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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]

Cover Story COVID-19

What We’ve Learned, What’s Changed, What’s Changed Forever

One year ago, the world, or at least our little corner of it, stopped. Completely.

Well, almost completely. Better to say that it paused — big time. The COVID-19 pandemic had arrived in the 413 and elsewhere, and life as we knew it had given way to something else. Something much different. Something the likes of which we had never seen or dealt with before.

The cover of the March 16, 2020 issue of BusinessWest captured it perfectly. Above a set of empty conference-room chairs was the headline “Life in Limbo.”

Almost exactly a year later … the chairs in the conference room are, for the most part, still empty. In some cases, they haven’t moved or been sat in since last March. They sit, waiting for people, and normalcy — whatever the heck that is — to return.

The fact is, we don’t know what ‘normal’ will be moving forward. In many respects, we don’t know exactly how COVID will reshape the landscape and the workplace, higher education, and the medical center down the street. We don’t know how it will impact the delicate work/life balance moving forward, and we don’t exactly know how it will permanently change how we work, network, gather, and interact with others.

But we can certainly talk about, and for the one-year anniversary of COVID (nothing to celebrate, that’s for sure), we did. BusinessWest gathered leaders with six area businesses and institutions to talk about the many ways COVID has changed our work and our lives, how it is impacting the workplace (and will for years to come), and even how it is has made them all different and, in their view, better managers.

 

They’re calling it the ‘Zen room.’

That’s an apt name for an area being set aside at Mercy Medical Center at which employees can decompress and, hopefully, remove some of the stress from their lives, at least for a while.

“We want to offer space that’s extremely tranquil — it will have massage chairs and soothing color schemes,” said Deborah Bitsoli, the hospital’s president, noting that it should be ready for use soon. “It will literally be Zen-like; it’s a best practice, and it can actually be brought across different industries.”

This Zen room wasn’t created because of the pandemic, necessarily, but rather because of the way it helped crystalize the large amounts of stress people are under even in normal times, and how they need rooms like this. And it is just one example of how the pandemic has brought about change in the workplace and change in society in general.

Other examples include that same hospital offering what it calls ‘resiliency training’; a local bank interviewing — and strongly considering — a job candidate living in Florida who has no intention of moving here; and employers spending considerable time and energy on the questions involving whether employees come back to the office, when, how, and under what circumstances.

These are some of things we learned during a lengthy virtual roundtable involving six area business leaders: Bitsoli; Mary-Beth Cooper, president of Springfield College; Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University; Jennifer Rymarski, a partner with the regional law firm Morrison Mahoney; Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank; and Paul Stelzer, president of Holyoke-based Appleton Corp., a property-management firm that has many elder-care facilities in its portfolio.

This was a Q&A, but also a lively discussion, with the dialogue focused on not only what’s happening today, but what will happen moving forward because of what we’ve experienced, what we’ve learned, and what we’ve changed over the tumultuous and very difficult past 12 months. Here’s a somewhat condensed version of how it went.

 

BusinessWest: The phrase we’re hearing over and over and over again is that there is light at the end of the tunnel when it comes this pandemic and all that has come with it. Are you seeing that light, and, well, how much tunnel do we still have to go through? What are you seeing in your business?

 

Bitsoli: These are challenging and unprecedented times, and at Mercy, we’ve really tried to adapt to a new norm. We have many new processes and structures that, as someone who has dedicated their life to healthcare since the age of 16, I never thought I’d see. We’ve also opened our doors to give vaccines to the public based on the Department of Health criteria; to see tears in people’s eyes as they get a vaccine is something I’ll cherish for many, many years.

We’ve balancing the needs of the community and keeping people safe, but we’re also looking to the future and how we can more provide enhanced services to the community. We’re trying to balance the present and the future.

 

Cooper: This is our third semester in the pandemic, and we’re adapting. We are back on campus, we’re fully residential, and we had our first athletic contest recently — the men’s gymnastics team played Cal. So, yes, we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. When we thought about the pandemic and what we needed to do, we had to pivot, just like healthcare; we didn’t imagine going online as quickly as we did, but we made it happen. The biggest takeaway for me thus far, and moving forward, has been the resiliency our faculty and students, in particular, have demonstrated.

 

Johnson: We’re in good shape for the shape we’re in, and like others, we do see a light at the end of the tunnel. As for what’s changed for our organization, we’re future-focused; we’re looking at how we want to come out of this. We’ve been planning for the next five years at Western New England since last September. We have not taken the bunker mentality of waiting for the storm to pass and then figure out what we want to do. We’ve created a vision; we want to be a ‘new traditional university,’ a phrase we’ve coined here and that we’ll define in the upcoming weeks and months to come, and imagine the possibilities.

That’s because higher education, like healthcare, has been turned upside-down; we’re reimagining ourselves, and we think the best is yet to come. It’s tough, though … we’re in a very tough environment.

 

Rymarski: We all have our own struggles, and the law is not immune to it. The biggest impact has been access to the courts and how the courts have adjusted — a lot of litigation is driven by the court schedule, and having the courts shut down for a period of time has had an impact. Also, we’ve gotten a lot of calls on the employment aspects of this pandemic — small businesses, and all businesses, for that matter, are struggling to deal with smaller staffs, how a PPP loan impacts them, what they’re going to do under the Family First or CARES Act, how they’re going to get employees back, and how they implement policies and procedures across the board that are going to be fair but also abide by all of the regulations.

 

Senecal: When this whole thing started right around March 9 — I remember that date vividly — I think I stopped breathing sometime in the middle of March, and I was resuscitated sometime in June, because it looked really bad from my perspective. June came around, summer came along, and things started to look a lot better. Then fall came around, and as cases picked up, that started to have an economic impact on a lot of our customers.

To put things in perspective, we had probably $300 million in loan balances involving customers in that first month asking, ‘can we not pay you?’ And we responded like most community banks and said, ‘yes, no problem; let’s revisit in 90 days.’ I think we’re down to $70 million, which allows me to start breathing again, and most of that $70 million is in the hospitality industry — transportation, restaurants — which is still struggling. I’m not sure where the light is at the end of the tunnel for those industries, because they’re hanging by a thread, and I’m not sure how they’re going to come back. From our banking perspective, we’re operating in a different world; we had to pivot, we had to send 180 people home, and that’s hard to do in retail banking. And if any of you have done your banking, I apologize for us — and I know our competitors are the same way — that the drive-ups are ridiculously backed up. Overall, things are going OK, but it doesn’t feel very good.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“I’ve flip-flopped on this throughout the year, but, yeah, we’re coming back. The social-interaction part of this is lost with people working at home; you can’t create a corporate culture from a remote location.”

 

Stelzer: At Appleton, we’ve morphed from emergency-response protocols in March to highly organized COVID-19 protocols in our elderly/senior/multi-family apartment communities and in our commercial portfolio that we manage, which is about 2 million square feet. In short, we’re operating at high levels; we’re able to do that even with a chunk of the workforce being remote. All of our employees have had to learn a new COVID language and new COVID protocols amid all the important tasks they already do.

Overall, there’s a lot of good news coming out, but how we’re doing is still a daily question; while the vaccine rollout is encouraging, it’s still going to take some time. But, yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

 

BusinessWest: During the pandemic, people have worked remotely, and successfully. As we all look toward the day when something approaching normal returns, how will, or should, companies approach work and the question of bringing people back to the office?

 

Senecal: We have 350 employees, and about half of them are working from home. I’ve flip-flopped on this throughout the year, but, yeah, we’re coming back. The social-interaction part of this is lost with people working at home; you can’t create a corporate culture from a remote location. Beyond that, there’s the human connection — staying home is not good for mental health. But I’m for some sort of balance; if your job allows it, you can work from home — we’ve proven that. I do think the outcome of this is that there will be a balance. From a workforce perspective, we’ve had a hard time recruiting people for some key positions, and we’ve re-evaluated to say, ‘no, you don’t have to be in the office.’ We’re interviewing someone today who lives in Florida who may be able to work from home for us; we’ve never, ever considered that before, and we are.

 

Cooper: When it comes to students … there were some questions pre-pandemic about the value of higher education. And I would say to you that our students are saying loud and clear that they want to be in person, face to face, they want to play sports, they want to interact with mentors like faculty members and staff members. We’re studying this … we’re looking at what the future will look like and how we bring people back safely. Some people never wanted to work at home, and now some of those same people want to stay where they are. That’s a risk to our business model; we need to have the interaction between students and mentors that shape them moving forward to be strong employees in the fields we have represented on this panel. The synergy of having people together, the opportunity to come up with ideas and piggyback on them together, and just the joy of being in the workplace, it’s difficult to get all of that on a call or on Zoom.

Mary-Beth Cooper

Mary-Beth Cooper

“The synergy of having people together, the opportunity to come up with ideas and piggyback on them together, and just the joy of being in the workplace, it’s difficult to get all of that on a call or on Zoom .”

Johnson: One of the things I’ve been big on over the past decade is preparing students for the future of work and making sure they had the essential skills that could not be replicated by robots. This pandemic has put us in a place where we, as employers, with our employees, have to do the same thing. I don’t think it’s an either/or when it comes to Zoom or face to face. The question is, ‘how do we use that technology to complement our ability be more efficient in the workplace?’ On college and university campuses, we need to be face to face and on the ground, but I can now give my employees some flexibility; it’s not 8 to 5. If they have a soccer game or child care doesn’t show up that day, we’ve shown that that we can get work done with people working from home. As managers, we have to teach people how to work with their teams and their staffs to give them that work-life balance. Overall, I think the pandemic has merely accelerated what was inevitable anyhow.

 

Rymarski: I agree with the others when they say that synergy, flow, and the social and cultural aspects are missing when people don’t come to the office. I think about the new employees who came on board just before the pandemic, and not having them in the office and having them shadowing someone every single day for a week or two to learn what needs to be done. I think that has impacted them. At the same time, this pandemic has, indeed, accelerated a process that was inevitable. I think the challenge is handling all this; we’ve basically condensed down what we need to do to a very short time, and employers are struggling to manage the expectations of every person.

 

BusinessWest: From what’s been said so far, it seems that the pandemic has brought the issue of work/life balance into the forefront as perhaps never before. Talk about if and how this crisis has provided more impetus for employers to help their employees with this challenge and cope in general.

 

Cooper: The need to be compassionate and caring for your employees has never been higher. These employees are dealing with losses — children that they haven’t seen, aging parents that they can’t see … the human toll is very high.

 

Johnson: I would agree with that wholeheartedly. We talk about work/life balance, and we’ve been talking about it for a long time. One of the things we’ve learned is that, before, managers would have said, ‘you can’t have that work/life balance; you have to be here all the time when you’re supposed to be here.’ But when we had to flip on a dime and make this thing work, it’s amazing how resilient we really are. The human toll that this is taking on people is huge, and we have to give our employees some time to breathe when this is all said and done. I know eight people who have died since last March. When I said that on a Zoom call, people started tearing up, because they’ve had those same kinds of experiences and no way to grieve. Part of this equation is that we have to figure out in our organization what that grieving process looks like, and what is the path forward.

 

Stelzer: What I think is really important going forward in the work/life balance issue is not only their own personal situations, but how do you get people to understand that they don’t need to work 14 hours a day at home? A lot of people dove into their work because they could. I’ve talked with a lot of tenant companies, service providers, attorneys, CPAs, whatever, and they’re all working longer hours than they ever were before. This is something we have to keep on the radar moving forward; if you’re going to remain in a quasi-remote-work environment, how do you find balance and work 9 to 5? (Or 9 to 7 — no one really works 9 to 5.) How do you shut it off?

Jennifer Rymarski

Jennifer Rymarski

“I think about the new employees who came on board just before the pandemic, and not having them in the office and having them shadowing someone every single day for a week or two to learn what needs to be done. I think that has impacted them.”

Bitsoli: The one thing that we all have in common is that our workforce is our most precious asset; it’s what makes us able to do the things we do. And these people are hurting right now. Last Friday, I came in early in the morning and was rounding in the ICU; there was a nurse who had just lost a COVID patient. She was relatively young, and she was weeping. We need to allow people to grieve in these unprecedented times because we haven’t seen this in our lifetime. People need the ability to express themselves. On the mental side, we need to allow them to talk, and we need to listen. And we need to support our management team and train them on how to do that.

The other thing that’s very unique about this is that many people have aging parents who are in nursing homes, and there’s social isolation — they can’t visit their parents. So not only do they have child-care issues, they are so concerned about their aging parents, and yet they can’t get in to to see them. But beyond the mental, there’s also the physical, and that’s why we’re opening the Zen room, where people can go for 15 minutes and just decompress.

 

BusinessWest: You’re probably all very tired of hearing that phrase ‘new normal’ by now. But please try to project what the new normal will be in your industry and in business in general.

 

Johnson: The new normal in higher education is that we have to rethink and reimagine our business model so that we are financially viable while also meeting the needs of our students. Also, before, we used to be able to operate with 80% or 90% of certainty and 10% or 20% of ambiguity. The new normal is … we’re going to be in a world of ambiguity where it’s more like 50-50 for years to come. The new normal for us also in our industry will be, how do we address and deal with the mental-health challenges of our current students, our future students, and our employees?

And let me really focus on future students — students who will be enrolling in our institution two or three years from now will have spent their freshman and sophomore years [of high school] basically learning remotely, and that B+ or A- in Calculus in their junior and senior year won’t be the same B+ or A- it was four or five years ago. So students will be coming to us with academic deficits, emotional deficits, anxiety deficits, and we’re going to have to think about how to retool and restructure ourselves to meet their needs on our campuses. And we all have to be focused on the future of work in terms of educating this next generation of students for jobs that don’t exist, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created, to solve problems that haven’t been identified.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

“The human toll that this is taking on people is huge, and we have to give our employees some time to breathe when this is all said and done.”

Cooper: Moving forward, we have to focus on the 4 Vs of higher education, and any not-for-profit, caring organization. Value — you need courageous leaders who are thinking not only about work-life balance, but the human element. Virtual — we’re going to have a hybrid mix. We’ve seen that in all the trends, and that’s good; there’s demand for it, some students really like it, and some faculty like it. Virtuous — we’re going to need to continue to be people-centered. For us to move forward, the colleges and the universities that will survive are the ones that are student-centered, that continue to be students at the forefront. And we have to go Viral — we have to find a way to tell our story, whether it’s through discussions like this, through social media, or through our students and faculty.

From my perspective, it’s all about leadership, virtual presence, telling the story, and staying close to your mission.

 

Senecal: The new norm in the banking business? I don’t want to get too granular, but the future of our business is very different. There are a little under 5,000 banks in this country — I project that in five to seven years, there will be fewer than 2,500 banks. It will be a digital world. I think you’ll see far fewer branches — you’ll see more and more branches closing.

And from a workforce-development perspective, technology is going to be a huge piece of what we do, and certainly on the mental-health side, I see employers having to be more flexible and understanding with their workforce. PeoplesBank has done that very well over the years; we’re just going to have to adapt a lot more quickly. Workforce skills are going to have to adapt tremendously for all our industries; we’re moving toward a more technology-driven world. It’s already changed for us — we’ve seen a huge change in the last nine months. Our numbers in the digital perspective and how people utilize their banking services has shifted 20% to 30% utilization that is totally digital. If you weren’t there before the crisis, you’re going to fall behind from an industry perspective. My perspective is that things are going to change; things are going to be very different than they are now.

Deborah Bitsoli

Deborah Bitsoli

“The one thing that we all have in common is that our workforce is our most precious asset; it’s what makes us able to do the things we do. And these people are hurting right now.”

Stelzer: ‘New normal’ is an interesting phrase, but there’s nothing normal about this. As we stabilize, as more vaccine gets out, I agree with the panel — resiliency is huge. In our industry, specifically our senior/elderly portfolio, you’re going to see a lot more ‘healthy housing’ initiatives, as we’re calling them, which is a combination of telehealth for seniors and more on-site clinics for seniors. You’re going to see a whole difference in the way legacy elderly/senior property providers handle their air flow, their air circulation, and keep any inflection to a low level.

Also, on the digital side … think about how we stood the country up on the backs of broadband — it’s nothing short of amazing in all of our industries, from higher ed to telehealth to property management and banking. And we couldn’t have done that 20 years ago. My one concern there is the digital divide. What happens next with broadband becomes a very important discussion; there’s already discussion in the State House about making broadband a normal utility and not a private service.

 

Bitsoli: On the healthcare front, we need to continue to have a laser focus on the resiliency and well-being of our colleagues and our employees — they’re the most valuable asset that any of us has. And as this virus evolves, as there are variants, and as there are future viruses, there is a daily drive here around clinical excellence and patient safety and quality where we may have to continue to adapt that clinical model.

I never thought I’d see the day when 100% of the patients are being swabbed for a virus … so, for me, looking at the clinical excellence and keeping the public safe with high-quality care, and how this virus evolves, we’re going to have to be able to adapt to whatever the future holds for us to keep the community safe.”

 

BusinessWest: Much has been made about how to manage, and manage effectively, in a time of crisis. How has the crisis tested you? What have you learned about yourself, as a person and a manager? And has this made you a better manager?

 

Cooper: Let me say, my patience has been tested, certainly, since last March, and I’m working hard at meeting people where they’re at and listening and trying to slow down. And I’m also trying to be a good role model — not having Zooms on Sunday and carving out time for family. To lead during this turbulent time, you have to be self-aware, and you have to take care of yourself. Whether it’s morning exercise or carving out parameters for when you will or will not be available — people are looking for you to role-model that.

Paul Stelzer

Paul Stelzer

“People recognize fake really quick, so you’ve got to be genuine, you’ve got to be honest with them, you’ve got to tell them how it is.”

Stelzer: The key word for me is empathy. All of us have had to really dig deep for the non-traditional ways of providing support — all kinds of support — to our people and managing and being empathetic to the extent that you can and still run your business. It’s critically important — people recognize fake really quick, so you’ve got to be genuine, you’ve got to be honest with them, you’ve got to tell them how it is. And I agree with Mary-Beth — you have to take care of yourself. We’ve all walked the halls of our houses and condos from 2 in the morning to 4 in the morning trying to figure out the next move. We’ve all been there.

 

Senecal: I agree with Paul; empathy is a great word to describe the difference between managing now and managing pre-COVID. We’re all living this horror, so to speak, and realizing that we all have different issues in our lives, between family members getting sick, or trying to work at home with kids at home trying to do schoolwork, with technology issues … pre-pandemic, we glossed over these things. During the pandemic, this home life is hugely important in people’s lives. I’ve come to listen more, but empathy is the word that comes to light; I’m trying to understand how to manage people.

 

Johnson: I would add another word in there, and that’s humanity. I’ve come to realize the importance of helping us all understand that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. Mary-Beth spoke earlier about how, among the college and university presidents, it has been the most collaborative environment that she’s ever seen; I’ve been in the Commonwealth for 11 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this, either. As CEOs, we tend to think that we’re at the center of the universe, but we’re not; we’re only as good as the people around us. And I understand what Mary-Beth means when she talks about patience. I generally don’t have much of an impacting gene, but it has developed since March of last year in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

 

Bitsoli: I’ve recognized just how precious life is, and I’m really stopping and forcing myself to be in the moment, to listen and engage, and slow down. But just as important is demonstrating that to my management team so that I’m also walking the talk in terms of saying to them, ‘life is precious; let’s have a better way of approaching our work life and recognize that life is very, very short and we have to respect and really take care of each other as colleagues.’

 

Rymarski: Patience, empathy, and flexibility are all words that come to mind. But also fairness. From the legal perspective, one of things that’s important as employers and managers is that we want to have a fair playing field, or as fair a playing field as we can. What you may have to do for one might be different than what you have to do for another, but there needs to some semblance of not only empathy, but also fairness and some structure to keep the organization together so that employees don’t become disgruntled with one another.

 

Bitsoli: Not only has this made me a better manager, it has made me a better person, and I think others on this panel would agree. I think I learned a lot about myself and about society, and, again, about the value of life. As a society, there are quite a few of us who have reflected in this way, and we’re better people overall.

 

Class of 2021 Cover Story Difference Makers

Did you miss our 2021 Difference Makers event?

View the virtual event recording!

Congratulations to the Class of 2021 Difference Makers! Thank you to our sponsors and everyone who helped to make this event possible. We appreciate you all!

Thank you to everyone who participated in the #EverydayDifferenceMakers social media campaign. We had an overwhelming number of submissions and are extremely excited to share the good work being done in #the413 during our Difference Makers event!

The 2021 Difference Makers

Kristin Carlson
President, Peerless Precision

EforAll Holyoke

Janine Fondon
Founder, UnityFirst.com; Professor, Bay Path University

Harold Grinspoon
Philanthropist; Founder, Aspen Square Management

 

Chad Moir
Founder and Owner, DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center

Bill Parks
CEO, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield

Pete Westover
Founder and Partner, Conservation Works, LLC

Presented by:

Non-profit Partner:

Media Partner:

Cover Story

In Demand

Tanya Vital-Basile

Tanya Vital-Basile with a common sight — a ‘sold’ sign.

Tanya Vital-Basile recently sold a house in Longmeadow to someone who might not have considered buying it a year ago.

But life changed — and so did the residential real-estate market. Considerably, in both cases.

Specifically, the buyer had lived in Boston for many years, and still has a job there, but she has been working remotely, and plans — like so many others these days — to continue doing so.

“She was paying $2,900 a month to rent in Boston, and here, she’s paying a $2,000 mortgage, and owning it,” said Vital-Basile, who heads a team at Executive Real Estate. “We’ve seen a lot of people moving out of Boston just because they don’t need to be out there anymore.”

It’s a story BusinessWest heard multiple times from area Realtors.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11 — a migration from the city to smaller towns and villages, a more rural environment,” said Kathy Zeamer of Jones Realty. “A lot of people today are looking for a place that gives them a little more space, private outdoor areas, home-office space, a place for their kids to do their schooling from home.”

“She was paying $2,900 a month to rent in Boston, and here, she’s paying a $2,000 mortgage, and owning it. We’ve seen a lot of people moving out of Boston just because they don’t need to be out there anymore.”

Call it the new normal wrought by a still-raging pandemic.

“COVID has a lot to do with it,” said Lesley Lambert of Park Square Realty. “People are working from home, and they’re realizing their home doesn’t work for their life. I’ve spoken to so many clients who want to continue working from home, even once all this clears, and they’re looking at their space and saying, ‘we thought we wanted a big, open floor plan, but what we actually want is a music room, a study, a home office.’”

All this demand — for a different home, but especially one far outside the metro areas — has created a serious imbalance with supply in Western Mass., creating a seller’s market like few this industry has experienced in recent decades.

“In Hampden County, the average days a house spends on the market is three. It’s crazy,” Vital-Basile said.

The most recent statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. In December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. Hampden County led the way (sales up 32.0% and median price up 11.5% from the previous year), but Franklin County (26% and 10.6%) and Hampshire County (20.4% and 9.1%) weren’t far behind.

Kathy Zeamer

Kathy Zeamer says the current climate is a supply-and-demand issue — with several factors driving that demand.

“It’s definitely a seller’s market, Zeamer said. “It’s all about supply and demand. The inventory is really low, and we have new people coming into the area, so we don’t have enough inventory to meet the demand we’re seeing.”

A few factors play into the supply challenge. Many families who might be thinking about moving out of the region are hunkering down instead because of uncertainties related to the pandemic. Meanwhile, home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

As for demand, “I think people are trying to escape more urban areas,” she added. “We have people coming in from other parts of Massachusetts, including the Boston area. Most of my sales this year involve people from New York, California, Las Vegas, Chicago — more so than ever before. I’ve had several New York sales this year, which is more than I would typically see.”

 

Escaping the City

The lifestyle shifts driven by the pandemic aren’t the only factor driving demand, Vital-Basile said, noting that interest rates are still at historic lows, creeping below 3%.

“The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” she told BusinessWest, adding that sellers from the Hub find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11 — a migration from the city to smaller towns and villages, a more rural environment. A lot of people today are looking for a place that gives them a little more space, private outdoor areas, home-office space, a place for their kids to do their schooling from home.”

“We’ve had a lot of buyers from Boston. My last three sales were from Boston — cash buyers. A lot of people are realizing they don’t have to work at their company’s location any longer; a lot of companies are letting them work from home. And this is a cheaper area — instead of a little condo for $700,000, you can get a good-sized house for $700,000.”

Zeamer said she’s also seeing an increased desire for multi-generational living experiences, which typically require a larger home than the buyer currently occupies. “They might have older parents or grown children, and they need more living space or in-law apartments.”

But the main driver for more space is simply the fact that families are spending much more time at home. “Because of the pandemic, they want more space, and different types of space,” Zeamer said. “Some people are moving because they feel cooped up in their existing homes; it’s too tight with the kids being home and partners working remotely from home.”

The pandemic has also generated a desire in some people to live more sustainably — to grow more food at home, for example, instead of relying totally on grocery stores, she noted. “They want to have a nice garden, and they’re thinking more about providing their own food sources.

“And I do think people are looking for more private outdoor space, where they can gather with their people, in their pod, without exposure from the neighbors,” she went on. “A lot of condos are coming on the market, perhaps because people in close living arrangements are looking to be more isolated.”

Lesley Lambert (center, celebrating another sale)

Lesley Lambert (center, celebrating another sale) says prime properties can get dozens of offers quickly — and over the asking price.

 

Lambert said the Berkshires and the Northampton/Easthampton area are both notable hotspots right now, but all of Western Mass., much like Cape Cod, is being seen as an attractive alternative to life in a metroplex.

“If they want to get out of their cities, it’s a good time, as a lot of companies are going with mobile workers. I think the brick-and-mortar concept is going to take a hit, and we’ll see more people realizing they don’t have to live where they work.”

Zeamer agreed. “I think Western Mass. is really appealing to a lot of urban types of buyers,” she said, noting, as tourism boards and chambers of commerce have for generations, that this region offers an urbane, progressive mindset in many corners, plus the kinds of cultural and recreational amenities city dwellers appreciate, but in a quieter, morte scenic setting with myriad ways to enjoy the great outdoors.

And, as noted, there are more seekers of such homes right now than sellers. As an example, Lambert recalled one house she sold last fall. “It was a lovely house, not a crazy McMansion. I had 50 showings in two days, and 15 offers — all over the asking price. From what I’m hearing from my teammates and fellow Realtors, it’s like that for everybody.”

 

Buying Time

While that makes for an exciting home-selling experience, it can be frustrating on the other side.

“There’s so much competition that people are struggling to secure a home,” Zeamer said. “And that’s keeping them from putting their own home on the market. It’s a great time to sell, but then you have to buy, and that part is very challenging right now.”

One of her colleagues at Jones recently got 18 offers on a property, some with cash in hand. “It’s hard to compete if there’s a cash offer in the mix. In urban areas, people are liquidating properties and have lots of cash in hand, and the prices here look pretty attractive compared to what they’re used to.”

“In Hampden County, the average days a house spends on the market is three .”

Also suppressing supply is the fact that some homeowners eyeing a move simply don’t want people in their houses during the pandemic, so they’re delaying a move, Vital-Basile said. “I ask sellers, ‘what makes you comfortable? Do you want a one-time showing, an open house with three families at a time, and after that, I’ll go and clean everything?’ It depends on the client.” Meanwhile, it can be especially tricky to sell a house with tenants if those tenants don’t want visitors due to COVID-19.

“Very rarely are you seeing open houses anymore. I can’t speak for all Realtors, but I switched to doing 3D home tours, where you can sit at your desktop and ‘walk’ through the house,” Lambert said, noting that in-person walk-throughs are reserved for houses the buyer is especially interested in.

In addition, “we can’t meet with clients like we used to,” she said. “We have to do a lot more remotely, talking on a phone call of Zoom call.”

The challenges of buying a house right now — both logistical and competitive — reinforce the need to have strong representation, said all the Realtors we spoke with. And to use common sense.

For instance, Vital-Basile said, some potential buyers are waiving appraisals and inspections to get a leg up, but she doesn’t recommend that. “I tell everyone, ‘don’t force the buy; you don’t want to be in a bad situation. Even if it’s the right house at the right price, don’t force it. Always have the agent negotiate.”

Lambert is certainly an advocate for the agent-client relationship — and not just any agent. “I tell them they need the strongest buyer’s agent they can find, and not just work with your cousin because he got his license six months ago. Sometimes that’s fine, but in this market, you have to know what you’re doing.”

That includes securing preapprovals and discussing beforehand what a competitive offer should looks like. “If the first time you talk to a buyer is when the boots are hitting the road, they’re going to freak out. It’s got to be a strategy you’ve developed with them regardless of the house they find.”

And it means, in many cases these days, being prepared to offer more than the asking price right off the bat, before someone else invariably does.

“I have a team of trusted affiliates who take great care of my clients, and when my clients listen to my well-erned advice, we have smooth sailing,” Lambert said. “I’m not the only realty team like that, of course. But it’s important to have advocates on your side right now.”

That said, the “crazy prices” sellers are getting don’t seem to be slowing up, Vital-Basile said. “I don’t think the market will tank anytime soon,” she said. “But a $180,000 house going for $275,000 … it can’t continue this way, or else the average homeowner won’t be able to afford a mortgage, and then the market will have to stabilize. Right now, though, there are too many buyers out there, ready to move.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Cover Story Top Entrepreneur

Golden Opportunities Maintains a Torrid Pace of Growth, Diversification

From left, Golden Years principals Brian Santaniello, Mary Flahive-Dickson, and Cesar Ruiz Jr.

From left, Golden Years principals Brian Santaniello, Mary Flahive-Dickson, and Cesar Ruiz Jr.

Cesar Ruiz Jr. describes the business plan for Golden Years Homecare Services as “a living, breathing document.”

That intriguing phrase was chosen to convey many things all at once — especially movement, flexibility, seemingly constant change, and a certain ambitious tone.

Indeed, while every business plan is fluid and most are written in pencil — figuratively speaking, anyway — this one has been altered countless times since it was first drafted more than eight years ago, and the new lines on the page reflect why Ruiz, the company’s president, and the entire leadership team at this East Longmeadow-based venture have been named Top Entrepreneur for 2020 by BusinessWest.

Indeed, since being launched in 2016, this company, which started with home-care services, has expanded in every way imaginable. That includes its geographic footprint — it has moved well beyond its Greater Springfield roots and into Central Mass. and Northern Conn., with a new satellite office in downtown Boston set to open later this year. It also includes services; sensing opportunities, the company has expanded into behavioral health and will soon open a staffing component as well. And with a planned acquisition that Ruiz said is now “on the 2-yard line” — which means he can’t talk about it in any real detail, as much as he would like to — Golden Years will expand the portfolio to skilled care in the home.

There’s also been seemingly constant expansion of the facilities in East Longmeadow, with a buildout now in progress for the staffing and behavioral-health pieces of this ever-changing puzzle. And, looking ahead, plans are taking shape to franchise some of the services, expand into many more states, and perhaps take the company public to raise the capital to fuel all this expansion.

“The exciting thing is that we’ve only scratched the surface.”

Like an artist’s canvas, Golden Years is taking shape — and changing shape — quickly and dramatically, with those holding the brushes not exactly sure what the picture will look like when they’re done — or what ‘done’ will mean.

“We’re beginning our fifth year of operation, and it’s said that when you hit that fifth year, that’s when you really lay down that foundation,” said Ruiz. “We have grown by leaps and bounds in terms of our census, not only with our clients, but also with our caregivers; overall, we’re an organization that’s now managing more than 1,000 people, including administrative, caregiver staff, and clients.

“And the exciting thing,” he went on, “is that we’ve only scratched the surface.”

Not even a global pandemic has been able to slow this company down.

The sign on the property in East Longmeadow’s center announced the arrival of the Golden Years Behavioral Health Group, one of many indicators of growth at this company.

The sign on the property in East Longmeadow’s center announced the arrival of the Golden Years Behavioral Health Group, one of many indicators of growth at this company.

OK, it did slow it down a little. Last spring, as the virus invaded the region, some of the company’s home-care clients became understandably concerned about bringing people into the home and canceled or suspended services, and some caregivers decided they no longer wanted to be in that line of work, said Mary Flahive-Dickson, the company’s chief operating officer and a 30-year healthcare veteran, adding that the virus also slowed the pace of expansion into the Central Mass. market.

But, ultimately, opinions concerning homecare during this pandemic changed, she said, adding that many came to view that option as being far more attractive than a nursing home or other types of long-term-care facility, places that saw outbreaks of the pandemic and, in some cases, large numbers of deaths.

This change in attitude is reflected in the growing numbers of clients in the Greater Springfield area, she said, adding that the census is now approaching and perhaps over the 500 mark, representing roughly 20% growth over the past year — again, in the middle of a pandemic.

“Having been in home care for more than two decades, and in healthcare for more than three, the home is far less of a risk, with the pandemic protocols that are going on now, than a facility,” she said, adding there is growing sentiment within the healthcare profession that this trend, or movement, if it can be called either, could have a degree of permanence, especially at a time when some are warning that COVID-19 will certainly not be the last deadly virus to threaten the world’s population.

Meanwhile, the pandemic and its impact on the overall mental health of area residents certainly played a role in propelling the company into the behavioral-health realm, said Ruiz.

Cesar Ruiz Jr. projects that Golden Years could again double in size

Cesar Ruiz Jr. projects that Golden Years could again double in size over the next five years as the venture expands into new markets and new service areas.

That division of the company, if you will, was launched roughly a year ago, but the pandemic has certainly elevated the level of need and validated the decision to again rewrite that business plan and move into this field.

“Even though there’s a lot of agencies in the behavioral-health realm, we still felt there was an opportunity for us,” said Ruiz, noting that this division provides an array of services, including alcohol- and drug-addiction services and counseling to frontline workers such as police and firefighters.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the principals of Golden Years about how far this company has come in five short years, and just what Ruiz meant when he said they had barely scratched the surface.

 

Shining Examples

“We don’t look at ourselves as competitors — that’s a word that we don’t use here. We’re creators — we create our niche. And we do that by telling our story and emphasizing our services.”

That’s what Ruiz told BusinessWest when we talked with him roughly 14 months ago. That was his answer to a question concerning the home-care market in the Greater Boston region (and this one, as well), the many players already on that field, if you will, and his thoughts on why he thought there was room for one more.

His reply speaks to the confident operating tone at this venture, and offers, all by itself, some insight into why the company’s principals have been chosen for the prestigious Top Entrepreneur award, launched in 1996, and join an elite group of honorees (see chart, page 19) that includes college and hospital presidents, tech-startup founders, and many others.

“Over dinner, we realized that we had the same thoughts of creating a company that would satisfy a recognized need. We thought we could do better; we knew we could do better.”

Indeed, at Golden Years, they do look for niches, they really enjoy telling their story (we’ll get to it in a minute), and they put the emphasis on services. And, as Ruiz said, they don’t view themselves as merely another competitor in whatever field they happen to be entering, but as creators … of opportunities and, yes, niches.

That was true in homecare and in staffing, and it’s also true in behavioral healthcare, as Tracy Mineo, executive vice president of Golden Years Behavioral Health Services, explained when she was asked essentially the same question Ruiz was asked — about the playing field and why Golden Years saw opportunity within it.

“There are a lot of fine agencies operating in this region,” she said, noting that she worked for many years at one of them — Behavioral Health Network. “But even the bigger agencies … there is only so much that they can handle, especially during this time of COVID, when people are isolating; the agencies can only take on so many clients.

“So I think there’s more than enough room for these services,” she went on, adding, again, in the same fashion that Ruiz and others talk about the home-care side, that it is not merely about which services are being provided, but how.

And this brings us back to the Golden Years story. There are several, but this one is about Ruiz and his grandmother, who became the real inspiration for this venture. She needed home care in Florida more than 15 years ago, and Ruiz recalled for BusinessWest not only how poor that care was (he said family members generally provided the care for her), but also his resolve to create something much better.

That something better would eventually become Golden Years. That’s eventually. The timing and the setting were not exactly right for a new venture back then, he recalled, adding quickly that, after he relocated to this region, and especially after his father died in late 2016, he picked up the dream where he had left off.

Partnering with Lisa and Vincent Santaniello, who had similar experiences with caring for loved ones in the home, he launched Golden Years in early 2017.

“Over dinner, we realized that we had the same thoughts of creating a company that would satisfy a recognized need,” he explained. “We thought we could do better; we knew we could do better.”

Lisa Santaniello, executive vice president of Golden Years Homecare Services, agreed, noting that, from her first-hand knowledge, she understands the importance of home-care services to those suffering from a chronic condition, a devastating injury, a debilitating illness, or even loneliness, and that such individuals would certainly benefit from companion services.

Mary Flahive-Dickson says the pandemic initially forced many to cancel or suspend home-care services.

Mary Flahive-Dickson says the pandemic initially forced many to cancel or suspend home-care services. But as time went on, many came to see the home as a safer alternative to nursing homes and other facilities.

“When chronic care is needed or a medical crisis occurs, I am very aware the entire extended family is affected along with the patient,” she told BusinessWest. “Lives are turned upside-down; schedules are disrupted. Sometimes, needed care is short-term; the patient will recover, and normalcy will be restored. Other times, health conditions are far more long-lasting, and improvement does not occur.

“My own mother suffered from a debilitating and chronic disease. She had the benefit of a large, extended family who could assist in coordinating care and provide the services she needed,” Santaniello went on. “Many people aren’t that fortunate; that’s where Golden Years comes in. We provide necessary home-care services to the patient, while also providing respite for their weary caretakers.”

Business was slow to start — Ruiz recalls that it was weeks after opening before the phone really started ringing — but it picked up quickly.

Flahive-Dickson, a long-time healthcare consultant and educator focusing on healthcare management, joined the company in 2019 to essentially take the home-care component to the next stage — or stages. These include expansion within this market and also into other regions, starting with Central Mass. She said her role has evolved over time and now includes elements of operations, development, and strategic planning.

Her comments about why she joined the venture speak volumes about the ambitious mindset that prevails and the entrepreneurial nature of the company.

“I saw a wonderful vision and a throwback to the way care was provided,” she explained. “My dad was a physician in the Springfield area, and his care was real and positive and forward-thinking care, and I felt that same feeling when I first came here.”

 

Showing Their Metal

While the home-care operation has become a regional success story, to be sure, there have been some growing pains, and the pandemic certainly created a number of challenges.

As for the growing pains, they involve everything from finding adequate numbers of caregivers — a challenge for every player in this business — to breaking into established markets with large numbers of competitors, like Worcester and Boston, and, to a lesser extent, Northern Connecticut.

Finding adequate numbers of caregivers has been a constant challenge, said all those we spoke with, but an array of factors, from what had been historically low unemployment rates to the pandemic-induced anxiety about going into others’ homes, to the company’s torrid pace of growth, has only exacerbated the problem.

And the company has responded in what can only be called an entrepreneurial way, with creation of its own education program and a collaborative initiative with the city of Springfield to help train young, homeless individuals and bring them into this profession.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has created more hurdles, said Ruiz, listing everything from those initial fears about bringing people into the home — he estimates that between 60 and 80 clients suspended service for some period of time last spring — to what to do with caregivers sidelined by those suspensions of services (they kept them on the payroll); from the need to secure PPE for staff and train them in how to use it, to paying what became exorbitantly high prices for that PPE.

Brian Santaniello, chief of staff at Golden Years

Brian Santaniello, chief of staff at Golden Years, says the pandemic, and its broad, negative impact on mental health, validated the company’s expansion into behavioral-health services.

“We were experiencing the same problem everyone else was encountering — where to buy it,” he recalled. “And if we could find it … it was a terrible experience; things that we were paying 30 cents for were now costing us $1.25 or $1.50. The N-95s that were costing us 95 cents or a dollar … we were now paying $4.50 to $6 per mask.”

Flahive-Dickson agreed, and said procuring the needed supplies became a “24-hour mission” that involved all those at the company. But elements of that experience were rewarding, and even uplifting, she went on, citing volunteer efforts to not only make masks for some of the home-care providers, but also donate supplies to other institutions that were having issues, as well as gift bags to seniors and veterans.

But despite the pandemic, and in some ways because of it, the company has been able to maintain its strong pace of growth.

As Flahive-Dickson noted, attitudes about bringing people into the home — at least when viewed through the lens of a nursing home or similar facility being the most logical alternative — have certainly changed.

“We were getting calls all the time — the phone was ringing off the hook,” she said. “People were taking their loved ones out of facilities and saying, ‘now I need help.’

“There are many reasons why the home is now a safer haven than a facility, with the most obvious being that, if you’re having someone being taken care in the home, you have less than a handful of people taking care of that person,” she went on. “It’s the same person or the same team, and they are fully equipped with PPE. And they see only that one person, rather than going from room to room to room.”

These changing perceptions, along with a contract with the Commonwealth Care Alliance, one if its largest providers, and a growing relationship with the Veterans Administration, should help the company as it now moves forward with its expansion into Central Mass. — it now has a small number of clients in the Worcester area and a satellite office in Marlboro — and also into Boston, with another satellite office to open soon on Cambridge Street, said Brian Santaniello, the company’s chief of staff and a stakeholder.

“One of our primary goals for 2021 is to expand in those markets,” he said, adding that the company has a toehold in Worcester and Northern Connecticut, and is still in the infancy stages of its push into Boston, but expects the market share to grow steadily in all three regions over the next few years.

 

Forward Thinking

Moving forward, Golden Years is advancing plans to provide home care in multiple states, and that’s just one component of a larger expansion strategy.

Indeed, Ruiz and his team are preparing to unveil a staffing component, and it has already launched its behavioral-health division, one that was, as noted, partly inspired by the pandemic and the dramatically rising need for behavioral- and mental-health services, and likewise driven by recognized need for such services among the home-care clientele.

Indeed, Ruiz estimated that at least 15% to 20% of the company’s 500 clients are receiving some type of counseling service. With their entrepreneurial mindset, the company’s leaders began asking the question, ‘are these services that we can and should provide ourselves?’

The answer that came back was a resounding ‘yes,’ he went on. “We didn’t want to leave anything on the table; this was an opportunity for us to provide these kinds of services to our existing clients.”

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

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

Santaniello agreed. “This pandemic is having a tremendous negative impact on mental health and drug addiction, and we see the need,” he said. “And we’re going to meet that need.”

The company hired Mineo and also Deborah Rodrigues, now the clinical director, and gave them equity stakes in the venture.

Mineo, as noted earlier, said there is clearly unmet need in the region that this new division will meet. And the division is starting with outpatient services, including addiction, mental-health, and behavioral-health services for those 18 and over, with priority populations being seniors, pregnant and postpartum women, IV drug users, and first responders, a constituency that has been traditionally been underserved, in her view.

“We had identified that there are so many services going on in the community, including our local police departments, but no one is really providing services for our first responders,” she explained. “This includes the police officers, the EMTs, the fire departments that are right on the front line.

“With this pandemic, the civil unrest that’s going on, and everything else … all this is traumatizing and retraumatizing people on a daily basis,” she went on. “This is an unmet need in the community.”

As for that acquisition that was on the 2-yard line and that the team couldn’t talk much about, Flahive-Dickson, who likened it to a VNA, said it will broaden the client portfolio by 150 or so, add to the staff, obviously, and broaden the roster of services provided in the home.

“It’s home healthcare, not home care,” she explained, adding that this will be an important addition to the portfolio, one that provides both synergies and growth opportunities.

Looking further out, Ruiz, when asked where he expects this company to be in five years, said he expects to continue the current pace and effectively double in size. He also expects to be in many more states and possibly have franchises of the Golden Years operation — or operations, to be more exact.

That expansion will come in a number of forms, he went on, listing both organic growth and additional acquisitions, with the latter becoming more feasible, and practical, as many smaller ventures, many of them operated by Baby Boomers approaching retirement, face succession issues and other challenges.

“On the home-care front, some of the individuals that have started now want to step back,” he explained. “And because of our vision, we have a larger appetite.”

Meanwhile, Ruiz and other company leaders are in the exploratory phases of perhaps franchising the concept and even going public, to provide the capital for such steps.

“Franchising is part of our thought process; it’s part of our business plan,” he noted. “And there’s also a public initiative. Those conversations have been ongoing, and now, in 2021, they will escalate, because those things take time to structure.”

Elaborating, he said the company has hired a CPA firm and a legal team with those plans in mind and with the goal of being ready when the time and opportunity are right to move quickly and decisively.

And, in many important ways, that has been the MO from the very start.

 

Good as Gold

When asked to sum up what has enabled Golden Years to get off to such a fast and dramatic start, Ruiz said it comes down to two words: culture and teamwork.

The culture rests in an attitude Ruiz has instilled, one where he treats each client as if the individual was his mother or father — a culture that has resonated with Flahive-Dickson, Mineo, and others who have joined the company.

“We’ve communicated that throughout the system — we’ve built it in,” he explained. “And I think that makes a big difference. We’re hands-on, and every caregiver knows, every admin, every director here knows, how passionate I am and how serious I am; this is the collaboration of a team.”

It’s also the byproduct of an ambitious, ever-changing business plan, one that really is a living, breathing document.

 

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

Cover Story Economic Outlook

Question Marks Dominate the Horizon

Entering a new year, there are always question marks about the economy and speculation about the factors that will determine just what kind of year it will be. For 2021, there are far more questions — and fewer definitive answers — and the speculation comes in layers. A great many of them. Much of this speculation involves the pandemic and, with vaccines becoming available to ever-greater numbers of people, whether we are truly seeing light at the end of the tunnel, the beginning of the end (of the pandemic), or any of those other phrases now being used so frequently. But there are other things to speculate about as well, including what the landscape will look like when and if things to return to normal, or a ‘new normal,’ another phrase one hears a lot these days. Will the jobs that have been lost come back? Will people pick up old habits regarding going to restaurants, the movies, the doctor’s office, or sporting events? Will businesses return to their offices? And will their offices be the same size and in the same community? Another phrase you’re hearing — and will read in the stories that follow — is ‘pent-up demand.’ Many businesses, from eateries to colleges and universities to medical practices, are counting on it, but will it actually materialize? These are all good questions, and for some answers, we turned to a panel of experts for a roundtable discussion, without the roundtable. Collectively, they address the question on everyone’s minds: what is the outlook for 2021?

The Big Picture >>

Economist says pent-up demand will be the key to any recovery

Education >>

School presidents project multi-year emergence from pandemic

Banking >>

This CEO says some habits are changing, but are they permanent?

Accounting >>

This CPA is advising clients to keep the seat belt buckled

Healthcare >>

A Q&A with Baystate Health President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack

Fitness >>

Business owners grapple with an industry battered by restrictions

Restaurants >>

Owner of large, regional group says it’s survival of the fittest

Technology >>

IT expert says it’s time for businesses to move from survival to growth

Retail >>

Big Y’s Charlie D’Amour reflects on 2020 — and the year to come

Coronavirus Cover Story

Pandemic Tests the Mettle of the Region’s Small Businesses

Over the course of this long, trying year, BusinessWest has offered a number of what we call ‘COVID stories.’ These are the stories of small-business owners coping with a changed world and challenges they could not possibly have foreseen a year ago. As this year draws to a close, we offer more of these sagas. Like those we documented before, they put on full display the perseverance, imagination, and entrepreneurial will that has defined the business community’s response to the pandemic.

Things Are Heating Up

Hot Oven Cookies Seizes Growth Opportunities During Pandemic


COVID Tails

Pandemic Has Forced This ‘Pet Resort’ to Consolidate and Pivot


Words to Live By

Greenfield Recorder Stays Locally Focused on Pandemic — and Everything Else


The Latest Word

At Hadley Printing, the Presses Have Started Rolling Again


Root Causes

For This Dental Practice, COVID Has Brought Myriad Challenges

 

Cover Story

Selling the Region

Rick Sullivan was talking about the pandemic … and about how it just might present some opportunities for this region to prompt companies currently located in expensive office buildings in pricey urban centers to at least look this way.

And he paused to reference an article he had just read that morning about how those in the Aloha State were thinking pretty much the same thing.

“Hawaii seeks to be seen as a remote workplace with a view,” he said, referencing the headline he had just read. “They’re making the same pitch we are — it’s a great place to work remotely … with a view. It’s the same concept — we have great outdoor recreational opportunities, we have the mountains, the skiing, the rafting, and the biking.”

Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, quickly acknowledged that Western Mass. is not Hawaii. But to one degree or another, it can, as he noted, offer at least some of the same things — like those nice views. And a sticker price — for commercial real estate and many other things — far, far below not only Boston, Cambridge, and New York, but many other regions of the country as well.

There is a certain quality of life that has always been here but has taken on perhaps greater importance in the midst of a pandemic as people — and some businesses as well — are starting to think about whether they want or need to be in an urban setting.

These factors may be enough to turn some heads, said Sullivan and others we spoke with, all of whom noted that, as the pandemic approaches the 10-month mark, the emphasis is shifting locally — from talk about how there may be an opportunity to seize, to action when it comes to seizing such an opportunity and getting those heads to turn.

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, is taking action in the form of online tools, through which interested businesses, agencies, and individuals can obtain needed information about the region and even explore options within the commercial real-estate market for a new home.

“We’ve invested in a whole suite of tools, one of which has seven or eight tools that basically walk a business through everything from why the Springfield region is a good place to start a business or expand a business, all the way through where your competitors are, where your customers are, and where your workers are,” she said of a product called Localintel. “And then it continues with information about where to find real estate that fits your purpose; it heatmaps everything for you.”

Meanwhile, Sullivan said the EDC, which has received an uptick in the number of incoming calls from businesses and site selectors looking to learn more about the region, has made efforts to promote the area and take advantage of pandemic-related trends and movements as one of its strategic priorities for the coming year.

Western Mass. can position itself as an effective place to work

Rick Sullivan says that, like Hawaii, Western Mass. can position itself as an effective place to work — with a view.

“Part of our strategic plan is to increase the marketing for such efforts and make that pitch,” he explained. “We’re going to work through what that looks like, but we are certainly not equipped to do a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign. I do think we can raise our profile and make that pitch.”

But while there is opportunity in the midst of this pandemic, challenges exist as well.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin and a long-time promoter of Springfield and especially its downtown area, said there are some lingering perceptions about the city and region — regarding everything from workforce to housing stock to public safety — that have to be overcome. Also, there remains considerable work to do when it comes to simply getting the word out about Western Mass. and all that it has to offer.

Meanwhile, as for trying to convince companies and state agencies to move here — something Plotkin has been doing aggressively for some time now — he said there are cost and logistical concerns that remain stumbling blocks.

“When I talk to people about this, I see a lot of heads nod in agreement — they see why this region makes sense on many levels,” he said. “The pushback comes with people not wanting to uproot themselves and make that move. We have to be able to overcome that.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the pandemic may change the landscape in some positive ways, and also what has to happen for the region’s fortunes to improve.

 

Moving Sentinents

Plotkin told BusinessWest that, whenever he meets attorneys or other professionals from Boston or New York — and that’s often — he invariably makes a point of asking them where they’re based and how much they’re paying to do business there.

He then offers a pitch for this region, letting the individual across the table know that things are less expensive and — in some ways, at least — better here.

“I’ll say, ‘you know what … you can probably do a lot better here,’” he said. “I’ll tell them, ‘if you have a big office, maybe you can keep an office in Boston and move your back-room operations here.’”

Moving forward, the assignment for the region, said those we spoke with, is to take these pitches, these efforts to sell the region, to a higher plane — now more than ever, because of what the pandemic has shown people.

In short, Sullivan noted, it has demonstrated that people can work remotely, and effectively, and that companies don’t necessarily need to lease as much space as they’re leasing now, or lease it in high-traffic (although not at this particular moment in time), high-rent areas.

It has also shown professionals, and especially young people, that they don’t necessarily have to live in one of those urban areas — like Boston, Seattle, or San Francisco — to get the kind of rewarding, high-paying jobs they’re all looking for.

“Because of the pandemic, quality of life has become something that people can really consider when they’re determining their work/life balance — you don’t need to be in the expensive big cities to be able to have the kinds of jobs people are looking for,” he explained. “You can really focus on your work/life balance, and you can really focus on your quality of life, and that’s where Western Massachusetts really shines. You can be working remotely, you can be telecommuting, and you can have that quality of life, that cost of living, that we have in Western Mass. that’s very attractive.”

As that story about Hawaii makes clear, Western Mass. is certainly not alone in this thinking. Indeed, there will be plenty of competition. But in this region, there is, by most all accounts, more recognition of possible opportunities and more of a combined enthusiasm for seizing it.

“I think there’s more of a critical mass,” Creed noted in reference to the collective efforts she’s seeing. “Before, it was this organization or this person; now, everyone is seeing it, and I’m hearing that more real-estate brokers are actively seeking businesses to come here.

1350 Main St

Evan Plotkin wants to convert three floors within 1350 Main St. to space where people can both live and work, an example of how the region may be able to benefit from the changes brought about by the pandemic.

“And I’m hearing it from business owners as well,” she went on. “They’re saying, ‘why do I need to have downtown space in the larger markets?’ So I think there is opportunity.”

But there have always been opportunities for this region when it comes to effectively selling its quality of life and lower cost of living. The $64,000 question at the moment is whether COVID will become a type of X-factor and drive interest in an area that has traditionally drawn that kind of head-nodding that Plotkin talked about, but certainly not as much action as most would like.

And the answer to that question is certainly unknown at this point. But it’s clear that there is now growing interest in at least trying to sell the region in a more aggressive way.

Measures like Localintel, a step recommended in the Future Cities study released in 2016, are a part of such efforts, said Creed, noting that the platform is currently being tested and should be on the chamber’s website soon.

The chamber is partnering with the city, which will also be able to put Localintel on its website, she went on, adding that the chamber will be adding another tool specifically for startups, partnering with Valley Venture Mentors in that initiative.

“It walks you through all the steps you need to go through to start your business,” she explained. “And then, you go to the next suite of tools, which will walk you through the customers, the competition, and more.”

 

In Good Company

Beyond simple lessons in geography regarding where companies can be located, the pandemic has provided some other lessons as well, said Sullivan, especially those related to supply chain and what can happen when overseas links in that chain are broken.

Indeed, a number of major manufacturers, as well as local anchor businesses such as hospitals, colleges, Big Y, and others, have expressed interest in making their supply chains more reliable, he told BusinessWest, adding that these sentiments would indicate that there are opportunities for this region to build on its already-strong manufacturing sector.

“We’ve seen, partially because of the pandemic, that supply chain, when it’s overseas and all split up, is much less reliable,” he explained. “That’s an opportunity for us because manufacturing is one of our strengths in this region.

“This is just one of the ways that we can come out of this pandemic in a stronger position than when we went into it,” he went on. “We need to be able to move forward where there are opportunities that we’ve identified.”

And the growing number of phone calls to the EDC, and the nature of those calls, would seem to indicate some potential opportunities, Sullivan went on, adding that there have been calls from companies looking for more of a campus-like setting; from manufacturers looking to move operations onshore; from call centers looking for smaller, more affordable facilities; and even from modular-home builders intrigued by the region’s accessibility and highway infrastructure.

Such calls lead to the inevitable questions about whether the region has the ability to actually move forward in the fashion he suggests. Does it have the housing inventory? Does it have an adequate workforce? Does it have communities that would attract businesses and individuals? Does it have the vibrancy and amenities needed to attract young people?

Plotkin has been answering some of these very questions as he vies to make the property he co-owns, 1350 Main St., home to what’s being called a remote-work hub that would enable people to live and work in the same building, a concept that has become more intriguing as the pandemic has lingered.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin was preparing to meet with those looking to site such facilities — he believes he has made it to the next round in the process — and state his case. He said he’s got a solid one, when considering both his building and the three full floors he’s proposing for a remote-work hub and this region, but as he was preparing his response to the RFP, he realized that, while the region has a lot to sell, it has to work harder at selling it.

“It’s all about salesmanship and about trying to overcome some of the negativity and the obstacles,” he explained. “It’s trying to overcome a perception that doesn’t reflect what we really have here.”

And one of the more critical perceptions, or misperceptions, in his view, at least, involves workforce and fears that this region cannot support certain types of industries or specific businesses.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“I think there’s more of a critical mass. Before, it was this organization or this person; now, everyone is seeing it, and I’m hearing that more real-estate brokers are actively seeking businesses to come here.”

“There’s a fear that workers wouldn’t want to live in Springfield,” he explained, “and also the fear that their chances of finding the talent they need in Springfield and the surrounding region would be harder; that’s the biggest impediment I’m seeing.”

Meanwhile, the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped matters, he said, adding that, before it arrived, the city was enjoying some momentum. But many of its major attractions, from its hockey team to its symphony orchestra to its $1 billion casino, are shut down or operating much differently than before the pandemic.

Taking the long view, though, he said these institutions will return, and they will be part of an attractive package the region can market, a package that seems to make more sense with each passing day living and working during a pandemic.

 

Bottom Line

Time will obviously tell whether Western Mass., Hawaii, or anywhere else will benefit greatly from the lessons learned from COVID-19 and the trends emerging from this unique time in history.

What is apparent at the moment is that this region seems committed to at least trying to seize what appears to be a clear opportunity to benefit from attitudes about where companies can and should be located, and how they can and should be conducting business.

“Let’s just say I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Creed said.

So is everyone else.

 

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

 

Cover Story Healthcare Heroes

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Since BusinessWest and its sister publication, Healthcare News, launched the new 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 this is certainly true in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several months ago, the decision makers at the two publications knew that, during this very difficult time, our healthcare community was challenged as perhaps never before, and had to summon its collective strength, imagination, and dedication to clear a seemingly endless list of hurdles and continue to provide needed services to the residents of this region.

We knew that a sector already heavily populated with heroes would have even more individuals worthy of that term. So we invited people to nominate these heroes for the award we created, and the judges tasked with scoring them were impressed and, in some ways, overwhelmed by the stories generated by these nominations.

Overall, everyone who was nominated this year is a hero, but in the minds of our judges, 10 of these stories stood out among the others. The Healthcare Heroes for 2020 are:

The 2020 Healthcare Heroes

Meet the Judges

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay is president of Elms College in Chicopee. Prior to becoming the 11th president of Elms in 2017, Dumay was senior vice president for Finance and chief financial officer for Saint Anselm College from 2012 to 2017. He formerly served as chief financial officer and associate dean at Harvard University’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, associate dean at Boston College’s Graduate School of Social Work, and director of Finance for Boston University’s School of Engineering.

 

Cristina Huebner Torres

Cristina Huebner Torres

Cristina Huebner Torres is director of Research and Wellness at Caring Health Center in Springfield and a winner of the Healthcare Heroes award in 2019 in the category ‘Innovation in Healthcare.’ With more than 15 years of experience in public-health research, her work is guided by theoretical frameworks from social epidemiology and medical anthropology focused primarily on social determinants of health, health disparities, and health equity as they shape chronic illness prevention and management among ethnically diverse, urban, low-income populations.

Kathy Wilson

Kathy Wilson

Kathy Wilson is the retired president and CEO of Behavioral Health Network (BHN) and winner of the Healthcare Heroes award in 2019 in the category of ‘Lifetime Achievement.’ She served in her role at BHN for more than 30 years, growing it into a $115 million network of behavioral-health programs with more than 2,000 locations and more than 40 locations, ranging from detox centers and step-down facilities to 24-hour crisis-intervention centers and developmental- and intellectual-disability services.

Cover Story Women of Impact 2020

Did you miss our
Women of Impact event?

Click on the video below to watch a recording of the January 28 celebration!

2020 Women of Impact

• Tania Barber, President and CEO of Caring Health Center, who has led by example, with a servant’s heart, in both her healthcare career and in her ministry.
• Carol Campbell, President of Chicopee Industrial Contractors, who is using her influence to help other women find — and use — their voice.
• Helen Caulton-Harris, Health and Human Services commissioner for the city of Springfield, whose vision of a healthier community includes social equity.
• Patricia Hallberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts, who continues to be both a role model and advocate for women and girls.
• Andrea Harrington, Berkshire County district attorney, who set out to transform her region’s criminal-justice system and has done so, in myriad ways.
• Toni Hendrix, Director of Human Services at Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing, who has transformed organizations through empathy-based leadership.
• Christina Royal, President of Holyoke Community College, whose leadership has been tested and sharpened by the challenges wrought by a pandemic.
• Sue Stubbs, President and CEO of ServiceNet, who has grown her agency dramatically by recognizing needs and welcoming innovative ideas to meet them.

Thank You to Our Sponsors

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Media Partner

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Meet Our Judges

Carol Moore Cutting

In 1999, Carol Moore Cutting, a 2019 Women of Impact honoree, launched WEIB 106.3 FM, the only locally owned commercial FM radio station in the Greater Springfield market, the only female-owned FM radio station in Massachusetts, and the only station in New England owned by a person of color. She’s also sponsored myriad cultural organizations and jazz festivals in the Pioneer Valley and beyond, while supporting non-arts-related nonprofits over the years as well.

Shelley Regin

As senior vice president of Marketing at Country Bank, Shelley Regin draws on 25 years of experience with that institution. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management and holds the professional designation of certified financial marketing professional, as well as a certification in social media. She also serves as vice president of the New England Financial Marketing Assoc. and an advisory board member for the American Bankers Assoc. Marketing School.

Katherine Putnam

Katherine Putnam, another 2019 Women of Impact honoree, is managing director of Golden Seeds, a national investment firm that focuses on early-stage businesses that have women in management and leadership roles. While investing in some developing ventures, she spends most of her time advising and mentoring entrepreneurs, especially women, while working diligently to create strategies for helping women and minorities crash through the many barriers facing them as entrepreneurs.

Cover Story

A Turnaround Story

Nick Morin, founder of Iron Duke Brewing

Nick Morin, founder of Iron Duke Brewing, in the old stockhouse at Ludlow Mills that will remain home to his venture.

Nick Morin says he and his team are looking forward to the day when they can devote all their time and energy to just brewing beer and working on the business plan.

They’re getting closer all the time.

Indeed, after several years of court battles involving their lease at the Ludlow Mills complex and another legal fight Morin is trying to avoid involving Duke University and the name currently over the brewery — Iron Duke — there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’re looking forward to taking all that money we were spending on lawyers and putting it back into the business and creating an experience here that’s unlike anything else in Western Mass.”

And it is certainly a welcome sight.

“We’re looking forward to being less legal-focused and doing all the fun things for our business here and out in the world that we’ve been wanting to do for years,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re looking forward to taking all that money we were spending on lawyers and putting it back into the business and creating an experience here that’s unlike anything else in Western Mass.”

It’s been more than eight years since Morin, a mechanical engineer by trade who made brewing beer his hobby and then decided to make it his vocation, started walking along the banks of the Chicopee River with his wife after relocating to Ludlow and remarking how the mostly vacant Ludlow Mills would be the ideal place to start and then grow his business.

The Iron Duke name

The Iron Duke name will have to change soon in an effort to avoid another legal battle — this one with Duke University — but the bootprint, and the mailing address, won’t.

He’s now there, expansion plans are on the table and on his computer, and the brewery is positioned to be a permanent, and important, part of the landscape. But getting to this point didn’t exactly go according to plan.

Not even close.

Instead, as mentioned, what seemed like a good story on every level turned dark in many ways as Iron Duke and landlord Westmass Area Development Corp. first had a disagreement over terms in the lease, and then fought for 18 months in court over just what the language in the contract meant.

When a judge eventually ruled that Iron Duke could finish out its lease, which expired earlier this month, what that did was eventually buy everyone some time and allow them to write what two years ago would have seemed like a very unlikely story.

Long story shorter, the two sides came to an agreement whereby Iron Duke would not only stay, but be a vital cog in the ongoing efforts by those at Westmass to make the mills not simply a home for small businesses — and residents as well — but a destination of sorts.

How did this stunning turnaround happen? Morin sums it up this way.

“We found that, although the lawyers served their purpose, just having a person-to-person conversation and understanding where each party was coming from was huge; we found some common ground,” he explained. “It was a kind of a Hail Mary, and it was a tough negotiation because there was a lot of bad blood between the two organizations at that point. But we actually had more in common with our visions than we thought.”

Jeff Daley, who was named executive director of Westmass roughly a year ago and picked up these negotiations from Bryan Nicholas, who served as interim director after the sudden passing of Eric Nelson in the spring of 2019, agreed.

“There were some bitter feelings, but Nick and I quickly agreed to operate without rear-view mirrors,” Daley explained. “We put the seatbelts on, moved forward rapidly to get them in there long term, and have an understanding that we’re going to work together to get the best for the tenant and the landlord.”

As he talked with BusinessWest, Morin grabbed his laptop and clicked his way to an architect’s images of a two-story, permanent structure that will reside where a tented beer garden, erected last summer, now sits. He expects work to start soon and be completed by next spring or summer.

As for Duke University, Morin is in the final stages of changing the company’s name to avoid another expensive court fight, this one with a university with very deep pockets and the willingness to protect its brand — that word ‘Duke’ — from any and all infringement (more on that later).

About the only thing standing in the way of Iron Duke now is COVID-19. And while it poses a series of challenges and has reduced draft sales of the company’s products by roughly 70% because bars and restaurants are not open or have cut hours way back, Morin believes the company can ride out that storm as well.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look back at what has been a rough ride for Iron Duke — and ahead to what promises to be, as they say in this business, a smoother pour.

 

Ale’s Well That’s Ends Well

As he talked with BusinessWest at the bar in Iron Duke’s taproom on a quiet Wednesday, Morin, a safe six feet away, referenced the one place at that end, officially outlined with blue tape, at which one could sit because of social-distancing measures forced by COVID-19.

“That space over there is too close to those tables,” he said, gesturing with his hand to another portion of the bar. “And this space here is too close to people sitting over there; it’s a no-fly zone. This is only place you can sit at. It can be a little lonely, I guess, but people still like it.”

The fact that this conversation was taking place where it was — and that there were lines of blue tape all over the bar — could be considered remarkable. And maybe 18 months ago, it would have been, well, pretty much unthinkable.

Back then, it seemed as if what started as a good marriage was going to end up in a messy, very public divorce, with Iron Duke brewing beer in Wilbraham, and Westmass looking to fill a vacancy and move on from what had become a public-relations problem.

And then … things changed.

As we retell the story of how we got here, and where we go from here, we need to go back a little further, to those walks Morin had with his wife along the river.

“My wife and I started a family about a half-mile from here,” he noted. “We used to walk our dog back here and talk about — as most in Ludlow did at the time — how it was a shame that this whole property was in the shape it was. When we put together our business plan, it just made sense to grow it here, in the town where we lived and close to our house.”

Iron Duke Brewing has added a food truck

Iron Duke Brewing has added a food truck and tented beer garden at its Ludlow location, and soon will commence work on a permanent, two-tiered beer garden that will overlook the Chicopee River.

He initiated talks with the previous owner of the sprawling complex in late 2012, and discussions accelerated after Westmass acquired the property, because with that purchase came ambitious talk of redeveloping the mills into a multi-purpose destination that would include residential, business, healthcare, and other uses.

“We wanted to be part of it because we had big plans for our small business,” said Morin, adding that what would eventually become a highly scrutinized and much-debated seven-year lease agreement was inked in late 2013.

What followed was a year and a half of construction in one of the many so-called stockhouses on the property, the century-old, high-ceilinged, 6,000-square-foot facilities in which raw materials — jute plants — were hung and dried for production in the mill complex.

The brewery officially opened on Thanksgiving Eve in 2014.

“We hit the ground running — that first year is a bit of a blur,” he recalled, noting that he quit his job that month as a mechanical engineer and made brewing his vocation — and his passion. The company steadily grew, drawing customers to its taproom in the mill and also putting its various products in cans and bottles, which were available at bars, restaurants, and some package stores.

Things were going pretty much according to the script laid out in the business plan until 2015, when the company started hitting some speed bumps, as Morin called them.

They came in for the form of differences of opinion regarding just what the lease allowed at the premises.

“We found ourselves being backed into a corner regarding our business and a disagreement over what we could do here and what we were doing here at our Ludlow location,” said Morin. “That’s how lawyers got involved — the interpretation of the lease itself.”

Elaborating, he said it all came down to one paragraph and its two sentences regarding the use of the premises and consumption of beer on and off the property. Cutting to the chase, he said Westmass held the view that such consumption would be limited — or at least more limited than what Iron Duke had in mind and needed for its venture to succeed.

“It was a kind of a Hail Mary, and it was a tough negotiation because there was a lot of bad blood between the two organizations at that point. But we actually had more in common with our visions than we thought.”

“That escalated from a conversation to litigation once the lawyers got involved,” he went on, adding that the court fight lasted from January 2016 to the summer of 2017. Westmass wanted Iron Duke evicted from the property, a fate that would have effectively scuttled the business, Morin said.

“We had already leveraged everything we had to open here in Ludlow the first time around,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re self-financed; myself and my family, we put everything we had into this. To build a brewery once was everything we had — to build it twice was something we couldn’t afford.

“We were only left with closing or fighting this thing out to save our business, so that’s what we did — we fought for a good chunk of time,” he went on, adding that the protracted and very expensive legal fight pushed Iron Duke to the very brink financially, and it only survived because of the strong and constant support from its customers.

 

Lager Than Life

That fight ended with a judge ruling that Iron Duke could essentially ride out its lease operating as it was, Morin recalled, adding that, not long after that decision, he bought property in Wilbraham with the intention of moving the company there when the lease expired — right around now, actually.

Instead, the company is staying put in Ludlow. After the passing of Nelson in the spring of 2019, discussions ensued with his immediate successor, Nicholas, who was with Westmass when Iron Duke originally signed its lease in 2013 and played a role in those negotiations. And those talks continued with Daley.

They weren’t easy negotiations, Morin said, noting that there was still considerable baggage to contend with. But, as noted above, both sides concluded they had more to gain by coming together on another lease than they did by parting ways and letting the next chapters of this story develop in Wilbraham.

“We came to common ground realizing that we’re better off with each other than we are apart,” Daley said. “It’s a great relationship now, and I think it’s going to be an even better relationship going forward; I’m excited for their future, and I’m glad they stayed at the Ludlow Mills.”

Morin agreed. From the beginning, he noted, the company wanted to be an integral part of the growth and development of the Ludlow Mills complex, and this mission, if it can be called that, had been somehow lost in the midst of the protracted legal battle.

“We always had envisioned ourselves as a showcase of what they could do with the old property here, and a lot of that, through the litigation and the filtering of what we do through other parties, just got lost,” he explained. “And once we had the opportunity to show them the plans that we had — we were going to spend millions of dollars in Wilbraham to build a showcase facility — both sides started asking, ‘why not just stay where we are?’”

So now, the company is just about at the point where it always wanted to be — focused entirely on business and its expansion plans.

“We always had envisioned ourselves as a showcase of what they could do with the old property here, and a lot of that, through the litigation and the filtering of what we do through other parties, just got lost.”

There is still the matter of Duke University and its demands that the brewery change its name. Morin has decided that, even though he has a good amount invested in ‘Iron Duke’ — literally and figuratively — this is not a fight he’s willing to wage at this time.

“It’s a common thing among these universities that they protect their mark,” he said with some resignation in his voice. “So there’s not a lot of negotiation on that front.”

So instead, he will rebrand. He’s working with a firm to come up with new name, and expects to announce it within the next several weeks. While offering no other hints, he did say the word ‘Duke’ could not be part of the equation, but he expects to be able to work the company’s very recognizable bootprint logo into what comes next.

Meanwhile, since the start of this year, the company has essentially doubled its space within its stockhouse by taking down a wall and expanding into square footage that had been unused since the mid-’90s — something it has long desired to do but couldn’t because of the litigation.

Ongoing changes at the site

Ongoing changes at the site will essentially transform it from a tasting room to more of a full-service brewpub and restaurant.

It also erected the tented beer garden and added a food truck, said Morin, noting that construction of the permanent, two-tiered beer garden, which will overlook the river, is set to commence this coming winter.

“There will be a nice concrete patio, along with the food truck we purchased in June,” he noted. “All this will enable us to essentially transform from just a tasting room to more of a full-service brewpub and restaurant.”

COVID-19 has certainly thrown the brewery some curve balls — the business was closed to on-premise business during the shutdown last March and relied entirely on distribution, delivery, and curbside purchases of its canned products until July — but Morin believes that, after all the hard fights this company has been through, it can handle a pandemic as well.

“We’ve found that, because we’ve been through so much in the past six years, we’re able to handle these larger problems pretty effectively,” he said. “We’ve got a nice, hard callus around us, and we’re pretty flexible about our business.”

 

What’s on Tap?

At the height of the legal battle that ensued between Iron Duke and Westmass, the brewer put out a product called Eviction Notice IPA (India Pale Ale).

It became an immediate hit and one of its best sellers — in part because it was a quality ale with good flavor, but also because drinking it became a way to show support for the company in its quest to stay where it always wanted to be.

“We bring it back every now and then because it is a crowd favorite, but it’s not as bitter of a beer as it once was,” he explained. “It’s a fun beer to tell our story, but we always try to finish off the story on a positive note, rather than a negative one.”

Only 18 months ago, few would have thought this story could possibly sound a positive note, but things changed quickly and profoundly — and both sides seem poised to benefit from this collective change of heart.

 

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

Coronavirus Cover Story

Battle Fatigue

Meyers Brothers Kalicka

Employees at Meyers Brothers Kalicka crowd around a food truck offering gourmet grilled cheese, one of many initiatives on the part of the company to help boost morale during the pandemic — and a long, difficult tax season.

The food truck from the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House pulled into the north parking lot of the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke around 2 p.m. on Oct. 15.

By 2:30, a large number of employees from the accounting and tax-planning firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka had gathered to enjoy gourmet grilled cheese, tomato soup, hard cider, and some pumpkin beers, and to play a little cornhole.

The occasion? The last day of filing for those who sought extensions on their tax returns, and thus another milestone during what has been labeled by those in the accounting realm as the ‘never-ending tax season of 2020.’

But in many ways, the grilled cheese, trimmings, and camaraderie were part of what has become a multi-pronged effort at MBK to help employees cope with all the stress and strain — the battle fatigue, if you will — of what has been the most trying year anyone can remember.

And the company is certainly not alone in this mindset.

Indeed, businesses and nonprofits large and small have been addressing this matter of fatigue and helping employees cope with stress in ways that range from loosened dress codes to those food trucks; from pumpkin-decorating competitions to the ‘concert T-shirt day’ — no explanation needed — staged by MBK.

“There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

Overall, business owners and managers are recognizing that their valued employees — the ones who remain after many others have been furloughed or laid off — are tired, worried about the future, ‘Zoomed out’ (another phrase you hear a lot these days), unable or unwilling to take paid time off, and unable or unwilling to leave work behind when they leave work — whether they’re at the office or at home, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE).

And they’re responding, as she is responding herself (EANE has 22 people on its payroll), with policies, formal and informal, and action plans focused on providing some stress relief and perhaps a sense of normalcy in a year when some companies and agencies are offering ‘mental-health days’ in the office instead of at home.

“Our team is feeling it,” said Wise, using ‘it’ to refer to the sum of the stress incurred at work and at home. “We’re having a difficult year here, and everyone is pushing for the numbers and pushing for the registrations and pushing to connect with our members and provide the best service. And then, at home, it’s not like they’re going home and then relaxing and getting away from the pressures and having time to rest and refuel. They’re going home, whether they’re working remotely or working at the office, and they’ve got all the stuff in their personal life.”

Elaborating, she said this collective ‘stuff’ constitutes everything from fear of contracting the virus to negativity on the nightly news, to the inability to do the things they want to do and go to places they want to go.

Add it all up, and it’s exhausting and often overwhelming, she said, adding that, as an employer, she considers it her responsibility to help valued employees cope with all this.

Amy Roberts, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank, agreed. She told BusinessWest that the focus for businesses over the past few months has shifted from dealing with an emergency — getting everyone home and making sure they’re safe — and setting up people to work from home if needed, to coping with this fatigue that has settled in.

MP CPAs in Springfield

The dress code has been thrown away at MP CPAs in Springfield, one of many steps taken to help employees feel more comfortable in the office during these uncertain times.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do through the whole situation is be flexible and creative in working with each person as their own needs evolve,” she explained. “You have parents who have kids in school or at home, or a combination of both, and then you have employees with significant others who are exposed or working in situations that put them in potential harm. There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

“We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.”

As companies continue to find ways to assist employees, they acknowledge that, as the pandemic continues, fall turns to winter, the holidays and all the additional stress they bring on approach, and the days get shorter and darker, these efforts will have to continue and probably expand.

 

Forever in Blue Jeans

Doug Theobald says MP CPAs, the Springfield-based accounting firm, has long had a casual-Friday policy, and it has become quite popular.

These days, though, every day is casual as the company tries to make employees feel happier and more comfortable during this stressful time. And allow them to dress like their colleagues, who are working at home.

“We’ve thrown our dress code out — people have been in shorts and sweats since we came back in May,” Theobald, a principal and president of the company, explained. “We’ve always been business casual, and one of my biggest concerns was that people would be nervous coming back to the office; we wanted to make it as comfortable an environment as possible. We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.

“That’s probably been the most beneficial thing we’ve done,” he went on. “If we get back to a new normal at some point, that might be my biggest hurdle — putting business casual back in place once client meetings start again.”

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y’s West Springfield store, says the company has taken an individualized approach to helping its thousands of employees cope with the stress and strain of the pandemic.

In some ways, this new dress code, or lack of one, is merely an extension of strategies put in place before the pandemic, aimed at creating a more appealing workplace at a time when attracting and retaining employees, especially in this sector, was becoming increasingly difficult as the job market tightened.

But it’s also part of a broad effort to help employees cope with all that 2020 is throwing at them, including that never-ending tax season, which will soon give way to the next tax season.

“My team is wiped,” Theobald said on Oct. 15 — again, the last day for those who sought extensions, and there were many in that category this year. “They work hard, and we are the one firm in this area that has a really, really busy fall season; it’s almost busier than April.”

He was planning to close the office down for a few days and give his team a break, another attempt to help them get rest and recreation in a year when there has been much less of both.

“There’s so much stress going on in this world right now, we’re just trying to make it as stress-free in the office as we can,” Theobold went on, noting that efforts ranging from the new dress code to flexible hours; from bringing food into the office more often (even if people can’t eat together) to delivering care packages (mostly snacks) to those working remotely, are efforts that will have to continue as the pandemic wears on.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that. I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Wise agreed, noting that, between work and home, many employees simply don’t seem to be able to get a break from the pressure and stress.

This leads to lack of sleep and even more mental and physical fatigue, she said, adding that matters are compounded by the fact that traditional vacations have become far more difficult to undertake. Indeed, trips to Disney World, cruises to Europe, weeks on the Cape, and even visits to relatives in other states have become daunting, if not impossible, because of the pandemic.

As a result, people are vacationing at home, which is good for the region and its tourism venues — the ones that are open, anyway; Six Flags, the Big E, and many others have not been — but the time off is, in many cases, not as relaxing and therapeutic. Meanwhile, with technology and the pandemic both being what they are, time off is usually not time off from many work stresses.

As a result, Wise and others in positions of leadership are strongly encouraging employees to completely unplug when they are taking a day or a week off.

“We try to encourage people to take their time off and to completely disconnect from the office,” she said. “We’re requiring people, when they’re taking a day off or a half-day off or a week off, to put an ‘out-of-office’ message on all of their devices. And that message should say that they will not be responding to e-mails. I don’t necessarily want to cut off people’s access, but we’re saying, ‘put that out-of-office message on, and don’t respond to anything.’ I can’t stop you from checking, but don’t respond.”

Roberts agreed, and said PeoplesBank has been pushing its workers to use their paid time off.

“When there’s nowhere to go, people are inclined to say, ‘I’ll just work,’” she said. “But over the summer, we were encouraging, and in some ways pushing, people to just take a staycation and unplug from work.”

 

Stressing Some Points

Roberts told BusinessWest it was only a few months into the pandemic when upper management at PeoplesBank recognized that fatigue was becoming an issue and needed to be addressed.

“We’ve had some pretty deliberate management conversations where our president, Tom Senecal, has said to team managers, ‘make sure you’re paying attention to the fatigue factor and that you’re communicating with people in a way that they know you understand that this is a very unique and evolving situation.’

“While we want obviously to meet the needs of the customers and do everything we need to do as a business, we recognize that there’s another side to this,” she went on. “Just acknowledging this and having that conversation with managers gives them that awareness and pushes them in a direction where they’re taking a more flexible approach with their people.”

Meagan Tetreault, senior Employee Services field manager for Big Y Foods, agreed. She told BusinessWest that, as an essential retail business, the company has obviously been open for customers and focused on their safety. But it has been focused on employees and their various needs as well — everything from steps taken to keep them safe to flexibility with schedules to enable them to successfully balance work and life.

“Our first priority was making sure we’re putting in place different protocols to make sure that the environment is as safe and secure as possible — from sanitizing and cleaning to plastic barriers to maintaining that social distance,” she explained. “And at certain points, we limited our staff to maintain that social distancing; in retail, it’s natural that you have to have that interaction with the public, and that can be scary. How do you support them through that? It starts with safety and wellness, and promoting that wellness.”

But, as noted, support has come in many different forms, she noted, including efforts to help the company’s 12,000 employees manage the pandemic. And as she talked about it, Tetreault stressed the need to address each employee individually and, when possible, customize a response.

“We found that it comes down to each individual employee’s needs and wants, and our store teams are a big part of that,” she said. “Our employee-services representatives are in each store to assist with employee needs, identifying opportunities and having some of those individual conversations to find out what works for that particular individual.”

Elaborating, she said the company amended its attendance policies; established something called ‘COVID leave,’ which enabled employees to take time off without losing their status; and created more flexibility for workers.

“Our store hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., but we have people who come in and work overnight shifts as well,” she explained. “And we’re able to work with employees to find a schedule and position them to support their individual needs, be it childcare or even wishing to limit contact with customers.”

 

COVID Coping

Overall, while morale is an issue some companies address at least some of the time, it has become more of a front-burner topic during the pandemic, out of necessity, said those we spoke with.

“We’re seeing morale dip a bit; people are trying to put a good face on it, but it’s becoming harder and harder to do that,” Wise told BusinessWest. “So we’re trying to find things we can be doing to raise morale.”

Such efforts include e-mails on Wednesday reminding people that they can almost see Friday, and other e-mails on Friday telling people to turn their computers off at 4:30, go home, and not think about work over the weekend, or even watch the news.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

Region-wide, morale-building efforts run the gamut from food and games to team-building exercises, either in person or the remote variety.

At PeoplesBank, the week-long event known as Employee Fest was staged as always, but it did look and feel different, said Roberts, noting that many activities were carried out remotely, with gifts delivered to all employees, whether they were working at the office, in one of the branches, or remotely.

At MBK, morale-building has been a year-long priority, said Sarah Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruiting manager, adding that it comes in several forms, from so-called social-media holidays, where people post pictures of pets, children, or travel destinations; to the concert T-shirt day, flip-flops day, and alma-mater day; to food trucks, which have come on several occasions.

The company has traditionally done such things, and it has long had what’s been called the ‘Fun Committee,’ which arranged an axe-throwing competition and visit to a brewery last year, for example. This year, the activities are different, but there are more of them, with good reason.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that,” she noted. “I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Many of the initiatives at MBK and elsewhere fall into the broad category of connectivity, an important ingredient for success at any business, and something that’s been lacking due to the pandemic.

Monica Borgatti, chief operating officer for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, said the small staff of three full-time and three part-time employees has mostly been working remotely since March. That means no water-cooler talk — literally, anyway, she said, adding that the nonprofit has tried to incorporate those types of discussions into the regular Zoom meetings in an effort to help people connect in ways beyond what they’re doing for work every day.

“We always, always make sure to start those weekly meetings with a virtual water cooler,” she told BusinessWest. “Everyone takes turns sharing something, whether it’s an article they’ve come across over the past week or something personal — they got a new dog and they want to show off the pictures, or some household project that they’ve finally completed.

“We make sure to create time for that at all those staff meetings, so we’re connecting with each other as people and not just as co-workers,” she went on, adding that the agency also allows for very flexible schedules and encourages employees to stop and step away from their work when they need to, and not stare at a computer screen for hours on end.

At MBK, one of the partners, Jim Krupienski, stages a monthly check-in social, Stack said, during which the company has a cocktail hour of sorts where those working from home can join in remotely. “It’s just really to check in and talk about anything other than work,” she noted. “It’s a mental-health check-in with adult beverages.”

Scanning the landscape, Wise believes many companies are struggling in their efforts to maintain morale among their employees. It’s easier for a smaller business to undertake initiatives in this regard than those with several hundred employees, she noted, but most are trying to do something.

It might be a food truck or two coming to the parking lot — even sharing a large pizza box can be risky during a pandemic — or more communication from the C-suite, she said, adding that there is more ‘management by walking around’ in this environment, or at least there should be.

Meanwhile, employers are pushing people to take time off and providing more one-on-one employee counseling, duties now falling in many cases to human-resources professionals, especially at smaller companies that do not have employee-assistance programs.

“They’ve had to put on their social work, psychologist’s hat,” she noted. “And it’s not something that they’re used to. But some employees just need to vent; they’re saying, ‘I don’t know what to do or where to go.’”

 

Bottom Line

While no one really knows when the pandemic will subside and something approaching normal returns to the workplaces of Western Mass., what most business owners and managers do know is that their valued employees will need some help getting to that point.

At a time when most e-mail messages end with the message ‘stay safe and stay sane,’ or words to that effect, achieving those goals has been anything but easy.

Addressing this battle fatigue has become an important, and ongoing, assignment for many businesses, and the smart ones understand that the fight is far from over, and they need to keep finding ways to be attentive and creative — and even fun.

 

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

40 Under 40 Cover Story

2020 40 Under Forty Virtual-Hybrid Celebration
Tues., Oct. 13 & Wed., Oct. 14, 2020

2020 strikes again.

Due to high wind warnings in the region for tonight and tomorrow, Oct. 7 and 8, BusinessWest’s highly anticipated, two-day 40 Under Forty celebration has been postponed to next week: Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 13 and 14, at the Upper Vista of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. People who have already signed up can use their existing username and login.

After consulting with meterologists and Log Cabin staff, the move was made out of an abundance of caution and concerns for the safety of attendees.

The hybrid event will still take place at four ‘mini-events’ over two days, allowing 10 honorees to celebrate in person at each event. For those who can’t join us in person, we’ve created a livestream option so friends and family can cheer on the class of 2020 from the safety and comfort of their home. A two-night ‘virtual access pass’ allows participants to see all 40 of this year’s honorees accept their awards on Oct. 13 and 14.

The 40 Under Forty program for 2020 is sponsored by PeoplesBank and Health New England (presenting sponsors); Comcast Business, Isenberg School of Management, and Mercedes-Benz of Springfield (sponsors); the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (partner); and WWLP 22 News/CW Springfield (exclusive media sponsor).

Purchase virtual event tickets below:

Amid new restrictions imposed by the governor on large gatherings and with a strong desire to keep everyone safe, it was decided that the most prudent course was to instead celebrate our honorees’ accomplishments with a hybrid platform.

The hybrid event will be spread out over two days on Tues., Oct. 13 and Wed., Oct. 14. Each “mini-event” will allow 10 honorees to celebrate in person at the Upper Vista of the Log Cabin. For those who can’t join us in person, we’ve created a livestream option so friends and family can cheer on the Class of 2020 from the safety and comfort of their home. The new two-night ‘Virtual Access Pass’ allows you to see all 40 of this year’s honorees accept their awards on Tuesda, Oct. 13 and Wednesday, Oct. 14!

The 40 Under Forty program for 2020 is sponsored by PeoplesBank and Health New England (presenting sponsors); Comcast Business, Isenberg School of Management, and Mercedes-Benz of Springfield (sponsors); the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (partner); and WWLP 22 News/CW Springfield (exclusive media sponsor).

Please refer to the below list to see when your 40 Under Forty honoree will be accepting their award. Paid virtual guest may view any of the live-streamed sessions:

2020 Sponsors Videos

2020 Presenting Sponsors

2020 Sponsors

2020 Partner

2020 Exclusive Media Sponsor

Cover Story Special Coverage

The Business of Pivoting

Nicole Ortiz, founder and president of Crave Food Truck

Nicole Ortiz, founder and president of Crave Food Truck

Nicole Ortiz remembers a lot of people having some serious doubts about whether she should go forward with her plans to put a food truck into operation late last spring.

After all, it was the middle of a pandemic, people were staying home, the economy was tanking, and the restaurant business, perhaps more than any other, was suffering mightily.

But Ortiz, a graduate of the Culinary Arts program at Holyoke Community College, was determined to make her dream, which she would call Crave, become reality — pandemic or not.

She had already acquired the vehicle itself, and her experience in the accelerator program operated by EforAll Holyoke had given her the confidence (and technical know-how) to get her show — a food truck specializing in Puerto Rican cuisine — on the road … literally.

Problem was, it was not business as usual when it came to securing the needed approvals and permits from city officials.

“It was even difficult to speak with officials from cities because people weren’t working as much, and you couldn’t even get into city halls,” she said. “Everything has to be mailed in, which takes … as long as that takes. Meanwhile, a lot of cities don’t have ways to do this online; you can’t e-mail them or submit a form online. You have to mail it in, and that took a while.”

But Ortiz persevered, and opened for business just over a month ago. Her truck, usually parked on Race Street, not far from the Cubit Building and just a few blocks from the computing center, is actually exceeding goals set higher than most everyone she knows thought were reasonable.

Successful launches in the middle of COVID-19 are certainly rare, and for most area entrepreneurs, especially those trying to get a concept off the ground or to the next level, these are challenging times, when the focus is on pivoting and adjusting to meet changing needs and changing ways of doing things.

Juan and Elsie Vasquez, owners of 413 Family Fitness

Juan and Elsie Vasquez, owners of 413 Family Fitness, are like many small-business owners in that they have had to pivot during the pandemic and create new revenue streams.

In most all ways, the same can be said of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem itself, which specializes mostly on programs focused on people gathering in large numbers or sitting across a table from one another — things that can’t be done during a pandemic. Agencies within the ecosystem have been pivoting and adjusting as well.

This is especially true of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), the nonprofit based in Springfield’s Innovation Center, which is in the midst of what interim Director Chris Bignelli, a partner with the Alchemy Fund, calls a ‘reset.’

That’s the word he chose to describe a retrenching after most of the agency’s staff members left within a week of each other last spring, and after COVID prevented it from staging any of the large gatherings for which it became known — not only here, but across the state and beyond.

“Our mentors advise entrepreneurs about the importance of pivoting and changing directions when needed, and we’re doing the same,” he said, adding that the pandemic and other forces are compelling the agency to look inward and find new and perhaps different ways to provide value to entrepreneurs while also providing support to other agencies and initiatives within the ecosystem.

“For a while there, it really felt like we were kind of providing therapy to small-business owners.”

As VVM resets and reinvents, though, work within the ecosystem goes on during these trying times — despite COVID, and in many cases in an effort to help business owners survive it.

People like Juan and Elsie Vasquez. They operate 413 Family Fitness in Holyoke, a business that, like most all gyms, was devastated by the pandemic. With help from those at EforAll Holyoke, the couple has pivoted to everything from outdoor classes to staging quinceañeras, or sweet-15 birthdays (a tradition among Hispanics), and leasing out their space to third parties (more on that later).

Meanwhile, another initiative within the ecosystem, WIT — Women Innovators and Trailblazers — is continuing its mentoring program despite COVID, and is preparing to embark on its third cohort of matches.

Leah Kent

Leah Kent says the mentor she’s been matched with through the WIT program, Melissa Paciulli, has helped her set firm goals for her business and move out of her comfort zone.

The second cohort, featuring 45 teams, up from 20 in the first, was started just before the pandemic shut things down, noted Ann Burke, vice president of the the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts and one of the architects of the program, adding that she had some concerns about whether those matches could withstand COVID and its highly disruptive nature.

But for the most part, the partnerships persevered, and many have the legs to continue even after the formal program is over.

“We were really trying to see what would happen with the cohort and how they would respond with all that was happening,” said Burke. “I thought most of them would just throw up their hands and say, ‘we can’t do this’ amid all the business issues, personal issues, and issues at home. But for the most part, that’s not what happened.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the local entrepreneurship ecosystem and how it is carrying on through the pandemic, providing more evidence of its importance to the region.

Keep on Trucking

Flashing back several months and then fast-forwarding to today, Ortiz described the process of opening with a single word — ‘crazy.’

That sentiment applied to everything from getting her truck outfitted for the road — meaning wrapped with her logo and fully equipped — to buying all the supplies she needed (which meant going to the grocery store a number of times), to getting those aforementioned permits and approvals. Work started later than she wanted, and everything was made more difficult by the pandemic.

“Most of March and half of April, I called a halt to everything,” she said, noting that she bought the truck in February, but, because of the pandemic — and also the fact that she was still in school, which was also more complicated — she wasn’t able to advance her plans. “And then I started to feel more comfortable, and by the end of the April, I was going full speed.”

Or at least the speed at which City Hall would allow her to travel.

Now that she’s open, all that craziness seems like a distant memory, and business is, as she noted, exceeding expectations.

“We’ve been busy every day, and we usually sell out by the end of the day,” she said, noting that Craze features tacos, rice bowls, vegetarian and vegan dishes, and more, and uses social media to connect with potential customers. “COVID might actually be helping because people don’t want to go to restaurants.”

She credits EforAll — she was the first-place winner in its recent winter accelerator — with helping her get the doors open, especially with such matters as insurance and accounting, but also focusing on the model she wanted and the service she wanted to provide.

And such work is carrying on in the COVID-19 era, although it’s somewhat different and also in some ways more challenging, said Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll.

“We’ve been really fortunate that we can continue to offer a lot of the services that we provided before the pandemic in a virtual format,” she explained. “And we made that pivot very quickly, out of necessity.”

Elaborating, she said the agency was in the final stages of its winter cohort when the pandemic hit, and quickly shifted to not only a virtual platform, but a somewhat different purpose as it helped both those cohort members and other small businesses cope with everything that was happening.

“For a while there, it really felt like we were kind of providing therapy to small-business owners,” she explained. “We felt like there were a lot of things out of our control, but what we did want to do was support them, whether it was with help navigating PPP loans or even just applying for unemployment. We were doing a lot of one-on-one support and just helping people however we could.”

“It gives people a place to come and brainstorm as a group and impose that accountability that can sometimes be missing when you’re running your own venture.”

And such help was certainly needed, she said, adding that, in the case of PPP, many small businesses didn’t know if they were eligible, and if they were, they certainly needed assistance with paperwork that most established businesses turned over to a seasoned accountant. Meanwhile, a number of local, state, and federal grant programs emerged, and small businesses needed help identifying which ones might be appropriate and then navigating the application process.

Beyond that, EforAll also helped some businesses identify ways to pivot and find new revenue streams in the middle of a pandemic, Murphy-Romboletti said, adding that such assistance was provided to restaurants — helping them move beyond takeout and Grubhub, for example — and to other kinds of ventures, like 413 Family Fitness, which is one of those businesses that just ‘graduated’ from the most recent accelerator.

Like all fitness centers across the state, this operation had to shut down back in the spring, said Elsie Vasquez, forcing the company to pivot. It did so by offering classes online, then a shift to outdoor classes, more one-on-one personal training, and finally a reopening of the studio in July, with a host of restrictions.

“We’ve even done some space rental to bring in some revenue,” she told BusinessWest, adding that EforAll has been invaluable in helping to not only identify ways to generate business, but make them reality.

“The biggest thing we learned is that we have to pivot our business,” she explained. “We came in with an idea of what we wanted to do, and it’s been working out OK, but EforAll really opened our eyes to the fact that we have to think differently, and that your beginning result may not be your end result.”

In Good Company

While companies are pivoting, so too are some of the agencies within the ecosystem that serves them. And VVM is probably the best example.

Hope Gibaldi, who was serving the agency in a part-time role when the pandemic hit and is now full-time, serving as engagement manager, told BusinessWest that the agency has had to readjust as a result of the pandemic and its inability to stage the large gatherings it became known for.

Meanwhile, is doing what its mentors advise entrepreneurs to do — assess needs within the community and go about meeting them.

“There were listening sessions prior to the pandemic,” she noted, “and we’ve been taking the priorities identified during those sessions with an eye toward addressing them, while also trying to figure out how we can continue to provide value to entrepreneurs during COVID and what programming might look like when we come out of COVID.”

Elaborating, she said hybrid models blending in-person and remote programming are being considered, while, in the meantime, the agency is creating ways to bring people together on a remote basis to share ideas and work through common problems.

One such program is the introduction — or reintroduction, to be more precise — of ‘Entrepreneurial Roundtables,’ a peer-led “accountability group,” as she called it, that meets via Zoom.

“It’s a place where mentors and entrepreneurs can come and address their challenges,” Gibaldi explained. “It gives people a place to come and brainstorm as a group and impose that accountability that can sometimes be missing when you’re running your own venture.”

Other initiatives already in place or in the planning stages, she said, include everything from the agency’s once-thriving Community Nights (now handled remotely) to expert-in-industry mentorship, to a book club, to be launched in January, focusing on offerings in entrepreneurship, marketing, personal and professional growth, and more.

Overall, VVM looks a little different, but its mission hasn’t changed, Gibaldi said, adding that it is working to partner with other agencies and initiatives within the ecosystem to help them succeed.

One example is WIT, and helping to recruit mentors for that program, which has thus far created dozens of effective matches.

Leah Kent and Melissa Paciulli comprise one such match. The former is a writer and book designer who also helps other writers with the process of getting published, while the latter is director of the STEM Starter Academy at Holyoke Community College. Kent described the relationship as an intriguing, and effective, collision of science and creativity.

“We can understand each other quite well, but we bring different strengths,” she explained. “That complementary pairing has been so fantastic. In my work, she’s really honed in on the way that I help readers finish their manuscripts and get their work published.”

The two were part of the cohort that launched last March; the kickoff gathering was on March 12, and the next day, schools were shut down, and much of the business world ground to a halt. Kent’s original mentor was not able to continue participating because of the pandemic, so she was reassigned, if that’s the right word, to Paciulli, whom she credits with taking her outside her comfort zone and helping her set the bar higher professionally and personally.

Paciulli said Kent is her second match through WIT, and one of many business owners and students she has mentored over the years. She finds the work invigorating and rewarding, especially when the mentee is coachable and open-minded — like Kent.

“When you’re working with entrepreneurs and they’re coachable, and they take action on your direction, because it’s an iterative process of finding your product, getting it to market, and pivoting when you need to … it’s a super-cool experience to be part of one’s journey in that way,” she said. “When they’re coachable and they’re action-oriented — and she is — it’s awesome.”

Where There’s a Will…

Summing up what the past seven months or so have been like for entrepreneurs and small businesses, Murphy-Romboletti said it’s been a continuous run of challenges that have tested them — and her agency — in every way imaginable.

In many ways, COVID-19 and everything it has thrown at these businesses only reinforces what she pretty much already knew.

“What always inspires me about entrepreneurs is that, if you tell them ‘no,’ they just say, ‘OK, let me find out a way to make this work,’” she said.

Many have been doing just that, providing more evidence of their resiliency and more reminders of the importance of the entrepreneurship ecosystem to this region and its future.

The pandemic has slowed some things down and added to the already-long list of hurdles entrepreneurs have to clear, but it certainly hasn’t stopped people like Nicole Ortiz — and countless others — from getting down to business.

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

Cover Story Education Special Coverage

Writing the Next Chapter

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

At least once, and perhaps twice, Robert Johnson strongly considered removing himself from the mix as a search committee narrowed the field of candidates to succeed Anthony Caprio as president of Western New England University (WNEU) in Springfield.

It was early spring, and the COVID-19 pandemic was presenting every institution of higher learning, including UMass-Dartmouth, which he served as chancellor, with a laundry list of stern — and, in some cases, unprecedented — challenges.

Johnson told BusinessWest that the campus needed his full attention and that it might be time to call a halt to his quest for the WNEU job. But he “hung in there,” as he put it, and for the same reason that he eventually decided to pursue the position after at least twice telling a persistent recruiter that he wasn’t really interested.

“We are at an inflection point in higher education,” said Johnson, who arrived on the campus on Aug. 15, just a few weeks before students arrived for the fall semester. “Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.

“I think it’s fair to say that, when we think about higher education, the last time we’ve seen the level of transformation that is about to happen was just after World War II, with the GI Bill and the creation of more urban public universities, community colleges, and the list goes on,” he continued, as talked through a mask to emphasize the point that they are to be worn at all times on this campus. “As we think about the world of work and the future, colleges and universities will be educating people for jobs that don’t exist yet, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created to solve problems that have yet to be identified.”

Elaborating, he said today’s young people, and he counts his son and daughter in this constituency, are expected to hold upwards of 17 jobs in five different industries (three of which don’t currently exist) during their career. All this begs a question he asked: “what does an institution of higher learning look like in an environment like this, where the pace of change is unlike anything the world has ever seen?”

The short answer — he would give a longer one later — is that this now-101-year-old institution looks a whole lot like WNEU, which, he said, is relatively small, agile, and able to adapt and be nimble, qualities that will certainly be needed as schools of all sizes move to what Johnson called a “clicks and mortar” — or “mortar and clicks” — model of operation that, as those words suggest, blends remote with in-person learning.

The process of changing to this model is clearly being accelerated by the pandemic that accompanies Johnson’s arrival at WNEU, and that has already turned this fall semester upside down and inside out at a number of schools large and small.

“Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.”

Indeed, a number of schools that opened their campuses to students have already closed them and reverted to remote learning. Meanwhile, others trying to keep campuses open are encountering huge problems — and bad press: Northeastern University recently sent 11 students packing after they violated rules and staged a gathering in one of the living areas, for example, and the University of Alabama has reported more than 1,200 cases on its campus in Tuscaloosa.

It’s very early in the semester, but Johnson is optimistic, even confident, that his new place of employment can avoid such occurrences.

“The decision to go with in-person learning was essentially made before I got here, and I think it was the right decision,” he explained, noting that students are living on campus and only 16% of the courses are being taught fully online, with the rest in-person or a hybrid model. “We’ve tested more than 2,500 individuals, and we’ve had only three positive cases, all asymptomatic. It’s worked out well so far, but this is only the end of the first week.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, and we take it day to day,” he went on, adding that the school’s smaller size and strict set of protocols, such as testing students upon arrival, may help prevent some of those calamities that have visited other institutions. “We’ve been very judicious, and our small size makes us a bit different. We’re kind of like Cheers, where everybody knows your name; we don’t have tens of thousands of students that we have to manage.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Johnson about everything from the business of education in this unsettled time to the next chapter in higher education, which he intends to help write.

Screen Test

Flashing back to that aforementioned search for Caprio’s successor, Johnson noted that it was certainly different than anything he’s experienced before — and he’s been through a number of these, as we’ll see shortly.

Indeed, this was a search in the era of COVID-19, which meant pretty much everything was done remotely, including the later rounds of interviews, which usually involve large numbers of people sitting around a table.

Robert Johnson says he’s confident

Robert Johnson says he’s confident that WNEU, a smaller, tight-knit school, can avoid some of the problems larger institutions have had when reopening this fall.

“It was all Zoom, and it was … interesting,” he said of the interview process. “You don’t know if you’re truly connecting or not. As a person being interviewed, you have much more self-awareness of not only what you’re saying but how you’re saying it, and your own non-verbal communication, because you can see yourself on the screen.

“You have to make sure your background is right, the lighting is right, you’re wearing the right colors, all that,” he went on. “It’s like being on TV, literally, because the first impression people get is what they see on screen.”

Those on the search panel were nonetheless obviously impressed, both by what they saw and heard, and also the great depth of experience that Johnson brings to this latest stop in a nearly 30-year career in higher education.

Indeed, Johnson notes, with a discernable amount of pride in his voice, that he has worked at just about every type of higher-education facility.

“I worked in every not-for-profit higher-education sector,” he noted. “Public, private, two-year, four-year, private, Catholic, large, medium, and small — this is my seventh institution. And I think that gives me a unique lens as a leader in higher education.”

Prior to his stint at UMass Dartmouth, he served as president of Becker College in Worcester from 2010 to 2017, and has also held positions at Oakland University in Michigan and Sinclair College, the University of Dayton, and Central State University, all in Ohio.

As noted earlier, when Johnson was invited by a recruiter to consider perhaps making WNEU the next line on his résumé, he was at first reluctant to become a candidate.

“The search consultant, who I happen to know, called me two or three times, and I did not bite,” he noted. “But as she told me more, and I learned more about Western New England University, I began to take a look. I knew about the school, but I had never taken a deep dive into the institution, its history, and what it had to offer.”

He subsequently took this deep dive, liked what he saw, and, as he noted, hung in through the lengthy interview process because of the unique opportunity this job — at this moment in time — presented.

Since arriving on campus, he has made a point of meeting as many staff members and faculty as possible, but this, too, is difficult during the COVID-19 era. Indeed, meetings can involve only a few participants, so, therefore, there must be more of them.

“We can’t have any of those big ‘meet the president’ meetings,” he noted. “So I’ve had six, seven, or eight meetings with small groups or facility and staff, and I probably have another 15 or 20 of those scheduled. I’m getting to know people, and they’re getting to know me; I’m doing a lot of listening and learning.”

Overall, it’s a challenging time in many respects, he said, adding quickly that higher education was challenging before COVID, for reasons ranging from demographics — smaller high-school graduating classes, for starters — to economics and the growing need to provide value at a time when many are questioning the high cost of a college education.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently,” he told BusinessWest. “I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently. I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.”

“It was a Monday, and seven to nine days later, every college in the country was teaching remotely and working remotely, in ways we never imagined,” he continued. “So the very idea that colleges and universities will go back to 100% of what that old business model was is a non-starter. So the question is, ‘how do we reinvent ourselves?’”

Courses of Action

As he commenced answering that question, he started by addressing a question that is being asked in every corner of the country. While there is certainly a place for remote learning, he noted, and it will be part of the equation for every institution, it cannot fully replace in-person learning.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future,” he noted. “I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many students, and classes of students, the in-person, on-campus model is one that can not only provide a pathway to a career but also help an individual mature, meet people from different backgrounds, and develop important interpersonal skills.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future. I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

“For the student coming from a wealthy family, I think they need socialization, and they need a face-to-face environment,” he explained. “For the first-generation student whose parents did not go to college, I think they need socialization. And for students who come from poor families, they need socialization.

“My point being that online learning is not a panacea,” he continued. Some would argue that, if you have online learning, it would help poor kids go to college. I would say that the poor kids, the first-generation kids, are the very ones who need to be on that college campus, to socialize and meet people different from themselves. And the same is true for those kids coming from the upper middle class and wealthy families — they need that socialization.

“In my humble opinion, face-to-face never goes away,” he went on. “But does that mean that one might be living on campus five years from now, taking five classes a semester, with maybe one or two of them being online or hybrid? Absolutely. I think the new model is going to be click and mortar, or mortar and click.”

Expanding on that point while explaining what such a model can and ultimately must provide to students, he returned to those numbers he mentioned earlier — 17 jobs in five industries, at least a few of which don’t exist in 2020. Johnson told BusinessWest that a college education will likely only prepare a student for perhaps of the first of these jobs. Beyond that, though, it can provide critical thinking skills and other qualities needed to take on the next 16.

“That very first job that a student gets out of college — they’ve been trained for that. But that fifth job … they have not been trained for that,” he said. “And I think the role of the academy in the 21st century, the new model, is all about giving students and graduates what I call the agile mindset, which is knowledge and the power of learning — giving students essential human skills that cannot be replicated by robots and gives them the mindset to continually add value throughout their professional careers.

“We’re educating people to get that first job, and to create every job after that,” he continued. “We’re making sure that every person who graduates from college is resilient and has social and emotional intelligence and has an entrepreneurial outlook, which is not about being an entrepreneur; it’s about value creation and having those essential human skills. What that means, fundamentally, is that no algorithm will ever put them out of a job.”

To get his point across, he relayed a conversation he had with some students enrolled in a nursing program. “They said, ‘this doesn’t apply to us,’ and I said, ‘yes, it does, because there are robots in Japan that are turning patients over in hospitals. So if you think technology does not impact what you do, you’re mistaken.’”

Summing it all up, he said that, moving forward, and more than ever before, a college education must make the student resilient, something he does not believe can be accomplished solely through online learning.

“How do I put the engineer and the artist together, give them a real-world problem, and say, ‘have at it, go solve it?’” he asked. “They have to be face to face, hands-on. We can come up with alternate reality, virtual reality, and all the technology you want, but at some point, people have to sit down and look each other in the eye.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of the pandemic and the ongoing fall semester, Johnson reiterated his cautious optimism about getting to the finish line without any major incidents, and said simply, “get me to Thanksgiving with everyone still on campus.” That’s when students will be heading for a lengthy break after a semester that started early (late August) and, to steal a line from Bill Belichick, featured no days off — classes were even in session on Labor Day.

But while he wants to get to Thanksgiving, Johnson is, of course, looking much further down the road, to the future of higher education, which is, in some important respects, already here.

He believes WNEU represents that future, and that’s why he “hung in there” during that search process.

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

Alumni Achievement Award Cover Story

Finalists for Award Are Leaders in Business — and in the Community

Launched in 2015, and known then as the Continued Excellence Award, BusinessWest’s Alumni Achievement Award recognizes a previous 40 Under Forty honoree who has continued to build on his or résumé as a rising star in this region and leader both in business and within the community. The five finalists for 2020 — Carla Cosenzi, Peter DePergola, Mike Fenton, Paul Kozub, and James Leahy — epitomize what this award, sponsored by Health New England, is all about, and why it is among the most coveted of BusinessWest’s many awards.

 

Carla Cosenzi

She’s driven to succeed — in business and in the community

>>Read More


Peter Depergola

This pioneer remains on the leading edge in the field of bioethics

>>Read More


Mike Fenton

He has a passion for the law, and for serving his constituents

>>Read More


Paul Kozub

This entrepreneur — and his label — have come a long way in 15 years

>>Read More


James Leahy

This city leader has always been an ambassador — and a connector

>>Read More

 

 

 

 

Cover Story

The Plot Thickens

Even in a normal year, Feb. 29 is an odd date to open a business.

“We really won’t have an anniversary for another four years,” Thomas Winstanley, director of Marketing at Theory Wellness, joked about his company’s third cannabis dispensary, which opened in Chicopee on that leap-year date almost six months ago.

Of course, 2020 is no normal year, and a couple weeks after opening, Theory closed its doors as part of a statewide shutdown of ‘non-essential’ businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been an interesting six months, to say the least,” Winstanley told BusinessWest. “We had a brand-new team in place, the final approvals had come through, and that team was just getting their sea legs on the retail side when the shutdown came.”

When dispensaries were eventually allowed to open, it was only for medical marijuana at first, while the vast majority of business — recreational sales — remained shut down.

And now?

“It’s dynamite,” he said. “A lot of money is coming back to the market, and our team hasn’t missed a step since coming back — and we’ve seen the team continue to grow. We’ve come back a lot stronger.”

The line that forms outside the shop each morning testifies to demand that certainly didn’t go away during the weeks when product was unavailable.

It’s a story taking shape across the state, with cannabis businesses continuing to launch and grow even as the pandemic still rages and the economy nowhere near returning to its 2019 condition. Take Holyoke, for example — a city whose leaders fully embraced the cannabis trade from the start, and where two more businesses opened in recent weeks, Canna Provisions on Dwight Street and Boston Bud Co. on Sargeant Street.

“It’s been an interesting six months, to say the least. We had a brand-new team in place, the final approvals had come through, and that team was just getting their sea legs on the retail side when the shutdown came.”

“I’m not going to lie — I was very nervous as the economy took a downturn,” said Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, about the cannabis hub city leaders have worked to cultivate, one that now includes a handful of cultivation, production, and retail businesses, with more on the way. “Oddly enough, we haven’t seen a significant stoppage in stores’ actions at this point. I can only speculate why that is.”

One reason, quite simply, is that some sectors do better than others during recessions. Marrero compared it to when prohibition was lifted during the Great Depression, and smart entrepreneurs immediately saw the long-term (and pent-up) demand for alcohol, even during tough economic times.

Theory Wellness in Chicopee

Theory Wellness in Chicopee closed in March just a few weeks after it opened, but customer traffic has been solid this summer.

“Today, we have a very robust alcoholic-beverage industry,” he said, reflecting demand that has never subsided over the decades. “So I don’t think there’s anything remarkably special about cannabis in that regard.”

Another apt comparison is the financial crisis of 2008, when the fundamentals of the economy were coming apart — a different story than in 2020. “Now, the economy is tanking because there’s no consumption, and the labor force is contracting.”

Those investing in the cannabis sector, however, are looking beyond that; they know demand for these products is likely to remain high — no pun intended — in the long term.

“This may be as good an investment as anything,” Marrero said. “We’re still seeing investments going forward at the local level; it’s a very positive outlook, even during the pandemic.”

Creating a Pipeline

The proliferation of cannabis businesses across the region, with the promise of more to come, means jobs, and that potential isn’t lost on area colleges and universities.

First, Holyoke Community College (HCC) and the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) announced the creation of the Cannabis Education Center last fall, to provide education, training, and other business resources to individuals in the region who want to work in the cannabis industry.

HCC and C3RN are designated training partners through the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission’s (CCC) Social Equity Vendor Training program, which was designed to provide priority access, training, and technical assistance to populations and communities that, traditionally, have been negatively impacted by the drug war.

Soon after that, American International College (AIC) dipped a toe into the sector by launching a three-course certificate program called Micro-Emerging Markets: Cannabis, offering an overview of cannabis entrepreneurship, business operations, and law and ethics.

This fall, AIC is launching a master’s program in Cannabis Science and Commerce — with a one-year online program or a two-year hybrid model — that takes a deeper dive into preparing students to work in this field, said Jennifer Barry, AIC’s director of Continuing Studies and Special Projects.

She cited some striking statistics — 15% job growth in the legal cannabis industry in 2019, $404 million in legal cannabis sales in Massachusetts that same year, and 245,000 full-time-equivalent jobs created nationally by early 2020 — to explain why the program is necessary.

JENNIFER BARRY

Jennifer Barry

“We want to provide opportunities to connect students with an industry where there’s a lot of room for employment growth. The idea is to connect students with experts in the industry.”

“We want to provide opportunities to connect students with an industry where there’s a lot of room for employment growth,” Barry told BusinessWest. “The idea is to connect students with experts in the industry.”

To that end, the program will be taught collaboratively by faculty members, cannabis-industry professionals, and occasionally guest lecturers, either in person or by video.

“We’re taking the academic rigor of an AIC course normally taught by faculty members and keeping it current and relevant by pulling in industry experts,” she explained, noting that classes cover topics from law and policy to the chemistry of cannabis.

“It’s hard for people who work full-time in the cannabis industry, which is such a demanding field, to make time,” she added, but quickly noted that they recognize the need to create a pipeline of talent in the region so the sector can continue to grow and avoid a skills gap. In that way, she noted, this master’s program is a win-win — helping graduates access a solid career while helping area businesses grow.

“That’s the real benefit of our program,” Barry continued, noting that it’s the first program in the U.S. that blends business, science, and the legal aspects of the trade. “What we’ve found, speaking with cannabis professionals, is you have to understand the chemical components of the plant to be prepared to sell it, package it, speak about it intelligently in the field.

“That’s why we have a chemistry course, and one that talks about cannabis from seed to sale, how it makes it through the pipeline, giving students a broad understanding of the process. Then, through individual courses, they can dig through each individual element.”

The goal, again, is to support both opportunities for job seekers and business growth, and Marrero sees elements of both in Holyoke’s enthusiastic adoption of the cannabis sector. He said Holyoke officials don’t “game the system” with host-community agreements, trying to squeeze as much from license applicants as possible. Instead, it’s a standard template that can be approved in a day.

“The CCC does its due diligence on businesses; we regulate things like land use and how businesses are integrated into the community,” he said of the city’s approach to license approval. “For us, it’s been about how to create jobs, how to help businesses get into the cannabis industry.

“It’s about creating a cluster,” he went on. “We’ve made a concerted effort to make it smooth, to work with industries to create a cluster. What it gets us is more than the sum of its parts; it’s how many jobs are created by these companies — and we have a dozen already special-permitted.”

Those services run the gamut from plumbers and pipefitters to security, delivery services, cleaning services, lawyers, and more.

“Any new company produces opportunities for other types of other businesses, and those businesses have to employ people. It’s that economic contagion that’s also attractive,” Marrero explained — one of the few times one might hear the word ‘contagion’ these days in a positive light.

A Social Contract

Winstanley said Theory’s experience setting up shop in Chicopee went as smoothly as it could have, considering the built-in rigor of the process, especially at the state level.

“We’ve always known there were a lot of policies in place at the state level and the local level. It’s a long process,” he told BusinessWest. “But we want to make sure we get it right and operate in ways that are beneficial to the local population, and we want to make sure to set an example for what legal cannabis should look like in this day and age.”

One way Theory — which also has locations in Great Barrington and Bridgewater, and employs about 200 people in its cultivation, manufacturing, and retail divisions — does that is through the kind of social-equity program the CCC made a point of emphasizing.

It recently accepted applications from ‘economic-empowerment’ applicants as designated by the commission and will select a qualified applicant to partner with, guiding and mentoring the entrepreneur through the process of opening their doors, from financial assistance to professional services to zoning and regulatory hurdles.

That financial commitment will total up to $250,000, $100,000 of which will be offered in the form of 0% interest debt financing, with $150,000 worth of initial cannabis inventory to be offered on consignment, providing a boost of capital to help get the operation off the ground. Theory will also connect the successful applicant with professional services like banking, legal, insurance, and HR.

“This is something we felt really strongly about,” Winstanley said. “We felt it’s the future of the industry, to make sure everyone has an opportunity to get into it.”

Barry is well aware of the social-equity component as well, saying it aligns with AIC’s mission to provide access and opportunity to a diverse student population.

“Each course will have a social-equity component; students will get exposure to the business through the lens of social equity, and by the end of the program, they’ll be entrenched in how we can potentially undo some of the disproportionate harm done in the past, while creating a workforce that meets the needs of the industry.”

Because, again, the opportunities appear to be increasing.

“They’ll build a network of professionals they can use as resources as they create their careers, whether they start out working for someone else or start their own business,” she added. “They’ll know it’s not limited.”

That’s true in Holyoke right now, where the next site to open will likely be True Leaf, located near the Holyoke Dam, Marrero said. “They’re a pretty sizable operation — they would be the biggest in Holyoke by square footage, and they’re near completion of construction.”

Winstanley said Theory learned a lot from its original store, in Great Barrington, the first dispensary to open in the Berkshires. Now, competition is springing up across Western Mass., but he says the company still has plenty of room to grow.

“It’s not only the growth of our company, but the significant tax revenue that’s definitely needed,” he said. “Right now, we’re just really happy to see cannabis is back, and hopefully we can continue to contribute, and the industry will provide some much-needed life in these strange times.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Cover Story Modern Office

The Future of Work

Michael Galat

Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y.

When businesses sent employees home in mid-March, many thought it would be for just a few weeks. Instead, as the pandemic lingered, weeks stretched into months, and now, even as companies are allowed to bring their teams back on site, many have not. The reason? Employers say it makes little sense to risk their people’s health if they can do their job just as well at home. But … if they can work effectively at home, why bring them back at all? That’s a conversation many companies are having as they ponder the future of the workplace in the COVID-19 era.

Big Y Foods is one of the region’s largest companies, with more than 11,000 employees throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. It has also been an essential business throughout the pandemic, so it never shut down.

Many of its employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“About 80% of them started working from home once COVID-19 started gaining traction,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y. That shift meant setting everyone up with the right equipment if they didn’t have it at home, and also putting together a best-practices guide for working remotely. “Whether people are working remotely or not, they need to have access and be available to support those locations.”

The lesson learned over four months? They did their jobs just fine. And until COVID-19 begins to subside in earnest, Big Y is taking its time bringing employees — at least the ones who don’t have to work in the stores — back to their pre-pandemic workspaces.

“We’re definitely taking our time. We’re at about 30% in the support center now,” Galat said. “Obviously this is peak vacation time, but we are slowly, and I mean slowly, reintegrating people in the support center.”

PeoplesBank is learning similar lessons about what employees can accomplish at home, said Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer.

“There’s always a concern, when you don’t have someone on site, because you can’t see what they’re doing. Are they working?” she said. “But we haven’t really missed a beat in terms of productivity levels. Some people like working from home — it works for them — while some people prefer working in the office, and they can’t wait to come back. But for overall productivity and meeting the needs of customers, we haven’t had any concerns.”

Roberts doesn’t see a day, post-pandemic, when the majority of bank employees are still working at home. But functioning so well over the past few months has at least gotten HR leaders talking.

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend. But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend,” she told BusinessWest. “But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

Patrick Leary has had those conversations, too. As a partner with MP CPAs, he understands that much of his business is face to face with clients. “But I don’t think we’ll go back to 100% on site.”

Elaborating, he explained that “the model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way. Yes, we need to have people available, and we can’t have somebody that decides, ‘I want to enjoy my day, so I’ll start the workday at 5 p.m. and work till 1 a.m.’ — although some of the 20-somethings might like that; me, I need to be in bed by 9.”

But while it’s true that employees need to be available to field phone calls and take appointments during core work hours, he went on, it may not be necessary to have everyone working in the same place at the same time.

“I think our ideas about what is a regular workplace have completely changed,” Leary went on, and it wasn’t sending everyone home in March that shifted those ideas; it was how long the stay-at-home trend has lasted.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank has to balance the benefits of working at home with the interactive employee culture it has cultivated.

“If everyone went home, and two weeks later they were back in the office, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he noted. “But we’ve proven in four months that people can work at home, work efficiently at home, and accept working at home.”

These three companies — a supermarket chain, a bank, and an accounting firm — all have totally different business models and customer needs, yet they’re all saying the same thing when it comes to the workplace of the future, and specifically whether remote work is here to stay: nothing is set in stone, but it’s a conversation worth having.

Shifting on the Fly

Shifting to remote appointments back in March was a smooth process, Leary said, partly because all the clients were working remotely, too.

“That part of it was not overly challenging,” he added. “And we had stress-tested our internal systems about a month earlier as good practice, just to see how we were doing. We did some modifications, so system-wide, we were in good shape. We had been using voice over internet for the phones, so when someone called at the office, it could ring at the house. So we were good there.”

The company did need to work through some quality-control issues, however, especially since the team was being physically separated during the heart of tax-preparation season.

“That, to me, was the biggest challenge,” he said. “Most people are accustomed to doing that in face-to-face settings, but we did it with everyone at home. We developed some protocols for how that would work.”

The firm created a schedule for individuals to come to the office to pick up packages, scan documents, and send them to the right people.

“The model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way.”

“Then there was the whole PPP thing, working with virtually all our business clients, showing them how to apply for it, and making sure they knew they rules, which were evolving almost daily,” Leary recalled. “We had a core group staying really closely involved and on top of the regulations, and we did a couple of webinars for clients.”

Then there was COVID-19 itself. “We were helping clients through their issues with business being called off — what do they do for cash flow?” he went on. “But the biggest challenge for me was that it all occurred during our busiest time.”

Banking customers were dealing with some of the same issues, as well as their usual needs, and PeoplesBank leaders were quick to make sure employees were set up to work at home.

“In a matter of two weeks, we assigned something like 150 Chromebooks and issued VPN access to all office items,” Roberts said, noting that about 170 people who work in the office were sent home to work. Some, who could not get the access they needed for whatever reason, were paid until the issues were resolved, and they began working from home as well.

These days, the main office is about 25% occupied, with most still working totally from home and others coming into the office one or two days a week. Like Leary, Roberts said discussions have already taken place regarding what the past four months mean for the future of remote work.

“There are definitely limitations, if we’re going to pursue it is a work type,” she said. “We’re going to need technology that ensures full access and takes care of the little things you experience when you’re at home instead of the office, like system slowdowns and delays.”

In short, if PeoplesBank is going to expand remote work in perpetuity — and not just because a pandemic has forced much of the work world home — it needs to the same experience from a work standpoint. “We’ve highlighted things that can be better. But for the most part, it’s been pretty seamless.”

Leary said the current situation has opened his eyes to internet infrastructure needs in the community, especially in places like the hilltowns, which can run into slow speeds and spotty cell service. “If this becomes the new norm, we can’t have someone working in their house who can’t connect to the outside world efficiently.”

Remote Learning

For a company like Big Y — which, between its supermarkets, convenience stores, and gas stations, is a 24/7 operation — flexible work options on the customer-support side make sense, Galat said.

“We’re able to give flexibility to that employee who may have childcare issues, or is caring for an elderly parent, and it allows us to support our stores while minimizing the amount of people who come in here,” he said, which remains an issue with the pandemic still a threat. “So having flexibility of schedule helps their personal lives and also our workplace.”

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary says a shift to more permanent work-at-home options will require an investment in technology.

Claire D’Amour-Daley, the chain’s vice president of Corporate Communications, agreed. “Some have even felt more productive at home than here. It will certainly be part of the workplace of the future.”

She was especially impressed that the company was able to shift how it did business — not just moving some employees home, but taking steps to protect the ones in the stores — essentially on the fly.

“We’re used to working quickly, but not that quickly,” she said. “The stores were slammed the first few weeks, and this added yet another element of urgency. But we never stopped; we quickly pivoted to serve our stores and our customers in an unprecedented manner.”

“We made it work, and we needed to,” Galat added. “We needed to stay connected more than ever during this time.”

That said, “there are more discussions to be had,” he continued. “Absolutely, some lessons were learned — we’re able to support our locations — but when you look at the company-culture part of it, you lose that social aspect.”

To counter that, remote employees have been conferencing over Zoom three or four times a week, in some departments every day. Meanwhile, they’ve been issued guidance for working efficiently at home, from creating a comfortable, ergonomically correct work area to setting aside time for mind-clearing breaks.

“Eighty to 85% of the feedback has been positive,” Galat said. “People have been able to get their products done. Some have missed the social element, but for others, there’s value in the time saved not commuting in traffic.”

PeoplesBank has long promoted an interactive, employee-centric culture, and that has to be considered when pondering the future of the workplace.

“We rely on that interaction and engagement you get by being in the office together as a group,” Roberts said.

“Making sure we can continue that interactive part of our culture is something I’m really focused on right now. That’s a tricky one. If you have a completely remote workforce, you lose some of those engagement opportunities, and you have to shift some of the ways you engage. We’re not going to let that stop us from pursuing flexibility, but we have to consider the great culture that we have.”

Home or Away?

While employee culture and technology requirements are certainly legitimate topics of discussion, none of the professionals who spoke with BusinessWest expressed much concern about employee accountability and efficiency — “our concerns about people not doing their work dissipated pretty quickly,” D’Amour-Daley said — meaning remote workers may indeed have a broader role in the future.

“It’s been interesting to say the least,” Leary said. “I’ve fallen into a pretty good routine from day one. I’ve tried to make it a regular day: shower, get dressed — not in a suit, but not pajamas — and sit down at my computer. It makes for a more normal routine than saying, ‘I’ll get to work when I get to it.’ And I think most people would feel the same.”

Expanded use of remote work would also open up opportunities for both companies and employees, especially those who want to live in, say, Boston or New York City, he noted. Those individuals could expand their job-search horizons, while Western Mass. could become a more attractive place for businesses to set down roots, taking advantage of the region’s relatively low lease rates while hiring from afar.

All these opportunities can only open up if remote work proves a viable option. And companies of all types are starting to think it is.

“I haven’t had a single client call and say, ‘hey, I was talking to Sally, and I heard a dog barking in the background; it was really distracting,’” Leary said. “I actually think the idea of working from home is good for people. In that time they’d be commuting, maybe they’re exercising or spending more time with their family.

“People do miss the social interaction,” he was quick to add. “Maybe they live alone, or it’s just them and their significant other in the office.”

But the employees of MP CPAs who are back in the office — about half the team — are there by choice, he said, with others choosing to remain at home.

Because it works. And employers like things that work. So, in this era of Zoom and home offices and (sometimes) pajamas, they’re paying attention.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Education

Entrance Exam

Come back to campus, or don’t — either way, you’ll learn.

Just don’t expect campus life to be anything like you’re used to.

That’s essentially the message from UMass Amherst, by far the region’s largest of roughly 20 colleges and universities grappling with how to welcome students back to campus this fall — or setting them up for online instruction, as the case may be. Or, in some cases, both.

“We heard loud and clear from our student body that, even if they’re taking courses remotely, they would really like to be on campus or around campus,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said during a recent conference call discussing the university’s fall plans.

In a nutshell, the vast majority of students will not be required to return to Amherst, with most courses offered remotely. But they may return — for residence-hall life and in-person instruction — if they’d like.

“Our communication will be very explicit about what the campus might look like and what our expectations are, and what we will hold all of our students responsible for,” he continued. “With all of that knowledge, if they still want to come to campus and live in campus housing, they’re most welcome to. And whether they come back to campus or not, we will really provide a rich and rewarding academic experience with not only remote courses but also advising and lots of peer-to-peer interactions and faculty-to-student interactions and so forth.”

In other words, Subbaswamy noted, “we’re prepared to serve our community to the best possible extent in terms of providing all the college experience can under these different circumstances because of the pandemic. That’s the bottom line.”

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education, but the university is ready to pivot if the pandemic worsens.

That said, life in the residence halls will be altered to include pedestrian-flow guidelines, restrictions on group gatherings, and limited face-to-face contact. No guests will be allowed in residence halls, at least at first. Most student services will be offered remotely. The Recreation Center will be open — with limits and restrictions placed on activities.

In short, things have changed since COVID-19 arrived in Massachusetts. Leaders at the region’s higher-education institutions have been meeting since … well, pretty much since they sent students home in mid-March, to hash out what classrooms and the campus experience will look like come late August, when the fall semester begins for most.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation.”

None of the schools’ plans are exactly the same, with some emphasizing on-campus instruction, some — including most of the community colleges — opting for an online-heavy approach, and others landing somewhere in between, with students choosing between in-person, online, and hybrid programs (see box on page 19).

Western New England University, touting its ample space and small classes, has decided to conduct the vast majority of classes fully on-campus this fall, while a small number of courses will be delivered in a hybrid or online format.

“We keep coming back to discussions regarding our mission, which is to provide a highly personalized educational experience inside and outside class,” said Bryan Gross, vice president for Enrollment Management and Marketing. “For the faculty and staff working on this plan, any time we get stuck on details, we come back to that mission.”

Students will be required to wear a mask or face shield, practice social distancing, and maintain a high standard of hygiene. In addition, plexiglass barriers will be installed throughout campus, including classrooms. Most buildings will be one-directional to minimize hallway contact, buildings will be cleaned more frequently, and residence halls will be limited to single and double rooming options, among other measures.

Walter Breau

Walter Breau

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen.”

“We watch the news every day,” Gross told BusinessWest. “Things are constantly changing in terms of safety, and we have to follow state and federal regulations, but based on the information we currently have, we feel confident our plan is doable — that it meets our values and protects the health and safety of students. But if things change, we also have to be open and honest, and we are willing and able to change.”

That’s why WNEU, like many colleges and universities, has actually been planning for three different scenarios — most students on campus, online learning, and a hybrid of the two.

“The majority of our families are ready for their children to be on campus and have the campus experience,” he added, “They trust our Health Services and know, if it’s ever not safe to be here, we’re going to make the right decision in the best interest of our students.”

That’s the COVID-19 world colleges and universities must grapple with — with every day bringing changing news and more moving targets. As enrollment planning goes, it’s unprecedented, at least within living memory. And students aren’t the only ones who will be learning something.

Course Corrections

At Elms College, classes will be taught this fall in a hybrid, flexible model that gives students the option of attending sessions in the classroom, online, or both. Students can move between the options based on their personal preferences, while international and non-local students will be able to continue their coursework from afar.

“We know some students are high-risk or living with someone high-risk and don’t feel comfortable being in a classroom, but we also know students want an in-person experience,” said Walter Breau, vice president of Academic Affairs. “So they can choose when to be in the classroom.”

The usual mix of masks, distancing, and plexiglass will be in play, and on-campus students will be expected to monitor and record any COVID-like symptoms they might have. As is the case at other campuses welcoming students this fall, any positive symptoms must be reported to the Health Center for consultation, and the college will have a separate living space for any student in need of quarantine.

Fall 2020 Plans … for Now

Leaders at 20 area colleges and universities continue to discuss plans for how academic programs will be delivered fall. Those plans might change, and even schools planning on a mostly on-campus experience will likely offer some programs remotely. Here are the latest plans, grouped by categories that may not capture all the nuances of each plan; readers are encouraged to visit the schools’ specific websites for more information.

• All courses delivered online, but students have option of attending in person: UMass Amherst.

• All online, with students in some programs (such as healthcare and culinary arts) on campus part of the time: Asnuntuck Community College, Cambridge College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College.

• Blend of on-campus, online, and hybrid instruction: Bay Path University, Berkshire Community College, Elms College, Mount Holyoke College, Springfield College, Westfield State University, Williams College. American International College is discussing this model as well.

• Blend of on-campus and online instruction with students on campus for either fall or spring: Amherst College, Smith College.

• Mostly on-campus instruction: Bard’s College at Simon’s Rock, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Hampshire College, Western New England University.

“Safety is our number-one priority,” Breau told BusinessWest. “We know students want to come back. How to keep them safe while doing that has been the prime goal of reopening. Our task force made sure safety was always number one on the list.”

To that end, students will need to review safety-training materials when they return to campus. “It’s going to be a team-based effort. It’s not just administrators, faculty, and staff, but students have to be a part of the process as well. We’ll certainly rely on them to help us stay safe.”

There’s a safety net built into the ‘HyFlex’ model as well, Breau noted, in that it wouldn’t be difficult to transfer all learning online if the region’s infection rates soar.

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen; it’s built into the syllabus and the way instructors plan the courses.”

American International College is also seriously considering a HyFlex model, and plans to announce its detailed fall strategy by the end of July, said Nicolle Cestero, chief of staff, senior vice president for Human Relations, and Title IX coordinator. She said a group of campus leaders has been meeting for several months and are doing all they can to give students an on-campus option.

With more than half of its undergraduate student body first-generation college students and more than 50% also Pell Grant-eligible — meaning they come from low-income families — AIC doesn’t want to add additional challenges to their lives, she noted.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation,” Cestero said, noting that the HyFlex option is an ideal model in that it allows students to access their education in a way that best serves their needs in this most difficult year.

Plus, there’s value in the on-campus experience that can’t be replicated remotely, she added. “Maybe your roommate becomes your best friend for life. Or you’re participating in a conversation that you never would have participated in — on race or gender or power and privilege, or whatever it is — and you don’t necessarily get to do that if you’re not on campus. You develop so much in these years — it’s your first time away from home, and you’re teaching yourself how to do things, how to manage your own time and finances, all that stuff.”

In a letter to the Springfield College family, President Mary-Beth Cooper detailed a blend of in-person, remote, and hybrid instruction, with all learning moving online after Thanksgiving. But she emphasized that new safety measures — from masks and distancing to a contact-tracing program and isolation spaces — are key to making the plan work.

“Successfully remaining on campus throughout the fall semester will depend on the degree to which we, as a community, work together to reduce the possibility of the virus appearing on campus and, if it does, responding quickly to limit its spread,” she explained.

Brandi Hephner LeBlanc, vice chancellor for Student Affairs at UMass Amherst, noted that the university will distribute a student agreement that details the testing and symptom self-monitoring they’re asked to do, as well as the need to carry hand sanitizer and face coverings when moving about, among other safety measures.

“We’re really asking them to be a responsible community member, first and foremost, and to be a part of the bystander intervention,” she said. “When you see someone without a mask, remind them.”

And if students don’t comply?

“There is going to be what I would term an escalation of intervention,” she explained. “We’ll have public-health ambassadors on campus that will help remind folks, and there will be a lot of communication to find out if there’s a problem. This is not going to be an immediate referral to the Conduct Office, unless it’s something so egregious that that’s necessary. But this is something that takes a lot of reminding to manage the behavior. And we’re prepared to do that.”

Catalog of Options

A few institutions across the region have emphasized the value of returning as much activity to campus as possible. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge cited recent survey data collected from 10,000 high-school and college students; 78% of respondents find the experience of in-class learning this fall appealing, while one-third would transfer out of their institution if the college shifted to online course delivery.

Nicolle Cestero

Nicolle Cestero says the value of the campus experience shouldn’t be minimized, but a hybrid flex model might be the smartest way to go this fall.

“We know the residential and in-person class experience is important to our students, students at state universities across the Commonwealth, and nationally,” Birge said, which is why MCLA is moving ahead with an ambitious on-campus approach. “Although returning to campus this fall presents some risk, we will work to make the campus experience as safe as possible for everyone. Of course, this means we will have to significantly shift our way of learning, teaching, and working.”

Other campuses, like Amherst College and Smith College, are looking at having roughly half the students on campus for the fall, to better achieve physical distancing, with the ones sent home for remote learning having on-campus priority for the spring.

“We know that any scenario short of bringing everyone to campus will be bitterly disappointing to those who will have to wait until the spring,” Amherst College President Biddy Martin wrote in a letter to students and families. “With this structure, we can provide the opportunity for every student who wishes to be on campus to spend at least one semester here and, if things go well, both semesters for a large number of those students.”

Meanwhile, Springfield Technical Community College is among a handful of area institutions — several community colleges among them — to continue with an online model this fall, though some programs in STCC’s School of Health and Patient Simulation will include low-density, on-campus labs adhering to social-distancing, PPE, and sanitizing protocols.

“STCC has no intention of becoming a fully online institution,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs. “The pivot to online is driven by a health pandemic. COVID-19 has forced the college to adjust, and we do hope in the future to return to the robust utilization of campus facilities.”

In some instances, STCC will use synchronous teaching strategies, with students gathering at a specific time through videoconferencing. But most of the classes will be taught using an asynchronous approach, which gives students flexibility to set their own hours to complete their studies and assignments.

“Many of our students have childcare obligations, work commitments, and a host of other complicated circumstances,” President John Cook said. “We know that our students benefit from having flexibility in their classwork, and online is yet another way STCC lives its mission of ensuring access to higher education.”

Flexibility, in many ways, has become a key word in the region’s higher-education sector, which suddenly offers a wide array of learning models heading into perhaps the most unusual fall semester for American students in generations.

What these schools have in common is an emphasis on safety, and on making sure students know their own responsibilities in keeping COVID-19 infections low — and keeping the campus experience alive, in whatever curtailed form it might take.

WNEU’s Gross is confident it’s a message they will understand.

“You’re not doing it for yourself, but for other people. And that’s such a positive message we can send,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s why human beings are on this earth, to care for one another and take actions that help the community. We hope that value is something that’s embraced by our students. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn and grow and take actions to help others.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Women in Businesss

In the Right Mold

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar, ‘chief strategy officer’ at Universal Plastics.

Back in mid-March, Pia Kumar recalls, at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a good deal of absenteeism at the five plants within the Universal Plastics fold — maybe 40% by her estimate, a number that spoke volumes about the high levels of fear and anxiety within the workforce.

So Kumar, who co-owns the Universal family of businesses with her husband, Jay, and has the title ‘Chief Strategy Officer’ printed on her business card, did what she says comes naturally to her.

She got on the phone.

“I called every single employee that was not here and talked to them about their concerns,” she told BusinessWest, noting that this was maybe 200 people across the five facilities. “In some cases, I talked to their wives, their husbands, their children; I wanted to understand what we could do together as a business to make sure they could come back in and do the essential work we were doing.

“We make the diagnostic machines used to test for COVID, so we needed to come back in and get working, but we needed to keep people safe,” she went on. “There was a lot of uncertainty, and we needed to establish trust.”

The company earned it by taking painstaking steps to comply with work regulations put in place in four different states — everything from masks and face shields to social-distancing measures and temperature checks, with most ideas coming from employees. And in a matter of a few short weeks, absenteeism all but disappeared.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days. I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

Kumar’s phone calls, and those subsequent actions taken by the company, provide some valuable insight into not only her management style — although it certainly does that — but also into her approach to business and her specific, and very broad, role with the company.

Indeed, while she’s certainly involved with strategy, as that business card would indicate, and she is involved in virtually every aspect of the business, she’s predominantly focused on people and their well-being. And that goes for the community, as well as the Universal ‘family.’

This is evidenced by something she calls ‘office hours.’ These are the twice-monthly Zoom meetings she conducts with employees at each plant to help them feel more connected at a time when traveling to those plants is far more difficult and, well, people need a connection.

And she’s finding that, while Zoom is certainly a different experience than the in-person office hours she had been conducting until the pandemic (more on those later), they’re in some ways more effective.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days,” she noted. “I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

It’s also on display in a number of programs and initiatives she’s helped introduce at the company that are designed to help individuals overcome barriers to employment and success in the workplace — and in life itself.

“We have someone in our HR department whose whole job is to make sure that we make people successful outside of work, so that they can be successful at work.” she said of efforts to help employees with everything from attaining a driver’s license to securing day-care services.

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields with ‘skirts,’ one of many new products it has developed in the wake of the pandemic.

As for her own efforts in the realm of work-life balance, she said, simply, “I work at it.”

By that, she meant that she finds time for work, family, and to be alone for a few moments each day, early in the morning — time she spends meditating and planning, for the most part.

“I need to get my planning done to feel prepared for my day,” she explained. “I do a 10-minute meditation, then I spend 30 minutes planning, and then I take my dog for a walk; it works for me.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked at length with Kumar about her work with her husband to grow and expand Universal. But mostly, the talk was about people and helping them handle all that work and life can throw at them — even a global pandemic.

Clear Intentions

As she talked with BusinessWest in the company’s recently opened corporate offices, located next door to the Holyoke plant on Whiting Farms Road, Kumar showed off a display of one of the latest additions to the company’s portfolio of products.

These are face shields — which the company started making a few months ago to help meet demand for personal protective equipment within the region — that feature what she called ‘skirts.’

Designed specifically for teachers, these customized products allow for open communication without muffling the voice or hiding expressions — things masks can’t do — while providing more protection than a common face shield.

“You can wear it all day — you’re fully covered, you’re fully sealed,” she said while demonstrating the product, noting there are several styles, including models invoking Halloween and Christmas, and another promoting breast-cancer awareness. Response has been good, she noted, and there are ongoing discussions about perhaps making such shields for children.

These PPE products are part of the company’s pivoting efforts during the pandemic, she explained — a way to assist the community and especially the healthcare and education sectors while also keeping employees working at a time when many traditional customers, including those in aerospace and medical-device manufacturing, have scaled back as a result of the pandemic.

And such efforts are among the current focal points for the Kumars, who acquired Universal Plastics roughly eight years ago — she dates the transaction to the birth of their first child — from long-time owner Joe Peters. Flashing back to that purchase, Pia said the couple, who met while they were both working in finance in New York after graduating from college, were looking for a challenge they could undertake together.

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together,” she said. “We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke as part of the company’s Link to Libraries sponsorship, says her discussions with employees have helped her understand the many barriers that people face when it comes to succeeding in the workplace.

And that’s exactly what has happened with Universal, a company launched by Joe Peters’ father in Chicopee and eventually moved to Holyoke.

Indeed, the Kumars have added four other companies over the past several years, with the goal of attracting different types of customers and doing more for them. Expansion efforts started with the acquisition of a competitor, Mayfield Plastics in Sutton (since renamed Universal), an operation similar to the one in Holyoke.

“We offer a product called custom thermoforming,” she said of the Holyoke facility. “It’s good for small volumes, but as some customers ramped up, we would lose those customers. Then we started thinking about how we could keep that customer for a longer life cycle, and we started looking at injection molders.”

This led to the acquisition of Sajar Plastics in Middlefield, Ohio in 2018, and the subsequent addition of a blow-molding facility in Pennsylvania that had a strong focus on medical-equipment manufacturing — steps that have greatly diversified the corporation and opened the door to new types of opportunities.

While Pia is certainly involved with all aspects of the company, especially short- and long-term strategy, she told BusinessWest that people are her main focus, and it’s a role she believes she’s well-suited for.

“I try to spend a lot of time with employees; it’s part of what my focus is with the company,” she explained. “I like to really get out there and talk to people and really understand what our people are saying and thinking, and what their fears are.”

She traditionally did this through those aforementioned office hours — the in-person variety, especially in Holyoke, where she would walk the floor every day and talk with people. With the other plants, she would make a point of getting out to each at least once a month.

But COVID-19 changed all that, as it has many other aspects of this business — from the products being made, like those face shields with skirts and plastic dividers for automobiles (similar to those found in cabs), to the precautions being taken to keep employees safe.

Shaping Core Values

What hasn’t changed, especially during these trying times, is the company’s — and especially Pia’s — efforts to help employees overcome those barriers she mentioned.

And there are many of them, she went on, adding that a good percentage of the company’s employees are single mothers, who faced a number of hurdles before the pandemic and now face even more. She came to understand these hurdles over time, she said, and it was a real learning experience.

“Before we came here, we lived in New York City, we worked in finance, we worked in venture capital,” Kumar explained. “We were doing things with a group of people who had a lot of opportunities; they went to certain schools and had the right types of jobs and the right kind of résumés. Coming here and working in manufacturing gave me an understanding of the barriers that people face that I never had.

“I was in many ways taking for granted things like childcare and transportation and having access to affordable education,” she went on. “These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together. We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

This understanding of the issues has translated into policies regarding attendance and other matters that Kumar considers worker-friendly.

Elaborating, she said the company has explored such things as ride-sharing and on-site day care and have encountered significant barriers to success. What has worked, she noted, is talking with people to understand their specific situations, and then making accommodations when and where they are practical.

“Our single mothers are some of our best workers,” she told BusinessWest. “And understanding that and working with that population to make sure that they have the tools they need to be set up for success became personally important to me.”

It was through her work with employees to understand and then help remove barriers that led to her involvement with a number of area nonprofits and institutions.

That list includes Link to Libraries, the nonprofit that fills school library shelves and encourages reading by placing area community leaders in the classroom to read — Universal Plastics sponsors the Morgan School in Holyoke, which many of the company’s employees attended — as well as the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Bay Path University, and Springfield Technical Community College, which she serves as a foundation board member.

She’s become so enamored with STCC manufacturing graduates that she has a standing rule with her operations manager: “if someone comes to us from STCC, you have to give me a reason not to hire them, because they’re all people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and they just need an opportunity. And that’s the kind of company we are; that’s the kind of company we need to be. We need to be the kind of company that gives people a chance, and we need to do it over and over again.”

As for her own professional development, Kumar said she doesn’t have a coach, per se, although her husband might count as one. But she does read quite a bit on the subject.

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant, says that, while she’s focused on all aspects of the business, connecting with employees and helping them address challenges has become her primary focus.

What she does have are mentors. She listed Susan Jaye Kaplan, founder of Link to Libraries, and Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired business owner and director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Springfield office — both winners of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers award.

“I’m not afraid to ask for help; I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know something,” she said, adding that she believes good managers share these traits. “Feedback is a gift, and I firmly believe, if you don’t want to know the answer, then don’t ask the question. But if you ask the question, you need to be able to stomach the answer.”

When asked about how she approaches the broad assignment of achieving work-life balance, she said simply, “I work at it.”

“These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“I spend a lot of time planning, I delegate a lot, and I am very comfortable with having a list of things I wanted to get to but didn’t at the end of the day,” she explained. “There are days when the company is the most important thing — when COVID first happened, we needed to make our employees safe. And then, there are other times when it’s more important that we’re there for our children. My mother is having surgery next week, so that will be the focus then.

“I feel very lucky that I have a supportive partner who helps me manage all these things,” she went on. “But we also have a really great team. We’re not the experts — we didn’t come in with a deep background in manufacturing, and that’s why we keep people from our acquired businesses. Our job is to take all the information and provide the right vision.”

Parts of the Whole

Summing up her approach to her broad role at Universal Plastics, Kumar said, “my biggest failure as a leader is when someone can’t tell me what they really think; if they can’t tell me what they really think, we have a problem.

“I encourage people debating and saying ‘no, this is how we should be doing it,’” she went on. “And when there is that open communication, there’s trust, and that allows me to do more, and the more we can grow as a business.”

Open communication. Trust. Helping employees overcome barriers. These are the keys to success at this company — and any company, said Kumar, stressing, again, that four-word phrase she used in connection with all these matters: ‘we work at it.’

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

Cover Story

Seizing the Moment

Vanessa Otero

Vanessa Otero, interim director of the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley.

Vanessa Otero said the phone started ringing just a day or two after George Floyd was killed on a street in Minneapolis and the world, and this region, began to react to what it saw — and felt.

On the other end of the line were those in leadership positions at area businesses, institutions, and nonprofits who wanted to know what the Healing Racism Institute of the Pioneer Valley (HRIPV), the 501(c)(3) Otero now serves as interim director, could do to help not only educate those at these companies and agencies about racism — something it’s been doing for several years now — but take the conversation to a different, much higher plane.

And then convert the talk into far-reaching action.

“Every day, we have two or three organizations reaching out, people who have been through our two-day session, saying, ‘can we talk about what more we can do — the what now?’” she said. “And we’ve initiated a process to add that ‘what now?’”

Elaborating, she noted that, in response to these inquiries, HRIPV — which has seen more than 800 area residents and business leaders attend its signature two-day sessions, where participants learn, grow, and process the effects of racism within individuals and the community as a whole — is committed to formalizing and institutionalizing an expanded roster of services that includes everything from onboarding training for new hires at area companies and agencies to full- and half-day training sessions for staffs and boards (more on all this later).

These phone calls — and HRIPV’s commitment — provide just some of the many forms of evidence that George Floyd’s death, more than any similar incident before it or since, has created a real opportunity — as much as all those we spoke with regretted the use of that term in this circumstance — to bring about real and lasting change when it comes to systemic racism and equal access to opportunity.

“We’ve just reached a tipping point,” said Ronn Johnson, president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield, who is being honored by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2020. “We’ve reached that point where we’ve really grabbed hold of something that has the potential to change social policies.”

Frank Robinson, vice president of Public Health at Baystate Health, who has been actively involved with the Healing Racism Institute since it was blueprinted by John Davis, a director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and others after they were inspired by a similar initiative in Grand Rapids, Mich., agreed.

Ronn Johnson

Ronn Johnson stands near a mural depicting the names of dozens of victims of police brutality. The art has become an inspiration to many visitors.

He told BusinessWest that the George Floyd killing, coupled with the way in which the pandemic has further exposed racial inequalities, has created a compelling opportunity to create a dialogue about not just racism, but the systemic racism that exists in many corporations and institutions.

“I call COVID the great magnifier,” he noted. “The pandemic has created an opportunity, if you look at the glass as half-full, to visit problems that have been magnified by its presence. Someone talked about COVID as a magnifier, and then they talked about the ongoing structural problems it has revealed as the virus of 1619, the beginning of slavery.

“We’ve done a good job of getting folks to understand racism and perhaps their role in it,” he went on, referring to the HRIPV specifically. “Now is the time to deepen that conversation so we look at some of the structural and systemic issues that perpetuate the problem — and that’s a slightly different conversation than the ones we’ve been having.”

But while there is general optimism that the confluence of events in this unforgettable spring of 2020 will indeed change the landscape in profound ways, those we spoke with acknowledged there is much work to be done, and none of it is particularly easy. So much work, in fact, that some are feeling overwhelmed by the assignment confronting them.

The place to start, said Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), is with each business, each institution, and each individual asking what they can do to address this issue in their own way.

“And if they’re already taking some actions, they need to ask what more they can do,” she said, adding that this is exactly what HCC is doing. It already has a number of programs and initiatives in place to help level what has historically been an unlevel playing field when it comes to access to opportunities for individuals of color, but Royal acknowledged that more needs to be done.

Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health, expressed similar sentiments.

“Just in the past few months, it’s become clear that it’s not enough to travel the personal journey yourself and get your head and your heart in the right place,” he said. “You also need to be aware of the fact that all around us is this system that tends to favor white people. And then the question is — what are you going to do about it? And it’s not straightforward; there’s a lot of thinking and learning, and trying this and trying that.”

“We’ve just reached a tipping point. We’ve reached that point where we’ve really grabbed hold of something that has the potential to change social policies.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the events of the past several weeks have indeed created an important opportunity to address the large and complicated issue of racism in this country — and how to maximize that opportunity.

Changing the Conversation

Tracing the history of the HRIPV, Davis turned back the clock almost a decade, to a trip to Grand Rapids that was part of the City2City program that also took leaders of this region to Greensboro, N.C., Bethlehem, Pa., and Chattanooga, Tenn. During that visit to Michigan, while hearing about efforts to drive economic development, revitalize the central business district, and improve schools, participants also heard about a program within the local chamber of commerce called the Institute for Healing Racism.

A small group of those participants returned to Grand Rapids to experience the two-day Facing Racism program firsthand, and upon returning, they established the regional anti-racism workgroup to gauge interest in pursuing the development of a similar initiative in Western Mass., said Davis, noting that, with the Grand Rapids program as a model, the Healing Racism two-day program and curriculum was established.

“The minute I saw it, I said, ‘we’ve got to get this going in Springfield,” said Davis, noting that this wasn’t the first effort to create such a program in Greater Springfield — others had been attempted in the ’90s — but it was the first that gained enough traction to get off the ground. And it was clearly needed, he noted.

“It was something I could see in the community — there was a clear lack of understanding about racism; no one wanted to talk about it,” he told BusinessWest. “Everybody talked about it in their own little worlds, but the conversations I witnessed were not the conversations that were needed. If you did a survey of the white population and asked them how many were racist, 99% would say they weren’t racists. But if you did a survey of people of color and asked them if they lived in a racist society, they’d all say ‘yes.’ So there was a huge disconnect that I could see.”

Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson says the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified issues of racism and inequality and helped provide a real opportunity to take the conversation to a higher plane.

In an effort to address this disconnect, two-day sessions, again modeled on those in Grand Rapids, were created where participants did a good amount of listening to those of other races. And by listening, participants, which included police, business leaders, nonprofit leaders, a district attorney, members of the media, and other constituencies, learned that issues of racism and inequality were real in the Pioneer Valley.

The challenge, and the assignment, moving forward is to continue the dialogue, but also take this initiative to a higher plane, Otero said.

“We’d like to get to the point where, as in Grand Rapids, we’re embedded in organizations so that we can leave them with capacity to train and have these conversations in institutions so that they become anti-racist institutions,” said Otero, who took the helm of this agency just a few weeks ago and is still awaiting her business cards. “Because the antidote to out-and-out racism is ‘I’m anti-racist,’ which means you’re taking action to address this issue and you realize your privilege within that system and are taking action against it.”

Elaborating, she circled back to those phone calls and e-mails and inquiries about ‘what now’ when it comes to educating people about racism, broadening the conversation, and institutionalizing new policies and ways of doing things.

“Building on what’s already there, we’ve created a menu of services that we could work with organizations to implement,” Otero explained, “to ensure that anti-racism conversations continue to happen and grow, to the point where the organization itself can make the decision to be anti-racist, because that’s the key to institutionalizing this kind of work and this kind of thinking.”

“We’ve done a good job of getting folks to understand racism and perhaps their role in it. Now is the time to deepen that conversation so we look at some of the structural and systemic issues that perpetuate the problem — and that’s a slightly different conversation than the ones we’ve been having.”

This ‘what now’ has been in place for some time, she went on, but it hasn’t been effectively “activated.” To provide this deeper roster of services, the HRIPV will need an infrastructure, she said, as well as a large cadre of trainers and facilities. And this will likely require funding in the form of a capital campaign.

But the need is real, and the agency is committed to having these programs in place later this year, she told BusinessWest.

Moving Beyond Words

Johnson acknowledged that, in the wake of the Floyd killing, statements condemning police violence and systemic racism have come from all corners of society — CEOs of major corporations, athletes, political figures, prominent actors and musicians, nonprofit leaders, and ordinary citizens.

These statements are appreciated, and do have value, he told BusinessWest, but the emphasis now must be on moving beyond words and into the realm of action to recognize, understand, and address actions and policies that contribute to systemic racism and inequality.

And this is starting to happen on a number of levels, he and others noted, citing everything from NASCAR’s decision to ban the confederate flag at its events to the NFL acknowledging it was wrong to discourage its players from kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, to new bills aimed at banning police use of chokeholds.

But if the region and the nation are to fully seize this moment in time, they say, every business, institution, and municipality has to take a truly deep dive on this matter and make a commitment to effect real change.

And those we talked with expressed optimism there is now the requisite amount of momentum to do just that. And it has been created by what many described as a perfect storm of conditions — the incidents involving George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and many others over the years; the racial inequalities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic; and the fact that so many were home watching these events unfold. Despite incidents of violence and looting, those we spoke with believe the protests and marches, such as those in Springfield and other area communities, have created mostly positive energy and, in many respects, resolve not to let this opportunity be lost.

“I give credit to the young people for doing this — they’re carrying the passion,” Johnson said. “I was talking to a vice president at one of the local colleges; he’s talking about meeting with students who are not even on campus and may not return to campus, but are intent on finding out what this particular college is going to have to do to change in terms of some of the social conditions they’ve experienced.”

John Davis

John Davis, one of the founders of the Healing Racism Institute, says the agency was created to start a much-needed dialogue about race and racism.

Others we spoke with agreed, but acknowledged that progress can only come if the words in those statements and advertisements that so many businesses and institutions have generated in recent weeks are backed up with action and a lasting commitment to change.

“I would to say to my colleagues at other nonprofits … ‘look at your organizational structures — you’re serving largely Latino and African-American families, but your boards are almost all white,’” said Johnson, adding that, at many of these agencies, diversity exists at the lower levels of the employment spectrum, but not at the top. “They need to take a look at the leadership and make sure it reflects the composition of the folks they are servicing; that’s important for us to do.”

Even before the events of these past few weeks, many area businesses, institutions, and nonprofits were already looking inward — at policies, practices, and procedures — with an eye toward making them more anti-racist, to borrow Otero’s phrase.

And now, this confluence of circumstances is compelling some to look harder and deeper at what they’re doing (or not doing) and how.

At Baystate Health, Keroack said, the events of past several weeks have brought greater urgency to the discussion about the many forms of systemic racism, especially when it comes to public health.

“Here, as in so many communities across the country, communities of color are disadvantaged in some very fundamental ways when it comes to chronic disease burden — more asthma, more diabetes, more obesity, more hospitalizations for mental health, more maternal mortality, more infant mortality,” he explained. “And a shorter life span at birth; in some neighborhoods in Springfield, the average life span is 70, versus other neighborhoods where it’s 80, and suburban communities where it’s over 80. Your zip code really affects your health status in a very fundamental way.”

In response to this, Baystate is working with accountable-care organizations to address the health concerns of an assigned group of people — in this case, 40,000 people who receive care at inner-city health centers.

“But practicing medical care is not going to get where you need to be,” he went on. “You need to address the social determinants of health — housing, nutrition, transportation, legal aid, and public safety … and there’s a ton of work to be done.”

Meanwhile, the company is looking internally, at its practices and systems, with an eye toward creating greater diversity at all levels.

“We need to look at the systems that are in place, both in society and for me in this large organization, around hiring, advancement, and representation around the table of diverse voices,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve worked very hard to build diversity on our board of trustees, but we still have a long way to go in terms of our leadership ranks.”

At the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), there has been action in the form of new policies and procedures when it comes to hiring and posting positions, said the agency’s executive director, Kim Robinson.

These included the formation of something called the Race, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Committee, which was formed by employees at the agency last year to address such issues within the organization. It was spawned in part by a housing study undertaken by the PVPC that revealed a number of disparities and what she called a “segregated community” across the region.

Christina Royal

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal says racism is “structural and systemic,” so Band-Aid solutions are not going to fix root-cause issues.

“From that time on, we’ve been talking more and more within our organization about the need to do a race and equity plan for a region,” she said. “We think this is work that would be very interesting to undertake with other groups committed to this kind of work and seeing equity, social justice, and economic opportunity.”

While exploring when and how such a study might be undertaken, the PVPC has looked inward and seen a need to change language in its handbook and adopt several new policies when it comes to hiring.

“We’re going to require race, equity, and diversity training for every single one of our employees,” Robinson said. “And we’ve been evaluating where we post jobs to see if there was any inherent bias in that. We’ve added some additional avenues because we want to make sure we’re getting the word out to lots and lots of people.”

Looking Ahead — with Hope

At Holyoke Community College, Royal said the school continues to address issues of race and equality through initiatives designed to remove barriers and help see students through to completion of what they’re working to achieve. And it does so with the understanding that the problems are real and require lasting solutions.

“Racism is structural, and it’s systemic, so a Band-Aid solution is not going to fix the root-cause issues,” she explained. “It does start with having a commitment and an obligation to speak out against hatred, intolerance, and prejudice so we can really work toward building a truly equitable society.

“I feel a lot of pain with what’s happening in the world, but I also feel there’s a purpose to it,” said Royal, who is biracial and acknowledged that, five years before she was born, it would have been illegal for her parents to marry. “I do feel a sense of urgency and responsibility to contribute toward making our world better and our Pioneer Valley region better.”

She said equity remains a huge issue at her school and within society in general, and thus HCC has made it a priority to level the playing field when possible.

“We know that there are achievement gaps between our white students and our students of color,” she noted. “And we have a responsibility and a commitment to do better in this regard.”

She started with a town-hall meeting on June 3 to create dialogue about what was playing out on the news, but acknowledged that the school’s commitment goes beyond conversation.

“It starts with speaking out, but it doesn’t end there,” she said. “Authenticity of commitment to these issues is very important because, as I said, a Band-Aid approach isn’t going to work.”

Surveying the landscape around him, including a new mural at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services that memorializes victims of police aggression and the people who have come to see it and take a selfie in front of it, Ronn Johnson reiterated his belief — and his hope — that real change is possible and perhaps even imminent, and that he feels privileged to be part of all that’s happening.

“I’m proud to be alive at this particular point in time,” he told BusinessWest. “I just feel that we’re at a place where we’ve really turned a corner; we’ve hit that tipping point where we’ll be able to look back two or three years from now and say, ‘that moment was worth it.’”

He’s certainly not alone in that sentiment — or the knowledge that much has to happen for people to be able to utter those words.

A seminal moment has arrived, and an opportunity has presented itself. It’s now incumbent on the businesses, institutions, and residents of this region to seize this moment.

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

Coronavirus Cover Story

Shell-shocked Businesses Respond with Grit, Determination

The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked businesses large and small in virtually every sector of the economy. The individual stories vary somewhat, but there are several common themes — lost revenue streams, struggles to make payroll and pay the bills, and large amounts of uncertainty about what the future holds. But there are other commonalities as well, including a willingness, born of necessity, to respond to this crisis — the worst situation any of these business owners have faced — with determination, imagination, and the will to find a way to get to the ‘other side.’ For this issue, BusinessWest talked with 10 business owners about what has happened since the pandemic arrived with brutal force three incredibly long months ago, and how they’re battling back. These are their COVID stories.

Zasco Productions

Event company works to pivot, position itself for the long term

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably

Go Graphix

In a sign of the times, this company has pivoted into new products

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy

Lenzy Dermatology

Practice owner says many patients still wary of returning to her office

Liz Rosenberg

TheToy Box

Shop owner finds ways to share joy at a time when it’s badly needed

Teddy Bear Pools

During peak season, this area fixture is making up for lost weeks

Sarah Eustis

Main Street Hospitality

Hotel group continues to grow through an uncertain time

Lenny Underwood

Lenny Underwood

For this photographer and sock maker, the pandemic is a developing story

Doug Mercier, right, with brother and partner Chuck

Mercier Carpet

Pandemic poses challenges, opportunities for flooring company

Bernie Gelinas said his appointment book has been full

Cuts Plus

Salon owner says he missed the relationships the most

Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area

Eastside Grill

Restaurant owner says reopening will be exciting, but scary, too

Coronavirus Cover Story

Baby Steps

After more than two months of a widespread economic shutdown, Massachusetts is opening its economy again — sort of. The plan, announced by Gov. Charlie Baker on May 18, allows some businesses to open their doors under tight health restrictions, while others — including restaurants, spas, and most retail — have to wait longer to invite the public inside. What’s got businesses frustrated is not knowing exactly when their turn will come — and the financial impact they continue to endure every week they have to wait.

Massachusetts is the 15th-most populous state in the U.S., yet, the day Gov. Charlie Baker released his economic reopening report, it had reported the fourth-most total COVID-19 cases in the country.

So, the reopening was never going to be a free-for-all.

“We were all very aware that, no matter what we went forward with, there will be more infection and more deaths,” said Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, one of 17 members of the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board. “While the public-health metrics are numbers, statistics, they’re also people — they’re your neighbors, maybe your mother or father.

“People want to open,” she told BusinessWest, “but they don’t want to put people at risk — themselves, their customers, their parents. The compassion is remarkable.”

That’s why it was no surprise that Massachusetts is reopening slowly and cautiously. Last week, manufacturing facilities, construction sites, and places of worship were allowed to return under strict guidelines (more on those later), and on May 25, the list will expand to offices (except in Boston) and labs; hair salons, pet grooming, and car washes; retail, with remote fulfillment and curbside pickup only; beaches, parks, drive-in movies, and some athletic fields and courts; fishing, hunting, and boating; and outdoor gardens, zoos, reserves, and public installations.

That covers what Baker is calling phase 1, with three more reopening phases to follow. Conspicuously not on the phase-1 list? Restaurants, spas, daycare centers, in-store retail … it’s a long list. And, for many business leaders, a frustrating one.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says businesses in phase 1 got the clarity they were seeking, but those in phase 2 are still waiting.

“There’s certainly an appreciation for public health, but there also needs to be some common sense, and I think it’s very hard to explain why it’s OK for 200 people to be in line at Home Depot, but a small, downtown store can’t have two or three people in it,” Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, told BusinessWest.

“Certainly everyone has to be smart,” he added, “but I think there needs to be more common sense brought into the reopening. I appreciate where the governor is — the balancing act — and I think the reopening committee did a great job with outreach, but there needs to be clear guidance and some common sense.”

Others were less diplomatic.

“While protecting public health is important and something we all support, it defies logic to declare that the opening of barbershops and hair salons is safe, while claiming opening small retail businesses is not,” Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Assoc. of Massachusetts, said in a statement.

“The same is true for the opening of churches and large office buildings,” he went on. “Having two or three people in a retail shop is every bit as safe, if not safer, than the allowable businesses in phase 1. The Baker administration has consistently picked winners and losers during this crisis, and it is disappointing to see that trend continue in the reopening plan.”

As president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, Nancy Creed has been in touch with her members for almost three months now on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. She, like Sullivan, understands the delicate balance the state is walking.

“When we were part of the presentation to the advisory board, the last thing I said to them was, ‘our businesses are struggling, but they are surviving this. What they can’t survive is for it to happen again.”

“Certain sectors thought they’d be in phase 1, so there’s always that frustration,” she told BusinessWest. “When we were part of the presentation to the advisory board, the last thing I said to them was, ‘our businesses are struggling, but they are surviving this. What they can’t survive is for it to happen again. So we need to be smart about it and make sure we’re doing everything we can so the reopening is successful, and this doesn’t happen again.’”

She knows that’s not easy for many small businesses to hear, particularly ones with no revenue stream at all during this time.

“This is different for everyone, but businesses are muddling through it, pivoting, doing the things they need to do for basic economic survival,” she added. “But if it happens again, I don’t think we’ll survive the second round.”

Hence, baby steps, and a multi-phase reopening that offers real hope for many sectors, but continues to draw no small amount of criticism as well.

Guidance — and Lack Thereof

According to Baker’s plan, each phase of the reopening will be guided by public-health data that will be continually monitored and used to determine advancement to future phases. The goal of a phased plan is to methodically allow businesses, services, and activities to resume, while avoiding a resurgence of COVID-19 that could overwhelm the state’s healthcare system and erase the progress made so far.

Each phase will last a minimum of three weeks and could last longer before moving to the next phase. If public-health data trends are negative, specific industries, regions, or even the entire Commonwealth may need to return to an earlier phase.

Nicole LaChapelle

Nicole LaChapelle

“When talking to businesses and different groups and unions, the question was always, ‘what are the barriers right now, what are your biggest challenges, but more importantly, what do you need to see happen in order for your industry to open, and what is the timeline for that to happen for you?’”

In addition, success in earlier phases will refine criteria for future phases, including travel, gathering sizes, as well as additional openings in retail, restaurants, lodging, arts, entertainment, fitness centers, museums, youth sports, and other activities.

“Going in, the goals were, how do we safely and slowly open the Massachusetts economy?” LaChapelle said. “And that is directly tied to public-health metrics. When talking to businesses and different groups and unions, the question was always, ‘what are the barriers right now, what are your biggest challenges, but more importantly, what do you need to see happen in order for your industry to open, and what is the timeline for that to happen for you?’”

It was helpful, she explained, to seek input from myriad sectors and businesses — those deemed essential and never forced to shutter; those that had to pivot, such as retailers boosting their online presence and manufacturers shifting to making masks and face shields; and businesses that have been effectively sidelined.

“The board, at no point, even at the beginning, was like, ‘let’s get this thing going and roll it out immediately,’” she added, noting that she understands the need for companies to start ramping back up. “They may be a little disappointed, but they’ve been very understanding. There’s some education we have to do, but nobody is really upside-down about it.”

In order to reopen, businesses must develop a written COVID-19 control plan outlining how its workplace will prevent the spread of the virus. They must also create and display posters and signs describing rules for maintaining social distancing, hygiene protocols, as well as cleaning and disinfecting.

“I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with the state’s protocols immediately.”

Sullivan appreciates the attention to public-health concerns, but said it offers little comfort for businesses stuck in an as-yet-undefined phase 2 — or beyond. While the reopening plan gives clear guidance for businesses in phase 1, those in phase 2 don’t even get a target date they can work toward or a set of protocols they can begin to develop. And that lack of clarity has led to frustration.

“I do think many businesses, especially smaller businesses, were kind of expecting more things to open up,” he said. “I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with the state’s protocols immediately. They’ll need to plan, order some equipment, and spend some time reorganizing their business, because it’s going to be different than it was pre-COVID. And it’s not something they can do overnight. Many businesses are just looking at lead time — they want to open sooner than later, but they want lead time so they can be ready to go.”

Creed agreed.

“I think what businesses wanted, at least in the beginning, was some clarity about the guidelines, about the timelines, about the standards, about the checklists, all those things, so they can create their own plan — and that was achieved, at least for phase 1,” she explained. “But I am hearing the phase-2 people saying, ‘well, I wanted to be able to plan, but I don’t have enough guidance right now,’ so there’s some frustration.”

The Massachusetts Restaurant Assoc. said as much in a statement following the plan’s release.

“Obviously, every restaurateur is disappointed with the lack of a defined reopening date in today’s announcement,” it noted. “Massachusetts restaurants need their suppliers to have time to restock perishable inventory before it can be delivered to them. They need to notify employees about returning to work and conduct other due diligence to ensure restaurants can open effectively.”

Safety and Numbers

Across Massachusetts, the reopening plan sparked a spectrum of reactions, all acknowledging the competing health and economic interests in play, but expressing different levels of understanding and frustration — and often both.

“We realize that every employer in Massachusetts would love to hear that they can reopen immediately. But we also acknowledge that a phased reopening balances the need to restart the economy with the need to manage a public-health crisis that continues to claim 100 lives a day in Massachusetts,” John Regan, president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, noted in a statement.

Even as some businesses start to reopen and others plan to do so, the state Department of Public Health updated its stay-at-home advisory, replacing it with a new “Safer at Home” advisory, which instructs everyone to stay home unless they are headed to a newly opened facility or activity. It also advises those over age 65 and those with underlying health conditions to stay home, with the exception of trips required for healthcare, groceries, or that are otherwise absolutely necessary. All residents must continue to wear a face covering in public when social distancing is not possible, and individuals are advised to wash their hands frequently and be vigilant in monitoring for symptoms. Restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people remain in effect.

The state also encourages working from home when possible, and Baker’s office released a list of 54 large companies — employing about 150,000 workers among them — that have issued statements extending work-from-home policies for the remainder of the spring, with numerous reporting intentions to extend into the summer and, in some cases, for the remainder of 2020.

“As MassMutual develops our plan to gradually return to the office, the health and safety of our employees is our top priority,” said Roger Crandall, chairman, president, and CEO of MassMutual, noting that his employees will return to the office no sooner than the beginning of September.

“We expect to come back in a slow, phased manner,” he added. “We will continue to monitor and reassess and will be factoring in a number of considerations — from federal, state, and local government and health officials’ guidance to a sustained reduction in cases in our operating locations, to broader available testing and our employees’ personal circumstances and comfort.”

Patrick Sullivan, Massachusetts President of People’s United Bank, is also promoting continued work from home where possible.

“People’s United Bank is assessing re-entry conditions and protocols to ensure the safety of our team members and our customers,” he said. “Our approach will balance the needs of employees with the needs of the business. As we have been successful in pivoting and adjusting to working from home, we will continue to encourage this behavior.”

Still, those are businesses that can at least operate in most aspects. Retail stores can’t so easily adjust — and have been devastated by the inability to invite shoppers into their stores.

“We are incredibly disappointed with how Governor Baker has treated retail businesses throughout the health and economic crisis. Massachusetts has been one of the most hostile states in the nation toward small retailers.”

“We are incredibly disappointed with how Governor Baker has treated retail businesses throughout the health and economic crisis. Massachusetts has been one of the most hostile states in the nation toward small retailers,” said Hurst, noting that Massachusetts stores are losing Memorial Day weekend at a time when other states have let them open up shop by now. “Retail businesses are ready and able to open safely now with a limited number of people in stores and for appointment shopping. By not allowing that until late June, many small, Main Street businesses will close forever.”

That’s not hyperbole for small businesses of many kinds. Matt Haskins, who operates the popular Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, said a recent grant from the Downtown Amherst Foundation has helped him stay afloat at a time when he doesn’t know when college business will return.

“Just five minutes before [receiving word of the grant], I was on a phone call discussing if Matt’s Barber Shop was going to make it or break it,” he told foundation officials. “The grant helps me think we’re going to make it.”

So will being able to open his doors again on May 25. And that’s all most business owners want right now — a target. Creed hears that, but at the same time, she’s encouraged by recent chamber polling suggesting the percentage of business owners who feel they’ll survive this crisis is rising.

“What that says to me is people are finding a way to make sure it doesn’t put them out of business,” she said, “which shows the resilience of the businesses we have here.”

Yes, they have resilience, in spades. Now, they want clarity — and some hard dates.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020 Cover Story

40 Under Forty Class of 2020

‘The class of 2020.’

That phrase will forever have special meaning at colleges, high schools, and even grammar schools across this country. Indeed, 2020 has been a different year in every way imaginable.

And the same is true of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of rising stars. When the JUDGES received their six-inch-thick packets of nominations — which detailed the credentials of more than 200 candidates — in February, COVID-19 hadn’t yet arrived in Western Mass. By the time the scores were tabulated and the winners were sent their letters of congratulations, the world had changed in a profound way.

These changes are reflected in this special edition of BusinessWest, and also in the scheduling of the gala to celebrate this year’s class. Traditionally slated for late June, it is now scheduled to be held Oct. 8 with location TBD.

As for this section, the biggest difference is the photographs. In past years, they were taken in the studio of photographer Leah Martin. With social-distancing guidelines in place and non-essential businesses (like photo studios) closed, that wasn’t possible.

So we improvised. Many members of the class of 2020 took their own photos, while Martin took to the road and photographed several honorees on their front porches and in their backyards — from a safe distance. Collectively, these photos speak not only to how different these times are, but to how people have used their imaginations and creativity to cope.

Overall, while the class of 2020 has had, and will continue to have, a different experience than those who preceded it, it is like those other classes in how it reflects the high levels of young talent now emerging in this region. And it paints an impressive picture of leadership for decades to come.

Let’s salute the class of 2020!

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2020 Exclusive Media Sponsor

Coronavirus Cover Story

Hard Lessons

Vacant Elms College Campus

‘Extraordinary.’ That’s how one area college president described the massive shift to online learning that colleges and universities nationwide were forced to undertake back in March. And he’s right. But these are extraordinary times — and beyond the questions about when students can safety return to campus, and concerns about declining enrollment and revenues going forward, are a series of equally extraordinary conversations about what higher education might look like on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, and why.

Back in March, when colleges and universities everywhere began sending students home, the obvious question was, ‘when will they come back?’

That’s still the question — or, more accurately, one of many, many pressing questions.

Here’s another one: when students do eventually come back, how many will not? At a time when enrollment is already declining nationally, mainly due to smaller high-school graduating classes, some trade groups, like the American Council on Education, are predicting a national enrollment drop of 15% this fall, higher for international students.

“On one hand, it could be anxiety about students returning to the campus environment or students wanting to take a pause and see how things are going,” said Harry Dumay president of Elms College. “Then, their financial circumstances might make it difficult for them — although, with the stimulus funds, we are working with families to help them with those concerns.”

Dumay said Elms leaders are preparing for all contingencies when it comes to how and where summer and fall classes will be delivered, though it seems likely that at least the initial summer sessions, starting in May, will have to be remote.

“Every one of us is looking at potential loss in revenue. Obviously, if the parents lost jobs, or if students lost jobs, will they be able to afford to go back?”

“What’s less certain is what will happen in the fall. A number of factors go into making this decision, beginning, of course, with when it’s safe for our students, safe for our employees and faculty, and safe for the general public,” he noted, adding that Elms leadership constantly tracks the guidelines it receives from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will not reopen the campus if doing so would provide an opportunity for the pandemic to spike, even if the curve is starting to flatten now.

Working in Elms’ favor, he noted, is the fact that it draws mainly from the Greater Springfield region, and in this current environment, graduating high-school seniors, whether in 2020 or 2021, and their families might prefer to choose a college closer to home.

“Those are discussions seniors and their parents are making around the kitchen table,” Dumay said. “We are certainly working with all of those students who have been admitted to Elms, trying to answer their questions so they can continue to pursue their dreams in a safe manner, and guide them in making those critical decisions in this critical time.”

From its perspective, Elms — and all colleges, for that matter — is making contingency plans of its own if enrollment does come in lower than the target.

“We’ll have a plan-A budget, a plan-B budget, and a plan-C budget. But Elms is on solid financial footing. We’re not wealthy — we don’t have a large endowment — but the institution is financially healthy, and we can withstand some shock in enrollment.”

Carol Leary, who is stepping down in June after 25 years as president of Bay Path University, certainly didn’t expect to spend her final weeks communicating with her staff remotely.

“Every one of us is looking at potential loss in revenue,” Leary said of … well, virtually all colleges and universities. “Obviously, if the parents lost jobs, or if students lost jobs, will they be able to afford to go back?”

With that in mind, she said, “everyone is doing their business-continuity planning and deciding what to do if there’s a decrease in enrollment for the fall. It’s on the table for most institutions, and certainly, at Bay Path, we’re talking about it. But we’re very well-placed in some ways; we usually use 4% or less of our endowment on operating costs. Obviously, when enrollment goes down, it will hit schools harder that rely more heavily on their endowment for the operating budget. I’m not sure that’s going to be an issue here.”

That said, Bay Path may freeze hiring and not fill open positions that aren’t absolutely essential, Leary said, while curtailing travel in the short term as well. “Every institution is looking at how the budget is crafted and may have to make some tough decisions — maybe even some furloughs and layoffs in the future.”

At the same time, she added, most institutions will have to start looking at themselves through a different lens — a topic she recently wrote about in an article marking 25 years in the president’s chair. Specifically, how can higher education, with its ever-spiraling costs, better reach and serve the majority of Americans, including those in lower income strata?

“I think the model and the cost are definitely areas that will change in the future, and the COVID crisis has forced all of us to look internally at how to begin to address those two issues,” she said.

With that, she raised perhaps the most intriguing question of all — how will higher education look when it emerges on the other side of the pandemic, and students do return to campus? Because most in this critical industry — and all four area presidents BusinessWest spoke with for this story — don’t believe it’s going to be status quo.

Digital Dilemma

Before considering those questions, John Cook took a moment to appreciate what a momentous challenge it has been for an entire nation’s higher-education system to go online with very little preparation.

John Cook says STCC is modeling fall enrollment

John Cook says STCC is modeling fall enrollment forecasts and developing budget options that consider all contingencies.

“It’s been extraordinary for higher education, and certainly at STCC, to make such a comprehensive change,” said Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College. He explained that the college, like most others in Western Mass., was fortunate to be able to leverage spring break to transition to distance learning.

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), said it was a challenge to help 4,500 students, many of whom had never experienced online learning, to become familiar with all the technology, software, and scheduling. At the same time, many students were losing their jobs — for example, in restaurants and hospitality — and exacerbating issues of food and housing insecurity among lower-income students.

“That creates a lot of extra stress with students — ‘I’m losing my job and trying to figure out how to take classes online.’ We’ve had to spend a lot of time helping students through that,” she said, adding that HCC has hooked students up with Chromebooks and other equipment as needed. “I’ve done several town-hall meetings with faculty and staff, and meetings with students, to answer their questions and validate their feelings and acknowledge the uncertainty they’re feeling.”

Dumay was similarly thankful for the spring-break cushion that gave professors extra time to adapt their courses to the online environment.

“That creates a lot of extra stress with students — ‘I’m losing my job and trying to figure out how to take classes online.’ We’ve had to spend a lot of time helping students through that.”

“The faculty were amazing, and they turned it around,” he said. “The courses are being delivered in different ways — some are using live Zoom sessions, some are using asynchronous Zoom sessions, and some used narrated PowerPoint delivery that students can access on their own time.”

Elms recently reached out to all students to poll them on how classes were going, and 30% responded, Dumay said. Of those, the vast majority said they had what they needed to continue their learning online, while about 2.5% reported difficulty with Internet access. In response, Elms is keeping its library open for that reason — with social-distancing measures in place, of course.

“More than 86% feel confident being successful in the online environment; some students said this is a lot more work,” Dumay said, conceding that in-person learning is preferable in most cases, and for myriad reasons. “Elms is a lot more than being academically successful. Part of the value proposition for Elms College is its small, very intimate environment that emphasizes growth of the whole person — the spiritual component, the psychosocial component.”

Trying to replicate that online is difficult, Dumay said, but the college is doing what it can to build an online community where students can connect with each other and access the campus resources they need.

Perhaps no institution in the region was more prepared for the online transition than Bay Path, which has been offering its graduate programs almost entirely online since 2006, and its undergraduate American Women’s College is totally online as well. Leary feels like that’s a path forward to help all students afford an education.

“There will always be people who can afford institutions like Harvard and Princeton and Yale, but the majority of Americans can’t afford that type of education,” she said. “That’s why we’ve created a very low-cost model in the American Women’s College, putting together a well-crafted curriculum and a model that supports students, so very few will fall through the cracks.”

For now, she added, the percentage of classes that will continue online is up in the air.

“Most of us are thinking that summer school will be online, and then then we start looking at the fall. Even if social distancing is lifted, we don’t know what the impact on the college will be — on the residence halls, the classrooms, the dining rooms. As we look to the fall, we’ll be prepared to open, and we’ll also be prepared to go online. We have to be nimble.”

Profit and Loss

Leaders of the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts have kept in touch about when they might open campuses up, and even then, under what kind of social-distancing parameters, Royal said. As for summer programs, HCC’s first session has already been moved fully online, but because a handful of second-session classes will be more difficult to deliver remotely, that decision is in limbo — not to mention what will happen in the fall.

Christina Royal says many students are dealing

Christina Royal says many students are dealing with not just a shift to online classes, but job loss and food and housing insecurity.

“It’s hard to say definitively what the situation will be in September or October,” she told BusinessWest. “What I’m trying to do is position us so that, whatever the situation, we can pivot on very short notice, and respond even faster than we did this time around, because all the parameters are in place to do so.”

Cook said STCC is currently modeling enrollment projections and working with trustees on a budget that takes into consideration a possible enrollment hit. He noted, however, that community colleges in Massachusetts tend to do well during economic downturns.

Royal noted that trend as well. “We run counter-cyclical to the economy. When the economy starts to go down, people start thinking, ‘what do I need to retool myself, and how can I prepare for a career change?’ — and our enrollment goes up.”

She noted the trend becomes noticeable about 12 months after a recession begins, and, indeed, 2010 — the height of the Great Recession, which began in late 2008 — was HCC’s most recent enrollment peak; as the economy has improved, enrollment has steadily declined.

The question, both she and Cook said, is whether the same rules apply in the current environment, which is not a slow-building recession, but a full-stop economic shutdown that could, in turn, lead to an extended economic lull.

“When you think of recessions we’ve had in the past, we built toward them, but this is so sudden, with high numbers of people filing for unemployment,” Royal said. “It’s very unexpected, and we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”

One wild card in the mix is what she called the “emotional recovery” from what’s happening now. “People have been jarred to their core; they’re concerned about their own safety and concerned about engaging in the world.”

That said, HCC was already planning for a 5% enrollment reduction this fall — largely due to demographic trends — but is now thinking in terms of 10%. “We have to plan for that contingency, and we have to deliver a balanced budget to the trustees. So that’s what we’re looking at.”

“When you think of recessions we’ve had in the past, we built toward them, but this is so sudden, with high numbers of people filing for unemployment. It’s very unexpected, and we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”

If enrollment does decline by 15% nationally, that represents a $23 billion revenue loss for colleges — money that will be only partly offset by government relief funds. For example, more than 80 colleges and universities in Massachusetts will collectively receive more than $270 million as part of a federal relief package intended to help schools and students during the pandemic. UMass Amherst tops that list with an estimated $18.3 million in aid. Nationally, the Higher Education Relief Fund allocated $12.5 billion to 5,125 colleges and universities.

Collectively, the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts will receive $48.8 million in aid — certainly a help, but not enough to ease enrollment concerns going forward. Cook agreed with Royal that community colleges shouldn’t assume the sort of enrollment bump they usually see during recessions, even though they offer a more affordable model than private, residential colleges.

“This isn’t like any economic downturn the nation has ever experienced in the past, even the Great Recession,” he said. “Because of the public-health impact on people’s lives, it’s hard to assume enrollment will be up in the near future. People are dealing with so much else in their lives, they’re not able to turn their attention to education and workforce development.”

Future Shock

If there’s a positive lesson from the pandemic to bring into the future, Royal said, it’s the massive potential of technology to streamline education and make it more affordable and accessible.

“What’s happening now isn’t online learning; it’s emergency remote learning. I don’t want people to think that someone having to pivot and put together course materials with one or two weeks notice to deliver for the second half of the semester is the bar of online learning,” said Royal, who has a Ph.D. in instructional design and spent years heading up distance learning for a large community college in Ohio.

“I think of the potential for more innovative learning designs, highly interactive simulation labs augmented in virtual reality — those are more sophisticated than what we see in online courses now,” she added. “I believe the promise of online learning will be realized someday, but that’s going to require more inclusion and investment and professional development to really expose our educators to the possibilities.”

Some good can come out of every crisis, Leary said, citing in particular the rise of telemedicine, which will likely get a permanent boost from the COVID-19 crisis, as well as companies learning the value of remote work, lower emissions generating cleaner air in cities right now, and, yes, a greater focus on how to not only teach students remotely, but do it better.

Another takeaway, Royal said, might be a new focus on process improvement that extends well beyond remote learning. “If something takes six steps but we’ve learned how to do it in three, why are we going back to six? So, when we open our doors again, we’ll be looking at how we can streamline processes — and how to offer more virtual services in general.”

She’s not speaking about classes here; rather, it’s the routine business of paying bills, getting forms signed, and other administrative functions. “They might want to do that remotely, at 8 in the evening, at their computer, while they’re thinking about it. So, I see a lot of room for process improvement and streamlining student services overall.”

STCC is also learning it can offer value through streamlining its admissions, enrollment, and financial-aid operations online, “to make it more seamless for our students to work through the experience of getting into college and staying with the college,” Cook said — even while continuing to promote the face-to-face value of its campus advising center.

Meanwhile, through the online transition, “we’ve learned that we can move pretty quickly,” Cook said. “Sometimes higher education gets painted as slow to respond, slow to adapt, but we’ve demonstrated that we can move quickly and with a degree of grace when we need to.”

Dumay said lessons learned from the COVID-19 shutdown might change college life in America in ways both good and bad. On the positive side, while online learning can’t replicate the important interpersonal development built by campus life, going online has demonstrated there is a bigger place than college leaders might have imagined for remote programs.

“This will alleviate a lot of the fears people have about the efficacy of online learning. They’ll realize they can do it where it works, so we can have a lot more learning in the online environment,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean education will move completely online. The residential experience is a rite of passage for the growth of a lot of American youth. It would be a loss if we didn’t return to that at some point in the future.”

More worrisome, Dumay said, is the potential this crisis has to shut down many schools completely.

“It may be that some don’t make it and close their doors,” he said, noting that the most vulnerable colleges include many that serve lower-income, first-generation students, often students of color. “If higher education became less accessible, that would be an unfortunate casualty of this pandemic.”

Grade: Incomplete

The presidents who spoke with BusinessWest had a lot to say — much, much more than could fit in this story — but, while their comments were insightful, they were in many cases less than definitive. After all, it’s hard to speak definitively about a pandemic — and an economic shutdown — that offer no sure timeline.

“Within our student body and our employees, people are really hoping for clarity — that’s the element in short supply right now,” Cook said. “As we continue to work with these health guidelines, as we flatten the curve and pay attention to social distancing, when and how will that allow us to get back to some version of where our value lies — leveraging on-campus resources like labs and simulation?

“No one knows when we’ll get back to leveraging those resources,” he added, “but there’s still a lot of hope around that — and worry, because those are incredible resources for our students.”

In short, it’s impossible to deliver all the value a college offers over a computer screen, from miles away. In the meantime, everyone is learning valuable lessons — which is, after all, the point of higher education.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Cover Story

On the Home Front

On one hand, it’s good to be working — many people during the COVID-19 crisis have lost their jobs. However, those who continue to clock in every day, only from home, often face challenges they never had to contend with before, from balancing work with their kids’ education to the anxiety and loneliness that can accompany a lack of face-to-face contact. But that’s today’s new normal, and no one can predict for sure when people might start heading back to the office.

As the office manager at Architecture EL in East Longmeadow, Allison Lapierre-Houle has plenty to do, but enough time to do it. Usually.

“I handle all the administrative tasks — anything HR-related, financial-related, pretty much everything outside what the architects do,” she said, adding that she’s never had to work outside her set hours — until recently.

“Now, I’ve been working on weekends a little bit, at night a little bit, because I have to take constant breaks in between for homeschooling, and all of the distractions that come with running a house and doing my job at the same time.”

Like so many others right now, Lapierre-Houle is still doing that job, only she’s doing it from home — as a single mother of a first-grader and a third-grader, ages 6 and 9.

While the school provides a remote learning plan that students are expected to follow, and daily assignments to complete every day using Chromebooks and Google software — as well as Zoom meetings with classmates — children that young aren’t exactly self-directed, she noted.

“If they were in high school, it would be completely different. In first grade, she literally just learned to read, and now she’s expected to go on the Chromebook and complete assignments. So I do lot of side-by-side work with the kids, while also trying to manage the eight employees for the company, who are all working remotely as well. That’s been the biggest challenge.”

Allison Lapierre-Houle to balance working at home

It’s challenging for Allison Lapierre-Houle to balance working at home with two young kids — but at least they can help take a photo for BusinessWest.

David Griffin Jr., vice president of the Dowd Insurance Agencies in Holyoke, is able to split the child-tending duties with his wife, who works for Travelers in Hartford. They’re both home these days, juggling their jobs and home responsibilities as parents of two young ones, ages 2 and 3.

“We’re making the most of it,” Griffin said. “She has a more set schedule than me. Obviously, I have clients calling me, and I can’t plan when the client calls me with questions I have to go through. I get as much done as I can in the morning and late at night, and answer calls and help customers throughout the day. Right now is their greatest time of need, so I have to make myself available and be there for them to lend an ear and give some advice.”

Jim Martin knows that feeling — of working from home at a time when customers have more pressing needs than perhaps ever before. As a partner at Robinson Donovan specializing in corporate law and commercial real estate, he’s been working with clients on their submissions for the Paycheck Protection Program, deciphering the regulations and grappling with an ongoing series of often-confounding changes to them. “My clients need straightforward legal advice on what needs to be included,” he told BusinessWest.

“I do lot of side-by-side work with the kids, while also trying to manage the eight employees for the company, who are all working remotely as well. That’s been the biggest challenge.”

He’s providing that advice — and much more — largely from home, as the firm’s Springfield office is maintaining the core minimum of personnel needed to connect everyone else during a trying time.

“We were well-prepared for this; we had anticipated this may be necessary, so we had a network in place that allowed people to remotely access their desktops from home,” he explained. We got everyone equipped, so when someone comes in with mail, it’s scanned and distributed to every lawyer and the support staff. And we have remote dictation, so I can dictate right to my adminstrative assistant from home. We feel we were pretty well-prepared to make the transition to working remotely.”

While Martin doesn’t have children at home, he empathizes with those who do, as day cares are closed and people generally can’t come by to babysit.

He does, however, sometimes have to vie for the landline with his wife, a clinical doctor of psychology who continues to see patients, who are dealing with all sorts of issues, from depression to anxiety to domestic violence, all of which can be exacerbated by the current health and economic crises.

“People who need therapy, they need it more now,” he said. “She fortunately has access to certified confidential means of communication, video communication and things, but sometimes it’s over the phone if folks don’t have technology. So, I’m in one room, she’s in another, and sometimes it’s stressful in the house.”

Workers from most sectors are dealing with the same situation — doing their part to keep their companies afloat while often keeping a household together. But they’re recognizing something else as well — a general patience and understanding among those they deal with, and a recognition that we’re all in this together, even as people grow more anxious to get back to their old routines.

Alone Time

Before COVID-19, Seth Kaye, a Chicopee-based photographer, would get up each morning and go to his office to work and have meetings with clients.

“For me, that’s the biggest difference right now, just not being around people at all,” he said. “I would routinely have coffee breaks or lunch with friends and colleagues; that’s how meetings would be done, face to face. Right now, everything’s over Zoom, which has been fantastic, but nothing face to face.”

Seth Kaye

Seth Kaye is among many professionals who miss face-to-face interaction with clients.

He brought his entire workstation home, so he’s able to stay in contact with clients and even book new work.

“In terms of contracts, there’s nothing for me to photograph right now, as the commercial events have all been canceled for the foreseeable future. Weddings are the lion’s share of what I do, and people are postponing those to later this year or 2021. But business is still going on. People are still getting engaged. I’m still booking new couples to 2021. The world hasn’t stopped, and people are still planning for the future. That gives me an enormous amount of optimism.”

And also a chance to pivot to other business needs, Kaye added. “I’m trying to take the to work on my marketing and work on personal projects and try new things.”

Griffin said the team at Dowd is pivoting in other ways. “We have five offices and 47 employees, and we’ve been able to get everyone up and running from home; we’re still at full capacity. Of course, the insurance industry is considered an essential business.

“Everyone wants to make this work, but it’s been tricky to say the least,” he added, noting that technology has been a huge help. Because the company uses an internet-based telephone system, everyone was able to take their phones home and plug them into their computers.

“Our receptionist is working from home, and she answers live and transfers the calls,” he said. “And most of the staff have two computer screens in the office, and they brought one of the screens home. So it’s funny — if you go into the office and see all the desks with nothing on them, it looks like we’ve been robbed, but that’s not the case.”

Lawyers are as busy as insurance agents these days, and Martin is a good example, whether it’s helping small businesses with federal stimulus programs or assisting companies scrambling to prepare for all contingencies during the pandemic.

“I spent some time over the last two weeks dealing with transfer ownership issues between shareholders and and/or partners, so if people own a company, either shares or in a partnership, they are now feeling it’s important to establish and confirm in writing how the shares will be transferred … and what the conditions are,” he explained.

Meanwhile, employment laywers are dealing with unemployment and leave issues, while real-estate attorneys grapple with pending projects held up by wholesale postponements of meetings with planning and zoning officials, and estate planners see an uptick in business from families getting their affairs in order (see story on page 24).

The list goes on — and most of the work is being done remotely.

“It is a challenge, if you haven’t worked from home before,” Martin said. “I know some people work from home regularly, but for those of us who haven’t, it’s a big adjustment period. At least it is for me.”

It certainly has been for Lapierre-Houle, and also her kids.

“I definitely find myself, especially in the evening, saying to them, ‘it’s a school night,’” she said. “For them, it doesn’t feel like a school night. They think they can get up whenever they want and stay up as late as they want, but I’m trying to keep us on schedule — they get up like for school, and I sign on to work at 8.”

Convincing students to treat these days like regular school days is undoubtedly something parents of older kids grapple with as well. And kids of all ages are likely tiring of the social isolation.

“They can’t see their friends except behind a computer screen … that’s a significant emotional challenge because they don’t understand the social aspect. But they still have to learn and do their schoolwork,” Lapierre-Houle noted, adding that the warmer weather gives a reprieve in that they can go outside — but also provides an additional distraction because they want to be outside, rather than inside doing schoolwork.

She does appreciate her boss, company president Kevin Rothschild-Shea, who, she says, has always emphasized work-life balance, which has made this transition a little easier for employees. “He’s always been very flexible with families or children, but there’s still pressure to get work done, not to mention all the distractions at home.”

New Routine

Clients have been equally understanding of the current situation, Griffin said. “They’re not giving us a hard time — ‘I need this in two hours.’ Again, turnaround times are out the window, and people have been very accommodating and very understanding of that.”

On a personal level, he does miss meeting clients in person. “There’s nothing like going out and seeing clients face to face and talking with them, trying to see what their energy level is, how business is going … I do miss that. I’ll be excited to get that aspect of things back because it is missed. Now we have to make do with what we have, and everyone is in the same boat together — it’s not like we’re at a competitive disadvantage because of it.”

“It’s funny — if you go into the office and see all the desks with nothing on them, it looks like we’ve been robbed, but that’s not the case.”

Kaye told BusinessWest that’s been a challenge for him as well.

“I would see people regularly, just in passing or at the coffee shop — the day-to-day stuff we take for granted, now that we’re not able to have that routine. The routine now is different,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s a temporary new normal, but that human contact is gone right now.

“I’m taking the quarantine thing seriously, aside from pharmacy drives and having people put food into the trunk of my car when I order it from local farms,” he added. “I haven’t had any face-to-face contact in about three weeks. Some of my friends are doing the same. Some of our parents are not, which is interesting. But the social aspect being gone is definitely challenging.”

As the virus has still not peaked, the next couple weeks will bring more of the same, and though people he talks to are starting to go a bit stir crazy, they’re adapting as best they can, Kaye said.

“The people I’ve been speaking with, whether it’s clients not sure what their plans are going to be for 2020 or talking about postponements, they’ve been really nice about it. They have their needs as business owners, and I have my needs and concerns, and so far everyone has been really great.”

That first coffee-shop meeting will still be pretty satisfying, though — whenever that might be.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Cover Story

Experts Stress Everything from Communication to Listening to Millennials

Ross Giombetti acknowledged that it’s never easy to be a leader.

But it’s certainly much easier when times are good and the decisions are not that difficult. It’s when times are stressful and uncertain — and those two adjectives clearly and effectively define what it has happening locally, regionally, nationally, and globally due to COVID-19 — that leaders have to earn their pay and be … leaders.

“What’s that phrase — a rising tide lifts all boats,” said Giombetti, president of Wilbraham-based Giombetti Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in helping individuals, teams, and businesses reach maximum potential. “When everything’s going right, it’s easy to act the right way and manage the right way. The real test for a leader is how they act, behave, handle themselves, and make decisions in times of pressure, stress, or crisis.”

So, how does one lead effectively in such times? We talked with Giombetti and two others who would be considered experts on leadership — Jim Young, a Northampton-based coach, consultant, and founder of the Centered Coach, and Anne Weiss, a Longmeadow-based coach and consultant who specializes in everything from executive and team coaching to transition and succession planning. Suffice to say they had a lot to share on this subject. Here are some of their collective thoughts and words of advice on providing effective leadership in these unprecedented times:

• Be compassionate. “First and foremost, people need to be compassionate and understanding,” said Giombetti. “They need to listen to people and understand how all this is impacting them. And then be responsive. But first, you have to be compassionate, you have to be understanding, and you have to listen.”

Weiss agreed. “Listen to what people are having to deal with,” she said. “You don’t know what people are having to cope with — it might be their finances, it might be their kids, especially if school is closed. Leaders should have listening lessons where they say, ‘tell me what you’re dealing with, so I know.’”

• Be flexible. “You have to be flexible in times of stress and pressure,” Weiss noted. “In situations like the one we’re facing now, if you’re not flexible with your approach and mentality, that would probably make the situation with those around you far worse.”

• Gain the input of others. “Leaders need to open things up,” Young said. “They should say, ‘we’re in this together; I’m going to take the lead because that’s my role. But I’m also open to hearing what ideas you have.’ The strength of the organization as a whole is greater than the leader.”

• Be emotionally honest. “Leaders are looked to for answers at times like this,” Young continued. “And especially in this situation, there are no easy answers. It can an alluring trap to fall into — ‘I need to be in command, and I need to come up with answers and be in control’ — but they need the vulnerability of saying, ‘this is unprecedented. I don’t know what the answers are here, but I’m going to be here to work with you and take care of you, and I want to know what’s going on with you.’”

• But make the tough decisions. “Once you’ve heard people out and been compassionate with your ears by listening and showing that you really care, then it’s the leader’s responsibility to take bold action,” Giombetti said. “He or she has to make the tough decision. It may be unpopular, it might be one that gets ridiculed, but a real leader doesn’t worry about getting flak or being ridiculed, because they’re going to get it regardless of what they do. So you must have broad shoulders.

“If you worry too much, if you panic, if you’re indecisive, if you’re not committed to taking bold action,” he went on, “I think that’s when things can get far worse.”

• Maintain morale. “You keep morale up by acknowledging the leadership and what they’re having to deal with,” said Weiss. “You recognize the hard work people are doing, and you thank them for what they’re doing in these difficult times. Talk to people and show that you appreciate them.”

• Slow it down. “This is counterintuitive, but in situations like this, the best leaders will slow things down a little bit,” noted Young. “They’ll take an extra moment to assess what their plan is going to be and how they’re going to communicate that. Rushing with answers in a complex situation like this can create more damage because you might have to walk things back.

• Create a balance between thought and action. “A majority of us tend to react to situations of stress and pressure emotionally — it’s how our brains work,” Giombetti said. “We’re wired to react emotionally to most difficult situations. What leaders have to fall back on in times like this is, before they react or make a decision or even say something, just think through it; spend some time and think through it. Most people jump too quick to action, and most of it is based on emotion.”

• Show your emotions, but try not to panic or overreact. “Leaders have to balance being responsive, being compassionate, and caring about doing the right thing, and remaining calm,” Giombetti went on. “If you’re a leader and you panic and you show it, as kids do with their parents, your people will feed off that.”

• Listen to young people. “Generally, they’re not as stuck in their ways as many older people are,” noted Weiss. “They see opportunities and ways of doing things that we might not see.”

• Look for new opportunities. “Instead of looking at this as doomsday, leaders should be thinking about where there might be opportunities,” said Young, who is doing this himself. Indeed, he traditionally presents programs in front of large audiences, something he won’t be able to do for the foreseeable future. In response, he’s looking to present more programming virtually.

“There’s always light waiting on the other side of the dark,” he went on. “Sometimes, what’s required in these moments when the lights have seemingly gone out is an attitude of ‘what can we discover? What can we do differently?’

Weiss agreed, noting that many restaurants in the Boston area — and they are among the hardest-hit by the crisis — are responding by creating new takeout and delivery services.

• Finally, take care of your health. “Leaders have to be available to address what’s happening,” said Weiss. “So, while watching out for everyone else, they need to take care of their own health.”

 

Coronavirus Cover Story Features Special Coverage

Life in Limbo

It was becoming clear weeks ago that the novel coronavirus would have some sort of economic impact once it washed ashore in the U.S. — but it’s still not clear, and perhaps won’t be for some time, how severe and wide-ranging the damage could be, as people cancel travel plans, curtail business operations, shut down college campuses, and take any number of other actions to stay safe. It’s a fast-moving story, and one that’s only beginning.

The first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus had barely shown up in the U.S. when some of Bob Nakosteen’s students in an online graduate economics course started dropping the course because they were dealing with a more immediate issue: supply-chain interruptions in their own companies.

“These companies have supply chains that stretch into China, and, well … the word ‘disruptive’ doesn’t even capture it,” Nakosteen said. “Those chains have been completely severed. These people are absolutely in crisis mode.

“A situation like this interacts with the ethic of lean production,” he went on. “People keep limited inventories — and that’s great as long as there’s a supply chain that’s frictionless and reliable. As soon as you get a disruption in the supply chain, which could happen because of a strike, because of a virus, for any number of reasons, there’s no inventory buffer. It doesn’t cause delayed difficulty to the firm; it causes an immediate one. And that’s what you’ve got now.”

Editor’s Note:

The coronavirus pandemic is impacting this region and its business community in ways that are far-reaching and unprecedented. Visit COVID-19 News & Updates  and opt into BusinessWest Daily News to stay informed with daily updates.

More than a week has passed since we spoke with Nakosteen — a professor and chair of the Department of Operations and Information Management at Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst — for this story, meaning another week for the supply-chain situation for manufacturers and other companies to deteriorate.

In fact, when it comes to the economic impact of the virus that causes the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, now officially a pandemic, virtually everything has only gotten worse.

“We have to assume everything will be affected. Airlines are experiencing reduced demand, cancelling hundreds and thousands of flights,” he said, noting that reduced tourism will hit numerous sectors, from hotels and restaurants to ground transportation and convention halls, that rely on travelers.

“How many firms are curtailing business travel? The NCAA now plans to play playing games with empty stands,” he went on, a decision that became official soon after — not to mention the NBA suspending its season outright. “What happens to the people who provide parking and concessions? Now multiply that over hundreds or thousands of events that are scheduled to take place over the next couple of months. It’s going to have an economic effect.”

UMass Amherst

UMass Amherst is one of several area colleges and universities that are sending students home and will conduct remote classes only for the time being.

Nakosteen’s own campus is certainly feeling that impact. The day before BusinessWest went to press, the five campuses in the UMass system suspended in-person instruction and will transition to online course delivery, at least through early April and perhaps beyond. That followed a similar move by Amherst College, whose president, Carolyn Martin, told students the college was taking to heart the announcement by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that the U.S. is past the point of totally containing COVID-19. Other area colleges have since followed suit, or are considering their options.

“While there continue to be no reported cases of the virus on our campus, we need to focus on mitigating its possible effects,” she said, using language that will no doubt be similar to the statements other colleges, in Massachusetts and across the U.S., are currently preparing. “We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it. The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great. The best time to act in ways that slow the spread of the virus is now.”

While all travel is slowing — for example, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut have both curtailed out-of-state business travel by government employees, and President Trump issued a European travel ban — Don Anderson, owner of the Cruise Store in East Longmeadow, has seen vacation travel take a major hit.

“We’re a society where, when you’re growing up, you eat your meal, and then you get your dessert. Now we have a situation where people are not having their dessert — their vacation,” he told BusinessWest. “Imagine kids not going to the islands or not going to a park, to the annual parade, not going anywhere. We are a society that works our butts off, we put in overtime, so we can have our time off. To have a year with no time off, that’s not who we are. As Americans, we want our vacation, we want our escape, so we can recharge and come back and work our butts off again.”

But they’re increasingly calling off those vacations, even though Fauci told reporters last week that cruise ships, with all the precautions they’re taking (more on that later), are safe for healthy young people.

“These companies have supply chains that stretch into China, and, well … the word ‘disruptive’ doesn’t even capture it. Those chains have been completely severed. These people are absolutely in crisis mode.”

“The bottom line is, we are unintentionally punishing ourselves by not having an escape. A good portion of our customers are going on trips, but many are not,” Anderson said, adding that he expects the industry to recover after the crisis is over. “That’s what we’re all hoping. Otherwise, it’s a dire situation for the industry and even more so for the economies that travel impacts directly and indirectly, including the United States.”

For now, though, businesses of all kinds are in a sort of limbo, bearing the initial brunt of an economic storm spreading as quickly as coronavirus itself — no one really sure how severe it will get, and when it will turn around.

Sobering Education

Many companies, from small outfits with a few employees to regional giants, are grappling with similar questions about what to do if the virus threatens their workforce. On that upper end, size-wise, is MassMutual in Springfield, which has certainly talked strategy in recent days.

“MassMutual is taking appropriate action to protect the health of our employees, their families, and our community and assure the continuity of our business operations,” Laura Crisco, head of Media Relations and Strategic Communications, told BusinessWest. “This includes limiting non-essential domestic and international business travel and ensuring employees are prepared to work remotely, including proactively testing work-from-home capabilities.”

In the meantime, MassMutual is limiting non-essential guests at its offices, enhancing cleaning protocols at its facilities, and limiting large-scale meetings, she added. “We are continuously monitoring this evolving situation, reassessing our approach, and staying in close communication with our employees.”

Most importantly, Crisco said, anyone who is sick is encouraged to stay home, and the company is also communicating basic guidance on how to prevent the spread of germs, such as thorough hand washing, using hand sanitizer, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching faces with unwashed hands, and frequently cleaning and disinfecting touched objects and surfaces.

Kevin Day, president of Florence Bank, told BusinessWest the institution has disaster plans in place for a host of circumstances, from epidemics to natural disasters, and has developed strategies for meeting basic customer needs in case staffing is reduced.

Bob Nakosteen

“As soon as you get a disruption in the supply chain, which could happen because of a strike, because of a virus, for any number of reasons, there’s no inventory buffer. It doesn’t cause delayed difficulty to the firm; it causes an immediate one.”

“We just checked with all our managers and asked, ‘are we comfortable that everyone is cross-trained enough, so that, if your area was out, we could function?’ Pretty much everyone said, ‘yes, we have the plans right here, we know exactly what we’d do.’

He understands, however, that no one can anticipate the extent of the crisis quite yet.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen challenges in the past. Whatever challenge is presented, we’ve just got to get the right people in the building together and think about how to continue to do what we do, which is open the door and serve the customers. We have those things in place,” Day said. “As it ramps up, and all of a sudden your employees start coming down with it, the escalation would get much greater, and you might have to take more draconian steps.”

‘Draconian’ might be a word some people used when they first heard about the college shutdowns, but there’s a logic behind that move.

“While at this time there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on our campus or in the surrounding community, we are taking these steps as a precautionary measure to protect the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff,” Kumble Subbaswamy, chancellor of UMass Amherst, said in a statement to students. “By reducing population density on campus, we will enable the social distancing that will mitigate the spread of the virus. There is presently no evidence that our campus is unsafe, but our transition to remote learning is intended to create a safer environment for all — for the students who return home and the faculty and staff who remain.”

He conceded that the move is a massive disruption for students and families, but said the university is committed to helping those with the greatest needs on an individual basis. Meanwhile, the Provost’s office is working with the deans to identify laboratory, studio, and capstone courses where face-to-face instruction is essential, and students in these courses will be notified whether they can return to campus after spring break.

At the same time, Martin said Amherst College will consider making exceptions for students who say it’s impossible to find another place to stay.

“It saddens us to be taking these measures,” she added. “It will be hard to give up, even temporarily, the close colloquy and individual attention that defines Amherst College, but our faculty and staff will make this change rewarding in its own way, and we will have acted in one another’s best interests.”

Elementary-, middle- and high schools may close as well, after Gov. Charlie Baker, as part of his emergency declaration last week, freed school districts from mandatory-days rules, so that they have the flexibility to make decisions on temporary closures due to coronavirus.

Specifically, the longest any school district will be required to go is its already-scheduled 185th day. No schools will be required to be in session after June 30. Schools may also disregard all attendance data for the remainder of the school year.

Reaction or Overreaction?

While some economic impacts may be inevitable, Anderson questioned whether some businesses are being hurt more than others based on, in his case, media spin that has focused on a couple of recent outbreaks on cruise ships.

“Honestly, I’m more concerned walking into the supermarket — that tomato I’m grabbing or fresh produce I’m purchasing, I don’t know how many people before me have touched it. I don’t know who’s touching the elevator button. I don’t know who entered their pin number on the debit/credit-card reader. Even when we voted, everyone who used the polling booth shared the same pens,” he said, adding quickly that election officials in East Longmeadow, where he is a Town Council member, did occasionally wipe down the voting surfaces and pens, as did other communities.

“What we do know is there’s been well over 20,000 deaths of American citizens from the flu this season alone, but I’m not seeing large, front-page stories about that,” Anderson noted. “Why aren’t there long lines out of the local CVS or Walgreens to get the flu vaccine?”

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose

“We are regularly in touch with the state Department of Health as well as monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s important to ensure all of our activities are aligned with the latest data and resources.”

The key, he said, is a balanced and measured response — and for people to use healthy practices all the time. As one example, he noted the hand-washing stations at the entrance of all restaurants on cruise ships. While at least two cruise lines have temporarily suspended voyages, those still operating strictly follow those protocols.

“You have dedicated crew reminding everyone and watching so you wash your hands before going in,” he said. “It’s not something you see in stateside restaurants. But on cruise ships, you have to wash your hands. These washing stations were a consequence years ago of the norovirus impacting a small number of cruise-ship passengers. As a result, the incidences onboard ships has lowered.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Travel Assoc. President and CEO Roger Dow worried about bold moves like barring European travel. “Temporarily shutting off travel from Europe is going to exacerbate the already-heavy impact of coronavirus on the travel industry and the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel,” Dow said in a statement.

While many businesses struggle with the economic impact of the novel coronavirus and the anxiety it’s causing among Americans, others see it as a chance to expand their services.

For example, the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson launched a COVID-19 response team last week comprised of attorneys in the areas of business, finance, employment, schools, healthcare, and cybersecurity. Understanding that each business will be affected differently, the firm noted that taking proactive measures may help minimize the risk of business interruptions, and the COVID-19 response team has developed — and posted on its website — a catalog of issues to be considered by each business owner or manager.

Meanwhile, Associated Industries of Massachusetts published an expansive guide to employment-law issues that might arise due to the virus, dealing with everything from quarantines and temporary shutdowns to remote work and employee privacy issues. That guide is available at aimnet.org/blog/the-employers-guide-to-covid-19. John Gannon, a partner with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, also answers some relevant questions in this issue.

Righting the ship if COVID-19 sparks an actual recession could be difficult, for a number of reasons, writes Annie Lowrey, who covers economic policy for the Atlantic. She notes several reasons why a coronavirus recession could be difficult to reverse in the short term, including its uncertainty, demand and supply shocks at the same time (that supply-chain issue again), political polarization in the U.S., the global nature of COVID-19, and the fact that monetary policy is near exhaustion, as the Federal Reserve has already cut rates to near-historic lows, leaving little room to maneuver in the coming months

“They really don’t have much space to cut,” Nakosteen added. “Normally when the economy runs into trouble, the Federal Reserve runs in to the rescue. The problem now is we don’t have much room to rescue.”

He also cited the psychological factor that can quickly turn economic anxiety into something worse. “People say, ‘oh my God,’ they start drawing in their tentacles, and that’s when you have a recession.”

Lives in the Balance

None of this is to suggest that the economic impacts of COVID-19 outweigh the human ones. This is, foremost, a health crisis, one the healthcare community, particularly hospitals, are bracing for.

“We have an emergency preparedness committee, but those policies are sort of general,” said Dr. Joanne Levin, medical director of Infection Prevention at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. “We’ve had a lot of incidents in the past decade — we’ve prepared for Ebola, measles, H1N1, a lot of things. But each epidemic is different in how it’s transmitted and what to watch for. With each epidemic, we have to go through the emergency preparation plan and figure things out.”

Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, echoed that idea. “We have a standard infection-control committee and a plan that we would activate whenever we have a surge of infectious-disease patients,” he told BusinessWest. “This particular situation is rapidly evolving. We are regularly in touch with the state Department of Health as well as monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s important to ensure all of our activities are aligned with the latest data and resources.”

Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Health (DPH) continues to offer guidance to the public at www.mass.gov/2019coronavirus. It’s also urging older adults and those with health issues to avoid large crowds and events, while individuals who live in households with vulnerable people, like elderly parents, should also consider avoiding crowds. The DPH is also issuing guidance to long-term-care facilities, where sick visitors could endanger dozens of people very quickly.

Still, coronavirus is also an economic story, one with a plot that’s only beginning to take shape. It also may be a long story, with no end in sight.

“We’re in a position where we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we can speculate on what parts of the economy are going to be affected,” Nakosteen said. “We’re all watching it play out without a whole lot of idea how it will play out.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Meetings & Conventions

Nothing but Net

John Doleva, left, and Eugene Cassidy say Hooplandia could have a huge economic impact on the Greater Springfield region.

One observer referred to Hoopfest, the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in Spokane, Wash., as a ‘phenomenon,’ and the adjective fits. The event consumes 40 blocks in the downtown and literally takes over the city each June. Inspired, a group of organizers are looking to do something similar — although Springfield won’t be taken over — in just four months. The event is called Hooplandia, and it’s already being hailed as a slam dunk for the region.

Mark Rivers called it “an a-ha moment.’ Then he quickly amended the phrase in a poignant manner.

“It was an ‘aha/duh!’ moment.”

He was referring to his visit last summer to the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in downtown Spokane, Wash., called Hoopfest. And by giant, we mean giant. Indeed, it is billed as the largest event of its kind in the world, and no one doubts that claim. It annually draws more than 7,000 teams, or 28,000 participants (four people to a team on average), and total visitation for the tournament, staged the final weekend in June, approaches 200,000‚ which is roughly the city’s population.

While taking in Hoopfest and marveling at its size and the manner in which it has become synonymous with Spokane, Rivers, an event promoter by trade who has developed strong ties to both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, had that aforementioned ‘moment,’ during which he concluded that this event, or something like it, would be an even more natural fit in the birthplace of basketball.

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’”

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’” he recalled, adding that not only is the city home to the Hall of Fame, it’s located in the heavily populated Northeast, whereas Spokane is in decidedly rural Central Washington.

“It just seemed to make a whole lot of sense,” he went on, adding that what also made sense was to stage the event in the wide-open spaces of the Big E, which has all the needed infrastructure, and also at the Hall of Fame and its Center Court, which would be a special place to play games and act as a magnet for teams around the world.

Fast-forward eight months or so, and Hooplandia, the name chosen for this event, is moving on a fast train toward its June 26-28 debut. Such speed is attainable because of the partners involved — especially the Big E, where most of the games will be staged, and the Hall of Game, which is, indeed, proving to be a strong selling point.

Mark Rivers, seen here at a recent press event announcing Hooplandia, says the gathering has the potential to be a legacy event for the region.

“I’ve already had inquiries from teams in Russia, Belgium, Slovakia, Latvia, Poland, and Brazil,” Rivers explained. “I don’t know if we’ll get teams from all those countries, but we’ve had inquiries — a lot of these teams have expressed an interest in playing in the hometown of basketball and increasing their profile with games in the U.S.”

The goals for this first edition of Hooplandia — and specifically the one for participation (2,500 teams) — are ambitious, said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, but they are also attainable — and sustainable.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country,” said Cassidy, who experienced Hoopfest while visiting Spokane for a fair-association meeting a few years ago and had the same reaction as Rivers. “And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

Even if the first-year goals are met, or even approached, then Hooplandia could well wind up being one of the biggest single events (the 16-day Big E aside, obviously) the region has seen.

That becomes apparent in the projections for overall economic impact, a formula with a number of factors, including hotel stays, restaurant meals, rental cars, and many others, that Mary Kay Wydra, executive director of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, describes this way:

“It’s an industry standard, and we use it for all our conventions. We populate different data fields, like the average daily rate they’ll pay, how many people are coming, how many rooms they’ll be utilizing … we put that into the calculator, and it spits out a number for us.”

However the number is derived, for this first edition of Hooplandia, the projected total is roughly $7.3 million. For some perspective, the recently staged Red Sox Winter Weekend, which brought a host of star players, past and present, fans from across the broad Red Sox nation, and a horde of media, was projected to bring in $2 million (the final numbers are still being tabulated). Meanwhile, the AHL All-Star Classic weekend, staged just over a year ago, brought in $2.8 million, according to Wydra, and the much-publicized square-dancing convention in 2015 that brought 4,000 people to Springfield for eight days brought in $2.3 million.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country. And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

“This is certainly about basketball, but it’s also about economic development and tourism,” said John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame. “It’s about filling hotel rooms and having people come to the Hall and the Seuss museum and the Armory and local restaurants … this is a multi-day event, and people will stay for the duration and perhaps longer.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Hooplandia, what it can become, and what it might mean to the region.

Court of Opinion

Rivers calls it “getting the plane off the ground.”

That’s an industry phrase of sorts for launching an event of this magnitude. It’s never easy, he said, but with Hooplandia, there are a number of factors contributing to make it somewhat easier.

Especially the ability to stage this huge event at the Big E, a place — and a business — that’s well-versed in hosting large events, everything from the fair itself to a wide range of shows and competitions that fill the calendar.

To help explain, Rivers first referenced Hoopfest, which, essentially takes over downtown Spokane for three days, shutting down roughly 40 blocks in the heart of the city, a logistically difficult and expensive undertaking.

“Typically, when an event like this comes together, you do have a hard time getting the plane off the ground because your first expenses are renting port-a-potties, tents and road barricades, permits, shutting down streets, and doing all those things,” he went on. “You won’t have to do any of those at the fairgrounds, so it just seemed like a natural fit.”

Indeed, the majority of Hooplandia’s thousands of individual games will take place on the roads within the Big E’s 39 acres, although some will be played in its historic Coliseum, said Cassidy, adding that there is infrastructure in place to effectively handle the teams, spectators, media, and anyone else who descends on the area.

“We can handle large numbers of people; we have the capacity to host huge events — it’s what we do,” he said, adding that he has always viewed the Big E as an economic driver for the region — again, not just with the annual fair but all the events staged there — and Hooplandia provides another opportunity to build upon that role.

At the same time, the event provides an opportunity to further leverage basketball for the benefit of the region’s economy.

“It occurred to me that basketball should be an economic growth industry for Springfield,” he noted. “Hooplandia can help drive attendance to the Hall, drive awareness, and build the brand of basketball in the city where it was invented.”

Planning continues for the event, which, as noted earlier, has the ambitious goal of attracting 2,500 teams. And these teams will cover a broad spectrum, said all those we spoke with, adding that this will differentiate this tourney and festival from some others like it and add to its already strong drawing power.

Mark Rivers says the Big E’s vast spaces and deep infrastructure will help ‘get the plane off the ground’ when it comes to Hooplandia.

Indeed, there will be divisions for youths, high-school and college players, professionals, first responders, veterans, military, wheelchair, Special Olympics, and more, said Rivers.

There will also be an under-8, or U8, division, for which entrance fees will be waived in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, the former NBA superstar who died in a recent helicopter crash (and wore number 8 in his playing days).

In addition to the hoop tournaments, a number of other activities are on the agenda, many to take place the Friday night before the playing starts in the Coliseum, said Doleva. These include slam dunk, 3-point shot, free throw, full-court shot, dribble course, and vertical jump competitions.

To date, several partners have signed on, including Chevrolet, the first national-level sponsor, as well as USA Basketball, Springfield College, and Boys & Girls Clubs, which Hooplandia has designated as its charitable partner, offering financial support and playing opportunities for boys and girls in the region. For more information, visit www.hooplandia.com.

Overall, in the opinion of those now planning it, this is the right event at the right time, and the right city (or region), and we’ll address each of those in turn.

Actually, the first two go together. The event is 3-on-3 basketball, and the timing could not be better, because the sport — already described as the largest urban team sport in the world in one study — is enjoying a surge in popularity, said Doleva, with new leagues such as Big3, a league founded by Ice Cube featuring mostly former NBA stars.

And it will almost certainly enjoy another growth spurt after the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where 3-on-3 basketball will make its debut as an Olympic sport.

“3-on-3 has become sort of the hot segment of the sport, and for a bunch of reasons,” said Rivers. “The Olympics is part of it, but beyond that, 3-on-3 makes the sport more accessible because you only need six players, and you only need half a court; it’s particularly hot in Europe, and many of the best teams come from former Soviet Bloc countries — that’s where a lot of the great ball is being played.”

As for the place, as Rivers and others noted, Springfield, and in this case Greater Springfield (the Big E is across the river), is a natural location.

Not only it is the home of the game and its Hall of Fame, but it’s located in the Northeast, two hours from New York, 90 minutes from Boston, and well within reach of a number of large metropolitan areas.

And, as noted, some of those great teams from Europe — and individuals from across the country — are already expressing interest in playing on what could truly be called the sport’s home court.

A Slam Dunk

This brings us back to those projections about overall economic impact. The numbers are still being crunched and there are a number of factors that go into the final projection, said Wydra, but at the moment, the number is $7 million.

That’s based on the assumption that, while many participating teams will be local, meaning they will drive to and from the Big E each day to compete, a good number — again, just how many is not yet known — will have to travel into the region and stay a few nights.

At the moment, the projected number of hotel-room nights is 1,500, said Wydra. Again, to put things in perspective, there were 840 room nights for Red Sox Winter Weekend and 4,666 for the square-dance convention, and for Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, the number varies depending on who is being inducted, but the 2019 edition had 850.

And for Hooplandia, these room nights will be coming at an important time for the region’s hospitality-related businesses, she went on, adding that the college-graduation season will have ended, but summer won’t be in highest gear.

“I love the timing — school is just out, and people have the ability to travel,” she said. “The other good thing about the June weekend is that Six Flags is up and running, and we have a lot of things for people to do when they’re not at the event. You bring people in for specific purpose, but if we can expose them to other things, we have the ability to bring them back again as a leisure visitor, and that’s very important.”

Wydra said that a now-former member of her team had a chance to observe and absorb Hoopfest first-hand — and somewhat by accident.

Coincidentally, Spokane was hosting the square-dance convention mentioned earlier the year before Springfield was scheduled to do so — and on the same weekend as Hoopfest. The GSCVB had someone on hand to observe the dance gathering and promote the following year’s edition.

But while doing so, she got a good taste of the reach — and the deep impact — of the 3-on-3 festival.

“I remember her calling in and us asking about the square-dance event, and she said, ‘the city’s been taken over by this massive basketball event, and everywhere you look there’s basketball courts, traffic’s been rerouted … it’s huge.”

It won’t be quite like that in Greater Springfield because the event will mostly take place at the Big E. But the impact will be significant, and the region — and especially its hospitality sector — will know that there are thousands of people in the area to play 3-on-3 basketball.

And organizers say it has the potential to not only reach the size of Hoopfest in terms of teams and visitation, but perhaps match it in terms of impact and providing an identity for the region — which would be saying something given what the Spokane event has become.

“Hoopfest is truly part of the culture of that community,” said Rivers. “Hoopfest is to Spokane what the Tournament of Roses is to Pasadena — it’s the fair-haired community phenomenon of that region, and it’s wonderfully done.

“With Hooplandia, I believe we have the makings of a true legacy event, something that could last for decades, much like Hoopfest,” he went on. “I think it will have meaningful, long-lasting economic impact, and I also think that, over the years, it will become a week in June that will be about more than basketball — it will be a week-long celebration of the sport.”

Cassidy agreed. While in Spokane, he saw and heard that the city referred to itself as ‘Hoop Town USA,’ and has trademarked that brand. “Quite honestly, I was offended by that,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Springfield should have that designation. With Hooplandia, hopefully it will — trademark aside.

Getting a Bounce

Returning to Spokane one last time, figuratively, anyway, Rivers described it as a “phenomenon.”

“It’s unbelievable … you can’t get a hotel room, you can’t get a rental car, you can’t get a dinner reservation,” he said. “It’s exciting, and it’s fun.”

Whether Hooplandia can approach that same kind of impact remains to be seen, but all those involved believe it has the potential to be, as they say in this sport, a slam dunk.

Or, as Rivers and others said, a legacy event for this region.

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

Cover Story

Turning the Corner

Joao Alves, Chapter 74 Vocational Director at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy

It wasn’t so long ago that young people — and their parents — perceived technical schools as a last resort of sorts. But a profoundly changed labor market, a workforce crisis, and a series of investments on the part of the Commonwealth have changed all that. Today, these are increasingly seen as schools of choice because of their blend of academic and vocational programs, and their students are certainly in demand.

Joao Alves has been in and around what is now known as Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy for the better part of 40 years.

He attended the school, known then as Putnam Vocational High School, in the late ’70s. He started teaching there in the early ’90s, and has been there ever since, now taking the title of Chapter 74 vocational director, which means he’s in charge of making sure the school’s many programs meet established state standards. Over all those years, he has seen what amounts to serious pendulum swings when it comes to vocational education, from his days as a student, when the school’s enrollment was at its zenith and jobs in manufacturing and the trades were plentiful, to those days when he started teaching there, when such jobs were in sharp decline and interest in vocational programs was plummeting.

To … today, when, by all accounts, vocational schools are enjoying a resurgence of sorts — as evidenced by a lengthy waiting list for valuable slots at Putnam and similar situations at other area schools.

Indeed, fueled by a number of factors, from the retirement of Baby Boomers and the resulting infusion of jobs to a huge commitment from the state to meet workforce needs and address a widely recognized skills gap, vocational/technical schools — many of them now called ‘academies’ thanks to rebranding efforts undertaken years ago — are seeing heightened and what appears to be sustainable interest in programs ranging from machine tooling to allied health; from criminal justice to culinary arts.

“What we provide today is opportunity,” Alves said. “Whether the student is going to go out and work tomorrow, as soon as they graduate, or whether they go into the military, or whether they go on to college — they’re better prepared for those options.”

Joe Langone, principal of Westfield Technical Academy, formerly Westfield Vocational High School, agreed.

“There’s been a change in perception about technical schools and the students who attend them,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his school, with nearly 600 students, is at what he called max capacity. “I’m pleased that this has come about, but, sadly, it took a skills gap for people to become aware of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in a situation where people with trade skills are a commodity.

“We’re experiencing great shortages in a number of areas in our region, including healthcare, manufacturing, information technology, and education,” he went on, adding that these shortages result in part from the retirement or Baby Boomers, a trend that will only accelerate as more members of that generation reach their mid-to late ’60s.

David Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County, concurred, and said a variety of forces — from those job opportunities to a stronger alignment of the academic and vocational programs at the area’s technical schools — have increasingly made them what he called the “schools of choice.”

Joe Langone says that, in today’s challenged workforce climate, technical-school graduates have become what he called a commodity.

“Over the past several years, both employers and parents have come to understand the importance of both college and career,” he explained. “And they find that the vocational/technical high schools offer a pretty robust academic program, but also prepare students with skills they either take to the labor market after graduation or pursue two- or four-year degrees. And with today’s labor market, where supply is in relative short supply across most industries, the value of a vocational/technical high-school education, which was always valuable, is now even more so.”

Langone said his school, like others, is responding to needs and concerns within the workforce with curriculum changes, new and updated equipment — often funded with help from community partners, including businesses that hire graduates — and new programs designed to help create a pipeline of workers for specific industry sectors.

“There’s been a change in perception about technical schools and the students who attend them. I’m pleased that this has come about, but, sadly, it took a skills gap for people to become aware of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it. All of the sudden, we find ourselves in a situation where people with trade skills are a commodity.”

As an example, he cited his school’s Aviation Maintenance Technician program, created specifically to address the needs of companies like Gulfstream and Rectrix Aerodrome Center, located near Westfield’s Barnes Municipal Airport (more on that later).

And there may be more new programs and expansion of existing ones through a new line item in the state budget called the Career Technical Initiative. Proposed by the Baker administration, it calls for leveraging current vocational assets across the state to expand to three shifts of training per day — many currently have two, with night programs for adults looking to be trained or retrained in a vocational skill.

Cruise said the initiative would allow traditional high-school students, including many now on those aforementioned waiting lists, the opportunity to access vocational programs after school, between 2 and 5 p.m.

The goal is to add an additional 20,000 skilled technical workers to the workforce over the next four years, said Cruise, adding that such initiatives are certainly needed as companies search, often in vain, for workers, and the so-called ‘gray wave’ of retiring Baby Boomers gains intensity.

For this issue and its focus on Manufacturing and the Trades, BusinessWest takes an in-depth and how and why these institutions became the schools of choice and also at how they are helping to address the state’s workforce needs at this critical juncture.

Current Events

It’s called “Tiger Talk: In the Flow with Rob and Joe,” with Joe being Joe Langone and Rob being Rob Ollari, Student Services director at Westfield Technical Academy.

Students are seen in the Allied Health program at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, one of 22 programs at the school.

This is a weekly, hour-long show on Westfield Community Radio (WSBK) that features the two in studio talking about all things at the school — from the sports teams, nicknamed the Flying Tigers, to recent and upcoming events. But a good deal of that hour is spent taking to students about the programs they’ve chosen and why. On the Jan. 23 show, for example, they had several guests, including 10th-grader Caitlyn Carter, enrolled in the Electrical Wiring program. That’s not where she thought she’d be, as she told them candidly.

“I did not want to go into electrical wiring at all — I came here for either for culinary or automotive,” she explained, adding that she eventually chose the technical school over Westfield High, even though all her friends went to the latter, because she considered it the better option considering her ultimate goal — to become a Marine. “I was going to join automotive, because my grandfather knows everything in automotive. Then I thought, ‘electrical sounds pretty cool; let’s try that.’”

She also talked about the technical school being the better ticket to a good-paying job and how she was attracted to several of the non-traditional, or ‘non-trad,’ programs, as Langone called them, meaning those that have been traditionally (hence the term) dominated by men, or, in the case of Allied Health, women.

The program is one of several initiatives undertaken to build interest in technical programs and Westfield Technical Academy in particular, said Langone, and collectively they seem to be working.

“I remember my parents speaking about it, saying, ‘you have to go to college, you have to go to college, you have to go to college.’ I don’t recall anyone saying why were supposed to go to college, but that was sort of the golden rule.”

Indeed, the traditional period for applying for Westfield Vocational Academy — early spring — hasn’t really begun, but already the school has received more than 120 applications; it will only admit roughly 150.

That is one sign, amid many others, of the growing popularity of vocational programs, said those we spoke with, all noting that this represents a sea change from the way things were years ago.

For some perspective, Alves turned the clock back to 1993, when he came back to Putnam to teach, specifically in Metal Fabrication, Sheet Metal, and Welding. Actually, he went back further to when he was a student.

“When you came to this school, you knew there was work out there,” he recalled. “The connection was great; from school to industry was a good pathway, a clear pathway.”

Joe Langone, seen here with students and instructors in Westfield Technical Academy’s Aviation Maintenance Technician program, says it is now one of the most popular programs at the school.

Things were much different when he returned. “A lot of the bigger manufacturers had left, and the construction economy was very slow,” he told BusinessWest. “What I found was that the students were still focused on coming here for a trade — that was still the buzzword; you came to Putnam to work with your hands — but what I found was that, on the flip side, the jobs just weren’t there, so the numbers started to go down. We weren’t getting the same numbers of students, and some of the ones who were coming were not as focused because they didn’t think they were going to be able to get a job.”

Langone has similar recollections from when he attended Cathedral High School back in the mid-’80s.

“Back in those days, the perception, and I’m not sure how true it was, was that the highest-performing kids in Springfield went to Cathedral or Classical,” he said. “Things started to scale down from there, and Putnam was always viewed by my peers and from my parents’ generation as the point of no return; that’s where you went as a last resort. The perception was that if someone wasn’t going to be successful anywhere else, they at least might have a shot if they had a trade.”

Those sentiments were fueled by the common presumption by his parents — and by most in that generation — that, to get ahead, one had to go to college.

“I remember my parents speaking about it, saying, ‘you have to go to college, you have to go to college, you have to go to college,’” Langone recalled. “I don’t recall anyone saying why were supposed to go to college, but that was sort of the golden rule.”

Building Momentum

Back in the ’90s, Putnam struggled, Alves recalled, noting that it was the first of the state’s vocational schools to be labeled as ‘non-performing,’ thus requiring a turnaround plan, which was drafted — and executed.

“With a lot of hard work, a lot of good planning, and a lot of good people, we were able to change the image of the school,” he said, adding that these efforts were aided greatly by both a changing job market and the construction of a new Putnam.

“Parents and students started believing in the school again, and students started to come back,” he recalled. “And now, they’re performing at a higher level; they’re going on to be engineers, and if they’re in the health track, where traditionally they would go on to be RNs and LPNs, now they’re saying, ‘I can go on to be a doctor.’ And this helped attract more students.”

Today, Putnam, with 22 technical programs, ranging from Auto Tech to HVAC; Robotics to Graphics; Carpentry to Machining, is well-positioned to train people for a technology-driven economy, said Alves, and students (and their parents) are responding.

Indeed, enrollment is now roughly 1,200, not what it was when Alves was a student himself, but much higher than it was only a decade ago. And there are probably 300 to 400 people on the waiting list, a number that grows larger each year.

A somewhat similar pattern was followed at other vocational schools, and today, converging trends have the schools at or approaching capacity and looking for ways they can accommodate more students.

For starters, with the ever-rising cost of a college education and the often-crippling burden of college loans — Langone said he’s 53 and still paying off loans from his advanced-degree work — some are rethinking that golden rule. Meanwhile, as Cruise said, and others hinted strongly, the technical schools are now often considered a first, best option for many as they look to enter or re-enter the workforce.

This change, as noted, didn’t come overnight, but rather over the past 20 years or so, said Alves, adding that Putnam and other technical schools took a number of proactive steps to change perceptions and boost enrollment, including new programs and, in some cases, some rebranding and use of that word ‘Academy.’

But, as Langone noted with some regret, it took the skills gap and its very visible impact on the state’s economy, and especially its manufacturing and healthcare sectors, for these schools to gain the full appreciation they now enjoy.

Meanwhile, investments made by the Commonwealth have certainly helped these schools enhance existing programs and add new ones.

Langone said Westfield Voke has received more than $500,000 in grants over the past few years for its Aviation Maintenance Technician and Manufacturing programs, and more than $100,000 for that aforementioned Electrical Wiring program, in part to offer training to adults in the evening. It has applied for additional grants for its Culinary and Allied Health programs and is currently awaiting word.

The State of Things

As noted earlier, the state, recognizing the demographic patterns and hearing employers’ desperate pleas for qualified help, has made significant investments to counter those trends. The so-called Workforce Skills Cabinet (WSC) and its seven regional teams have worked together to design and implement a number of strategic initiatives that include:

• $67 million in capital skills grants awarded to the state’s technical schools covering some 230 training programs, supporting an additional 12,500 students;

• The Career Pathways Initiative, which aligns high-school curriculum to priority industries; the program has created 170 new pathways and attracted $4 million in philanthropic funding to complement state funding;

• The Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund, which has awarded $12 million in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 to retrain more than 1,560 individuals for employment in careers prioritized by WSC blueprints; and

• The Workforce Training Fund (WTF), which has awarded $10.7 million to upskill nearly 7,000 workers at 119 companies in priority sectors.

These investments have helped create a number of new programs, such as the Aviation Maintenance Technician program in Westfield, now among the most popular programs at that school, said Langone, adding that the first cohort of seniors from that program graduated last spring.

It was created specifically to address the workforce needs of the aerospace-related companies at Barnes, specifically for airframe and power-plant mechanics — “the outide and the inside of the airplane,” as Langone called it — and, thus, it is a good example of how the area technical schools are responding to emerging needs.

Interestingly, many of the recent graduates didn’t go to work at Gulfstream or Rectrix. Indeed, most went on to attend college.

“Only half of those 11 kids are interested on going to work as air-frame or power-plant mechanics,” he explained. “The other half are using it as a springboard to other aviation-related career clusters; I have a graduate who’s attending the University of Kansas at Wichita for Aviation Engineering. I have some others going to Bridgewater State for Airport Management.

These are examples, and there are myriad others, of how going to technical high school no longer means not going to college, said Langone.

Alves agreed, noting that many of Putnam’s graduates, perhaps half by his estimate, go on to attend two- or four-year colleges that will enable them to broaden their career opportunities in their chosen field.

“A lot of our students come here with a bigger picture in mind,” he said. “They come here for health, but not just to be a nurse — maybe, as I said, to be a doctor. Some come here for the HVAC program, but not necessarily to be a HVAC technician; they may aspire to be a mechanical engineer. A good portion of our students have that in mind from the get-go.”

If there is one challenge for area tech schools, and it’s one they couldn’t have foreseen 20 or even five years ago, involves infrastructure and capacity. Indeed, many industry sectors — again, manufacturing and healthcare are at the top of the list, but there are others as well — are calling for more skilled graduates, but the schools are at capacity.

“I wish I could take more, but our facility is maxed out for space and also maxed out when it comes to my ability to add more programs,” said Langone. “There are some technical programs I’d love to add, but I have no place to put them.”

Cruise said the Career Technical Initiative, as proposed by the Baker administration, will help address this problem by giving more individuals, including adults looking to be trained and students on those waiting lists, an opportunity to receive some training in a specific field.

Work in Progress

Returning to that Jan. 23 episode of “Tiger Talk: In the Flow with Rob and Joe,” Carter talked about she has some job interviews coming up — several of them, in fact — with companies she hopes to work for over the summer and perhaps land a co-op opportunity with later.

Those co-ops, traditionally for students in their junior years, often lead to permanent, well-paying jobs after graduation.

This is what Alves and Langone meant by ‘opportunity.’ And it’s what they meant when they talked about preparing students for whatever they wanted to do after graduation.

And it goes a long way toward explaining why there has been an attitude adjustment when it comes to the region’s technical high schools. u

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

Class of 2020 Cover Story

Celebrating the 2020 Class

Back in late 2008, BusinessWest conceived a new recognition program.

It was called Difference Makers because, well, that’s the best way to describe those who would be honored. No matter what their career or field or passion — and, over the years, they have been myriad — the one common thread would be making a difference in the community.

Our goal was, and remains, to show the many ways in which an individual or group can make a difference, and suffice to say this goal has been met — as you’ll find out, once again, as you read the stories generated by the 12th such class of honorees.

The regularly scheduled gathering to honor our Difference Makers had to be post-poned because of the pandemic and ongoing bans on large gatherings.

But BusinessWest is now ready to move forward with an exciting virtual-hybrid event that will enable the region to celebrate this year’s honorees — and in settings that will comply with the state’s many guidelines for gatherings in the COVID-19 era.

Our 2020 Difference Makers event will take place on Thursday,  Sept. 24, 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m. and will honor the large and distinguished Difference Makers class of 2020. This will be a ‘virtual-hybrid’ event, with the honorees and sponsors to gather at the Upper Vista at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House in Holyoke — 40 are allowed under the current guidelines — with the more than 300 other guests able to take the award program proceedings virtually. Guests who have purchased tickets to the original March event will have private access to view the virtual program.

The Difference Makers program for 2020 is sponsored by Burkhart Pizzanel-li, Mercy Medical Center/Trinity Health Of New England, Royal P.C., and Tom-myCar Auto Group, with nonprofit part-ners MHA Inc., the Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, and United Way of Pioneer Valley

2020 Difference Makers Virtual-Hybrid Event
Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020; 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

 

2020 Difference Makers

Christopher ‘Monte’ Belmonte

DJ at WRSI the River Radio

His March is Changing
The Conversation
on Food Insecurity

Ira Bryck

Consultant and Former Executive Director of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley

He’s Helped Create
Fun, Imaginative
Learning Experiences

Sandy Cassanelli

CEO of Greeno Supply

She’s Fighting to Find a Cure for Metastatic Breast Cancer

Dianne
Fuller Doherty

Retired Director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center

She’s Retired … but Not from Her Role as a Difference Maker

Ronn Johnson

President and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc.

This Community Leader Has Tackled Many Roles
With a Sense of Purpose

Steve Lowell

President and CEO of
Monson Savings Bank

Giving Back Has Always Been a Big Part of His Life — and His Work

Rick’s Place

This Unique Nonprofit Provides Support, Light in the Darkest of Times

2020 Sponsors

Pay it Forward Non-Profit Partners


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Cover Story

Cinda Jones Is Building a Community — and More — in North Amherst

As the largest private landowner in Massachusetts, with properties in 30 towns, the Cowls family is especially synonymous with North Amherst, where it has made its headquarters — and an enduring legacy in lumber and conservation — for 279 years. These days, Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation president of W.D. Cowls Inc., and her team are doing nothing short of creating a new town center in North Amherst. Why? Because the family has always transformed the land into what was most beneficial and needed. Today, she says, that’s a sense of community.

The area of North Amherst known as the Mill District has served many purposes over the nearly 300 years the Cowls family has made its name there.

Early on, for example, the farm produced and distributed onions, tobacco, and dairy products. In the 1800s, in a burst of diversified interests, the Cowls family managed a rock quarry, constructed a street railway system, ran two sawmills, built and operated a building supply store, and managed myriad residential and commercial properties, along with thousands of acres of timberland.

In short, each generation of Cowls descendants discontinued enterprises that had become outdated and reinvented the family business to be more relevant for their time — and more personally inspiring to them.

Cinda Jones, along with her brother, Evan, represents the ninth such generation to take on that challenge — and the mixed-use development now emerging in the Mill District, known as North Square, might represent its most dramatic change yet.

It’s that project, but also a rich, two-decade stewardship of the Cowls legacy, that has earned Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc., recognition as BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2019.

“We knew, if we’re creating a new uptown in Amherst, it has to be an experiential place,” Jones told BusinessWest during a lengthy tour of the property earlier this month. “We want retail, and retail doesn’t work unless it’s better than online, and it offers something different. We have 22,000 square feet of retail space around a town square in an already-thriving area, where 45,000 people commute through every day. And that’s going to increase. So we’re really excited about what this can become.”

“We knew, if we’re creating a new uptown in Amherst, it has to be an experiential place. We want retail, and retail doesn’t work unless it’s better than online, and it offers something different.”

In simple terms, Jones envisioned a modern residential community of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units overlooking a commercial center comprised of roughly one-third food establishments (a restaurant and café, Jakes at the Mill, is already thriving there), one-third retail, and one-third “experiential services, like yoga, making your own pottery, things you enjoy doing — not dentists and accountants, because those aren’t so fun,” she explained.

“Everyone wants that,” she went on. “Malls stole our downtowns. Now malls are dying, but the one thing they’re doing to stay alive is to have experiences. That’s the correct thing to do. In addition to making a downtown with a mix of retail, we want to create a place where you want to spend the day.”

At left, the converted barn currently occupied by Atkins Farms. At right, one of the newer buildings housing both commercial and residential space.

Spend a day with Cinda Jones, and the main takeaway is a passion for the many ways land can — and should — be used. And she’s got a lot of land to put to use, and plenty of ideas about what comes next.

Nine Generations

Founded in 1741, W.D. Cowls Inc. is, in fact, Massachusetts’ largest private landowner. In 1741, Jonathan Cowls bought a farm in North Amherst and started the Cowls timber company. His son David built the company’s corporate headquarters in 1768 — in a large house that still serves that purpose today. The land Jonathan began acquiring 279 years ago now includes more than 100 parcels in 30 towns in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

According to the company’s written history, “for the first 100 years, everything the family had was always passed down to the oldest son, who was usually named Jonathan, and the Jonathans didn’t muck it up irreversibly. After that, with a David and a couple Walters in the mix, every generation of the family built what his generation of community needed on the home farm, while continuing to grow Cowls’ timberland base and conduct sustainable forestry operations.”

Jones got her start in the family business at age 10, cutting yellow triangles out of sheets of plastic for foresters to use as boundary markers. She worked her way up by scraping and painting fences and barns, sorting nails, stacking lumber, and helping the company’s administrative assistant.

Hannah Rechtschaffen says young people, in particular, desire the face-to-face culture that mixed-use developments promote.

After graduating from Colby College in 1990 and earning a graduate certificate in business administration from Georgetown University in 1995, she remained in Washington, D.C. for several more years, holding conservation and timber industry-related leadership positions, including marketing director for the Cato Institute, Wood Marketing director for the American Forest & Paper Assoc., vice president of the National Forest Foundation, and Northeast regional director of the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.

In July 2001, her father joked that she was “so good at managing nonprofit organizations” that she should come home and manage the unprofitable sawmill, timberland, and real-estate divisions of Cowls. She did, and brought a bit of bad fortune with her.

“Within a year, the sawmill burned to the ground when lightning hit it,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she initially balked at plans to rebuild it. “I said, ‘Dad, it loses money. Why are we rebuilding a sawmill? Let’s do something different.’ He said, ‘it’s what we do. People depend on these jobs. It feeds our store. We will rebuild. You don’t know enough to close it down yet. But if it doesn’t work in five years, you can try something different.’”

So it went back up, as a timber-frame specialty mill. “We tried really hard, but it still didn’t work,” Jones said. “So we closed it in 2010.”

“I wanted it to be the Dirty Hands District, but I was told no one would come eat sandwiches in the Dirty Hands District. So I couldn’t name it that.”

She was already starting to envision the next step: developing a new downtown area — actually, uptown — in North Amherst. With her brother, she renovated their great-grandmother’s cow barn, which would house the second site Atkins Market site, and built the Trolley Barn mixed-use building, also on Cowls Road, and partnered with Beacon Communities on the residential components of North Square.

“At first, we tried to market the place — ‘locate here!’ But it was just hard-packed gravel and a closed sawmill,” she recalled. “People were like, ‘there’s no here here. Why would we come to a gravel lot in the middle of North Amherst?’”

Coming up with and marketing the Mill District name helped, although Jones first considered a moniker that had been used in the past for this neighborhood of farms and timberland. “I wanted it to be the Dirty Hands District, but I was told no one would come eat sandwiches in the Dirty Hands District. So I couldn’t name it that. So the Mill District it was.”

The Mill District actually encompasses more than North Square. Riverside Park Stores and Apartments — a former trolley destination that now houses a strip mall and 48 apartments behind it — is part of it, as are Cowls Building Supply and Mill District Depot.

Evan and Cinda Jones represent the ninth generation of leadership in the broad array of Cowls operations.

“We’re building a new uptown in Amherst which is called the Mill District, that incorporates Riverside Park and comes all the way up here,” she explained. “We’re trying to connect the two properties and tell the story of the whole neighborhood. North Square is what we’re doing today, but it’s so much bigger than that.”

Face to Face

Hannah Rechtschaffen grew up in Western Mass. but left more than 17 years ago, most recently attending graduate school and working in the field of urban innovation in Philadelphia. In large cities like that, she said, mixed-use developments are par for the course.

Even outside urban environments, though, after a decade of social media curtailing face-to-face contact, “the pendulum has swung back to wanting to be in person, wanting to live above a coffee shop where you go down in the morning and they know your name,” she told BusinessWest. “At one point, that’s how the world used to be, and now I’m hearing from Millennials that’s what they want. And they don’t just want it, they expect it — to go into a place and not be faceless.”

As director of Placemaking for Cowls, a job she took less than a year ago, part of her job is to create events, art installations, and community programs that bring back personal connections and elevate individual experiences in the neighborhood. To that end, she often reaches out to the community about what they want at North Square.

“Malls stole our downtowns. Now malls are dying, but the one thing they’re doing to stay alive is to have experiences. That’s the correct thing to do. In addition to making a downtown with a mix of retail, we want to create a place where you want to spend the day.”

“We have a clipboard over at Jakes where we say, ‘what do you want to see here? What’s important to you?’ And then we go out and try to find those businesses, ideally locally rooted, so they can come and provide some amenities — because there aren’t a lot of amenities along this corridor to Greenfield. We get a lot of feedback from the community about what they’d like to see, and our hope is that what happens here is in line with their vision and our vision.”

Part of that vision is a focus on the arts and opportunities for artists to connect with the community. One example is an art gallery, which will be connected to a general store and a café, featuring artists who hail from the many communities in which Cowls operates.

Some ideas are cheekier than others; Jones said the general store will feature two “experiential public bathrooms,” one with a jungle theme and the other featuring mirror glass — people can see out, but not in — meaning “you can do your business while you’re watching everyone out here do their business.”

Other tenants of the commercial space might include a distillery and tasting room, a flower and gift shop, and a tea house. Meanwhile, Atkins is moving out in July, but Jones has had interest from other food establishments.

Then there are 130 residential units, 20% of which are classified as affordable housing; residents began moving in back in August. Among the amenities — including a community room, gym, and outdoor play areas — are pet-friendly perks like an outdoor dog park and a mud room where dogs can be hosed off after a muddy time outdoors.

And, of course, a raft of shops, eateries, and experiences a few feet beyond one’s front door, and access to PVTA buses to move about the region without having to drive.

“The Mill District is more than just this one place; it’s touching the entire Valley. We’re trying to set an example of how to live in a community,” Rechtschaffen said. “We have to get creative with the experiential aspect of it. Every potential tenant we are talking to right now, they all have some aspect of their business that’s about teaching workshops, teaching classes, sharing what they do and why they do it with community members. That aspect is just crucial, and it’s fun.”

It’s also critical from an environmental perspective, she added, considering how young people aren’t as keen as previous generations were on long drives to get what they need to go. “There’s a lot more around the climate-change conversation — how we live, how we set our lives up to be able to let go of some of those things that have contributed to climate change, and this is one example.”

Land of Opportunity

As president, Jones oversees the real-estate and timberland and natural-resource management divisions of W.D. Cowls Inc., while her brother, Evan, oversees Cowls Building Supply, the retail store founded by their father, Paul. The Mill District has been a joint effort between the two — and it’s far from the only significant land-use project the company has recently undertaken.

For example, Cinda put an agricultural-preservation restriction on 45 acres of Amherst farmland, and in 2012 dedicated the largest contiguous private conservation project in Massachusetts history, the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest in the towns of Leverett and Shutesbury, which stands, she says, as a legacy to Cowls’ eighth-generation leader and the family’s commitment to sustainable forestry.

The Trolley Barn building hosts a range of businesses, including a restaurant, Jakes at the Mill.

In 2019, Cowls added an adjacent 2,000-acre conservation project in Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham, this one named for her grandfather, Walter Cowls Jones. A series of solar farms in the region have provided other opportunities for environment-friendly development.

She had already achieved some success at Cowls when BusinessWest named her to its inaugural 40 Under Forty class in 2007, and the evolution of her work since then was reflected in her Continuing Excellence Award last year, and now the Top Entrepreneur honor; she is one of only two individuals to have won three of the magazine’s six major awards.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 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

“Congratulations to Cinda Jones on this recognition as Top Entrepreneur in our region by BusinessWest,” said Claudia Pazmany, president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “Cinda tires of status quo and consistently asks what more can be done. Each idea generated is followed by yet another. She then uses her allies and matches them to local resources to make change happen.

“The transformation of North Amherst through her creation of the Mill District over the last 10 years has not only preserved some of her rich family history in agriculture and lumber, but tied it to the future of our great town, creating economic mobility tying old generations to new,” she went on. “I am proud to call Cinda a friend and colleague and cannot wait to support her in her next project — because there will always be a ‘next’ with Cinda.”

North Square at the Mill District has been that big ‘next’ lately, and it’s the product of not only her team’s vision, but inspiration from unexpected places.

For example, next to Atkins is a recreational area of sorts, complete with a covered sandbox containing books and construction-themed toys. It’s called Wonderland — for good reason.

At the start of construction on North Square, some of the property’s historic millstones and large pieces of granite were converted to benches, tables, and art structures, meant to be a gathering place for people who bought ice cream and a signal that Atkins welcomed them during construction.

A woman named Kate posted on Facebook that her son, Sam, thought this humble play area was the most magical place on earth, referring to it as a ‘wonderland.’ When Jones offered to dedicate the space to Sam, his mom said her daughter Abbie also enjoys playing there, and so did her other daughter, Mabel — during the seven short months of her life.

Jones said that story broke her heart, but Mabel also became an inspiration to create more experiential spaces and programs that make the Mill District a special and important place for more families to connect. Today, Wonderland is adorned with a plaque dedicating it to Sam, Abbie, and Mabel.

Most people are familiar with the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ Jones told BusinessWest, but in this case, it took a child to lend a large dose of inspiration to the creation of an entire village.

Permanent Reminder

That’s not the first time Jones honored one of her inspirations with an indelible mark. She also tells the story of how Cowls transitioned to its ninth generation of leadership. When Jones, then 34, came home from D.C. in 2001, her dad thought the sawmill workers might go around her new authority to speak with him if he were on site, so he tossed her the keys to the office and left, saying, “I’ll see you for coffee every morning, but they need to know you’re in charge, so I’m going to make myself scarce.”

Ten years — and plenty of leadership experience — later, as her father was dying, the family sat with a lawyer at the same kitchen table the kids grew up around, with the company represented by piles of paper being passed down to the ninth generation. As her father was signing documents, she stuck her arm in the way, and he jokingly signed it.

She didn’t wash it off. Instead, she had the signature permanently tattooed there.

A few months later, as she was about to sign off on the Paul C. Jones Working Forest in honor of her father, she rolled up her sleeves, looked down, and saw the signature, and felt like he was still across the table from her in the same house the family has operated from since 1741.

And with the same philosophy, too — one that constantly asks what’s the best use for the land, and the people who live, work, and play there.

“It’s smart growth when you build near jobs and gas stations and schools and population centers, and when you don’t build where there are critical natural resources,” she said. “And Cowls is in the unique position to be able to decide and build in an intelligent way. We have this existing industrial site in North Amherst that we’ve redeveloped for the ninth time, and it’s a new town center, so people who live here can get everything they need. And we do hope they’ll come live here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

History indicates a recession, but most just aren’t seeing evidence of one

‘Optimistic skepticism.’ That’s the phrase one area bank president summoned as he talked about the year ahead and, more specifically, talk of a recession. While history — especially as it relates to the inverted yield curve — tells us one is very likely, most all other indicators, from unemployment and inflation rates to the stock market to the steady pipeline of work on the books at area construction-related firms we spoke with, say something else.

It was the Monday before Christmas. John Raymaakers II wasn’t planning on being in that day, but an important bid was due, and he had to wrap up the paperwork.

There were a lot of bids to vie for in 2019, Raymaakers, a principal with Westfield-based general contractor J.L. Raymaakers & Sons Inc., told BusinessWest, noting that the company prevailed in several of these competitions, success that translated into one of the company’s better years recently.

And it’s a trend he expects will continue into 2020.

“We’re still busy at this time of year, and that’s a good thing for us,” he said, noting that the firm specializes in heavy civil construction work such as water, sewer, and drainage systems. “And we’ve got jobs we’re bidding on — one today and another next week. We have a good amount of work in front of us, so we’re feeling pretty good.”

Raymaakers is not alone when it comes to a generally positive outlook for the year ahead. Indeed, BusinessWest talked with several business owners, including many in the construction sector — usually a highly accurate barometer of the overall economy — to get a feel for what might be in store as a new decade dawns.

Slicing through the various comments, it appears there is some uncertainty about the year ahead, which is natural given the considerable talk about a recession, the fact that is a presidential election year, and the ongoing workforce issues facing virtually every sector of the economy.

But there was also something approaching consensus that the generally good times that prevailed in 2019 — and for the past several years, for that matter — will continue in the year ahead.

Tom Senecal, president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, told BusinessWest that, while some indicators may give pause for concern, such as an inverted yield curve (more on that later), most would indicate there is little trouble on the immediate horizon.

“The economy is doing really well,” he said. “We see that in our numbers — from our loan perspective, with delinquency rates … everything is humming along.”

Curtis Edgin, a principal with the Chicopee-based architecture firm Caolo & Bieniek, sounded a similar tone when asked what he’s seeing and hearing.

Tom Senecal says he believes in history and the power of the inverted yield curve to forecast recessions. But his eyes prompt him to be ‘optimistically skeptical’ about a downturn.

“No one’s seen any signs of it letting up,” he said of an expansion that has lasted a full decade now, adding quickly that he’s seen enough economic cycles to know that things can change quickly. He just hasn’t seen any evidence that they will.

Meanwhile, Scott Keiter, a principal with Northampton-based Keiter Builders, said his firm had a record year in 2019. He quickly qualified that by saying the business, only 11 years old, has grown every year since its inception and 2019 was merely the latest in a succession of ‘record years.’

That said, the company, like others we spoke with, has a solid flow of work that will keep it busy well into the new year, with more projects on the horizon.

“Most of our work is institutional and commercial, but we also saw a significant increase in larger residential projects, and I think that’s a good sign — people are willing to invest significant amounts of money in their properties” he said. “And we have a good, secured pipeline for the spring and early summer, and that’s not always the case.”

But, while general optimism prevails, there are challenges facing business owners and managers, especially when it comes to workforce issues, specifically finding and retaining talent.

Indeed, what was once considered a good problem to have — and some still use that phrase because it generally means business is good — is now considered to be just a problem. A nagging problem.

“My membership would say, to a company, that the biggest barrier they have to increased growth is finding more people and finding the right people to expand the workforce and take on additional work that’s out there,” said Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Mass. “The biggest problem we’re facing is workforce — finding talent, developing talent, and retaining talent — and that’s across all levels, from entry level to middle and upper management.”

For this issue and its focus on the 2020 Economic Outlook, BusinessWest talked with several business and economic-development leaders about what to expect in the year ahead. While no one has a crystal ball, most say their eyes tell them the decade-long expansion could certainly continue into the next decade.

Work in the Pipeline

Senecal told BusinessWest he was giving a speech a few months back, and while talking about the economy in general, he referenced the inverted yield curve and its historical significance.

“Every time a yield curve has gone inverted or flat in the past 50 years, and there have been seven times, in every single case it has indicated a recession, usually about nine months after the yield curve gets inverted,” he said, summarizing his remarks. “Which would indicate a recession around May or June of 2020; that’s what history tells us.

“But when you look at our economic numbers — extremely low unemployment, inflation in check, economic growth being wonderful, the stock market doing wonderful … I’m not a predictor, but indications don’t feel the same as they have over the past 50 years,” he went on. “If you’re a believer in historical data as a predictor of future performance, then the numbers say a recession should come in May or June. But I just don’t see it. I am a believer in history, and I am a believer in data, but let’s just say that I’m optimistically skeptical when it comes to a recession.”

There are a many reasons to be optimistically skeptical when it comes to a recession, especially when talking with those in construction-related businesses, which, as noted, provide an historically accurate barometer of what’s happening with the economy.

That’s especially true of architects, who usually feel the effects of a downturn before almost anyone else. Edgin, who, as noted, has been through a number of ups and downs in the economic cycle in his 35-year career, said he hasn’t seen anything to indicate the economy is slowing to any great degree.

His firm handles both public- and private-sector work, and especially the former. Edgin said this diversity has helped it ride out the slow times. The firm has completed much of its work involving an $85 million elementary-school project in Easthampton and doesn’t have anything approaching that scale in the pipeline. But there is work in the pipeline.

Scott Keiter says his construction business has a solid pipeline of work heading into 2020, a sign of a generally sound economy.

“We’re busy,” said Edgin, using a word that most in the construction field would certainly like to hear him use. “We’re seeing a significant number of studies for projects like senior centers, town halls, libraries, or police stations — people recognize the need; they just need to get their ducks aligned to keep things moving.”

Meanwhile, his firm is handling a handful of smaller projects, including work at the Boys & Girls Club in West Springfield, Westfield State University, and other institutions, as well as some private-sector projects.

Summing things up, he said the company is “catching our breath” after a solid 2019 punctuated by the Easthampton project and waiting for some of those projects in the study phase — and there are quite a few of them — to come to fruition.

“Maybe that’s the adjustment,” he told BusinessWest. “And if that’s all the adjustment we need, I’m happy with that; we were oversubscribed, let me put it that way, in 2018 and 2019.”

This past year was also a busy one for Keiter Builders, which, as noted, had a number of projects on both the residential and commercial sides of the ledger. The latter category included a good deal of work at both Smith College and Amherst College, while the former featured several new homes and a number of large-scale renovation projects.

Summing up what he’s heard from clients in both realms concerning the economy and the year ahead, he said it’s mostly upbeat.

“The people sending the money our way … it’s generally positive,” he noted. “We’re not hearing anything from them that’s concerning — it’s just your normal chatter. People are steaming forward; they’re investing in infrastructure and capital projects. And that’s good news for us.”

Raymaakers concurred. He said 2019 was a busy year — he said it was a ‘9,’ maybe a ‘9½’ on a scale of 1 to 10 — that featured several large-scale projects, including runway-grading work at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield and dam repair at Forest Park. Work was so steady, the company added employees, bringing the total to 39.

John Raymaakers, seen here with his wife and business partner, Laurie, says the company is feeling “pretty good” about 2020 and the economy in general.

Looking ahead, he told BusinessWest the firm remains optimistic.

“We’ll see how the election goes, and after that … who knows?” he said. “Right now, we feel pretty good about things.”

Work in Progress

Those comments sum up how most people feel about almost everything except the workforce challenges facing them.

Raymaakers said his company did bring on more people, but finding them wasn’t easy. Keiter said his firm also struggled to find people to handle its growing workload.

And Senecal confirmed that the problem extends to positions at all rungs of the hiring ladder. To put the matter in perspective, he talked about a position the bank has been trying to fill — unsuccessfully — for half a year now.

“We’ve been looking for someone for more than six months in our Accounting department, someone with five to 10 years of experience in the banking industry,” he noted. “And what’s more surprising is that, with all the consolidation going on in this industry, we’re still not able to find someone for that position.

“Overall, it is very difficult to find people right now for many of the jobs where we’re looking for specific skills — it’s virtually impossible in some areas,” he went on. “It’s been such a challenge, and that’s a clear indication of what’s happening in many sectors.”

Indeed, the problem is prevalent in pretty much every sector of the economy, said Sullivan, noting that it is manifesting itself in a number of ways.

One is some upward movement on wages and benefits, which is yet another sign of a healthy economy, he said, adding that, while this isn’t happening across the board, there is movement in many sectors where there is steep competition for talent, especially precision manufacturing and financial services.

“People have choices when it comes to where they can work,” he told BusinessWest. “People are looking around, so in order to keep a workforce, people are having to pay a little more and provide some other benefits or incentives.”

In addition to movement on wages, there is a greater focus on trying to bring more people into the workforce, said Sullivan, noting that, through a grant from the Boston Federal Reserve and the Working Cities Initiative, the region has launched efforts to bring some of those who have been on the outside looking in when it comes to the workforce into the fold.

These endeavors involve mostly entry-level positions, and they’re a relatively new point of emphasis for the EDC, he said, adding that they are generating some results, putting those who have been unemployed or underemployed not just into jobs but onto career paths.

Meanwhile, the EDC is looking at taking steps to bolster the workforce, including what could be called recruiting efforts — steps to market Western Mass. and its many benefits in the hope that some may seek to relocate.

“This might involve some regional advertising initiative — an effort to raise awareness about Western Mass. and how it’s a great place to live, there are opportunities here, the cost of living is lower than many other areas of the state and the country,” he explained. “And while it’s a great place to live, it’s also a great place to work.”

Such efforts would be focused on other areas in the Northeast, especially older manufacturing cities that may not be doing as well as the Greater Springfield area, Sullivan noted, adding that he’s not expecting to lure people from Arizona or Florida.

“Sometimes, it’s a little tough to sell those winter months,” he said with a laugh, adding that the region does have many saleable assets, and its businesses need workers to grow.

Such a campaign would not have a large budget, and it would be waged mostly with social media, he said, adding that there is an opportunity to attract people for certain sectors, especially precision manufacturing.

“It will not a be a large media campaign — you won’t be seeing us on the Patriots game,” he said, adding that targeted messages promoting opportunities in specific sectors may help grow the workforce.

Forward Progress

Traditionally, the phrase one hears when it comes to the economy and the year ahead is ‘cautious optimism.’

There’s some of that this year — quite a bit, in fact. But overall, there’s more of that optimistic skepticism that Senecal spoke of and that others referenced, even if they didn’t use those exact words.

History, and some of the economic indicators, tell us that a downturn is likely, if not imminent.

But most business owners and managers just aren’t seeing it — and that’s certainly a good sign as a new year and a new decade begin.

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

Cover Story

From the Casino to Cannabis, Powerful Forces Have Changed the Landscape

By George O’Brien and Joseph Bednar

As the year and the decade come to a close, BusinessWest takes a look back at the stories that dominated the past 10 years and the forces that have in many ways changed the landscape — literally and metaphorically. These include everything from the tornado that touched down that June day in 2011 to the arrival of casino gambling in Western Mass.; from the emergence of a new and multi-faceted business sector — cannabis — to the growth and maturity of the entrepreneurship ecosystem. In short, the region looks a lot different than it did in January 2010, and most of it is for the better. Because this is 2020, here are the top 20 stories from the past decade.

The Casino Era

Perhaps the most dominant story of the decade was the introduction of casino gambling to the Common-wealth — and it covered the entire decade, to be sure, with a number of plots and subplots.

And, of course, the story continues.

Through the early part of the 2010s, the dominant story was where the casinos would be located. Legislation dictated that one of the resort casinos be located in what is considered ‘Western Mass.’ — everything west of Worcester — and a number of sites in several different communities emerged.

That list included the Big E grounds, the Wyckoff Country Club site in Holyoke, a location just off the Mass Pike entrance in Palmer, a site in Brimfield, and, of course, several locations in Springfield, including two downtown — one on the Peter Pan bus terminal site and the other in the tornado-ravaged South End — and one in East Springfield that eventually became home to CRRC (see listing below).

Eventually, MGM’s proposal to revitalize the South End with a $950 million resort casino was chosen by Springfield and then the Gaming Commission. Construction began in the spring of 2015, and for more than three years, the region watched the massive facility take shape.

It opened in August 2018, and since then, the focus has primarily been on revenues that are lagging well behind what was projected when the casino was proposed. However, Mike Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, has maintained that casinos go through a “ramping-up” process that is generally three years or more in duration, and that the Springfield facility is still very much still in this ramping phase.

Looking forward, MGM officials are optimistic that sports gambling — still being considered by the Legislature — will provide a needed revenue boost. Meanwhile, they point to a number of positive developments spurred by the casino, including jobs, greater vibrancy in the downtown area, a trickle-down effect to other hospitality-related businesses, and new events, such as concerts and the upcoming Red Sox Winter Weekend.

Springfield’s Revitalization

When the decade began, Springfield was still climbing out of a very deep, very dark fiscal hole that it fell into several years earlier, one that took the city into receivership and made it the butt of jokes in the eastern part of the state.

As the decade ends, there is still considerable work to do, but Springfield is a very different place than it was 10 years ago. Its downtown, now anchored by a $960 million casino, is much more vibrant. CRRC is making subway cars in East Springfield. Union Station has been revitalized, and rail service has been expanded. The I-91 viaduct has been replaced. Many of the areas damaged by the tornado of 2011 have been revitalized. Tower Square has new ownership and some intriguing new tenants, including the YMCA of Greater Springfield.

Meanwhile, several of the parks, including Riverfront Park and Court Square, have been restored, and Pynchon Park, which links Dwight Street with the Quadrangle, is getting a facelift. Way Finders is building a new, $17 million headquarters building on the site of the old Peter Pan Bus Terminal. MassMutual is is spending $50 million to renovate and expand facilities in Springfield. Big Y recently completed a $46 million expansion. A $14 Educare facility just opened its doors. The list goes on.

There are still things to be done, such as revitalizing Court Square, building a replacement for the crumbling Civic Center Parking Garage, and spreading the vibrancy at MGM Springfield to properties across Main Street from that complex. But overall, Springfield is enjoying a resurgence, and has taken the step of announcing this loudly, and locally, in a marketing campaign created in concert with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass.

A city that was still very much in a dark place at the start of the decade has now come into the light.

The Rise of Cannabis

While many states have since followed suit, Massachusetts has long been near the vanguard when it comes to legalizing marijuana — first for medicinal purposes in 2012, then for recreational, or ‘adult,’ use in 2016. Both measures were passed by voters at the ballot box, and together they have created nothing less than another economic driver in Western Mass.

New England Treatment Access (NETA), the state’s first dispensary to begin adult sales, drew massive lines when it first opened in November 2018, but still maintains a healthy flow of customers as other shops, like Insa in Easthampton, Theory Wellness in Great Barrington, and others have begun recreational sales — with dozens more, in myriad communities, in various stages of permitting and development.

The burgeoning cannabis trade has impacted other fields as well, such as law, as firms have launched specialized practices to help entrepreneurs navigate the intricacies of this business. Meanwhile, banks eagerly await a possible move on the federal level to allow them to handle cannabis accounts.

Municipalities no doubt appreciate the additional tax revenue, which differs by town — in Northampton’s case, it’s 6% on top of the 17% tax customers pay the state, resulting in a $737,331 haul during NETA’s first three months of operation. In this light, it’s no surprise so many communities have embraced this new cannabis era in Massachusetts.

Marijuana remains illegal federally, but a surge of state-level legalization has probably gained too much momentum for that to remain the case forever. Massachusetts has played no small part in that trend.

A Decade-long Expansion

When the decade began, the economy, in many ways still recovering from what became known as the Great Recession, was nonetheless expanding.

And 10 years later … it is still expanding.

It’s been an historic run in many ways, and one that has seemingly defied the odds and host of issues — from trade wars to turmoil overseas to chaos on Capital Hill — to continue as it has.

For most of the decade, the expansion has been anything but profound — usually a percentage point or two or three of growth — but it has continued, bringing the stock market to new and sometimes dizzying heights — the Dow was above 28,000 as this issue went to press, and the S&P was nearing 3,200 — and the region and the nation to something approaching full employment.

These historically low unemployment levels have brought opportunities for workers and challenges for employers (see below), but they are the most obvious sign that the economy is still humming.

The question is … just how long can this last?

Many of the experts predicted a recession for sometime in 2019. It didn’t happen. Now, many are saying that one is likely for 2020, especially with the current inversion of the yield curve, whereby interest rates have flipped on U.S. Treasuries, with short-term bonds paying more than long-term bonds.

If history is any indicator, then this expansion seems destined to come an end soon. Then again, all the signs, from the stock market to the job market, seem to indicate otherwise.

Workforce Issues

As noted, the expansion has brought with it historically low unemployment in most regions of the country, including Western Mass.

And, as also noted, this has created a market heavily tipped toward the job seeker, which has meant challenging times for employers across virtually every sector of the economy.

Indeed, one consistent theme in the hundreds of interviews BusinessWest conducted with business owners and managers over the past decade has been the ongoing difficulty with finding and retaining good help.

It doesn’t matter which sector you’re talking about — healthcare, financial services, construction, distribution, retail, or hospitality — the one constant has been the struggle to fill the ranks.

At the start of the decade and maybe until a few years ago, employers would say it was a good problem to have; now, they don’t use that phrase so much. It’s just a problem.

And one that has led to some new terminology entering the lexicon: ‘ghosting,’ a situation that occurs when someone is slated to show up for work (or even an interview) and doesn’t, because something better has come along.

The situation has been exacerbated by forces ranging from the retirement of Baby Boomers to the arrival of MGM Springfield, and addressed by initiatives at the state and local levels — from agencies, community colleges, and organizations like Dress for Success — to give more people the skills they need to succeed in a technology-driven economy.

A Growing Entrepreneurship Ecosystem

One of the very best stories over the past decade has been the growth and maturation of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, to the point where it is now a powerful force in the region when it comes to economic development.

The ecosystem has come to have a number of moving parts, from mentorship groups such as Valley Venture Mentors, EforAll Holyoke (formerly SPARK), and Launch 413 to entrepreneurship programs at area colleges and universities; from angel-investing groups that provide much-needed capital to initiatives like UMass Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences and Springfield-based TechSpring, which are working to take ideas from the lab to the marketplace.

Together, these moving parts have created large amounts of what could be called entrepreneurial energy, which has led to hundreds of new startups selling everything from cookies to mops to software programs that can enable machines to operate more efficiently.

Many of the entrepreneurs behind these ventures have made their way to the cover of BusinessWest, an indication of just how important the startup economy has become to the overall vitality of this region, and how large and impactful the entrepreneurship ecosystem has become.

While many are waiting and hoping for the next Google, Facebook, or Uber, most understand that the many smaller businesses now employing a handful of workers are already changing the landscape in individual communities, such as Holyoke and Springfield.

The Opioid Crisis

In 2016, when Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a sweeping series of measures aimed at curbing opioid addiction, that class of drugs had long been recognized as a health crisis in the Commonwealth.

Specifically, it was the first law in the nation to limit an opioid prescription to a seven-day supply for first-time adult prescriptions and every prescription for minors, with certain exceptions. Among other provisions, information on opiate use and misuse must be disseminated at head-injury safety programs for high-school athletes, doctors must check the Prescription Monitoring Program database before writing a prescription for a Schedule 2 or Schedule 3 narcotic, and prescribers have ramped up continuing-education efforts, ranging from effective pain management to the risks of abuse and addiction associated with opioid medications, just to name a few.

Progress has been slow. In 2017, there were 1,913 drug-overdose deaths involving opioids in Massachusetts — a rate of 28.2 deaths per 100,000 persons, roughly double the national rate of 14.6. The greatest increase in opioid deaths was seen in cases involving synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl: a rise from 67 deaths in 2012 to 1,649 deaths in 2017.

More recent news has been mixed. Opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts fell 6% in the first nine months of 2019 compared to the first nine months of 2018, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Between January and September of 2019, there were 1,460 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts, compared to 1,559 in the first nine months of 2018.

However, the fentanyl problem grows — it was present in 93% of opioid-related overdose deaths where there was a toxicology screen over that time frame, up from 89% in 2018. Still, the state’s multi-pronged approach to the opioid epidemic may finally be making a difference.

The Tornado of 2011

There aren’t many residents and business owners who don’t have vivid recollections of the tornado that roared across Western Mass. on June 1, 2011.

Indeed, it traveled through a number of communities, leaving in its wake heavy damage and rebuilding challenges like the region had never seen.

It ravaged rural areas like Belchertown, but also traveled right down Main Street in Springfield, crossing over City Hall as it did so.

As it tore across Springfield and the region, the tornado didn’t discriminate; it damaged elementary schools, colleges, and especially what was then Cathedral High School, which was eventually razed and replaced with a much smaller facility known as Pope Francis High School. It laid waste to Monson’s scenic landscape. It changed the landscape at Veterans Golf Course in Springfield and completely uprooted Square One, the early-childhood education provider located in Springfield’s South End. (Joan Kagan, executive director of Square One, became the face of the disaster, literally and figuratively, as her picture — taken on Main Street with the agency’s ravaged home behind her — graced the cover of BusinessWest a few days later.)

After the dust settled, the difficult and inspiring cleanup and recovery began, and in some ways, it is still ongoing. Efforts to rehabilitate the South End of Springfield were greatly accelerated by MGM’s proposal to build a resort casino partly on parcels damaged by the casino. But several other businesses have risen in that era, including a new CVS pharmacy.

The Potential of Rail

State Sen. Eric Lesser has long been touting east-west rail service connecting Western Mass. and Boston, arguing that an 80-minute ride from Springfield’s Union Station to Boston’s South Station would be a game changer — and not only for Springfield.

“In Western Mass., we have great quality of life, great schools, a lot to offer, but we’re not creating jobs fast enough to keep people here,” he told BusinessWest. “As a result, we’ve seen a vacuuming of jobs and opportunities into a handful of zip codes. And in Boston, two crises are playing out simultaneously: out-of-control traffic gridlock and skyrocketing housing prices.”

Connecting the regions with high-speed rail could help solve both problems, he often argues. High-speed rail service between Pittsfield and Boston — with up to 16 round-trip trains running every day along the Interstate 90 corridor — was among the options for linking Western Mass. to Boston presented by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to a state advisory committee in Springfield recently.

It’s not like rail hasn’t already made life easier in Western Mass., what with the launch of the Amtrak Vermonter line in 2016 and the Valley Flyer service between Greenfield and Springfield earlier this year. Ridership originating in Northampton on the Vermonter line increased from 17,197 riders in 2016 to 21,619 in 2018, reflecting a growing demand for rail.

“The new generation — people my age and younger — don’t want to sit in their cars all day,” Lesser said. “They don’t want long commutes on clogged highways. They’re open to using buses and trains in a way that maybe previous generations weren’t. Again, it would solve a lot of overlapping challenges we’re facing all at the same time.”

CRRC’s Rail Cars

A region that used to be home to many major manufacturing companies — at least, more than exist today — got a major boost in 2014 with the announcement that Chinese rail-car manufacturing giant CRRC was coming to Springfield to build hundreds of new cars for the MBTA’s Orange Line and Red Line systems.

The initial contract was for 152 Orange Line cars and 132 Red Line cars to replace aging trains. Two years later, an additional order was placed for 120 more Red Line cars, bringing the state’s total investment in new cars to $566 million.

From CRRC’s $95 million factory on Page Boulevard, which employs about 200 people, about a dozen trains have been delivered, and the company also built a 42,500-square-foot warehouse at the site this year to house large components.

The company’s leaders say they invested in Springfield with an eye on significant growth in the U.S. That has come to fruition, with a deal in 2016 to manufacture new subway cars for the city of Los Angeles and an agreement in 2017 to build new train cars for SEPTA, Philadelphia’s transit system, to name just two developments.

MBTA says the new vehicles incorporate improved safety features, wireless communications for monitoring potential maintenance needs, improved passenger comfort, new technology that provides important customer-facing information, and cutting-edge accessibility features, such as platform gap-mitigation devices.

For Springfield, however, the trains represent something greater — a major manufacturing success story at a time when one was needed.

The Dr. Seuss Museum

For years, people visiting the Dr. Seuss sculpture garden in the Quadrangle would ask where the museum devoted to the beloved children’s author and Springfield native was located. And they would be told there wasn’t one.

That all changed in the summer of 2017, with the opening of the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, a facility that has provided a true measure of the awesome power of the Seuss name and brand by attracting visitors from across the region and country and from around the world.

In its first year of operation, the museum enabled the Quadrangle to shatter attendance records, and the numbers have been steady and quite impressive since.

Museum officials are optimistic that the attendance and revenue boost from the Seuss facility will enable it to modernize and expand many of its other facilities. Meanwhile, civic and economic-development leaders say Seuss gives Springfield a powerful addition to its roster of attractions, one that can inspire — and lengthen — visits to the region.

Holyoke’s Renaissance

Another intriguing story from this past decade has been the resurgence in the city of Holyoke, a proud industrial city that has been re-inventing itself as a center for the arts, entrepreneurship, and, yes, cannabis.

In fact, in one interview with a TV crew several months ago, Holyoke’s mayor, Alex Morse, joked that it was goal, if not his mission, to see the community’s nickname change from the Paper City to the Rolling Paper City. That remark speaks to the enthusiastic manner in which the city embraced the legalization of cannabis in the Commonwealth and essentially opened its doors to many different kinds of businesses within that sector. Today, hundreds of thousands of square feet of former mill space is being eyed for cannabis cultivation and other uses, and several facilities are already operating.

But cannabis is only one of many good stories that have unfolded in Holyoke over the past decade. Others include the opening of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in 2012; renovation of the property known as the Cubit Building, which is now home to apartments as well as the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute; creation of SPARK, an agency devoted to encouraging and mentoring entrepreneurs (now named EforAll Holyoke); new rail service; and a burgeoning cultural district in the heart of downtown.

Like Springfield and other gateway cities and former industrial centers, Holyoke has evolved beyond those roots, and with very positive results.

Springfield Thunderbirds

One of the best stories of the decade involved hockey in Springfield, and specifically a new team that has infused the region with energy, imagination, and, yes, entertaining hockey.

We’re talking about the Springfield Thunderbirds, a team, and a story, so good that the franchise’s owners and managers were named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2017.

To recap quickly, hockey, which has a rich history in Springfield dating back to the 1930s, was struggling in Springfield toward the middle of the decade. And then, it was gone, as the franchise known as the Springfield Falcons relocated to Arizona.

But a large group of entrepreneurs and community activists were determined not to see hockey relegated to the past. Their first move was to purchase a franchise in Portland, Maine, and relocate it to Springfield. Their second, even more important, move was to put Nate Costa, then working for the American Hockey League in its Springfield office, in charge.

His goal was to turn the Thunderbirds into a household name, and he has done just that, making the T-Birds, as they’re called, a big part of the renaissance taking place in Springfield.

The team is averaging more than 5,000 fans a night through a host of imaginative efforts — from promotions such as 3-2-1 Fridays ($3 beers, $2 hot dogs, and $1 sodas) to bringing in celebrities such as Red Sox stars David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez.

The end result? A ticket to a hockey game at the MassMutual Center is much more difficult to come by. That’s a sign of the T-Birds’ success on the ice, and in their ability to become part of the proverbial big picture when it comes to Springfield’s revitalization.

Bay Path University’s Evolution

A quarter-century ago, Bay Path College was a small, two-year school experiencing an identity crisis on a number of levels. Today, the institution is a university and a brand known across the region, and also across the country.

And the continued growth and emergence of Bay Path, led by President Carol Leary, who will be retiring next spring, certainly deserves to be among the biggest stories of the past decade.

The college, recently ranked among the fastest-growing private baccalaureate institutions in the nation, has, over the past several years, created the American Women’s College, an online institution; added several new programs, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels; opened a new science center in East Longmeadow; and become an industry leader in cybersecurity and computer-science programs. Meanwhile, it continues to stage its annual Women’s Leadership Conference each spring, an event that draws roughly 1,000 people to the MassMutual Center.

And in 2014, the institution had to create a new sign at its entrance in the center of Longmeadow, one with enough room for the word ‘university,’ a step that reflects its more global reach and its rising brand.

Over the past few years, Leary has been twice honored by BusinessWest, first with its Difference Makers award, and then its Women of Impact award. Those accolades speak to how much she has done for the school and within this region. But they also reflect just how far this school has come.

Ludlow Mills on Schedule

It’s been more than eight years since Westmass Area Development Corp. announced the 20-year project known as Ludlow Mills — a blend of both brownfield and greenfield development — and, about a third of the way through that time frame, progress at this complex of 60 buildings and adjoining undeveloped land has been steady.

When it started the clock back in 2011, Westmass said this project would generate $300 million in public and private investments, more than 2,000 jobs, and a more than $2 million increase in municipal property taxes. To date, high-profile initiatives on the site include the building of Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts, WinnDevelopment’s overhaul of the structure known as Mill 10 into over-55 housing, and several smaller developments.

And there is more on the drawing board, most notably WinnDevelopment’s planned conversion of Mill 8, the so-called Clock Tower Building, into a mixed-used project featuring commercial space on the ground floor and more housing in the floors above.

The next key milestone for the project is the construction of Riverside Drive, which will open up approximately 60 acres of pre-permitted light-industrial property.

“We’re getting a lot of interest,” said Jeff Daley, Westmass’ new CEO, who noted that one of the front parcels was sold to the town of Ludlow for a new senior center, which recently broke ground. “That’s going to be a beautiful building to showcase the property from the eastern side.”

Ludlow’s municipal leaders say Ludlow Mills is already creating a trickle-down effect to the town and the region in terms of jobs and other benefits.

“It’s growing,” Daley added, “and there’s a lot of momentum, a lot of interest. People are coming in and creating stable businesses, and creating jobs. It’s really exciting.”

Ideas Take Shape at IALS

UMass Amherst may be renowned for cutting-edge scientific research, but when it comes from turning published papers into public benefits, the transition hasn’t always been smooth. Enter UMass Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS, pronounced ‘aisles’), where a collection of ‘core facilities’ is helping boost the state’s manufacturing economy — and innovation reputation — in myriad ways.

IALS was created in 2013 with $150 million in capital funding from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) and the university itself. Its mission is to accelerate life-science research and advance collaboration with industry to effectively shorten the gap between scientific innovation and technological advancement.

The institute achieves this goal through three translational centers: the Models to Medicine Center, which harnesses campus research strengths in life science; the Center for Bioactive Delivery, which seeks to discover new paradigms for the discovery of optimized delivery vehicles for drugs; and the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, which aims to accelerate the development and commercialization of low-cost, wearable, wireless sensor systems for health and biometric monitoring.

Located inside the IALS building, these core facilities — now numbering more than 30 — and their high-tech equipment are available not only to UMass researchers, but to companies that want to rent the space and equipment. For those companies, IALS provides a key resource they might not be able to afford on their own — and it could make a difference whether they invest in Western Mass. or go elsewhere.

Together, they form a pathway to commercialization — a vehicle to bring research to fruition and make an impact on society. By creating connections between research and the marketplace, IALS is doing its part to make Western Mass. a hub of innovation.

Baystate’s Expansion

Baystate Medical Center was already the region’s largest hospital — and the flagship of an ever-broadening network of hospitals and specialty practices — when it launched an ambitious, $295 million expansion, called ‘the Hospital of the Future,’ toward the end of the last decade.

‘Future,’ in this context, had multiple meanings. One was a forward-looking mindset when it came to technology, how a modern emergency room should look, and sustainable design and construction elements in the 640,000-square-foot addition. Another was the fact that Baystate left much of the new space undeveloped inside, knowing it would be needed in, well, the future.

When the new space opened in April 2012, its MassMutual Wing housed the Davis Family Heart and Vascular Center, which includes six surgical/endovascular suites designed to accommodate advanced lifesaving cardiovascular procedures, as well as 32 cardiovascular critical-care rooms that support state-of-the-art medicine. Later that year, a much larger Emergency Department opened in the new building, replacing an outdated ER that was designed to handle much less traffic than it was currently receiving.

That’s not the only way Baystate was expanding, of course. It also brought Wing Memorial Hospital and Noble Hospital into its system in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and continued adding to what has become a broad medical campus on the north end of Main Street in Springfield — not to mention its partnership with UMass Medical School in creating a downtown campus, which opened in 2016.

In short, whatever the future brings in healthcare locally, Baystate has placed itself square in the center of it.

Transformation in North Amherst

Cinda Jones, who, with her brother, Evan, represents the ninth generation of Cowls family landowners in North Amherst, has said each generation has transformed the land into what was most beneficial to the community at the time.

These days, she’s putting that philosophy to work at North Square at the Mill District. In fact, Jones’ company, W.D. Cowls Inc., and Boston-based Beacon Communities are developing three mixed-use buildings featuring 130 residential units — including 26 affordable units for people at or below 50% of the area’s median income — and 22,000 square feet of commercial space. The first residents began moving in over this past summer.

The partnership has benefited from local, state and federal support; in fact, it’s the first time that Amherst has taken advantage of legislation allowing the town to grant special tax incentives for projects that include affordable housing for low- and moderate-income tenants.

While impressive on its own, North Square reflects one of the more notable development trends in recent years: mixed-use structures in urban and village centers that generate economic vibrancy simply by putting more feet on the street.

Isenberg Climbs in the Rankings

One of the more intriguing stories from the past decade has been the steady rise of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, a facility that has taken on a new profile — on campus and across the country.

The school, which first opened its doors in 1947, is now ranked first (actually, it’s tied with UConn) among the public undergraduate business programs in the Northeast in the 2020 U.S. News & World Report listings, 11th among the best public business schools in the country, and 50th in the rankings of the best business schools overall.

These numbers have been climbing steadily over the past years as the Isenberg School has made every greater investments in its programs and faculty, an expansion initiative punctuated by the opening this year of a $62 million expansion that puts a new face on Isenberg and boldly announces its intentions to continue its rise in the ranks.

EDC on a Mission

The goal of the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Mass. is multi-faceted, but has long boiled down to one core mission: encouraging the growth of the region’s economy, which was pounded by the Great Recession but has since been on a decidedly upward trajectory.

Its president, Rick Sullivan, says the EDC has seen a definite uptick in site searches, both from companies in the region that want to expand and those looking at Western Mass. for the first time.

“What we’ve become is what we call an ‘honest broker,’ he said. “We treat private developers and quasi-public developers the same. When a request comes in, it goes out to everyone on the list, all the economic-development professionals in the area, and we do not care whether the development occurs in Greenfield or Agawam or anywhere in between. We just want to have growth happen in the region, and that will continue to be the case.”

Many of the searches don’t result in a business moving here, he added, but those inquiries are a good gauge of the current health of the economy and the potential of the region, and they’re coming from a range of industries, from manufacturers and construction-materials companies to warehousing operations and call centers. When the region is doing well, Sullivan said, its natural pluses, such as its position near major interstates roughly between Boston and New York, become even more attractive.

Meanwhile, the EDC has forged stronger partnerships with colleges and universities, such as a cybersecurity management program at Bay Path and water-innovation and clean-energy work at UMass Amherst. “I think you’ll see the EDC do more with higher ed,” Sullivan said. “That’s where the talent pool is.”

The economy might eventually waver, but the EDC intends to maintain a steady course when it comes to raising the profile and success of its namesake region.

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Giving Guide Special Publications

Regional Philanthropic Opportunities

View the PDF flipbook

While philanthropy is a year-round activity, the holidays are a time when many of us think about those who are most in need, and how, in general, they can help make Western Mass. a better community for all who call this region home.

To help individuals, groups, and businesses make effective decisions when it comes to philanthropy, BusinessWest and the Healthcare News present the annual Giving Guide. Open the PDF flipbook to view profiles of several area nonprofit organizations, a sampling of this region’s thousands of nonprofits.

These profiles are intended to educate readers about what these groups are doing, and also to inspire them to provide the critical support (which comes in many different forms) that these organizations and so many others desperately need. Indeed, these profiles list not only giving opportunities — everything from online donations to corporate sponsorships — but also volunteer opportunities.

And it is through volunteering, as much as with a cash donation, that individuals can help a nonprofit carry out its important mission within our community.

BusinessWest and HCN launched the Giving Guide in 2011 to essentially harness this region’s incredibly strong track record of philanthropy and support the organizations dedicated to helping those in need.

The publication is designed to inform, but also to encourage individuals and organizations to find new and imaginative ways to give back. We are confident that it will succeed with both of these assignments.

George O’Brien, Editor
John Gormally, Publisher
Kate Campiti, Associate Publisher

 

 

Presented by:

 

 

 


 

Cover Story

Taking Hold

More than 30 years ago, Paul DiGrigoli made it a goal to put his name on a line of hair-care products. It took nearly three decades to realize that dream, but ultimately it took more than time. It required him to step back from his business — or ‘away from the chair,’ as he put it — and attain the time and flexibility to fully flex his entrepreneurial muscles. There’s a lesson here, and he imparts it upon the many audiences who hear his motivational and hair-industry-focused speeches.

Paul DiGrigoli couldn’t put his hands on it easily, but he knew he had the news clipping somewhere.

It’s a saved copy of a Daily Hampshire Gazette story on his salon in Easthampton, one of many news items he’s saved over the years. He doesn’t recall the exact date, but knows it’s from the late ’80s. The content he remembers most vividly — and references most often — are his remarks about someday having a product line with his name on it.

That someday turned out to be roughly three decades later, as DiGrigoli unveiled a full slate of products — everything from shampoo and conditioner to something that will reduce the time it takes to blow-dry hair (more on later) — about a year ago. The name on the bottle is Paul Jõseph, chosen because Joseph, his middle name, is much easier to pronounce than DiGrigoli.

And while that timeline certainly isn’t what he had in mind when he talked with the Gazette business writer back when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, there’s a reason why it took so long for the dream to become reality.

Actually, several of them.

They include everything from the immense amount of competition in this vast market segment and the difficulty of breaking in, to the vast amounts of research and trial and error that go into creating such products, to the challenge of simply getting products into salons. And perhaps the biggest reason is the time it takes to do all that and how DiGrigoli needed to get out from behind the chair, as he put it, and work on his business, not necessarily in it.

“Entrepreneurship is not an easy thing, and I think that, at the end of the day, you try to get to the point where the business can run without you,” he explained. “When you can do that, it’s a game changer because, for most people, they’re not running their business; their business is running them.

“Entrepreneurship is not an easy thing, and I think that, at the end of the day, you try to get to the point where the business can run without you.”

“I came to the realization that, in order to grow my business exponentially, I had to step away,” he went on, adding that he’s still very much involved in the many aspects of his company, but he doesn’t micromanage and does spend considerable time and energy grooming leaders to run these operations.

This has left him free of many of the day-to-day details and ‘distractions,’ as he called them, and with the time to travel the country speaking, write a book for those within the industry titled Booked Solid — the Ultimate Guide to Getting and Keeping Customers, grow and diversify his business with initiatives such as the new product line, and even take on some real-estate initatitives, such as a building he and some partners renovated on Capital Drive — it now boasts several tenants and will likely become the eventual home of his school and salon.

These are all lessons DiGrigoli tries to impart upon the audiences he speaks to on a frequent basis. These are most often cosmetology students and professionals already in the business. Many are where he was a few decades ago and generally have what it takes to get where he is now.

What they need to know is how to make that transition from being a stylist to being an entrepreneur, he went on, adding that he has plenty of guidance and advice for them on this subject.

“By stepping away, and by sitting still, I have been able to organize my thinking,” he explained. “When you organize your thinking, that’s pretty profound because you’re allowed to make the bigger decisions involving your company, not the smaller decisions; when you’re wrapped up in the day-to-day operations, you’re caught up.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with DiGrigoli about his new product line, but mostly about the ongoing journey that brought him to the day when he could put ‘Paul Jõseph’ on a bottle of conditioner, and the lessons this story offers — for people not only in cosmetology, but in every line of business.

Hair Apparent

DiGrigoli’s small office at his salon and school on Riverdale Street is crowded with photographs — there’s shots of him with Vidal Sassoon and John Paul Deloria, co-founder of Paul Mitchell, for example, as well awards from various local and national organizations, a few slogans in frames, and news clippings (but not the one mentioned earlier from the Gazette).

Paul DiGrigoli says it took many years of research, trial and error, and “tweaking” to bring his lineup of hair-care products to the marketplace.

There’s also a simple map of the 50 states, with the vast majority of them colored over with a blue highlighter. Those colored-in states are those that DiGrigoli has traveled to for his many speaking engagements, and when looking at it while talking with BusinessWest, he discovered he was a little behind in his work.

Indeed, Montana, still white on this map, needs to be crossed off the list, he said, adding that there are just a few states, mostly in the Midwest — Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming — that he has still to visit.

That map, especially when absorbed in concert with all that other memorabilia, provides solid evidence of just how far DiGrigoli has come in his life and his career, which now spans nearly 45 years. It’s a story he shares with those in his audiences, and one that most in this market know by now.

It’s about an aspiring stylist and entrepreneur who was once living at the YMCA of Greater Springfield while enrolled in cosmetology classes at Springfield Technical Community College. Like most who break into this profession, he started out working for someone else before putting his own name over the door. And the name has been put on not just the salon, but also a cosmetology school that has grown steadily over the years.

And now, as noted, it adorns a wide array of products now available at his salon and many others in this region and outside of it.

The line, all with the Paul Jõseph name on the bottles, includes Stacked, a volumizing shampoo and also a volumizing conditioner; Lock It In, a color-protecting shampoo and color-protecting conditioner; Real Clear, a clarifying shampoo; Intensity, a ‘leave-in treatment’; Upgrade, a quick-blow-dry spray; and Elevate, a color-protecting hairspray.

Bringing each product to the shelves was a lengthy, challenging exercise, he told BusinessWest, noting that the marketplace is flooded with similar products, and for his to succeed, they had to be different and represent some form of improvement over what was already on the shelves.

As a result, he would often hear conflicting advice from customers and friends alike.

“What started it was my clients, who would say things like, ‘Paul, maybe you should think about your own product line,’” he recalled. “But there were other people who were telling me I was crazy to want to do that because of all the products that were already out there.”

Ultimately, there was more than enough motivation to persevere, he said, summoning numbers that he knows by heart and rattles off pretty much every time he speaks publicly to get his message across.

“Last year, consumers spent $46 billion — that’s with a ‘b’ — on hair care and cosmetics,” he said. “Women spent $12.5 billion on color alone.”

But bringing the Paul Jõseph line to the shelves was a lengthy and challenging process that began with customers voicing needs and requests for solutions, and continued with years of R&D, product refinement, and, finally, getting something ready for public consumption.

“Last year, consumers spent $46 billion — that’s with a ‘b’ — on hair care and cosmetics. Women spent $12.5 billion on color alone.”

He used the Upgrade product to get these points across.

As noted, it usually began with customer input. “People would say, ‘you should come up with a product that actually blow-dries my hair quicker, because I have two kids and I have to get them to school and have to get to work myself, and I don’t have time to do my hair, but my hair’s important to me,’” he recalled, adding that he took these marching orders and went to work creating something he believes is unique in the marketplace.

Upgrade has a vegetable protein in it, and it actually pushes the water out of the cuticle of the hair, he explained, adding that the product enables the user to reduce blow-drying time by a full 30%.

It came about through considerable work with a chemist he hired, and thorough testing of the product in two intriguing laboratories — his school and his salon.

“I would give it to all my students and my clients,” he explained. “And we would have feedback sheets and would get comments like ‘the fragrance is too strong,’ or ‘the fragrance isn’t strong enough,’ or ‘it’s making my hair too dry.’ We got all this information back, and I would go to my chemist and say, ‘these are my concerns; this is what we’re finding,’ and we’d tweak it.”

Head Counts

It was this way with all the products in the lineup, he went on, adding that it took more than three years to finally get Upgrade on the shelves. His portfolio of products — he’s always looking to add new ones — is now in 42 salons across the country (many owned by people who attend his speaking engagements).

The goal for the first full year was to be in closer to 100 salons, he said, adding that he is still quite pleased with the results and knows those numbers will grow steadily in the years to come.

Paul DiGrigoli’s branded hair-care line is a dream 30 years in the making.

“Slow and steady wins the race; this is a marathon, not a sprint,” he told BusinessWest, summoning one of the many time-worn axioms about business, entrepreneurship, and life that he imparts upon his audiences and business writers alike.

“If you love what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life,” he said, borrowing another one he uses frequently. They may sound like clichés, he acknowledged, but they are words to live by and run a business by.

And this is the one of the many messages he leaves with his audiences during talks that are motivational in nature and generally positive in tone. Indeed, DiGrigoli will almost certainly remind his audiences of the hair industry’s long-term security and how, while they can buy shoes, books, and golf clubs on the Internet, they can’t purchase a haircut there.

“No matter how big the information age gets or the social-media platform gets, no one’s ever going to take our jobs,” he told BusinessWest, paraphrasing what he tells those at gatherings like the one he spoke at a few weeks ago in Baltimore. “No one’s going to walk down the street and say, ‘where’d you get your hair cut?’ and hear ‘I got it on Facebook.’ That’s never going to happen. We still have to touch people to cut their hair, and that’s never going to change.”

But his talks are also loaded with hard talk about how salon owners — and those in other lines of work as well — need to step out from behind the chair, figuratively if not literally, to get the business to the next level.

Elaborating, he said that, while most all of those he addresses are ready and willing to become more entrepreneurial, as he did, many are just not able because they’re still doing too much work in their business.

“It’s not that they don’t have the knowledge or have the experience — they’re just physically exhausted, period,” he explained. “They’re trying to be all things to all people, and that’s impossible.”

He knows this from experience, and to get his point across, he summoned an anecdote that many of his younger audiences might not relate to directly — but they get the point.

“It was like watching The Ed Sullivan Show,” he said, referencing the variety show from a half-century ago. “I was the guy with the plates — the guy spinning a whole bunch of plates at one time. He had five plates going at one time … he’d go over here trying to spin one plate, and then over there to keep another plate spinning, and when that one got wobbly, he’d go over there and get it spinning again.

“That was me,” he went on. “Until I learned to step back and take a snapshot of my business, knowing that I had the things, or skills, I really enjoyed doing, and other things I didn’t want to do because I wasn’t good at them. Once I found that out, it was a game changer.”

Other salon owners — and those in every other business sector — can change their game by taking a similar step back, he said, adding that the keys are having a team behind you and the passion to turn dreams into reality.

Making Do

When asked what’s next for him and what would have to be called his portfolio of businesses, DiGrigoli listed a number of goals and ambitions, from the very specific — writing a another book (this one for the public, not just salon owners) — to the very broad — making Paul Jõseph a “household name,” as he put it.

But his overriding ambition is to continue helping those in his industry — the 1.7 million stylists in this country, by his count — with everything from filling their scheduling books with appointments to diversifying their business operations.

Mostly, though, he’s focused on helping them becoming more entrepreneurial and able to work on their business, and not necessarily in it.

Yes, that’s another cliché, but it’s an important one, and he’s become a role model for how to take on that assignment — as that news clipping from 30 years ago, and all that have come since — will attest.

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