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Cover Story

Cover Story

Form and Function

Interim Dean Tom Moliterno

Interim Dean Tom Moliterno

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

Dramatic. Striking. Stunning. Powerful. Distinctive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An aerial view of the expansion project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space Exploration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designs on Continued Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harnessing Entrepreneurial Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Turns

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

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

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

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring in Their Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why indeed?

At the Finish Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Forward Progress

 

Forward Progress

Host of Forces Create Momentum
Across the Region  Read More>>>

Running out of Gas?

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

The Employment Picture

With Talent Scarce, Many Employers Are
Laboring to Fill Positions … Read More>>>

Right Place, Right Time

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

Cover Story

Getting into the Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Pre-training job readiness;

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

• Some kind of work experience with a local employer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kermit Dunkelberg says the TRAIN initiative

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

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

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

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

A Hire Reach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work in Progress

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

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

Teri Anderson

Teri Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Course of Action

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Supporting a Growth Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Christie says CISA has made buying local front of mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experts in Their Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Korman says CISA’s mission hasn’t changed

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

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

Yield Signs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing the Bottom the Line

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story Women of Impact

Women of Impact to Be Saluted on Dec. 6

Leader. Inspiration. Pioneer. Mentor. Innovator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Women of Impact for 2018 are:

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

• Kerry Dietz, principal, Dietz Architects;

• Denise Jordan, executive director, Springfield Housing Authority;

• Gina Kos, executive director, Sunshine Village;

• Carol Leary, president, Bay Path University;

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

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

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

 

Purchase tickets here.

Photography by Dani Fine Photography

Thank you to our sponsors:


Sponsors:

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

Exclusive Media Sponsor:

Springfield 22 News The CW

Speaker Sponsor:

 

 

 

 

Event Keynote Speaker

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

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

Meet the Judges

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

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

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

Cover Story Event Galleries Healthcare Heroes

Scenes from the Healthcare Heroes 2018 Gala

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

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

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

The Healthcare Heroes for 2018 are:

• Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider:

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

• Health/Wellness Administrator/Administrator:

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

• Emerging Leader:

Peter DePergola II, director of Clinical Ethics, Baystate Health

• Community Health:

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

• Innovation in Health/Wellness:

TechSpring

• Collaboration in Health/Wellness:

The Consortium and the Opioid Task Force

• Lifetime Achievement:

Robert Fazzi, founder, Fazzi Associates.

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

HealthcareHeroesSponsors

Photography by Dani Fine Photography

Meet the Judges

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

Holly Chaffee

Holly Chaffee

Dexter Johnson

Dexter Johnson

Dr. Michael Willers:

Dr. Michael Willers:

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

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

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

 

Cover Story

Bargain or Burden?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nitty Gritty

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy Creed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policy Briefs

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

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

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

Mark Adams

Mark Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Winners

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

29th Annual Compilation Celebrates the Depth, Diversity of Business Community

Launched nearly three decades ago, the Springfield Regional Chamber’s Super 60 program (originally the Fabulous 50 before it was expanded) has always acted like a giant telescope, bringing the breadth and depth of the region’s business community clearly into focus. And the 2108 lists are no exception. Businesses on the Total Revenue and Revenue Growth categories represent nearly every business sector — from healthcare to financial services, from marketing to dentistry, from construction to retail. There are some who have been hearing their names called at the Super 60 lunch for decades now, and others who will hear it for the first time. Overall, the lists put the region’s many strengths and immense diversity clearly on display. The Super 60 will be celebrated at the annual lunch on Oct. 26 at Chez Josef, starting at 11:30 a.m. The Super 60 awards are presented by Health New England and sponsored by Farmington Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, the Republican, and Zasco Productions.

Total Revenue

1. WHALLEY COMPUTER
ASSOCIATES Inc.
One Whalley Way, Southwick
(413) 569-4200
www.wca.com
John Whalley, president
WCA is a locally owned family business that has evolved from a hardware resale and service group in the ’70s and ’80s into a company that now focuses on lowering the total cost of technology and productivity enhancement for its customers. Boasting nearly 150 employees, Whalley carries name-brand computers as well as low-cost compatibles.

2. MARCOTTE FORD SALES INC.
1025 Main St., Holyoke
(800) 923-9810
www.marcotteford.com
Bryan Marcotte, president
The dealership sells new Ford vehicles as well as pre-owned cars, trucks, and SUVs, and features a full service department. Marcotte has achieved the President’s Award, one of the most prestigious honors given to dealerships by Ford Motor Co., on multiple occasions over the past decade. It also operates the Marcotte Commercial Truck Center.

3. TIGHE & BOND INC. *
53 Southampton Road, Westfield
(413) 562-1600
www.tighebond.com
DAVID PINSKY, PRESIDENT & CEO
Tighe & Bond is a full-service engineering and environmental consulting firm that provides a wide array of services, including building engineering, coastal and waterfront solutions, environmental consulting, GIS and asset management, site planning and design, transportation engineering, and water and wastewater engineering.

A.G. MILLER CO. Inc.
57 Batavia St., Springfield
(413) 732-9297
www.agmiller.com
Rick Miller, president
Early in its history, A.G. Miller made a name in automobile enameling. More than 100 years after its founding in 1914, the company now offers precision metal fabrication; design and engineering; assembly; forming, rolling, and bending; laser cutting; punching; precision saw cutting; welding; powder coating and liquid painting; and more.

BALTAZAR CONTRACTORS
83 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 583-6160
www.baltazarcontractors.com
Frank Baltazar, president
Baltazar Contractors has been a family-owned and operated construction firm for more than 20 years, specializing in roadway construction and reconstruction in Massachusetts and Connecticut; all aspects of site-development work; sewer, water, storm, and utilities; and streetscape improvements.

CHARTER OAK INSURANCE & FINANCIAL SERVICES CO. *
330 Whitney Ave., Holyoke
(413) 374-5430
www.charteroakfinancial.com
Peter Novak, General Agent
A member of the MassMutual Financial Group, Charter Oak been servicing clients for more than 125 years. The team of professionals serves individuals, families, and businesses with risk-management products, business planning and protection, retirement planning and investment services, and fee-based financial planning.

CITY ENTERPRISE INC.
52-60 Berkshire Ave., Springfield
(413) 726-9549
www.cityenterpriseinc.com
WONDERLYN MURPHY, PRESIDENT & CEO
City Enterprise Inc. is a general contractor with a diverse portfolio of clients, including the Groton Naval submarine base, Westover Air Reserve Base, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and many others.

COMMERCIAL DISTRIBUTING CO. INC.
46 South Broad St., Westfield
(413) 562-9691
www.commercialdist.com
Richard Placek, Chairman
Founded in 1935 by Joseph Placek, Commercial Distributing Co. is a family-owned, family-operated business servicing more than 1,000 bars, restaurants, and clubs, as well as more than 400 package and liquor stores. Now in its third generation, the company continues to grow by building brands and offering new products as the market changes.

CON-TEST ANALYTICAL LABORATORY (Filli LLC)
39 Spruce St., East Longmeadow
(413) 525-2332
www.contestlabs.com
TOM VERATTI, FOUNDER, CONSULTANT
Established in 1987 and founded by Thomas and Kathleen Veratti, Con-Test Inc. provides industrial hygiene and analytical services to a broad range of clients. Originally focused on industrial hygiene analysis, the laboratory testing division has expanded its capabilities to include numerous techniches in air analysis, classical (wet) chemistry, metals, and organics.

DAVID R. NORTHUP ELECTRICAL CONTRACTORS INC.
73 Bowles Road, Agawam
(413) 786-8930
www.northupelectric.com
DAVID NORTHUP, PRESIDENT
David R. Northup Electrical Contractors Inc. is a family-owned and operated, full-service electrical, HVAC, and plumbing contractor. The company specializes in everything from installation and replacement to preventative maintenance; indoor air-quality work to sheet-metal fabrication.

FREEDOM CREDIT UNION
1976 Main St., Springfield
(800) 831-0160
www.freedom.coop
GLENN WELCH, PRESIDENT & CEO
Freedom is a full-service credit union based in Springfield serving a wide range of business and consumer clients. Freedom has its main office on Main Street, with other offices in Sixteen Acres (Springfield), Feeding Hills, Ludlow, Chicopee, Easthampton, Northampton, Turners Falls, Greenfield, and the Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy.

THE FUTURES HEALTH GROUP, LLC
136 William St., Springfield
(800) 218-9280
www.discoverfutures.com
Brian Edwards, CEO
Futures provides occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language therapy, special education, nursing, mental health, and other related services to schools and healthcare facilities across the U.S. Founded in 1998, it continues to be managed by expert practitioners in their fields.

GARY ROME HYUNDAI INC. *
150 Whiting Farms Road, Holyoke
(877) 830-4792
www.garyromehyundai.com
GARY ROME, President
Gary Rome is the largest Hyundai dealership in the nation after a new, much larger facility opened in 2017. The company’s mission statement is to “provide our customers with a consistent sale and service experience that satisfies each person’s needs and exceeds their expectation in a clean and comfortable environment.”

GOVERNORS AMERICA CORP. – GAC MGMT. Co.
720 Silver St., Agawam
(413) 786-5600
www.governors-america.com
Governors America Corp. is a privately held engine-control company that provides complete design, development, production, and marketing capabilities for electro-mechanical and electronic devices that are used for engine control. The engine-control products are used in a wide range of industries, including generator set, material handling, marine propulsion, mining, locomotive, and off-highway applications. Governors America has developed an advanced line of electronic governing and fuel-control systems with accessories.

HOLYOKE PEDIATRIC ASSOCIATES, LLP
150 Lower Westfield Road, Holyoke
(413) 536-2393
www.holyokepediatrics.com
KATHY TREMBLE, Care Coordinator
Holyoke Pediatric Associates is the largest pediatric practice in Western Mass., serving patients from the Pioneer Valley at offices in Holyoke and South Hadley. The group medical practice comprises board-certified pediatricians, certified nurse practitioners, and more than 75 clinical, nutritional, and clerical support staff, and has served the healthcare needs of infants, children, and adolescents since 1971.

JET INDUSTRIES INC.
307 Silver St., Agawam
(413) 786-2010
www.jet.industries
Michael Turrini, president
Jet Industries Inc. is a leading design-build electrical, mechanical, communications, and fire-sprinkler contractor. What began as a small, family-run oil company founded by Aaron Zeeb in 1977 has grown into one of the nation’s largest companies of its type, with more than 500 employees servicing projects all across the country.

KITTREDGE EQUIPMENT CO. INC.
100 Bowles Road, Agawam
(413) 304-4100
www.kittredgeequipment.com
Wendy Webber, president
Founded in 1921, Kittredge Equipment Co. is one of the nation’s leading food-service equipment and supply businesses. It boasts 70,000 square feet of showroom in three locations. The company also handles design services, and has designed everything from small restaurants to country clubs to in-plant cafeterias.

LANCER TRANSPORTATION & SULCO WAREHOUSING & LOGISTICS *
311 Industry Ave., Springfield
(413) 739-4880
www.sulco-lancer.com
Todd Goodrich, president
In business since 1979, Sulco Warehousing & Logistics specializes in public, contract, and dedicated warehousing. Lancer Transportation & Logistics is a licensed third-party freight-brokerage company that provides full-service transportation-brokerage services throughout North America.

LOUIS & CLARK DRUG INC.
309 East St., Springfield
(413) 737-7456
www.lcdrug.com
Skip Matthews, president
Since 1965, Louis & Clark has been a recognized name in Western Mass., first as a pharmacy and later as a resource for people who need home medical equipment and supplies. Today, the company provides professional pharmacy and compounding services, medical equipment, independent-living services, and healthcare programs.

MAYBURY ASSOCIATES INC.
90 Denslow Road, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-4216
www.maybury.com
John Maybury, president
Since 1976, Maybury Associates Inc. has been designing, supplying, and servicing all types of material-handling equipment throughout New England. Maybury provides customers in a wide range of industries with solutions to move, lift, and store their parts and products.

NOTCH WELDING & MECHanICAL CONTRACTORS INC. *
85 Lemay St., Chicopee
(413) 534-3440
www.notch.com
Steven Neveu, president
A family-owned business since 1972, Notch Mechanical Constructors provides piping installation and repair services to facilities throughout Southern New England. Its team has the capacity to address process and utility piping challenges at any business within 100 miles of its locations in Chicopee and Hudson, Mass.

O’REILLY, TALBOT & OKUN ASSOCIATES INC.
293 Bridge St., Suite 500, Springfield
(413) 788-6222
www.oto-env.com
JIM OKUN, KEVIN O’REILLY, MIKE TALBOT, principals
O’Reilly Talbot & Okun is a specialty geo-environmental engineering firm, specializing in asbestos management, brownfields redevelopment, environmental site assessment, indoor air quality and industrial hygiene, MCP compliance, vapor intrusion, geotechnical engineering, lead inspection, PCB assessment and management, and other services.

P.C. ENTERPRISES INC. d/b/a ENTRE COMPUTER
138 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
(413) 736-2112
www.pc-enterprises.com
Norman Fiedler, CEO
PC Enterprises, d/b/a Entre Computer, assists organizations with procuring, installing, troubleshooting, servicing, and maximizing the value of technology. In business since 1983, it continues to evolve and grow as a lead provider for many businesses, healthcare providers, retailers, and state, local, and education entities.

PARAGUS STRATEGIC IT
112 Russell St., Hadley
(413) 587-2666
www.paragusit.com
Delcie Bean IV, president
While still in high school, Delcie Bean founded Paragus IT in 1999, first under the name Vertical Horizons and then Valley Computer Works. Under the Paragus name, it has grown dramatically as an outsourced IT solution, providing business computer service, computer consulting, information-technology support, and other services to businesses of all sizes. 

REDIKER SOFTWARE INC.
2 Wilbraham Road, Hampden
(800) 213-9860
www.rediker.com
Andrew Anderlonis, president
Rediker software is used by school administrators across the U.S. and in more than 100 countries, and is designed to meet the student-information-management needs of all types of schools and districts. For example, 100,000 teachers use the TeacherPlus web gradebook, and the ParentPlus and StudentPlus web portals boast 2 million users.

SANDERSON MacLEOD INC.
1199 South Main St. Palmer
(413) 283-3481
www.sandersonmacleod.com
MARK BORSARI, PRESIDENT
Launched in 1958 by Ken Sanderson and Bruce MacLeod, Sanderson MacLeod invented the first twisted-wire mascara brush. Today, it is an industry leader in the making of twisted wire brushes for the cosmetics industry, the healthcare sector, the OEM-cleaning brush market, the firearm-cleaning brush market, and many others.

TIGER PRESS (Shafii’s Inc.)
50 Industrial Dr., East Longmeadow
(413) 224-1763
www.tigerpress.com
JENNIFER SHAFII
TigerPress is an award-winning, ISO 9001 & FSC-certified custom printing company featuring the latest digital prepress and printing technology. The company manufactures folding cartons, marketing and educational printed products, fulfillment services, and indoor and outdoor signs.
TROY INDUSTRIES INC.
151 Capital Dr., West Springfield
(413) 788-4288
www.troyind.com
Steve Troy, CEO
Troy Industries was founded on the principle of making reliable, innovative, over-engineered products that function without question when lives are on the line. Troy is a leading U.S. government contractor that designs and manufactures innovative, top-quality small-arms components and accessories and complete weapon upgrades.

UNITED PERSONNEL SERVICES *
1331 Main St., Springfield
(413) 736-0800
www.unitedpersonnel.com
Patricia Canavan, president
United provides a full range of staffing services, including temporary staffing and full-time placement, on-site project management, and strategic recruitment in the Springfield, Hartford, and Northampton areas, specializing in administrative, professional, medical, and light-industrial staff.

WESTSIDE FINISHING CO. INC.
15 Samosett St., Holyoke
(413) 533-4909
www.wsfinish.com
BRIAN BELL, PRESIDENT
Founded in the early 1980s, Westside Finishing is a family-owned business specializing wide array of services, including silk screening, conveyorized powder coating, batch powder coating, pad printing, trucking, sub-assembly, final packaging, and more.

Revenue Growth

1. FIVE STAR TRANSPORTATION INC. *
809 College Highway, Southwick
(413) 789-4789
www.firestarbus.com
Nathan Lecrenski, president
Five Star provides school-bus transportation services to school districts and charter schools throughout Western Mass. From its launch a half-century ago with a single bus route, the company currently services more than 12 school districts and operates a fleet of more than 175 vehicles. 

2. BAYSTATE BLASTING INC.
36 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 583-4440
www.baystateblasting.com
Paul Baltazar, president
Baystate Blasting, Inc. is a local family-owned and operated drilling and blasting firm located in Ludlow that began in 2003. Services include site work, heavy highway construction, residential work, quarry, portable crushing, and recycling, and it is an ATF-licensed dealer of explosives as well as rental of individual magazines.

3. IN-LAND CONTRACTING INC.
83 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 547-0100
Denis Baltazar, Treasurer
In-Land Contracting is a general contractor specializing in garages, exterior work, parking lots, and other types of work.

AMERICAN PEST SOLUTIONS INC.
169 William St., Springfield
(413) 781-0044
www.413pestfree.com
BOB RUSSELL, PRESIDENT
Founded in 1913, American Pest Solutions is a full-service pest-solutions company. With two offices, in Springfield and Hartford, Conn., the company serves residential and commercial customers, offering inspection, treatment, and ongoing protection.

BAYSTATE RESTORATION INC.
69 Gagne St., Chicopee
(413) 532-3473
www.baystaterestorationgroup.com
MARK DAVIAU and DON ROBERT, OWNERS
Baystate Restoration Group is a 24-hour emergency service-restoration company specializing in all areas of restoration and insurance claims due to fire, water, smoke, mold, storm, and water damage to homes and businesses.

BURGESS, SCHULTZ & ROBB, P.C.
200 North Main St., Suite 1, South Building, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-0025
www.bsrcpa.com
ANDREW ROBB, MANAGING PARTNER
Burgess, Shultz & Robb is a full-service accounting firm specializing in accounting, auditing, tax, and business planning for closely held businesses and nonprofit organizations, trusts, and estate services.

CENTER SQUARE GRILL (Fun Dining Inc.)
84 Center Square, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-0055
www.centersquaregrill.com
Michael Sakey, Bill Collins, Proprietors
Center Square Grill serves up eclectic American fare for lunch and dinner, as well as an extensive wine and cocktail selection and a kids’ menu. The facility also has a catering service and hosts events of all kinds.

CHICOPEE INDUSTRIAL CONTRACTORS INC.
107 North Chicopee St., Chicopee
(413) 538-7279
www.chicopeeindustrial.com
Carol Campbell, president
Founded in 1992, Chicopee Industrial Contractors is an industrial contracting firm specializing in all types of rigging, heavy lifting, machinery moving, machine installation, millwrighting, machine repair, heavy hauling, plant relocations, concrete pads, foundations, and structural steel installations.

COURIER EXPRESS INC.
20 Oakdale St., Springfield
(413) 730-6620
www.courierexp.com
Eric Devine, president
Courier Express is committed to providing custom, same-day delivery solutions for any shipment. Its focal point is New England, but its reach is nationwide. The company strives to utilize the latest technologies, on-time delivery, customer service, and attention to detail to separate itself from its competitors.

E.F. CORCORAN PLUMBING & HEATING CO. INC. *
5 Rose Place, Springfield
(413) 732-1462
www.efcorcoran.com
CHARLES EDWARDS and BRIAN TOOMEY, Co-OWNERS
E.F. Corcoran Plumbing and Heating, founded in 1963, is a full-service plumbing and HVAC contractor. Services include 24-hour plumbing service, HVAC system installs, design-build services, energy retrofits, system replacements and modifications, gas piping, boilers, and more.

EOS APPROACH, LLC / Proshred Security international
75 Post Office Park, Wilbraham
(413) 596-5479
www.proshred.com
JOE KELLY, OWNER
Proshred is an industry leader in on-site shredding and hard-drive destruction. The company offers a number of services, including one-time paper shredding, ongoing shredding service, hard-drive destruction, product destruction, document scanning, and drop-off shredding.

EWS PLUMBING & HEATING INC.
339 Main St., Monson
(413) 267-8983
www.ewsplumbingandheating.com
BRANT STAHELSKI, PRESIDENT
EWS Plumbing & Heating Inc. is a family-owned and operated company that designs and installs plumbing and HVAC systems. A full-service mechanical contractor, the company specializes in both residential and commercial applications.

FLETCHER SEWER & DRAIN INC.
824A Perimeter Road, Ludlow
(413) 547-8180
www.fletcherseweranddrain.com
Teri Marinello, president
Since 1985, Fletcher Sewer & Drain has provided service to homeowners as well as municipalities and construction companies for large pipeline jobs. From unblocking kitchen sinks to replacing sewer lines, Fletcher keeps up to date with all the latest technology, from high-pressure sewer jetters to the newest camera-inspection equipment.

GALLAGHER REAL ESTATE *
1763 Northampton St., Holyoke
(413) 536-7232
www.gogallagher.com
PAUL GALLAGHER, OWNER
Gallagher Real Estate is an independent brokerage that operates in Hampshire and Hampden counties in Massachusetts and Hartford County in Connecticut, and specializes in both residential and commercial properties. The company has offices in Holyoke, South Hadley, East Longmeadow, and Springfield.

GLEASON JOHNDROW LANDSCAPING INC.
44 Rose St., Springfield
(413) 727-8820
www.gleasonjohndrowlandscaping.com
Anthony Gleason II, David Johndrow, Owners
Gleason Johndrow Landscape & Snow Management offers a wide range of commercial and residential services, including lawnmowing, snow removal, salting options, fertilization programs, landscape installations, bark-mulch application, creative plantings, seeding options, pruning, irrigation installation, maintenance, and much more.

GMH FENCE CO. inc. *
15 Benton Dr., East Longmeadow
(413) 525-3361
www.gmhfence.com
GLENN HASTIE, OWNER
Serving the Western Mass. area for nearly a quarter century, GMH Fence Co. is one of the largest fence companies in the region. The company offers fence installations from a selection of wood, aluminum, steel, and vinyl fencing for residential and commercial customers.

KNIGHT MACHINE TOOL CO. INC.
11 Industrial Dr., South Hadley
(413) 532-2507
Gary O’Brien, owner
Knight Machine & Tool Co. is a metalworking and welding company that offers blacksmithing, metal roofing, and other services from its 11,000-square-foot facility.

L & L PROPERTY SERVICES, LLC
582 Amostown Road, West Springfield
(413) 732-2739
www.
RICHARD LAPINSKI, OWNER
L&L Property Services LLC is a locally owned company providing an array of property services, including lawn care, snow removal, sanding, excavations, patios and stonewalls, hydroseeding, and more.

MARKET MENTORS, LLC *
1680 Riverdale St., West Springfield
(413) 787-1133
www.marketmentors.com
Michelle Abdow, principal
A full-service marketing firm, Market Mentors handles all forms of marketing, including advertising in all media, media buying, graphic design, public relations, and event planning.

MORAN SHEET METAL INC.
613 Meadow St., Agawam
(413) 363-1548
PAUL MORAN, OWNER
Founded in 1993, Moran Sheet metal is a family-owned company specializing in custom fabrication and installation of HVAC systems for commercial clients across Western Mass. and into Central Mass.

NORTHEAST IT SYSTEMS INC.
170 Lockhouse Road, Westfield
(413) 736-6348
www.northeastit.net
Joel Mollison, president
Northeast is a full-service IT company providing business services, managed IT services, backup and disaster recovery, and cloud services, as well as a full-service repair shop for residential customers, including file recovery, laptop screen replacement, PC setups and tuneups, printer installation, virus protection and removal, and wireless installation.

RAYMOND R. HOULE CONSTRUCTION INC.
5 Miller St., Ludlow
(413) 547-2500
www.rayhoule.com
TIM PELLETIER, PRESIDENT
Raymond R. Houle Construction specializes in commercial and industrial construction. Services include general contracting, construction management, and an integrated construction-assistance program.

RODRIGUES INC.
782 Center St., Ludlow
(413) 547-6443
Antonio Rodrigues, president
Rodrigues Inc. operates Europa Restaurant in Ludlow, specializing in Mediterranean cuisine with an interactive dining experience, presenting meals cooked on volcanic rocks at tableside. Europa also offers full-service catering and banquet space.

SECOND WIND CONSULTANTS
136 West St., #102, Northampton
(413) 584-2581
www.secondwindconsultants.com
AARON TODRIN, PRESIDENT
Second Wind Consultants is a Better Business Bureau-accredited business debt-relief consulting firm that helps companies avoid bankruptcy or litigation through a debt workout.

SKIP’S OUTDOOR ACCENTS INC.
1265 Suffield St., Agawam
(413) 786-0990
www.skipsonline.com
JOHN and SCOTT ANSART, OWNERS
Skip’s Outdoor Accents specializes in a wide range of outdoor products, including sheds and garages, gazebos, swingsets, outdoor furniture, yard and garden products, weathervanes and cupolas, indoor furniture, playhouses, and pet structures.

SUMMIT CAREERS INC.
85 Mill St., Suite B, Springfield
(413) 733-9506
www.summetcareers.inc
DAVID PICARD, OWNER
Summit Careers provides temporary, temp-to-hire, and direct-hire services for clients in a variety of sectors, including light industrial, warehouse, professional trades, administrative, accounting, and executive.

TAPLIN YARD, PUMP & POWER (M. Jags Inc.)
120 Interstate Dr., West Springfield
(413) 781-4352
www.fctaplin.com
Martin Jagodowski, president
Taplin has been servicing the local area since 1892, and is an authorized dealer for parts, equipment, service, and accessories for a wide range of brands. It boasts a large inventory of zero-turn mowers, commercial lawn equipment, lawnmowers, lawn tractors, trimmers, blowers, generators, pressure washers, pole saws, sprayers, chainsaws, and more.

VANGUARD DENTAL, LLC
1730 Boston Road, Springfield
(413) 543-2555
www.vanguarddentistry.com
DR. YOGITA KANORWALLA, PRINCIPAL
Vanguard Dental is a full-service dental practice specializing in same-day crowns, dental implants, root canals, bridges and dentures, Invisalign, and cosmetic dentistry.

WANCZYK EVERGREEN NURSERY INC.
166 Russell St., Hadley
(413) 584-3709
www.wanczynursery.com
MICHAEL WANCZYK, OWNER
Wanczyk Nursery has been a premier plant grower in the Pioneer Valley since 1954. The family-owned business offers many kinds of trees, shrubs, bushes, and flowers.

WEBBER & GRINNELL INSURANCE AGENCY INC.
8 North King. St., #1, Northampton
(413) 586-0111
www.webberandgrinnell.com
BILL GRINNELL, PRESIDENT
Webber & Grinnell’s roots can be traced back to 1849, when A.W. Thayer opened an insurance agency on Pleasant St. in Northampton. The agency offers automotive, homeowners, and business coverage, as well as employee benefits.

Cover Story

Innovative Course of Action

Yves Salomon-Fernandez

Yves Salomon-Fernandez

Yves Salomon-Fernandez became the 10th president of Greenfield Community College this past summer, succeeding Bob Pura at the helm of a school that enjoys some of the highest retention and graduation rates in the state. Her primary goals moving forward are to build on the momentum generated over the past several years, set the bar higher, and then clear that bar. Salomon-Fernandez is confident in her abilities, and, like the school itself, she says she’s “innovative and entrepreneurial.”

Yves Salomon-Fernandez remembers many things about her first interview as a candidate for the presidency at Greenfield Community College — especially the cold.

It was early April, and she recalls that morning being particularly cruel as she arrived at the Deerfield Inn for that interview session. It was so cold, and she appeared so uncomfortable, in fact, that Robbie Cohn, chair of the school’s board of trustees, felt inspired to give her his gloves, and for an attending student representative to give up her shawl.

“I was freezing, and as a measurement expert, I said to myself, ‘this is going to interfere with my performance if I’m distracted by the thought of being cold,’” she recalled. “With those gloves and that shawl, I thought I could give them a better glimpse of who I was and what I can do.”

Whether it was the additional layering or not, Salomon-Fernandez warmed up enough to sufficiently impress those interviewing her to become a finalist for the job. And, continuing in this vein, it would fair to say that the rest of the campus would soon warm to her.

Indeed, several weeks later, she would be named the school’s 10th president and the successor to long-time leader Bob Pura, who retired this past spring after 18 years at the helm.

When asked what she told those quizzing her, Salomon-Fernandez condensed it all down to a few words and phrases that would also set the tone for this interview with BusinessWest.

“I said I was very innovative, entrepreneurial, and like to think outside the box,” she recalled, adding that, in many respects, those traits are shared by the GCC community as a whole, which is another reason she was attracted to the school.

Entrepreneurial? Yes, entrepreneurial.

While some in her position would be hesitant to say out loud that a college is very much, if not exactly like, a business, she isn’t. Only, the phrase she uses is ‘academic enterprise.’

“Considering the challenges we’re facing in higher education, I think we really need to look at the model comprehensively and say, ‘how can we change this model to be sustainable over time?’” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to that specific assignment.

Salomon-Fernandez, 39, a native of Haiti who emigrated to the U.S. when she was 12, brings a diverse résumé to the Greenfield campus, including a stint as interim president of MassBay Community College, followed by her most recent assignment, president of Cumberland County College (CCC) in New Jersey.
Late last fall, it was announced that CCC would be merging with another institution in the Garden State and that her job would be eliminated.

Having already moved with her family several times over the past several years, she wasn’t looking forward to doing so again, but did so (although her husband and children will remain in New Jersey for a year) to keep her career on an upward trajectory — specifically in another college president’s position.

She told BusinessWest she was quite discriminating in her search for the right job opportunity. She applied for a few positions, but quickly set her sights on GCC, the only college in decidedly rural Franklin County.

“This is the one job I wanted — this is really a match made in heaven,” she said. Elaborating, she noted that, while she likes just about everything about the region — from Berkshire Brewing’s lagers to ziplining — she was really drawn in by GCC’s mission, important role in Franklin County, intriguing mix of programs, high transfer rate, and especially the art (much of it courtesy of students enrolled in the highly acclaimed program there) adorning walls, lobbies, and tables across campus.

“The values of GCC and the Pioneer Valley are very consistent with my own and my family’s,” she explained. “The commitment to renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and rural living are all things I’m very passionate about and enjoy; this is a lifestyle that’s conducive to raising kids and a lifestyle that’s grounded.”

But fit also involves the size and nature of the challenge — in this case, a school that has been put on a solid foundation by Pura, but one that still has growth opportunities and challenges to be met.

“I’ve always been a risk taker,” said Salomon-Fernandez, summing up her mindset professionally, adding that, moving forward, her primary assignment is to continue and build upon the momentum generated in recent years under Pura’s stewardship. “GCC had the highest retention rates and the highest graduation rates in the state; that said to me that this is a very stable institution. I want to build on that.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Salomon-Fernandez about her latest assignment in higher-education administration and how she intends to grow and diversify this unique ‘academic enterprise.’

Course of Action

As noted earlier, Salomon-Fernandez brings a diverse background, a host of skills, and many forms of experience to her new role.

For starters, she speaks four languages — English, French, Haitian Creole, and Spanish — and has consulted with the United Nations and the Bermuda Ministry of Education, taught as an adjunct professor for many years, held a number of research positions, and spoken and written on subjects ranging from women’s leadership to workforce development.

Her career in education began as a data analyst working on the No Child Left Behind project and continued on an upward trajectory to the college president’s office.

After serving as interim president at MassBay, in Wellesley, and then at Cumberland County College, she found herself looking for the proverbial next challenge. And in the parking lot of the Deerfield Inn, she was looking for a way to take the chill out of her fingers and toes.

She has another anecdote from her early visits to the GCC campus, one that speaks volumes about why she warmed to the campus so quickly and why she made this the focus of her job search.

She had been visiting the art gallery at the school the day before her interview, she recalled, and she was trying to remain ‘incognito,’ as she put it.

GCC campus, as a whole, is innovative and entrepreneurial

Yves Salomon-Fernandez says the GCC campus, as a whole, is innovative and entrepreneurial, and she shares those personality traits.

“I was looking around, and a member of the janitorial staff came up to me said, ‘if you like the artwork, I can show you some more — it’s throughout our entire building,’” she recalled. “My doctorate is in measurement — statistics, cycle metrics … that’s my field. I tell people I see the world as one big structural equation model, and that was the first evidence of the culture here. I’m aggregating different data points and different kinds of data, quantitative and qualitative, to get a picture in my mind of what this place is and what it might be like to work here.”

Finishing the story, she said the janitorial staff member asked a few questions and eventually commented that GCC was a nice place to work and that a few faculty positions and even the president’s position were open. She remained incognito through all of that, but came away even more convinced that this was where she wanted to land professionally.

“For me, I was looking for a place where I could get that kind of professional satisfaction and where the faculty, staff, and educators and engaged in local issues, regional issues, national issues, and international issues,” she went on. “It’s an intellectually vibrant college, and that was huge for me — people who are deeply engaged in their discipline and who care deeply about the human potential and the world in which we live. And also a place where discourse is valued; we may not always agree, but we agree to talk about things and to find a common ground.”

Salomon-Fernandez said that, in many ways, Cumberland N.J. and Greenfield, Mass. are very much alike. While much of the Garden State is urban and densely populated, Cumberland County isn’t. It’s also the poorest county in the state — just as Franklin County is in Massachusetts — and one battling issues ranging from a lack of high-speed Internet access to opioid addiction to job creation and providing individuals with the skills they need to succeed in a changing workplace. Again, just like Franklin County.

That’s another reason this challenge was attractive to her, adding that still another has been GCC’s response to those issues.

“What I really admire about GCC is that the college has been very innovative in terms of finding ways to meet students where they are and addressing their many challenges,” she said. “For example, in our library, we rent laptops to students and Internet routers to students; we lease bikes to students and even telescopes. There are many things the college does to make the school accessible and possible, and enhance student success.

“We were the first college in the country to have a food pantry,” she noted, referencing a facility where students, many of them non-traditional in nature, can not only get a snack but shop for their whole family. “There are a number of things the college has done under Bob Pura’s leadership that are cutting-edge and forward-thinking.”

Looking ahead, she wants to continue that pattern of innovation while carrying out a vital role as the only community college in the county.

Grade Expectations

Elaborating, she said that GCC, like all community colleges, has a diverse student population comprised of both traditional students right out of high school and non-traditional students who joined the workforce after high school and are now looking to enhance their skill sets to create new career opportunities.

That latter constituency (roughly 15% of the student population) is the fastest-growing segment at GCC, and Salomon-Fernandez sees ample opportunity for further growth in that realm.

“In a county like Franklin County, where the attendance rate for higher education is so low, we have the opportunity to make college and professional preparation and workforce training accessible to many more people,” she explained.

Elaborating, she said that one of her goals moving forward is to do even more outreach — the school already does a good deal of that — within the community to help it reach those who might think that college is beyond their reach or not for them.

“They may not understand that the mission of the community college is to help them in ways that a traditional college may not,” she explained. “So spreading the word and really doing outreach, working with our partners to get the word out, is a priority for us.”

Yves Salomon-Fernandez says the enterprise model within higher education must evolve if it is to remain sustainable.

Yves Salomon-Fernandez says the enterprise model within higher education must evolve if it is to remain sustainable.

And getting people into higher education will be critical moving forward, she said, noting that the world of work is changing and the Bay State’s economy is truly knowledge-driven.

“We know that artificial intelligence, automation, computerization, all of those things are becoming more and more prominent,” she noted. “And that has implications for the careers for which we’re preparing students, and also for the pedagogies that we use. So we’ll be becoming much more interdisciplinary as a college, and there’s already a history of that here.”

Meanwhile, the enterprise model within higher education must evolve to remain sustainable, she went on.

“We have to look at whether this model is a financially sustainable model as it is,” Salomon-Fernandez told BusinessWest. “We have a number of contradictions; we hear people say the tenure model is antiquated, and at the same time, we have legions of adjuncts operating in the gig economy without health insurance, without benefits, and without pensions.

“And in some ways, as a higher education, all that is hypocritical, because we teach our students that people should be compensated fairly, and there’s some basic human rights and access to services that they should have,” she went on. “Yet, we struggle to provide that for the very people who are educating the current students.”

Overall, she notes, a school known for being entrepreneurial must be even more so in the years to come, given limited resources for the state and a growing role within the county.

“We have to look at what we can do to supplement those resources from the state because we know they are not sufficient to provide our students with the experiences we want them to have,” she said. “So what are some of the ways we can think entrepreneurially? What are some of the unmet needs within our college and within the market that we can help meet to create value, create revenue, and create experiences for our students?

“We have to think differently,” she said in conclusion. “We’re very committed to reinventing the academic enterprise model here at GCC, there is an appetite for it, and we want to do in a way that remains true to our values.”

Soar Subject

As she talked with BusinessWest on a Friday morning late last month, Salomon-Fernandez said that weekend ahead was packed with activity, including her first encounter with ziplining.

In recent weeks, she’s also had a behind-the-scenes look at Mike’s Maze, the famous cornfield attraction, gone swimming in the Connecticut River, and visited Brattleboro. She’s taking scuba lessons at UMass Amherst and is learning how to fly a drone.

In short, she’s settling into Franklin County and all that it has to offer. She’s also settling in GCC, which, like the country surrounding it, is a perfect match for her.

Like the school itself, in her estimation, she is innovative and entrepreneurial, talents that will be needed to build on the momentum that’s been generated over the past two decades and take the school to even greater heights.

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

Cover Story

Working in Concert

Executive Director Susan Beaudry

Executive Director Susan Beaudry

As the Springfield Symphony Orchestra prepares to kick off its 75th season on Sept. 22 with “Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein,” it faces a host of challenges shared by most orchestras its size, especially a changing, shrinking base of corporate support and a need to make its audiences younger. Susan Beaudry, the SSO’s executive director, says the way to stare down these challenges is through imaginative responsiveness — and especially greater visibility through stronger outreach. And she’s doing just that.

Susan Beaudry says there’s a great deal of significance attached to the fact that the Springfield Symphony Orchestra turns 75 this season — starting with the harsh reality that fewer institutions of this type are reaching that milestone.

Indeed, several orchestras, including one in New Hampshire, have ceased operations in recent years, and many, if not most, others are struggling to one degree or another, said Beaudry, executive director of the SSO for more than a year now.

The reasons have been well-documented — the decline of many urban centers where such orchestras are based, falling attendance, declining corporate support, ever-increasing competition for the public’s time and entertainment dollars, and an inability to attract younger audiences are at the top of the list. The SSO is confronting these obstacles as well, Beaudry told BusinessWest, as well as the additional challenge of not knowing who will manage its home (Symphony Hall) after the Springfield Performing Arts Development Corp. announced last week that it will no longer manage that venue and CityStage, leaving the immediate future of those venues in doubt.

But while the institution is not as healthy financially as it has been in the past, it embarks on its 75th season on solid footing (there’s been a 20% increase in the annual fund since Beaudry’s arrived, for example), with determination to stare down the challenges facing it and seemingly all arts institutions, and optimism that an improving picture in Springfield and especially its downtown will benefit the SSO moving forward.

And Beaudry is a big reason for all of the above.

The former director of Development for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Beaudry was recruited to the SSO three years ago to lead development efforts for the institution. When Peter Salerno retired in the spring of 2017, she became interim executive director and later was able to shed that word ‘interim.’

“If you’re always doing your product behind closed doors, then it’s easy for other people to decide who you are and to give you an identity in the community. So it’s our job to open those doors, to get out, and to be playing.”

She brings to her role experience with not only fund-raising but business management — she’s a graduate of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, began her career as a national and international product marketing manager for Gardner-based Simplex, and operated her own restaurant.

She’s calling on that wealth of experience to create a new business plan for the orchestra — figuratively but also literally — that focuses on raising the profile of the SSO, introducing more people to orchestral music, and taking full advantage of what is, by most accounts, a rising tide in Springfield and its downtown.

Summing it all up, she said the orchestra has to do much more than what it’s done through most of first 75 years — perform about once a month, on average, at Symphony Hall.

“One thing that I’ve recognized since I’ve been here is that we can and must do a better job with our outreach and education and sharing the good work that we do with the community,” she explained. “If you’re always doing your product behind closed doors, then it’s easy for other people to decide who you are and to give you an identity in the community.

Principal percussionist Nathan Lassell

Principal percussionist Nathan Lassell was one of the SSO musicians featured at a recent performance at the Springfield Armory, an example of the orchestra’s efforts at greater outreach within the community.

“So it’s our job to open those doors, to get out, and to be playing,” she went on, adding that there have already been some good examples of this effort to move beyond Symphony Hall and creating more visibility. There was the SSO string quartet playing in the renovated National Guard Armory building at MGM Springfield’s elaborate gala on the eve of its Aug. 24 opening. There was also a sold-out performance of percussionists at the Springfield Armory on Sept. 1, a performance that Beaudry described as “the coolest chamber event concert I’ve ever seen in my life,” and one that did what needs to be done in terms of changing some perceptions about the institution.

“People were cheering and laughing, and it was so engaging,” she recalled. “People walked out literally moved; they now have a new perception of what orchestral music can be like.”

There will be more such performances in the future, including 4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince, an MGM presentation featuring the SSO, on Sept. 18, said Beaudry, adding that, overall, the orchestra, at 75, must create the opportunities and support system it will need to celebrate 100 years and the milestones to follow.

It’s a challenge Beaudry fully embraces and one she’s essentially spent her career preparing for. And she believes the timing is right for the SSO to hit some very high notes moving forward.

“We’re sitting at the pinnacle place,” she said. “We have a chance to hit it out of the park.”

Achievements of Note

It’s called the League of American Orchestras.

That’s the national trade association, of you will, for symphony orchestras. The group meets twice annually, once each winter in New York and again in the spring at a different site each year; the most recent gathering was in Chicago.

At that meeting, as at most others in recent years, the topics of conversation have gravitated toward those many challenges listed earlier, and especially the one involving lowering the age of the audiences assembling at symphony halls across the country.

“Every arts organization is looking to lower the average age of its patrons,” she explained. “That’s the only way to secure your future — having people joining you at those lower ages, at a lower ticket price, and eventually that will filter upwards and be your replacement audience.”

Chicago and New York are only a few of the dozens of cities Beaudry has visited in her business travels over the course of her career, especially when working for Simplex, maker of the time clock, among many other products, as divisional senior marketing director — specifically, a division devoted to a fire-suppression and alarm product line.

“This was a job where you on a plane every Monday, and you didn’t come home till Friday,” she explained, adding that this lifestyle — especially eating out all the time — helped inspire what would become the next stage in her career, as a restaurateur.

“As a result of all this travel, I became very interested in regional cuisine,” she explained. “When you’re the marketing person visiting from headquarters, they want to take you to what they’re proud of — their symphony, their museum, their opera, and their best restaurant; after a while, those meals start to grow a little thin, as do your pants.

“So I would say, ‘instead of going to a big, fancy meal at yet another steakhouse, let’s find a little hole in the wall that’s a representation of what the cuisine is in this area,’” she went on. “So I became really interested in food.”

So much so that, when she became a mother, and that ‘get on a plane Monday, return home on Friday’ schedule wasn’t at all appealing anymore, Beaudry, after staying at home for a few years, opened her own restaurant, Main Street Station, in Chester, not far from her home and where she grew up, and just down the street from the Chester Theater Company, which her parents ran.

She described the venture as a hobby, one she pursued for three years, before “returning to work,” as she called it, specifically with the Boston Symphony as director of the corporate fund for Tanglewood. She stayed in that job for seven years before being recruited to South Florida to set up the annual fund for Junior Achievement, before returning to this region.

She said she was approached by David Gang, president of the SSO (he’s still in that role) and encouraged to apply for the open position as director of Development for the orchestra. She did, and came aboard nearly three years ago.

Beaudry said she welcomed the opportunity to succeed Salerno, and for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there was the opportunity to lead an orchestra, one of her career goals. But there was also the opportunity to orchestrate (no pun intended) what would have to be considered a turnaround effort for the institution.

And as she commenced that assignment, she did so knowing that she had a number of strong elements working in, well, harmony.

“People were cheering and laughing, and it was so engaging. People walked out literally moved; they now have a new perception of what orchestral music can be like.”

Starting with the conductor, Kevin Rhodes, who has been with the SSO for 18 years, remarkable longevity in that profession, and has become in ways a fixture within the community.

“He’s such a high-energy, high-profile person,” said Beaudry. “And he’s so willing to jump in to help promote the SSO. In the commercials on TV, he’s willing to dress up in costume, be in character, and be light and silly. And that goes a long way toward changing the perception of what’s happening at Symphony Hall, that it’s not stodgy and stuffy and only for a certain demographic.”

Another strong asset was the board, Beaudry went on, adding that many of the 30-odd members have been with the institution for many years and thus bring not only passion for the SSO but a wealth of experience to the table.

“We’ve been lucky to have board members who have stayed with us for a very long time,” she explained. “So you have institutional knowledge and history and some people who have been through the ups and downs of the organization and can give new leadership like myself feedback about things that have been tried in the past, things we haven’t done in a while that might be successful, and more. To have that kind of leadership has been very helpful.”

Sound Advice

But a well-known, community-minded conductor and a committed board are only a few of the ingredients needed for success in these changing, challenging times, said Beaudry.

Others include imagination, persistence, and a willingness to broaden the institution’s focus (and presence) well beyond what would be considered traditional.

And this brings us back to that list of challenges facing the SSO and all or most institutions like it, starting with the development side of the equation, where the corporate landscape is changing. Elaborating, Beaudry said that, in this market and many others, fewer large companies remain under local ownership, and thus there are fewer potential donors with keen awareness of the institution, its history, and importance to the city and region — a reality far different than what she experienced in Boston.

“The corporations have left or merged — you used to be able to hit five banks in a week and take care of half your season in corporate sponsorships,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, you have to call long-distance; running into the bank president on the street corner just doesn’t happen anymore. You’re taking to someone who doesn’t have any idea what you are or who you are to the community or what the giving history or the relationship history has been, and, sometimes, not interested in learning about it.”

Then, there’s the growing competition for the time and entertainment dollars of the public, she noted, especially the young professionals that comprise the constituency the SSO — and all arts institutions, for that matter — are trying to attract.

“You need people that have discretionary income and time,” she explained, adding that the latter commodity is becoming the more difficult for many people to amass. “Busy parents who are running to soccer games and ski races and cross-country matches are exhausted come Saturday night. Not only are we competing with how busy family lives have become, we’re also competing with the ease of entertainment right in your home. Come Saturday night after a really busy work week and really busy Saturday taking care of your life, do you have the energy to get dressed up on Saturday night and go out when you can order a pizza, open a bottle of wine, and order any movie you want on Netflix?”

In this environment, which, she stressed again, is not unique to the city and this symphony orchestra, greater outreach, and making more introductions, is all-important.

“If the environment’s changed and you’re still doing the same things, eventually you’re going to see your own demise,” she said. “So you need to be reactive and responsive. One of the things I’ve done is increase the number of events that we have. Events are a nice way to introduce yourself to the community, shake a lot of hands, and meet a lot of people in one evening — and from there you can build further relationships and start meaningful relationships around giving.

This was the case at the Armory concert and the performance at MGM’s grand opening, she said. Hearkening back to the former, she said it’s clearly an example of what the SSO needs to do more often — partnering with other organizations and institutions within the community and putting itself in front of before new and different audiences.

“The Armory had a concert series, and we contacted them and said we wanted to participate,” she recalled. “As a mission-driven community partner, we need to be doing more of that; we need to be out in the community.”

And the performance resonated, she said, not just in enthusiastic applause for the performers, but, perhaps even more importantly, in pledges for all-important financial support.

“I literally had people telling me, as they were leaving, that they were going to be giving us more money — they were so impressed, they wanted to increase their gift to us,” she recalled. “And in the end, that’s what keeps us playing — people loving what we do and becoming excited to support it.”

While adding more events, the SSO is also adding more family-oriented performances to its lineup, said Beaudry, adding that, in addition to the annual holiday celebration in early December, there will be On Broadway with Maestro Rhodes, featuring songs from Oklahoma, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, and other Broadway hits, and also a Movie Night with Maestro Rhodes, featuring music from Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and many other timeless hits.

Moving forward, Beaudry said the opening of MGM’s resort casino and the coming of big-name acts like Stevie Wonder, who performed on Sept. 1, and Cher, who’s coming to Springfield on April 30, will bring more people to Springfield and, hopefully, expose them to more of its assets, like the SSO, CityStage, and others.

“As they say, a rising tide lifts all ships,” she noted, adding that the SSO could certainly be one of those ships, especially if works to become more visible across the area and even more of the fabric of the community. “When people are checking out a new place, sometimes they’ll open themselves up to new experiences.”

The Big Finale

Taking in a performance by a symphony orchestra would be a new experience for many, and moving forward, it is Beaudry’s goal — and mission — to make it something … well, less new.

It’s a challenge facing all those attending meetings of the League of American Orchestras, and one that can only be met, as she’s said repeatedly, by being imaginative, responsive, and reactive.

Beaudry and the SSO are working diligently to be all those things, and because of that, and to borrow a term from this industry, things are more upbeat.

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

Cover Story Healthcare Heroes

Healthcare Heroes to Be Saluted on Oct. 25

HealthcareHeroes18

Passion.

If one were challenged to describe the Healthcare Heroes for 2018 — or any year, for that matter — with just a single word, this would be the one.

It is a common character trait within any healthcare profession, but it is certainly necessary to rise above the tens of thousands of men and women in this field and earn that designation ‘hero.’

And it is certainly a common denominator in the remarkable and truly inspiring stories. The passion comes to the fore whether that story is about a career emergency-room nurse who shifted to work at college wellness centers and completely transformed the one at American International College, or about a nurse administrator at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke who is transforming care there while also serving as a mentor and role model for other team members. It’s the same when the story is about a large, multi-dimensional effort to battle opioid and heroin addiction in rural Franklin County, or about a pediatrician dedicated not only to the residents of a community, but to making that community a healthier place to live.

Fast Facts

What: The Healthcare Heroes Gala
When: Thursday, Oct. 25, 5:30-8:30 p.m.
Where: The Starting Gate at GreatHorse, Hampden
Tickets: $90 (tables of 10 available)
For more Information: Email [email protected]

That we said, passion is the word that defines these heroes. And it will be on clear display on Oct. 25 at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden, site of the Healthcare Heroes Gala.

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

But first, the stories that begin on the facing page.

There are seven winners in all, in categories chosen to reflect the broad scope of the health and wellness sector in Western Mass., and the incredible work being done within it:

The Healthcare Heroes for 2018 are:

• Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider:

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

• Health/Wellness Administrator/Administrator:

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

• Emerging Leader:

Peter DePergola II, director of Clinical Ethics, Baystate Health

• Community Health:

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

• Innovation in Health/Wellness:

TechSpring

• Collaboration in Health/Wellness:

The Consortium and the Opioid Task Force

• Lifetime Achievement:

Robert Fazzi, founder, Fazzi Associates.

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

Photography by Dani Fine Photography

Tickets to the Oct. 25 gala are $90 each, with tables of 10 available for purchase. For more information or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600, or email [email protected]

 

Meet the Judges

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

Holly Chaffee

Holly Chaffee

Dexter Johnson

Dexter Johnson

Dr. Michael Willers:

Dr. Michael Willers:

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

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

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

 

Cover Story

MGM Opens

MGM Springfield will open for business on August 24, thus ending a seven-year-long effort to bring a resort casino to Springfield’s South End and beginning a new era in the city’s history. In this special section, we’ll look at what brought us to this moment and what MGM’s arrival means to a wide range of constituencies, from those now working for the company to those doing business with it. (Photography provided by Aerial 51 Studios)

• The Moment is Here

Springfield Begins a New and Intriguing Chapter in its History

• From Their Perspective

Area Civic, Business Leaders Weigh in on MGM and its Impact

• An MGM Chronology

• Hitting the Jackpot

Dozens of Area Companies Become Coveted MGM Vendors

• MGM Springfield at a Glance

• In Good Company

Area Residents Find Opportunity Knocks at MGM Springfield

• Who’s Who?

The MGM Springfield Leadership Team

Cover Story

Lean and Green

solar canopies

These solar canopies over a parking lot are part of a massive, campus-wide photovoltaic project.

Because its region is so environmentally conscious, UMass Amherst would appear to be fertile ground for sustainable practices like green energy, eco-friendly buildings, and a buy-local ethos in food service. But it’s still remarkable how broadly — and effectively — the university has cast its net when it comes to sustainability. A national report placing the campus ninth in the nation for such efforts is the latest accolade, but UMass isn’t about to rest on its laurels.

Call it a reward for a decade of work.

When the Assoc. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education released the three-year results of its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), UMass Amherst earned placed ninth in the nation — a leap of 20 places from its previous rating in 2015.

That’s gratifying, said Steve Goodwin, deputy chancellor and professor of Microbiology at UMass, who has been heavily involved in efforts to make the state’s flagship campus more green. And it’s not a recognition that was earned overnight.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

When Kumble Subbaswamy became chancellor in 2012, Goodwin said, he ramped up those efforts by forming an advisory committee specifically around sustainability, which helped to raise the awareness of green issues around campus.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

“This new STARS score reflects the university’s continuing commitment to excellence in sustainability,” Subbaswamy said when the ranking was announced. “UMass Amherst is a leader in best practices for energy-efficient construction and sustainable food use, conducting world-class research, and preparing a new generation of students to be inspired stewards of our planet.”

But before any of that could be accomplished — through innovative food-service changes, solar projects, green-building techniques, and a host of other initiatives (more on them later) — there had to be buy-in from both the university’s leaders and its students.

“It gained a lot of acceptance early on because a lot of sustainability is doing what you do and meeting your mission with very high efficiency,” Goodwin said. “That’s not all of what sustainability is, but that was an appealing piece for us. A campus has a particular mission, and it has a limited set of resources to meet that mission.”

Steve Goodwin

Steve Goodwin says buy-in from students has been key to UMass Amherst’s sustainability successes.

Take, for example, the Central Heating Plant, a project completed in 2009 that replaced the campus’ 80-year-old coal-burning plant with a co-generation facility that provides electricity for 70% of the campus and 100% of the steam needed for heating and cooling buildings across the sprawling grounds — all while reducing greenhouse gases by 27%.

“That was a really big decision for the campus,” Goodwin said. “At the time, it was probably the best co-generation plant in the country. That really worked out well for us because we needed electrical power and we were heating with steam, so to get the efficiencies of co-generation was a really a big deal for the campus.”

Those early years of UMass Amherst’s new sustainability focus also saw a reduction in water use — by using recycled water where appropriate — and partnering with Johnson Controls to incorporate energy-saving devices on much of the campus lighting. And that was just the beginning.

“Since then, the sustainability committee has really taken the lead for the chancellor, and made it more of a campus-wide thing,” Goodwin said — in ways that continue to expand and raise the university’s green profile on the national stage.

Food for Thought

Early in the process, late last decade, UMass officials recognized food service as a prime area to boost efficiency and reduce waste. Not only did the sheer volume of food produced every day offer plenty of opportunity for improvement, but students were beginning to ask questions about waste.

“The initial step was to go trayless,” Goodwin said. “If you have a tray of food, it’s easier to heap a lot of food on the tray and not necessarily eat it all. But if you have to carry it all with your hands, you take less to begin with, and if you want more, you just go back.”

As a formal measure, in 2013, UMass Amherst became the largest food-service provider in the nation to sign on to the Real Food Campus Commitment, which requires participating universities’ food budgets to move away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food sources by 2020. “For an institution this large,” Goodwin said, “we purchase a very large percentage of local food.”

In 2014, UMass Amherst Dining Services was selected as a gold recipient for procurement practices in the 2014 Sustainability Awards given by the National Assoc. of College and University Food Services — just one way national experts were taking notice. Around the same time, the university’s sustainability staff and faculty team from Environmental Conservation, the Physical Plant, Dining Services, and University Relations won the state Department of Energy Resources’ Leading by Example Award.

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield is home to the Student Farming Enterprise, which allows undergraduates to gain hands-on experience managing a small, organic farm. Produce generated there is sold to local stores and a community-supported agriculture share program.

Building design has been another focus, a recent example being the John W. Olver Design Building, completed last year, which uses a wood-concrete composite flooring product that was developed on the UMass campus. The contemporary wood structure, which houses the Building and Construction Technology program, the Department of Architecture, and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, includes sustainability features such as LED lighting, motion sensors, ample natural light, electro-tinting glass, heat-recovery systems, bioswales, rain gardens, low-flow faucets, and public-transportation access.

Meanwhile, the Integrated Science Building, constructed in 2009, employs cooling systems that reuse rainwater, state-of-the-art heat exchanges and ventilation systems, passive solar collection, and extensive use of eco-friendly materials like bamboo, to name just a few features.

“Obviously building is a big chunk of where our resources go, especially energy and water resources, so building design has a big impact,” Goodwin said, noting that UMass typically aims for some level of LEED certification on new buildings.

“But we’ve also done some things that go above and beyond those certifications to try to make our buildings more suited for their particular uses,” he went on. “There’s a whole variety of passive solar issues, lighting issues, energy and water use around buildings, reclaiming ground water, those sorts of considerations.”

Textbook Examples

On an academic level, Goodwin said, sustainability has made its way into the curriculum of nearly every program on campus. “I don’t think there’s any school or college that doesn’t have something that deals with an aspect of sustainability. They range from the obvious — an environmental science course, for instance — to a social justice course where they’re making connections back into sustainability and how that impacts the way people experience their communities.”

He stressed repeatedly, however, that raising up a culture of sustainability has never been a solely top-down effort, and that students have long been engaged on these issues.

“One of the things we did early on was to establish a culture within the dormitories and among the students — in part because the students really want this. They care about these issues a lot,” he said. “So we spend a lot of time building various aspects of sustainability into the curriculum, but also extracurricular activities.”

For example, ‘eco-reps’ are students who are specifically trained around issues of sustainability and are responsible for a floor of a dorm, to help students understand the impact of their day-to-day activities. “We run competitions between the dorms — who’s going to do the most recycling or use the least water this year, those kinds of things.”

Students had a direct impact on one of the university’s most notable green decisions — to divest its endowment from direct holdings in fossil fuels in 2016, becoming the first major public university to do so.

The John W. Olver Design Building

The John W. Olver Design Building is a model for green design and operation.

A year earlier, the board of directors of the UMass Foundation voted to divest from direct holdings in coal companies in response to a petition from the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, a student group. Energized by that decision, the campaign staged a series of demonstrations to call for divestment from all fossil fuels, and the foundation board followed suit.

“Important societal change often begins on college campuses, and it often begins with students,” UMass President Marty Meehan said at the time. “I’m proud of the students and the entire university community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement, one that has been important to me throughout my professional life.”

It’s an example, Goodwin said, of the ways university leadership and the student body are often in alignment on issues of sustainability, both locally and globally. “So it’s been a balance of having sustainability in the curriculum, having demand from the students, and also having the central administration realize the importance of sustainability university-wide.

Numerous people on campus are tasked with making sure UMass continually improves its efforts, including the creation of a new position, sustainability manager, seven years ago.

“We’re having a huge impact in the region, and we’re proud of the impact we’re having — and at the same time, we’re also proud of what the students are experiencing,” Goodwin said. “Not only are they learning about these issues, but they’re living this approach as well. They’re living within an environment in which sustainability has a higher priority, so now we hope that impact will increase as they go out into their communities and spread the impacts of sustainability.”

Green Makes Green

Last year, UMass Amherst made news on the green-energy front again, installing more than 15,000 photovoltaic panels across campus, providing 5.5 megawatts of clean electrical power for the campus to use for a heavily discounted rate. The initiative is expected to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the regional grid by the equivalent of 31,000 tons of carbon dioxide and cut the university’s electric bills by $6.2 million over 20 years.

“It’s a situation where doing the right thing is also a very smart business decision as well,” Goodwin said. “As time goes on, some of those challenges will get to be a little trickier. Now we’re trying to make decisions about the need to increase the amount of electricity that we’re currently generating, so we’re going to expand the base, but how, exactly, is the right way to do it that’s efficient, a good financial decision, and also a good decision for the environment? It gets very complex.”

For now, he went on, the campus has a strong foundation in decreasing its carbon footprint and decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted — efforts that have run the gamut from large-scale energy production to UMass Amherst’s participation in ValleyBike Share.

“The campus had been trying to run an internal bike-share program with some success, but we were hoping to do better,” he noted. “Now, with ValleyBike Share, the campus is working with other communities to develop a program that will actually bring a little more connectivitity between the university and the surrounding communities. So it has multiple benefits.”

Clearly, the impact of sustainable practices on not only the campus, but potentially the world, through the continued efforts of alumni, is reward enough for the university’s broad sustainability efforts — but the STARS recognition is nice too, Goodwin admitted, as it showcases UMass Amherst in the top 10 among some 600 participating institutions.

“We’re very excited about that, but it’s a huge amount of work, to be perfectly honest, because it’s all self-reporting,” he explained. “It covers so many aspects — the academic side, the financial side and investments, energy use, and the social side of sustainability. So it’s a very wide-ranging analysis. And, of course, after you do all that self-reporting, they go and verify everything as well.”

The end result is certainly a source of pride on campus — and a little more motivation to continue and broaden these efforts. Not that UMass needed any.

“Sustainability means a lot of different things to different people,” Goodwin said. “But to me, it was always a way of thinking: ‘OK, yes, we have a set of decisions to make; let’s make sustainability a part of that decision-making process.’ And I think our students are picking up on that as well.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Tracking Progress

Springfield Train StationThe launch of the Hartford line last month, which expands rail activity from Union Station in Springfield to a host of Connecticut stops, has been a success, judging by early ridership. More important, it has municipal and economic-development leaders from Greater Springfield thinking about the potential of a Springfield-to-Greenfield service beginning next year, as well as the viability of east-west service between Boston and Springfield. It’s about more than riding the trains, they say — it’s about what riders will do once they get here.

When is a train not just a train?

Because the ones stopping at Union Station as part of the so-called Hartford line — which connects Springfield with New Haven via six other stations that roughly track I-91 through Connecticut — represent more than that, said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief Development officer.

“The simplest way to explain it is, the future is about connectivity, whether that connection is physical or electronic,” Kennedy told BusinessWest. “That’s going to be the case for the next 20 to 30 years going forward. And, in the case of rail, it’s critical that we increase our activity in Union Station.”

The reason is simple symbiosis. At a time when Springfield is preparing for an influx of visitors with the opening of MGM Springfield next month, in addition to other significant economic-development activity downtown, a train stop for several CTRail trains each day promises to make the city a more attractive destination, Kennedy said. That could have spinoffs for other regional attractions, particularly after a northern rail line is completed next year, connecting Union Station with Greenfield.

“The simplest way to explain it is, the future is about connectivity, whether that connection is physical or electronic,” Kennedy told BusinessWest. “That’s going to be the case for the next 20 to 30 years going forward. And, in the case of rail, it’s critical that we increase our activity in Union Station.”

“When they bring Greenfield and Northampton and Holyoke into the loop with new depots (all built over the past few years), that’s going to have a dramatic effect on how everyone comes and goes from Springfield,” Kennedy said. “MGM is an entertainment giant, and we’re basically going to be sharing [visitors] up and down the Valley, sending some of our visitors to MGM north to see what goes on up there, and seeing an awful lot of people come here. That’s connectivity.”

Michael Mathis, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, agreed that expanded rail will benefit not just the casino, but the city and region as a whole, helping to brand it as an accessible travel destination.

“This new high-speed connection will be a welcome catalyst for business and tourism in the city and connect two important regional economic hubs,” Mathis told BusinessWest. “As awareness of the service continues to grow, we anticipate more and more people will be attracted to the area.”

To further promote exploration of the city from Union Station, MGM and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority will launch the Loop, a free shuttle service linking downtown tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants, and arts and culture destinations. Debuting Aug. 24 as part of MGM Springfield’s opening, the Loop will connect Union Station, the Springfield Armory, Springfield Museums, the Basketball Hall of Fame, MGM Springfield, and the MassMutual Center, as well as four downtown hotels.

Rail activity in Union Station has picked up significantly

Rail activity in Union Station has picked up significantly, and expanded Springfield-to-Greenfield service next year will continue that trend.

“Any time you have a significant number of individuals coming into the city, that’s an economic opportunity,” said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. “Certainly, things are happening in the region, and downtown Springfield in particular, and it’s a big plus that it’s very walkable, or an easy commute with the MGM trolley to different venues here.”

All Aboard

Looking ahead, Gov. Charlie Baker recently announced that passenger rail service between Springfield and Greenfield will begin on a pilot basis in spring 2019. Under the agreement, MassDOT will fund the cost and management of the pilot service, which will be operated by Amtrak and conclude in fall 2021.

The pilot will provide two round-trips each day and make stops at stations in Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield. Southbound service will be provided in the morning hours, and northbound in the evenings. This pilot service will leverage the MassDOT-owned rail line currently used by Amtrak’s Vermonter service.

Economic-development officials in the Pioneer Valley, and the cities connected by that future line, will likely be cheered by the early success of the 62-mile Hartford line, which began operating on June 16, with trains running approximately every 45 minutes between Springfield and several communities in Connecticut, including Windsor Locks, Windsor, Hartford, Berlin, Meriden, Wallingford, and New Haven. This expanded service is in addition to the existing Amtrak service throughout the corridor.

After two days of free rides, the line began running at regular fare prices on June 18, and in that first full week of June 18-24, ridership on the Hartford line totaled 10,719 customers, which Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy characterized as a success.

“I’ve spoken with scores of riders who have begun to use the Hartford Line and who are saying their commute has become much easier and less stressful,” ConnDOT Commissioner James Redeker said in a statement. “With easy access and connections with our CTtransit buses, we are opening up all kinds of options for getting around Connecticut — whether you’re going to work, to school, or simply playing the role of tourist.”

The Hartford Line connects commuters to existing rail services in New Haven that allow for connections to Boston, New York City, and beyond, including the New Haven Line (Metro-North), Shore Line East, Amtrak Acela, and Northeast Regional services.

“We know that it will take some time for this new rail service to grow to full maturity and become part of the everyday lives of Connecticut residents, but there is definitely an excitement about this long-overdue train service,” Malloy said at the time. “At the end of the day, this transit service is about building vibrant communities that attract businesses, grow jobs, and make our state a more attractive place to live, visit, and do business.”

This is precisely the model Massachusetts officials want to see replicated here — right away around Union Station, and eventually up and down the Valley as well.

“With the Loop service starting there, it will provide an opportunity to see Springfield even beyond the casino,” said Chris Moskal, executive director of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority.

The activity at Union Station has impacted other downtown development as well, Kennedy said, including Silverbrick Lofts and future market-rate apartments in the Willys-Overland building. “The 265 units at Silverbrick wouldn’t have happened without Union Station,” he noted. “They were very specific about that.”

Down the Line

Beyond north-south rail, however, are much more ambitious rumblings — and they’re rumblings from far, far down the proverbial track at this point — about east-west rail service connecting Boston and Springfield, and perhaps Albany one day.

MassDOT plans to carry out an extensive study over 18 months, analyzing many aspects and options for potential east-west passenger rail service. This will include engaging with stakeholders and evaluating the potential costs, speed, infrastructure needs, and ridership of potential passenger rail service throughout this corridor.

“Carrying out a comprehensive study on east-west passenger rail will allow us to have a rigorous, fact-based discussion regarding options for potential service,” state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said last month. “Many legislators, local and regional officials, and business leaders called for such a study, and we are pleased to take a step in advancing this planning for future service.”

Eventually, Kennedy told BusinessWest, rail service from, say, Montreal to New York and from Boston to Albany would position Springfield in an enviable spot as a central hub along both lines.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said as much when the Hartford line opened last month, calling enhanced rail service between Springfield and Boston a potential “game changer” for the region. “Investing in our transportation infrastructure will benefit people across the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Between Amtrak and now CTrail, riders have several options

Between Amtrak and now CTrail, riders have several options each day to travel to and from Connecticut and beyond.

Sullivan said increasing the speed and ease of travel to a destination like Springfield, with more frequent schedule options, will open up opportunities to attract visitors from both the north and south. He’s not as optimistic about east-west rail, at least not in the next decade, since it’s not in the state’s five-year budget plan and has many logistical and cost hurdles to overcome.

“But certainly, the Connecticut line coming in gives the Convention & Visitors Bureau some travel and tourism opportunities, and it’s incumbent on those entities to sell the region hard — and they’re doing that,” he said. “It’s a significant opportunity.”

Kennedy noted that, when he travels on the eastern part of the state, each T stop is marked by renovated buildings and generally lively activity around the stations. If Massachusetts can be traversed in all directions by rail, he believes, highways could become less congested while trains bring economic energy into each city they stop in. “I see really good things ahead and significant potential,” he said. “Trains are a key component of the future.”

That’s why it’s important for Springfield to continue to grow with rail in mind, he added.

“One of the reasons for our recent success is that we planned bigger rather than smaller,” he said. “Springfield had a history of thinking too small, but certainly over the past five to eight years, we thought bigger, and it’s worked very well. We’ll continue with that big-picture thinking with Union Station as a critical node.”

Moskal agreed.

“Believe me, we’ve had an unbelievable response from people who use Union Station every day,” he said. “From what I’m hearing from people, they’ve said, ‘where has this service been?’ I’m like, ‘it’s here now.’ The spinoff potential has excited people. You can take the bus from there. The activity in and around the station is enormous. And the opportunities are only going to expand.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Creature Comforts

Executive Director Sarah Tsitso with a couple of poitou donkeys.

Executive Director Sarah Tsitso with a couple of poitou donkeys.

The Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center has seen its share of changes over the decades, and its current executive director, Sarah Tsitso, admits it’s still an underappreciated asset in Springfield. But an asset it is, she asserts, one that has honed its focus in recent years to emphasize education, conservation, and rehabilitation — and all the intriguing ways those ideas intersect.

Montana is a bobcat who used to be someone’s pet. That is, until, authorities found out and confiscated her; even out west, you can’t just go bring home a bobcat.

But since Montana had been declawed, the aging feline had no chance of survival in the wild, and needed a new home. The Zoo in Forest Park became that home.

“We’ve started working more collaboratively with other zoos, and particularly sanctuaries and rehab facilities, around the country for animal placements,” said Sarah Tsitso, who was named the zoo’s executive director last spring. “We want animals that make sense for our zoo in terms of our size, our geography, and our climate — especially animals that can’t be released into the wild, that are living in a sanctuary right now and are in need of a permanent home.”

With its 125th anniversary around the corner next year, the zoo has seen its share of evolution over the years, and that process is never-ending, Tsitso said. “We’ve been doing a lot of internal strategic thinking about the direction we want to take going forward, and one of the things we’re really focused on is moving away from that traditional zoo model and more toward education, conservation, and rehabilitation.”

The facility has been working recently with sanctuaries in Florida, Texas, Kansas, and Ohio to provide a home for animals in need of one. One example is a 1-year-old orphan coyote who was brought to a sanctuary with a broken leg. “She healed, but has never lived in the wild,” Tsitso said. “So she’s being flown in here.”

She’ll share the zoo’s four and a half acres with some 150 animal species, from timberwolf siblings Orion and Aurora to a pair of red-tailed hawks who rehabbed from injury but are not releasable in the wild, to a three-legged baby opossum who had the fourth limb amputated due to a serious injury, and is being moved from a sanctuary to its new home in Forest Park.

Then there’s a mink named Monte who escaped from a fur farm in Utah and found his way to a sanctuary, Tsitso said. “They were looking for a home for him because he’s never been in the wild; he was bred for his fur. We named him after the Count of Monte Cristo. Because of the jailbreak.”

In fact, the majority of the zoo’s animals are elderly, disabled in some way, or otherwise unable to survive in the wild, which makes the center’s focus on conservation and rehabilitation an important part of its robust educational outreach.

“Certainly, we want people to be aware that human interference has consequences,” Tsitso said. “Some of these animals have been hit by cars or are otherwise examples of nature meeting humans.”

Although a part of Forest Park for well over a century, the zoo is still an underap-preciated city asset, its executive director says.

Although a part of Forest Park for well over a century, the zoo is still an underap-preciated city asset, its executive director says.

The zoo is currently working to bring in two bald eagles, a male and female, from a wildlife sanctuary in Alaska. Neither is releasable into the wild, as one had to have a wing tip amputated, and other one had a broken wing, so neither can fly.

“They’ll provide some interesting education to the public about bald eagles and why they are a symbol of our nation and how they were once endangered and now, through all these conservation efforts, their population has stabilized, which is wonderful,” Tsitso said.

She hopes to one day tell similar stories about other threatened or endangered animals in the Zoo at Forest Park, including its ring-tailed lemurs, arctic wolves, and poitou donkeys. “We’re continuing that movement of bringing in animals that need a home, that fit with our collection, and that are educationally interesting to people.”

In the meantime, this nonprofit veteran has found her own new home in a job she loves.

“I just felt like it was my opportunity to give something back to Springfield,” Tsitso said, “and do what I could do to make sure this asset stays around another 125 years and that people know it’s it’s here, and come and enjoy what we have to offer — and we have so much to offer.”

Hear Her Roar

Tsitso told BusinessWest that Nathan Bazinet, the zoo’s interim director before she arrived, and Nunzio Bruno, then its board president, were looking for someone to come in and bring stability to this venerable nonprofit, despite the many challenges it faces.

“They wanted someone to connect it to the community and run it like a business,” she said, noting that conversations started a year before she came on board, but when she did, she fully embraced the opportunity.

“I really love the zoo,” she said. “It’s so ingrained in the fabric of Springfield and this neighborhood in particular. I really feel like I was meant to be here. I feel very fulfilled here — we have a great board, a great staff, and I love working with the animals.”

Until recently, Tsitso and her family lived in the Forest Park neighborhood — for more than 15 years, in fact.

“Our daughter was born in a house not a half-mile from here. And when she was little, we came here all the time. We’d walk from our house to here, she had birthday parties here, she loved this place. And I just really appreciated that it was here. Yet, so many people are unaware that we have this asset, this treasure, right here in the city.”

True to the zoo’s full name — the Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center — the facility focuses heavily on wildlife education, offering a variety of educational programs and special events for children and adults, from Zoo on the Go — which brings animals into schools, libraries, and senior centers — to guided tours and discovery programs for all ages, as well as Zoo Camp during winter and summer school vacations.

The zoo also offers a vibrant internship program, she said, providing students at area colleges studying animal science or veterinary care an opportunity to learn outside the classroom.

Broadening those programs is a priority, Tsitso said, for reasons that extend beyond the value of education, which is significant.

“Our biggest revenue stream is admission, and we’re only open five months of the year, and for two of those five months, it’s weekends,” she said. “So it’s very challenging to meet our budget. But we’re working on some new avenues of revenue. We’re expanding our education programs. Our Zoo on the Go and education programs run year-round, so we can really bolster those and create some new partnerships in the community whereby we can be offering those programs more consistently.”

The zoo used to receive state funding, but that ended about five years ago, although Tsitso and her team are trying to re-establish that revenue source. Meanwhile, community partnerships remain crucial, like Paul Picknelly’s recent donation of first-week proceeds at the new Starbucks at Monarch Place to fund an exhibit of African cats at the zoo.

“Those kinds of community partnerships are really what’s going to keep us growing,” she added, “and we’re really hoping that the community, as they realize all the wonderful things happening here, keep coming back.”

This wallaby is one of some 150 species of animals living at the Zoo in Forest Park.

This wallaby is one of some 150 species of animals living at the Zoo in Forest Park.

Operating a zoo at affordable admission prices — in addition to day passes, many families take advantage of $85 memberships, which are good all season for up to six family members — is a challenge, Tsitso said, especially since the zoo is not affiliated with the city and gets no revenue from other Forest Park-based events. It does benefit from a series of 25-year leases from the city at $1 per year — the current lease expires in 2035 — as well as the fact that Springfield foots its electric bill.

“We’re very grateful to the city because for a long time they have been great partners for us, but there is a differentiation between us and the city,” she said. “We’re not overseen by the city; we have our own board of directors.”

Poignant Paws

Those directors chose Tsitso — who has claimed leadership roles with nonprofit groups including Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity, the East of the River 5 Town Chamber of Commerce, two Springfield-based Boys & Girls Clubs, and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts — to guide the zoo through its next era of growth, but it has to be controlled growth, she said, based on its limited footprint.

“We’re four and a half acres, and we’re not getting an inch more of space. So whatever we do has to be self-contained in these four and a half acres. We’re really thoughtful about the improvements we’re making.”

That’s why she and her team are working with the animal-care staff to create a sort of wish list of what animal exhibits the zoo lacks, what it should bring in, and how it might acquire those animals.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate in working with people all around the country who are willing to help us and are looking for great placements for these animals,” she went on. “Most of them are so excited their animals are coming here.”

In many ways, the Zoo in Forest Park is not the same attraction families experienced decades ago, Tsitso noted.

“A lot of people have memories of the zoo when it was a very different place, when the monkey house was here and we had all those large animals, and it didn’t make sense for the animals. We’re very thoughtful about the kinds of animals here now. You’ll never see another polar bear. You’ll never see another black bear. You’ll never see another elephant. Those are animals we’ll never have again.”

The animals that do call Forest Park home have plenty to offer visitors, including the rush of school groups that take field trips there, averaging some two to three groups a day during the spring.

“That’s a big piece — we want to get kids in here, and we want to get them excited about nature and exposed to lots of different types of animals,” Tsitso said. “For a lot of kids, especially inner-city kids, they’ve never seen a lot of these animals. Even a goat is something that’s new and interesting to them. So it’s really fun to watch the kids come in and not just see the animals, but get to interact with some of them and get an education about them. How do they eat? How do they sleep?”

When the zoo shuts its doors to visitors for the cold months, typically around Halloween, the ones who don’t like the cold move into indoor facilities — like Oz, a spotted leopard Tsitso pointed out on a recent stroll with BusinessWest through the grounds. Oz has a large outdoor enclosure, but also a small ‘house’ that’s heated during the cold months.

It’s home to him, just as the Springfield area has long been home to Tsitso, who has found her new calling leading the zoo’s small staff — two full-time animal-care professionals, about four part-timers, and a raft of volunteers and interns — into whatever its next phase may bring.

“Springfield is very important to me. It really is the economic center of our whole area, and when Springfield succeeds, we all succeed,” she said, adding, however, that the zoo is a city asset that feels, well, apart from the city.

“One thing I love about this zoo, being inside Forest Park, is that it feels very natural in here, very close to nature, with lots of green and lots of trees. It doesn’t feel like Springfield. It really is a little sanctuary.”

Not just for her, but for those who visit the zoo — and the growing collection of animals that call it home.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

This Is a Laughing Matter

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman will soon open what they believe is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Pam Victor is official president and founder of Happier Valley Comedy, but she prefers the title ‘head of happiness.’ It’s effective, and she likes it, and as the founder, she said picking her title is one of the rewards of her job. The far bigger reward, though, is changing people’s lives — just as hers was changed — through improvisation.

Pam Victor refers to it affectionately as simply ‘the experiment,’ or, more formally, the ‘can-I-make-a-living-doing-what-I-love experiment.’

It was undertaken back in the summer of 2014, and the premise was pretty simple. Victor was going to see if she could make $16,000 a year — the poverty level for a family of two back then — through a business based on improvisation.

She was confident — well, sort of — that she would meet or surpass that threshold, but at the start, she was already thinking about the great blog post she would have if she didn’t.

“‘An artist can’t even break the poverty line,’ or something like that, is what I would have written,” Victor recalled, adding that she never had to submit that blog post, because she greatly exceeded her goal by teaching improvisation and using it to help professionals and others achieve any number of goals, including one she calls the ability to “disempower failure,” which we’ll hear more about later.

Today, that nonprofit business Victor started, called Happier Valley Comedy, continues to grow while carrying out a simple mission — “to bring laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world).”

It does this through three business divisions:

• Classes in improvisation. Victor started with one, and there are now eight a week, and there’s a waiting list for some of them;

• Comedy shows, such as the one on June 9 at the Northampton Center for the Arts, featuring the Ha-Has, the comedy group Victor started; and

• Personal and professional growth through use of improvisation, what the company calls its ‘Through Laughter’ program. Victor and her team visit companies, groups, and professional organizations and undertake exercises — usually highly interactive in nature — designed to help bolster everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

It’s not what many people think of when they hear ‘improv’ — people taking to the podium and talking off the cuff (stand-up comedy) or even some of those other things people might conjure up; “we don’t cluck like chickens, and we don’t do ‘trust falls,’” said Victor. People do stand in circles, sometimes, and they do take part in exercises together.

Many of them are designed to address self-confidence and what has come to be known as the ‘impostor syndrome,’ said Victor, adding that this afflicts everyone, not just women, although they often seem especially vulnerable to it.

“I see it in my female colleagues, and I see it stop us from manifesting our successes because we talk ourselves out of success before we even have a chance to get into the ring,” she explained, referring specifically to the voice inside everyone that creates doubt and thoughts of inadequacy.

Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations

With its Through Laughter program, Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations and undertakes exercises designed to boost everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

“The improv exercises help us step into the unknown and step into possibilities,” she went on. “It’s a muscle that we can strengthen, and every time we do it, we strengthen that muscle.”

Meghan Lynch, a principal with the marketing group Six Point Creative, has become a big believer in improv. She was first introduced to it when Victor did a presentation at a women’s leadership group, and Lynch then arranged to have Happier Valley come to her company. There have been several workshops, and as employees are added, Lynch schedules what are known as ‘improv workout sessions.’ Six Point even hires Happier Valley to do improv sessions as the company onboards new clients “to start the relationship off with some momentum,” as she put it.

All three divisions of this business — and the venture as a whole — are set to be taken to a much higher level with the opening of what Victor is sure is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Currently, it has another name — the “dirty vanilla box.” That’s how Victor and business partner Scott Braidman, who takes the twin titles general manager and artistic director, refer to the 1,300-square-foot space being built out at the Mill Valley Commons on Route 9 in Hadley.

There, in a retail center that Victor and Braidman have nicknamed the ‘Play Plaza’ — there’s also a tavern, an Irish dance center, a kung fu studio, and an outfit that grows coral at that location — the partners are outfitting space into classrooms and a performing area with 70 seats.

“This is the answer to a dream, really,” said Braidman as he walked within the space, noting that this will be the first improv club in Massachusetts outside of Boston, and it will enable him to meet a long-time goal of doing essentially what Victor has been doing — making improv a career.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Victor and Braidman about their venture, which is, indeed, a laughing matter — and also a very unique enterprise that is changing businesses, and changing lives, through improvisation.

Getting into the Act

As one might expect, Victor, who takes the title ‘head of happiness,’ uses humor early and often to communicate her points.

Consider this response to the question about why she believes her improvisation classes have caught on to the point where there is that waiting list.

“It’s cheaper than therapy,” she deadpanned, adding quickly that, in many ways, that’s not a joke. Her classes — $22 to $25 for each of eight classes — are much, much cheaper than therapy. And from what she’s gathered, they are just as effective, as we’ll see.

Three years or so later with those classes and the other divisions within Happier Valley Comedy, the experiment is more or less ancient history. The matters at hand now are building out that dirty vanilla box and substantially updating the business plan to reflect everything this facility can do for this nonprofit venture.

Before looking ahead, though, to tell this story right, we first need to look back — about 15 years or so, to be exact.

That’s when the clouds parted, as Victor put it in a piece she wrote about her venture for Innovate 413, and “the Great Goddess of Improv locked me in a fierce tractor beam with songs of love and connection.”

Happier Valley logo

Thus began what can be called a career in improv. But things developed very slowly after that.

Victor took one leap of faith, as she called it, when she founded an improv troupe that played mostly in libraries as fundraisers. And she took another one in 2012 when she summoned the courage to spend five weeks in Chicago studying at the mecca of longform improv, the iO Theater.

She took a third leap, perhaps the biggest, a few years later, when, after the son she had homeschooled for 10 years went off to college, she waged that aforementioned experiment.

“I tried everything,” Victor said when recalling the early days and her efforts to promote improv and its many benefits. “Classes, writing about it, doing corporate-training workshops, speeches — anything I could do, I tried. And sure enough, it worked out.”

By that, she meant that after six months, not a year, she had passed that $16,000 threshold and, more importantly, had gained the confidence to launch a business, officially a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that would be called Happier Valley Comedy.

“It was one of those experiences where not thinking about the impossibility of it was quite advantageous,” said Victor, using more humor as she put into perspective the experience of launching a business based on improv in a region that was essentially an improv desert. “Ignorance is power in some ways.”

In the beginning, she started with one set of classes — titled “The Zen of Improv” — and doubts about just how many there could eventually be.

“I thought I had run out of the number of people who were interested in taking improvisation in the Pioneer Valley — those 12 people,” she said, adding that some of those original students signed up for more, and, to her surprise, there were many more people willing to take seats than she imagined.

Why? Maybe because it is cheaper than therapy, she told BusinessWest, adding that few of her students actually want to perform improv. They sign up because the sessions are fun and they give participants a chance to experience what Victor calls “the true meaning of community.”

“People seem to find that the classes have a great deal of impact outside of the classroom as well,” she explained. “People regularly tell me that improv has changed their life, and that’s a good feeling. It’s a fantastic community of people, and you get to make a whole bunch of new friends, which is rare as an adult.

“Improv is a team sport,” she went on. “We’re seeking joy, we’re seeking ease, and we’re also seeking how to make our scene partners look good; people learn how to be of service to each other and to the moment, so there’s a lot of mindfulness to it as well.”

As Victor and her team would discover, these improv classes were not only popular and effective, but demographically unique within the improv world in that they were and still are dominated by middle-aged professional women and not the younger men that are the norm.

“We’re the unicorn of improv, or Wonder Woman’s island,” said Victor, adding that she’s not really sure why her classes take on this demographic shape, but she’s clearly proud and quite happy that she doesn’t have the problem most other improv groups have — attracting women.

She would, however, like to attract more men … but that’s another story.

Grin and Bear It

As for the Through Laughter division of the company, it has also enjoyed steady growth, said Victor, adding that Happier Valley Comedy uses improv within that broad realm of personal and professional development to improve people’s lives at home and in the workplace.

And this aspect of her business takes on a number of forms, she said, citing, as just one example, an interactive presentation she’s done with groups such as the Women Business Owners Alliance called “Meet Your Evil Eye Meanie: How the Voice of Unhelpful Judgment Is Getting in Your Way.”

It uses improv exercises and humorous stories to help women identify and disempower their fear-based internal critical voice in order for them better manifest their professional dreams.

“As my comedy hero Tina Fey says, ‘confidence is 10% hard work and 90% delusion,” she noted. “The primary focus of my job is to help people quiet their voices of unhelpful judgment and get to the ‘delusion’ that leads to success.”

And with that, she again referenced the ‘impostor syndrome.’ In her efforts to help people address it, Victor has actually put a name to the problem, or at least to the voice inside people that causes all the trouble.

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy — and arguably a lot more fun.

“We call him ‘Calvin’ — that’s a random name; that’s the voice inside our head that is our evil critic. It’s the voice that’s constantly in our head conjugating ‘to suck’ — as in ‘I suck at this,’ or ‘you suck at this’ — it’s that super-judgmental voice,” she said, referring to things people say to themselves, out loud or under their breath.

“I teach people that voice is a liar,” she went on. “And by naming it, that helps to disempower it a little bit or make it a little more manageable, because that voice is never going to go away — that’s human nature; that’s who we are. But we can use some techniques for quieting it.”

These are improv exercises, she went on, adding that they are designed to address that impostor syndrome and the accompanying fears and doubts and be that team sport she described earlier.

She’s putting together another presentation, a workshop she’s titled “F*ck Your Fear and Trust Your Truth,” a name that speaks volumes about what she wants attendees to do — not just that day, but for the rest of their careers and the rest of their lives.

This is a part of a subcategory within the Through Laughter division devoted to personal growth and female empowerment, she explained, adding that this workshop is being designed to help women use the skills associated with improv to enable them to quiet their judgmental voices and their inner critic so they amplify their truth and speak their mind.

“This will hopefully help women on all fronts, from their personal life to their professional life,” she noted. “Women in leadership roles can hopefully get better at speaking up for themselves and being heard, even women eyeing political positions — they’re calling this ‘the Year of the Woman.’”

Lynch told BusinessWest that the use of improv has been beneficial to Six Point on many levels. It has given employees there a common vocabulary, she said, including the now-common use of the word ‘triangles.’

Explaining it is quite complicated, said both Lynch and Victor, but a triangle essentially describes a relationship between a group of people, especially employees. There are several triangles within a company, and the actions of a specific employee could impact several such relationships. The goal of triangle-related exercises is to make individuals understand how their movements impact such relationships.

“We’ll often start conversations now with ‘let me tell you about my triangles — these are the pressures I’m experiencing — you tell me about yours, and how do we work together to solve this problem?’” said Lynch. “And it’s been a game changer in terms of creating trust and open communication around those, and that’s just one example of adopting that vocabulary into our day-to-day lives in a way that improves communication.”

Both Victor and Braidman believe Happier Valley will be able to introduce more people to the notion of triangles — and many easier-to-comprehend concepts as well — as they build out that vanilla box into an improv club.

The two had been looking for a site for some time, said Braidman, adding that the nonprofit got a huge boost from the most recent Valley Gives program — $26,000, to be exact — that made creation of this new facility possible.

The location is centrally located, he went on — halfway between Amherst and Northampton and on busy Route 9 — and the space is large enough and flexible enough to host classes, performances, workshops, and more.

If all goes according to plan, he said, classes should start there in late June, and Happier Valley comedy shows will commence in August.

Passion Play

Victor told BusinessWest that Braidman will often give her some good-natured grief about her unofficial titles at Happier Valley Comedy and those assigned to other people as well. ‘Head of happiness’ is just one of hers. “Laugh leader’ is another used on occasion, and there are still others that come into play.

“I have my own business, so I get to make up my own titles,” she explained, adding that this is just one of the perks that comes from conducting that experiment, succeeding with it, and, indeed, making a business doing something she loves.

The bigger perk is changing lives, just as hers was changed, through improvisation.

It’s a reward that takes her well above the poverty line, in every way you can imagine.

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

Cover Story

Growth Industry

Matt Yee stands outside a room

Matt Yee stands outside a room equipped to simulate ‘summer.’ Access inside is extremely limited.

Green Thumb Industries’ marijuana-cultivation facility in Holyoke is not like most other businesses — or any other business, for that matter. There is no sign over the door, there was no elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony when it opened, and, with a few minor exceptions, no one will visit this place. It is like all other businesses, though, in keeping the focus on innovation and putting out a quality product.

The ‘flowering room,’ as it’s called, is climate-controlled to simulate early fall.

And it does that so well that when Matt Yee, president of the Massachusetts market for Green Thumb Industries (GTI), walks inside … he has flashbacks of a sort.

“This is perpetual September. I always feel like I’m walking through the Holyoke Community College parking lot at the beginning of school — it always reminds me of that.”

“This is perpetual September,” he told BusinessWest, referencing the temperature, the warmth of the sun, and a slight, cool breeze. “I always feel like I’m walking through the Holyoke Community College parking lot at the beginning of school — it always reminds me of that.”

Perpetual September? Welcome to GTI’s 45,000-square-foot marijuana-cultivation facility in Holyoke, a recently opened venture that is, in just about every way you can imagine, not like any other business in this region.

That much becomes abundantly clear after one short visit — only, you really shouldn’t expect to visit this place anytime soon. They don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat — not because they’re not friendly, but because they don’t want or need company.

For starters, there’s no signage on the property, at least for GTI (there are other tenants in this old paper mill), and for a reason. The company doesn’t exactly want to broadcast its location, although its address, 28 Appleton St., in the so-called Flats section of the city, is commonly known.

The sign outside one of the growing rooms conveys the importance of keeping the plants safe at GTI’s Holyoke facility.v

The sign outside one of the growing rooms conveys the importance of keeping the plants safe at GTI’s Holyoke facility.

Also, there is no front door, really. You enter through the back, and only after using a coded key to get through a tall gate and passing under several surveillance cameras. Once inside — again, if you get that far — you can’t go any further without checking in with security, leaving a copy of your driver’s license behind, getting a badge with a recorded number on it, and being escorted by an employee through some more locked doors.

But before going through — and unless you’re an employee, an elected official on business, some other sort of VIP, or a business writer on assignment, you probably won’t be going through — one must step onto a large mat of sorts covered by about an inch of water.

That’s because marijuana plants are somewhat fragile and susceptible to contamination that might be brought into their home on the soles of one’s shoes. For the same reason, no one gets further than the security desk without donning a white lab coat.

“Contamination of the system can cause millions of dollars in damage,” said Yee. “Even walking across the parking lot, people can pick up some powdery mildew — one of the biggest issues we have — or various aphids and bugs, and those can be issues as well.”

To help keep these plants — which give new meaning to the phrase ‘cash crop’ — safe, GTI has enlisted the help of what are known as “beneficials” — tiny mites that feast on many of the known enemies of marijuana plants. There are hundreds of them in small packets placed next to each plant.

“If there’s an invasion of aggressive bugs, they’ll eat those little guys,” Yee said of the mites. “It’s an interesting process — signing the invoice for 25,000 bugs was kind of interesting; they’re very, very, very small, but you can see them, although it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

These are just some of the steps (ladybugs and other beneficials are also deployed) being taken to ensure that the first crop, and all those to follow — the business plan calls for cultivating 120 pounds per month — will be as healthy and profitable as possible, said Yee, who came to this job and this industry thanks to a chance encounter with Pete Kadens, president of Chicago-based GTI at the restaurant Yee was managing (more on that later).

The flowering room he showed BusinessWest was empty, but by the time this magazine went to the printer, it was full of plants enjoying those cool fall breezes. From there, it’s only a few more steps until the fruit of the plant is processed into product, such as the small joints called ‘dog walkers’ — because you can start and finish one in about the time it takes to walk the dog — to be placed in tins already stored in the so-called trim room.

“It’s a great little product — everybody really loves these all across the nation,” he said, adding that, starting in several weeks, these dog walkers and other products will be shipped to GTI’s recently opened dispensary in Amherst and other locations across the state.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look inside GTI’s facility in Holyoke, and also inside a business that is new to Massachusetts and this region, but appears to have a future that might be as bright as the high-pressure sodium lights inside the flowering room.

Branch Office

Those are 1,000-watt units, and there are 88 of them in the room, Yee explained, adding quickly that it gets so bright in those rooms that employees wear protective sunglasses when inside.

That was one of many bits of information Yee passed along while serving as tour guide, one of many functions he’s taken on (although, now that growing has started, the volume of tours has subsided) while carrying out a role he probably couldn’t have imagined for himself a few years ago.

GTI expects to cultivate 120 pounds of marijuana per month at its Holyoke facility.

GTI expects to cultivate 120 pounds of marijuana per month at its Holyoke facility.

But the picture changed quickly and profoundly after Kadens ventured into Johnny’s Tavern in South Hadley for dinner back in 2016. Yee, as noted, was general manager of that eatery (one of many owned and operated by his family), with the emphasis on was. Indeed, the two started talking, and the more Kadens talked about the cannabis industry and its potential in the Bay State, the more Yee wanted to be part of it.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, Yee joined GTI and has taken a lead role in opening the Holyoke facility and getting the first plants in the ground, if you will.

First, though, there was a lengthy learning curve for Yee, who said his education in cannabis and the business of cultivating and distributing marijuana took him to GTI facilities across the country, including those in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia.

“It was a really intense drop into the cannabis world,” he recalled, adding that GTI has facilities similar to the one in Holyoke operating in several states.

The operation on Appleton actually represents what Yee called the third iteration of a GTI growth facility. Lessons have been learned over the years, he said, in everything from production to automated systems to air handling, and they’ve all been applied to the Holyoke plant, which came to be after a lengthy review of options regarding what to build and where.

“It came down to ‘should we do this in an open field somewhere for cheaper or do the socially responsible thing and breathe new life into a vacant space?’ And we decided to do this — and it was a project.”

Indeed, as Yee walked through the facility, he noted that, while it provided one key ingredient in the form of wide-open spaces and high ceilings, the old mill required quite a bit of expensive work to be retrofitted into a marijuana-cultivation facility.

But in the end, GTI determined that rehabbing such a facility is a better alternative to building new, even it is the more expensive alternative.

“It came down to ‘should we do this in an open field somewhere for cheaper or do the socially responsible thing and breathe new life into a vacant space?’” he recalled of the decision-making process. “And we decided to do this — and it was a project.”

‘This’ was a retrofit in the middle of an urban setting, granted one that has embraced the cannabis industry with open arms.

Thus, security is extremely tight, he said, noting the facility is outfitted with cameras, motion detectors, glass-break sensors, and more.

“Visitation is very, very restricted,” he said, adding that the state has access to the facility’s camera systems and monitors what goes on. If someone watching sees someone in the building without a badge, inquiries are made.

Joint Venture

Yee’s ability to learn quickly about the industry he joined was in evidence on the tour, as he talked about marijuana and, more specifically, how it will be cultivated in this old mill.

“Marijuana is an annual,” said Yee, who walked while he talked. “Typically, the seeds will pop in the spring, it will grow through the summer, and then, come the shorter days of late summer and fall, its flowering process is triggered — and it’s those flowers that we’re harvesting; it’s the fruit of the plant.”

Matt Yee says it will be a few more months before GTI is able to fill tins of ‘dog walkers’ it will ship out the doors of the Holyoke plant.

Matt Yee says it will be a few more months before GTI is able to fill tins of ‘dog walkers’ it will ship out the doors of the Holyoke plant.

There are no seasons, per se, indoors, so cultivators like GTI have to replicate them, he went on, as he stopped at a room simulating early- to mid-summer. Through a large, thick window, Yee pointed to and talked about the already-tall plants inside.

Taking visitors in that room, even after they’ve put on a lab coat and stepped on a few of those water-covered mats, constitutes far more risk than the company is willing to take on, he said, adding that these plants are much too valuable to risk contamination.

The sign on the door gets this point across. “Do Not Enter — Limited Access Area,” it reads. “Access Limited to Authorized Personnel Only.”

“There are about 18 hours of light in this room,” said Yee, returning to the subject at hand and the process of simulating summer-like conditions. “We’re really just pushing the plants to get to a proper size, and then we stimulate them to get to their flowering stage.”

Actually, the ‘summer’ room is the second stop for the plants, which start off as cuttings from other plants, known as ‘mothers,’ and take up residency in the ‘cloning room.’

Their third stop will be in that room that simulates September, where it is a constant 72 degrees, Yee went on, adding that the first plants were due to arrive there in early June.

In that setting, a shorter day, with the lights on for maybe 12 hours, is created. That difference in the amount of light is what actually triggers the plant to move into its reproductive cycle, he explained.

“The male plants will develop pollinating elements, and the female plants develop the flowers,” he noted. “We only have females here; there are no males on site.”

The plants will double or triple in size in the flowering room, he went on, adding that, when they’re ready for harvesting, they’re removed from their pots, the iconic fan leaves are removed, and the flowers are put into a drying room, to be hung on what are known as ‘Z racks.’

Once the flowers reach a certain level of dryness, they can be processed, said Yee, adding that the product is weighed and then moved into the ‘trim room,’ a space where the flowers are “manicured” (Yee’s word) into their final, saleable form, such as those aforementioned dog walkers.

From beginning to end — from the nursery to that tin of dog walkers — the process covers about three months, and, starting with the second batch, there will be continuous yield at this facility, which will be needed to recover the significant investment (nearly $10 million) in this facility.

“We’ll be harvesting about half a room a day,” he projected, adding, again, that the overriding goal is to keep the crops safe — from invading insects and anything else — until they’re harvested.

Yield Signs

Getting back to those packets of beneficials, Yee said the mites are really small and quite hard to see, and he’s essentially taking the distributor’s word that there were 25,000 of them in that last order.

“If you crack one of the packets open and pour the contents in your hand, there’s sawdust or whatever it is … and if you look hard, you can spot these little critters rolling around.”

What’s somewhat easier to see is the vast potential for the cannabis industry in Massachusetts, although that picture is still coming into focus, on both the medicinal and recreational sides of the spectrum.

GTI intends to be well-positioned to capitalize on whatever market eventually develops, and the Holyoke facility will play a huge role in those efforts.

It is really unlike any business you’ve ever visited — only, you won’t know, because you probably won’t be visiting.

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

Cover Story Sections Travel and Tourism

Hot Tips

Vacations are highlights of anyone’s calendar, and summertime is, admittedly, a perfect time to get away. But it’s also a great time to stay at home and enjoy the embarrassment of riches Western Mass. has to offer when it comes to arts and entertainment, cultural experiences, community gatherings, and encounters with nature. From music festivals and agricultural fairs to zoos and water activities — and much more — here is BusinessWest’s annual rundown of some of the region’s outdoor highlights. Have fun!

 

MUSIC, THEATER, AND DANCE

FreshGrass Festival
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, MA
www.freshgrass.com
Admission: $46-$119 for three-day pass; $350 for VIP ‘FreshPass’
Sept. 14-16: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is known for its musical events, and the Fresh Grass festival is among the highlights, showcasing close to 50 bluegrass artists and bands over three days. This year, the lineup includes Indigo Girls, Trampled by Turtles, Flogging Molly, Béla Fleck, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and many more.

Green River Festival
One College Dr., Greenfield, MA
www.greenriverfestival.com
Admission: Weekend, $129.99; Friday, $34.99; Saturday, $69.99; Sunday, $64.99
July 13-15: For one weekend every July, Greenfield Community College hosts a high-energy celebration of music; local food, beer, and wine; handmade crafts; and games and activities for families and children — all topped off with hot-air-balloon launches and Friday- and Saturday-evening ‘balloon glows.’ The music is continuous on three stages, with more than 35 bands slated to perform.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
358 George Carter Road, Becket, MA
www.jacobspillow.org
Admission: $25 and up
Through Aug. 26: Now in its 86th season, Jacob’s Pillow has become one of the country’s premier showcases for dance, featuring more than 50 dance companies from the U.S. and around the world. Participants can take in scores of free performances, talks, and events; train at one of the nation’s most prestigious dance-training centers; and take part in community programs designed to educate and engage audiences of all ages. This year’s highlights include a season-opening performance by the Royal Danish Ballet, a visit from the ever-popular Pilobolus, and an artist-curated program by New York City Ballet’s Daniel Ulbricht.

Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle St., Great Barrington, MA
www.mahaiwe.org
Admission: Varies by event
Year-round: The beloved Mahaiwe Theatre dates back to 1905 — continuously running programs since its opening — and underwent an extensive, $9 million renovation starting in 2003. Today, the theater seats just under 700 and hosts year-round arts programming, including music, dance, theatre, opera, talks, and movie classics. It’s leaders say Mahaiwe is a staple and a resource: its live performances inspire tens of thousands of audience members each year, its embrace of modern technology supplements programming with live, high-definition satellite broadcasts from around the world, and its year-round schedule enhances the quality of life for those who reside in and visit the Berkshires.

Old Sturbridge Village Craft Beer & Roots Music Festival
1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA
www.osv.org
Admission: $14-$28; free for children under 4
July 21: OSV’s craft beer festival is back, with more brews, bands, and bites than ever before. Eighteen craft breweries from across New England will offer an opportunity to sample and purchase some of the region’s top beers, ciders, and ales, while barbecue pork, brats, burgers, and more will be available. At five indoor and outdoor stages, more than a dozen musical artists will present the sounds of Americana, bluegrass, country, folk, and roots music.

Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival
Court Square, Springfield, MA
www.springfieldjazzfest.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 11: The fifth annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival will offer a festive atmosphere featuring locally and internationally acclaimed musical artists. More than 10,000 people are expected to hear sounds from a mix of well-known artists and up-and-comers. Headliners announced so far include Maceo Parker, Pedrito Martinez Group, and Jon Cleary, with more announcements expected soon.

Tanglewood
297 West St., Lenox, MA
www.bso.org
Admission: Varies
Through Sept. 14: Tanglewood has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937, and like previous years, it has a broad, diverse slate of concerts in store for the 2018 season, including the Festival of Contemporary Music on July 26-30 and performances by the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops orchestras, ensembles of the Tanglewood Music Center, and internationally renowned guest artists from the worlds of classical, jazz, American songbook, Broadway, rock, pop, and dance.

Williamstown Theatre Festival
1000 Main St., Williamstown, MA
www.wtfestival.org
Admission: $60-$75
Through Aug. 19: Six decades ago, the leaders of Williams College’s drama department and news office conceived of an idea: using the campus’ theater for a summer performance program with a resident company. Since then, the festival has attracted a raft of notable guest performers, with this year’s names including Matthew Broderick (The Closet, June 26 to July 4) and Mary-Louise Parker (The Sound Inside, June 27 to July 8). The 2018 season’s seven productions will spotlight a range of both original productions and works by well-known playwrights.

HISTORY AND CULTURE

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
1000 Hall of Fame Ave., Springfield, MA
www.hoophall.com
Admission: $16-$24; free for children under 5
Year-round: The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is home to more than 300 inductees and more than 40,000 square feet of basketball history. Hundreds of interactive exhibits share the spotlight with skills challenges, live clinics, and shooting contests. A $44 million capital campaign is funding a two-phase renovation project, with the first phase, including new dome lighting, a main lobby overhaul, and significant renovation of the Hall’s theater, now complete.

Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival
300 North Main St., Florence, MA
www.glasgowlands.org
Admission: $5-$16, free for children under 6
July 21: Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the largest Scottish festival in Massachusetts, held at Look Park, features Highland dancers, pipe bands, a pipe and drum competition, animals, spinners, weavers, harpists, Celtic music, athletic contests, activities for children, and the authentically dressed Historic Highlanders recreating everyday life in that society from the 14th through 18th centuries.

Glendi
22 St. George Road, Springfield, MA
www.stgeorgecath.org/glendi
Admission: Free
Sept. 7-9: Every year, St. George Cathedral offers thousands of visitors the best in traditional Greek foods, pastries, music, dancing, and old-fashioned Greek hospitality. In addition, the festival offers activities for children, tours of the historic St. George Cathedral and Byzantine Chapel, vendors from across the East Coast, icon workshops, movies in the Glendi Theatre, cooking demonstrations, and more.

Historic Deerfield
84B Old Main St., Deerfield, MA
www.historic-deerfield.org
Admission: $5-$18; free for children under 6
Year-round: Historic Deerfield, founded in 1952, is an outdoor museum that interprets the history and culture of early New England and the Connecticut River Valley. Visitors can tour 12 carefully preserved antique houses dating from 1730 to 1850, and explore world-class collections of regional furniture, silver, textiles, and other decorative arts on display in the authentic period houses and in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, a state-of-the-art museum facility. Check out the website for a packed roster of summer activities, including educational lectures, cooking demonstrations, and exhibitions of period decoration, textiles, furniture, and art.

Pocumtuck Homelands Festival
Unity Park, 1st Street, Turners Falls, MA
www.nolumbekaproject.org
Admission: Free
Aug. 4: This fifth annual celebration of the parks, people, history, and culture of Turners Falls is a coordinated effort of the Nolumbeka Project and RiverCulture. The event features outstanding Native American crafts, food, and live music, as well as demonstrations of primitive skills. The Nolumbeka Project aims to preserve regional Native American history through educational programs, art, history, music, heritage seed preservation, and cultural events.

Shakerfest
1843 West Housatonic St., Pittsfield, MA
www.hancockshakervillage.org
Admission: $65-$70 for all access; individual activities priced separately
Aug. 18: Hancock Shaker Village will present a day of music, ballads, storytelling, and dance — a place where musicians blend with the audience, and there’s no backstage. From food to free tours of ancient medicinal herb gardens, this festival offers numerous experiences to enjoy with the music, including afternoon harmony and dance workshop; an evening performance in the barn that combines traditional song and dance with new compositions, movement, and projections inspired by the Shakers who built the barn; and a rollicking barn dance.

Stone Soul Festival
1780 Roosevelt Ave., Springfield, MA
www.stonesoulfestival.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 31 to Sept. 2: New England’s largest African-American festival offers family-oriented activities, entertainment, and cultural enrichment, and is a vehicle for minority-owned businesses to display their wares and crafts. Entertainment at Blunt Park includes gospel, jazz, R&B, and dance. Sunday’s free picnic includes ribs and chicken cooked by talented pitmasters, backed by live gospel music performed by local and regional choirs.

Yidstock
1021 West St., Amherst, MA
www.yiddishbookcenter.org/yidstock
Admission: Festival pass, $236; tickets may be purchased for individual events
July 12-15: Boasting an array of concerts, lectures, and workshops, Yidstock 2018: The Festival of New Yiddish Music brings the best in klezmer and new Yiddish music to the stage at the Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College. The seventh annual event offers an intriguing glimpse into Jewish roots, music, and culture.

FAIRS AND FESTS

Berkshires Arts Festival
380 State Road, Great Barrington, MA
www.berkshiresartsfestival.com
Admission: $7-$14; free for children under 10
n July 6-8: Ski Butternut may be best-known for … well, skiing, of course. But the property also plays host to the Berkshires Arts Festival, a regional tradition now in its 17th year. Thousands of art lovers and collectors are expected to stop by to check out and purchase the creations of more than 200 artists and designers.

The Big E
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield, MA
www.easternstatesexposition.com
Admission: $10-$15; free for children under 5; 17-day pass $20-$40
Sept. 14-30: As regional fairs go, it’s still the big one, and there’s something for everyone, whether it’s the copious fair food or the livestock shows, the Avenue of States houses or the parades, the local vendors and crafters or the live music. But it’s not the only agricultural fair on the block. The Westfield Fair kicks things off Aug. 18-20, followed by the Blandford Fair and the Three County Fair in Northampton Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, the Franklin County Fair in Greenfield on Sept. 6-9, and the Belchertown Fair on Sept. 21-23, to name some of the larger gatherings.

Celebrate Holyoke
Downtown Holyoke, MA
www.celebrateholyokemass.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 24-26: Celebrate Holyoke is a three-day festival that made its return in 2015 after a 10-year hiatus, and typically draws more than 10,000 people downtown over the course of the weekend. This year’s festival will include live musical performances, food and beverages from local restaurants, activities for children, and goods from local artists and makers.

Downtown Get Down
Exchange Street, Chicopee, MA
www.chicopeegetdown.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 24-25: Now in its fourth year, Chicopee’s downtown block party, which typically draws about 15,000 people to the streets around City Hall, will feature tons of live music, as well as attractions for children, local food vendors, live art demonstrations, and the Get Down 5K Race.

Franklin County Beer Fest
66 Thunder Mountain Road, Charlemont, MA
www.berkshireeast.com
Admission: $25 in advance, $30 at the door
July 21: Join fellow brew enthusiasts for an afternoon of food, music, and drink. The third annual Franklin County Beer Fest will be held at Berkshire East Mountain Resort and will feature beer from several local breweries, local ciders, and local mead and libations. Online ticket buyers will receive a souvenir glass.

Mattoon Street Arts Festival
Mattoon Street, Springfield, MA
www.mattoonfestival.org
Admission: Free
Sept. 8-9: Now in its 46th year, the Mattoon Street Arts Festival is the longest-running arts festival in the Pioneer Valley, featuring about 100 exhibitors, including artists that work in ceramics, fibers, glass, jewelry, painting and printmaking, photography, wood, metal, and mixed media. Food vendors and strolling musicians help to make the event a true late-summer destination.

Monson Summerfest
Main Street, Monson, MA
www.monsonsummerfestinc.com
Admission: Free
July 4: In 1979, a group of parishioners from the town’s Methodist church wanted to start an Independence Day celebration focused on family and community, The first Summerfest featured food, games, and fun activities. With the addition of a parade, along with booths, bands, rides, and activities, the event has evolved into an attraction drawing more than 10,000 people every year.

River Celebration
350 Linden St., Brattleboro, VT
www.ctriver.org/celebration
Admission: $15; free for children 12 and under
June 16: The Connecticut River Conservancy will host this family-friendly event at the Retreat Farm in Brattleboro. Morning excursions including a pontoon cruise on the Connecticut River, a paddling adventure in the Meadows, a freshwater mussel ecology workshop, a fly-casting workshop, and more. Enjoy live music by River Rhapsody and lunch by Tito’s Taqueria and Vermont Country Deli. Additional activities include an ice-cream-making workshop and several demonstrations open all day: a stream table, a soil-infiltration table, a water-quality testing station, and more. Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman will moderate the “Farm/River Roundtable: Doing Right by Our Rivers.”

Worthy Craft Brew Fest
201 Worthington St., Springfield, MA
www.theworthybrewfest.com
Admission: $45 in advance, $50 at the door
June 16: Smith’s Billiards and Theodores’ Booze, Blues & BBQ, both in the city’s entertainment district, will host more than 25 breweries, with music by Feel Good Drift and the Radiators Soul and Rhythm and Blues Revue, and food served up by Theodores’, Mercado Food Truck, and Nora Cupcake Co. The event will also feature a home-brew contest; Amherst Brewing will make the winner’s beer and serve it at next year’s Brew Fest.

MORE FUN UNDER THE SUN

Berkshire Botanical Garden
5 West Stockbridge Road, Stockbridge, MA
www.berkshirebotanical.org
Admission: $12-$15; free for children under 12
Through Oct. 8: If the flora indigenous to, or thriving in, the Berkshires of Western Mass. is your cup of tea, try 15 acres of stunning public gardens at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. Originally established as the Berkshire Garden Center in 1934, today’s not-for-profit, educational organization is both functional and ornamental, with a mission to fulfill the community’s need for information, education, and inspiration concerning the art and science of gardening and the preservation of the environment. In addition to the garden’s collections, among the oldest in the U.S., visitors can enjoy workshops, special events, and guided tours.

Crab Apple Whitewater Rafting
2056 Mohawk Trail, Charlemont, MA
www.crabapplewhitewater.com
Admission: Varies by activity
Through Oct. 8: Wanna get wet? Crab Apple is a third-generation, multi-state family business that operates locally on the Deerfield River in the northern Berkshire Mountains of Western Mass. Its five separate rafting excursions range from mild to wild, full- or half-day runs, in rafts and inflatable kayaks. In short, Crab Apple offers something for everyone, from beginners to more experienced rafters.

Great New England Air & Space Show
57 Patriot Ave., Chicopee, MA
www.greatnewenglandairshow.org
Admission: Free; upgraded paid seating available
July 14-15: The 2018 Great New England Air & Space Show at Westover Air Reserve Base will feature popular attractions like the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, who last performed in Chicopee in 2008. But note the subtle change to the event title — ‘Space Show.’ That’s because the Air Force operates the largest space program in the world, and the Great New England Air & Space Show is entering a new phase by incorporating elements of space and cyberspace capabilities of military and civilian contractors.

Lupa Zoo
62 Nash Hill Road, Ludlow, MA
www.lupazoo.org
Admission $10-$15; free for children under 2
Through Nov. 4: Lupa Zoo brings the African savannah to Western Mass. residents. The late Henry Lupa fulfilled his lifelong dream of creating a zoo right next to his Ludlow house, filling it with hundreds of animals and instilling a warm, familial atmosphere. Visitors to the 20-acre can be entertained by monkeys, feed giraffes on a custom-built tower, and marvel at the bright colors of tropical birds. In addition to offering animal shows and animal-feeding programs, the staff at Lupa Zoo promotes conservation and sustainability.

Post #351 Catfish Derby
50 Kolbe Dr., Holyoke, MA
www.post351catfishderby.com
Admission: $10 entry fee
July 20-22: The American Legion Post #351 touts its 38th annual Catfish Derby as the biggest catfish tournament in the Northeast. Fishing is open to the Connecticut River and all its tributaries. The derby headquarters and weigh-in station are located at Post #351. A total of $1,425 in prize money is being offered, with a first prize of $300. Three trophies are available in the junior division (age 14 and younger).

Six Flags New England
1623 Main St., Agawam, MA
www.sixflags.com/newengland
Admission: $57.99-$67.99; season passes $109.99
Through Oct. 28: Continuing an annual tradition of adding a new major attraction each spring, Six Flags New England recently unveiled Harley Quinn Spinsanity, an extreme pendulum ride that sends guests soaring 15 stories in the air at speeds up to 70 mph. Other recent additions include the Joker 4D Free Fly Coaster, the looping Fireball, and the 420-foot-tall New England Sky Screamer swings — in addition to a raft of other thrill rides. But fear not: the park has attractions for everyone along the stomach-queasiness spectrum, from the classic carousel and bumper cars to the giant wave pools and lazy river in the Hurricane Harbor water park, free with admission.

Springfield Dragon Boat Festival
121 West St., Springfield, MA
www.pvriverfront.org
Admission: Free
June 23: The sixth annual Springfield Dragon Boat Festival returns to North Riverfront Park. Hosted by the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club, this family-friendly festival features the exciting sport of dragon-boat racing and will include music, performances, food, vendors, kids’ activities, and more. The festival is an ideal event for businesses and organizations looking for a new team-building opportunity, and provides financial support for the Riverfront Club as it grows and strengthens its presence in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley.

Valley Blue Sox
500 Beech St., Holyoke, MA
www.valleybluesox.com
Admission: $5-$7; season tickets $99
Through Aug. 1: Western Mass. residents don’t have to trek to Boston to catch quality baseball. The Valley Blue Sox, defending champions of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, play close to home at MacKenzie Stadium in Holyoke. These Sox feature a roster of elite collegiate baseball players from around the country, including some who have already been drafted into the major leagues. Frequent promotional events like postgame fireworks and numerous giveaways help make every game at MacKenzie Stadium a fun, affordable event for the whole family.

 

 

 

Cover Story Restaurants Sections

2018 Restaurant GuideThe region’s bevy of restaurants comprises one of the area’s most intriguing business sectors, one in which there is constant movement, new additions, and exciting stories unfolding. This year is no exception, and BusinessWest captures that movement, that excitement, in its annual Restaurant Guide.

 

 

There’s More Growth on the Menu

Bean Group has a number of intriguing plans coming to a boil

 

Taste of Italy

West Springfield’s bNapoli melds big-city style with local flavor

 

Who’s Cooking

A list of the area’s largest restaurants

Cover Story

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

 

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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

bwcovermegaphone

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 …

Cover Story Employment Sections

Paws for Effect

Lauren Mendoza

Lauren Mendoza gets plenty of work done at Inspired Marketing, at least after Finn gives her mouse back.

To some employers, the very idea of having employees’ dogs roaming about the office every day seems absurd. How would anyone get any work done? Would they pester clients and other visitors? But many area businesses that welcome pets into the company culture say the benefits — reduced stress and a sense of lightness and fun leading to more productivity, not less — definitely outweigh any drawbacks.

Maxwell Vondogenburgen (Max for short) came into Jill Monson-Bishop’s life around the time she launched her company, Inspired Marketing, in 2009.

Right from the start, neglecting one for the other was out of the question.

“Since I got Max, we’ve had a dog culture here,” Monson-Bishop said, while Max came sniffing around to check out the reporter visiting the company’s Maple Street office in Springfield. “It was almost necessary because some of the staff have dogs, and I want them to give me their all; I want them to be present and be here, and it helps from a logistical standpoint for the dog parents not to worry about running home at lunch or getting home before 5 to let them out.”

When you’re stressed, there’s nothing like being able to sit on the floor and have this unfiltered love of a dog. He doesn’t judge your deadline or your creative work. A dog just licks you, and everything else just melts away.”

But the benefits extend far beyond that, she added.

“It grew into what the dogs did for us. When you’re stressed, there’s nothing like being able to sit on the floor and have this unfiltered love of a dog. He doesn’t judge your deadline or your creative work. A dog just licks you, and everything else just melts away. Everyone thinks creatives are super fun, and obviously, we have fun, but there are elements of stress to our jobs, too. And dogs are great for that.”

Max’s title on the Inspired Marketing website is ‘employee satisfaction manager,’ which implies a broad set of responsibilities for someone getting paid in food, treats, and ear scratches. He’s joined in the office by two other mixed breeds: Monson-Bishop’s second dog, Vinnie — the ‘customer experience associate’ — and Finn, the firm’s ‘siesta manager,’ who belongs to Operations Manager Lauren Mendoza. Other dogs have come and gone over the years as well.

Deb O’Brien

Deb O’Brien has been bringing Fidelco dogs to work for well over a decade, providing educational opportunities for both the dogs and her fellow TD Bank employees.

As a result, when a client visits, they might be greeted by barking, but the dogs are behind a locked door, so no one gets jumped. Visitors are also asked if they have a problem with dogs before meeting any. “Almost everyone says no,” Monson-Bishop said. “Sometimes, during a meeting, a dog will try to get up on somebody, and we get them down, and most times the person is like, ‘oh no, it’s fine.’ It’s nice — sometimes meetings can be intense, and when we introduce a dog, it lightens the mood and can help us be more creative.”

Meghan Lynch didn’t have a dog when her advertising agency, Six-Point Creative, was getting off the ground, and one of the key considerations when adopting one was not having to leave the pet at home. “To me, there was no point in having a dog and bonding with him and then leaving him home alone for eight to 10 hours a day.”

So she talked to her partners about accommodating a dog at work, and everyone was willing to give it a shot. Five and a half years later, Dexter is a fixture in the office on Hampden Street in downtown Springfield. Meanwhile, he’s joined some of the time by Quincy and Goose, the fur babies of Senior Director Scott Whitney and Senior Designer Meghan Mason.

“It’s worked out really well, and it’s good for socialization because he’s coming into contact with different people all day long,” Lynch said. “Getting used to all the people coming in and out, and me going in and out, has made him a calmer, happier dog.”

And the feeling is reciprocal.

“From our standpoint, it means a lot having him around, especially if I’m having a tough day,” she said. “And for new employees, it’s a signal that we value work-life balance. We understand that you only have one life — you don’t have a work life and a home life; you have a life.”

When Blair Winans launched Rhyme Digital in 2011, he searched for a workspace that allows dogs, before finding one at Eastworks in Easthampton. When the digital-marketing company needed more space, he moved to an available building on Route 10 and brought the canine crew — four were in the office the day BusinessWest visited — with him.

“For me, it was the convenience of not leaving my dog at home, having to check on him, going back and forth. I had never worked in an environment that would have dogs at the office, but as employees came on here, I said, ‘my dogs are here; feel free to bring your dogs.’”

That’s why Winans’ lab, Butters, and pug, Flora, get to hang out with Design Master Ian Reed’s husky mix, Maggie, and Marketing Analyst Dan Taylor’s Aussie puppy, Ellie, instead of sitting quietly at home.

“I feel they supply so much comic relief,” Winans said. “When we’re in a meeting and Butters is trying to be the center of attention and barking at something going on outside the door, it’s just part of the environment here.

“And our clients get it,” he went on. “When I’m on a conference call and a dog is barking in the background, they ask, ‘which one is that?’ No matter how stressful things are, when these guys are begging for attention and trying to make you laugh, that’s an extension of what we want as a company culture. Our employees are part of a business, but they’re also part of a family.”

Tails to Tell

Businesses that are opening their arms to that concept of family and dog culture are a growing breed (pun intended). The Society for Human Resource Management’s Employee Benefits survey in 2015 found that 8% of respondents reported that their workplaces permitted pets, an increase from 5% in 2013.

A report published this year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health cited a recent study on the effects of dogs in the workplace on stress and well-being. In the study, employees who did and did not bring dogs to work completed a perceived stress survey several times throughout the workday. Employees who did not bring dogs to work had significantly higher perceived stress than employees who did. To assess differences in stress, employees who brought their dogs to work were instructed to leave them at home two days a week during the one-week study period. On days when employees in the dog group did not bring their dogs to work, their stress levels increased throughout the day, matching the pattern of employees who never brought dogs to work.

Lynch is a believer in that effect, but conceded that the dogs themselves need to get along — which, in her office’s case, they do. “There’s never been a problem. They all have beds with their person, so they interact for a while, then go back and lie down in their people’s offices, then they might come back again and play a little later in the day.”

Meghan Lynch

Meghan Lynch wasn’t going to adopt a dog if she couldn’t bring him to work with her.

She noted, however, that not every dog has the temperament for an office environment, and Whitney leaves his second dog home for that reason.

“You have to know your dogs, and which one would thrive in the office and which wouldn’t. It has to be the right dog fit. We’re not running a kennel here,” she told BusinessWest. “At the same time, they learn very quickly and pick up on each other’s behavior.”

For some dogs in the workplace, learning is the whole idea. Deb O’Brien trains German shepherds to be Fidelco service dogs for the blind; the puppies stay with her for 18 months, then it’s back to Fidelco in Connecticut for “college work,” learning seeing-eye and guide-dog skills.

“While we have them, our job is to raise them with basic obedience, manners, and tons of exposure to everything, so when they go into training and learning job skills, they’re already well-adjusted, well-behaved, and socialized in every social situation,” she explained.

That’s why O’Brien can be seen bringing a pup named Ray to work at TD Bank in downtown Springfield, where she is the commercial regional operations director, to get him used to the office environment, a wide variety of people, traveling on elevators, and all the outdoor distractions of a downtown city setting.

The main goal is socialization, but when she puts his Fidelco vest on, that’s behavioral-training time, and the dog quickly learns the difference, she noted. “Most of my challenge is telling people they can’t pet him right then.”

That said, fellow employees and others who work in the TD Bank building on Main Street have gotten a good education about Fidelco dogs, and about general etiquette on how to approach an animal in a public situation (always ask before petting, for starters).

“We’re not just training dogs; we’re training people,” she said. “There’s a difference between having a dog in the office for love, attention, and therapy, and being here to learn. But while you’re educating people, it’s also an opportunity to train your dog. They’re both learning.”

City life brings plenty of opportunities for training service dogs, from learning to relieve themselves on a hard surface where grassy areas aren’t plentiful to developing a comfort level around noisy buses, foot traffic, and other stimuli they might run into someday during their service career. But the socialization is critical, too.

“We all get something out of it,” she said. “I’ve seen people having a bad day, and they come into my office, and the minute we take the vest off, you see them de-stress.”

O’Brien began training Fidelco dogs after hearing an ad on the radio, and has now trained eight such animals, counting her latest companion. The hardest part, she said, is letting go.

“When it came time to return the first one, my heart got ripped out,” she recalled. “Seven dogs in, I’m better. But I see them with clients, and I see them working and doing what they’re intended to do. It becomes easier if I tell myself, ‘now they’ve got to go to college and get a job.’”

Pet Projects

As for humans that are supposed to be working, Monson-Bishop said some employers might feel welcoming dogs will just lead to staffers sitting around playing with their furry friends. But Inspired Marketing hasn’t seen that kind of loss in productivity. On the plus side, someone may walk their dog during lunch, which gets them out of the building, which is a healthy thing. “I’d like to see more dogs interacting in downtown Springfield.”

Of course, a building’s owner has to be OK with dogs as well, and Monson-Bishop said her landlord has been more than accommodating. “Other office buildings might not permit dogs, but we’re lucky.”

Rhyme Digital’s official ambassadors

From left, Butters, Maggie, Flora, and Ellie — on a break from their duties as Rhyme Digital’s official ambassadors — wait for a treat from Dan Taylor.

So are Max, Vinnie, and Finn, she added. “Statistics say socialization helps dogs live longer, and if we can give that to them here, it’s better for their well-being — with the caveat that this is not for all dogs. Not everyone should bring their dog to work. A very rambunctious dog could be very disruptive. They all have their individual personalities, and some wouldn’t thrive at work, and you wouldn’t put a child in a situation where they wouldn’t thrive.”

Lynch agreed that introducing canines into the office has not been a distraction or a drain on productivity.

“They all get into the routine of the day, and it’s a huge help not to run home to let them out, or pay for a dog sitter. And it’s a benefit for the people who don’t have dogs, because they get to be around a dog without having to feed or walk it.”

Winans reiterated that there’s a lightness, even a silliness, that dogs introduce to often-intense work, and that’s a healthy thing.

“We’re serious about everything we do, no question about that,” he said. “It’s more like, how can you feel stressed when you turn around and there’s Butters lying upside down, or having a meeting and these guys are having a wrestling match under the table? What we’re trying to do here is build an environment where people are able to get their work done and have some fun, and feel like they can bring their dogs, part of their family, into the office.”

In short, the benefits outweigh the distractions. “I feel like they’re happier, and the employees are happier,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s not to say they’re not annoying sometimes when you’re on a conference call and something interesting is happening by the front door and they can’t stop barking. But, at the same time, that’s just who we are.”

Like the others we spoke with, the team at Rhyme makes sure everyone who comes in — for client meetings or job interviews — is comfortable being around dogs. “There are some people who aren’t, so we corral the dogs and keep them away.”

But most people expect to be welcomed, and look forward to it, said Winans, who called his furry friends “official ambassadors” for the company. “I can’t imagine them not being here. The times when there are no dogs in the office, it is rare, and it feels like something’s missing.”

Lynch takes the same approach to office visitors. “Our dogs are part of the family and the culture here, and it’s something we tell people about in advance. Some clients may have a dog phobia or may be allergic, in which case I schedule meetings elsewhere.

“Overall, it’s a really positive experience,” she went on. “Some people specifically schedule meetings in order to see Dexter or see Quincy. Some of them bring treats and presents; they love them as much as we do.”

Monson-Bishop goes even further, claiming that dogs in the office are doing their small part to make the world a better place.

“It’s a family-based culture here,” she said, “and dogs unify us. At a time when the world is a little more tumultuous than usual, dogs bring humans together, and that feels good.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Economic Outlook Sections

Experts Don’t Foresee Any Rocking of the Economic Boat

economicoutlookartMore of the same. That’s what the experts are predicting for this region, and the country as a whole, when it comes to the economy. And by more of the same, they mean growth that is steady if unspectacular — even with tax reform — and few if any signs of what could amount to real trouble. “Another boring year,” was how one economist put it. But for many businesses, boring is more than acceptable.

As a student — and a professor — of economics, Bob Nakosteen fully understands that the region and the nation as a whole are, as they say, due for a recession.

Maybe even overdue.

Indeed, eight and a half years is a long time to be in an expansion, if history and especially 20th-century history is any guide, and that’s about the length of the run the country has been on, said Nakosteen, a long-time educator at UMass Amherst who pegged the summer of 2009 as when the Great Recession ended and the upswing — as unspectacular as it has been, for the most part, in this region — began.

But he quickly noted that there’s no actual relationship between how long a country has been in an expansion and when it’s due for a recession. Time isn’t officially one of the factors that determine such things, he noted, adding that none of the issues and indicators that do are — at this moment, at least — pointing toward recession.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

The issues in the state economy, especially in Western Massachusetts, are not macro-economic nearly as much as they are structurally micro-economic; there are individual sectors that are really struggling.”

“The expansion is old, certainly, but there’s nothing on the horizon to interrupt the expansion,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that a host of factors will shape what course a continued expansion takes. “The issues in the state economy, especially in Western Massachusetts, are not macro-economic nearly as much as they are structurally micro-economic; there are individual sectors that are really struggling.”

Karl Petrick, an economics professor at Western New England University, agreed, and summoned another word for what he’s projecting for at least one more year: boring.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

Trickle-down doesn’t really come to fruition the way people say it will. It’s been promised for decades and decades, but it’s never really happened.”

“Unless you were on Twitter, last year was pretty boring,” he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek while focusing his remarks on what was happening in this region economically. And that was essentially the same thing that’s been happening for the past several years — steady if unspectacular growth that amounts to a few percentage points on average and not the kind of boom times that traditionally follow a recession, especially like the one of almost a decade ago now.

“Even with the tax break, the projections are for the U.S. economy to grow at 2.5% in 2018, and in 2019, 2.1%,” he said. “And if we did see a big increase in growth, it’s very likely that that the Fed will raise interest rates to slow down inflation. The forecast is for another boring year — I hope.”

Indeed, for many in business, boring translates into a decent year, and that’s what Tom Senecal, president of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, said many of his clients — commercial and residential alike — experienced.

He told BusinessWest that the residential real-estate market is enjoying a surge fueled by low inventories, and that many individual sectors are experiencing steady growth. And he expects tax reform to lift most boats still higher.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

Inventory is extremely low in many area communities, and this is having a big impact on prices. We’re going back to seeing sale prices in excess of asking prices, and that hasn’t happened since the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

“With corporate tax rates projected to decrease from 35% to 20%, that will have a significant impact on most businesses,” he went on. “I expect that to be a determining factor in what our local economy will be like in 2018.”

There are other determining factors, obviously, and some areas of concern, both nationally and locally, including persistently stagnant wages.

Despite steady growth in the economy and soaring corporate profits that have fueled a nearly 20% rise on Wall Street this year, wages have remained flat, said Petrick. And he doesn’t believe — despite what leading supporters say — that tax reform will change that equation. And if wages remain stagnant, that might slow the economy down.

“Trickle-down doesn’t really come to fruition the way people say it will,” he explained. “It’s been promised for decades and decades, but it’s never really happened.”

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said the precipitous decline of traditional retail could pose some problems regionally (more on that later), as could a host of other factors ranging from escalating student debt to tighter immigration laws that could keep some foreign students from landing on area college campuses.

But overall, these concerns are not expected to significantly alter the picture or impact those projections for more of what the region has seen over the past several years.

Onward and Upward

“Stable.”

That’s the word Senecal summoned early and often as he talked about the local economy, and it’s another word business owners always like to hear.

He said the region’s economy has historically been fueled by education and healthcare (‘eds and meds’), and that trend continues. And those sectors are, well, stable, to say the least.

“If you think of the spin-off economies in the Western Mass. market, we clearly benefit from those sorts of industries [healthcare and education] that are not recession-proof, but they certainly come through recessionary times much more stable than the rest of the economy,” he said. “And I see this in the numbers from our residential loans and our commercial loans. The stability and continued growth has been there, and we expect it to continue throughout next year.”

Beyond eds and meds, Senecal noted, a number of sectors are doing “pretty well,” as he put it. These include ‘green’ energy businesses, commercial construction (although moreso in the eastern part of the state than this region) and the residential real-estate market, which, as noted earlier, has picked up dramatically over the past few years.

“Inventory is extremely low in many area communities, and this is having a big impact on prices,” he explained. “We’re going back to seeing sale prices in excess of asking prices, and that hasn’t happened since the late ’80s and early ’90s; it’s clearly a seller’s market right now.”

Surveying the scene locally as well as nationally, those we spoke with said there is no indication of anything that will disrupt this stability to any significant degree.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some question marks concerning the year ahead. And perhaps the biggest concerns tax reform and what it will mean.

Petrick and Nakosteen said such reforms — usually measures to be administered during a recession, not an expansion — can’t (or shouldn’t) be expected to trigger the wage hikes and subsequent consumer spending predicted by supporters of the legislation, because … well, because history shows this isn’t what happens, they told BusinessWest.

“Tax cuts really have little effect,” said Nakosteen, “especially when the economy is not in recession and is near full employment.”

Also, early and unofficial polling of business leaders indicates that wage increases for their employees are not in their plans.

“Many big corporations have already said that, whatever tax breaks they get, they’ll use them to buy back stock,” Petrick noted. “That will do wonders for the stock market, but there’s no indication they’ll use that tax break to raise wages.”

But Senecal projected that tax reform might, in fact, provide a real boost for the economy in the form of investments made by business owners.

“Tax reform has a significant impact on corporate spending,” he opined. “I think that, right now, a lot of businesses are waiting and seeing on tax reform to determine how aggressive or reserved businesses are going to be come 2018.”

Economic Indicators

As for other factors that might impact the year ahead, to one degree or another, Petrick put wages, and the stagnancy of same, at the top of that list.

“We see growth, but the foundation for continued growth continues to be a little bit shaky, in terms of wages at the national level and the state level,” he told BusinessWest. “They’re just not growing, even as unemployment comes down.

“And that is a bit of conundrum for us at the state level and the federal level, because that puts more pressure of households, especially with uncertainty with what’s going to happen with the individual mandate and how that might impact insurance rates,” he added. “It also impacts state tax revenue, because if wages don’t go up, the state doesn’t collect more.”

There are many reasons why wages are stagnant, he went on, listing everything from soaring health-insurance costs for employers to the decline of labor unions, to the retirement of Baby Boomers and their replacement by younger workers earning lower salaries. But the bottom line is that, generally, flat wages are not good for the economy.

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said the continued decline of traditional retail would further change the local landscape, and it might impact the economy in some ways.

Giant retailers like Sears, Toys R Us, Kmart, and others are closing stores in huge volumes, leaving malls with large boxes to fill (or not, as the case may be) and worries about their very existence. Meanwhile, many smaller retailers are disappearing from the landscape, for reasons ranging from the intrusion of online shopping to a lack of a succession plan.

All this is creating a number of empty storefronts and a lot of commercial real estate for sale and lease, said Nakosteen, adding that the problem is impacting even the most vibrant of downtowns, including Northampton’s, where tenants are asking, ‘why are lease rates so high if so many storefronts are empty?’

“And that’s a very good question,” he said, adding that the higher rates will impact existing retailers and perhaps dissuade others from coming downtown.

But it’s an issue in nearly every area community.

“There are so many empty storefronts,” Nakosteen went on, “and the retail sector is so important to so many downtown areas.”

Meanwhile, workforce issues might also have an impact on the course and strength of the ongoing expansion, he noted, adding that a lack of qualified workers within some sectors might stifle growth.

“The state, as a whole, has issues with the labor force not growing fast enough to accommodate the economy,” he explained. “And Western Mass. is even worse. We have very slow labor growth here; you can’t grow the economy faster than you can hire people to fill the jobs.”

Interest rates could play a role as well, the experts noted, adding that, if the economy does start heating up, the Fed will likely raise rates to keep it from overheating and sending inflation higher.

“Prime rate effects people’s home-equity loans, and it effects commercial borrowers,” Senecal explained. “And if the Fed increases rates two or three times, and that’s clearly their intent, that could have an impact on spending.”

Bottom Line

‘Stable. ‘Boring.’ ‘Steady.’ Those aren’t exactly headline-generating adjectives when we’re talking about the economy and where it might head in the months to come.

But they represent reality, and for many in this region — which, as has been noted countless times in the past, doesn’t enjoy stunning highs and crippling lows like other regions — those words are welcome, and much better than the alternative.

And if tax reform works, as Senecal and others believe it might, the region just might wind up doing better than ‘more of the same.’

 

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

Cover Story

Brush with Fame

Joe Ventura holds the cleat he made for Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch for the ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program.

Joe Ventura holds the cleat he made for Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch for the ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program.

The word ‘artist’ covers a lot of ground when talking about Joe Ventura. The Ludlow-based entrepreneur is lead singer for what’s considered the leading Bon Jovi tribute band in the country, and he custom airbrushes everything from hockey goalie helmets to cars and motorcycles. His latest canvas has become footwear, as in football cleats through the NFL’s ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program. For Ventura, it’s a foothold, in every aspect of that word, into another business opportunity.

Joe Ventura was clearly proud of the colorful shoe he had just created for New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead as part of the NFL’s ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program.

But he understood that probably the most important touch, and easily the most poignant, would not come via his talented hand.

Indeed, these Nike cleats, size 12½, were to be shipped out to Atkinson, Neb. within a few days. There, they would be signed by Jack Hoffman, a truly inspirational 12-year-old with pediatric brain cancer who developed a special relationship with Burkhead while the latter was toting the rock for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.

That bond remains strong, and Team Jack, an initiative embraced by the Nebraska players to raise money for cancer research, is Burkhead’s choice when it comes to the ‘my cause’ part of the NFL’s popular new program, to be celebrated during the full slate of games set for the first week of December.

As for the cleats part, well, Ventura, a Ludlow-based artist, came to the attention of the Patriots, and eventually Burkhead, in a roundabout way we’ll get to in a minute. Joe V, as he’s known to friends and those who get a close-up look at his work — that’s how he signs his creations — is now working on cleats for a few representatives of the team.

The cleat bound for Rex Burkhead’s locker will first be sent to Nebraska to be signed by the inspirational Jack Hoffman.

The cleat bound for Rex Burkhead’s locker will first be sent to Nebraska to be signed by the inspirational Jack Hoffman.

For Burkhead, he fashioned cleats that feature the words ‘Team Jack,’ a silhouette of the running back with Hoffman, and images of the boy from today and roughly four and half years ago, when, while wearing Burkhead’s number 22, he entered a Nebraska spring game and ran 69 yards for a touchdown.

For defensive lineman Alan Branch, who wears a size-16 shoe, Ventura had a little more real estate to work with, and took full advantage of it, fashioning a likeness of one of Branch’s daughters upon one of the cartoon characters used to promote his cause, FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education).

The cleats represent a new entrepreneurial and artistic beachhead for Ventura, who already had several — both on his résumé and on display in the workshop behind his Ludlow home. In addition to being lead singer for a Bon Jovi tribute band called Bon Jersey (yes, a guy nicknamed Joe V plays in a Bon Jovi tribute band), he is also an amateur dirt-bike racer and artist specializing in custom airbrush painting of everything from hockey goalie helmets to motorcycles to a few cars (including a Ford Mustang for one of the Patriots).

“I’ll paint … just about anything that can be painted,” he said, while scrolling through his phone for the photo of that Mustang, now featuring the famous Patriots logo. “I’m always looking for new opportunities, new things I can do.”

And while he’s certainly not limiting his sights to sports, he has always looked upon that realm as a fairly recession-proof niche for his venture.

“When I started this business, the first thing I thought of was, ‘what can I do if the market crashes so I can still do my job?’” he recalled. “The answer was sports.”

When asked what was in the business plan for Joe V Designs, Ventura gave a shrug of his shoulders as if to indicate that he wasn’t sure, exactly. But he hinted broadly that there would be more of everything already in the portfolio, and hopefully some new wrinkles.

That includes work for MGM Springfield, which is in talks with Ventura to create some murals for the $950 million casino set to open in less than a year. He has already fashioned a preliminary work — a scene, circa 1931, that depicts three Springfield motorcycle police officers with the entrance to the Indian Motocycle manufacturing facility in Mason Square in the background.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Ventura about his many forms of artistic expression — and entrepreneurial spirit — and about what might come next as he continues to fill in the canvas of an already-colorful career.

Signature Works

The orange Nike box declared that the sneakers inside were size 10, and the model was the Air Zoom Vomero 12.

The name on the shoebox tells a big part of the story

The name on the shoebox tells a big part of the story of how Joe Ventura is finding new opportunities to fill in the canvas of an already-colorful career.

But the two words typed on white tape across the side told the real story: Bill Belichick.

Indeed, the legendary coach is the third Patriots representative to engage Ventura in creating some shoes for ‘My Cleats, My Cause,’ only Belichick’s aren’t exactly cleats.

And Ventura wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing with those sneakers when he talked with BusinessWest much earlier this month. He was awaiting further instruction, as they say, and not from the coach himself.

“Bill wants a sketch of the shoe before I do it … he’s a little busy; it would be hard for him to stop what he’s doing to talk about a shoe,” deadpanned Ventura, adding that all he knew at that point was that he would be fashioning something that conveyed the Bill Belichick Foundation (BBF), which strives to provide coaching, mentorship, and financial support to individuals, communities, and organizations, and focuses on football and lacrosse.

And while Ventura is honored to be a client of the only coach to win five Super Bowls, and he did quickly put a picture of that Nike box with Belichick’s name on it up on his Facebook page, he doesn’t exactly get star-struck.

That’s because he’s worked with quite a few lights over the years. These are names that most casual sports fans might not know, but they are stars in their own galaxies nonetheless.

Like Jonathon Quick, goaltender for the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, for whom Ventura has designed a number of masks. And Dwayne Roloson, a long-time NHL netminder who played for a host of teams. And John Muse, who played his college hockey at Boston College and now patrols the net for Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League.

Even less well-known are some of the dirt-bike stars for whom he’s created helmets. That list includes John Dowd, the former professional motocross racer from Chicopee also known as the ‘Junk Yard Dog’; Dowd’s son, Ryan; Robby Marshall; and many others.

Ventura creates several hundred hockey-goalie masks each year, including those for most major college programs — he’s one of only seven certified Bauer painters in the country — and he’s done a great deal of work in the motor-sports helmet realm as well.

And then, there are the Indian motorcycles, now made in Indiana, that he will custom-paint for clients.

“I’m all around, everywhere,” he said of both his work and where it ends up. “The hockey masks go all around the world, and I’ve handled all the custom work from Indian pretty much since they opened.”

Still, it was his other career, more than a quarter-century as lead singer for Bon Jersey, that ultimately paved the way for his work with ‘My Cleats, My Cause.’

“One of my fans from the band is Brad Berlin, the equipment manager for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,” he recalled. “He was so into our music and what we did that he forgot what I did for a living. When they started ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ last year, they were frantic in Tampa trying to find artists; they had to go to California, one guy went to Maryland…

“Then, he remembered what I did for a living, and he sent me two sets of cleats that he wanted me to mock up, one for Tampa and one for New England,” he went on, adding that his mockup for the Pats — one that featured the team’s logo on a shoe that appeared to be made out of steel — obviously turned some heads.

Because, when Ventura went to the Patriots game against the Bucaneers in Tampa on Oct. 5, he got a sideline pass, met some players, and made some connections that turned into assignments.

He garnered the three mentioned above, plus defensive lineman Lawrence Guy and some of the team’s equipment personnel, and may get another for Brian Hoyer, the former Patriots quarterback now back with the team after the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. Also, he’s the unofficial go-to artist for anyone on the team who doesn’t have an artist.

Meanwhile, his contact information somehow got sent to the Buffalo Bills and, eventually, their equipment manager, who asked Ventura to create a few sets of cleats for their quarterback, Tyrod Taylor.

“From what the equipment manager told me, he took one look at them and said, basically, ‘I want this guy,’” said Ventura, adding that he’s awaiting some instructions from the player on what he’s looking for.

Different Strokes

Ventura likes to say that he lives in his backyard.

While that’s an exaggeration, it’s not far from the truth.

Indeed, the artist — that’s a phrase that covers a lot of territory, to be sure — spends large chunks of each day in a studio that can’t be seen from the street, provides no hint of the work going on inside, and is nondescript in almost every way. Except maybe when there’s a Nike box with Bill Belichick’s name on it on the work desk.

But it’s home — again, not literally, but for his growing business. And Ventura likes everything about it, especially the fact that no one knows it’s there.

“If I had a fancy storefront, I’d never get anything done,” he said, he said with a smile, noting that he doesn’t put an address on his colorful (what else would it be?) business card.

“There’s a phone number on there … if they want to find me, they can call me,” he said, adding that many people have, as evidenced by that deep and still-growing portfolio of work.

On the day BusinessWest visited, Ventura was referencing the recently completed left cleat bound for Nebraska, Jack Hoffman’s house, and, eventually, Burkhead’s locker.

This is the one with the image of a younger Hoffman, from when he was 7 or 8 years old. On the work bench was a photograph of the confident-looking 12-year-old, to be transferred onto the right cleat, which at that moment sported its basic white and black from the factory, with tape covering the cleats as Ventura prepared to go to work on it.

As he talked about Burkhead’s cleats, Ventura said that, like almost everything he does, this specific project is customized, and it tells a story — actually, several of them.

The first is the story the client wishes to tell, be it a reference to a nonprofit or something important enough to them to be painted on the chassis of a motorcycle. But there’s also Ventura’s story — specifically his attention to detail and desire to go above and beyond for the client.

Like with Burkhead. While what Ventura has done with the cleats is certainly creative and inspirational, the artist knew the crowning touch had to be a signature from Jack Hoffman.

And so he made those arrangements, with the signing to be videotaped and sent to Burkhead.

He also came up with the other design elements with little, if any, instruction beyond creating something that told the story of Team Jack.

“I had to do some research on it, and then my mind just starts to flow, and I come up with these ideas on how to do things,” he said, while giving ample credit to his partner, Jeff Ottomaniello, whom Ventura says he’s been training for the past 15 years.

The artist’s mindset came through when he was asked how long it took to create a cleat like the one bound for Nebraska.

“When you’re doing a portrait like that for a cleat, which is highly impossible, it could take a day to do that one cleat,” he explained. “But I don’t like to talk about how long it takes, because it’s not how much time it takes, it’s being able to create that image; it’s more of the passion of being able to do it.”

Where this passion will take him in the future is a question without a clear answer. Like the famous coach he’s creating shoes for, Ventura doesn’t get very emotional — or very detailed — when he talks about what comes next.

He didn’t say “on to Cincinnati,” but implied that it was on to whatever work his current portfolio — or even his work with Bon Jersey — might inspire.

“My favorite sport is football, and for me to be involved in this [cleats] program is pretty cool for me,” he told BusinessWest. “Once this is done, we’re going to make a portfolio and send it to each one of the teams in the NFL; knowing that we have some backing from the people we’ve done work for, it will be a little easier for people to see us and maybe get more of these.”

As for MGM, he said he’s now in talks with the company about creating murals depicting scenes from Springfield past and present. If that comes to fruition, he believes that high-profile work may open even more doors down the road.

Getting a Foothold

Ventura said he wasn’t at all sure what happens to the cleats worn during ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ week when those games over.

He suspects some of them may be auctioned off or given to the charities in question for display, but he doesn’t know their exact fate.

He does know that the cleats he created for the Patriots, the ‘steel’ shoes, will be put on display at the Patriots headquarters in Foxboro.

His ‘Joe V’ signature won’t be very visible, but the cleats, like all his work, including that with Bon Jersey, seemingly lead to additional opportunities.

In other words, he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop — literally and figuratively.

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

Cover Story

A Huge Opportunity — Clearly

From left, principals Marc Gammell, Yinyong Li, and Kenneth Carter

From left, principals Marc Gammell, Yinyong Li, and Kenneth Carter

There’s no word yet on whether the creators of FogKicker will embrace Johnny Nash’s 1972 reggae hit ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ as their theme song, but it would certainly work. The product, developed in the polymer science lab at UMass Amherst, has proven itself successful in keeping a range of surfaces, from scuba masks to bathroom mirrors, clear of fog. Partners Yinyong Li, Marc Gammell, and Kenneth Carter are scaling up their venture, Treaty Biotech LLC, and while their vision of the future isn’t totally clear, it is certainly coming into focus.

They call it ‘big glass.’

That’s the term the principals at Treaty LLC, developers of the product known as FogKicker, summon as they talk about larger surfaces such as car windshields, bathroom mirrors, and shower doors.

And they foresee a day when their product will be in widespread use on all of the above, and more, to clear away annoying — and sometimes dangerous, especially when it comes to those windshields — fog.

We made a strategic decision to go after this niche market, where we knew there was a problem, where there are anti-fogging products out there that work fairly miserably, and where we knew we could gain a foothold.”

But for now, they’re more focused on what would have to be labeled ‘small glass,’ or at least ‘smaller glass,’ as in the goggles used by scuba divers, snorkelers, swimmers, skiers, mountain climbers, and others. And in this realm — large in its own right by any estimation — those who developed FogKicker in the polymer science lab at UMass Amherst can see some clear opportunities, pun obviously intended.

“There are certainly a number of applications for this product — everyone has a bathroom mirror,” said Yinyong Li, who, along with Kenneth Carter, a professor in the Polymer Science and Engineering Department at UMass Amherst, discovered that nanocellouse, a biological material plants use to help them absorb and circulate water, could also be used to solve one of society’s big problems — keeping glass surfaces free of fog.

Cellulose, of course, is used in the production of a number of paper products, said Yinyong, adding that, in many respects, FogKicker acts like an invisible paper towel to absorb moisture and keep glass surfaces clear of fog.

Yinyong, the company’s chief technology officer, who attained his Ph.D. from UMass in 2016; Carter; and third partner Marc Gammell, who recently earned his undergraduate degree at UMass, are making giant strides forward in the process of taking FogKicker from discovery in the lab to successful business venture.

They have succeeded in raising capital, and also in raising the product’s — and the company’s — profile, through appearances like the one late last month on the CNBC reality program Adventure Capitalists, for example.

The video clip shows Gammell and Carter (an experienced diver himself), both clad in FogKicker pullovers, appearing on a dock somewhere with the ocean in the background, making a pitch for their product — and also for what the two called ‘smart capital,’ as well as individuals to join their team.

The creators of FogKicker are in the process of scaling up their venture, focusing first on sports goggles and other smaller glass surfaces.

The creators of FogKicker are in the process of scaling up their venture, focusing first on sports goggles and other smaller glass surfaces.

“We want someone who has industry-specific connections,” Gammell, the company’s CEO, says in the video, referring specifically to the diving market. “Someone who has some serious marketing clout, someone who knows their way around building a brand; we want a real team player that brings that to the table.”

In a nutshell, that short video, which also goes into some detail about the product and how it works, neatly sums up where this company is right now and what it’s doing to get where it wants to go.

It has a product that works — one that those in the diving industry have been quick to embrace, as we’ll see — and a road map of sorts for getting to the next level with small glass and ambitions for doing the same with big glass.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with the FogKicker team about their vision for their product and their company, and how things have come into focus, in every sense of that word.

Glass Act

As they talked with BusinessWest about FogKicker and their plans for it, Yinyong, Gammell, and Carter were getting ready to travel.

Their destination was Orlando and, more specifically, the week-long Diving Equipment & Marketing Assoc. (DEMA) trade show. Armed with a new and vastly improved show booth, the partners were — wait for it — looking to make a splash with their growing portfolio of products.

Or another splash, to be more precise.

Indeed, it was at the 2016 DEMA show in Las Vegas that the partners first caught the attention of the diving community, and in a big way.

The FogKicker principals, from left, Kenneth Carter, Marc Gammell, and Yinyong Li, display their products at one of the many trade shows they’ve exhibited at recently.

The FogKicker principals, from left, Kenneth Carter, Marc Gammell, and Yinyong Li, display their products at one of the many trade shows they’ve exhibited at recently.

“We were met with huge enthusiasm, and seemingly overnight, our product was available all over the world, because this is a worldwide conference, and people were buying cases and cases of it,” said Carter, the company’s chief scientific officer.

This response came, he went on, because FogKicker established itself as a clear (literally) improvement over other methods of keeping scuba masks clear of fog — from saliva to soaps that were already on the market, both of which eventually wash off and lose their effectiveness. “This is one of the first water-resistant anti-fogging coatings that have been produced.”

But to tell this story, we need to go back further, to earlier this decade, when Yinyong and Carter, using funding from the National Science Foundation, started to look at ways that nanocellulose, derived from paper pulp, could be used in electronics.

“Cellulose is one of the most abundant products in the world; it’s the basis of wood, paper, trees, algae, and plants in general,” said Carter. “Paper makers grind it up into a pasty pulp, and they spread it over wires, and that’s how we make paper — it’s essentially just dried cellulose.

“What was discovered a while ago is that, if you keep breaking that pulp down, mechanically breaking it down and chemically treating it, you can get to what’s known as nanocellulose — nanoscopic particles of cellulose,” he went on. “We were playing around with it, and trying to think of other things we could do with nanocellulose.”

The two discovered they could take many common sources of the material, such as waste paper, cotton, or recycled paper, and convert them into nanocellulose. The bigger discovery, as it turned out, came when they placed this material on various surfaces and, in doing so, created completely transparent coating that did not fog up when exposed to humid air or steam.

“Because it’s paper, it’s very absorbent to water — we all know that paper loves water,” Carter explained. “When things fog up, what’s happening is that water vapor in the air is hitting a cooler surface, and it condenses, forming tiny beads of water, which we see as fog.”

When water hits the nanocellulose films, it gets absorbed, said Yinyong, and doesn’t form those beads, thus eliminating fog.

Fast-forwarding through the all-important discovery phase to ensure that the product is unique and the patent-disclosure process, Yinyong made the concept an entry in the 2015 Innovation Challenge at UMass Amherst, and he came away with the $20,000 grand prize.

He also came away with an eventual partner in this fledgling business venture. Indeed, Gammell was another contestant at the Innovation Challenge. He didn’t fare nearly as well with his entry, but he would also have to be considered a winner, because he was so impressed with what Yinyong brought to the table that he asked if he could be a part of it.

“I was pitching my own crazy business idea, and Yingong was pitching FogKicker,” he recalled. “Yingong wound up going to the finals, and I went just to watch him do his extended pitch, and afterwards, I was so pumped up about FogKicker and his work with nanocellulose that I introduced myself and told him I wanted to help him any way I could.”

Things have accelerated at an impressive pace since then, with FogKicker and Treaty Biotech LLC moving on to more innovation and entrepreneurship competitions, including the Venture Well program in Hadley and Valley Venture Mentors’ Accelerator program, and winning some prize money at nearly all of them.

They also took part in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, as it’s called, a program that prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory and move forward with NSF-funded projects ready for commercialization.

“It’s like a boot camp — they scrutinize everything you do,” said Carter, adding that Treaty LLC won $50,000 to do customer discovery.

And those efforts took the partners to Tek-Divers, a Middle Eastern outfit that offers a wide range of recreational diving and extreme deep diving.

“They dive under some of the most extreme conditions out there — so we went to talk to them, realizing, who better could tell us whether we had something interesting than people who put their lives on the line?” said Carter. “And immediately, they loved us; they said, ‘boy, this stuff is great.’ And they bought a lot of it.”

View to the Future

The partners at Treaty LLC have been putting the capital they’ve attained from competitions and other sources to use in the many specific areas covered by that broad term ‘scaling up.’ That process includes everything from prototype development and production (now taking place at a location in Springfield) to marketing, like the DEMA show; from gaining more capital, through a variety of methods, including that Adventure Capital episode, to adding more team members, something the partners expect will happen over the next several months.

Product development was an exercise in listening to the experts and responding to what they said, Yinyong noted, adding that initial thoughts about possibly creating one-use disposable wipes were discarded amid feedback from divers and environmentalists fearful of the ocean being littered with the packages for those wipes.

What emerged instead was a felt-tip-marker-like device that places drops of FogKicker on a surface to be rubbed in. To date, the company has sold roughly 30,000 small bottles of various solutions.

As noted earlier, Treaty Biotech is, for the most part, focused on that ‘smaller glass’ market, and especially the sports-goggle market and the scuba/snorkeling market.

“We thought really hard about what would be best way to roll this out,” said Carter. “Of course, you would sell more volume and more bulk material if you put it in squirt bottles for home use, but how do you even approach that market?

“So we made a strategic decision to go after this niche market,” he went on, “where we knew there was a problem, where there are anti-fogging products out there that work fairly miserably, and where we knew we could gain a foothold.”

Even within that seemingly small niche, the numbers are impressive and the sales potential considerable, said Yinyong, noting that the business plan estimates that there are 14 million scuba divers and snorkelers in the U.S. alone, and maybe 25 million worldwide.

Educating them about their product is important, he said, because many are firmly convinced that anti-fogging products don’t work, or don’t work any better than their own saliva.

The appearance on Adventure Capitalists, a show billed as the outdoor person’s Shark Tank, is expected to help boost efforts in this regard. Contestants make presentations to a panel of investors — all of them involved in sports, business, and investing — who then put those products through their paces, often in harsh conditions.

But there are, of course, much bigger numbers in the ‘big glass’ market, said Gammell, who did some quick math and estimated that there are more than 250 million car and truck windshields in this country alone.

Meanwhile, there are probably 100 million bathroom mirrors within the residential market alone, he said, adding quickly that the commercial market — hotels, motels, gyms, and other segments — is equally potential-laden.

And there are other markets as well, including the huge healthcare field, Gammell noted, adding that all of these markets and others are potentially within the company’s reach.

To reach them, the company and its principals are moving in a number of directions, from an aggressive push for seed funding from investors to talks with contract manufacturers about scaling up production; from a website makeover to a new trade-show booth for the DEMA event and many others to follow.

“Big glass … we could be there in a year,” said Gammell. “And in a year, hopefully we’ll have big accounts with Dick’s Sporting Goods, CVS, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, and others. And we’ll have some hires — we’ll have a bigger team.”

Bottom Line

If you listen to the lyrics from “I Can See Clearly Now,” they include lines you would never, ever hear from aspiring entrepreneurs, such as “I can see all obstacles in my way,” or “I think I can make it now, the pain is gone,” or “all of the bad feelings have disappeared,” or even (and especially) “look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies … look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies.”

Yinyong, Gammell, and Carter certainly know better. They know there are obstacles they probably can’t see, and there are obviously some clouds within that blue sky.

But overall, the future is certainly bright for FogKicker, and there are enormous opportunities for this venture — clearly.

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

Business & Innovation Expo of Western Mass. Cover Story Events

Looking Back at an Exciting, Informative Day

expologo2017comcastThe Business & Innovation Expo of Western Mass., the annual show produced by BusinessWest and the Healthcare News and presented by Comcast Business, drew nearly 150 exhibitors and 2,000 visitors to the MassMutual Center on Nov. 2. They enjoyed a series of educational seminars, breakfast and lunch programs, a day-capping Expo Social, and much more. Take a look through the photo gallery below for a recap of all the excitement, insight, and innovation.

Photography by Dani Fine Photography

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businessinnovationexposhowguide2017-page1

Cover Story Features

Star Power

 

Lenny Recor attends to the second floor at the TD Bank building, a position he secured with the help of Sunshine Village.

Lenny Recor attends to the second floor at the TD Bank building, a position he secured with the help of Sunshine Village.

Back in the mid-’60s, a group of parents, advised by friends, family members, and attorneys alike to put their developmentally disabled children into an institution, collectively rejected that idea and, far more importantly, came up with a much better one. The result of their innovative, forward-thinking outlook was Sunshine Village, which, 50 years later, remains an immensely powerful source of light, warmth, hope, and lives fulfilled.

 

Lenny Recor was in a good mood — or as good a mood as you might expect someone to be in on a Monday morning.

Actually, the day of the week doesn’t seem to matter much to Recor, who appears to wear a smile on an almost permanent basis. And such was the case as he went about his work vacuuming, mopping, dusting, and cleaning bathrooms at 1441 Main St. in Springfield, a.k.a. the TD Bank Building.

“I like to work … it’s meaningful, and I get to meet people and say hello,” said the 39-year-old. “Besides, it’s good to have money in your pocket — really good.”

The ability to work and put money in one’s pocket is something that many people might take for granted, but not Recor.

He has managed to secure several such opportunities thanks to Sunshine Village, the Chicopee-based nonprofit that this year is celebrating a half-century of doing what it does best — creating ‘great days’ for hundreds of individuals with developmental disabilities and help them lead rich, meaningful (there’s that word again) lives.

And these great days come in many forms, said Gina Kos, long-time executive director at Sunshine Village, noting that, for some, it means a day of working and earning. For others, it might mean volunteering at one of a number of area nonprofits. For still others, it might mean using a computer or practicing yoga. And for some, a great day may involve learning to shake hands or hold a spoon.

“A great day is a collection of small, proud moments,” she told BusinessWest, noting that this simple definition covers a significant amount of ground, to be sure. “What goes into ‘great’ depends on the individual.”

Elaborating, she said the agency’s mission, and its mindset, are neatly summed up with a collection of words — a summary, if you will, of what the agency provides for its participants — now filling one wall inside the agency’s administration building:

“Warm welcomes, new skills, shared laughs, many choices, caring staff, friendships, creativity, new experiences, safe travels, big smiles, helping hands, happy people, kind words, unique opportunities, lifelong learning, fun times, teamwork, dedication, shining moments, celebrations, personal accomplishments, sunshine, great days,” it reads … with those last two words in bold red letters.

Over a half-century, Gina Kos says, Sunshine Village has evolved, but has always remained true to its core mission.

Over a half-century, Gina Kos says, Sunshine Village has evolved, but has always remained true to its core mission.

But it’s not what’s on the wall that defines Sunshine Village, but what goes on inside the walls — and, in Recor’s case and many others, well outside them.

At the hangars and administration buildings at nearby Westover Air Reserve Base, for example, where participants at Sunshine Village have been employed for more than 40 years, handling various cleaning duties. Or at a host of nonprofit agencies such as the Cancer House of Hope, Habitat for Humanity, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and many others. Or at area businesses and office buildings ranging from the Trading Post, a large convenience store just down the street from the agency’s headquarters on Litwin Drive in Chicopee, to the TD Bank building.

And while on the subject of great days, Kos said Sunshine Village strives to provide them for both its participants and the team of employees who serve them.

“We work very hard to be a provider of choice and an employer of choice,” she noted, adding that these are the broad organizational goals outlined in a three-year strategic plan for the agency, one due to be updated in the near future. “And in the third year of our plan, we’ve realized outcomes with both of those goals that have really exceeded our initial expectations.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Village as it marks a key milestone, and at how, as it looks forward to its next half-century of creating great days, it will continue its evolutionary process.

Bright Ideas

When asked about the circumstances that brought her to the corner office at Sunshine Village, Kos quickly flashed back more than 25 years to the agency’s first annual fund-raising golf tournament at Tekoa Country Club in Westfield.

“I was a volunteer — I drove the beer cart,” she recalled, adding that she had such a good time, and was so impressed with the agency’s mission and how it was met, that she volunteered again the next year.

And through those experiences, Kos, who was, at the time, working in the banking sector, decided she wanted to get involved at a much higher level.

Indeed, she joined Sunshine Village in a marketing position, and a few years later rose to director. She told BusinessWest that, early on, her focus was on putting the agency on a stronger financial footing and enabling it to operate more like a business, or a nonprofit business, to be precise.

Kori Cox, a participant in Sunshine Village’s community-based day services, describes herself as an ambassador committed to generating positive thinking.

Kori Cox, a participant in Sunshine Village’s community-based day services, describes herself as an ambassador committed to generating positive thinking.

“When I came here, people in the human-services world didn’t talk about money,” she noted. “But I said, ‘you need to talk about money.’ And today, I think a lot of organizations follow Sunshine Village’s path of talking about money and acting like a business; in order to achieve your mission, you need to have a solid financial base.”

And while that work continues, she said the primary assignment for the team at Sunshine Village has been to continue a 50-year process of evolution and refinement in order to better meet the needs of those the agency serves and create more of those great days.

This is a broad constituency, individuals 22 and over, for the most part, who have one of many types of development disabilities, including, and increasingly, those on the autism spectrum.

To fully understand this evolutionary process, it’s best to start at the beginning, when a small group of parents of children with developmental disabilities set on a course that would change lives for decades to come.

“These parents were told by their physicians, their lawyers, their families, and friends that they needed to put their children into an institution — either Belchertown State School or the Monson Developmental Center,” she said, adding that they had a different, considerably better idea.

“These families were pretty radical at that time — this was the mid-’60s — and they said, ‘no, institutions are not for us; we’re going to keep our children at home with us,’” she went on. “But they also realized that the resources to help them raise their children weren’t there; they couldn’t go through the school system, and just bringing their kids to nursery schools and the local playground didn’t feel right 50 years ago.”

So this group of parents, under the leadership of Joseph Casey, owner of Casey Chevrolet, who had a young daughter with a developmental disability, started a group called Friends of the Retarded Children and set about creating an organization that would become what Sunshine Village is today.

On land donated by the city and local sportsmen’s club, and with money raised through an involved grassroots effort, a playground and the first building (eventually named after Casey) were built and opened in the spring of 1967.

In its early years, the agency served children, said Kos, noting that it had a nursery school and recreational facilities that reflected playgrounds of that era. As those original participants grew older, the roster of programs evolved accordingly, including the addition of employment services as well as a skills center for those who wanted to work, but needed the skills to do so.

It Takes a Village

Today, Sunshine Village, which has a $13 million annual operating budget, serves roughly 450 adults with developmental disabilities across Western Mass. Many stay with the agency for years or decades, and one participant in its programs recently turned 86.

In addition to its facility in Chicopee, there are other locations in Springfield, Three Rivers, and Westfield, added over the years to bring participants closer to the services being offered.

Day programs provided by the agency cover a broad spectrum. They include:

• Community Engagement Services, also known as community-based day services, or CBDS, which offer individuals activities promoting wellness, recreation, community engagement, technology, self-advocacy, and personal development;

• Contemporary Life Engagement Services, a highly structured program specifically designed to support individuals on the autism spectrum. This is a medically based day ‘habilitation’ program with services augmented with clinical supports as necessary, including speech and language, physical, and occupational therapies, and access to a board-certified behavior analyst;

• Traditional Life Engagement Services, a medically based day habilitation program focused on building functional life skills, including social, communication, personal wellness, and independent living; and

• Employment Services, which support participants in obtaining a job or working as a member of a supervised team. It does this through placement services, and also through Village Works, an agency-owned business located just off exit 6 of the Turnpike, as well as Westover Maintenance Systems, a commercial cleaning company operated by Sunshine Village, which, as noted, provides maintenance services for all the buildings and hangars at Westover Air Reserve Base.

Over the years, and on an ongoing basis, the programming at the Village evolves to meet changing needs within society and area school departments and their special-education divisions, said Kos.

“Over the years, we’ve offered different kinds of services — residential services, shared-living services, different kinds of day and employment services — but we’ve always remained true to our mission,” she told BusinessWest. “And that is to serve people with disabilities and to serve them regardless of the level of disability; we’ve served people that other organizations can’t and won’t serve.”

As one example of this evolutionary process, she noted additions and changes undertaken to meet the dramatic rise in the number of individuals on the autism spectrum.

“There are a lot more people graduating from area high schools who are on the autism spectrum,” she explained, adding that the reasons for this are not fully known. “And on the autism spectrum, 40% of the individuals also have an intellectual disability, meaning their IQ is less than 71.

“And one of the things we’re doing at Sunshine Village is redefining and redesigning our services so that we’re able to meet the needs and support people on the autism spectrum who do not have intellectual disabilities,” she went on, “because that is a growing need in the community.”

Denise Simpkins and Bill Denard have been working at Westover Air Reserve Base for several years now through Sunshine Village’s employment-services arm.

Denise Simpkins and Bill Denard have been working at Westover Air Reserve Base for several years now through Sunshine Village’s employment-services arm.

It’s also an example of how the agency is constantly listening to the constituencies it serves when they’re asked about needs and concerns — and responding to what it hears.

These traits have certainly benefited the agency as it works toward that goal of being a provider of choice, said Kos, adding that the same is true when it comes to being an employer of choice.

Elaborating, she said the competition for talent in the nonprofit sector is considerable, and Sunshine Village looks to stand out in this regard by working hard to enable employees to shine as well as those they serve.

“We see our employees as our best asset, and we invest a lot of money in training, recognizing, and thanking them,” she said of her team of more than 250.

Shining Examples

Kos said the official 50th anniversary date for the agency was in April of this year, and in many respects it has been a year-long celebration.

There was a dinner for employees last spring, several outreach events, and a community celebration in September, called, appropriately enough, the ‘Great Days Gala,’ that was attended by more than 250 people.

But in most all ways, Sunshine Village has been celebrating 50 years by doing more of what it’s been doing for 50 years — enabling people with developmental disabilities to shine.

And as BusinessWest talked with some of the clients served by the agency, it became clear that there are many ways for that verb to manifest itself.

For Jonathon Scytkowski, a participant in the CBDS programs who came to Sunshine Village in 2015, there are several components to his great days. He works at the Trading Post, cleaning floors, taking out the recyclables, and other duties. Meanwhile, he also volunteers at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and other nonprofits, and takes visits to the libraries in Chicopee and South Hadley and area malls.

Add it all up, and he’s busy, active, and, most importantly, involved.

“I like volunteering — at the Food Bank I do a lot of volunteering putting food in boxes for those who need it,” he told BusinessWest, noting, like Recor did, that working is important on many levels, from making money to having a sense of purpose.

Those sentiments were echoed by Denise Simpkins and Bill Debord, who have both worked at Westover, through Sunshine Village, for several years.

In fact, for Debord, it’s been almost 30 years, long enough to see a number of personnel come and go, but also long enough to feel like he’s part of that important operation.

“I really like working there — you feel like you’re part of the family,” he said, adding that he knows people by name, and vice versa.

As for Simpkins, who has been doing it for 12 years, she likes the work, the pay, and especially the perks — like the special occasions where she gets to see the planes close up and take some pictures.

“It’s good to have a job because you get to pay you bills and manage your money,” she told BusinessWest.

Meanwhile, for Kori Cox, another participant in the CBDS program, shining, if you will, takes a different form.

Indeed, as part of initiative called Positive Behavior Supports (PBS), she said she has an important role she described this way. “I do a lot of stuff to try to prevent the Village from being negative.”

Elaborating, she said she made a sign that reads “Positive Attitude, Positive Life,” and she works to encourage others, inside and outside Sunshine Village, to not only read the sign, but live by those words. Specifically, she works diligently to prompt people to stop using the ‘R’ word.

“We remind people that’s not nice to use that word — ever,” she said, adding that her efforts in this regard dovetail nicely with her broader mission.

“I love positivity — it really helps life; there’s no negativity,” said Cox, 24, who described herself as an ambassador, advocate, and peer leader.

As for Recor, well, let’s just say he seems to embody the words on Cox’s sign.

A World of Difference

Sunshine Village still stages a golf tournament every year. In fact, it’s the agency’s most successful fund-raising effort.

Its new, permanent home is Chicopee Country Club — only a drive and a wedge away from the Litwin Drive campus — and Kos no longer drives the beer cart, obviously.

Her role has evolved and grown — as has the agency’s.

But the basic goals are still the same — to create great days and enable those with developmental disabilities to shine, however those words are defined.

Half a century later, Sunshine Village is delivering on those promises.

Just ask Lenny Recor. He’s the guy with a smile on his face — on a Monday morning no less.

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

Cover Story Sections Super 60

Saluting Success

super60logoA large technology company that has been a fixture in Western Mass. for decades and a craft-beer startup that has quickly shot from obscurity to a large cult following may boast very different histories, but they have one thing in common: they are the top honorees in this year’s Super 60 awards.

“The success of this year’s winners is a clear indication that our regional economy is strong and reflects the diverse nature of our industries,” said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, which is presenting the Super 60 honors for the 28th year. A celebration event honoring this year’s class will be held Friday, Oct. 27 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Chez Josef in Agawam.

Whalley Computer Associates Inc. of Southwick placed atop this year’s Total Revenue listing, followed by Marcotte Ford Sales Inc. of Holyoke and Commercial Distributing Co. Inc. of Westfield. In the Revenue Growth category, which recognizes the fastest-growing firms in the region, Tree House Brewing of Charlton tops the 2017 list, followed by Five Star Transportation Inc. of Southwick and LavishlyHip, LLC, an online outfit based in Feeding Hills.

“In just two short years of operation, Tree House Brewing, Inc., has moved straight to the top of the Revenue Growth category in its first year as a Super 60 winner,” she said.  “And LavishlyHip, an online retailer that garnered the top honors last year has returned in the top three this year.”

To be considered, companies must be based in Hampden or Hampshire counties or be a member of the Springfield Regional Chamber, have revenues of at least $1 million in the last fiscal year, be an independent and privately owned company, and be in business at least three full years. Companies are selected based on their percentage of revenue growth over a full three-year period or total revenues for the latest fiscal year.

Creed noted that this year’s winners hail from 17 communities across the region and represent all sectors of the economy, including nonprofits, transportation, energy, healthcare, technology, manufacturing, retail, and service. One-quarter of the Total Revenue winners exceeded $30 million in revenues. In the Revenue Growth category, one-quarter of the top 30 companies had growth in excess of 100%.

Four companies in the Total Revenue category also qualified for the Revenue Growth category, while 15 companies in the Revenue Growth category also qualified for the Total Revenue category, although each honoree is listed in only one category.

Tickets to the Oct. 27 event cost $60 for chamber members, $75 for general admission. Reservations may be made for tables of eight or 10. The deadline for reservations is Wednesday, Oct. 18. No cancellations will be accepted after that date, and no walk-ins will be allowed. Reservations must be made in writing, either online at www.springfieldregionalchamber.com or by e-mail to [email protected].

Total Revenue

1. Whalley Computer Associates Inc.
One Whalley Way, Southwick
(413) 569-4200
www.wca.com
John Whalley, president
WCA is a locally owned family business that has evolved from a hardware resale and service group in the ’70s and ’80s into a company that now focuses on lowering the total cost of technology and productivity enhancement for its customers. Boasting nearly 150 employees, Whalley carries name-brand computers as well as low-cost compatibles.

2. Marcotte Ford Sales Inc.
1025 Main St., Holyoke
(800) 923-9810
www.marcotteford.com
Bryan Marcotte, president
The dealership sells new Ford vehicles as well as pre-owned cars, trucks, and SUVs, and features a full service department. Marcotte has achieved the President’s Award, one of the most prestigious honors given to dealerships by Ford Motor Co., on multiple occasions over the past decade. It also operates the Marcotte Commercial Truck Center.

3. Commercial         Distributing Co. Inc.
46 South Broad St., Westfield
(413) 562-9691
www.commercialdist.com
Richard Placek, Chairman
Founded in 1935 by Joseph Placek, Commercial Distributing Co. is a family-owned, family-operated business servicing more than 1,000 bars, restaurants, and clubs, as well as more than 400 package and liquor stores. Now in its third generation, the company continues to grow by building brands and offering new products as the market changes.
A.G. Miller Co. Inc.
57 Batavia St., Springfield
(413) 732-9297
www.agmiller.com
Rick Miller, president
Early in its history, A.G. Miller made a name in automobile enameling. More than 100 years after its founding in 1914, the company now offers precision metal fabrication; design and engineering; assembly; forming, rolling, and bending; laser cutting; punching; precision saw cutting; welding; powder coating and liquid painting; and more.

Aegenco Inc.
55 Jackson St., Springfield
(413) 746-3242
www.aegisenergyservices.com
Spiro Vardakas, president
Aegenco, an energy-conservation consulting firm and the manufacturing arm of Aegis Energy Services, has grown steadily since its inception in 2005.

Aegis Energy Services Inc.
55 Jackson St., Holyoke
(800) 373-3411
www.aegischp.com
Lee Vardakas, owner
Founded in 1985, Aegis Energy Services is a turn-key, full-service provider of combined heat and power systems (CHPs) that generate heat and electricity using clean, efficient, natural-gas-powered engines. These modular CHP systems reduce a facility’s dependence on expensive utility power, reduce energy costs, and reduce one’s carbon footprint.

Baltazar Contractors Inc.
83 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 583-6160
www.baltazarcontractors.com
Frank Baltazar, president
Baltazar Contractors has been a family-owned and operated construction firm for more than 20 years, specializing in roadway construction and reconstruction in Massachusetts and Connecticut; all aspects of site-development work; sewer, water, storm, and utilities; and streetscape improvements.

Braman Pest
147 Almgren Dr., Agawam
(413) 732-9009
www.bramanpest.com
Gerald Lazarus, president
Braman has been serving New England since 1890, using state-of-the-art pest-elimination procedures for commercial and residential customers, and offering humane removal of birds, bats, and other nuisances through its wildlife division. The company has offices in Agawam, Worcester, and Lee, as well as Hartford and New Haven, Conn.

City Enterprises Inc.
38 Berkshire Ave., Springfield
(413) 726-9549
www.cityenterpriseinc.com
Wonderlyn Murphy, president
City Enterprises Inc. offers skilled general-contracting services to the New England region. Priding itself on custom design and construction of affordable, quality homes and the infrastructure surrounding them, the firm executes its mission in a way that supports community empowerment through job opportunities and professional development.

filli, lcc d/b/a con-test                                     analytical laboratory
39 Spruce St., East Longmeadow
(413) 525-2332
www.contestlabs.com
THOMAS VERATTI SR., FOUNDER
Established in 1984, Con-Test provides environmental consulting and testing services to clients throughout Western Mass. The laboratory-testing division originally focused on industrial hygiene analysis, but expanded to include techniques in air analysis, classical (wet) chemistry, metals, and organics, analyzing water, air, soil, and solid materials.

EG Partners, LLC d/b/a Oasis Shower Doors
646 Springfield St., Feeding Hills
(413) 786-8420
www.oasisshowerdoors.com
tom daly, President
Oasis Shower Doors, New England’s largest designer, fabricator, and installer of custom frameless glass shower enclosures and specialty glass, has rapidly expanded its operations in recent years, with showrooms located at Feeding Hills, Weymouth, and Peabody, Mass., as well as Avon, Conn.

Fuel Services Inc.
95 Main St., South Hadley
(413) 532-3500
www.fuelservices.biz
Steve Chase, President and CEO
Full-service home-comfort and energy-solutions firm offering heating oil and propane delivery; plumbing, air-conditioning, and natural-gas services; installation of heating, cooling, water, and indoor-air-quality equipment; and more. The company serves more than 30 communities in Western Mass. and provides 24-hour emergency service.

The Futures Health Group, LLC
136 William St., Springfield
(800) 218-9280
www.discoverfutures.com
Brian Edwards, CEO
Futures provides occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language therapy, special education, nursing, mental health, and other related services to schools and healthcare facilities across the U.S. Founded in 1998, it continues to be managed by expert practitioners in their fields.

The Gaudreau Group
1984 Boston Road, Wilbraham
(413) 543-3534
www.gaudreaugroup.com
Jules Gaudreau, president
A multi-line insurance and financial-service agency established in 1921, the Gaudreau Group helps clients respond to an ever-changing economic environment. The agency offers a broad range of insurance and financial products from basic life, home, and auto insurance to complex corporate services, employee benefits, and retirement plans.

Haluch Water Contracting Inc.
399 Fuller St, Ludlow
(413) 589-1254
Thomas Haluch, president
For more than 30 years, Haluch Water Contracting has served the region as a water-main construction and excavation contractor specializing in water, sewer, pipeline, communications, and power-line construction.

JET Industries Inc.
307 Silver St., Agawam
(413) 786-2010
www.jet.industries
Michael Turrini, president
Jet Industries Inc. is a leading design build electrical, mechanical, communications and fire sprinkler contractor. What began as a small, family-run oil company founded by Aaron Zeeb in 1977 has grown into one of the nation’s largest companies of its type with over 500 employees servicing projects all across the country.

Kittredge Equipment Co. Inc.
100 Bowles Road, Agawam
(413) 304-4100
www.kittredgeequipment.com
Wendy Webber, president
Founded in 1921, Kittredge Equipment Co.is one of the nation’s leading food-service equipment and supply businesses. It boasts 70,000 square feet of showroom in three locations. The company also handles design services, and has designed everything from small restaurants to country clubs to in-plant cafeterias.

Lancer Transportation & Logistics and Sulco Warehousing & Logistics
311 Industry Ave., Springfield
(413) 739-4880
www.sulco-lancer.com
Todd Goodrich, president
In business since 1979, Sulco Warehousing & Logistics specializes in public, contract, and dedicated warehousing. Lancer Transportation & Logistics is a licensed third-party freight-brokerage company that provides full-service transportation-brokerage services throughout North America.

Louis and Clark Drug Inc.
309 East St., Springfield
(413) 737-7456
www.lcdrug.com
Skip Matthews, president
Since 1965, Louis & Clark has been a recognized name in Western Mass., first as a pharmacy and later as a resource for people who need home medical equipment and supplies. Today, the company provides professional pharmacy and compounding services, medical equipment, independent-living services, and healthcare programs.

Maybury Associates Inc.
90 Denslow Road, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-4216
www.maybury.com
John Maybury, president
Since 1976, Maybury Associates Inc. has been designing, supplying, and servicing all types of material-handling equipment throughout New England. Maybury provides customers in a wide range of industries with solutions to move, lift, and store their parts and products.

Notch Mechanical Constructors
85 Lemay St., Chicopee
(413) 534-3440
www.notch.com
Steven Neveu, president
A family-owned business since 1972, Notch Mechanical Constructors provides piping installation and repair services to facilities throughout southern New England. Its team has the capacity to address process and utility piping challenges at any business within 100 miles of its locations in Chicopee and Hudson, Mass.

O’Connell Care at Home
One Federal St., Bldg. 103-1, Springfield
(413) 533-1030
www.opns.com
Francis O’Connell, president
For more than two decades, O’Connell Care at Home, formerly O’Connell Professional Nurse Service, has grown to deliver a range of home-health and staffing services across the Pioneer Valley. Services range from nursing care and geriatric healthcare management to advocacy and transportation.

PC Enterprises Inc. d/b/a Entre Computer
138 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
(413) 736-2112
www.pc-enterprises.com
Norman Fiedler, CEO
PC Enterprises, d/b/a Entre Computer, assists organizations with procuring, installing, troubleshooting, servicing, and maximizing the value of technology. In business since 1983, it continues to evolve and grow as a lead provider for many businesses, healthcare providers, retailers, and state, local, and education entities.

Rediker Software Inc.
2 Wilbraham Road, Hampden
(800) 213-9860
www.rediker.com
Andrew Anderlonis, president
Rediker software is used by school administrators across the U.S. and in more than 100 countries, and is designed to meet the student-information-management needs of all types of schools and districts. For example, 100,000 teachers use the TeacherPlus web gradebook, and the ParentPlus and StudentPlus web portals boast 2 million users.

Specialty Bolt & Screw Inc.
235 Bowles Road, Agawam
(413) 789-6700
www.specialtybolt.com
Kevin Queenin, president
Founded in 1977, Specialty Bolt & Screw (SBS) is a full-service solutions provider of fasteners, vendor-managed inventory (VMI) programs, and C-class commodities. Based in Agawam, it has locations in Valcourt, Quebec; Juarez, Mexico; Queretaro, Mexico; Rovaniemi, Finland; and Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Troy Industries Inc.
151 Capital Dr., West Springfield
(413) 788-4288
www.troyind.com
Steve Troy, CEO
Troy Industries was founded on the principle of making reliable, innovative, over-engineered products that function without question when lives are on the line. Troy is a leading U.S. government contractor that designs and manufactures innovative, top-quality small-arms components and accessories and complete weapon upgrades.

United Personnel Services Inc.
1331 Main St., Springfield
(413) 736-0800
www.unitedpersonnel.com
Patricia Canavan, president
United provides a full range of staffing services, including temporary staffing and full-time placement, on-site project management, and strategic recruitment in the Springfield, Hartford, and Northampton areas, specializing in administrative, professional, medical, and light-industrial staff.

W.F. Young Inc.
302 Benton Dr., East Longmeadow
(800) 628-9653
www.absorbine.com
Tyler Young, CEO
This family-run business prides itself on offering a variety of high-quality products that can effectively improve the well-being of both people and horses with its Absorbine brands.

Webber & Grinnell Insurance Agency Inc.
8 North King St., #1, Northampton
(413) 586-0111
www.webberandgrinnell.com
Bill Grinnell, president
Webber and Grinnell’s roots can be traced back to 1849, when A.W. Thayer opened an insurance agency on Pleasant Street in Northampton. The agency, which offers automotive, business, homeowners, employee benefit, and other types of products, serves more than 5,000 households and 900 businesses throughout Western Mass.

WestMass ElderCare Inc.
4 Valley Mill Road, Holyoke
(413) 538-9020
www.wmeldercare.org
Priscilla Chalmers, Executive Director
WestMass ElderCare is a private, nonprofit agency with a mission to preserve the dignity, independence, and quality of life of elders and disabled persons desiring to remain within their own community. Programs include supportive housing, home care, options counseling, adult family care, nutrition programs, and adult foster care.

Revenue Growth

1. Tree House Brewing Company Inc.
129 Sturbridge Road, Charlton
(413) 523-2367
www.treehousebrew.com
Nate Lanier, Damien Goudreau, Dean Rohan, Owners
The opening of a 45,000-square-foot facility in Charlton speaks to the recent growth of this brewery. Tree House was founded in Monson 2011, but in 2015 counted just one employee and 55 barrels of cellar space. The new facility can accommodate 50,000 barrels of cellar space, which will enable the brewery to produce up to 125,000 barrels a year.

2. Five Star Transportation Inc.
809 College Highway, Southwick
(413) 789-4789
www.firestarbus.com
Nathan Lecrenski, president
Five Star provides school-bus transportation services to school districts and charter schools throughout Western Mass. From its launch a half-century ago with a single bus route, the company currently services more than 12 school districts and operates a fleet of more than 175 vehicles.

3. Lavishlyhip, LLC
Feeding Hills
www.lavishlyhip.com
Rika Woyan, owner
This online retailer of jewelry and accessories offers accessory collections from the latest top designers. By meeting with the designers in their showrooms and at industry events, it stays on top of what is trending. Shoppers will find hip and classic jewelry for women and men, cashmere, silk and blend scarves, and hair accessories.

Adam Quenneville Roofing and Siding Inc.
160 Old Lyman Road, South Hadley
(413) 525-0025
www.1800newroof.net
Adam Quenneville, CEO
Adam Quenneville offers a wide range of residential and commercial services, including new roofs, retrofitting, roof repair, roof cleaning, vinyl siding, replacement windows, and the no-clog Gutter Shutter system. The company has earned the BBB Torch Award for trust, performance, and integrity.

Alliance Home Improvement Inc.
375 Chicopee St., Chicopee
(413) 331-4357
www.alliancehomeinc.com
sergiy suprunchuk, president
Alliance is a professional local contractor providing quality and reliable residential services. Its products are Energy Star certified, and most of them have lifetime warranty provided by the manufacturer. Services include siding, windows, doors, roofs, gutters, faux stone siding, and custom-built homes.

Baystate Blasting Inc.
36 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 583-4440
www.baystateblasting.com
Paul Baltazar, president
Baystate Blasting, Inc. is a local family owned and operated drilling and blasting firm located in Ludlow, Massachusetts that began in 2003.   Sitework, heavy highway construction, residential, quarry, portable crushing and recycling, ATF licensed dealer of explosives as well as rental of individual magazines.

Center Square Grill
84 Center Square, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-0055
www.centersquaregrill.com
Michael Sakey, Bill Collins, Proprietors
Center Square Grill serves up eclectic American fare for lunch and dinner, as well as an extensive wine and cocktail selection and a kids’ menu. The facility also has a catering service and hosts events of all kinds.

Charter Oak Insurance &                        Financial Services Co.
330 Whitney Ave., Holyoke
(413) 374-5430
www.charteroakfinancial.com
Peter Novak, General Agent
A member of the MassMutual Financial Group, Charter Oak been servicing clients for more than 125 years. The team of professionals serves individuals, families, and businesses with risk-management products, business planning and protection, retirement planning and investment services, and fee-based financial planning.

Chicopee Industrial Contractors Inc.
107 North Chicopee St., Chicopee
(413) 538-7279
www.chicopeeindustrial.com
Carol Campbell, president
Founded in 1992, Chicopee Industrial Contractors is an industrial contracting firm specializing in all types of rigging, heavy lifting, machinery moving, machine installation, millwrighting, machine repair, heavy hauling, plant relocations, concrete pads, foundations, and structural steel installations.

Community Transportation Services
288 Verge St., Springfield
(413) 732-1500
Houshang Ansari, president
Community transportation is a locally owned medical, elderly, and VIP transportation service founded in 1991. Its goal is to provide the community with safe and affordable transportation services. It is especially committed to meeting the transportation needs of senior citizens and the physically and mentally challenged.

Courier Express Inc.
20 Oakdale St., Springfield
(413) 730-6620
www.courierexp.com
Eric Devine, president
Courier Express is committed to providing custom, same-day delivery solutions for any shipment. Its focal point is New England, but its reach is nationwide. The company strives to utilize the latest technologies, on-time delivery, customer service, and attention to detail to separate itself from its competitors.

Court Square Group Inc.
1350 Main St., Springfield
(413) 731-5294
www.courtsquaregroup.com
Keith Parent, president
Court Square is a technical strategic advisor to the life-science and biotech industries. Consulting services include business analysis and consulting, information security and disaster recovery, SharePoint and document management, long-term archiving, project management, and much more.
FIT Staffing Inc.
25 Bremen St., Springfield
(413) 363-0204
www.fitstaffingsolutions.com
Jackie Fallon, president
FIT Staffing, founded in 2005, provides a personal approach to connecting companies to the right IT professionals. FIT takes the time to meet the hiring manager to determine the exact qualifications, skills, and personality traits for the client’s ideal candidates. Meanwhile, FIT’s extensive listing of local IT openings is continuously updated.

Fletcher Sewer & Drain Inc.
824A Perimeter Road, Ludlow
(413) 547-8180
www.fletcherseweranddrain.com
Teri Marinello, president
Since 1985, Fletcher Sewer & Drain has provided service to homeowners as well as municipalities and construction companies for large pipeline jobs. From unblocking kitchen sinks to replacing sewer lines, Fletcher keeps up to date with all the latest technology, from high-pressure sewer jetters to the newest camera-inspection equipment.

Gleason Johndrow Landscaping Inc.
44 Rose St., Springfield
(413) 727-8820
www.gleasonjohndrowlandscaping.com
Anthony Gleason II, David Johndrow, Owners
Gleason Johndrow Landscape & Snow Management offers a wide range of commercial and residential services, including lawn mowing, snow removal, salting options, fertilization programs, landscape installations, bark-mulch application, creative plantings, seeding options, pruning, irrigation installation, maintenance, and much more.

Kelley & Katzer Real Estate, LLC
632 Westfield St., West Springfield
(413) 209-9933
www.kelleyandkatzerrealestate.com
Joe Kelley, Christine Katzer, Co-owners
Kelley & Katzer combines more than 40 years of real-estate experience with a modern approach. It is involved every step of the way of the real-estate process, guiding clients with a hands-on approach and knowledge of the real-estate market, blended with a genuine understanding of clients’ needs.

Knight Machine & Tool Company Inc.
11 Industrial Dr., South Hadley
(413) 532-2507
Gary O’Brien, owner
Knight Machine & Tool Co. is a metalworking and welding company that offers blacksmithing, metal roofing, and other services from its 11,000-square-foot facility.

Market Mentors, LLC
30 Capital Dr., Suite C, West Springfield
(413) 787-1133
www.marketmentors.com
Michelle Abdow, principal
A full-service marketing firm, Market Mentors handles all forms of marketing, including advertising in all mediums, media buying, graphic design, public relations, and event planning.

Martinelli, Martini & Gallagher Real Estate Inc.
1763 Northampton St., Holyoke
(413) 736-7232
www.buywesternmass.com
Paul Gallagher, president
Gallagher Real Estate boasts four locations in Holyoke, Agawam, South Hadley, and Springfield, offering commercial and residential sales and leasing services, as well as a real estate school and a separate division devoted to handling property-management needs.

North Atlantic Trucking Inc.
100 Progress Ave., Springfield
(413) 455-3981
www.northatlantictrucking.com
James Vieu, Director of Fleet Services & Financials
North Atlantic Trucking began by hauling a variety of products, including paper, plastic, metal, and more. The company is rapidly growing with a current fleet of 15 vehicles providing transportation services for miscellaneous products throughout the U.S.

Northeast IT Systems Inc.
777 Riverdale St., West Springfield
(413) 736-6348
www.northeastit.net
Joel Mollison, president
Northeast is a full-service IT company providing business services, managed IT services, backup and disaster recovery, and cloud services, as well as a full-service repair shop for residential customers, including file recovery, laptop screen replacement, PC setups and tuneups, printer installation, virus protection and removal, and wireless installation.

Paragus Strategic IT
112 Russell St., Hadley
(413) 587-2666
www.paragusit.com
Delcie Bean IV, president
While still in high school, Delcie Bean founded Paragus IT in 1999, first under the name Vertical Horizons and then Valley ComputerWorks. Under the Paragus name, it has grown dramatically as an outsourced IT solution, providing business computer service, computer consulting, information-technology support, and other services to businesses of all sizes.

Rock Valley Tool, LLC
54 O’Neil St., Easthampton
(413) 527-2350
www.rockvalleytool.com
Elizabeth Paquette, president
Rock Valley Tool is a 17,000-square-foot facility housing a variety of both CNC and conventional machining equipment, along with a state-of-the-art inspection lab. With more than 40 years of experience, the company provides manufactured parts to customers in the aerospace, commercial/industrial, and plastic blow-molding industries.

Rodrigues Inc.
782 Center St., Ludlow
(413) 547-6443
Antonio Rodrigues, president
Rodrigues Inc. operates Europa Restaurant in Ludlow, specializing in Mediterranean cuisine with an interactive dining experience, presenting meals cooked on volcanic rocks at tableside. Europa also offers full-service catering and banquet space.

Royal, P.C.
270 Pleasant St., Northampton
(413) 586-2288
www.theroyallawfirm.com
Amy Royal, owner
Royal, P.C. is a woman-owned law firm that exclusively represents and counsels businesses on all aspects of labor and employment law. It represents a wide range of businesses throughout the New England states and nationally, and is an approved panel counsel for insurance companies that provide employment-practices liability insurance to employers.

Safe & Sound Inc.
428 East St., Chicopee
(413) 594-6460
www.safeandsoundhq.com
Michael Laventure, owner
Since 1983, Safe and Sound Inc., a family-owned company, has been providing customers with a wide selection of quality components such as home theater speakers, audio/video receivers, amplifiers, subwoofers, as well as car audio, remote starters, and security.

Taplin Yard, Pump & Power
120 Interstate Dr., West Springfield
(413) 781-4352
www.fctaplin.com
Martin Jagodowski, president
Taplin has been servicing the local area since 1892, and is an authorized dealer for parts, equipment, service, and accessories for a wide range of brands. It boasts a large inventory of zero-turn mowers, commercial lawn equipment, lawnmowers, lawn tractors, trimmers, blowers, generators, pressure washers, pole saws, sprayers, chainsaws, and more.

Valley Home Improvement Inc.
340 Riverside Dr.,
Florence
(413) 517-0158
www.valleyhomeimprovement.com
Steven Silverman, owner
Valley Home Improvement has specialized in home improvement, renovations, and remodeling service since 1991. Home-improvement and remodeling services include kitchen design, bathrooms, additions, sunrooms, screen porches, basement finishing, weatherization/insulation services, garages, and custom cabinetry and countertops.
VertitechIT
4 Open Square Way, #310, Holyoke
(413) 268-1600
www.vertitechit.com
Michael Feld, CEO
Calling itself a group of advisors, confidantes, strategists, and innovators for hire, Vertitech has, in its own words, created a new path to IT transformation, aiming not just to solve technical problems, but to develop the strategic solutions that make an organization or healthcare institution thrive.

Western Mass  Demolition Corp.
50 Summit Lock Road, Westfield
(413) 579-5254
www.wmdemocorp.com
Dale Unsderfer, president
Western Mass Demolition Corp. has a wide range of services to meet clients’ demolition and recycling needs, including complete structure removal, selective works, emergency and fire on call, lowboy and equipment hauling, building separation, abatement and remediation, concrete cutting and breaking, oil-tank removal, recycling, reuse, and salvage.

Cover Story

Mission Control

Mark Fulco

Mark Fulco

Roughly 21 months ago, Mark Fulco left Mercy Medical Center for a position with the hospital’s parent company, Trinity Health, one that would groom him for a leadership role somewhere within the vast Trinity system. As it turned out, somewhere became Mercy Medical Center.

Mark Fulco called it the “president track.”

Formally, he was carrying out a role within the Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health system, specifically that of ‘vice president, Health Ministries & System Office Communications Interface.’ While doing that, though, he was learning and essentially being groomed for a leadership position in one of the system’s many hospitals and medical centers.

“The idea behind this role was to bring in what they considered a high-potential executive for advancement to come here, work for the system office, learn some new things about how the system worked, and help set the operating model and the agenda for some of what the organization was going to do moving forward,” he explained, “and then return back to the regional help ministries at a level higher than they left the field at.”

He called it providential — a word he chose very carefully because of the significant meaning it carries — that the later stages of his 18- to 24-month tenure on this president track coincided with a presidential search at his former place of employment, Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, part of the Sisters of Providence Health System.

He became a candidate and prevailed in what became a nationwide search. Thus, he’s essentially coming home, as he put it, to a hospital and a system with a somewhat unique mission, one he came to fully appreciate during his tenure there, which included work in everything from fund development to marketing; new-business development to operations of the accountable-care organization and clinically integrated network.

Fulco said the Mercy presidency was essentially the first job at that level that he applied for, and it’s one he sought enthusiastically, because of what he experienced there and was part of.

Mercy Medical Center

Mark Fulco says one of the items at the top of his to-do list is to make Mercy Medical Center’s high-quality care far less of a best-kept secret.

“In this role [at Trinity], I’ve had the opportunity to see how healthcare is delivered across the country,” he told  BusinessWest. “And from that, I can say that the people of Western Mass. are really lucky to have such a talented and caring team at Mercy. And this is what really called me back to Springfield.

“It’s a great community,” he went on, referring to the Greater Springfield area. “But the real driving factor for me was the Mercy team; I’ve seen 94 or 95 different hospitals in our system, and I’ve met great caregivers from across the country, but Mercy has among the best I’ve seen, and the legacy of the Sisters of Providence … that’s a calling, it’s an honor, and it’s also a big responsibility to carry on that healing legacy.”

Fulco returns to Mercy at what he acknowledged was an ultra-challenging — and uncertain — time for the hospital, the system, and seemingly every healthcare provider in the country, with the uncertainty coming in many forms but especially the unknown fate of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

Fulco said all providers are operating in an environment where reimbursements from most payers, and especially Medicare and Medicaid, do not fully cover the cost of providing care. This is not a recent phenomenon, but the situation has grown steadily more precarious in recent years.

In response, systems and individual providers must become ever-more efficient, he said, and, in a word, they must innovate.

To do to that effectively, he said he intends to take full advantage of the know-how, resources, and, yes, buying power of the Trinity Health system and its New England region. As an example, he cited a project that is in some respects already underway — conversion to a new electric medical record (EMR) system known as EPIC.

“This is something Mercy would not be able to do on its own,” he said of the EMR conversion. “If we weren’t able to rely on our colleagues in the region, this is something we couldn’t afford to do, and that’s just one example of taking full advantage of our regional resources.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Fulco just days before his formal return to Springfield about his new role and that big responsibility he accepted to carry on the work of the Sisters of Providence.

Back to the Future

It’s not listed on his résumé, but Fulco still considers it one of his more important career stops.

He was referring to his time as an advanced-life-support EMT roughly 30 years ago, while he was in graduate school.

“That was my first job in healthcare,” he recalled, adding that, like all those that followed and especially his most recent assignment in Michigan, it was quite a learning experience. “That time as an EMT gave me some unique experience as a caregiver, and it gave me an appreciation for the clinical side of healthcare and incredible respect for physicians and nurses and the work they do.”

Mark Fulco, seen here with team members at Mercy Medical Center

Mark Fulco, seen here with team members at Mercy Medical Center, says that, in this challenging time, Mercy, and all healthcare providers, must be focused on innovation.

Over the next three decades, Fulco would move off the front lines in healthcare and take a series of management positions, with each one bringing new and different responsibilities.

After a stint as president of Masonic Management Services Corp. in Wallingford, Conn., a nonprofit affiliate of Masonicare, he became senior vice president of Cardium Health Services in Simsbury, Conn. From there, he took the role of vice president of Strategic Marketing and Business Development at Saint Francis Care in Hartford, another member of the Trinity Health system.

In 2005, he took the position of ‘chief transformation officer’ for the Sisters of Providence Health System. This was a broad role with a host of responsibilities that included strategy formation, accountable-care organization and clinically integrated network operations, and business-development activities, including marketing, communications, and fund development.

And as transformation officer, he helped oversee a good deal of, well, transformation in many areas, including formation and operation of an accountablecare organization, one of many areas where Mercy was out front and in many ways ahead of other providers within the Trinity Health system.

It was roughly 21 months ago that he joined Trinity Health in that aforementioned ‘interface’ role, and he described his time in Michigan as invaluable when it comes to meeting the challenges he will face as he leads Mercy Medical Center.

But as much as he enjoyed working behind the scenes, if you will, he was anxious to get back to a hospital setting.

“Healthcare is not necessarily delivered in the boardroom,” he told  BusinessWest. “Here in Michigan, I have an opportunity to see how the large healthcare system boardroom works, and how the large healthcare system team works in support of what’s delivered at the local level. But care is delivered at the bedside, and while this work here at the system office was exciting and invigorating, and it was wonderful to work with some of the best and brightest in healthcare, the hospital is where hope and healing occurs, and I wanted to be part of that again.”

He said he will bring to that role a management style grounded in the fundamentals of servant leadership, something he says comes to him naturally, because it has been his style throughout his career. And it’s also something that fits nicely with the missions of SPHS and Trinity.

“It dovetails with being a people-centered healthcare organization,” he explained. “And a lot of this was my upbringing — my father was a career public servant, and I was taught to be of service to others. It’s ingrained in me; it’s part of my DNA.”

Bringing it Home

As he talked some more about what made a return to Mercy so attractive to him, Fulco got his message across by relating the reactions he got from others when he would talk about the system.

“People here [in Michigan] are impressed when they hear about what the sisters have done, how they’ve served that community, and what that legacy is,” he explained. “But it’s interesting … they also tell me that me that, when I talked about the Sisters of Providence Health System and Mercy Medical Center, I had a twinkle in my eye that told them there was something special there. And I told them that you couldn’t help but have that if you spent any amount of time within that organization.”

mercy-exterior-front

Fulco will now get to spend considerably more time within that system, and he is already compiling a to-do list of sorts, or what he called a game plan for his first 100 days, one that came together through input gathered during the interviewing process, discussions with Interim President Beth O’Brien, and his decade of experience in the system.

And at or near the top of that list is doing a better job of telling Mercy’s story, he told BusinessWest.

“When I look at the challenges at Mercy, I think the care provided there is one of the best-kept secrets in Western Massachusetts,” he explained, adding that no business or organization, especially a hospital, needs or wants that particular quality, if that’s what a best-kept secret is.

“It’s been the organization’s culture to serve and be humble — that’s how the sisters taught us to be,” he went on. “But I think the community needs a better understanding of the physicians, the nurses, and the comprehensive services that are provided at Mercy and through the Mercy network.”

As he goes about working with those providers to better communicate Mercy’s services and mission, Fulco said he will put a heightened focus system-wide on the need to innovate, especially amid reimbursements that do not cover the full costs of providing care.

“Anyone who manages a household budget knows that you can’t spend more than you earn,” said Fulco. “So Mercy and Trinity Health New England are continuing to innovate with some of these approaches to deliver the absolute best and highest-quality care, but also deliver that care at the highest possible efficiency.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “But no matter where it goes, we’ll need to continue providing the very best care we can for people, and it needs to be done in a more efficient way at a lower cost year over year.”

There will be several initiatives in this broad realm, and some are already underway, he said, putting the EMR project in this category.

Improved EMR makes a system more efficient, he explained, because it allows for improved communication between providers across the region, giving physicians and nurses immediate access to information, an ability that often eliminates redundancies and mistakes in treatment, thus enabling Mercy, and the healthcare system as a whole, to reduce costs.

“When a test is done, other specialists don’t necessarily have to redo that test, so we’re able to save the system and, ultimately, all of us, as the payers for care, quite a bit of money,” he explained. “If a lab test is done, another physician isn’t redoing that lab test; when an X-ray is done or an MRI, you don’t necessarily have to redo that.”

Putting in the new EMR system is a massive undertaking with a lot of moving parts, said Fulco, adding that such enhancements have been undertaken at several facilities under the Trinity umbrella, and he intends to take full advantage of this accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.

“We have a great team on the ground both at Hartford that has had experience implementing these systems, and the incredible team at Mercy that will help with the heavy lifting done,” he said. “It will be a process, and a big process, for us to undertake, but we’ll do that and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

“One of the best things about being part of a system like this is that we’ve done this several times before,” he went on. “And with each one, you do you learn some things; we can now avoid the bumps in the road that others have encountered.”

Mission: Statement ‘Providential.’

That adjective, which Webster defines, variously, as ‘destined,’ ‘divine,’ and even ‘preordained,’ certainly works when Mark Fulco talks about coming home and all that goes with that territory.

He told BusinessWest that carrying on the work of the Sisters of Providence is an honor, but also a very big responsibility. It is all of that and more.

But it’s an assignment he’s looking forward to — as much as he is having still more people recognize that twinkle in his eye when he talks about not just where he works, but where he carries out the sisters’ mission.

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

Cover Story Manufacturing Sections

A New Spin

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds stands by the Truvis V machine with one of the products of the same name.

Over the past century or so, golf balls — and golf-ball history — have been made in Chicopee. Indeed, the sprawling plant on Meadow Street that once bore the name ‘Spalding’ and now ‘Callaway’ has been home to a number of innovations and new products. In recent years, though, that tradition — not to mention the number of workers at the plant — has been in decline. However, a new and exciting golf-ball design is changing the landscape, in all kinds of ways.

They’re calling it the Truvis V.

That’s the name given to a large, sophisticated piece of machinery recently installed at the sprawling Callaway plant in Chicopee. It was built to carefully place the 12 pentagons that have become the distinctive design pattern for the Truvis golf ball, as well as the Callaway name and the player number, all in accordance with USGA rules and regulations.

This machine is cutting-edge when it comes to such work, said Vince Simonds, senior director of Global Golf Ball Operations for Callaway, adding that it packs as much symbolism as it does science and technology.

Indeed, the Truvis V is perhaps the most visible evidence — except for perhaps the soccer-ball-like product the company has developed — of a compelling turnaround in the history of golf-ball manufacturing in Chicopee.

It’s a long history, to be sure, one that dates back to the late 1800s, but recent chapters have certainly not been as glorious. Decades ago, the talk about this plant was mostly reserved to the tens of millions of golf balls produced there annually. Lately, though, it’s been about the dwindling numbers of men and women working inside; decades ago, more than 1,000 people were employed at the plant, and only a few years ago that number dipped below the century mark.

It’s now at or near 200 and steadily climbing, and there were essentially two catalysts for that growth. The first was the arrival of Chip Brewer as the company’s president and CEO in 2012, a move that energized Callaway in many ways, Simonds noted. The second was the development of the Chrome Soft golf ball, or the “ball that changed the ball,” as the company says in its marketing materials.

This became the ball that essentially changed the fortunes of the Chicopee plant as well, Simonds went on, adding that the product has helped Callaway become the number-two ballmaker in the world (well behind the leader, Titleist), and it has also spurred those growing employment numbers in Chicopee.

The ‘Made in Chicopee’ banner at the Callaway plant

The ‘Made in Chicopee’ banner at the Callaway plant has new meaning these days.

And the Truvis model of the Chrome Soft is a very big part of this improved and still-changing picture.

It is still relatively new — it’s been on the market for a few years now — and no one on the PGA Tour is using it yet (more on that later), although Tom Watson is using it on the Champions Tour for players over age 50. But it is certainly catching on among amateurs.

As the name implies, the ball’s claim to fame is that is it is easier to see and enables players to focus better. The product has won some supporters among older players, said Dan Gomez, director of Golf Ball Supply Chain at the Chicopee operation, and among the younger clientele as well, who see is as a break from golf’s staid (some would say stuffy) image.

“It’s something new and different, and some would argue that’s just what’s needed in golf right now,” said Simonds.

The response has been so good that Callaway is having a hard time keeping up with demand. In fact, it isn’t keeping up.

“We’re capacity-constrained right now,”Gomez said with a laugh. “We’ve been sold out on this product for two years; everything we make goes right out — we can’t make enough of them.”

This development explains the Truvis V, but also the fact that space has cleared on the production floor for several more of these machines, and the company plans to add 30 to 40 more workers to operate them.

Indeed, Callaway is quite convinced that the strong interest in the Truvis ball does not represent a fad, like colored golf balls were when first introduced 40 years ago, but rather a business it can build on for years to come. And it is investing heavily in new equipment and plant reconfiguration.

It is also taking very necessary steps to ensure that it will have workers to staff those machines in the years to come. Like all manufacturers, Callaway is having a difficult time finding qualified help, and it is forging (that’s an industry term) relationships with area technical schools to help create a better pipeline.

Part of this relationship building involves tours — officials at Springfield Technical Community College recently visited, for example — designed to impress upon schools and the young people they educate that golf-ball making is alive and well in Chicopee.

And that’s something that really couldn’t have been said just a few years ago.

Round Numbers

Speaking of history, there is quite a bit of it on display, literally, in a row of cases in the hallway leading from the executive offices to the main production floor at the Callaway plant.

There’s more than two centuries of golf-ball technology and product developments behind the glass, including a reproduction of a ‘feathery,’ an 18th-century product that, as the name might suggest, was essentially leather-covered feathers. There’s also some gutta percha balls, or ‘gutties,’ as they were called — products used in the 1800s that were made from dried gum resin from guttiferous trees — as well as dozens of balls from the 20th and 21st centuries with the Spalding name on them, as well as those of several subsidiaries acquired over the years.

There’s even a ball that commemorates the historic moon shot, or moon golf shot, taken by Alan Shepard during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. (Simonds said there is some ambiguity as to just which brand of ball Shepard used for his famous lunar 6-iron, but he signed a promotional deal with Spalding soon after his return from that mission.)

Dan Gomez, left, and Vince Simonds show off some of the Chrome Soft products that have changed the dynamic at the Chicopee plant.

Dan Gomez, left, and Vince Simonds show off some of the Chrome Soft products that have changed the dynamic at the Chicopee plant.

Further down the hall, there is another display case. Its top rows are currently populated with a number of variations on the Truvis theme — meaning a host of color schemes and a few speciality balls, such as one produced for Australian pro Mark Leishman that has the shape of Australia printed inside the pentagons.

There are rows of empty racks waiting to be filled, as well as the confidence that they will be — something that probably didn’t exist just a few years ago.

Indeed, as he talked about Callaway’s acquisition of Spalding’s assets, including the Chicopee plant, in 2003, Simonds said the ensuing years were certainly not what the leaders at that company hoped they would be.

The company’s consistently sluggish performance in the golf-ball business was coupled with the fact that it was overcapitalized — actually, way overcapitalized — especially with regard to the sprawling Chicopee plant, which was much too big for the company’s needs.

Out of necessity, Callaway downsized and rightsized, said Simonds, adding that it sold the Chicopee plant and is currently leasing back roughly 275,000 square feet, maybe one-quarter the footprint of the original facility.

The rightsizing coincided with Brewer’s arrival as president and CEO of the company and the introduction of new products, especially the Chrome Soft, which is essentially technology that enables lower-compression golf balls to perform as well as higher-compression balls years ago.

These developments led to a dramatic increase in market share — from just over 7% in 2013 to more than 14% at present — which has in turn fueled investments in new product development, and especially the Truvis.

Today, the company is making 200,000 to 250,000 balls a day, and the workforce has steadily grown over the past few years to roughly the 200 mark, about a 50% increase, with more hiring planned, primarily in response to the strong early performance of the Truvis.

“It’s been a phenomenal success,” said Simonds, adding quickly that the company has taken steps, patent-wise (from both a manufacturing and design standpoint), in efforts to protect itself from competitors developing something similar, something he believes they’ll try to do.

At present, there are black pentagons on yellow (popular with fans of the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Steelers) and red-on-white options in this country, and a blue-on-white model sold in Japan, he went on, adding that there have been a number of custom orders as well, including green on white for Dick’s Sporting Goods, white on pink for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Mother’s Day, and red maple leaves to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Canada.

The response has been so strong — those balls shipped to Canada sold out quickly — that Callaway has mapped out an ambitious, three-year capital expansion plan to produce the balls.

The Truvis V, as noted, is merely the first of many that will be installed at the Chicopee plant.

And this is very specialized, and expensive, equipment.

“This is an involved process,” Simonds explained. “When you think about stamping such a large design on a spherical object … you have to distort the artwork so that it doesn’t look distorted on the ball. And we’ve developed some techniques to purposefully and mathematically distort the artwork so that, when it’s placed on the ball, it looks normal.”

Another challenge will be finding qualified individuals to operate these machines, he said, adding that this is why the company is reaching out to STCC and the technical high schools in the area, with the goal of establishing relationships and putting Callaway back on the radar screen for young people looking for career opportunities.

In the meantime, Callaway officials look forward to the day — and they predict it will come — when a PGA tour regular starts playing the Truvis, a development that would give the ball a huge boost in terms of both exposure and credibility.

“Most of the tour pros have them, and they use them for chipping and practicing,” Simonds explained. “But most PGA tour pros are too traditionalist to put those in play. But I think it will happen someday.”

Growth Patterns

There’s another item of interest on the shop floor to the administrative offices at the Callaway plant.

It’s a large banner hanging from a utility duct that features images of the Chrome Soft ball, with the Truvis product well-represented. Above those images, in large white letters, are the words ‘Made in Chicopee, MA.’

Such banners and such words have been seen at the plant for decades, obviously, but today, there is more meaning behind them, more optimism, and more promise, if you will.

A plant that has made a good deal of golf balls — and a great deal of golf-ball history — is entering a new era in which it will produce more of both.

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

Autos Cover Story Sections

Awaiting the ‘Autohaus’

Michelle and Peter Wirth

Michelle and Peter Wirth

Michelle Wirth started her career with Mercedes-Benz as a mechanical engineer. Early on, after only a few visits to Stuttgart, Germany, where the cars are designed and manufactured, she learned that the company doesn’t build to industry standards — it creates an environment where engineers can design to their own, higher standards. These are lessons she and her husband, Peter, apply to their life and how they do business, especially with their new venture, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, set to open next month.

Peter Wirth doesn’t know exactly how long it’s been since Mercedes Benz has had a presence in Western Mass. with a dealership.

He does know that it’s been … well, long enough.

As in, long enough that he knows he and his wife, Michelle, and fellow partner Rich Hesse have a lot of work to do in many different realms as they prepare to open Mercedes-Benz of Springfield on the site of the old Plantation Inn across from Mass. Turnpike exit 6 in Chicopee.

For starters, the partners in this nearly $12 million enterprise have to let people know that Mercedes is, indeed, back in the 413 more than a decade after a small dealership on Riverdale Street, this region’s auto mile, if you will, closed its doors, leaving area consumers to travel to Hartford or just east of Worcester to do business.

And they intend to get that job done in a number of ways, from intensive, targeted marketing to a grand-opening celebration (date to be determined), to some work within the community even before the doors open, to show that they are not just here to sell cars (more on that later).

But there is other work to do, and most of it falls in the category of showing just how much Mercedes-Benz — the company, the cars, and the brand — have all changed since the last time someone had the opportunity to buy or lease a new one in Western Mass.

“What I recognized is that we have to — and we love to — reacquaint people in our area of influence with the Mercedes-Benz brand; a lot has changed in 10 years,” said Michelle Wirth, who will oversee marketing efforts and other duties for the company, but started her career with Mercedes as a mechanical engineer. “There are something like 3,000 to 4,000 Mercedes cars in Western Massachusetts currently in operation. I don’t have exact figures, but I’m sure most of them are older, because people haven’t made the trek to Hartford or Shrewsbury or Albany pick up a new car.

“We want to make sure that those folks who are already convinced about the brand know we exist, and then reacquaint them with the new cars,” she went on. “The vehicles themselves have just transformed in the past 10 years.”

An architect’s rendering of the new Mercedes dealership

An architect’s rendering of the new Mercedes dealership, which will emphasize transparency.

By that, she was referring to everything from the number of models to the depth of the price range. For example, she pointed to the CLA, a Mercedes model that retails for under $33,000, a number that would likely surprise many people, including some who know cars — and Mercedes.

Other things that have changed since Mercedes models were last sold in this region include the carmaker’s focus on safety, and not merely luxury and style (although those are still points of emphasis, to be sure), as well as the dealerships in which the cars are sold and, especially, serviced.

Indeed, dealerships today are well-appointed, convenience-focused, customer-friendly facilities that exist not so much to showcase cars, although they still do that, certainly, but pamper those who buy them.

So much so that Michelle Wirth, as she described the process of designing, outfitting, and operating the facility in Chicopee, said the mindset is that she and her husband are not competing with other dealerships, necessarily, but against hotels, restaurants, and even the new $950 million MGM Springfield casino due to open in about a year, in the manner in which they are all focused on hospitality and taking care of the customer.

“When they walk away from a fine hotel establishment, people say ‘man, they did everything right’ — it’s just a feeling they have,” she explained. “When they walk away, they’re going to feel it, they’re going to feel, ‘wow, they care about me, and they took care of me. That’s the feeling we’re going to create.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest visited the dealership a few weeks before its doors are due to officially open to gain some insight into what the partners in this venture are anticipating as Mercedes makes its much anticipated return to the area.

A Major Coup

By now, most in the region’s business community are at least somewhat familiar with the story behind Mercedes-Benz of Springfield.

Back in late 2014, Peter Wirth and Hesse, owners of a Mercedes dealership in Nanuet, N.Y., were approached by the carmaker about bringing the brand back to Western Mass. with a dealership after that aforementioned lengthy absence, and after some extensive research, the two concluded that this region was, indeed, underserved, and that a facility here had considerable potential.

Especially at the site they eventually chose, two turnpike exits east of Riverdale Street, at the old Plantation Inn site. This location is literally across the street from where the tollbooth once stood, and at the eastern end of Route 291, giving the location great accessibility.

And it will be needed, because this dealership will have a huge coverage area, one that includes parts of four states: Western Mass., Northern Conn., Southern Vermont, and Southern New Hampshire.

That large swath of territory will bring some challenges, said the Wirths as they talked about their business venture — especially the large number of markets they must advertise in — but also a great deal of opportunity to better serve thousands of Mercedes customers.

“It’s a big area, and it’s a big task,” said Peter. “But it’s a huge opportunity for people in the Springfield metro area, who have to drive 45 minutes to Hartford, or almost an hour to Shrewsbury, the next-closest dealership, or an hour and a half to Albany.”

More than three years after those initial talks between Mercedes, Wirth, and Hesse began, the Western Mass. Mercedes dealership, or ‘autohaus,’ as such facilities are called in Germany, is nearly ready for prime time.

When BusinessWest toured the site in mid-August, the exterior of the dealership had been completed, and work was continuing inside. The projected opening date will be late September.

Like most of the dealerships being built, many of them replacing facilities 30 or 40 years old, this one will be spacious, well-appointed, modern-looking, and heavy on glass and metal.

There is a corporate identity and design standards for these dealerships, and they make them easily recognizable as Mercedes-Benz dealerships. There are certain kinds of columns, tiles, paint colors, and furniture that are pretty standard across the dealer network. But at the same time, we, together with Mercedes-Benz, worked on laying out the dealership in the way we know it’s going to work.”

And while the Mercedes corporation has a desired look and feel in mind that its dealers must create, there is plenty of room to personalize one’s autohaus, said Peter, citing, as just one example, the dealership’s car wash; Mercedes doesn’t require one, but the partners considered it a key part of the “experience.”

“There is a corporate identity and design standards for these dealerships, and they make them easily recognizable as Mercedes-Benz dealerships,” he explained. “There are certain kinds of columns, tiles, paint colors, and furniture that are pretty standard across the dealer network. But at the same time, we, together with Mercedes-Benz, worked on laying out the dealership in the way we know it’s going to work.

“That’s something that has now become specific to this site,” he went on. “Mercedes-Benz has ideas, but they will also take our input, and we’ve been very vocal in that process and made it our own. While we’ve been using their design cues, the feel and flow of the dealership is what we know works and will serve our customers best.”

Asked to elaborate, he said this dealership isn’t just open, it’s incredibly open.

Wirth said his office has four glass walls, and from it, he can see the front desk, the sales office, the lounge, and the service drive. In many ways, that office embodies the intended feeling of openness, ease of transition from one department another, and a word that’s becoming ever more prominent in business and politics today — transparency.

“It’s easy for customers to not just find their way around, but to transition from one department to another — we’re not compartmentalized,” he explained. “We don’t think of a dealership as a sales, service, and parts department; it’s one unit to us.”

Driving Force

As she talked about the new dealership, plans for it, and the level of service she and her partners plan to create, Michelle Wirth thought this was the time to discuss her career with Mercedes-Benz, which began soon after she graduated from Lehigh University with a mechanical engineering degree.

Peter and Michelle Wirth say much has changed in the decade since Mercedes had a presence in the area

Peter and Michelle Wirth say much has changed in the decade since Mercedes had a presence in the area, and they intend to reacquaint the region with the brand.

“I got hired right out of school and worked in environmental and safety engineering,” she told BusinessWest. “I went to Germany a number of times a year, and actually got to go to the design center in Stuttgart, where they design and build these vehicles. I got to learn — I didn’t know this when I walked in the door — that Mercedes doesn’t just build to standards. They rise above those standards, and they have a holistic approach to safety and a holistic approach to design.

“It’s more about ‘what’s the best solution for the customer,’ and that’s impressive,” she went on, “because it creates a space where engineers get to design to the best possible standard, not just the least common denominator. And that translated over to me. As a young person, eyes wide open, I learned a lot from that. It’s like a standard you set for yourself, and it’s the highest one around.”

This attitude, or mindset, permeates everything the couple does in life and in business, Michelle explained, adding that it shapes everything from how they’ll do in business in Chicopee to how they’re already getting involved in the community that will soon be home — to them and their business.

That involvement has taken the form of support for organizations ranging from Square One to Baystate Children’s Hospital, said Peter, adding that these endeavors are part of a culture the company wants to instill. In other words, rather than doing something that might be expected, such as simply meeting auto industry design and performance standards, they’re setting the bar much higher.

“It’s not just checking a box for us,” he explained. “If you can be involved with the children’s hospital, and you have four healthy children; that comes naturally to us. Yes, you’re getting your name out, but it’s also a natural contact point for us; we can help and do good at the same time.”

Meanwhile, back in the realm of car sales, the Wirths believe they have the right brand at the right time to go along with the right location and the right culture.

Indeed, while some luxury brands have struggled with making all-important connections with younger audiences, Mercedes has made inroads, if you will, by creating lower price points and getting younger people into its vehicles.

And once that happens, they often become customers for life, said Michelle, noting that Mercedes not only has one of the highest loyalty rates in the business, but one of the highest conquest rates (winning over the drivers of other brands) as well.

At the same time, the company has adjusted its marketing messages, said Michelle, to appeal not only to the young, but to those who want to think, act, and, yes, drive like the young.

“Now, the marketing focus is more on ‘young at heart,’” she explained. “That’s how we describe people; it’s ‘do you have that Millennial mindset? You may not be that age, but you have that mindset. By doing that, you broaden the audience that you’re speaking to.”

Getting in Gear

Given the huge geographic area it will be serving, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield will already be speaking to a very broad audience.

The initial message will be that Mercedes is back in Western Mass. after a decade’s hiatus. But soon — in fact, almost immediately — there will be much more to communicate: that Mercedes is back, and that this is a brand for both the young and the young at heart.

Also to be communicated, especially through a visit to the new dealership, is that this venture fully embraces that corporate culture of not merely meeting standards, but setting higher ones.

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