helpful in competing against the illegal markets, and it’s helpful in competing against border states,” he went on. “And we believe that, ultimately, it creates the best guest experience as well.”

He said the casino has a plan in place and has the ability to move “very quickly” when state legislators decide to pull the trigger.

“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the property and where a sports book makes sense, and also at how to create an experience that would really be a market leader and that will benefit the community at the same time,” he explained, adding that there is a good deal of experience in this realm within the MGM corporation that he and his team can benefit from. “We’ll have many resources to draw upon, and we’re excited about that.”

Reflecting again on those dark times that coincided with his arrival in Springfield, Kelley said those memories linger, even as many can see that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. And they make him appreciate a return to something ‘normal’ even more.

“To see us moving back in the direction of offering those positive moments, those positive milestones, those positive experiences for our guests, is extraordinarily gratifying, and part of what I love about this business,” he said, adding, again, that while question marks still dominate the landscape, he remains optimistic about not only turning back the clock to pre-COVID levels of revenue and progress, but setting the bar higher.

Ultimately, this story is still in the early chapters, he told BusinessWest, and the ones to come will hold plenty of intrigue.

 

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

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