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Century Unlimited

Jeb Balise

Jeb Balise stands in one of the company’s car washes, this one on Riverdale Street.

Some time in 1919 — when, exactly, no one really knows — Paul Balise went into business for himself repairing automobiles and selling them on the side. Today, that company he founded is one of the largest auto-dealer groups in New England and one of the 50 largest in the country. But in most all ways, it’s still doing business the same as it was when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.

As he flipped through the large photo albums he helped assemble, Bobby Balise moved slowly and methodically, stopping at each page, and sometimes each image, to offer a little commentary.

That’s because every item in the collection helps tell a story that’s now 100 years in the making.

There’s the picture of the small repair garage in Hatfield where it all began. There are photos of the family’s farm and some of the animals raised there. Moving ahead a few pages, there’s a sales receipt from 1936 for a three-year-old Chevrolet Town Sedan sold to a William Bolack, sticker price $410 ($50 was given for a 1929 Ford that was traded in). Little did he know the transaction would become a piece of family history.

Honda models mingle with Chevys in the early 1970s.

Paul Balise’s used car business on Front Street in Chicopee

Paul Balise’s used car business on Front Street in Chicopee

Flipping a few more times, Balise came to a grainy copy of a newspaper photograph, an aerial shot showing the Chevrolet dealership on Columbus Avenue, the York Street Jail across the road, and other buildings in Springfield’s South End — including dozens of homes that would be torn down years later to make way for I-91 — standing in more than three feet of water after the hurricane of 1938.

And then, a few more pages in, there’s a photo montage of that day in 1954 when the Budweiser donkeys came to Springfield. That’s right, donkeys. Apparently they were used in addition to the famous Clydesdales to pull the wagon used in promotions for the beer maker. There’s a photo of the team passing that same dealership on Columbus Avenue and then another of them in the showroom. Balise explains:

“They were going to tour the South End of Springfield and the restaurants down there and entice people to buy more Budweiser. The story goes that they were supposed to stay at the stables across the street where the town had the horses for the garbage collectors. But something fell apart, there wasn’t enough room, the horses didn’t get along with donkeys, I don’t know what, but my Uncle Paul said they could house them in his showroom.”

The Budweiser mules came to Springfield in 1954 and bedded down for a night at Balise Chevrolet, one of the more intriguing pages from the company’s long history.

The Budweiser mules came to Springfield in 1954 and bedded down for a night at Balise Chevrolet, one of the more intriguing pages from the company’s long history.

‘Uncle Paul’ is Paul Balise, founder of the company now known as Balise Motor Sales. He grew up on a farm, as noted earlier, but gravitated toward repairing and selling farm equipment, and then, as they became more popular, automobiles, said Bobby, whose business card reads ‘parts inventory manager’ for Balise Honda, but whose unofficial title is company historian, a role he relishes, to put things mildly.

Paul Balise started with an auto-repair business called the Square Deal Garage and sold cars on the side, his nephew went on. Later, he established a used-car business on Front Street in Chicopee and would eventually become a Chevrolet franchise dealer. He moved to Main Street in Springfield before talking a big leap and leasing — and then buying — the lot on Columbus Avenue that Balise Hyundai still stands on today (much more on all this later).

He was succeeded by his son, Jim, and then his grandson, Jeb, as president and dealer, and over the past few decades, Balise has grown to be the largest dealer group in this region, one of the largest in New England, and among the 50 largest in the country.

Summing up the first 100 years quickly and succinctly, Jeb Balise said that, starting with the garage in Hatfield and continuing with his grandfather’s risky decision to buy the Williams Dodge property on Columbus Avenue, his father’s gambit to sell a little-known Japanese car called Honda at the Chevy dealership, and carrying on today with Balise car washes and a host of auto-related businesses, the company has seized opportunities when and where it could with an eye toward staying on the cutting edge of an always-changing business.

“Starting with my grandfather, we’ve been entrepreneurial and always looking for better ways to serve the customer,” he said, adding that it has been this way since 1919.

When, exactly, in 1919 no one really knows, said Bobby Balise, adding that the company that has become one of the most recognizable brands in this region had a rather informal beginning.

And there are some other dates and miscellaneous bits of information that remain question marks, such as the precise location of that dealership in Chicopee.

But a great deal is known, he went on, adding that much of the company’s history has been chronicled in some form, and over the course of a year-long centennial celebration, the company will try to tell some of that history.

While doing so, it will write some new chapters and add more images to the albums — figuratively if not literally, said Jeb, adding that, in this age of consolidation within the industry, the Balise company is only looking toward what it will take to be around another 100 years.

History Lessons

Alex Balise McEwen, Jeb’s daughter and fourth-generation member of the Balise leadership team — she’s the marketing manager — told BusinessWest that the company is still piecing together plans for how and when it will mark the centennial.

“This will be a year-long celebration,” she noted, adding that, in addition to bringing back the familiar ‘You’ll Do Better at Balise” slogan, radio commercials and other forms of marketing are noting that the company is commemorating 100 years of doing business in this region.

Alex Balise McEwan, fourth-generation member of the Balise leadership team

Alex Balise McEwen, fourth-generation member of the Balise leadership team, says the company will celebrate its centennial throughout the year and in many different ways.

This business has certainly come a long way since the Square Deal Garage, and there have been many individuals and milestones of note, she went on, and the company will use various methods to tell those stories — such as the back wall of the area of the service department at Balise Honda where customers would pick up their vehicles after the work was done. There, several photos and types of imagery have been placed that help tell the story of this particular dealership.

There’s a large photo of Milton Berman, founder of Yale Genton, the large clothing store that once stood on the property at the south end of Riverdale Street, as well as a photo of that store. But most of the others are related to the Honda brand and Jim Balise’s somewhat risky but ultimately rewarding decision to sell the small Japanese cars.

Indeed, there’s a window sticker for a 1971 Honda model; the price was $1,775. There’s also a photo taken in 1972 in Forest Park showing Jim Balise and several of his colleagues standing behind a both a two-cylinder Honda and an eight-cylinder Chevy Impala. And then, there’s a large color photo of the 1973 Honda Civic, the car that changed the fortunes of not only that carmaker, but maybe the Balise company itself, said the company’s historian.

“During the 1973 gas crisis, we had a Chevrolet getting eight miles per gallon, and we had the Chevy Vega, which was supposed to be the savior of the American car industry, and what happens — the engines start blowing up on them,” Bobby Balise recalled. “All we had left besides the Chevys in the showroom was this little Honda Civic, which got great gas mileage; I really believe that saved the franchise to have the foresight to have two car lines.”

There have been many other fortuitous gambles and hard decisions made over the past 100 years, and by each generation, said Jeb Balise, who particularly likes telling stories about his grandfather, who he described as his best friend growing up.

“During the 1973 gas crisis, we had a Chevrolet getting eight miles per gallon, and we had the Chevy Vega, which was supposed to be the savior of the American car industry, and what happens — the engines start blowing up on them. All we had left besides the Chevys in the showroom was this little Honda Civic, which got great gas mileage; I really believe that saved the franchise to have the foresight to have two car lines.”

Recently made part of the inaugural class of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association’s New Car Dealer Hall of Fame, Paul Balise was a very hands-on manager who spent his career doing what he was doing at the start — fixing things, said Jeb, as one of his favorite stories about his grandfather reveals.

“It was the mid-’70s, I had just started working for my father, and we needed an electrician for … something, I don’t remember what. So we got an electrician, and they did the repair,” he recalled. “A week or two later, my father comes down with the bill, which was reasonable, and says, ‘what are you doing? — your grandfather does all the repairs around here.’

“It wasn’t to save money,” he went on. “That’s what my grandfather did; at 80, he was still a mechanic slash repairman slash everything else.”

Overall, what he did was set a tone, not just with his work ethic but with his ability to visualize opportunities and seize them.

Driving Forces

Slicing through the long history of the company, both Jeb and Bobby Balise said the decision to move off Main Street and eventually buy the Williams Dodge property on Columbus Avenue was a watershed moment and one that in many ways set the tone for all that was to follow.

“Paul knew he had to move off Main Street because there wasn’t enough room for cars and storage, and he took a gamble and bought that building,” said Bobby, whose father worked alongside Paul for many years as parts manager. “He hesitated on it, and with good reason; it was the height of the Depression, and no one knew what was going to happen and how long it was going to last. But he did it, and proved out to be a spectacular location for him, which we still own today.”

Bobby Balise is the Balise company’s unofficial historian

Bobby Balise is the Balise company’s unofficial historian, a role he’s carried out with great enthusiasm for almost a half-century.

Jeb agreed, and siad the deal might not have happened if his grandfather was left to his own instincts.

“The bank shows up and has a meeting with him and says, ‘Paul, we want to put you in this location,’” he said, recalling the stories told to him about a lease that would be for $600 a month. “My grandfather says he can’t afford it, and those at the bank say, ‘we’ll make sure you can afford it.’

“When the recession was over, the same bankers said, ‘Paul, we’re going to sell you the dealership — it’s time for you to buy it,’” he went on. “Again, he said, ‘I can’t afford it,’ and they basically said, ‘we’ll make it so you can afford it’; it was all on a handshake.”

Moving quickly through the past 40 years of the company’s history — the part less chronicled in those albums — the Balise name moved well beyond Springfield and Chevrolet, starting with that Honda franchise.

Today, the company has 21 new- and used-car dealerships in Western Mass., Rhode Island, and on Cape Cod, and a host of nameplates, foreign and domestic, including Chevy, Ford, Chrysler, Buick, GMC, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Mazda, Kia, and many others.

And, as noted, it has diversified with collision-repair shops and car washes.

Diversification is necessary, he said, because Balise, with all the nameplates it sells, has more than adequate coverage in this region when it comes to sales. Opportunities for continued growth, therefore, lie more in other businesses related to the car.

But there are opportunities to add dealerships in other markets, including Rhode Island and Connecticut, he said, adding that the company is always looking for new opportunities.

Paul Balise moved his Chevy dealership to Columbus Avenue at the height of the Great Depression

Paul Balise moved his Chevy dealership to Columbus Avenue at the height of the Great Depression, a risky move that set the tone for successive generations of company leadership.

As he carries on the work of the generations that came before him, Jeb Balise said he learned a lot from both his father and grandfather — about the car business, yes, but more about business in general.

“They taught me about how to treat people,” he explained. “They genuinely cared about doing the right thing and helping people. That sounds cliché and corny, but that’s how they were.”

Those thoughts stay with him today as he leads an auto group at a time of ongoing change and consolidation — a time when repair of vehicles is just as important a part of the business — and one with better margins — than new-car sales.

“The level of competition is actually greater because they’re bigger dealerships and the throughput per dealership is much higher, which really helps the consumer because it means you have better selection wherever you end up. Between the Internet and technology and the level of competition with other dealers, it’s never been easier to buy a car.”

In that respect, not much has changed in 100 years, he said with a laugh, adding that, in most all other ways, the landscape has changed considerably.

Especially with regard to consolidation. Indeed, while the days of the single-franchise dealer are not officially over, they are certainly numbered.

“Consolidation continues, and bigger auto groups are getting even bigger,” he explained. “And the level of competition is actually greater because they’re bigger dealerships and the throughput per dealership is much higher, which really helps the consumer because it means you have better selection wherever you end up. Between the Internet and technology and the level of competition with other dealers, it’s never been easier to buy a car.”

There’s still plenty of room for more consolidation, he went on, adding that single dealerships are being bought by groups, and groups are being bought up by bigger groups.

“There’s a lot of buy-sell activity still happening at this period of time, and it usually starts happening when the market gets a little tighter,” he went on. “It’s caused by a few things — retirement age, getting tired, not having kids in the business who want the business, and other factors.”

Balise will not be one of the companies bought up by a larger group because it has no intention of being an acquisition target, said Jeb, adding that he rarely if ever even gets an inquiring call, because those who might pick up the phone know there’s no point in doing so.

“The goal is that we keep it a generational and growing business,” he explained. “We pride ourselves on being a significant part of the communities we operate in, and making a difference — in the lives of our associates as well as the customers and the general community.”

Past Is Prologue

As he continued flipping through the photo albums, Bobby Balise stopped at a page with a curious but poignant collection of items.

One is a photo of the company’s first tow truck, or wrecker, as they were called in those days — a 1948 Weaver with a three-ton boom and a hand crank. It’s symbolic of how the company has always been about more than merely selling cars.

There’s also a photo of James Balise looking not into the camera, but toward what the caption describes as “the unknown future.”

The caption under this photo from the company’s archives reads ‘James Balise looks into the unknown future — 1947.’

And then, there’s a recounting of what was said to Paul Balise by friend Bob Johnston as the two were playing a round with others on the recently opened Franconia Golf Club in Springfield and Paul was expressing considerable anxiety over his decision to buy the vacant auto dealership on Columbus Avenue.

“The clouds you so much dread are rich in mercies and shall break in blessings on your head,” Johnston supposedly said.

That’s a prescient thought and a harbinger for a company that has seen the sun shine on it over the years, but also has been able to make it rain — in all kinds of ways.

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

Class of 2019 Cover Story Difference Makers

Celebrating the 2019 Class

It was almost a decade ago now when Bill Ward, then the executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, stepped to the podium at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke to accept the first Difference Maker award presented by BusinessWest.

Much has happened since then. Ward retired a few years later, and the REB is now known as the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board. But the Difference Maker award remains a constant — and a symbol of excellence and dedication to improving quality of life in this region.

Since the very beginning, this recognition program has shown conclusively that are a great many ways to make a difference. And the class of 2019, the program’s 11th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories clearly show.

The six members of the class of 2019 will be honored on Thursday, March 28 at the Log Cabin. For information about the event, sponsorship opportunities, or to purchase tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.

 

2019 Difference Makers

Carla Cosenzi, Co-president, TommyCar Auto Group

She’s Been a Driving Force in Business and Philanthropy

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

This Essential Agency Helps the Region Contend with a ‘New Normal’

Peter Gagliardi, President and CEO, of Way Finders

He’s Spent a Career Bringing Home the Power of Collaboration

Frederick and Marjorie Hurst

They’ve Shared a Lifetime Working for Social Change

Joe Peters, Vice Chairman, Former President, Universal Plastics

This Business Leader Has Made a Career of Finding Ways to Give Back

The Springfield Museums

Institution Has Mastered the Art and Science of Being Entrepreneurial

2019 Presenting Sponsor

2019 Sponsors

Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography
Cover Story

Form and Function

Interim Dean Tom Moliterno

Interim Dean Tom Moliterno

The Isenberg Innovation Hub, a $62 million expansion and renovation of the business school’s facilities on the UMass Amherst campus, will open its doors to students later this month. The building’s exterior design is stunning, and it gives a new face to Isenberg and perhaps the university, but the architects have made it functional as well.

Dramatic. Striking. Stunning. Powerful. Distinctive.

Those are some of the words that come to mind as one takes in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, a $62 million, 70,000-square-foot addition and renovation to the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, and its copper cladding, circular design, and falling-dominoes effect.

And those who conceptualized this project and then went about raising the money for it certainly had all those adjectives in mind when they went about hiring architects to create something that would effectively, and loudly, announce the Isenberg school’s ascension to the ranks of the best business schools in the country — and also help recruit the next generation of top students.

“Now that we are a top-20 business school, the students who are considering us are also considering a lot of other exceptional business schools. And one of the things that a student and his or her parents think about is the physical space.”

But that’s certainly not all they wanted — or demanded.

“Now that we are a top-20 business school, the students who are considering us are also considering a lot of other exceptional business schools,” said Tom Moliterno, interim dean at Isenberg. “And one of the things that a student and his or her parents think about is the physical space; there is a requirement, much like a football team needs good facilities, for facilities of a certain caliber in order to ensure that we get the best students.

The learning commons in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, like the building itself, has both a striking design and a great deal of functionality; it also doubles as event space.

The learning commons in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, like the building itself, has both a striking design and a great deal of functionality; it also doubles as event space.

“But there’s more to it than that,” he went on. “You need more than a pretty building; you need a building that’s designed to train students and to prepare students for careers in the 21st century.”

Elaborating, he said business schools today require space that is geared far more toward student collaboration, team working environments, distance learning, and career services than even a decade or two ago.

And all of this is reflected in what’s behind the flashy exterior of the Business Innovation Hub. Indeed, as he conducted his formal tour of the new facility, Moliterno seemed to be constantly pointing out places where people, and especially students, could come together and collaborate.

The hallways, like all the areas in the Business Innovation Hub, are designed to promote collaboration.

The hallways, like all the areas in the Business Innovation Hub, are designed to promote collaboration.

In the learning commons, which doubles as event space, there are dozens of soft chairs and small round tables at which people can gather; in the classrooms, the chairs have wheels, and for a reason — so they can be moved and maneuvered to face in any direction, toward the instructor in the front of the room or the student across the table; in the hallway outside the classrooms, there are more soft chairs and gathering spaces; in the courtyard, there are stone benches; on the grand stairway, there are wooden planks affixed to one set of the concrete stairs — again, for a reason.

“If you’re heading up the stairs and you see someone coming down that you want to talk to, you can pull over, sit down on the stairs, and talk,” said Moliterno, adding that the architects — Boston-based Goody Clancy, in partnership with the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) of New York and Denmark — went to extremely great lengths to inspire and facilitate collaboration, and this, perhaps even more than the stunning exterior and interior designs, is what the new addition is all about.

Roger Goldstein, the principal at Goody Clancy who headed the Isenberg project, agreed, and said the firm applied lessons from two decades of work designing college business schools and additions to the Isenberg initiative.

An aerial view of the expansion project

“Their aspiration was for something with real distinction — something that would be forward-looking and quite contemporary,” he explained, referring to Moliterno and Mark Fuller, the former dean of the Isenberg School and now associate chancellor at UMass Amherst. “But also a building that works really well and will stand up in the long run.”

Yu Inamoto, lead architect for the BIG group on this project, concurred. “One of the desires put forth by the dean, the faculty, and all the others we interacted with was to have a space that was not only impressive, but a place for gathering, and this is reflected throughout.”

Faculty and staff are currently moving into the new facilities, said Moliterno, adding that the building will be ready when students return to classes later this month.

One of the state-of-the-art classrooms in the Business Innovation Hub.

One of the state-of-the-art classrooms in the Business Innovation Hub.

What they’ll find is a state-of-the-art, user-friendly facility that does a lot for Isenberg, and UMass Amherst on the whole.

It gives the business school — and perhaps the university itself — a bold new face. It also gives the school a powerful new recruiting tool and perhaps the ability to rise still higher in the rankings, something that’s difficult to do as it moves up the ladder.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest toured the Business Innovation Hub and learned how it blends form and function and punctuates the Isenberg School’s ongoing ascent among the nation’s top business schools.

Space Exploration

While obviously proud of the expansion’s ground floor, with its learning commons, courtyard, hallways crowded with gathering spaces, and generous amounts of glass, Moliterno was anxious for his tour to reach the second floor.

Because this is where more of that all-important functionality can be found. And it manifests itself in a number of ways, from greatly expanded and enhanced space for the Chase Career Center to separate lounges for students waiting to be interviewed and recruiters waiting to do some interviewing, to the small interviewing rooms that, when not being used for that purpose, can double as additional gathering spaces for students, thus maximizing each available square foot of space.

“Those rooms are sized and furnished to swing one way or the other depending on what the need is,” said Goldstein. “And that improves efficiency because you’re not creating spaces that have only one use and are empty half the time.”

Before elaborating on this mindset and what the Business Innovation Hub means for Isenberg, its students, faculty, the recruiters who will visit it to query job candidates, and other constituencies, Moliterno first went back to roughly the start of this decade, when the seeds for this facility were planted.

And they were planted out of need, he went on, which came in many forms.

The first was simply spacial. Indeed, while the original Isenberg building, built in 1964, was expanded with the so-called Alfond addition in 2002, by the start of this decade, and actually long before that, a growing Isenberg was busting at the seams.

Architect Yu Inamoto says the copper used in the building’s exterior was chosen in an effort to give it a look that is “authentic and real.”

Architect Yu Inamoto says the copper used in the building’s exterior was chosen in an effort to give it a look that is “authentic and real.”

“What we used to say is that we were a family of eight living in a two-bedroom apartment,” said Moliterno, noting that undergraduate enrollment at Isenberg had risen from 2,500 in to 3,400 in just a few years earlier this decade.

Facilities were so cramped that some departments within Isenberg, such as Hospitality & Tourism Management and the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management, were spread out in other buildings, said Goldstein, creating an inconvenience for students and faculty alike. The Business and Innovation Hub brings all of Isenberg’s departments and offices together under one roof.

Beyond the need for more space, though, Isenberg also needed better space, said Moliterno — space that reflected its climb in the rankings in the U.S. News & World Report listings of business schools — both public institutions (it’s now 26th nationwide and first among undergraduate programs in the Northeast) and overall (44th in the nation). And space that would help Isenberg compete for students applying to the other schools just above or below them on those lists.

“Relatively early in his tenure, Mark Fuller realized that the school was on a trajectory, both in terms of growth and in terms of quality, that was going to necessitate new physical space,” said Moliterno, adding that the first discussions and estimates on square footage required date back to 2010 or even 2009.

At this point, the project essentially “went into the queue,” as Moliterno called it, noting that there were a number of building projects being forwarded for consideration and funding. To move up in the queue — something deemed necessary as the school continued its torrid pace of growth as well as its ascent in the rankings — the Isenberg School took the unusual step of committing to provide 60% of the funding for the project, with the rest covered by the university.

This commitment translated into the largest ever made by a specific school for a campus building project, he went on, adding that this bold step did, indeed, move the initiative up in the queue. And in 2014, formal planning — including specific space requirements and preliminary cost estimates — began in earnest.

However, in the two to three years since the initial discussions and rough sketching were undertaken, construction costs had increased 50%, he said, bringing the total cost to $62 million.

While raising that sum was a challenge — met by tapping into a growing base of successful Isenberg alums — it would be only one of many to overcome.

Another would be fitting the building into that crowded area of the campus while also negotiating a veritable rat’s nest of underground utilities in that quadrant.

“There was this bowl of spaghetti of steam lines, electrical conduits, and high-speed data lines,” said Moliterno. “And one of the real design challenges was figuring out how to put a building on this part of campus given everything that was underground.”

Designs on Continued Growth

Creating a road map for navigating this bowl of spaghetti was just one component of the assignment eventually awarded to Goody Clancy and the Bjarke Ingels Group — a partnership that Moliterno called a ‘perfect marriage’ of an emerging force in the design world (BIG) and a company with vast experience in designing not only academic buildings, but business-school facilities.

“There was this bowl of spaghetti of steam lines, electrical conduits, and high-speed data lines. And one of the real design challenges was figuring out how to put a building on this part of campus given everything that was underground.”

Indeed, BIG has been on a meteoric rise, with a portfolio now boasting Two World Trade Center in New York, Google’s Mountain View, Calif. headquarters building, and several dozen other projects either under construction or in the planning stages.

As for Goody Clancy, as noted, it has spent the past 20 years or so developing a strong niche designing new buildings and additions for business schools, and the portfolio includes recent work at Harvard, Boston University, Georgetown University, Texas Tech, and the University of New Hampshire.

Development of this niche wasn’t exactly by design, to use an industry term, said Goldstein, but as often happens in this business, a single project or two can lead to additional opportunities.

And that’s what happened after the firm took on a project for Babson University, known for its programs in entrepreneurship.

“We then did a few more, and before you knew it, we had three business-school buildings, and we thought, ‘OK, this looks like a specialty,’” he told BusinessWest, adding that the company has another four or five business-school projects in various stages of completion, a reflection of the need for such institutions to keep up with the Joneses, if you will, so they can effectively compete for the best students.

“Business schools have wealthy donors and want to build buildings that will advance their brand,” he said. “They want something that will differentiate them.”

Inamoto agreed. “Schools definitely want to make a statement with these buildings,” he said, adding that the Isenberg addition is the first academic project taken on by the firm in this country, and thus it sought to partner with a firm with a deep portfolio in that realm.

As they went about designing the addition, the team of architects focused on both of their priorities — form and function. They conceptualized an exterior that would fit in — sort of — and respect the brutalist style so prominent in other buildings in that part of the campus, such as the Fine Arts Center and the Whitmore Administration Building.

The circular design, meanwhile, would create a dynamic look that would also connect, in dramatic fashion, with the existing Isenberg facility (as the aerial architect’s rendering on page 18 shows) and “close the loop,” as Goldstein put it.

As for the copper exterior, Inamoto said it was chosen — after aluminum was first considered — because the material, like the school itself, isn’t stagnant; it changes over time.

“As a firm, we like the look of copper, and we like to recommend naturally aging materials,” he explained. “The copper panels are already starting to weather; when they’re first installed, they’re a bright, shiny orange, and within weeks, that starts to become darker and brown, and over time, they’ll oxidize to a green copper look.

“Over time, the building weathers,” he went on. “And we didn’t want something that was too flat or too plasticky, if you will. That’s part of our design strategy; we try to select something that’s authentic and real.”

In designing what’s behind the copper façade, they started by gathering extensive feedback, via focus groups, from a number of constituencies, including Isenberg administrators and staff, students, faculty, and others. And they incorporated what they learned into the final design, said Moliterno, citing everything from a café to greatly expanded space for the career center and undergraduate advising.

“They brought in Career Services and said, ‘walk us through everything you do — what are your space needs? You have interviewers here — how many, and what do they need?’” he recalled. “And then, they had that same conversation with Undergraduate Programs and with a committee of faculty who talked about the classroom space.

“And they had the same conversations with students,” he went on. “And this is where we learned that students are often here from 8 in the morning until 10 at night, and thus they want a place to eat in the building, because if they leave the building, they break up their team process.”

As for the career center and undergraduate advising facilities, these are as important to the ultimate success of Isenberg students (and the school itself) as the classrooms, said Moliterno, adding that these facilities provide more services to far more students than they did even a few years ago.

“Students don’t just show up when they’re juniors and look for job postings,” he explained. “They’re working with the career services offices constantly in order to get internships, résumé review, and structure their social-media profile. The hands-on career prep, the number of hours one spends in career services, has grown dramatically over the years, and this is reflected in the design of this building.”

Seeing the Light

As he walked through the expanded career services office during his tour, Moliterno put the Business Innovation Hub and the chosen designs for it in their proper perspective.

“At the initial bid process, when I was speaking to all the architects who were bidding, I said, ‘I want to be clear about something: this might be the most beautiful building in the world, but if it doesn’t work for the students, if it doesn’t enhance and improve the student experience, it will be a failure — full stop,’” he recalled.

‘Most beautiful building in the world’ is a purely subjective matter for discussion, he went on, while the matter of whether a building works for students certainly isn’t.

He’s quite sure that this one does, and while that quality generally doesn’t warrant adjectives like ‘dramatic, ‘striking,’ ‘stunning,’ or ‘powerful,’ it probably should.

And it explains, even more than that façade, why the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub is such an important development for the school and the university.

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

Cover Story

A Breed Apart: Antonacci Family Continues to Bring Businesses to the Winner’s Circle

Frank M. Antonacci with ‘Lindy the Great.’ Frank M. Antonacci with ‘Lindy the Great.’

In the early 1950s, Guy ‘Sonny’ Antonacci started a sanitation business with a single truck. That venture has evolved into a diversified, multi-generational family business that includes a horse-racing farm, a family-entertainment facility known as Sonny’s Place, and a country club in Hampden known as GreatHorse. Each component of this conglomerate was the product of vision, entrepreneurial spirit, hard work (lots of that), and some luck. For their ability to breed winners — at the track and in business — the Antonacci family has been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2018.

Frank M. Antonacci was asked to talk about his grandfather, the late Guy ‘Sonny’ Antonacci, and put his life and entrepreneurial spirit into some kind of perspective.

It was a straightforward request, but Frank M. (the M is to distinguish him from his father, Frank A. — “I’m not a junior, and he’s not a senior”) paused and then struggled somewhat as he searched for the words and phrases to get the job done.

“He was … a special man,” he said finally. “He was a visionary; he was incredibly spiritual, but tough. He was incredibly kind, yet aggressive.”

Frank’s cousin, Guy, named after his grandfather, obviously, agreed, and also put the word ‘visionary’ to heavy use.

“He would see things 20 years before anyone else would,” he told BusinessWest. “He wanted to get in the bottled-water business in the ’70s with my father and uncle, but they asked him, ‘who’s going to pay for a bottle of water?’ He’s laughing up there now, that’s for sure.”

It was Sonny who started a trash business in New York, back roughly 65 years ago, with a single truck named the ‘Mary Anne,’ after his wife. With that one truck — more or less — he and subsequent generations would go on to build a number of successful, high-profile businesses, including the enterprise that sprang from the Mary Anne, USA Waste & Recycling, one of the largest companies of its kind in the region.

There’s also a horse farm, Lindy Farms in Somers, that has bred and trained a string of champion trotters; Sonny’s Place in Somers, named, obviously, after the patriarch, a huge and continually growing family-entertainment venue that now includes everything from miniature golf to ziplining to a century-old carousel (more on it later); and, last but not least, GreatHorse, the high-end private golf club created on the site of the old Hampden Country Club but looking nothing much like its predecessor; in a nod to Lindy Farms, there are horse references throughout, right down to the banquet hall, named the Starting Gate.

 

Guy, left, and Frank Antonacci Guy, left, and Frank Antonacci stand by a photo of their grandfather, ‘Sonny,’ in the lobby of USA Waste & Recycling.

As we examine this stable of successful businesses (yes, that’s the first of many horse and racing terms you’ll read), we’ll start by going in the wayback machine to July 1969 and, more specifically, a Sports Illustrated article (printed in an issue with Vince Lombardi on the cover) chronicling the meteoric rise of a horse called Lindy’s Pride, bought for $15,000 by Sonny Antonacci and several cousins.

All of whom, the SI writer recalled, grew up working on ice trucks before they worked on garbage trucks, and struggled for many years to build the business.

“We’re still down to earth,” a different Frank Antonacci, Guy’s cousin, told SI as their horse was preparing to race in the prestigious Hambletonian, the number-one prize in harness racing, which he would win. “We’ve all been working since we were 13; we know what a buck is. Today … there’s not one of us who’s not successful. We’ve been lucky.”

Maybe. But in many respects, this family has made its own luck, and continues to do so today. Indeed while it’s easy to say that all of this — and ‘all’ means the horses, the go-karts at Sonny’s Place, and the country club — was born of New York trash. But in reality, it was all born of an entrepreneurial spirit and an ability to see something that wasn’t there before.

Indeed, Sonny’s Place was formerly a ramshackle driving range, said Guy Antonacci. “There were days when we’d see maybe a few people come in; it was like that driving range in Tin Cup, with a pink 1960 Volkswagen Beetle out front,” he recalled, making a reference to the popular movie starring Kevin Costner, who played a down-on-his-luck golf pro and operator of a range frequented by more armadillos than duffers.

And Hampden Country Club was essentially dying on the vine when the family bought it a decade ago and decided, eventually, after an initial attempt at a mere makeover, to transform it into the most luxurious, and exclusive, club in the region.

Sonny’s Place, the elaborate family-entertainment complex in Somers, now stands on the site of a little-used driving range likened to the one in the movie ‘Tin Cup.’

For their efforts over the past seven decades or so, the Antonacci family — and yes, that includes Sonny, his brothers, and cousins — have been chosen as BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2018. This amounts to a lifetime achievement award for the family — actually, several lifetimes.

Because today, as decades ago, members of this family stay humble and understand the meaning of a buck — and how to make one as well.

This becomes clear in an extensive interview with Guy and Frank M., chosen spokespeople for a family that knows what it’s like to breed winners — as in horses and business ventures.

Harnessing Entrepreneurial Spirit

There was a light snow falling on Christmas Eve morning, and it lent even more beauty to a place where it abounds — Lindy Farms.

There, Frank M. talked about the business and especially the large, handsome horse called Lindy the Great. A trotter, he enjoyed a successful 2018, winning several races, and on this morning was getting a brushing and some R&R before heading to Florida for the off season.

“We’re still down to earth. We’ve all been working since we were 13; we know what a buck is. Today … there’s not one of us who’s not successful. We’ve been lucky.”

Lindy the Great, 16.1 hands high (not 16.2 or 16.3), by Frank’s guess, is the embodiment — one of many, actually — of the multi-faceted businesses ventures that did, indeed, spring from New York trash.

Our story begins with that trash truck called the Mary Anne and the venture that became known as the South Shore Sanitation. While remaining a relatively small operation, it provided the wherewithal to venture into horses — and much more.

In 1974, Sonny, following a priest who had been reassigned to a church in Somers, moved his family there, said Frank, adding that, while he was ‘retired’ at age 40, he didn’t stay retired for long at all.

He and Mary Anne started Somers Sanitation, again, with one truck (this one didn’t have a name), and quickly grew the enterprise, which now stretches from the Vermont border to Southern Connecticut.

What was originally envisioned as a ‘makeover’ became the total transformation known as GreatHorse. What was originally envisioned as a ‘makeover’ became the total transformation known as GreatHorse.

Today, it boasts five hubs and 16 transfer stations, serving a wide range of businesses and communities in Connecticut and Western Mass.

It was with profits from the trash business that Sonny Antonacci and several cousins ventured into horse racing. Their passion for the sport began when they attended races at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, and it went to a much higher and different level when they bought their first horse, named Galahad Hanover, and shortly renamed Lindy’s Pride, in 1967.

That horse would go on to win not only the Hambletonian, but the illustrious trotting Triple Crown, and essentially set a tone for Lindy Farms, named, sort of, after the town of Lindenhurst on Long Island, where the Antonaccis grew up.

Over the years, the operation, now in Somers, Enfield, and Hampden, Mass., has continued its winning ways and expanded on several fronts.

“Until about 15 years ago, it was focused on standardbreds — trotters and pacers,” Frank explained. “But in recent years, we’re expanded into thoroughbred racing, and we’ve had some success there, as well.”

Especially with a stallion called No Nay Never. “He might be the hottest freshman stallion in the world this year,” he said, noting that, as a 2-year-old, he won honors as ‘Thoroughbred of the Year’ in Europe.

The racing business, like the trash business before it, typifies how this family approaches business — by going all in. They don’t just want to be a player in an industry; they want to dominate that industry.

Indeed, horse breeding and racing has become a passion for three generations of family members, and the level of excellence attained becomes apparent in the number of trophies and awards on display at the offices of USA Waste & Recycling.

Sonny Antonacci is considered a visionary when it comes to breeding standardbred racehorses, said his grandson, Frank, and he bred more Hambletonian horses than any individual breeder. In 2001, Sonny, along with his cousin Frank, were elected to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame’s Hall of Immortals.

That racing tradition continued with the next generation, his sons, Jerry and Frank, who have remained active in promoting the industry. Frank is currently director of the Hambletonian Society, which oversees the development, administration, and promotion of the harness-racing industry throughout the country, and he’s also director of the U.S. Trotting Assoc., the governing body of the entire domestic industry.

And Frank M. (known as Frankie to family members) has taken up that mantle. He’s now the head trainer at Lindy Racing Stable and has been making a name for himself within the sport, winning the U.S. Trotting Assoc. ‘Breakthrough Award’ in 2010.

Positive Turns

While there are no trophies, ribbons, plaques, or prize winnings to quantify success in their other business ventures, the Antonaccis’ drive to take the lead — and keep it — in whatever field they happen to get into is clearly evident.

It can be seen with both Sonny’s Place and GreatHorse, which came to fruition the same way the trash and horse-racing ventures did — through vision and a lot of hard work.

And a conversation at the dinner table, said Guy, who vividly remembers this one regarding that old, run-down driving range the family acquired a dozen or so years ago and what might be done with it.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 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

“There were days when we’d have one customer come and spend $8 on a bucket of balls, and we kept thinking, ‘what else can we do with this place?’” he recalled. “My brother and Frankie’s youngest brother were probably about 10, 11, or 12 at the time, and really looking for something that they could grow up having fun at. So we said, ‘everyone loves miniature golf; maybe we should try that.’”

They did, and from those humble beginnings — miniature golf and a food truck with ice cream — new additions have been added seemingly every year since. Go-karts and batting cages came next, followed by a full restaurant, an arcade, a pavilion, rock-climbing walls, laser tag, miniature bowling, virtual reality, live concerts, and more.

The facility has become a destination not just for families, but for a growing number of companies looking to host outings or team-building exercises. The business plan, unofficial in nature, has always been to continually build on the foundation and — in keeping with the tone of those original conversations — keep looking for new ways to utilize a large and highly visible tract of land.

The latest manifestation of this philosophy was the addition, in 2017, of a carousel with a long and proud history and, yes, a number of handsome horses.

Built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1925, the ride’s first home was Delaware Beach. It then had a lengthy stay at Lakewood Park in Waterbury, Conn., and then, after refurbishment, at Kiddieland Park in Melrose, Ill.

It was languishing in a storage container at Chicago Land when Guy’s father, Jerry, the main driver in the creation and continued growth of Sonny’s Place, found it and concluded that it was the next big piece in the puzzle.

“It’s a work of art, all hard-carved wooden horses and sleighs,” said Guy, noting that it opened for business last August. “We’re having it refinished now, and maybe a third of the 48 horses have been restored; it’s been a labor of love.”

The same can be said of Greathorse, which, like the carousel — and the old driving range itself — was a restoration effort that required some vision, and then some capital and a good business plan.

As Guy — who turned pro and played on a few of golf’s mini-tours before coming to the realization that the big stage was beyond his skill level — recalls the story, the family actually started looking for a golf course to buy nearly 20 years ago to further diversify the family business beyond trash and horses.

The search was put aside, especially as Sonny’s Place was being developed, and then taken up again at the start of this decade, with a number of options in play before settling on the former Hampden Country Club, then heading for the auction block.

“We could see that it had a lot of potential, but also a lot of scars to it,” he recalled. “What sold the place was the view, and we knew that, with some vision and some work, the place could be something.

“I’d be lying if I sat here and told you when we bought the place we had the grand vision of doing what we did,” he went on, noting that a mere facelift was the original plan. “But as we got into it … as Frankie has said, we really don’t half-ass anything; everything we do, we do to the best of our ability.”

Spring in Their Step

Frank M. says he can’t recall not being in business or entrepreneurial.

Indeed, while he was involved with the family businesses, in some capacity, since he was teenager, he was also looking to hang out his own shingle, and did, at age 15.

The venture — born from another of those Sunday afternoon conversations at the dinner table — was called College Bound Cleanups, a “concierge-type service for old ladies who needed their basement cleaned out, or their garage.

“It was a summer kind of thing,” he recalled. “I brought in a partner who was 16 — I needed someone with a driver’s license — and we had a little dumptruck and did cleanups. We had a little ad in the Reminder, and we did OK for ourselves.”

Like the generations that came before him, he added, noting that he eventually put his own venture aside and focused on horses and trash, sometimes in that order, sometimes the other. And there was, and is, always talk about new opportunities and paths to go down, like Sonny Antonacci projecting a need for bottled water.

“Business … it’s part of every conversation we have,” said Frank, referring to the family’s entrepreneurial DNA and a passion for finding and developing new business opportunities. And these traits have been passed down from one generation to the next. Frank can even see it in his young children.

“I drive around with my kids, we’ll go past various strip malls, and they’ll look to see if it’s the good guys or the bad guys picking up the [trash] containers,” he said. “I see it my older son [age 7] already; he’s trying to understand how business works.”

Within the Antonacci stable of enterprise, business works maybe a little differently than in most places, said the third-generation spokespeople.

“What people have a hard time understanding about our business and our family is that it’s different — I call it ‘sloppy,’” said Frank, who understood that he needed to explain that term and did.

“We’re not very structured,” he told BusinessWest. “The way we do things is a little unorthodox, and there isn’t the bureaucratic organization you see in other businesses or families. People will say, ‘what’s your title?’ or this or that. It’s a lot looser than that.”

‘Loose.’ ‘Sloppy.’ ‘Unorthodox.’ Whatever it is, it seems to be working, and in the traditionally challenging setting of a multi-generational family business, or set of businesses, to be more precise.

There are actually four generations still involved. Indeed, Frankie and Guy said their fathers, Frank and Jerry, have breakfast with their mother every morning. “And they’re probably running things by her every day,” said Frank M.

The second generation, as noted, remains passionate about all aspects of the business operation, but especially the horse breeding and racing, they said.

Meanwhile, there are many third-generation members involved, or soon to be involved, including Guy’s brother Matthew, 24, and Frank’s brothers, Chris and Phillip.

Overall, said both Guy and Frank M., the generations have worked well together, and each has been allowed to make their mark — and their own contributions.

“Our fathers and uncles have allowed us to follow our passions, expand the businesses, and bring our own look and feel,” said Frank. “And to this point, everyone who’s been involved in the businesses has helped them grow and prosper. Why change the formula?”

Why indeed?

At the Finish Line

‘Sonny’ Antonacci never did get into the bottled-water business, his sons having persuaded him that there was no future in it. That’s family lore, anyway.

“His famous line was, ‘you’ll see … bottled water will be more than a gallon of gas,” said Frank M. “And he was right — and that’s just one example.”

Indeed, while the Antonacci family never became part of the multi-billion-dollar bottled-water industry, it has certainly had far more hits than misses. In business, as in harness racing, it has found the winner’s circle far more often than most.

Having capital from the trash business has certainly helped, but so too has been the ability to see other opportunities where others did not, having true entrepreneurial spirit — and, yes, being kind but also aggressive.

‘Sonny’ had all those attributes, and so have the generations that have followed him.

That’s why this family is BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2018.

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

Cover Story

Forward Progress

 

Forward Progress

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Across the Region  Read More>>>

Running out of Gas?

Analysts Say the Economy Could Be Headed
for a Slowdown Read More>>>

The Employment Picture

With Talent Scarce, Many Employers Are
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Right Place, Right Time

MGM One of Many Factors Spurring
Optimism for Tourism Sector … Read More>>>

Cover Story

Getting into the Game

“We’ve been hearing this for years, but it had just reached a boiling point.” That’s how Kermit Dunkelberg chose to sum up the conversation in this region regarding how many individuals lack the soft skills and the essential skills needed to be workforce-ready. This ‘boiling point’ status helped inspire a regional response to a request for proposals for state funding — and a $247,000 grant aimed at putting more qualified workers in the pipeline.

Since the end of the Great Recession, nearly a decade ago now, the region’s economy has been in a slow-but-steady expansion mode characterized by growth in most all industry sectors and almost historically low unemployment.

It’s been a good time for employers and job seekers alike, but there are some who have just not been able to take part in this improved economy, said Kermit Dunkelberg, assistant vice president of Adult Basic Education and Workforce Development at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

These individuals are sitting on the sidelines and not getting in the game for a number of reasons, but the two most common denominators — and this is across the board, in all sectors of the economy — is that they lack hands-on experience in a given field, basic job-readiness skills, or both.

“And in many cases, it is both,” said Dunkelberg, who noted that a soon-to-be-launched, HCC-led project will address both of these concerns.

Indeed, through a $247,000 grant from the Mass. Dept. of Higher Education’s Training Resources and Internships Networks Initiative, better known by the acronym TRAIN, HCC will work with a long list of regional partners to develop a three-stage program that includes:

• Pre-training job readiness;

• Industry-specific training in culinary arts or manufacturing; and

• Some kind of work experience with a local employer.

That list of partners includes Greenfield Community College and Springfield Technical Community College; the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board; the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board; the MassHire career centers in Holyoke, Springfield, and Hampden, and Hampshire counties; and several local employers — University of Massachusetts Auxiliary Dining Services in Amherst, the Log Cabin Group in Holyoke, MGM Resorts in Springfield, Peerless Precision in Westfield, and BETE Fog Nozzle in Greenfield, which have agreed to provide internships, apprenticeships, or job-shadowing opportunities to program participants.

That long list of players speaks to the breadth and depth of the problem and the need for a regional solution, said Dunkelberg, adding that the TRAIN initiative is an ongoing state program, and when area agencies and institutions mulled whether to apply for grants individually or collectively, there was a clear consensus for the latter.

“We brought these partners together, and one of the questions on the table was, ‘should we develop one proposal for the region, or should we develop competing proposals — what do people want to do?’” he recalled. “There was a very strong feeling that we should collaborate and develop a proposal jointly, across the entire Pioneer Valley.

“And part of the reason for that is that we all face the same issue of job readiness,” he went on. “We wanted to develop something we can agree on with all of our partners that meets the standards of what job readiness means.”

As noted earlier, there are three components to this project — pre-training, industry-specific training, and work experience with an area employer, and all three are critical to individuals becoming able to shed those classifications ‘unemployed’ or ‘underemployed,’ said Teri Anderson, executive director of the MassHire Hampshire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board.

“One of the primary pieces of feedback we receive from employers is that people coming to them looking for work need basic job-readiness skills, and we’ve heard that for several years now,” she told BusinessWest. The career center has been interested in creating a foundational skills program that would prepare people for any job across multiple sectors, and that’s exactly what this program is going to do.”

The job-readiness component will focus on a number of skills lacking among many of those on the outside looking in when it comes to the job market, she said, including communication skills, teamwork, customer service, basic math, reading, and computer skills, along with financial literacy, job-search skills, and more.

Kermit Dunkelberg says the TRAIN initiative

Kermit Dunkelberg says the TRAIN initiative will provide participants with not only job-readiness skills, but also hands-on experience in one of several fields.

Such skills will be provided through 60-hour pre-training courses, after which participants will have the opportunity to continue into an industry-specific training program — a four-week, 120-hour program in culinary arts and hospitality at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, or a 44-hour manufacturing training program at STCC. Also, participants might instead choose to enter another industry-specific training program offered by one of the community colleges.

The objective is make people currently not ready to enter the workforce better able to do so, said David Cruise, executive director of the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, adding that employers in every sector of the economy are challenged to find qualified workers, and in some fields, especially manufacturing, their inability to do so is impacting their ability to grow.

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the TRAIN-funded program and its prospects for becoming a model for helping regions like this one enable individuals to become part of the ongoing economic expansion, rather than merely spectators.

A Hire Reach

It’s called the ‘benefits cliff,’ or the ‘cliff effect.’

Both terms are used to describe what happens when public benefits programs phase down or out quickly, leading to an abrupt reduction or loss of benefits for families as household earnings increase through employment, but have not increased enough for self-sufficiency to be reached.

“What had really risen to the top as far as everyone’s sense of urgency was just basic job readiness across all sectors. We’ve been hearing this for years, but it has just reached a boiling point.”

Often, just a small increase in household earnings can trigger loss of eligibility for a benefit, making a family substantially worse off from a self-sufficiency standpoint than prior to the earnings gain. And fear of this eventuality is enough to keep many individuals from trying to enter or re-enter the workforce, said Anderson, adding that understanding and managing the benefits cliff will be an important component of the pre-training aspect of the TRAIN program.

“Oftentimes, people lose their benefits faster than their income rises, particularly if they’re moving into entry-level positions,” she explained. “So we’re incorporating into this training efforts to work with people on how to manage that cliff effect.”

And while it’s difficult to do so, this situation can be managed, or better managed, she told BusinessWest, adding that the state Department of Transitional Assistance is in the process of revising some of its procedures in an effort to ease the cliff effect, and the TRAIN program will help communicate these changes.

And that’s one example of how this program is necessarily broad in scope to address the many barriers to employment and reasons for underemployment in this region, said Dunkelberg.

Overall, and as noted earlier, the TRAIN initiative is a proactive response to a persistent and statewide problem, he noted, adding that it was launched in 2016 to engage long-term unemployed adults, offering foundational education programs, wraparound support services, and industry-specific skills that would enable entry or re-entry into the workforce.

The first funding round resulted in a number of specific training and employment pilot programs, he went on, adding that, locally, the program funded an initiative involving HCC and STCC to train and place individuals as home health aides.

“It was very successful; we had 56 people who went through that training, and we saw close to 90% of them get jobs,” he recalled. “Retention was high, and we received great collaboration from our employer partners.”

The program was not funded in 2017, he went on, adding that by the time the next RFP was issued earlier this year, the conversation in this region had changed somewhat.

“What had really risen to the top as far as everyone’s sense of urgency was just basic job readiness across all sectors,” he said. “We’ve been hearing this for years, but it has just reached a boiling point.”

Alyce Styles, dean of Workforce Development and Community Education at Greenfield Community College, agreed, and said surveys of area employers leading up to the grant proposal revealed that job seekers in the manufacturing sector and many others were lacking many of what are often referred to as the ‘soft’ skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

“Employers responded that they want employees and individuals who have the ability to effectively communicate orally, have ethical judgment and sound decision-making, work effectively with others and in teams, have the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings, and have critical-thinking and analytical reasoning skills,” she said. “So all of those are being embedded into this pre-training program.”

Work in Progress

The latest TRAIN initiative, proposed with the goal of creating a model for other regions, will involve up to 120 individuals from Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties, and is relatively short in duration — until only next June.

Over the next six months, the regional career centers are slated to develop three-week, 60-hour ‘essential skills/job readiness’ pre-training courses that will be offered at least four times at locations in the three Pioneer Valley counties.

Teri Anderson

Teri Anderson

“One of the primary pieces of feedback we receive from employers is that people coming to them looking for work need basic job-readiness skills, and we’ve heard that for several years now.”

Dunkelberg said the area career centers will soon commence recruitment of individuals for the program, adding that they are likely to come from several different pools, if you will, each facing some unique challenges, but some common ones as well.

Older workers finding difficulty re-entering the workforce comprise one constituency, said Anderson, adding that there are more people in this group than the announced unemployment rates might lead people to believe, because the numbers generated by the state do not count those who have become discouraged and have thus stopped looking for work.

“A lot of the people we see here are older workers who have been laid off, and they’re having trouble becoming re-employed,” she said, adding that other likely recruits face barriers to employment that include everything from lower educational attainment to a lack of basic transportation.

“There are many people who want to work and are ready to work, but they can’t get access to the training or to job sites because they can’t afford a private vehicle and public transportation doesn’t get them there,” she said, adding that the grant provides for some bridge transportation and child-care services so individuals can take part in the training components of the program, and agencies will explore options for keeping such services available to individuals if and when they do find work.

Cruise concurred, and told BusinessWest that, in addition to transportation issues and the benefits cliff, many of those on the outside looking in are simply not ready for prime time.

“Two of the industries we’re identified as high priorities over the next five years are advanced manufacturing and culinary and food service,” he explained. “At MassHire, we offer a number of training programs — as does Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College — in those two areas. And whenever we go out to look for potential applicants for those seats, there are some who, from an academic perspective or a language perspective, just aren’t ready for the rigors of a 14- or 15-week intensive program.

Dave Cruise says the TRAIN initiative is designed to help those who are unemployed or under-employed

Dave Cruise says the TRAIN initiative is designed to help those who are unemployed or under-employed, and are thus on the outside looking in when it comes to the job market.

“These people are very employable; they just need some additional support,” he went. “And that’s what this program will provide.”

Beyond the needed basic job-readiness skills, many of those still unemployed or underemployed need hands-on experience in a chosen field or exposure with different fields so they can better decide on a career path. The TRAIN program will provide these as well, said Dunkelberg.

“Career exploration is an important part of this,” he told BusinessWest. “Beyond not having the skills or the soft skills, many people are not really sure what they want to do, and they’re not really clear on what some of the opportunities are.”

“Employers … want employees and individuals who have the ability to effectively communicate orally, have ethical judgment and sound decision-making, work effectively with others and in teams, have the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings, and have critical-thinking and analytical reasoning skills.”

In response to these realities, the program will provide some hands-on exploration of culinary and hospitality careers, primarily because of the many opportunities now opening up in that field across the region, and also in manufacturing, another sector where there are jobs coming available and not enough people in the pipeline.

This exposure will take a number of forms, including internships, job-shadowing experiences, and actual employment, said Dunkelberg, adding that the various employer partners, from MGM to Peerless Precision, have agreed to provide some type of hands-on experience with the goal of helping participants both understand where the opportunities are and discover if these fields are good fits.

When asked if there was a model for what the many partners involved in this initiative are working to create, Dunkelberg said the goal is to build a model for others to use.

And that’s just one of many potential quantitative and qualitative measures of success when it comes to this program. Others include everything from the number of job interviews granted to the program participants — a low bar, to be sure — to growth in enrollment in academic programs such as GCC’s CNC course of study, to ultimate progress in closing the nagging skills gap in this region.

Course of Action

That gap won’t be closed easily or soon, but movement in the right direction is the goal — and the priority — at the moment.

As Dunkelberg noted, the problem has reached a boiling point, and the TRAIN initiative, a truly regional response to the problem, will hopefully help matters cool down considerably.

By doing so, more people in this region — and probably others — can then take part in the economic expansion of which they have only been observers.

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

Cover Story

Supporting a Growth Industry

When CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) was launched 25 years ago, this region’s agricultural community was threatened by a host of issues and societal changes. Today, those challenges remain, but CISA, through its ‘buy local’ program and other initiatives, has lived up to its name by getting the community involved in sustaining and growing this vital sector of the economy.

Margaret Christie is quick to point out that the many challenges area farmers faced a quarter century ago are still as much a part of the landscape as asparagus fields in Hadley.

These include everything from the cost of land (among the highest levels in the country), to the many pressures on that land, meaning attractive development options ranging from housing subdivisions to industrial parks, to immense competition from across the country and around the world.

And there are even some additional challenges, including an aging group of farm owners and workers — Baby Boomers are hitting retirement age — and a phrase you didn’t hear much, if at all, in 1993, but certainly heard this summer as the rain kept coming down in the 413: Climate change.

But the environment for farmers has been altered in one important respect, said Christie, and that comes in the form of an additional and quite significant support system called, appropriately enough, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, or CISA. Christie, now the agency’s special projects coordinator, was its first executive director, and she recalled the thought process — not to mention a $1.2 million Kellogg Foundation grant — that brought CISA into being.

“CISA grew out of an effort by a lot of people who were working on different agriculture issues in the valley, many of them associated with the colleges or existing nonprofits, who each felt they were each working on some piece related to food and agriculture, but they weren’t really talking to each other,” she explained. “And so they had a pretty simple idea, which was to have a series of brown-bag lunches, get together every month, and compare notes. And out of that experience, they began to think ‘we need to be doing something bigger and more coordinated.”

That something bigger and more coordinated was CISA, which came about a time when the region’s agricultural base was more threatened than most could have understood, said Christie, noting that in the decade prior to its creation, there was a significant erosion in the agricultural land base — a loss of 21,000 acres to be precise — and a decline in farmers income of about 3%.

“The people who were involved in CISA thought ‘we might really lose this land base, and we have great soil here — we have prime agricultural soils rivaling any place in the world,’” she recalled. “They said ‘this is important to us as a community and we don’t want to lose it.’”

Margaret Christie says CISA has made buying local front of mind

Margaret Christie says CISA has made buying local front of mind for many area residents, and something very easy to do.

To the question ‘how do we avoid losing this precious commodity?’ those at CISA answered, in essence, by saying ‘get the community involved,’ said Executive Director Philip Korman, adding that the agency has done just that.

Today, though initiatives such as the ‘Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown’ campaign with which the agency is synonymous, many forms of technical assistance, and an emergency loan program, CISA has not only brought more attention to local farms and farm products, it has stabilized and, in some ways, actually grown the local agriculture sector — meaning Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties.

Indeed, as the chart on page 10 reveals, there are now 182,428 acres of land devoted to agriculture in those three counties, compared to 165,420 acres in 1993. There are now 36 farmers’ markets across the region, compared to 10 back then; there are 51 farms offering farm shares (CSA farms) compared to 19 back then; and direct farm-to-consumer sales are nor more than $10 million, more than double the total a quarter century ago.

But despite this progress, many challenges remain and more are emerging, including the aforementioned climate change. And as it celebrates its first 25 years, CISA is also looking ahead and to ways it can be an even better stronger advocate for local agriculture.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how CISA has supported an important growth sector this region over the past 25 years — figuratively and quite literally — and also at how, as it celebrates this milestone, the focus remains on the present and future, not the past.

Experts in Their Field

It is with a large and easily discernable amount of pride in her voice that Meg Bantle notes that her family has been farming the same tract of land in Adams for six generations covering more than two centuries years — and that she is the sixth.

Indeed, she now operates a modest vegetable and flower operation, called Full Well Farm, on a tiny corner of the 500-acre property that was once a thriving dairy farm. Meanwhile, her mother and grandmother have been trying to figure out what to do with the rest of the property, a question that’s been challenging her family since her grandfather died in 2013, and Bantle is now playing a role in that effort as well.

“Being back on that land, in closer proximity to the family business and my mom, will help me to be involved in the decision-making in terms of what’s going to happen with the rest of the land,” she told BusinessWest. “We’ve had a number of discussions about making a succession plan for the future.”

Mantle was one of several area farmers to take part in something called ‘Field Notes — An Afternoon of Storytelling’ on Nov. 18 at the Academy of Music in Northampton. A number of farmers, chefs, and brewers took to the podium to talk of memories, challenges, opportunities lost, opportunities gained, the present, and the future.

The event was staged by CISA as part of its 25th anniversary, said Korman, noting that the agency played a least a small part in many of the stories told. Meanwhile, it exists to help script more of them in the years and decades to come, by inspiring more people like Bantle to return to the land as she did after college and to perhaps help more families devise succession plans.

It has been this way since CISA’s start in a small home office in Northampton. The agency has since relocated several times, with stints at UMass and Hampshire College, for example, and is now located in a suite of offices in the shadow of Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield.

From there, staff members coordinate a number of programs and initiatives, the most visible and impactful of which is the ‘Local Hero’ program and its annual publication, known as the ‘Locally Grown Farm Products Guide.’

“The people who were involved in CISA thought ‘we might really lose this land base, and we have great soil here — we have prime agricultural soils rivaling any place in the world. They said ‘this is important to us as a community and we don’t want to lose it.”

Broken down by community and individual farm, the guide captures, well, the full flavor of the region’s agro sector with colorful snapshots of each operation, usually featuring a personal touch, like this entry for the North Hadley Sugar Shack: ‘Enjoy our Sugarin’ Breakfast daily from mid-February to Mid-April. Come see how we make maple syrup, grab a maple treat, or get supplies to make your own. We serve hard ice cream and our own maple soft serve from May to October, and host lots of fun, family-friendly, and educational events all summer long. Open year-round; local seasonal produce and flowers available throughout the year.’

The annual guide is a big part of broad efforts to use the media and marketing techniques to build broad community support for local farms, said Claire Morenon, communications manager for CISA, adding that these efforts, and especially the ‘buy local’ campaign have helped changed the face of agriculture in the Pioneer Valley and beyond, as indicated in those numbers mentioned earlier.

Christie agreed, and said that, in addition to being the country’s oldest ‘buy local’ initiative, CISA’s program really facilitates the process of buying from local farms, and keeps the practice front of mind.

“We did some survey work before we launched our ‘Local Hero’ campaign, and what we found is that people in this region really understood that supporting local farmers kept their money in their local community and supported their neighbors, and that was important to them,” she said. “We didn’t have to teach people that; they understood it already.

“But I think we were one of the first places to do this at the scale we do, and also at the community level that we do,” she went on. “Certainly state departments of agriculture have promoted food grown in that state for a long time, but I don’t think, in a lot of cases, that they’ve personalized it with the farmer’s face and the story of farms, and taken it to the level we have, where we make it easy for people.

“If you were grocery shopping, and you were working all day, and you picked up the kids from wherever, and you had to go home and make dinner, and everyone’s tired … we wanted you to remember that it’s important to support local farms at that point,” she continued. “And you could, because it was salient, you had heard about it so much that you remembered it and it was easy for you because there was a logo and a label and you could see what was local.”

And by local, CISA means local, said Korman, adding that while buying products made in Massachusetts is an important goal, buying from people down the street or a town or two over is even more so.

Phil Korman says CISA’s mission hasn’t changed

Phil Korman says CISA’s mission hasn’t changed, but the agency has broadened its reach to include issues such as hunger in the region.

“It’s one thing to do branding at a state level, but it’s not the same thing as home — it’s your home state, but it’s not your home,” he told BusinessWest. “We elevated it to a level where people understand that it’s our neighbors who are our farmers, and that ‘I can get to know that person depending on how I buy goods, and I get to understand and taste and develop a connection to the person who’s growing food for my family.”

Yield Signs

Many of the farmers now doing business in this region have been tending the land for decades, but most have never a seen a summer like this one, said Korman.

While the seemingly incessant rain probably helped a few crops, it negatively impacted many others and, overall, it made life miserable for farm owners and their employees.

“We’ve heard from all kinds of farms — orchards, vegetable farms … it’s affected just about everyone, and if it didn’t make things terrible, it made things very unfun,” he said. “And I don’t say that lightly; it’s just been so hard to be out in the field.”

The havoc wrought by the summer of 2018 is made clear by the number of farms likely to apply for aid from CISA’s emergency farm fund, started after Hurricane Irene, Korman went on, adding that the fund is one example of how CISA’s reach has extended beyond marketing and brand awareness, if you will, with the brand being the sum of the area’s farms — and into technical and financial assistance, training, and other avenues of support, all aimed at strengthening the farming community.

And also an example of how the agency, while not changing its core mission in any real way, is broadening its focus to include different issues and challenges — for both farmers and this region.

“In recent years, as the Local Hero campaign has been so successful, and as we’ve felt our original work has been successful enough to stand on its own, we’ve been thinking more about some of the broader food-system challenges we’re facing and thinking outside of just consumers and farmers,” said Morenon. “Such as huger and our role in addressing that, the condition of farm workers and our role with that, and other issues.”

“If you were grocery shopping, and you were working all day, and you picked up the kids from wherever, and you had to go home and make dinner, and everyone’s tired … we wanted you to remember that it’s important to support local farms at that point.”

Elaborating, she and others we spoke with said the region’s farmers can’t solve the hunger issue, but they can certainly play a role in efforts to stem the tide of hunger in the region, specifically through partnerships with local, state, and even national agencies.

A prime example is the Healthy Initiatives Program (HIP). Launched in 2017 and administered by the Department of Transitional Assistance, in partnership with the Department of Agricultural resources and the Department of Public Health, HIP provides monthly incentives to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) — $40 for families of one to two people, and $80 for families of six or more, for example — when they purchase fresh, local, healthy fruits and vegetables from Massachusetts farmers at farmers’ markets, farm stands, CSAs, and mobile markets. The money they spend at these retailers is immediately added back to their EBT cards, and can be spent at any SNAP retailers.

Since its inception, the program has meant better health outcomes for vulnerable families and better sustainability for local farms, said Korman, noting that SNAP families have purchased more than $4 million of produce from farms across the state and that SNAP sales at farm retailers increased by nearly 600% between 2016 and 2017 thanks to HIP.

“The pilot program in Hampden County showed that the incentives increased consumption of produce by 24%,” he explained, noting that the success locally led to a broadening of the program to cover the whole state.

Another example is Monte’s March, the hugely successful food drive to support the Food Bank of Western Mass., led by WHMP radio personality Monte Belmonte — or, more specifically, efforts on CISA’s part to spotlight just how much local farmers donate to that cause.

“They now add up the poundage — and its 500,000 pounds of food that gets donated by local farmers,” Korman told BusinessWest. “It isn’t that it’s the responsibility of local farmers to solve hunger, it’s more the responsibility of all of us to make sure there are local farms, because that generosity and that connection to the community will benefit us all.”

In a nutshell, this is the mindset that helped launch CISA, it’s the philosophy that has guided its first 25 years, and the thought process that will guide it in the future.

Growing the Bottom the Line

Meg Bantle has many vivid memories of life on her family’s farm. One she shared with the audience at Field Notes involved the day some cows stampeded her and other family members.

No one was seriously hurt, she said, but the memory of that day, symbolic of the difficult life farmers live, has always remained with her, like countless others.

It doesn’t say so anywhere in CISA’s official mission statement, but the agency is really all about creating such memories for several future generations of area farmers. How? As it always has, by making a solid connection between the farmers and the surrounding communities and making it very easy to buy local‚ as in local.

There’s some food for thought — in every sense of that phrase.

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

Cover Story Women of Impact

Women of Impact to Be Saluted on Dec. 6

Leader. Inspiration. Pioneer. Mentor. Innovator.

You will read those words countless times over the next 8 profiles as BusinessWest introduces its first Women of Impact.

In fact, you might read all or most of those words in each of the stories because each member of this inaugural Class of 2018 are, as you’ll see, worthy of those adjectives.

These are compelling stories about remarkable women, and as you read them, you’ll quickly understand why BusinessWest added Women of Impact to its growing list of annual recognition programs. In short, these stories need to be told.

Some have been told in part before, but not in this context. Not in the context of a celebration of women achieving great things, standing out in their chosen field, and doing impactful work in the community.

BusinessWest chose to create this setting, this stage, if you will, because, while there have always been women of impact, many of these individuals and many of their accomplishments have not been given their proper due.

We’ll rectify that first with these stories on these pages, which detail not what these women do for a living, but what they’ve done with their lives. Specifically, they’ve become leaders in their fields, leaders within the community, and, most importantly, inspirations to all those around them.

The stories are all different, but there are many common denominators: these are women and leaders who have vision, passion, drive to excel, and a desire to put their considerable talents to work mentoring and helping others.

Individually and especially together, they’re made this a much better place to live, work, raise a family, and run a business.

They will be celebrated on Dec. 6 at the Sheraton in Springfield, starting at 11:30 a.m.. We invite you to come and applaud true Women of Impact.

The Women of Impact for 2018 are:

• Jean Canosa Albano, assistant director of Public Services, Springfield City Library;

• Kerry Dietz, principal, Dietz Architects;

• Denise Jordan, executive director, Springfield Housing Authority;

• Gina Kos, executive director, Sunshine Village;

• Carol Leary, president, Bay Path University;

• Colleen Loveless, president and CEO, Revitalize Community Development Corp.;

• Janis Santos, executive director, HCS Head Start; and

• Katie Allan Zobel, president and CEO, Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

 

Purchase tickets here.

Photography by Dani Fine Photography

Thank you to our sponsors:


Sponsors:

Bay Path University; Comcast Business; Country Bank; Granite State Development

Exclusive Media Sponsor:

Springfield 22 News The CW

Speaker Sponsor:

 

 

 

 

Event Keynote Speaker

Lei Wang
The first Asian woman to complete the Explorers Grand Slam. Lei Wang’s journey redefined success in her own terms, and today, she is challenging individuals around the world to do the same.

In 2004, Lei, who grew up as a Beijing city girl who had no athletic training, set out to climb Mount Everest. She was on a promising career trek in finance with an MBA from Wharton. But she was excited about proving that an ordinary person could climb Everest. That excitement empowered her to not only climb Everest, but to become the first Asian woman to complete a journey to the summits of the highest mountains on each of the 7 continents and to the north and south pole, a feat called the Explorer’s Grand Slam. As she endured outstanding hardships and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, she made an astonishing  discovery. She discovered that excitement is the driving force motivates and empowers every one of us and the secret to innovation, peak performance and extraordinary achievement. Today as a speaker, author and adventurer she travels the world to ascend new summits and empower individuals and organizations to dream big, take a leap of faith and to tap into the power of excitement to realize their potential and reach the heights of success. Read more about Lei here.

Meet the Judges

Samalid Hogan
Samalid Hogan is the regional director for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Regional Office. In that role, she has built partnerships across public, private, and civic sectors to achieve economic-development goals for the Pioneer Valley region. In 2014, Hogan founded CoWork Springfield, the city’s first co-working space, which focuses on serving women and minority-owned businesses. In addition, she was appointed to the Governor’s Latino Advisory Commission in 2017, and serves on the boards of several organizations, including Common Capital, the New England Public Radio Foundation, the Minority Business Alliance, and National Junior Tennis and Learning of Greater Springfield. A BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013 and winner of the Continued Excellence Award in 2018, she was also awarded the Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Spirit Award in 2017 and was recognized as a Woman Trailblazer and Trendsetter by the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce in 2016.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan
Susan Jaye-Kaplan is the founder of the Pioneer Valley Women’s Running Club and Go FIT Inc., and co-founder of Link to Libraries Inc., an organization whose mission is to collect and distribute books to public elementary schools and nonprofit organizations in Western Mass. and Connecticut. She is also the co-founder of the Women’s Leadership Network and founder of the Pioneer Valley Women’s Running Club of Western Mass., as well as an advisory board member and fundraiser for Square One. She has received one of the nation’s Daily Point of Light Awards, the President’s Citation Award at Western New England College, Elms College’s Step Forward/Step Ahead Woman of Vision Award, Reminder Publications’ Hometown Hero Award, the Mass. Commission on the Status of Women Unsung Heroines Award, the New England Patriots’ International Charitable Foundation Community MVP Award (the only person to receive this award two times), and the Girl Scouts of Pioneer Valley’s Women of Distinction Award. She was chosen one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers in 2009. She has also received the National Conference on Community Justice Award, the Springfield Pynchon Award, and the Holyoke Rotary’s Paul Harris Award.

Dora Robinson
Dora Robinson has served as a nonprofit leader and practitioner for more than 35 years. She recently retired from the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) after serving for more than eight years as president and CEO. Previously, she served as the first full-time president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services for 19 years. The foundation for these leadership roles is based on previous experiences as corporate director and vice president for the Center for Human Development and vice president of Education at the Urban League of Springfield. Her earlier professional experiences included social work with adolescents and families, community outreach, and program planning and management. She is currently an adjunct professor at Springfield College School for Social Work and the School for Professional Studies. Dora has received much recognition for her work as a nonprofit executive leader and her work in social justice. Most recently, she was elected to serve on the board of directors for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts and is serving as a steering committee member to establish a neighborhood-based library in East Forest Park.

Cover Story Healthcare Heroes

Scenes from the Healthcare Heroes 2018 Gala

Passion is the word that defines these heroes. And it was on clear display Oct. 25 at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden, site of the Healthcare Heroes Gala.

This was the second such gala. The event was a huge success, not because of the venue (although that was a factor) or the views (although they certainly helped), but because of the accomplishments, the dedication, and, yes, the passion being relayed from the podium.

There are seven winners in all, in categories chosen to reflect the broad scope of the health and wellness sector in Western Mass., and the incredible work being done within it. Go HERE to view the  2018 Healthcare Heroes Program Guide

The Healthcare Heroes for 2018 are:

• Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider:

Mary Paquette, director of Health Services/nurse practitioner, American International College

• Health/Wellness Administrator/Administrator:

Celeste Surreira, assistant director of Nursing, the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke

• Emerging Leader:

Peter DePergola II, director of Clinical Ethics, Baystate Health

• Community Health:

Dr. Matthew Sadof, pediatrician, Baystate Children’s Hospital

• Innovation in Health/Wellness:

TechSpring

• Collaboration in Health/Wellness:

The Consortium and the Opioid Task Force

• Lifetime Achievement:

Robert Fazzi, founder, Fazzi Associates.

American International College and Baystate Health/Health New England are presenting sponsors for Healthcare Heroes 2018. Additional sponsors are National Grid, partner sponsor, and Elms College MBA Program, Renew.Calm, Bay Path University, and Trinity Health Of New England/Mercy Medical Center as supporting sponsors.

HealthcareHeroesSponsors

Photography by Dani Fine Photography

Meet the Judges

There were more than 70 nominations across seven categories for the Healthcare Heroes Class of 2018. Scoring these nominations was a difficult task that fell to three individuals, including two members of the Class of 2017, with extensive backgrounds in health and wellness. They are:

Holly Chaffee

Holly Chaffee

Dexter Johnson

Dexter Johnson

Dr. Michael Willers:

Dr. Michael Willers:

Holly Chaffee, MSN, BSN, RN: Winner in the Healthcare Heroes Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration category in 2107, Chaffee is president and CEO of VNA Care, a subsidiary of Atrius Health. Formerly (and when she was named a Healthcare Hero) she was the president and CEO of Porchlight VNA/Homecare, based in Lee.

Dexter Johnson: A long-time administrator with the Greater Springfield YMCA, Johnson was named president and CEO of that Y, one of the oldest in the country, in the fall of 2017. He started his career at the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA, and, after a stint at YMCA of the USA, he came to the Springfield Y earlier this decade as senior vice president and chief operating officer.

Dr. Michael Willers: Winner in the Patient/Resident/Client-care Provider category in 2017, Willers is co-owner of the Children’s Heart Center of Western Mass. Formerly a pediatric cardiologist with Baystate Children’s Hospital, he founded the Children’s Heart Center of Western Mass. in 2012.
 

 

Cover Story

Bargain or Burden?

With a series of employment-related ballot questions looming — on issues including paid leave, minimum wage, and the state sales tax — supporters of those measures sat down this past spring with advocates for the business community to forge what became known as the ‘grand bargain.’ The result doesn’t have employers cheering — in fact, they worry about the impact of the deal on their bottom line — but if the nature of compromise is that no one’s happy, then the process was a rousing success.

Carol Campbell, like so many other Massachusetts employers, was none too pleased when a barrage of ballot questions were set to go before voters on Election Day, one asking for increased paid leave, a second to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and a third to reduce the sales tax from 6.25% to 5%.

“My first thought was that it shouldn’t have come to this,” said Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors. “The way issues like this are supposed to be dealt with is through our legislators.”

But once those questions were approved for the ballot — and polls suggested that voters were ready to usher in these broadened employee benefits — employers and the organizations that advocate for them decided to sit down and hammer out a different strategy. A compromise.

Carol Campbell says thorny issues of employee benefits should be legislated, not subject to the whims of the ballot box.

Carol Campbell says thorny issues of employee benefits should be legislated, not subject to the whims of the ballot box.

That deal, forged by proponents of the ballot questions and employer-advocacy organizations, was passed by both chambers in the State House and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker in June. Known as the ‘grand bargain,’ the compromise legislation will create a permanent sales-tax holiday, increase the minimum wage over the next five years, and create a new paid family and medical leave program in Massachusetts — while the three ballot questions were removed from voters’ hands.

“I think we needed to sit down and talk,” Campbell said. “I was saying a couple of years ago, when this was bubbling, that we should begin by sitting down and talking. I do still have concerns because there are still a lot of unknowns. But I guess it’s better than letting something like family leave go to the ballot.”

Mark Adams, director of HR Solutions at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, has spent time with employers anxious about putting sweeping benefit changes in front of voters.

“This was something that had to be dealt with because it was going to pass in November,” he told BusinessWest. “I talked to companies frustrated with the prospect of the ballot, saying, ‘how could this happen?’ My answer is simple: when you’re dealing with a ballot question, whoever gets more votes is going to win — and more employees vote than employers. Being able to take time off and be paid while taking time off resonates with employees — even if, in some cases, they might be on the hook for some of those costs. It certainly plays well, which is why it was going to pass in November, and why it was worthwhile to try to compromise.”

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, was the sole Western Mass. voice on the seven-person committee that hammered out the bargain.

“The business community, with the support of the legislative delegation, realized, when we took a look at the polls, that we were going to lose the ballot questions, and everyone felt that we should need to come to the table and compromise,” she noted. “The more we explain that to our members, the more they understand it. They don’t like it, but they recognize that we had no choice but to do it.”

The Nitty Gritty

The grand bargain raises the Commonwealth’s minimum wage from $11 to $15 per hour over the next five years, with the initial increase taking effect in January 2019. Coupled with that increase will be a raise to the minimum base wage rate for tipped workers, from $3.75 to $6.75, that will also phase in over a five-year period starting in January 2019. The deal also phases out the requirement that retail workers earn time-and-a-half for working on Sundays.

The legislation also creates a permanent two-day weekend sales tax holiday, an event that was launched in Massachusetts in 2004 and held most years since, but not in 2016 or 2017. Proponents of lower taxes agreed, as part of the deal, to scrap lowering the state’s sales tax from 6.25% to 5%.

The third major component the bill introduces is a new paid family and medical leave program, which will provide employees who contribute to the program the ability to take paid leave for up to 12 weeks a year to care for a family member or bond with a new child, 20 weeks a year to deal with a personal medical issue, and up to 26 weeks to deal with an emergency related to deployment of a family member for military service.

Weekly benefit amounts will be calculated as a percentage of the employee’s average weekly wage, with a maximum weekly benefit of $850. Self-employed workers may opt into the program. And all workers who use the benefit are guaranteed they can return to their previous job or an equivalent position in terms of pay, status, and benefits.

Workers on paid leave will earn 80% of their wages up to 50% of the state average weekly wage, then 50% of wages above that amount, up to an $850 cap. The law includes a payroll tax increase of 0.63% estimated to bring in $750 to $800 million each year, to help fund the leave benefit.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says the expanded family-leave benefits will challenge companies not only in cost, but in workforce management.

“Paid family leave was a beast; it is so complex,” Creed said, adding that this was one area where she was glad Western Mass. had representation in the discussion. “There’s an east-west disparity, and they do not understand the issues of the west and the fact that we have five gateway cities. We have a much poorer population, and our businesses tend to be smaller. Most of them [in the east] represented larger corporations, and corporations that weren’t necessarily doing the right thing.”

The members she speaks with want to do the right thing, she added.

“But you really have to look at what is the impact going to be. And it’s not just cost; it’s also workforce management. For a company that has 50 employees, if they lose five people on leave, how do they manage that, if they’re running two shifts, three shifts?”

The cost component is also significant, she went on, especially for companies that decide to foot employees’ share of the benefit in order to retain their talent and recruit more workers in a very competitive market.

“What that means is they won’t be able to hire, they won’t be able to expand, and, if they have vacancies through attrition, they probably won’t fill them because they just can’t afford to,” Creed said. “So, at a time when we’re trying to put people to work, it will probably mean less jobs. And I’m not sure the proponents understood what those consequences were.”

Still, the negotiations resulted in a better deal for employers than the ballot question, which called for 16 weeks of family leave and 26 weeks of personal medical leave. The compromise also includes an opt-out provision for employers that offer benefits greater than or equal to what an employee would receive in the state program.

“I have a hard time with people telling me how to run my business,” Campbell said. “We have short-term and long-term disability; we understand the importance of keeping our employees healthy; we understand the need for family-work balance. But it’s not always possible to have that balance. For us as a small business, if we have two or three people out for 26 weeks, it’s not as simple as hiring someone to replace them, although that in itself brings another financial burden to the company.”

Policy Briefs

One aspect of the legislation that has not gotten enough attention, Adams said, is the anti-retaliation aspects of the leave law.

“A lot of the coverage up to this point has been on the time off being available. There hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the retaliation provisions. If an employer is subject to any adverse actions within six months time under paid family leave law, there’s an automatic presumption that retaliation has occurred, and that employer can overcome that only through clear and convincing evidence that it’s something else.”

That means employers need to tighten up policies on performance evaluation, he added. “If people aren’t meeting standards, there has to be documentation that’s clearly communicated. If you’re on paid family leave and I discover you did something wrong before your leave occurred, if I don’t have documentation lined up before taking action, you can claim retaliation. That’s something companies will have to self-assess — whether their policies now are strong enough.”

Mark Adams

Mark Adams

“A lot of the coverage up to this point has been on the time off being available. There hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the retaliation provisions. If an employer is subject to any adverse actions within six months time under paid family leave law, there’s an automatic presumption that retaliation has occurred, and that employer can overcome that only through clear and convincing evidence that it’s something else.”

It’s just one example of unintended consequences that proponents of the original ballot questions might not have considered, Creed noted. Other elements of the grand bargain, however, were easier to hammer out.

“Minimum wage was a given, as a lot of businesses are already there or moving toward it. But we were able to negotiate that being phased in over longer period of time so smaller and medium-sized businesses have time to phase up to that point,” she told BusinessWest.

Interestingly, she added, while the minimum wage for tipped employees will be phased in over five years as well, the committee heard input from some servers and bartenders who were opposed to a dramatic change, “because they think one of the unintended consequences of that is that people now think you’re paying more, so I’m going to tip you less.”

Campbell said the minimum-wage increase won’t effect her company, which doesn’t hire anyone at that low pay level, but she argued that a sizable increase in the pay floor may harm the employment picture by shrinking the number of entry-level jobs for people with little experience. Minimum-wage jobs, she noted, are “the first step toward getting an education and getting proper training to have a career. It was never meant to be supportive of a family.”

As for other components of the bargain, dropping the sales-tax decrease was relatively straightforward, Creed said. “We already have no money to find education and transportation and all the things we need to fund, without bringing in even less sales tax. But at least we were able to get that permanent sales-tax holiday, which helps the retailers.”

The Retailers Assoc. of Massachusetts, which was pushing the sales-tax ballot question, was also heartened by a recent Supreme Court decision allowing states to collect taxes on online purchases.

According to John Regan, executive vice president, Government Affairs at AIM, who had a seat at the table for the grand-bargain talks, the negotiations were carried out against the backdrop of polls indicating overwhelming support for all three ballot questions; recent polls put support for the paid family and medical leave question at 82% and support for a $15 minimum wage at 78%.

“Experts believe that a campaign to defeat questions with those sorts of poll numbers could cost $10 million per initiative,” he added. “The ballot process is one-sided, winner-take-all. Coming to a legislative compromise avoids that by allowing a broader group of people to have input into key decisions to create policies that work for everyone.”

One impetus for bringing the Raise Up Coalition, which sponsored the ballot questions, to the table was the state Supreme Court blocking a fourth question, concerning the so-called ‘millionaire tax,’ a proposed 4% surcharge on incomes over $1 million.

“Once that came off the ballot and was deemed unconstitutional, that brought the other side to the table to realize that, ‘yeah, maybe we should compromise,’” Creed said. “Would we have liked to have seen it differently? Sure, but I think the whole definition of compromise is that no one’s happy, so we did our job. It’s much better than it could have been.”

Richard Lord, president and CEO of AIM, agreed. “While everyone gives something during a negotiation, we are satisfied and believe that our member employers are better off with a legislative compromise than with voter approval of the language of the ballot questions as drafted.”

No Winners

Adams told BusinessWest that different issues with the grand bargain will manifest themselves over time, with the 0.63% tax increase on wages being the most immediate concern, especially for larger companies. “That’s really going to put HR managers behind the eight-ball from a planning point of view.”

Still, Creed added, “a negotiation is messy, and no one really came out a winner. I think the proponents didn’t feel like they came out a winner because they had to compromise. In the end, it was much better than what the ballot questions would have provided.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]