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Policy Shifts

Roger Crandall stops at State & Main in MassMutual’s headquarters building in Springfield.

Roger Crandall stops at State & Main in MassMutual’s headquarters building in Springfield.

Over the course of its 167-year history, MassMutual has successfully responded to changes in society and also in how business is conducted. Today, the pace of change has accelerated greatly, but the company is answering with new strategic initiatives involving everything from the design of workspaces to how individuals apply for life insurance.

They call it ‘State and Main.’

MassMutual built its former headquarters building in Springfield at that very intersection, so that may have something to do with that name. But it’s more likely a reference to the fact that this is where two of the main spines of the company’s sprawling current home on State Street come together. So that’s where many of the 4,000 people working there come together as well.

There’s a Starbucks there, as well as a small shop where people can get their electronic devices serviced, as well as a convenience store. Over the past 18 months or so, some small meeting places and workstations where people can plug in have been added in a nod to changes in how work is now done.

There is a row of these stations along one wall, which, coincidentally, was the old end point of the building before an addition was built. Where the windows once were, there are now photographs depicting work life at MassMutual decades ago.

If you’re looking for evidence of just how much things have changed, you can juxtapose a solitary worker on a laptop in one of these workspaces in front of a huge photo depicting row upon row of desks — an iconic glimpse of the workplace maybe a century ago (see photo above).

It took a long time to get from where things were in that photograph to where they are today, but the pace of change is rapidly accelerating — even when it comes to a product seemingly frozen in time, like life insurance.

While the basic insurance products haven’t changed much over time, how people research them, shop for them, and ultimately buy them have, said Roger Crandall, president and CEO of the Fortune 100 company, the only one based in the 413.

“We’re looking a lot at how to do business with people the way they want to do business,” he explained, adding that there is much that goes into this equation. “The single biggest thing that the technology revolution has done is give consumers the power to interact the way they want to interact.

“We can’t say, ‘you can only talk to us on the phone’; we can’t say, ‘you can only talk to us in person,’” he went on. “We have to be able to meet consumers where they want to be met, and that is what we call an omni-channel world.”

Responding to this new landscape is just one of the many organizational focal points for Crandall and MassMutual, with the emphasis on ‘many.’ Others include those aforementioned changes in the way people work, he told BusinessWest, adding that the company’s headquarters has seen a number of significant changes in response to trends involving more open spaces and the need to bring great minds together, not keep them apart.

As a result, there are far fewer of those large, private offices that once dominated large financial-services companies and often defined how high one had risen in the ranks, and much more of those open workspaces like those along State and Main.

A MassMutual employee gets some work done in front of an image that Roger Crandall calls “a look back in time.”

A MassMutual employee gets some work done in front of an image that Roger Crandall calls “a look back in time.”

These changes are taking place at all of MassMutual’s facilities, which leads to another of those focal points, a headline-generating consolidation and realignment of facilities that will see the company significantly increase its presence — on both ends of the Bay State.

Indeed, there will be $50 million in investments to the Springfield facility, with an estimated 1,500 more employees working there, many of them commuting to that facility instead of the one in Enfield, Conn., which is being closed.

Meanwhile, in Boston, MassMutual will build a new facility in the Seaport District that will be home to about 1,000 workers. The company will look to capitalize on the city’s emergence as a global leader and its already established ability to retain many of the young people who come there to be educated as a way to help attract and retain top talent for years to come.

Still another focal point for the company is Springfield and the region it serves as its unofficial capital, said Crandall, adding that, while the company’s commitment to the City of Homes has come into question — the sale of Tower Square triggered much of that speculation — he said it is as strong as ever, with involvement in everything from education and workforce development to entrepreneurship and new-business development.

Overall, the city has rebounded nicely from the financial turmoil of a decade or so ago, and the opening of MGM Springfield in a few months constitutes just one of many signs of progress, said Crandall, declaring that “Springfield has its mojo back.” (Much more on those thoughts later).

For this issue, BusinessWest caught up with Crandall for a wide-ranging interview that touched on everything from Springfield and its mojo to Boston and the latest addition to its business landscape, to all those changes at State and Main and what they mean for this 167-year-old company.

Space Exploration

That interview took place in Crandall’s spacious office on the second floor of its headquarters building. As he gestured toward his surroundings, Crandall, who has occupied them since 2010, admitted candidly that he wasn’t exactly sure what would become of them as MassMutual undertakes that realignment of its facilities to accommodate more employees and a changing workplace. He did know that it won’t look like it does now.

“This office is a dinosaur; no one would build an office like this in a new building,” he told BusinessWest. “This space may very well have 20 people in it when we’re all done — there’s plenty of room for 20 people in here in a modern configuration.”

He was more certain about many other things, especially the company’s changing footprint when it comes to facilities. It will be a smaller, more efficient footprint, he noted, one shaped to address a number of challenges and opportunities moving forward.

This change to the landscape has resulted from some seismic shifts over the past several years, especially a number of acquisitions — including Metlife’s retail advisor force, the Metlife Premier Client Group (MPCG) in the summer of 2016 — that left the company with a dispersed portfolio of facilities, and also changing technology, which, as noted, has altered everything from how people buy products to how they work.

These changes prompted the company to take a much-needed step back, said Crandall, before it could decide how to move forward.

“We said, ‘this is a good time to step back and say, ‘how is our geographic footprint aligned with what we’re trying to do from a long-term perspective?’” he recalled. “And that prompted us to take a look at a whole variety of options.”

Elaborating, he said recent acquisitions left the company with facilities in Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., Phoenix, Ariz., Somerset, N.J., Amherst, and other locations. And while advancing technology allows people in remote offices to communicate effectively, consolidating those offices emerged as the option that made the most sense.

“Although people work in different ways and the ability to work remotely is greater than ever because of technology, it’s really important to have more people interacting with each other,” he explained, “to get the best ideas, the best execution, and to take advantage of the diversity our workforce has.

“It’s great to be able to connect through devices, but face-to-face meetings are really important,” he went on, noting that roughly 2,000 employees will be relocated to Massachusetts from locations in other states. “So we liked the idea of getting to a smaller footprint.”

That makes sense on other levels as well, he noted, adding that the company was really only using about 60% of its facilities in Springfield and 60% of its facilities in Enfield.

At the same time, the company has put an even greater emphasis on the broad issue of workforce development and the challenge of attracting and retaining top talent.

And this combination of factors prompted a long, hard look at Boston — a city that has drawn similar looks from a host of other major corporations — and then hard action.

“We thought about how to set ourselves up to attract the best and the brightest for the next 25 or 30 years,” said Crandall. “And that’s where having a location in Boston, which has really emerged as a global city in the last decade, came to the forefront.

“Boston has become a true world leader,” he went on. “It’s always been a world leader in education, and it’s become a world leader in medicine and life sciences, and it’s also a very significant financial center as well. People go to school there, and they want to stay there.”

But while MassMutual will build a new facility in Boston’s Seaport District at 1 Marina Park, it will maintain a strong presence at both ends of the state, said Crandall, adding that Springfield will remain the company’s home.

Once used as basketball courts, space on the fourth floor of MassMutual’s headquarters building is now dedicated to meeting spaces known collectively as the ‘tree rooms.’

Once used as basketball courts, space on the fourth floor of MassMutual’s headquarters building is now dedicated to meeting spaces known collectively as the ‘tree rooms.’

The fact that it is only 90 minutes away on the Turnpike from the Boston offices (traffic permitting) should bring a number of benefits, he noted.

“It’s very, very different running a company where people can drive back and forth, and running a company where you have to get on a plane,” he noted. “And from that culture perspective, that became important to us as well.”

Room for Improvement

As for the facilities in Springfield, Crandall told BusinessWest that what’s planned is a reconfiguration and not an expansion in the true sense of the word.

But more people will be working at that location — and turning up at State and Main for lattes, to have their phone repaired, to get their dry cleaning, and, increasingly, to get some work done as well.

As Crandall noted earlier, there will be fewer private offices moving forward and more open spaces where people can work and collaborate as the company strives to moves away from a historical hierarchy that has defined much of its history and that of other financial-services giants as well.

The company has already taken a number of significant steps in this direction, he went on, referencing rows of tables where people can work on laptops, spaces where a few people can gather and talk, and larger, technology-equipped meeting spaces, such as those now known simply as the ‘tree rooms.’

There’s ‘Birch,’ ‘Elm,’ ‘Maple,’ ‘Hemlock,’ and others. These are meeting facilities created on the fourth floor of the headquarters building — space devoted to basketball courts until 1980 and for less ornate (and modern) meeting spaces in recent years.

Meanwhile, there are more meeting spaces on the ground floor just off State and Main that, like the ones a few floors up, are always occupied and need to be booked well in advance. These rooms are named for national parks, and include ‘Yosemite,’ ‘Zion,’ ‘Everglades,’ and ‘Glacier.’

As for what’s going on in all those meeting rooms, Crandall said the company is focusing its efforts in many directions, including what he called “a digitization of everything we do.”

And that brings him back to that omni-channel world he mentioned and the need to meet consumers where they want to be met.

“We’re basically building a digital insurance company from scratch to disrupt ourselves,” he explained. “It’s going to give us the ability to be much more responsive to consumer demands, and have much lower costs, which will enable us take advantage of the next big opportunity, which is to broadly offer more Americans insurance.”

Elaborating, he said there are 35 million American families with no insurance at all, and insurance penetration in this country is among the lowest in the world. “When we go out and do focus groups and ask people if they need life insurance, 70% say ‘yes,’” he said. “And 50% of the people who have life insurance say they need more life insurance, so there is this big unmet need.”

There are many reasons for this, he said, including the fact that fewer people are working for the kinds of large companies that offer life insurance as a benefit, and more are working for smaller ventures that don’t, or are self-employed.

To meet that need, the company is responding proactively with products and processes that can put insurance within reach and bring the numbers from those surveys down.

“No normal person sits down and thinks about the process of buying life insurance,” he said. “But we took a look at that process a few years ago and determined that it was largely the same as it was in 1995, 1985, and, arguably, 1975 — a paper-based application that got sent through snail mail to an underwriter, which triggered a paramed going to someone’s house, and a process that begins with someone standing on a scale and goes downhill, from a consumer’s perspective, to 25 days later getting told you’re not the best risk class and you’re going to have to pay more for the product than you thought.”

To change that equation, the company’s data-science team began working with an accumulated asset — the applications taken for life insurance over the years — and built a machine-learning mortality-scoring model.

“That model, with the support of reinsurers, is being used to underwrite 75% of the policies MassMutual issues,” he went on, adding that this process often lowers the time required to get approval — down to one day for those who are younger and in good health — and brings down the cost of that insurance.

And this is just one example of this digitization process, which doubles as a growth strategy.

“What really matters to us in the long run is being able to have the talent we need to execute our mission,” Crandall explained, “to help people secure their future and protect the ones they love, and to continue the growth trajectory we’ve been on — we’re now the biggest seller of whole life insurance in the country and are the second-biggest seller of all life insurance in the country.”

Paying Dividends

As MassMutual continues to respond to a changing landscape for a wide range of business perspectives, it is doing the same when it comes to its work within the community and especially its home city of Springfield, said Crandall.

He noted that there have been many forms of progress in recent years, from new vibrancy downtown to the city’s much-improved fiscal health, to a better perception of the city across the state and even outside it.

Roger Crandall says MassMutual is essentially building a digital insurance company from scratch “to disrupt ourselves.”

Roger Crandall says MassMutual is essentially building a digital insurance company from scratch “to disrupt ourselves.”

“The vibe in Springfield is as positive as I’ve seen it in 30 years,” he said when asked to offer his assessment, adding quickly that there are many areas of need and concern, and MassMutual and its foundation are partnering with others to help address many of them.

Especially those in the broad realm of education.

Noting the importance of education to attaining a job in today’s technology-based economy, Crandall said MassMutual’s commitment to education takes many forms, from financial-literacy programs involving middle-schoolers to a $15 million commitment to help create a sustainable workforce in data science.

“We know that, in the long run, better educational outcomes are such a powerful way to change people’s trajectories in life,” he explained, adding that it starts with getting individuals not only through high school, but graduating with the skills they will need to thrive in this economy.

But the company’s commitment to the city and the region — what Crandall called ‘enabling philanthropy’ — encompasses many different aspects of economic development, he went on, listing, for example, its work with DevelopSpringfield to revitalize neighborhoods across the city, and its backing of Valley Venture Mentors ($2 million to date) and financing of startups that pledge to put down roots in the region.

There has also been support of workforce-development initiatives, such as a training center for call-center employees at Springfield Technical Community College and a similar initiative involving the precision-manufacturing sector.

Then there’s the company’s support of ROCA, the agency that works with incarcerated individuals, usually repeat offenders, to help them change the course of their life and succeed outside the prison walls.

“There is no greater waste of a person’s potential or, frankly, the economic potential of our community than having a large group of young men who are unemployable or in prison,” said Crandall. “When you talk to a young man who’s been in prison who’s now a member of the carpenter’s union, getting married and having a child, and buying a home … to think about where he is as opposed to when he was 18 — that’s inspiring.”

Overall, Crandall, deploying that word ‘mojo,’ said the city has not only many positive developments breaking its way, but also more confidence and self-esteem. Perhaps even more important — and those factors are significant in their own right — is the fact that those outside the city are sharing those sentiments.

To get that point across, he relayed a recent conversation he had while visiting one of the company’s agencies in Brooklyn, a borough that had more than its share of problems a generation ago but has morphed into one of the hottest communities in the country.

“I was talking to one of our agents, probably in his mid-30s, and he said, ‘I just invested in a property in Springfield, Massachusetts,’” he recalled, adding that he responded by asking why this individual wasn’t investing in Brooklyn instead. “He said, ‘I’ve done great here in Brooklyn, but Springfield reminds me of Brooklyn 20 years ago.”

Past Is Prologue

Referencing those pictures placed where the windows were on the old exterior wall of the State Street facility, Crandall said each image was designed to be “a look back in time.”

“It’s a pretty neat historical kind of twist that adds an interesting flair to that area,” he said, noting that looking back is much easier — and generally more fun — than trying to look forward, anticipate the future, and prepare for it.

But that’s just what MassMutual is doing, and those exercises define the many strategic initiatives at the company — everything from its soon-to-be-much-smaller geographic footprint to its efforts to meet customers when and how they want to be met, to philanthropic efforts within the community focused on everything from education to providing new, productive lives for the incarcerated.

Crandall doesn’t know what his current office will look like in a year or two, but he does know it won’t look like it does now. And there may be 20 people working in that space.

It’s a dinosaur that’s extinct. The company is moving on from it, reconfiguring, becoming more efficient, and responding proactively to change.

And it’s doing that with every aspect of an altered landscape.

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

40 Under 40 Class of 2018 Cover Story

Announcing the 12th Annual Cohort of 40 Under Forty Honorees

40under40-logo2017aWhen BusinessWest launched a program in 2007 to honor young professionals in Western Mass. — not only for their career achievements, but for their service to the community — there was little concern that the initial flow of nominations might slow to a trickle years later.

We were right. In fact, 40 Under Forty has become such a coveted honor in the region’s business community that the flow has turned into a flood, with more than 180 unique nominations arriving this year, making the job of five independent judges tougher than ever.

They did their job well, however, as you’ll find while reading through the profiles on the coming pages. The format is a bit different this year — instead of being interviewed, the winners were free to craft and write out their own thoughts — but, collectively, they speak of a wave of young talent that is only getting larger during what can only be described as an economic renaissance in Western Mass.

As usual, they hail from a host of different industries, from law to banking; from education to healthcare; from media to retail, just to name a few. Many are advancing the work of long-established businesses, while others, with an entrepreneurial bent, created their own opportunities instead of waiting for them to emerge.


40 Under Forty Class of 2018

Amanda Abramson
Yahaira Antonmarchi
Lindsay Barron
Nathan Bazinet
Andrew Bresciano
Saul Caban
Jamie Campbell
Crystal Childs
Nathan Costa
Jamie Daniels


But there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on what else they do in each of those realms.

The class of 2018 will be celebrated at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala on Thursday, June 21 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. A limited number of tables are available, and a number of individual seats and standing-room-only tickets are available as well — but they will sell out quickly.

The gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the fourth annual Continued Excellence Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their résumé of accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges. Nominations are still being accepted through Monday, May 14 at businesswest.com/40-under-forty-continued-excellence-award.

Speaking of judges, we thank those who scored the more than 180 nominations for this year’s 40 Under Forty competition (their story HERE). They are:

Ken Carter, member of the UMass Amherst Polymer Science and Engineering Department;
Mark Fulco, president of Mercy Medical Center;
Jim Hickson, senior vice president and commercial regional president for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut for Berkshire Bank;
Angela Lussier, CEO and founder of the Speaker Sisterhood; and
Kristi Reale, partner at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C..

Presenting Sponsors

nortwestern-mutual peoplesbank-logo

Sponsors

hne_logo_cmyk_stack-page-001 isenberg
renew-calm-logo-002

Partner

yps


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

40 Under 40 Class of 2018 Cover Story

Announcing the 12th Annual Cohort of 40 Under Forty Honorees

40under40-logo2017aWhen BusinessWest launched a program in 2007 to honor young professionals in Western Mass. — not only for their career achievements, but for their service to the community — there was little concern that the initial flow of nominations might slow to a trickle years later.

We were right. In fact, 40 Under Forty has become such a coveted honor in the region’s business community that the flow has turned into a flood, with more than 180 unique nominations arriving this year, making the job of five independent judges tougher than ever.

They did their job well, however, as you’ll find while reading through the profiles on the coming pages. The format is a bit different this year — instead of being interviewed, the winners were free to craft and write out their own thoughts — but, collectively, they speak of a wave of young talent that is only getting larger during what can only be described as an economic renaissance in Western Mass.

As usual, they hail from a host of different industries, from law to banking; from education to healthcare; from media to retail, just to name a few. Many are advancing the work of long-established businesses, while others, with an entrepreneurial bent, created their own opportunities instead of waiting for them to emerge.


40 Under Forty Class of 2018

Amanda Abramson
Yahaira Antonmarchi
Lindsay Barron
Nathan Bazinet
Andrew Bresciano
Saul Caban
Jamie Campbell
Crystal Childs
Nathan Costa
Jamie Daniels

 

But there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on what else they do in each of those realms.

The class of 2018 will be celebrated at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala on Thursday, June 21 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. A limited number of tables are available, and a number of individual seats and standing-room-only tickets are available as well — but they will sell out quickly.

The gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the fourth annual Continued Excellence Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their résumé of accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges. Nominations are still being accepted through Monday, May 14 at businesswest.com/40-under-forty-continued-excellence-award.

Speaking of judges, we thank those who scored the more than 180 nominations for this year’s 40 Under Forty competition (their story HERE). They are:

Ken Carter, member of the UMass Amherst Polymer Science and Engineering Department;
Mark Fulco, president of Mercy Medical Center;
Jim Hickson, senior vice president and commercial regional president for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut for Berkshire Bank;
Angela Lussier, CEO and founder of the Speaker Sisterhood; and
Kristi Reale, partner at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C..

Presenting Sponsors

nortwestern-mutual peoplesbank-logo

Sponsors

hne_logo_cmyk_stack-page-001 isenberg
renew-calm-logo-002

Partner

yps


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Sharing the Gold

Kacey Bellamy

Kacey Bellamy

Kacey Bellamy’s pursuit of a gold medal took her and her teammates to Vancouver, Sochi, and finally PyeongChang, where the team triumphed over Canada, the country that had beaten them at the two previous stops. It was a long, hard journey, said the Westfield resident, who has been very much in demand since returning from South Korea, and one packed with lessons for school children and adults alike about never giving up on one’s goals and dreams.

Kacey Bellamy says she never had many doubts about the validity of that old saying about how the color of the Olympic medal really — really — matters.

And now, she doesn’t have any at all.

“It’s a totally different realm when you win gold,” said Bellamy, who had captured silver twice before as a member of the U.S. women’s hockey team before that squad broke through in PyeongChang in February. “It’s like everyone wants you to share it with them, and … it does things for you.”

Like bring an invitation to Wrestlemania 34 your way. Yes, Wrestlemania.

Indeed, as she talked with BusinessWest, Bellamy was fresh off her return flight from New Orleans. The night before, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, she took in the 34-match card and watched, among other things, the team of Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle force Stephanie McMahon and Triple H into submission. Bellamy sat in the second row with her brother, Robbie, and some of her Olympic teammates, and loved every minute of the show.

“It was awesome,” she said, noting that, while the hockey players were mostly spectators, they were interviewed during the show. “We used to watch wrestling as kids all the time — it was a pretty important thing for our family, and my brother got to come with us.”

But a seat just outside the squared circle was just the latest stopping point for Bellamy and her teammates on what has been a real whirlwind of activity since getting back in this time zone.

There have been appearances on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres’s program. At opening day at Fenway Park earlier this month, she was one of seven Olympians with New England ties to throw out ceremonial first pitches. As exciting as that toss was, meeting David Ortiz was even more so.

There have been visits and puck drops at several National Hockey League games, including tilts hosted by the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Tampa Bay Lightning. Bellamy received the Bold Woman Award at the Bay Path Women’s Leadership Conference on April 6, and last week gave a quick talk and handed out the honors at Westfield Bank’s Top Performers awards presentation.

And that’s obviously just a partial list of what has kept Bellamy busy the past month and half.

But she was quick to point out that, while the 586-gram gold medal she won has, indeed, opened some doors, she didn’t persevere through a decade of intense training and overcome some deep setbacks to shake hands with Big Papi, see the Undertaker from a few feet away, and hang out in Jimmy Kimmel’s green room.

No, winning the gold medal was always the goal, personally and professionally, she told BusinessWest, and one can’t — or shouldn’t — ever give up on their goals.

That’s the message she’s been leaving with the people she’s spoken before since she’s come back from PyeongChang. Actually, she delivered that same lesson long before she left for South Korea.

You just don’t give up on your dreams and your goals. The biggest thing for me is having a dream and then setting small goals personally to achieve that and working as hard as you can, day in and day out, to achieve those goals.”

That’s because it was this mindset that got her there. It’s what convinced her to put aside thoughts of retirement from the Olympics after a second straight — and even more devastating — loss to Canada in the gold-medal game at Sochi in 2014.

“You just don’t give up on your dreams and your goals,” she said. “The biggest thing for me is having a dream and then setting small goals personally to achieve that and working as hard as you can, day in and day out, to achieve those goals.

“Every school I go to, I try to tell that to the young kids,” she went on. “Because I think it’s important to have a dream at that age, no matter what it is. But it’s also important that you don’t just have a huge dream — you have to set small goals and work on them every day.”

With the gold medal now in her pocket — or around her neck; that’s where it usually resides — Bellamy has other goals to pursue. She wants to stay in hockey as long as she can and in as many ways as she can — as a player, a coach (she’s already done some of that), and perhaps as a broadcaster. Meanwhile, she wants to go on telling her story and stressing the lessons to be taken from it.

And that’s just what we’ll do here. Indeed, for this issue and its focus on women in business, BusinessWest talked with someone in an unusual line of work, but one with a message that applies to everyone who laces them up — in any setting.

Stranglehold on Determination

$577.

That’s what a gold medal from PyeongChang is worth — literally speaking. You can go on the Internet and look it up (we did).

That’s less than most people might think, and it’s because a gold medal doesn’t actually have that much gold in it — just 6 grams, actually; the rest is sterling silver. For the record, a silver medal is worth about $320, and a bronze medal … yikes, only $3.50. (It’s amazing what you can learn on the Internet.)

But that isn’t what most are thinking about when they ask, ‘what is a gold medal worth?’ No, they’re thinking about maybe six- or even seven-figure endorsement deals, a face on a Wheaties box, job opportunities, business opportunities, money, fame, all that.

For the most part, Bellamy is neither thinking about nor expecting much, if any, of that. She has a few endorsements — with Westfield Bank (she’s the institution’s main pitch person, if you will), the hockey equipment maker Bauer, and a nutrition company — and can’t say if there may be more coming her way. She doesn’t even have an agent.

Kacey Bellamy shares a moment — and her gold medal — with William Wagner, chief Business Development officer for Westfield Bank, at the institution’s Top Performer event earlier this month.

Kacey Bellamy shares a moment — and her gold medal — with William Wagner, chief Business Development officer for Westfield Bank, at the institution’s Top Performer event earlier this month.

As for other opportunities that might come her way from winning gold instead of silver? She’s not sure there will be anything that could be put in the category of lucrative.

But as she talked about these matters, she offered her own two cents on the worth of not only the gold medal but the others she competed for: Priceless.

That might sound like the one-word refrain from a credit-card commercial she doesn’t appear in, but Bellamy says that’s how she feels — about the medal itself but also the experience, meaning the years of hard work, the ups and downs, and the satisfaction that comes from never giving up on the ultimate goal and finally achieving it.

“I don’t look at the gold medal as a money maker,” she told BusinessWest. “I look at it from what it means to me — the relationships that I make, the people I’ve met, and, most importantly, the journey and what I’ve learned from it.”

This is what she talks about when she tells her story to young people and even those who aren’t so young. And if you haven’t heard it (OK, you probably have), it’s a really good one.

And she usually starts telling it by referencing what was obviously the low point in her life — getting cut from the first national team she tried out for.

“I used that as my motivation moving forward,” she said, offering her experience as an example of how others should deal with the adversity that life will inevitably throw at everyone.

“I didn’t point any fingers, and I didn’t blame anyone but me. I e-mailed the coach who cut me and asked what I could do to improve my game and about the things I needed to do,” she went on. “And I used that experience to motivate me and try to be better in every aspect of my game. And, knock on wood, that was the last team I was cut from.”

Net Results

Four years later, in 2010, she was part of the team that lost to Canada in the gold-medal game, 2-0. Just 22 at the time, Bellamy was excited merely to be representing her country and taking part in the Olympics. Still, the runner-up finish left a mark — as well as determination not to be standing on the lower podium and listening to another country’s national anthem four years later.

Such a mindset was positive in many respects, she went on, but in some ways, the focus became the goal (the gold medal) and not what it might take to reach it, which is where it should have been. And this is another lesson she imparts on her audiences of school children and businesspeople alike.

“The next four years after that, we were just focused on winning, but really the focus was on not losing,” she explained. “It was more ‘we don’t want to have another silver medal … we don’t want to have another silver medal.’

“I think we looked a little too far ahead,” she went on. “And that was kind of how that gold-medal game in Sochi ended; we were up 2-0 with three minutes left. They scored, and then they tied it up with a minute left, and then they won in overtime. I think it was the small details and the mental aspect of the game that we had to work on.”

Over the next four years, the team did what she called a “360 with our program,” learned from what went wrong at Sochi, and focused inward — just as she did when she was cut from her first national squad — with the goal of getting better.

“We just tried to get 1% better every day — in training, on the ice, and in mental skills,” she went on. “We were very prepared going into PyeongChang, and as a team, we always felt the positive vibe about the gold medal around our necks, and never thought, ‘what if we lose … what if we lose.’”

There is a virtual gold mine of lessons from the U.S. team’s Olympic experiences that can be applied to school, the workplace, and life itself, and Bellamy says she’s more than happy to share them, just as she shares her gold medal with those she meets in her travels.

Especially that notion of focusing on yourself, or your team, with the mindset that, if you strive to continuously improve and meet that goal, the larger goal will likely take care of itself.

“In the past, we always thought about the Canadian team and always tried to think about how we can be better than them,” she told BusinessWest. “But these past four years, we’ve just been focused on our team and us, and what we can do better.”

And then, there are those lessons concerning teamwork and how to flourish as a team.

Bellamy said that, while those who compete as individuals — from wrestlers to tennis players to golfers — sometimes get more attention and more hype, especially when they’re the best at what they do, she has always preferred the team setting.

“The reason I play is because it’s a team sport,” she said of her decisions to keep playing and return to the Olympics a third time. “You’re doing what you love to do with your sisters and your best friends, and you get to share that. And this is what makes it so special.”

Again, more lessons for the workplace.

Dream Job

As for what happens next … well, Bellamy wouldn’t rule out anything, including a fourth Olympics.

She is determined to help women’s hockey grow and thrive, and play as long as she can; she is currently playing professionally for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, but has also patrolled the blue line in the rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and suggests that maybe the sport would be best served by a merger of the two organizations.

Meanwhile, she’d like to do more coaching, especially at the high-school level, where she would be developing young talent and helping girls on and off the ice.

“You can’t play hockey forever, but you can grow the game forever,” she explained. “And I would definitely like to stay involved in the sport itself, whether that means playing or coaching.”

For now and for the short term, though, she’ll mostly be sharing her gold medal — something she really enjoys, especially if she’s doing it at Wrestlemania.

But while doing that, she’s also sharing her story — one that’s not about hockey or gold medals, but rather about dreams and goals, and how one should never let go of either.

She and her sisters, her best friends, never did, and the experience has provided her with a lifetime of memories and invaluable lessons to impart upon others. And all that is the very best answer to the question, ‘what’s a gold medal worth?’

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

Cover Story Golf Preview Sections

Grinding It Out

Two decades ago, people were clamoring to get into the golf business. It was seen as an almost can’t-miss proposition, and individuals and municipalities alike were looking to cash in. Things changed in a hurry, of course, and today, operations are struggling to stay in the black. To do so, they must be imaginative, flexible, and diverse.

For several years now, area golf-course operators have been saying there’s at least one too many courses in this region for the collective good, especially given the downward trajectory of the business as overall play has declined.

With the accent on ‘at least.’

Well, now there is actually one less track in the Greater Springfield area with the sale last fall of Southwick Country Club to an area developer. Where once there were fairways, greens, and tee boxes, there will soon be homes priced at roughly $300,000 and above.

Just what kind of impact this development will have on the region’s golf industry remains to be seen — Southwick was a relatively small operation, but the course had several leagues, was popular with women and seniors, and had a loyal core of regulars.

“Those people and those leagues will have to play somewhere,” said Ted Perez Jr., long-time pro and co-owner of East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, a truly family-run operation launched 55 years ago by Ted Sr. “They’re not going to stop playing, they’re not going to quit the game, so they’ll have to go somewhere else; that much is clear.”

What is also abundantly and even painfully clear is that the problems facing all golf-course owners and operators, public and private, are not going to be solved or even remotely dented by one course closing its doors. Those problems are far too systemic for that.

That’s why Perez and others we spoke with believe it’s not a case of whether other courses will join Southwick as casualties of a changing landscape, but when. While there is no consensus on when it will actually happen, the overriding sentiment is ‘soon,’ which is obviously a relative term.

Meanwhile … in professional golf, when a player has to work exceedingly hard to make pars and keep from falling down the leaderboard, those analyzing the action on TV like to say that he or she is ‘grinding it out.’

And that’s exactly what area courses are doing — working exceedingly hard so as not to lose ground, as in revenue or profits.

These exercises in grinding it out take many forms, and the efficiency of some of them can certainly be debated. And one large realm that falls in that category is pricing.

The back wall of Dave Fleury’s office

The back wall of Dave Fleury’s office — the one crammed with posters promoting events at Crestview Country Club — speaks to how golf operations have to focus on much more than golf.

Many courses are actually lowering theirs, even as the cost of everything from fertilizer to health insurance for employees continues to rise. Meanwhile, others are adopting what is now a common practice among airlines and hotels — dynamic pricing.

In these scenarios, open stretches on the tee sheets can be filled by discounting those slots in the same way that hotels will let unsold rooms go at below-rate prices on the theory that an occupied room is better than a vacant one.

Jamie Ballard, head pro at Crumpin-Fox Golf Club in Bernardston, said the club is now using dynamic pricing, and it is helping to fill in more lines on tee sheets and get people on the course.

“The margins in golf are so thin now, you have to value every tee time,” he noted while explaining why the club utilizes a company called Golf Now to handle its tee sheet use dynamic pricing to fill slots that may otherwise go unsold. “We don’t ever want to cheapen our brand by giving things away, but if I have a block of tee times on a weekend from 10 to 12 that we’re telling to sell our $100 rack rate that’s not booked, we have to find a way to fill that tee sheet more.”

But others, like Perez, who called such tactics part of what he termed the ‘race to the bottom,’ and Dave Fleury, owner of Crestview Country Club in Agawam and Elmcrest Country Club in East Longmeadow, see inherent dangers in discounting the product, especially the fear that people will be reluctant to pay full price.

“Sometimes it gets like a market in Morocco,” said Fleury, referring to the growing amount of price negotiating going on in golf now. “Golfers are much more emboldened to basically try to demand the price they want to pay, and that’s not really good for the game.”

Meanwhile, there are other elements to grinding it out. These include changes and improvements to make clubs more customer-friendly and especially family-friendly. And this involves both public and private courses; among the latter, Springfield Country Club initiated a massive makeover last year coinciding with new ownership, and stoic Longmeadow Country Club is making nearly $5 million in improvements this year (see related story, page 28).

And then, there’s diversification.

Diversification? Yes, there’s always been some of that at golf operations — from weddings in the clubhouse to snowshoeing on the course. But now, there’s much, much more of it, out of necessity. And it comes in all forms — from Easter brunches to bands to comedy nights, as we’ll see — in an effort to create critically needed revenue streams.

At Waubeeka Golf Club in Williamstown, in the far northwest corner of the state, diversification and grinding it out are being taken to new and intriguing levels. Indeed, Mike Deep, a real-estate business owner who bought the club five years ago to keep it from closing, is advancing plans for an elaborate resort at the course.

Plans are still in the developmental stage, but he can envision dozens of small cabins, a large conference facility, a banquet hall, and more. It’s an ambitious plan, he said, but the current landscape demands such boldness.

“You can’t stand still in this business — you’ll get run over,” he said, speaking for everyone involved in golf. “You have to change, and you have to think differently.”

Setting a New Course

The wall behind the desk in Dave Fleury’s office at Crestview goes a long way toward explaining all of what’s happening in golf today.

Indeed, space that years ago would probably have gone toward pictures of Fleury with many of the golf pros he’s met during a long career in course design (and he has a few of those around) now boasts posters announcing different events Crestview has staged over the past several years.

And the depth and diversity of these events gives new meaning to ‘diversification’ in the golf business.

There are appearances by bands, a Harley night, brunches, comedy nights, a Kentucky Derby party, cruise nights … you name it.

Fleury displays these posters … well, because he’s proud of them; he helped design them. But as a group, these events show in a powerful fashion just how much this operation has changed.

Years ago, Crestview was a private course, and the focus was on golf and the membership. Period. There were no Harley nights and no U2 tribute bands playing there.

Scenic Waubeeka Golf Club in Wlliamstown

Scenic Waubeeka Golf Club in Wlliamstown may soon add a destination resort and conference facilities in an effort to create a more diverse, profitable business operation.

But today, more than 70,000 people make their way down the winding road to the Crestview clubhouse annually, by Fleury’s estimates, and only a small percentage of them will take golf clubs out of the trunk.

The rest will be going to the restaurant, using the pool, checking out vintage cars, or taking part in what Fleury called “block parties,” events that become important revenue streams. Ton sum up how it works and what it means for the operation, he borrowed terms from baseball, not golf.

“There are very few home runs in this business,” he explained. “So if you can hit a lot of singles and doubles, then you can stay in business. If you look at every event like that, as long as we make a reasonable profit and we’re doing a good job of what we do, then they’re well worth doing.”

This is how it is now and will be moving forward, said those we spoke with.

Why? Well, let’s start by going back to where we started — the now-closed Southwick Country Club. A visit there provides some some intriguing perspective, geographically and otherwise, on a changed but still-crowded golf landscape.

Indeed, one can actually see another course from what used to be Southwick’s first fairway — the Ranch is right down the road, although it is a world away when it comes to price, quality, and amenities. And there are two more public courses within just a few miles of Southwick’s driveway — Shaker Farms Country Club in Westfield and Edgewood Country Club in Southwick. Tekoa Country Club, also in Westfield, is maybe three and a half miles away, and there are three more public courses just over the line in Agawam — Oak Ridge, St. Anne’s, and Agawam Country Club. East Mountain Country Club is only six miles away.

Things aren’t quite as crowded on the east side of the Connecticut River, but there are plenty of choices there as well.

There is simply an oversupply, said Fleury, adding that it would have been hard to imagine such a scenario 20 years ago. That’s when Tiger Woods was creating huge amounts of energy and interest in the game — and the business — of golf.

A stroll through the BusinessWest archives puts things in perspective. The headline on the cover of the May 1997 issue (this was a monthly back then) said it all: “Going for the Green: Round Numbers Are Adding Up for Golf Entrepreneurs.” One of the principals behind the Ranch project, talking about a surge in play at area courses, said at the time: “all you have to do is open the cash register and point to the first tee; everyone wants to play these days. You’ve got to get that $20 bill out of your pocket fast … because there’s a guy in line behind you who has his out already.”

But things changed relatively quickly, from a business-cycle perspective, and there’s no better evidence of this than the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, arguably the poster child for a struggling industry.

A municipal course — meaning it’s owned by the town — the Ledges was conceived just as Tiger and the game of golf were booming and it seemed like things would stay that way forever. Golf wasn’t a get-rich-quick scheme, per se, but for many private developers and even towns like South Hadley, it was something close to that.

Until it wasn’t.

Which, in the case of the Ledges, was essentially right away; from the start, it has been a losing proposition. The town’s manager said last fall that it has lost almost $9 million since the first foursome went off in 2001. And, remember, this was sold as a can’t-miss revenue generator!

The Ledges is still operating, but it is on the golf-business equivalent of life support. Town officials have said that, if things don’t turn around this year, they will pull the plug, and the course will close and revert to parkland.

If that happens, there will less competition for area courses, but the region will still be saturated, if not oversaturated.

And those in the business will still be grinding it out — or not. As noted earlier, more casualities are expected.

In the meantime, course operators will continue looking for ways to bring more people to their doorsteps — for golf or anything else that will generate revenue and help keep people employed.

Rough Estimates

This is the broad topic that is dominating regional and national meetings of golf-course operators, said Deep, adding that he has now attended many such gatherings.

“We have to change how people think about golf,” he said while summing up the broad assignment, which is even more daunting in Berkshire County, which has, as Deep noted, among the highest rates of golf courses per capita. There are 14 of them, by his count, and they are all fishing in a pool that seems to get smaller each year.

There might be only 13 if Deep had not stepped in five years ago. Waubeeka was losing about $400,000 a year at the time, he said, adding that he was confident (and now he has no idea why) that he could turn things around quickly and profoundly.

Instead, he could do neither, although he did make progress, reducing those losses consistently to where the club is now maybe $100,000 in the red. “We’re going in the right direction, but there’s no way anyone can continue to lose that kind of money,” he went on, adding that this reality prompted the plans for a destination hotel and convention facility, something the area lacks and needs.

Preliminary plans call for what Deep called a “village,” with a new clubhouse, a dining facility for 300 or more, and cabins scattered around the property. The project would be built in phases, and 2020 is the goal for the first stage.

To borrow another phrase from those television analysts, this ambitious move is, like a reachable par 5, a risk-reward scenario. There is considerable risk, but also potential rewards. And this is what is going on across the industry, albeit on a generally much smaller scale: Taking risks to realize rewards.

Put another way, and to paraphrase those we spoke with, the biggest risk comes in doing nothing and simply hoping the golf gods (ask anyone who plays) will smile on your operation.

One of the risks being taken is lowering prices, a difficult step at a time when other costs are escalating, but a necessary one for many clubs.

Crumpin-Fox is in that category, said Ballard, noting this step wasn’t taken lightly and is considered a calculated response to the changing landscape.

“Whether you like it or not, this is a business,” he told BusinessWest. “We might love our golf course and say, in our opinion, that we don’t have any competition, but the reality of it is we do. And if you have options, price is one thing that people consider.”

Other risks are more minor in nature and reflect Fleury’s comments about hitting singles and doubles — a discussion that prompts Perez to talk about ‘upstairs.’

That would be East Mountain’s expansive yet flexible ballroom.

“My brother, Mark (also a partner in the EMCC operation), talked about this six or seven years ago — he said we had to start using upstairs more,” said Perez, adding that, while the facility had always played host to weddings, chamber breakfasts, Rotary meetings, and more, it was clear that it was still being underutilized as a revenue generator.

Not anymore.

To get his point across, Perez referenced Trivia Night, or the latest in a series of them, staged on the Thursday night before he spoke with BusinessWest.

“We do it from the first Thursday in October until the last Thursday in March — that’s six months,” he said, adding that an average turnout would be 40 players, or about eight teams.

That’s not a large number of people, but most of them order food and drinks, and thus it becomes well worth turning the lights on. The goal, obviously, is to do this as many nights of the year as possible. And East Mountain does this with bands, comedy, and more.

“Pretty much every Friday, we’ve got something going on upstairs,” he said. “You don’t make a lot of money with it, but you keep people coming here, and you keep a few dollars going through the system.

“You realize why nightclubs open and close all the time,” he went on, referring specifically to the decidedly hit-or-miss nature of booking bands. “It’s nice to have, but thank God we don’t have to make a living with that.”

In many ways, though, golf-course operators do have to make a living with such events — or at least a part of their living.

“That’s part of the new reality,” said Fleury, noting that, if clubs do not adjust to it, then they increase their risk of being the next casuality.

Course Correction

As he talked with BusinessWest, Deep offered an observation that many in golf have made over the past few months: Tiger is back.

Indeed, he is playing on the tour again after almost three years of being sidelined by back ailments and surgeries to correct them. And he’s not only playing, he’s competing at a high level, with a few top-10 finishes.

His presence has been noticed in a number of ways: TV ratings have soared, attendance at the tournaments he’s played in has skyrocketed, competitors paired with him are complaining about how hard is to play in front of such huge galleries, and anticipation about the upcoming Masters is off the charts because he’s listed among the favorites.

“Tiger coming back is good for the game,” said Deep, expressing, without actually saying as much, the hope that maybe Woods’ comeback can fuel some sort of resurgence for the industry.

Maybe, but what’s more likely is that Tiger’s return will be like the closing of Southwick Country Club — it will help, but it won’t change the big picture.

No, course operators are going to have to keep grinding it out.

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

Cover Story

Recipe for Success

Caroline Pam and Tim Waite

Caroline Pam and Tim Waite with some of Kitchen Garden Farm’s products, now sold across the country.

Launched in 2001, the Western MA Food Processing Center in Greenfield has become a powerful engine when it comes to economic development in Franklin County and beyond. The WMFPC has been instrumental in helping farmers and other food and beverage entrepreneurs to grow organically — in every sense.

Caroline Pam gave the jar a half-turn.

That was how she started to answer a question, the one about what makes her company’s salsa and sriracha (hot sauce) stand out in a market crowded with competitors.

The answer, or at least a big part of it, was to be found on the back side of the jar in front of her, the one containing Kitchen Garden Farm’s ghost pepper sriracha, made from a blend of ghost peppers, red chilies, and habanero peppers — the one with the words ‘super hot’ and a small skull and crossbones on the front.

Those words on the back — “Our sauces are hand-crafted from organic peppers grown on our family farm” — resonate with many constituencies, said Pam, co-owner of Sunderland-based Kitchen Garden Farm along with her husband, Tim Wilcox. And that helps explain why the product is now sold across the country.

“Our products are truly unique — locally grown, farmer-made, certified organic, and preservative-free,” she noted. “What was once a very small pet project primarily for sale at our annual chili fest is now sold in California, in Minneapolis, on Nantucket … all over the country.”

What it doesn’t say on the label, although this is also an important part of the company’s progress to date, is that these salsas and srirachas are produced and packaged at the Western MA Food Processing Center (WMFPC) in Greenfield, a facility that has helped spawn a number of food labels — and business success stories.

Tucked away in an industrially zoned area about a mile from Greenfield’s Main Street, the food-processing center was launched in 2001. It was an ambitious undertaking and a response to a request from the state for a facility to help its agriculture industry and entrepreneurs within the very broad realm of food and beverage take concepts from their farms, family recipe books, and even the proverbial back of a napkin and turn them into business enterprises.

That response came from the Franklin County Community Development Corp., said its executive director, John Waite. He told BusinessWest the agency cobbled together more than $800,000 from various sources to create the commercial kitchen and adjoining warehouse and distribution facilities.

Over the years, more than 350 clients, by Waite’s count, have made their way down Wells Street to the center, and collectively they have registered varied amounts of success. Some didn’t find much of it for various reasons, he said, noting that there’s nothing easy about turning a food or beverage product into a business. But many have, and it has come in different ways.

Some have been using the facilities for years to bring a value-added product, or several, to the marketplace and scale up, sometimes in a big way. Kitchen Garden Farms falls in that category — Pam said the food processing center enabled the farm to go from making 400 bottles a year at a small commercial kitchen it was renting five years ago to 19,000 last year — as does Herrell’s Ice Cream in Northampton, which contracts with the center to produce its popular hot fudge sauce for retail sales.

And then, there are those who have done so well, they’ve ‘outgrown’ the center, if you will, and created their own production centers.

Topping that list would be Real Pickles, the venture launched by Dan Rosenberg, who started selling batches of organic dill pickles to a few dozen local stores in 2001. He came to the food processing center the following season and started producing value-added products such as organic sauerkraut and ginger carrots and expanding sales across the region. That venture did outgrow the WMFPC and moved into its own facility — right down the street, actually — in 2009.

There’s also Hillside Pizza, which also started in 2001, using the center to produce small pizzas used in various fund-raising initiatives. Today, it has three locations, in Bernardston, Hadley, and South Deerfield.

John Waite

John Waite says the WMFPC supplies pots, pans, and freezer space — but also the many kinds of technical support needed to help entrepreneurs convert food and beverage products into businesses.

Hillside now employs more than 40 people at those locations, said Waite, adding that this number contributes to a larger one — more than 100 by his count — when it comes to the number of jobs created directly or indirectly by the food-processing center, perhaps the best measure of its success, although there are many.

“We’ve made some twists and turns over the years, but the center has become what everyone envisioned back in 2001,” he explained. “That vision was that more local foods would be processed and there would be job creation. And we’re doing that.”

For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest paid an extended visit to the food processing center to get, well, a taste of how this unique facility has become a force in efforts to foster entrepreneurship, create jobs, sustain local agriculture, and, yes, put some intriguing products on the dinner table.

Not Lost in the Sauce

When Liz Buxton tells someone she’s chief cook and bottle washer, she’s not just summoning that battle-worn phrase to describe someone who wears a lot of hats.

She is the chief cook — at least for much of the work that is contracted out to the food processing center — and she also washes bottles on occasion. She also drives the fork truck regularly. And she monitors and repairs equipment. And … well, you get the idea.

As director of operations, she really does wear a lot of hats — although mostly she’s in a hairnet, an important part of the dress code at the facility.

And her presence at the center — as well as all those hats she wears — drives home the point that this facility is much, much more than a large, well-appointed kitchen. Indeed, the center is a resource; it exists not to help clients create a large batch of barbecue sauce, jam, salsa or cider, or just to do that. No, it exists to help those clients succeed in business.

“It certainly isn’t easy to scale up a small, family-kitchen operation into a commercial venture; our clients need many forms of guidance — on labeling, on meeting FDA regulations, on production, and more,” she explained. “And we provide all that.”

This is pretty much what the Mass. Department of Agriculture had in mind when it issued a request for proposals for what it called a ‘commercial kitchen’ at the start of this century, said Waite, adding that the Franklin Country CDC, in submitting its bid, thought such a facility would be a natural extension of what it was already doing, as well as a means to directly support what was, and still is, a big part of the Franklin County economy — agriculture.

Joanna Benoit says scaling up — taking a family recipe, for example, and turning it into a product and a business — is an involved process for which entrepreneurs need many forms of support.

Joanna Benoit says scaling up — taking a family recipe, for example, and turning it into a product and a business — is an involved process for which entrepreneurs need many forms of support.

But the name Western MA Food Processing Center was chosen to reinforce the fact this is, indeed, a regional facility, he went on, adding that there have been several clients from Berkshire and Hampshire counties as well, and even a few from more-urban Hampden County, although not as many as he would like. Meanwhile, some clients drive across the state to reach Greenfield, and still others arrive sporting license plates from Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

The facility meets federal, state, and local standards, and is well stocked with modern equipment, including two 100-gallon and three 40-gallon steam kettles; automated hot-bottling and filling; large-capacity mixers, choppers, and shredders; dry, cold, and frozen storage; a vegetable wash, prep, and blanching area; a quick-freeze production line; vacuum sealers; shared office space and equipment; 24-hour secure access; and more.

But these are only the tools of the trade, said Waite, adding that the center also provides other forms of support, especially all-important help with scaling up and taking a product across the region or even across the country.

“In the beginning, we were going to teach people how to use the equipment and have an FDA-certified kitchen,” he explained. “They would come in with their own recipe — they knew what they were doing, we assumed — and we would teach them. And we still have some people doing that.

“But then it became apparent that people needed more than the kettles and the stoves; they needed more help,” he went on. “So we helped them with labeling and FDA health and safety regulations, and other things.”

Still, despite these adjustments the center made, it wasn’t seeing many of the region’s farmers it hoped would use the facility to make products like tomato sauce, for example, from their tomato crops.

And there was a reason for this.

“They said, basically, ‘we’re not cooks, we’re farmers; we don’t want to be in the kitchen,’” said Waite, adding that these sentiments inspired those at the WMFPC to add co-packing solutions to its portfolio of services and have hired staff make those products for the farmers who want to devote their time to the fields.

And many businesses, such as the aforementioned Herrell’s, have taken advantage of those services, he went on, adding that, through this work, the center became quite adept at all aspects of food production.

This know-how is then passed on to the many clients, like Kitchen Garden Farm and countless others, who travel to the center, rent its facilities for $45 per hour, and handle their own production, said Waite, adding that, as a business venture itself, the WMFPC continues to grow and evolve.

And, thanks to the addition of an $800,000, 2,800-square-foot cold-storage facility last December, the center should succeed with something it has struggled to do — break even on the bottom line, said Waite.

“We now have about 5,000 square feet of storage, dry and cold, and that’s really going to help us moving forward,” he told BusinessWest. “The kitchen is large enough, but people need to bring in their ingredients, and they need space for their finished product, and for a while, that was limiting some our clients when it came to growth — they didn’t have space to store stuff. Now they do.”

The new storage space will eventually become a solid revenue stream, he went on, adding, for example, that area farmers can now use it as a meat warehouse, rather than traveling to facilities in Westfield, Chicopee, and New York.

Stirring Things Up

As he talked with BusinessWest about the center, Waite, over the course of a nearly two-hour visit, would regularly retrieve another jar, bottle, or package from an elaborate display case of products created at the center over the years and say ‘here’s another good success story’ — or words to that effect.’

When Liz Buxton says she’s chief cook and bottle washer at the WMFPC, she means it. Yes, she also drives the fork truck on occasion.

When Liz Buxton says she’s chief cook and bottle washer at the WMFPC, she means it. Yes, she also drives the fork truck on occasion.

Indeed, he probably did that at least a half dozen times, partially in an effort not to overlook anyone, but also because there are so many of these stories it’s easy to lose track — until you see that bottle on the shelf.

Among those he referenced were:

• Old Friends Farm in Amherst, which grows ginger, turmeric, and other crops, and makes syrups, honeys, and teas;

• Shire City Herbals in Pittsfield, makers of fire cider, an apple-cider vinegar;

• Zoni Foods — the creation of a Yale graduate still doing business in Connecticut — maker of plant-based gourmet frozen dinners like coconut curry noodles and zesty peanut noodles;

• The Artisan Beverage Cooperative, which produces a wide variety of fermented teas and other products and actually occupies its own space within the WMFPC complex;

• Appalachian Naturals, a producer of salad dressings and marinades that started at the WMFPC, outgrew it, and moved into its own facility in Goshen;

• Akara, a producer of African beancake, a close cousin to the veggie burger, that is still coming to the food-processing center; and

• Saw Mill Site Farm, makers of horseradish products, which is still using the WMFPC a dozen years after starting there.

These ventures, which offer some good insight into the very wide variety of products processed at the center, are at various stages in their development, said Waite, but the common thread is that the WMFPC has been an important partner in whatever success they’ve enjoyed and will enjoy down the road.

And as a partner, again, it provides more than those 100-gallon steam kettles.

“This place allows entrepreneurs to try things at a low cost,” Waite explained. “People rent by the hour — $45 an hour — so for $300, they can try a bunch of things instead of building their own place or buying their own equipment, which would cost tens of thousands of dollars. They just bring the ingredients.”

And some entrepreneurial spirit, said Joanna Benoit, Food Business Development specialist for the WMFPC, who also wears a number of hats.

Indeed, much if her time is spent managing the ambitious Pioneer Valley Vegetables program, whereby the center processes fruits and vegetables from a number of local farms for sale to a number of clients, including area schools.

But she also helps onboard new clients to the center, assisting them with everything from business-plan creation to marketing to scaling up a product from what is often family-kitchen scope to commercial scale.

And there is a lot that goes into this process.

“For many, it’s transitioning from a culinary process to streamlined production — it’s almost like a science experiment,” she explained. “You want to start thinking about developing a streamlined, consistent process, streamlining your ingredient sourcing, thinking about your packaging, your marketing, your branding … things you’re not always thinking about when you’re making a product that’s delicious and you’re proud of and you want to share with people.”

Elaborating, she said there is much more that goes into it than taking the ingredients from a family and multiplying the amounts for each by 10, 100, or 1,000. It’s not that simple.

There are all those other considerations, such as labeling, marketing, branding, and distribution, but there are also the many factors in scaling up that recipe.

And that’s where Buxton, chief cook and bottle washer, comes in.

She had spent more than 30 years in the food-service business before coming to the WMFPC, and took an intriguing path to employment there. Indeed, she was working as food and nutrition director for a local school district, and became introduced to the WMFPC when that district started buying produce from it through Pioneer Valley Vegetables.

“When this job came open, I was very interested in it,” she recalled, adding that there was a lot to like, especially the opportunity to use her vast experience to help clients reach whatever goals they have set for themselves — and support local agriculture at the same time.

No two days are alike, she told BusnessWest, adding that she works with clients to help them meet FDA and labeling regulations, find the right pH level to maintain proper shelf life without the use of preservatives, and more.

“Many of these things are very hard to do without guidance,” she said, adding that the ongoing work of helping clients navigate what can sometimes feel like whitewater is rewarding on a number of levels.

Food for Thought

Pam told BusinessWest that Kitchen Garden Farm has a number of ambitious goals for the future. And one of them is to join that list of distinguished clients who have actually outgrown the WMFPV and created their own commercial processing center.

She doesn’t know exactly when that will happen — 2019 is the goal — but she’s confident that it will.

Meanwhile, one thing she does know is that the food-processing center has played a pivotal role in the farm’s profound growth, brand building, and ability to sell its products on both coasts and countless places in between.

As noted many times earlier, and in many ways, there have been a number of success stories like this written over the past 18 years, and the best news is that there still many more waiting to be penned.

That’s because the WMFPV provides its clients with all the other ingredients they need to thrive.

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

Cover Story Employment Sections

Team-building Exercise

From left, Courtney Wenleder, CFO; Alex Dixon, general manager; and Mike Mathis, president and COO. Photo by MGM/Springfield Mark Murray

From left, Courtney Wenleder, CFO; Alex Dixon, general manager; and Mike Mathis, president and COO.
Photo by MGM/Springfield Mark Murray

Mike Mathis said he doesn’t use any of those ‘gotcha’ questions, as he calls them, when he’s interviewing job candidates.

He said he’s been on the other end of a few of these, like ‘describe your greatest weakness’ or ‘how well do you get along with your current boss?’ He didn’t particularly enjoy those experiences and, more to the point, doesn’t believe they were particularly effective in providing real insight to those asking those questions.

But Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, said he does have some favorite — and effective — go-to questions (he wasn’t too revealing) that he likes to ask in an effort to get beyond the words printed on a résumé and determine if the candidate across the table would make a good fit.

And he’s had plenty of opportunities to put them to use in recent months as he’s interviewed finalists for the positions that make up the executive team that will open and then operate the $950 million resort casino complex taking shape in Springfield’s South End.

“The résumé gives me good insight into what their technical experience is,” he explained. “But I’m looking for personality and cultural fit, and you can usually get to that through them talking about their experiences.”

As he talked about his team members, or department heads, or ‘number ones,’ as he also called them, collectively, Mathis made early and frequent use of the word ‘diverse,’ and said it takes on the quality in many different respects. These include gender, age, race, geography (where they’re from), casino experience, and MGM experience.

As for those last two, some have it, and others, like Mathis himself when he was named to lead MGM Springfield, don’t.

“We have some who are internal MGM and others who are external to our company but in the industry,” Mathis explained. “We have a combination of young and those not as young, as I like to say, those with a little more experience. And we have a few from outside the industry; the company took a chance on me, and we’ve continued to take some of those chances on others.”

Anthony Caratozzolo: Vice President, Food & Beverage

Anthony Caratozzolo: Vice President, Food & Beverage

Anika Gaskins: Vice President, National Marketing

Anika Gaskins: Vice President, National Marketing

Brian Jordan: Director, Surveillance

Brian Jordan: Director, Surveillance

Monique Messier: Executive Director, Sales

Monique Messier: Executive Director, Sales

It is this team, featuring individuals with titles ranging from CFO to vice president, Table Games, to executive director, Arena Operations, that will lead the ambitious casino project through the most critical stage in this six-year process — the completion of construction, finalization of specific components such as dining options and other facilities, the assemblage of a team of roughly 3,000 people, and, finally, opening the doors (early September is the projected ‘go’ date).

At present, that team-building assignment is priority 1, said Mathis, adding that the members of the executive team will soon be, and in many cases already are, adding members to their own specific leadership teams, and soon these individuals will begin to assemble the larger teams they will lead.

“The number ones hire number twos, and the number twos hire number threes,” he explained. “And then, from there, you start building out your business plan and prepare for mass hiring.”

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest looks at the team Mathis has assembled and how it came together. Also, we’ll look at the daunting challenge this “dream team,” as Mathis called it, will face over the next six months and how it will go about making MGM Springfield ready for prime time.

A Strong Hand

Mathis told BusinessWest that he’s been a part of a few casino executive teams during his career “around but not in on a day-to-day basis” the casino industry, as he chose to phrase it.

Indeed, he was legal counsel for the Venetian Las Vegas, which opened in 1999, and also for a start-up operation, Echelon Place, also in Las Vegas.

Being the one on the other side of this equation, the one putting the team together, the one able to joke during meetings (and he’s already done this a few times) that ‘none of you would be here without me’ — well, that’s a completely different and quite rewarding experience.

“I have a great sense of pride when it comes to the group we’ve pulled together,” he said, emphasizing that this was a team effort. “What’s really nice is how, organically, this team reflects the personality of the community and our original vision. For me, as a day-one employee, I feel I’m a steward of the original vision of our president, Bill Hornbuckle, and of the mayor and the different community-group stakeholders I originally met with. And I want to reflect all that in the team we put together.”

Sarah Moore: Vice President, Marketing, Advertising & Brand

Sarah Moore: Vice President, Marketing, Advertising & Brand

Marikate Murren: Vice President, Human Resources

Marikate Murren: Vice President, Human Resources

Jason Rosewell: Vice President, Facilities

Jason Rosewell: Vice President, Facilities

Jason Rucker: Executive Director, Security

Jason Rucker: Executive Director, Security

Elaborating, he said this team is non-traditional in some respects, and, as noted, diverse in every sense of that word.

‘Non-traditional’ in that, in many cases within this industry, executive units travel as a team, Mathis explained. That was not the case here.

“Someone would come to my role already thinking about who their number two and number three would be,” he explained. “Some of those executive teams travel in groups. There’s nothing wrong with that … these people are used to working with one another, and there’s something to be said for that.

“But because I was new to the role, I came at it without some of those preconceived notions about who the team members should be,” he went on, adding that he actually worked with very few members of this executive team before MGM Springfield. “The group is really eclectic, and we make each other better.”

In total, there were hundreds of applicants for the 16 positions, Mathis went on, adding that, because the pools of candidates were strong and diverse, it was that much easier to create a very diverse team.

“One of things we believe in at MGM is that, if you have a diverse applicant pool, you’ll get great employees, and the diversity will be reflected in the hires,” he said. “So our focus has always been on making sure we’re getting great people in front of us before we make decisions.”

Elaborating, he explained that, for each of the positions, the company tried to have, as finalists, an internal (MGM) candidate, an external candidate, and a diverse candidate, and in most cases met that goal.

Overall, nine of the 16 members of the executive team are diverse or female, which, he said, makes it one of the most diverse teams not only within the MGM company, but within the industry.

Why is diversity important? “Within the hospitality industry and particularly with MGM Resorts, we’re a host to a wider range of customers than any industry I can think of,” said Mathis as he answered that question. “We’re the Disneyland for adults. We have international guests, local visitors, those who are interested in gaming, those who are interested in food and beverage, families … with that range of customers that we invite to our resort, we need our employees to reflect that diversity of customers. That’s a big part of our success, and diversity is one of our pillars — not only ethnically, but diversity in all respects.”

Great Odds ‘Relaxed.’

That’s the adjective Mathis summoned to describe not only how he wants those taking his interview questions to be, but also the kind of corporate environment, for lack of a better term, that he’s been trying to create at MGM Springfield.

Lynn Segars: Vice President, Slot Operations

Lynn Segars: Vice President, Slot Operations

Gregg Skowronski: Executive Director, Hotel Operations

Gregg Skowronski: Executive Director, Hotel Operations

Talia Spera: Executive Director, Arena Operations

Talia Spera: Executive Director, Arena Operations

That certainly sounds illogical given the nature of the casino industry in general and, more specifically, the ultra-challenging six months ahead for the team at MGM Springfield. But hear him out.

“I mean relaxed in terms of the collegiality between the team members,” he explained. “We’re all working hard, but time is going by quickly, and the work is hard enough without the environment being overly formal or not having that collegiality.

“People perform best when they’re happy; we believe in our business in the service-profit-chain model,” he went on, referring to the theory in business management that links employee satisfaction to customer loyalty and, therefore, profitability.

It was an unofficial goal, or milestone, to have this team in place, in this relaxed environment, at the start of 2018, and it has been met, said Mathis, adding that, while some team members still have some logistics to work out, such as finding homes and moving families, they are all at work now at MGM’s nerve center in at a renovated 95 State St.

They will meet collectively twice a week, said Mathis, adding that one of these sessions is an executive-team meeting at which specific information will be communicated about project status, timelines, and other matters, and decisions will be made that involve multiple departments. The second session is a weekly staff meeting, a 90-minute to two-hour roundtable with no set agenda.

Seth Stratton: Vice President and General Counsel

Seth Stratton: Vice President and General Counsel

Courtney Wenleder: Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Courtney Wenleder: Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Robert Westerfield: Vice President, Table Games

Robert Westerfield: Vice President, Table Games

“What we’ve learned is that meeting [the roundtable] is as productive as any other meeting we have,” he explained, adding that there are a host of smaller meetings involving some but not all of the executive staff members.

And as you might expect, there is quite a bit to meet about with the countdown now at or just under 200 days.

The biggest priority is building the individual departments, Mathis went on, adding that, while the casino is taking shape in a highly visible way on and around Main Street, the task of interviewing, hiring, and training 3,000 employees is already going on behind the scenes.

The top levels of each team will be filled out over the next few months, he continued, and mass hiring will commence in the early summer and hit high gear in the weeks just prior to opening.

Meanwhile, there are literally thousands of other tasks to be carried out, he said, listing everything from building the reservation system to creating training manuals; from interviewing vendors to detailing what will be needed in the warehouse.

“It’s a pretty incredible undertaking, and we’ve got a great team in place to carry it out,” noted Mathis, adding that this team will has borrowed heavily from the playbook created by another MGM casino that opened just over a year ago, National Harbor in Maryland.

“I don’t envy anyone that’s doing one of these as a one-off,” he told BusinessWest. “National Harbor is one of the most successful operations in the country, and we’ve taken their best practices, as well as lessons learned, and incorporated them into this project.”

Teaming with Excitement

Meanwhile, MGM Springfield will provide the playbook for the next MGM project, whenever it moves off the drawing board, said Mathis.

“Each time, the process gets better,” he noted. “One day, there will be a perfect opening; unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be it. But with each one of these, you get a little closer to that standard.”

A perfect opening might be beyond the reach of Mathis’ executive team, but it will likely move the bar higher. In the meantime, by most accounts, it is already setting a higher standard for diversity.

It’s been an intriguing team-building exercise in every sense of that phrase.

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

Class of 2018 Cover Story Difference Makers

difference-makers-logoBack in late 2008, the management team at BusinessWest conceived a new recognition program.

It was called Difference Makers because this would be a trait shared by those who would be honored — they were all making a difference in the community. The goal was, and is, to show the many ways in which an individual or group can make a difference, and suffice to say this goal has been met.

And the class of 2018, the program’s 10th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories below show.

This year’s sponsors are Health New England, Royal, P.C., and Sunshine Village.

The six members of the Class of 2018 will be honored on Thursday, March 22 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. For information about that event, sponsorship opportunities, or to purchase tickets, go HERE or call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.

Photography by Leah Martin Photography

 

005_bolducbob-diff2017Community Pride

Bob Bolduc Cooks Up New Ways to Better the Lives of Young People

032_charlandbobmain-diff2017Pedal to the Mettle

‘Bike Man’ Bob Charland’s Story Has Been a Truly Inspirational Ride

022_girlsincmain-diff2017A Force to Be Reckoned With

Girls Inc. Inspires Members to be Strong, Smart, and Bold

017_plotkinevan-diff2017Portrait of the Artist

Evan Plotkin Works to Fill in the Canvas Known as Springfield

008_crystalcenterbrown-diff2017Write On

Crystal Senter-Brown Enlightens and Empowers Those She Touches

020_willpowermainuse-diff2017Where There’s a Will

The Unique Nonprofit Known as WillPower Meets Some Very Special Needs

 

Sponsored by

PrintRoyalPCSunshineVillage

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur

T-Birds’ Owners and Managers Continue to Push the Envelope

Front row, from left,

Front row, from left, Dante Fontana, Nathan Costa, Frank Colaccino, and Brian Fitzgerald; second row, from left, Paul Picknelly, Dinesh Patel, Chris Bignell, Chris Thompson, Sean Murphy, Francis Cataldo; third row, from left, Derek Salema, Peter Martins, Jerry Gagliarducci, John Joe Williams, Vidhyadhar Mitta, and James Garvey.

An Exercise in Teamwork

Back in the spring of 2016, a consortium of owners came together, bought the Portland Pirates AHL franchise, and relocated it to Springfield. It was said that this group brought hockey back to the City of Homes 10 days after it left. In reality, though, it has brought much more, including excitement, energy, innovation, and vibrancy — along with hockey. For doing all that, the team of owners and managers has been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2017.

If you go on eBay this morning, you can buy a bobblehead featuring Red Sox slugger David Ortiz wearing sunglasses and a Springfield Thunderbirds jersey. List price: $59.99.

But while you can buy it now, you can’t get it for at least a month or so.

That’s because no one actually has one to send to you. These items won’t be distributed until the Feb. 17 Thunderbirds game against the Providence Bruins.

The fact that this bobblehead is already for sale online demonstrates many things — from the incredible popularity of Big Papi to the awesome power of capitalism at work (60 balloons for a bobblehead?).

But it demonstrates something else as well: Just how far hockey has come in Springfield in 20 short months. Indeed, in the late spring of 2016, there was no hockey in Springfield. Well, there was no American Hockey League franchise, anyway.

Red Sox legend David Ortiz

Red Sox legend David Ortiz belts a foam baseball into the crowd during the game on Nov. 11. His appearance in Springfield represents just one example of the outside-the-box thinking that defines the new ownership and management team.

The Falcons, who had been playing at the MassMutual Center for more than 20 years, had pulled up stakes and were heading to Arizona. Into this void stepped what would become, by AHL standards (or any standards, for that matter), a huge ownership group of 28 that brought professional hockey back to Springfield.

Only, all 28 of them would be put off by that last phrase to some extent.

Indeed, they would prefer to say that hockey is just one of the things they’ve brought to the City of Homes. They’ve also brought imagination and entrepreneurship; Star Wars Night and $3 Coors Light draughts on Friday night; free parking in the Civic Center Garage (actually, it’s back by very popular demand) and … David Ortiz bobbleheads.

Evidence of all this was in abundance on Jan. 6, a frigid Saturday night when the wind chill was well below zero, representing a microcosm of what the team has accomplished and what it has become.

This was Blast from the Past Night, with the team donning Springfield Indians jerseys from the early ’90s for a tilt against the Providence Bruins. The night became a mix of nostalgia, high energy, and record sales at the merchandise shop.

“It was 6 below zero, and we had more than 6,000 people in this arena,” said Paul Picknelly, president of Monarch Enterprises and managing partner among the owners. “We sold out the place with families that are coming to downtown Springfield, feeling comfortable bringing their families downtown for professional sports.

“It’s not just about hockey,” he went on. “The previous owners’ mindset was ‘we have hockey in Springfield.’ What we’re saying is that we have something different that we’re offering the community.”

For bringing this family entertainment, this ‘something different,’ as well as much-needed vibrancy and even validity to downtown Springfield, the Thunderbirds team — not the one on the ice (although it is also a big part of the story), but rather the ownership and management team — has been selected by the leaders at BusinessWest as the recipients of the magazine’s Top Entrepreneur Award for 2017.

Several of the team’s owners and managers

Several of the team’s owners and managers gather on the ice in a host of jerseys worn by the team over the past season and a half. The ownership group is large (28 individuals and groups) but very engaged.

This group was chosen among a host of other intriguing candidates for many reasons, but especially the manner in which it has changed the landscape since that headline announcing that the Falcons were flying southwest — and we don’t mean the airline.

There is considerably more energy downtown on 36 game days and nights (there are actually a few morning contests as well, as we’ll see) between October and April, and maybe beyond.

But that’s just part of the story. Indeed, the T-Birds are a year-long phenomenon and a region-wide resource as well, thanks to an omni-present mascot and a management team laser-focused on keeping the team top of mind, even in the middle of summer.

The phrase ‘weaving our way into the fabric of the community’ was uttered by more than a few of the owners we spoke with recently, and this is exactly what the team has done.

For their ability to do that, and especially for their efforts to bring not only hockey but much more back to Springfield, the ownership and management team is truly worthy of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur honor.

Owning the Solution

They sound like characters on one of those Saturday morning cartoon shows.

But ‘Boomer’ and ‘Squeaky’ are real — well, sort of. They are the mascots, respectively, for the Thunderbirds and Balise Motors’ growing stable of car washes in Western Mass.

They appear together sometimes, and increasingly, and these joint appearances are just one example of the many ways in which the 28 owners of the Thunderbirds — Jeb Balise, a principal with the family-owned Balise corporation, is one of them — are involved and invested in the team and its success in Springfield and across the region.

Other examples abound, from construction company owner Dave Fontaine putting banners for the team at his construction sites, to Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners Peter Martins and Derek Salema running promotions at their stores (more on one of those later); from employees at Red Rose Pizza wearing T-Birds jerseys on game nights (principal Anthony Caputo is one of the owners) to Picknelly, a local partner with MGM Springfield, convincing that corporation to not only be a sponsor of the T-Birds, but to actively help market it after the casino opens this fall.

It happened very quickly, and the reason it did, and the reason everyone got involved from the ownership standpoint, is because everyone loves Springfield. We have diverse backgrounds, but we all love Springfield, and it’s an easy ask when you ask someone to invest in it.”

Indeed, just before a slot machine pays out to a winner, a screen will pop up asking the lucky player if he or she would like to buy a ticket to a Thunderbirds game, said Picknelly, adding that this is one of many ways the casino will help promote the team.

Collectively, these initiatives, and this involvement, speak to how unified these owners are in their desire to secure a long, prosperous future for this franchise. They have different businesses and different backgrounds — and many of them didn’t know much about hockey when they were approached about this venture — but they understood the importance of the team to the city, especially at that critical time in its history.

Indeed, using different words and phrases, the owners we spoke with said that the spring of 2016, when they all came together in this enterprise, was not the time (if there really ever is a good time) for Springfield to be without a hockey team.

Elaborating, they said that, with MGM coming in the fall of 2018, Union Station set to open soon, greater vibrancy downtown, and a general sense of optimism, the city needed to maintain momentum, not lose any.

So when Picknelly called and asked them to be part of a growing consortium of owners, they found it easy to say ‘yes.’

“I remember getting the call from Paul on a Friday afternoon; he said, ‘did you see the paper today?’” said Fran Cataldo, a principal with C&W Realty, referring to the day the Falcons’ owners announced they were selling the team to the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes. “I said, ‘yeah, I did.’ And he said, ‘it’s not going to happen; we’re going to keep hockey here.’

“And in the course of 72 hours, we identified a team, negotiated a purchase-and-sale agreement, and made a deposit on the team,” he went on. “It happened very quickly, and the reason it did, and the reason everyone got involved from the ownership standpoint, is because everyone loves Springfield. We have diverse backgrounds, but we all love Springfield, and it’s an easy ask when you ask someone to invest in it.”

Thunderbirds players wore replica Indians jerseys

Thunderbirds players wore replica Indians jerseys on Blast from the Past Night on Jan. 6, an event that became a microcosm of the team’s efforts to create energy and an experience at the MassMutual Center.

Cataldo, a long-time friend of Picknelly’s, said he’s worked with him on a number of initiatives that fall into the broad categories of economic development and improving the public perception of Springfield. And the purchase of the Thunderbirds fell into both categories, so be called it a “natural,” especially in the context of the question everyone was asking 21 months ago: ‘what if we lost hockey?’

“It’s more than losing hockey,” he said, answering the question himself. “You’re losing 4,000 or 5,000 people 30-plus nights a year downtown. They’re bringing their families downtown, they’re parking, they’re eating, they’re going out afterward; it’s a huge, huge economic engine for Springfield.

Frank Colaccino, CEO of the Colvest Group, who admits that he didn’t know a red line from a blue line when Picknelly called him, tells a similar story.

“He called me and said, ‘we’ve got to move quick; we need the support of people who work in Springfield and care about Springfield,’” he recalled. “I think it took me all of about five minutes to say, ‘Paul, do you think we’ll get our money back?’ He said, ‘yeah, I think we will,’ and I was in.”

Collectively, the ownership team being assembled needed to raise $5.5 million for the down payment on the team, and as it went about doing so, it focused on keeping the group local and committed to the region.

It even turned down more than $1 million from a New York investor that wanted in, but also wanted some controls in exchange for its investment.

“We all sat around this table and said, ‘we don’t want that,’” said Colaccino. “The person’s not from the area, doesn’t care about the area, and we decided we didn’t want to give up some of those controls. And it took some guts to walk away from that and say, ‘we’re going to raise this money.’”

In the span of about 10 days, Springfield lost hockey and got it back, but the act of buying the Portland (Maine) Pirates and bringing them to Springfield would be only the first expression of entrepreneurship with this franchise.

Net Results

The second, whether the ownership team realized it at the time or not (and they probably did), was hiring Springfield native Nate Costa to lead this venture.

Costa had most recently been working in the American Hockey League office in its Business Services Department, but he also had extensive experience in the field, if you will, working for the league’s San Antonio Rampage.

He arrived in Springfield with what he called a “blueprint” — one that called for not just hockey, but affordable family entertainment — but also with his hands full.

Indeed, the team didn’t have a name at that point, or colors, a uniform design, or even a lease with the MassMutual Center. All that got done, and Costa set about putting to work the lessons he learned in San Antonio, but also from watching some of the league’s most successful franchises.

From the outset, he said the focus has been on providing an experience, not just three periods of hockey, and also on making the team visible and active within the community. Doing those things requires a real commitment from ownership and the requisite resources to get the job done properly, something the previous ownership didn’t provide.

Chris Thompson, the Thunderbirds’ senior vice president of Sales & Strategy, who has worked with the team for nearly a decade and for three different ownership groups, described the difference between then and now.

“It’s a breath of fresh air having the support of the local investment group to give us the resources to be able to go out there and tell the story,” he explained. “We did some cool things with the Falcons back in the day, but we could never tell the story; the biggest difference between then and now is that the local group is fully engaged.”

It is also more entrepreneurial, a word that could be used to describe both ownership and management, said Costa, adding that this has become the team’s mindset largely out of necessity.

Elaborating, he said that, from his vantage point in the AHL offices, he saw what he called missed opportunities in Springfield, especially with regard to ticket sales at all levels, especially group sales and season tickets.

His goal upon taking over the team was to seize those opportunities.

“I put together a plan that I almost had in the back of my mind,” he recalled. “It was really focused on grassroots efforts — beefing up our season-ticket sales, doing more with marketing and on social media, and really taking an entirely fresh look at the franchise.

“I had absolute confidence, if we stuck to our plan when it came to ticket sales and having a sales mindset, that this could work here,” he went on. “And I think we’re starting to see that. It’s taken some time, but year one was a huge success on a number of levels.”

This was made clear by the team’s haul when it comes to year-end awards handed out by the league. The credenza in the conference room is crowded with such plaques, which recognize achievement in areas ranging from group ticket sales to “recovered revenue.”

Costa said those plaques result from a systematic look at all aspects of the operation with an eye toward making changes when they were needed, and that was often the case.

As it was with ticket prices, for example, said Costa, noting that, with the previous administration, all seats were priced the same. The new ownership has introduced price flexibility, dividing the seating bowl into several areas, with different prices for each one.

Another focal point was concessions. Using the team’s relationship with MGM, management was able to negotiate a Friday-night special on concession and beer sales in an effort to get more younger people and families in the arena.

Still another matter was parking, which was a recognized deterrent for many potential fans. So the club negotiated a deal whereby the team would make a payment to the city, enabling patrons to park in the Civic Center Garage for free, a step that brought immediate and lasting results.

“We really tried to take all the things we had heard from the previous couple of years and take them head on and find ways that we could make a tangible impact,” said Costa. “We did this not only for the casual fan, but the season ticket holders; they’re going to reap the biggest benefit from this because they’re coming every night.”

Goal Oriented

As for that aforementioned promotion at Dunkin’ Donuts, one that involved giving away two game tickets with purchases at the drive-up window on a specific day, the mere mention of it brought some wry smiles and looks toward the ceiling among those talking with BusinessWest.

This wasn’t a promotion gone wrong, per se, but one that didn’t go exactly as planned. And this created one of those good problems to have — sort of, but not really.

To make a long story a little shorter, far more people redeemed the tickets for this early-season game than management anticipated, leaving far fewer seats available for walk-up customers, a scenario the team has worked very hard to avoid.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 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

“It was the Friday after David Ortiz, so we were topical and people wanted to check us out,” Cataldo recalled. “The redemption, which is typically low for those tickets, was through the roof, and we essentially sold out of our tickets.”

Said Costa, “at the end of the day, we were turning people away at the box office, which you don’t want to do all the time.”

If the Dunkin’ Donuts promotion was something that went wrong — and that’s not the term most would prefer to use in reference to that night — then not much else has for this team.

Indeed, just about everything has gone exceedingly right.

Including the so-called ‘Shoot to Win’ promotion involving one of the team’s newest sponsors, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield.

In case you missed it — and that was almost impossible to do — young Nathan Vila managed to shoot a puck into a hole not much wider than the puck itself from about 150 feet away to win a new Mercedes GLA SUV. But that’s only part of the story.

“It was just before Christmas, and the young man [Nathan] was heading into the service in a few weeks and gave the car to his mother to drive,” said Peter Wirth, a principal with the dealership. “You really couldn’t script it any better.”

There hasn’t been a script, per se, for anything the Thunderbirds and their management team have done since they started scrambling to get the team ready for the start of the 2016-17 season in that hectic summer other than do what entrepreneurs do famously — think outside the box, innovate, invest in the company, and take some calculated risks.

And these are exactly the personality traits that inspired Wirth and his wife, Michelle, to want to be part of what was happening with the Thunderbirds.

“We went to a few games, and they seemed to be doing things the right way … it might as well have been the NHL; they were delivering a really good product,” he said. “They think outside the box, and they create energy and excitement, and we wanted to be part of that.”

And nothing personifies those qualities more than the night David Ortiz came to Springfield.

In case you missed it — and that, too, was almost impossible to do — the Red Sox slugger appeared before and during the Nov. 11 game against the Laval (Quebec) Rocket. He drove an ATV on the ice, signed a ton of autographs, and whacked some foam baseballs into the sellout crowd.

It was a huge success, but it was also a considerable risk given the huge sticker price attached to an appearance from Big Papi. But it was a risk the ownership team was more than willing to accept it.

“That was a huge commitment — those big stars certainly don’t come cheap,” said Colaccino. “But when that idea was presented, everyone around this table said, ‘what a great idea.’ The number being tossed around to get him here was a big one, but not one person said, ‘no, that’s not a good idea.’ Having a baseball guy come to a hockey arena … that’s outside-the-box thinking, and it was hugely successful.”

Costa quantified the matter by saying the team reaped a three-to-one return on that sizable investment thanks to a mix of corporate sponsorships, additional ticket revenue, a VIP event, merchandise, and special Red Sox-themed team jerseys made possible through the team’s relationship with MGM. Elaborating, he called the Ortiz night not only a microcosm of that blueprint mentioned earlier, but an example of his mindset when it comes to the team and its ownership.

“From day one, I’ve looked at this as a business venture because they’ve put their trust in me to make this work from a business perspective, and I’ve never lost sight of that,” he explained. “So when I presented the Ortiz piece, it wasn’t ‘give me what I need to get him,’ it was ‘here’s what it’s going to do for us, here’s what the return is going to be, here’s what it’s going to do for the community and the Thunderbirds name in general.’

“And coming from the American Hockey League and seeing what other AHL franchises need to do in a market like Springfield … it’s very entrepreneurial,” he went on. “It’s grassroots; it’s rolling up sleeves and doing the dirty work.”

Knowing the Score

Meanwhile, Costa said the Ortiz night was a very needed step to raise the bar in the team’s critical second year.

Indeed, calling on his extensive experience in the league, he said it’s not uncommon for a team to do well in its first year as it brings something new and different to a region. It’s also common for teams to struggle in their efforts to maintain that momentum.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge in year two to continue that momentum moving forward, and I knew we needed something special,” he said, referring to the Ortiz promotion but also a full year’s worth of events.

The Thunderbirds sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice

The Thunderbirds sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice at the Jan. 6 game, thanks to Snoop Dogg, his Indians jersey, and effective use of social media.

While Ortiz’s appearance in Springfield has probably been the high-water mark for this franchise, there have been plenty of other examples of outside-the-box thinking, risk taking, and, overall, an entrepreneurial mindset.

All those were on display on Blast from the Past Night, which highlighted the team’s success not only in creating an experience on the ice and in the arena, but in fully capitalizing on the awesome forces of social media.

In this case, the team put Snoop Dogg to work — or, more specifically, the Springfield Indians jersey he famously wore in the video for his song “Gin and Juice” — in its promotions for Blast from the Past Night. It was a natural tie-in to the evening’s festivities and inspiration for a $5 gin and juice special sold at the MassMutual Center that night.

“We sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice,” said Picknelly, noting that he and his son split one that night.

And then, there was Hockey Week in Springfield, staged in the middle of this month in an effort to bring people out during a difficult time of year and a few difficult days of the week.

The week started with a 1:05 p.m. tilt against the Hartford Wolf Pack on Martin Luther King Day. Youngsters were admitted to end zone seats for $5.55 courtesy of Friendly’s. The week continued with a Wednesday contest (those dates are always challenging) against one of the league’s most iconic franchises, the Hershey Bears. If the T-Birds won (and they did), then patrons’ ticket stubs would be good for the Feb. 7 game (yes, another Wednesday).

The week wrapped up with a Friday-night tilt against the Binghampton (New York) Devils, or a ‘3-2-1 Friday,’ as they’re called because a Coors Light, as noted, is $3, a hot dog is $2, and sodas are $1.

The unofficial goal moving forward, said Costa, with several owners nodding their head in agreement, is to make what happened on the night of that Dunkin’ Donuts promotion the norm.

Well, not exactly what happened that night, but the part about a game being sold out and patrons not to expect to be able to walk up to the ticket window a few moments before a game starts and buy some tickets.

“People are used to just walking up on game night and buying a ticket and getting a great seat,” Costa explained. “It’s not necessarily the case anymore, and from the beginning, that’s what we set out to do.

“What we’re trying to manufacture is urgency,” he went on. “That was the biggest thing we didn’t have coming into this. There was no urgency to buy tickets, no urgency to buy season tickets, no urgency to buy tickets early; we’ve tried to lay the foundation to change that — to create a sense of urgency.”

From all accounts, the team’s owners and managers are well on their way to doing just that.

Bottom Line

As he talked about the ownership group that he reports to, Costa acknowledged that 28 is a big number and one that most people would see as ungainly and something of a disadvantage.

He says this group is anything but that.

That’s because it’s not only large, but also visible on game nights and, most importantly, fully invested in the team, in every sense of that word.

“It’s been a huge benefit, and we couldn’t do what we do without it,” he said of the large group of owners. “We lean on them for support within the local community.”

Support comes in many forms — from getting much-needed introductions to exercising connections such as those needed to secure those Red Sox-themed jerseys for David Ortiz night, to bringing people to the MassMutual Center, as that Dunkin’ Donuts promotion did.

All that support has resulted in a changed landscape — where sometimes one can’t get a ticket on game night, and, yes, where David Ortiz bobbleheads are for sale on eBay two months before they’re actually handed out.

It’s a story of determination. A story of teamwork. But mostly, it’s a story of old-fashioned entrepreneurship.


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

Cover Story Sales and Marketing Sections

Getting the Message

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Marketing was never an example of a simple exercise, but in today’s multi-media landscape, it is even less so. To help business owners and managers with this critical assignment, BusinessWest asked four area marketing firms to discuss the art and science of getting one’s message across in today’s world. Slicing through their commentary, one point becomes clear: it’s at least as important to focus on the message as it is on the vehicles used to deliver it.

 

It’s All About Storytelling

By Darby O’Brien
Focus more on the message and less on the delivery system   More …

The Name of the Game

By Michelle Abdow
Get their attention, and you needn’t worry about attention span   More …

By Any Measure

By Meghan Lynch
To boost profits, appeal to the heart, not the head   More …

Rock Relevance

By John Garvey
In this age, a relevant message is everything   More …