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Class of 2015

Class of 2015 Cover Story Difference Makers
Difference Makers Will Be Celebrated on March 19 at the Log Cabin


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Photos by Denise Smith Photography

While each of the first six classes of Difference Makers was diverse, and effectively showed just how many groups and individuals are worthy of that phrase, the group being honored this year probably sets a new standard.
It includes the region’s only Fortune 100 company, three nonprofit agencies — one committed to fostering and nurturing entrepreneurship, another focused on improving quality of life in Greater Springfield through a host of family-centered events, and the third created to raise funds for childhood cancer facilities in the name of a spirited 11-year-old who succumbed to the disease — and an assembled team of entrepreneurs that kept Springfield’s most iconic restaurant open for future generations to enjoy.
“The stories that start on page A4 are all different, and they show what those of us at BusinessWest knew when we started this program back in 2009,” said Kate Campiti, the magazine’s associate publisher. “And that is that there certainly are a number of ways that people can make a difference in the community.”
The honorees, to be feted on March 19 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House are:

Katelynn’s Ride: Created in 2011 to honor the memory of Katelynn Battista, who lost her courageous battle to leukemia at age 11, the K-Ride, as organizers call it, raises money for both Baystate Children’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute through the Jimmy Fund. Locally, some of the funds awarded to Baystate have gone to support a new position, a nurse practitioner who acts as a liaison between the families of cancer patients and the teams of specialists that provide care.
Meanwhile, those who participate in the ride say the event itself has become a Difference Maker by providing camaraderie and a forum in which they can fight cancer together and honor both those who have survived their battles and those who have lost, and the ways in which those individuals inspire others.

Judy Matt, president of the Spirit of Springfield: For more than three decades, Matt has been at the forefront of coordinating family-focused events for the residents of Springfield and surrounding communities. That list includes Fourth of July fireworks, the annual pancake breakfast (once touted as the world’s largest), the Big Balloon Parade, and Bright Nights, the holiday lighting display that is on many national lists of must-see attractions.
Those who have worked with Matt praise not only the depth of her work, but the energy and imagination she brings to it, and the way in which she has brightened some very dark days for the city. Said Bill Pepin, president of WWLP and the first board chair of the Spirit of Springfield, “Judy has been a true champion of Springfield, a real believer, especially during the tough times, when a lot of people were saying, ‘if you’re the last one to leave, turn out the lights.’

MassMutual: The financial-services giant is being honored not simply for the depth of its philanthropy or community involvement, but the strategic nature of such endeavors. Focused in three areas — education, economic development, and ‘community vitality,’ the company’s many contributions are long-term in focus, with the goal of strengthening the community and building a quality workforce.
Said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, “from the beginning, this city has always been able to count on MassMutual. It’s been a source of jobs, a force on economic development, and a philanthropic monster. And it should never, ever be taken for granted, because not every city has a MassMutual — and every city would love to have one.”

The new ownership team of the Student Prince and the Fort: Last summer, Rudy Scherff, second-generation co-owner of the Springfield-based institution known as the Student Prince and the Fort, announced that, if new ownership could not be found, the iconic restaurant and tavern would likely close amid falling profits and rising expenses. Into the breach stepped a somewhat unlikely group — Peter Picknelly, owner of Peter Pan Bus Lines; the Yee family, owners of the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee and other restaurants; and Kevin and Michael Vann, father-and-son consultants who have worked with a number of restaurateurs over the years.
When they announced their intentions to give the landmark a facelift and a slightly altered menu and reopen the day before Thanksgiving, they not only saved a part of Springfield’s fabric, said Sarno, they gave the entire city a shot in the arm.

Valley Venture Mentors: While only a few years old now, Valley Venture Mentors, an agency tasked with mentoring entrepreneurs and fostering entrepreneurship, is already making a difference in the broad realm of economic development.
Through a host of initiatives ranging from monthly mentoring sessions to shared-workspace initiatives, to a new accelerator program which just welcomed its first cohort of 30 companies, VVM is, according to many observers, making real progress in creating an entrepreneurial renaissance in Springfield and the region as a whole.

The March 19 event will feature butlered hors d’ oeuvres, lavish food stations, a networking hour, introductions of the Difference Makers, and remarks from the honorees. Tickets are $60 per person, with tables of 10 available.
For more information, or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.

Previous difference makers

• Doug Bowen, president and CEO of PeoplesBank
• Kate Kane, managing director of the Springfield office of Northwestern Mutual Financial/The Zuzolo Group
• Susan Jaye-Kaplan, founder of GoFIT and co-founder of Link to Libraries
• William Ward, executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County
• The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield

• The Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation
• Ellen Freyman, attorney and shareholder at Shatz Schwartz and Fentin, P.C.
• James Goodwin, president and CEO of the Center for Human Development
• Carol Katz, CEO of the Loomis Communities
• UMass Amherst and its chancellor, Robert Holub

• Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission
• Lucia Giuggio Carvalho, founder of Rays of Hope
• Don Kozera, president of Human Resources Unlimited
• Robert Perry, retired partner/consultant at Meyers Brothers Kalicka
• Anthony Scott, police chief of Holyoke

• Charlie and Donald D’Amour, president/COO and chairman/CEO of Big Y Foods
• William Messner, president of Holyoke Community College
• Majors Tom and Linda-Jo Perks, officers of the Springfield Corps of the Salvation Army
• Bob Schwarz, executive vice president of Peter Pan Bus Lines
• The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts

• Michael Cutone, John Barbieri, and Thomas Sarrouf, organizers of Springfield’s C3 Policing program
• John Downing, president of Soldier On
• Bruce Landon, president and general manager of the Springfield Falcons
• The Sisters of Providence
• Jim Vinick, senior vice president of investments at Moors & Cabot Inc.

• The Gray House
• Colleen Loveless, executive director of the Springfield chapter of Rebuilding Together
• The Melha Shriners
• Paula Moore, founder of YSET Academy and a teacher at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Training Academy
• Michael Moriarty, attorney, director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., and supporter of childhood-literacy programs

Class of 2015 Difference Makers
Event Provides Memories, Camaraderie, and a Chance to Help ‘Kick Cancer’s Ass’

Domenic and Michelle Battista (front row, left), with K-Ride founders (from left) Kim Zachery, Dan Williams, and Steve Stark. Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Domenic and Michelle Battista (front row, left), with K-Ride founders (from left) Kim Zachery, Dan Williams, and Steve Stark.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Dr. Satkiran Grewal says that, when parents first hear the word ‘cancer’ used in the same sentence as their child’s name, they often don’t really hear much, if anything, said immediately after that.

They’re listening, said Grewal, chief of Pediatric Oncology at Baystate Children’s Hospital, but often what is said doesn’t fully register because there is a surreal quality to the news they’ve been given, and they’re still attempting to digest it while trying to anticipate what happens next. Later, parents and other family members will inevitably need help understanding, coordinating, and simply coping with the many aspects of a prolonged cancer battle.

And these are some of the many reasons why, in 2012, Baystate created a new position, an individual (a nurse practitioner, or NP) who acts essentially as a liaison between the families of children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer and the specialists providing them care. It’s a position funded in part by money raised by participants in Katelynn’s Ride, or K-Ride, as it’s called, an annual event created to honor the spirit and courage of Katelynn Battista, who lost a decade-long battle with leukemia in 1997 at age 11.

“Katelynn’s riders have supported one of Baystate’s most patient-focused initiatives — the work of a designated care coordinator who helps patients and families navigate the complexities of the healthcare system amid serious illness,” said Grewal. “It’s a very important role, and we’re grateful for their assistance.”

But support for this position is just one of many reasons why K-Ride is being honored as a Difference Maker for 2015.

Indeed, while the money it raises for both Baystate Children’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute through the Jimmy Fund, and also for individual families in the form of $1,000 grants to help them cope with the many expenses associated with a cancer diagnosis, is substantial ($1.7 million to date), it is only part of the story.

The event itself, through the camaraderie it creates and the critical help it provides to those coping with this deadly disease, makes a difference in the lives of those who participate and, while doing so, brings different, often-inspiring storylines to the ride’s starting line on the grounds of Hampshire College.

People like Deb Rossmeil, who started riding to honor the successful fight against leukemia waged by her son, Adam, and to help others facing similar battles. In the beginning, she would ride with a few family members, but today, the team now known as Adam’s Animals brings as many as 30 people to the ride and is annually one of the top fund-raisers.

There’s also 10-year-old Luke Bradley, a fifth-grader from South Hadley who, last May, had the honor of serving as one of the event’s ambassadors, those who cut the ribbon to start the various rides — 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 miles. That role had traditionally gone to individuals (usually parents) whose loved one had lost their fight with the disease. But for 2014, organizers wanted to extend the honor to a young person at a key turning point in their battle.

So it was for Luke, who only a few weeks before the ride had undergone what would be his last treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, essentially ending a three-year fight. He was still rather weak as he undertook the 5-mile ride himself, but he finished it.

“It was fun, and I had a great time,” he said, adding that this was an experience he’ll never forget, and he intends to be back next year with his parents and younger siblings.

And then there are Michelle and Domenic Battista, Katelynn’s parents. They both recall having mixed feelings when they were approached about creating a ride in honor of their daughter only a year after she died, but they eventually said ‘yes,’ and they’ve served as gracious hosts ever since, and say the event provides a powerful, meaningful, and at times emotionally exhausting way to honor Katelynn’s indomitable spirit.

“It’s difficult in some ways because Katelynn’s not with us,” said Michelle. “It’s overwhelming to see all the people who come out, not only for our family, but their own families, where they have a situation where someone’s battling cancer. It’s great to see a lot of the survivors, especially the children, but it’s bittersweet because our daughter’s not there.

“But I know Katelynn’s looking down on all this and smiling,” she went on. “It’s nice for her to be remembered in such a way and to have her go on inspiring people.”

Profile in Courage

Domenic Battista said Katelynn was a child who could light up any room just by walking into it.


Michelle Battista says cancer couldn’t stop her daughter, Katelynn, from doing anything she wanted to do.

“She had that kind of personality,” he recalled. “She was never down on herself; she just had that glow to her. She was caring for others — she knew she had a serious illness, and she fought it with … I don’t want to say ‘style,’ but I guess maybe that works.”

Michelle remembers that Katelynn was committed to not letting her cancer get in the way of whatever she wanted to do, and, for the most part, she succeeded with that mission.

“She tried to maintain her normal self and activities, just like any other child,” she told BusinessWest, “because she just wanted to be a kid and do the things that her friends did. Cancer did not hold her back; she was still involved in all her sports — she danced, she played soccer, she played basketball, she played piano, all while she was sick. She didn’t miss out on anything that she wanted to do.”

And while doing all that, Katelynn decided she would also make time to appear on a radiothon staged by radio station WHYN to raise money for Dana Farber, where she received some of her care.

It is here where the story of K-Ride begins, because it was roughly at that point where Katelynn began inspiring people to do things in her name in the ongoing fight against cancer.

Two of the hosts for that radiothon were Dan Williams and his wife and long-time radio and TV partner Kim Zachery. Williams’ best friend, Steve Stark, worked for the Postal Service, as did Domenic Battista. “It turns out we all knew other, and so we all got very involved in Katelynn’s story,” said Zachery, adding that Katelynn became a regular on radiothons.

For Williams and Stark, that involvement eventually included a cross-country bike ride they undertook in 1996 — soon after Katelynn, who had been in remission, was again diagnosed with cancer — to raise money for Dana Farber and get the infusion room there named in her honor.

“Katelynn became our inspiration,” said Williams, adding that, two years after that cross-country trek, he and Stark took part in something called the Race Across America, a 2,740-mile, non-stop relay that they and other team members completed in just under seven days. “In 1996, when we did the cross-country bike ride, we did it in honor of Katelynn, raising something like $50,000, and then in 1998, we did it in her memory — she died the year before.”

And it wasn’t long after she passed away before Williams, Stark, and Zachery started conceiving an event that would enable Katelynn to go on being an inspiration — for hundreds of people, many of whom had never met her.

“When she passed away, we knew we had to keep her name and her legacy going,” said Zachery, “because she was such a wonderful little girl and had such a fierce spirit of determination.”

The first K-Ride was staged in 2001 with roughly 60 riders. That number rose steadily to about 300, said Stark, and it has stayed around that level, dipping during the Great Recession, when most all fund-raising initiatives suffered, but rising again when it ended.

Over the years, the event has expanded to include several different rides, and also a walk, with participants coming mostly from this region but some from well outside it.

These are not races, but chances for individuals and teams to raise money through donations from friends and relatives in recognition of their participation. Riders 18 and over must raise $300 each, while riders under 18 and walkers 12 and over must raise $100. The format is similar in many ways to the popular PanMass Challenge, a bike ride that raises millions each year for the Jimmy Fund, but it is less demanding from a fund-raising perspective (PanMass Challenge participants must raise $4,000), and more of the dollars raised stay in this region.

And while the K-Ride has grown in terms of participation, it has also gained a number of corporate and media sponsors who underwrite nearly all of the operating expenses, meaning that all the money raised by the riders goes to Baystate and Dana Farber.

Fun with a Purpose

All those we spoke with said the K-Ride is much more than a sporting activity created to raise money for cancer programs. It’s an event, they note, and a family event at that, complete with a barbecue, a live band, and a host of activities.

Williams joked that riders are “pampered,” with numerous water stops, fruit, sports bars, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, shower facilities, and even a massage station.

But it is an event with a purpose, one that is reflected in everything from the names of the teams that participate (many, like Adam’s Animals, were inspired by people who have battled cancer) to the ambassadors who cut the ribbon, to the position at Baystate supported by the ride.

And that purpose isn’t lost on anyone.

Luke Bradley

Luke Bradley served as ambassador at the 2014 edition of Katelynn’s Ride only a few weeks after his last treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Photo courtesy of Driscoll Photography

For Jeff Neumann, an artist from New York State, K-Ride offers him an enjoyable opportunity to fund more of the research and new treatment options that helped him beat back the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma he was diagnosed with nearly 20 years ago.

“If it wasn’t for medical science and technology, I wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be able to participate in such an event,” said Neumann, who has long been a friend of Williams, started riding at his urging, and joined him in recent years on a team, a fund-raising juggernaut, called K.C.A., short for ‘Kicking Cancer’s Ass.’ “I’m extremely grateful that I’m able to contribute and help some kid who may be in jeopardy of being able to ride his bike in the future.”

For Rossmeil, there are many connections between her son, Adam, and Katelynn and her family. Both families are from West Springfield, and Adam was diagnosed with the same form of leukemia (acute myeloid, or AML) as Katelynn.

Adam is now in the sixth grade and recently marked the 10th anniversary of his bone-marrow transplant. He’s been a participant in the K-Ride since he was 3, riding first with his father, before graduating to his own bike and successfully completing first the 10-mile and then the 25-mile ride.

The Rossmeil family rides and volunteers for the event to both celebrate what Adam has accomplished and create more stories like his.

“The thing we like the most is that they’re raising money for the Jimmy Fund and for the Baystate Cancer Center — Adam was treated in both facilities,” she said. “But it’s also a big family event. We get to see the Battistas every ear, and also one of Adam’s nurses from the hospital — she rides on our team — and we get to see the doctor who took care of him when he was first diagnosed; he also rides. It’s just a great event.”

Williams told BusinessWest that the ride has generated many traditions over the years, none more poignant for him than the ambassadors.

“There have been some inspirational stories over the years, and there have also been some very sad stories,” he said in reference to those who cut the ribbons. “Even though this is a day of celebration, we’re still dealing with cancer, so we’ve had families representing a child that may have passed away from cancer cutting the ribbon. That has a sobering effect, but it reminds everyone of why we’re doing this, why we’re all together on this particular day, and why we’re riding when it’s 95 degrees out or the rain is coming down sideways.”

For the Battistas, meanwhile, the ride is a day that generates a wide range of emotions, from sadness to elation to pride in what has been accomplished.

“We have some riders who have been with us since day one, and it’s great to see them come back each year,” said Domenic. “We’re here 15 years later, and I never thought it would get this big or go this long, but it has, and that’s a tribute to a dedicated crew we call the Friends of Katelynn. It’s a long day, but a nice day, a family day of remembrance for Katelynn while we’re helping to fund this position at Baystate.”

Katelynn’s ride participants describe it as a family event packed with fun, purpose, and poignancy. Photo courtesy of  Driscoll Photography

Katelynn’s ride participants describe it as a family event packed with fun, purpose, and poignancy.
Photo courtesy of Driscoll Photography

Such an individual was not available to families when Kateylnn was battling cancer, he said, adding that, when Grewal and others at Baystate indicated a desire to direct some of the K-Ride’s donations in that direction, organizers were in full support.

Hired in 2012, the nurse practitioner has been an effective addition to the staff at Baystate, working with patients and their families in both inpatient (at Baystate Children’s Hospital) and outpatient (at the Sadowsky Center for Children) clinical settings.

The NP assists families with everything from managing medications properly to scheduling tests to answering the myriad questions that are inevitably raised during a cancer battle, said Grewal, adding that, while the survival rates for childhood cancer are quite good, that doesn’t mean the process of treatment is in any way easy or without stress.

And starting just after the news is broken to parents, the nurse practitioner serves as an intermediary of sorts and a needed source of information and support during an often-years-long ordeal that can and usually will test a family’s patience — and mettle.

“There is a shock that comes to the family, and after the initial news on the first meeting, most of the things just fly over their heads,” Grewal explained. “We as physicians meet with the family on multiple occasions, but a nurse practitioner fills that role in between. And I wouldn’t say it’s hand-holding, although there is some of that. There are also many questions to be answered.

“I’ve been guilty, like everyone else, of using technical terminology,” he went on. “Parents won’t interrupt me while I’m doing that, but they’ll sit down with the nurse practitioner later, go over everything again, and they’ll say, ‘I didn’t understand what he said when he was saying this.’”

The Ride Stuff

While the K-ride is fun and rewarding, Zachery told BusinessWest, it is also a great deal of work. And that’s why organizers have at times — usually just after the event is staged — stopped to consider if this is something they want to continue doing.

“But then, the e-mails start coming in from people telling us this was the best ride ever, or that they plan to keep coming back, or that they’re really inspired by what we do,” she told BusinessWest. “And that keeps us going.”

If they wanted another reason to push on, they need only recall something Katelynn said not long before she died: “nothing is ever too hard to do if your faith is strong and your purpose is true.”

Those words apply to a cancer fight, obviously, but also to life in general — and perhaps a 100-mile bike ride as well.

And they represent only one way in which Katelynn — and all of her many friends — continue to inspire and make a difference.

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

Class of 2015 Difference Makers
This Agency’s Mission Is to Launch an ‘Entrepreneurial Renaissance’


From left, VVM Executive Director Paul Silva with board members Scott Foster and Jay Leonard.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Scott Foster says the genesis of Valley Venture Mentors sounds like one of those old jokes.

“A lawyer and a physicist go into a bar,” he deadpanned, adding that, in this particular case, he was, and still is, the lawyer. The physicist was Paul Silva, although he isn’t in that line of work and never really was.

The bar in question was in Amherst, and what the two protagonists, meeting for the first time after taking in an entrepreneurship event at UMass, started talking about over a cold beer was the need to create a mentoring program for entrepreneurs that went beyond the existing initiatives, such as those created by the Grinspoon Foundation, focused on college students.

Foster called it a “finishing school” for those with entrepreneurial spirit and an idea in some stage of development.

It would take four years to open this finishing school, but the partners prevailed. They called it Valley Venture Mentors and gave it a bold mission statement — “to launch an entrepreneurial renaissance in the region.” It staged its first monthly meeting in early 2011, bringing together mostly young entrepreneurs, many of them still in or just out of college, and mentors ready to help with advice on how to take an idea to the next level, whatever that might be.

To say those were humble beginnings, and that VVM has come a long way in four short years, would be an understatement. The first sessions were staged in the spacious, donated conference room of the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson, for which Foster is a partner. Most meetings drew 25 to 30 people. The organization had roughly $25,000 to work with, said Silva, now its executive director, and had no paid staff.

mentoring is a big part of the equation at VVM

As the agency’s name would suggest, mentoring is a big part of the equation at VVM as it goes about helping entrepreneurs get started and get to the next level.

Today, the meetings are held in the Food Court at Tower Square because attendance has grown to 150 or more, and that’s the only spot big enough to seat that many. Thanks to donations from MassMutual (see related story, page A10), the state, and other sources, VVM now has $5 million with which to administer a number of programs, including those monthly meetings, pitch camps, a pitch contest that has become a pivotal component of BusinessWest’s annual Western Mass. Business Expo, co-working space initiatives, and a new accelerator program, based on the MassChallenge model, that will bring 30 emerging companies together for four months of intensive learning, sharing, and competing for no less than $225,000 in prizes. There are now several paid staff members and a host of interns from area colleges working for VVM.

That profound growth shows how far VVM has come, but it doesn’t explain why this organization, still very much in the start-up phase like the companies it works with, has been designated a Difference Maker.

What does explain it is commentary from those who are in various ways part of the VVM phenomenon, or impacted by it. Using different words and phrases, these individuals make it clear that VVM is making a difference by creating what many call “collisions” involving people with ideas, valuable insight in business, and capital to make these ideas reality, and, in the process, create that aforementioned entrepreneurial renaissance and spark a revival in Springfield’s long-struggling central business district.

“The economic development of Springfield is a six-legged stool, and VVM is definitely one of those legs,” said Delcie Bean, founder and president of Paragus Strategic IT, BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2014, a frequent mentor at VVM meetings, and a key player in efforts to revitalize downtown. “We need a place for very early-stage companies to go, be supported and mentored, and pushed and accelerated to get off the ground. If we’re going to have a successful city that’s going to rebound, that’s one of the critical elements.”

Evan Plotkin, a commercial real-estate broker, co-owner of 1350 Main St. in downtown Springfield, and a force behind many efforts to revitalize the central business district and grow the cultural economy in the city, agreed, and said VVM is generating momentum by bringing like-minded entrepreneurs and innovators together, creating what he called “entrepreneurial energy.”

“Creating these collision spaces and creating opportunities for interaction allows for ideas to take root, develop, and expand,” he noted. “VVM not only provides a forum for that kind of brainstorming and thinking, but it also contributes by finding ways to help those ideas become successful businesses.”

Getting the Idea

Both Silva and Foster used the phrase ‘turning point’ to describe what 2014 became for VVM and those who administer it.

This was a year when the agency grew exponentially — in terms of funding, programming, facilities, publicity, and, perhaps most importantly, respect from the many constituencies monitoring its progress or impacted by its widening reach, including then-Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration and the region’s only Fortune 100 company.

That upshift in momentum started roughly a year ago, when the Mass. Technology Collaborative announced that it was awarding VVM a $150,000 grant to fund its various endeavors, a development that gave the organization some exposure — and some validation that it was becoming an important economic-development initiative.

VVM helps entrepreneurs

Among other things, VVM helps entrepreneurs master the art and science of the pitch.

“That was essentially the collaborative’s stamp of approval for what we were doing,” said Foster, adding that VVM was the only entity west of Route 495 that prevailed in competition for funding. “We were invited to multiple meetings across the state, we were introduced to others as an innovative program that was really doing cutting-edge mentoring — and that’s when we realized that we were doing something special.”

More validation would soon come from the governor himself, who met with VVM administrators in the spring, during one of his many visits to Springfield.

“He essentially said, ‘I think we need to do more for you guys — you’re doing some pretty interesting things, and we can help with some capital,’” said Foster, adding that he backed up those words with a $2 million commitment to the agency.

More money would come VVM’s way in the form of a $1.6 million donation from MassMutual (the company also created the $5 million Springfield Venture Fund, designed to encourage companies to locate or relocate within Springfield), and awards from the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and the Community Foundation.

With some of that money, VVM created physical space within Tower Square, first with a co-working space and then with a facility for its accelerator program, and made plans to become a major tenant in the Springfield Innovation Center on Bridge Street, an undertaking led by DevelopSpringfield, with construction set to begin soon.

What all that additional funding, operating space, and programming does is give VVM exponentially more resources to do what it was created to do. As they elaborated on that, Silva and Foster went back to the beginning, that first monthly session, because, while the setting has changed, the rooms are bigger, and the budget involves two more zeroes, the mission, as well as the basic strategy for meeting it, remains the same.

“We had 24 people at that first meeting, and Paul and I were two of them,” Foster recalled. “We had four entrepreneurs, so that means there were 18 others — 18 mentors. We didn’t really know quite what we were doing, but we knew we wanted the entrepreneurs to pitch, and we wanted the mentors to give them feedback, and we didn’t want it to be chaos.

“Early on, we decided we wanted this kind of a breakout idea,” he went on. “We wanted people to go and talk to whomever they wanted to talk to, and we wanted to have enough structure so it was meaningful, but not so much structure that it stifled creativity and the natural chaos of meeting other people and having those chance interactions.”

That word ‘interactions’ probably best describes what VVM is all about, said Foster, adding that they come in many shapes and sizes, and all of them could be very impactful.

Entrepreneurs can interact with seasoned business owners, he explained, or with individuals who have expertise in their chosen industry, or with other entrepreneurs dealing with many of the same issues and challenges they are, and, in what would likely be the best of scenarios, they could interact with an individual or venture fund willing to invest in their concept.

Parker Holcomb, who created what was known then as Five College Storage (it is now All College Storage, an indication of how it has grown geographically) while attending Amherst College, credits VVM with helping him “move the needle” with his venture, which places students’ belongings in storage between semesters and delivers them when school is back in session.

“VVM was my first professional network — it was my first opportunity to interact with people, ask questions, and figure out ways to leverage those peoples’ experiences,” he explained, adding that he credits VVM with helping him expand his company to 23 schools in five states.

He said it has also enabled him to sharpen his presentation skills, an important consideration for any small business that has to continually pitch its product or services, and develop accountability, something that’s often difficult in a one-man show.

“The practice I gained in presenting over the past several years could not have been more valuable,” he explained, adding that he has put those skills to work in everything from business-plan competitions to product demo days. “When you’re making a pitch to them, they say, ‘present the problem, present the potential market, present your solution, explain why your solution is defensible, talk about your team and what your advantages are.’ Practicing all that in front of a critical yet supporting group is extremely valuable.”

Moving Experiences

But while VVM’s basic mission hasn’t changed since that first meeting back in 2011, it has been broadened somewhat and certainly facilitated by many of those aforementioned developments in 2014.

Indeed, as part of that goal of creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem, VVM is focused on not only fostering entrepreneurship and mentoring business owners, but making it easier — and more desirable — for ventures to take root in Western Mass. and remain here.

And both the accelerator program and the Springfield Venture Fund should assist in these efforts, said Foster.

The new accelerator facility at Tower Square

The new accelerator facility at Tower Square opened its doors in January.

The accelerator, for example, will give 30 companies the opportunity to vie for at least $225,000 in prizes that will come without strings, he explained, adding that the money is essentially a carrot. The real prize in this exercise, the reason why VVM and its funders want companies to engage in it, is to take part in those interactions, take advantage of the support being offered, and realize the many potential advantages to basing a business in the 413 area code.

And Silva, a serial entrepreneur of sorts who has launched several small businesses, used his own experiences to get his point across.

“I’m not from Western Mass. — I came here for school, and I was very likely to leave, like all of my friends who took off and constantly tell me how much warmer it is where they are,” he told BusinessWest. “The reason I stayed was because the embryonic version of this entrepreneurial ecosystem was here in the Valley, and it loved me and gave me help to start my first company, so that’s why I stayed.

“So, if we can provide that kind of incredible, intense support and relationships, then we can impact these baby companies that don’t have roots yet,” he went on. “They can set down roots wherever someone will give them fertile ground. So we’re going to bring them in, we dangle the carrot to get them here, but the real value is that they see all this amazing stuff, they’re given opportunities to engage, and the ones that are a great fit are going to put down roots here.”

Those supporting the accelerator program through funding were asked to make a three-year commitment, and they did, said Foster, adding that it will likely take some time for VVM’s leaders, like startup business owners themselves, to “figure out what’s wrong, fix it, and do it better the next time.”

The first 30 companies in the program, based on the hugely successful MassChallenge model, which awards roughly $2 million in prize money, got down to business in mid-January. Among them is a venture called MachineMetrics, the latest endeavor launched by serial entrepreneur Bill Bither.

Using patented software, the company automatically collects and analyzes data from CNC machines, sending out notifications when production falls behind. It also provides a real-time dashboard that allows operators and managers to keep tabs on production at all times.

The product differentiates itself from others on the market by enabling managers to identify problems quickly and fix them, said Bither, who met a manufacturer who agreed to let his shop become a beta-testing site for the software at a VVM meeting. He told BusinessWest that he was drawn to become one of the 120 applicants for the first accelerator session because of the prize money — and the training and mentoring that can help him, well, accelerate his pace of growth.

“I think our company can benefit from the structure, and from the experience of the mentors,” he said. “But the cash grants are nice, and we hope to be one of the teams that wins one.”

As for the Springfield Venture Fund, it made its impact felt for the first time late last year, when it provided a large portion of the $1.25 million commitment from area investors that prompted video-game maker HitPoint Studios to relocate from Amherst to downtown Springfield. More such developments are expected in the months and years to come.

Looking at the larger picture, at the ecosystem created by the various entrepreneurship programs, Jay Leonard — an economic researcher for MassMutual subsidiary Babson Capital, a board member for VVM, and one of its mentors — said it has the potential to change the landscape in Springfield’s downtown. In some ways, he notes, it already is.

“We’ve had more than 150 people at our last five monthly meetings, which is pretty amazing for a Wednesday night in Springfield,” he said. “At any given time, we have 10 teams involved in our mentorship program, 30 teams associated with the accelerator … add this all up, and it brings an amount of positive energy to downtown Springfield.

“The accelerator becomes part of building out this entrepreneurial ecosystem, and it’s one of the notions that MassMutual and our other sponsors have bought into — the notion that entrepreneurship really can change Springfield,” Leonard went on. “Supporting this ecosystem means there will be more young people here; it means there will be more young people doing value-added activities and positive economic input. It provides us the ability, as a community, to grow without seeking outside support.”

Bottom Line

No one involved with VVM or any other element of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem expects Springfield or the Pioneer Valley to become another Cambridge or Silicon Valley, probably the nation’s two most popular addresses for startup companies.

But they do expect this area to increase the number of young entrepreneurs ready and willing to call it home, and perhaps dramatically.

For that to happen, entrepreneurship must be fostered, entrepreneurs need to be mentored, and incentives must be created for companies to take root here, as Silva did years ago. VVM is already doing all that, and it has laid track that will enable it to do so on a much larger scale in the years to come.

That’s why a fledgling agency, started only a few years ago when a lawyer and a physicist walked into a bar, is already a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2015 Difference Makers
Rescue of a Springfield Landmark Gave the City a Needed Shot in the Arm

From left, Andy Yee, Mike Vann, and Peter Picknelly

From left, Andy Yee, Mike Vann, and Peter Picknelly, members of the new ownership team at the Student Prince and the Fort.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Steve Roberts was recounting some of the hundreds of memories he’s stashed away from nearly a half-century of frequenting Springfield’s iconic Student Prince restaurant, a.k.a. the Fort.

He talked about his favorite items on the menu, some of the traditions, like Game Fest, some of the many special occasions that have taken place there, the countless times he took clients there for lunch and dinner, and … swiping beer glasses.

“As a kid, stealing shells (smaller glasses), mugs, and steins from the Fort was a sport,” he said of the pilferage, adding quickly that he was more than a little embarrassed to admit his actions, which occurred more than four decades ago. But feelings of guilt or remorse have mostly been replaced by a sense of pride from having made good with the Fort’s owner at that time, Rupprecht (Rupert) Scherff.

“I can remember one day when I came in … I was married, I was back in town, I’d been living in my house for a few years, and I said to Rupert, ‘can I buy 24 shells and six steins?’” said Roberts, now the CEO of the third-generation business F.L. Roberts. “And he looked at me and said, ‘you haven’t stolen enough of them?’

“I said to him, ‘Rupert, I’m embarrassed; you tell me how many of those you think I’ve stolen of each,’” he went on. “He gave a number, and I told him to pack up a case of each, subtract from the cases what he thought I’d stolen, add a few more to that total, and bill me for whole cases. And Rupert and I were friends from that moment on.”

These days, Roberts is adding more memories to his huge portfolio, and because he can, Peter Picknelly and Andy Yee, who partnered with Kevin and Michael Vann to create and execute a survival plan for the Student Prince and the Fort, have been chosen by BusinessWest as Difference Makers for 2015.

Some might ask why such an honor would be bestowed on a few businesspeople who stepped in and purchased the landmark when the next generation of the Scherff family declared they could no longer make a go of it. But those who have frequented the establishment and understand its place in the city’s history — and its psyche — see no need to ask.

They know why. Because they, like Roberts, don’t have to stop collecting memories on Fort Street.

By now, most know the gist of this story — how Rudi Scherff, Rupert’s son and co-owner, announced early last summer that the landmark was struggling and would likely close if new ownership could not be secured. And how Roberts convinced the Vanns, who have consulted for a number of restaurant owners, to survey the landscape at the Fort. And how the Vanns saw a business with challenges, but ones that could be overcome. And how they helped facilitate talks and eventually a partnership between Peter Pan Bus Lines CEO Peter Picknelly, who not long after Scherff’s announcement made clear his intent to save the icon, and Yee, whose family owns the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee and other eateries.

Andy Yee, right, with then Gov.-elect Charlie Baker

Andy Yee, right, with then Gov.-elect Charlie Baker at the well-attended grand reopening of the Student Prince and Fort on Dec. 3.
Photo by Robert Charles Photography

While that story played out, another one emerged. In this one, the city of Springfield, which had been visited by so much bad news in recent years and had lost some of its identity — including some other iconic, family-owned restaurants — over the past few decades, was spared more of the same.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the city itself was lifted by the turn of events.

“For them to step forward was really a huge shot in the arm for the entire city,” said its mayor, Domenic Sarno. “It sent a ripple effect of anticipation and helped spread a can-do attitude here in Springfield. You can’t put a price tag on the morale boost this has given the city.”

The significance of the reopening hit home for Picknelly, and in a poignant way, on Dec. 18 as the Student Prince — and the Picknelly family — continued a long-standing tradition of caroling at the restaurant.

“That would have been my mother-in-law’s 82nd birthday — she passed away more than 10 years ago,” he recalled as he set the stage. “We go every year as a family with my in-laws, and we honor her; that’s the only thing she ever wanted to do for her birthday — have the whole family go out and hear the carolers.

“I was looking around that night … the place is humming, it’s packed, people are smiling, they’re having a great time, families are together,” he went on. “And I’m saying to myself — and I later said to Andy — ‘imagine this not happening in our city.’”

Because of the new ownership team’s decisive action, no one has to engage in that exercise.

It’s Their Bread and Butter

As he talked about his decision to help resuscitate the Student Prince, and all that has happened since, Picknelly stressed repeatedly that he entered this journey knowing little, if anything, about the restaurant business.

Peter Picknelly says he’s proud to be able to continue such long-standing Student Prince traditions such as caroling during the holidays. Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Peter Picknelly says he’s proud to be able to continue such long-standing Student Prince traditions such as caroling during the holidays.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Suffice it to say that he’s learning fast — about everything from the wholesale price of veal shank to how many 12-ounce glasses of beer there are in a keg (330 by his count), to Christmas Eve and how a decision to close at 2 p.m. that day was a “critical mistake” that won’t be repeated.

And he’s also learning about just how loyal customers are to the landmark’s many traditions — large and small.

Like the slices of bread that were, for decades, served before lunch or dinner, almost always with pats of butter that were rock hard and therefore impossible to spread. As part of a strategy to implement change where they thought it was needed, Picknelly and Yee eventually replaced the bread with fresh rye rolls brought in daily from a bakery in Boston.

But not for long, as things turned out.

“This just blows my mind,” said Picknelly. “I thought these rolls were awesome — every morning delivered from Boston. But the number-one complaint we received from people … they wanted that old sliced bread back. So we stopped the rolls, and we’ve got the sliced bread. I don’t get it, it blows my mind, but that’s what they want.”

Actually, the partners were able to improve on that tradition, said Yee, by serving it with “whipped, room-temperature butter that’s easily spreadable.”

In a way, that’s what they are doing with many facets of the restaurant — from the décor to the layout of the bar to the menu items. The new owners are making improvements without changing the character of this 80-year-old institution or the tangibles and intangibles that “make the Fort the Fort,” as Yee said.

And many improvements were needed, said Mike Vann, who recalled for BusinessWest the prognosis that he and his father, Kevin, arrived at for the Student Prince after a thorough look at the operation last summer.

“We concluded that the patient needed to be fixed,” he said, adding that its condition was far from critical, but it was worsening. “The revenue, generally speaking, was still very strong, so it was a matter of cost containment and cost management. They were still doing pretty good numbers, but the food costs were high, and the labor costs were high, and when you walked through the building, you could see that it needed some love and attention — it hadn’t had that in a while. From a financial standpoint, these were fixable things.”

The importance of finding someone to provide that love and attention hit home to the Vann family and many others, said Mike, because the city had already seen two of its iconic restaurants — Lido’s (or the Lido, as it was known to many) and Sylvano’s, Italian restaurants located only a few blocks from each other on Worthington Street in the city’s downtown — close their doors.

Both were, like the Student Prince, family-owned Springfield institutions that provided memories for several generations of many families.

“When Lido’s closed, that was huge news,” said Vann. “Our family was there for four generations. For us, having the Lido close was devastating, because that’s where we would go for our family meals. And one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about the Fort so far is how many families have traditions that revolve around it.

“The Fort was the last iconic restaurant in Springfield,” he went on, adding that, for him, his father, and really all those who were and still are involved in the endeavor to keep it from becoming another statistic, it has been a rewarding experience on many levels.

Salad Days

The story of how Picknelly, the Yee family, and the Vanns came together as the new ownership team has already been told through a number of media outlets and is fast becoming part of Springfield lore.

To recap, Roberts, concerned about the fate of the restaurant he’d been coming to since the ’60s, learned of the seriousness of the situation from Rudi Scherff. He then asked the Vanns, as veteran consultants to restaurateurs, to look at the books, draw up a road map for the future, and explore options for a new ownership team. Meanwhile, Picknelly, who had been coming to the Fort for as long as he could remember with parents, grandparents, and his own children, had let it be known that he would step forward and be part of the effort to revitalize the institution.

But he knew he needed a partner, because, as noted earlier, he knew very little about this business.

Andy Yee, on the other hand, grew up in the industry, learning the ropes from his father, Johnny, who started the Hu Ke Lau in 1965 and eventually opened a number of restaurants around the country. The two came together as a result of what has already become a famous phone call.

“He called up and said, ‘Andy, this is Peter Picknelly … I got your cell phone number from a mutual friend of ours, [state Rep.] Joe Wagner,’” said Yee, noting that he prepared himself for a long conversation. “Within 15 minutes, we knew we had a deal. We didn’t actually have one, but knew there would be one.”

It would take several weeks to hammer out all the details — Picknelly would take a 50% stake in the operation, the Yee family 40%, and the Vanns 10% — but long before the ink on any paperwork was dry, there was anticipation, enthusiasm, and, as Sarno mentioned, a can-do attitude.

It would be needed, because the new owners set an aggressive target date for reopening — the day before Thanksgiving — and were already scaling up plans to give the landmark a new, more modern look, a slightly revamped menu, and a new lease on life.

The festive scene at the restaurant’s grand reopening ceremonies on Dec. 3. Photo by Robert Charles Photography

The festive scene at the restaurant’s grand reopening ceremonies on Dec. 3.
Photo by Robert Charles Photography

Darby O’Brien, whose South Hadley-based advertising agency was hired to handle the marketing for the ‘new’ Student Prince, coordinate its grand-opening ceremonies (which included a visit from the governor-elect), and other duties, believes the enthusiastic response from the public regarding the new ownership team and its plans helped inspire what became a comprehensive makeover.

“I don’t think they were going to spend the kind of dollars they did to bring it back, but the response from people all over the place once they announced this team-up really excited them, and they just pushed it,” he told BusinessWest. “They said, ‘let’s do it now,’ rather than just clean it up, brush it up, and get back in the ring. They said, ‘let’s do this thing right.’

“My biggest concern was about whether they understood the charm, the character, the personality, and the traditions that have been a part of this restaurant for years,” O’Brien went on as he recalled his thoughts as the new owners went about their work. “I knew Peter did, but I wasn’t sure about Andy. I was wondering, ‘where would he take it?’ What really impressed me quickly was the fact that he had this really talented Boston designer who really understood German restaurants and really understood all of the Fort’s personality and character — and enhanced it.”

O’Brien went so far as to draw an intriguing analogy between the Fort and the iconic, 103-year-old home of the Red Sox, which has been renovated and in some ways modernized in recent years, but in ways that haven’t compromised its character.

“I said to those guys in the beginning, ‘you’re like the caretakers of Fenway Park,’” said O’Brien. “[Red Sox owner] John Henry and company understood the character of the place, and they really brought it up to date, but they didn’t jeopardize the place. I think that’s what they’ve done with the Fort — they did a really interesting job with the place.”

Icing on the Cake

The renovated and revitalized Fort has been open only a few months, but all those we spoke with said the new ownership team is off to a fast and solid start.

O’Brien praised its ability to listen to commentary and criticism — and there’s been a lot of both — and respond accordingly and appropriately, as evidenced by the return of not only the sliced bread, but the Fort’s signature ‘boot’ glasses, in a street-legal size.

Roberts, who has frequented the restaurant eight or 10 times since it reopened, by his count, gave it good reviews while noting that there are still some bumps to smoothen out and changes to make — like bringing back lunch specials. Overall, he’s confident that the new owners will make their business venture successful.

Vann, for his part, believes considerable progress has already been made.

“The response thus far has been great — people are in there, they’re coming back, and they’re talking about it,” he said. “It’s definitely relevant; it’s a place that people want to be seen at and want to eat at. From that standpoint, it’s mission accomplished.”

Perhaps, but Picknelly and Yee would probably prefer ‘mission in progress.’

Indeed, they say they’re mulling more changes and additions that fall into that category of improvements that don’t alter the landmark’s overall character.

Plans are being drafted for more and different kinds of entertainment, pig roasts on Fort Street during the warmer months, additional choices during Game Fest, and much more.

And then, there’s the menu, which remains a work in progress, said Yee, adding that the Fort reopened with what he called menu release 1.0, and he’s already working on version 1.2.

“We have a lot of eyes on us on this one, and we continue to work through the steps and measures to get the menu where we want it to be and get everything just right; we’re still fine-tuning,” he said. “The menu is not an exact science; it’s really what the people want, and the Fort is such an institution that people are programmed to enjoy their favorites for a long, long time.

“Like the veal shank,” he went on, referring to a long-time favorite of many. “I’m pulling my hair out trying to source out a veal shank to make it affordable because it’s such a high-price item.”

Picknelly said one overarching goal is to make the Fort, which has traditionally been what he called a ‘holiday restaurant,’ into more of a 12-month venue.

“What we’re trying to do is make the Fort a destination — and not just for Christmas,” he explained. “We’re looking to make this an event place; we want to make the restaurant a Springfield institution year-round.”

While the Fort is off to a good start, all those involved know that a host of challenges await and success is certainly not guaranteed. But already, the new owners are feeling a sense of accomplishment from keeping the landmark open and allowing new memories to be created.

To emphasize that point, Picknelly returned to Dec. 18 and the carolers.

“There are thousands of families that would have lost this tradition if the Fort had closed,” he said. “And no matter what we do going forward, that night made it all worthwhile — for me, anyhow.

“They were singing ‘Silent Night,’ first in German and then in English, and they turned the lights down,” he went on, recalling the most poignant moment from that evening. “They turned the lights back on, and there were people crying in the restaurant. I already knew that this was a good thing to do for the city, but at that moment, I realized just how important it was.”

And so did everyone else.

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

Class of 2015 Difference Makers
City’s Biggest Cheerleader Has Generated Light During Some Dark Times

Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Photo by Denise Smith Photography

It was with a strong dose of pride in her voice that Judy Matt explained that she keeps everything, and never tosses anything.

To prove it, she had a staff member at the Spirit of Springfield (SOS) retrieve an old briefcase from storage in the agency’s office at 1350 Main St.

In it was an eclectic array of items from her years at the helm of something called the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs, or MOCA, in the mid-’80s, and also from her prior work for the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). They included several program booklets from inaugural ceremonies involving a few mayors, but especially Richard Neal, who served from 1984 to 1989 and recruited Matt to lead MOCA; some marketing materials she created while at the GSCVB that featured the phrase ‘Metro Springfield,’ which she concocted; and a program book from the grand opening of the ‘old’ Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985.

And then, there was a promotional piece called “The Great Trees of Our City,” a pamphlet that highlighted a number of Springfield’s more noted examples of arboreal splendor, from a river birch on the grounds of MassMutual’s headquarters to the famous black walnut on State Street that now stands guard in front of the new federal courthouse.

“Richie Neal liked to build pride in the city — he did a lot of things like that,” Matt said of “The Great Trees.” “He was always looking for ways to showcase the city and make everyone proud.”

Suffice it to say that Matt’s efforts to promote Springfield, engender pride, and create positive vibes in a city that has sorely needed them, have come a long way from that brochure.

A very long way.

Indeed, over the past 30 years or so, first with MOCA and especially with the nonprofit Spirit of Springfield, formed after MOCA’s demise, Matt has spearheaded everything from the Big Balloon Parade down Main Street to what was, for some time, called the ‘World’s Largest Pancake Breakfast’; from First Night festivities to fireworks on the Fourth of July long after the city lacked the ability to pay for them.

And then, there’s the holiday lighting display Bright Nights, which recently celebrated its 20th year. The largest endeavor of its kind in the country, it has put Springfield on the map and found itself within a few lines of the majestic fountains of the Bellagio resort in Las Vegas on many national lists of must-see attractions.

Meanwhile, there have been other special occasions and events for which the city has turned to Matt to play the lead role in both making them happen and making them special. That list includes everything from city birthday celebrations to Larry Bird’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, to the massive — and carefully orchestrated — funeral arrangements for slain Springfield police officer Kevin Ambrose in 2012.

Bright Nights

Bright Nights, which recently celebrated its 20th year, is now a permanent fixture on many national lists of must-see attractions.
Photo Courtesy Spirit of Springfield

But when you talk with those who have worked with Matt on these initiatives and others over the years, they inevitably talk as much about how she carries out her work as they do the volume of work. They use words like ‘energy,’ ‘enthusiasm,’ ‘determination,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘passion’ (that’s the one you hear most often) to describe her approach to meeting her job description. They also speak to a unique talent for marshaling the forces needed to make all these events happen — from corporate sponsors for Bright Nights to the volunteers holding the ropes on the Cat in the Hat balloon — and an ability to somehow bring needed light during some of the city’s darkest times.

“Judy has been a true champion of Springfield, a real believer, especially during the tough times, when a lot of people were saying, ‘if you’re the last one to leave, turn out the lights,’” said Bill Pepin, president of WWLP Channel 22 and the first president of the Spirit of Springfield board. “She never gave up on Springfield, and has always been of the opinion that, when times are tough, that’s when you need the Spirit of Springfield most. And we’ve had a lot of tough times.”

Jane Albert, current chair, agreed, and noted that putting on a fireworks display or staging a parade may not be saving lives, combatting poverty, or eradicating homelessness, but Matt is improving quality of life, which certainly qualifies her as a Difference Maker.

“Judy makes a difference in the lives of so many people,” Albert told BusinesWest. “She’s passionate about what she does, and she cares deeply about the community. Most cities don’t have a Judy Matt, and Springfield’s very fortunate that it has her.”

Let There Be Light

During a lengthy interview with BusinessWest in the late summer of 1998, Matt told this writer that her job, “pure and simple, is to make the boss look good.”

She summoned those words while talking about a lifelong desire to toil in the background (although that’s impossible to do as director of the SOS) and direct praise to those for whom she worked for a particular event or initiative. And over the years, the word ‘boss’ came to mean many things. Early on, in the days of MOCA, and to a large extent today as well, it means the city’s mayor — even though the Spirit of Springfield is not a city department, a common misperception.

But it also means the members of her board, the corporations and individuals who have donated millions of dollars over the years to make events happen, and even the residents of Springfield and surrounding communities.

And this desire to please so many bosses is what drives Matt to not only produce events, but do them in a big (and, yes, expensive) manner where cutting corners is simply not an option, even if some of those bosses might have suggested (quietly and even loudly) that she might want to consider doing so.

And there’s no better example of all this than Bright Nights.

That story begins in the spring of 1995, when Pat Sullivan, director of Springfield’s Parks and Recreation Department, came into possession of a brochure from the Carpenter Decorating Co., a North Carolina-based business that designed and manufactured holiday lighting displays.

Intrigued by what he saw, Sullivan envisioned Forest Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the country at 735 acres, as a site for such a display. He brought the concept to Matt, who soon took Sullivan’s vision to a much higher level.

Indeed, while early discussions focused on using only the park’s baseball fields for off-the-shelf lighting displays such as Santa Claus throwing snowballs, Matt envisioned using the entire park and creating displays that paid tribute to the city’s history and noted residents such as Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Everett Barney, who donated land for Forest Park and invented the first clamp-on ice skate.

Working with John Catenaci, design director for Carpenter Decorating, Matt and Sullivan started advancing a plan for a two-and-a-half-mile-long series of displays that would thread its way through the park. Making this vision reality required clearing a host of hurdles, from logistical matters including wiring the park and digging trenches for that wiring, to the matter of convincing a very skeptical board of directors to go along with the idea, to finding corporate sponsors for the ambitious lighting displays.

The Big Balloon Parade

The Big Balloon Parade has become a Springfield tradition, one of many launched, or continued, by the Spirit of Springfield and its president, Judy Matt.
Photo Courtesy Spirit of Springfield

“When we look back, we often laugh and say, ‘how did we ever get all of that done?’ But if you believe in something, you can accomplish it, and Judy believed in it,” said Sullivan, adding that, by Thanksgiving, a host of displays, from Seuss Land to North Pole Village to Toy Land, were ready for prime time. And Matt had added ‘Wonder Woman’ — a phrase summoned by a city official upon his first look at the completed Bright Nights — to a host of unofficial titles bestowed upon her over the years, including ‘Springfield’s biggest cheerleader,’ ‘Mrs. Springfield,’ and the ‘First Lady of Springfield.’

How she would come to eventually earn such names is an intriguing story. It begins when Matt, living then in Connecticut, followed her husband, somewhat reluctantly, to Western Mass. in 1970 as he took a job here.

As for her own employment situation … well, she actually put an ad in the local paper stating a desire to find a suitable opportunity, as well as her credentials. The former Chicopee Bank and Trust responded and eventually offered her a job heading up its first MasterCard program.

She moved from there to a job leasing space in the recently opened Baystate West (now Tower Square) and was soon promoted to the position of marketing director. Soon after Neal was elected mayor in November 1983, he asked Matt to coordinate his inauguration ceremonies. She remembers being taken aback by that request — “I didn’t really know him that well, and I said, ‘Richie, I don’t know anything about inaugurals’” — but took on the assignment. She impressed him enough that, when Rick Norcross left his position as head of MOCA, Neal recruited her to take the helm. Over the next several years, she handled everything from the city’s 350th birthday festivities in 1986 to the “Great Trees” brochure.

When funding for MOCA was attached to a proposition 2½ override bid that would fail, the office’s doors closed. It wasn’t long, however, before people like Pepin, Mercy Hospital President Sr. Mary Caritas, and Republican Editor Arnie Friedman, among others, concluded that its work must continue, and that the logical choice for an individual to lead such an organization was Matt, who eventually accepted the job.

But to say that the entity that would come to be known as the Spirit of Springfield had humble beginnings would be a huge understatement.

“Attorney Mike Wallace, who was one of the board members, gave me some space in his office at 95 State St.,” Matt recalled. “We had a desk and a phone, and I would spend almost a year just trying to re-establish us.”

In December of 1989, the agency became a nonprofit, 501(c)3 organization and received its first major gift, $20,000, from Tom Burke, president of Burke Beverage, to stage its first event, the Taste of Springfield.

“In was hard to raise money and for people to gain confidence in us in the early years,” Matt noted, adding that the agency managed to gain a firm foothold thanks to early corporate supporters such as Burke, Friendly Ice Cream, Milton Bradley (now Hasbro), and “some of the local banks that aren’t around anymore.”

The rest, as they say, is history in the making.

Some Bright Ideas

While, to many casual observers, the Spirit of Springfield’s work goes on easily and seemingly effortlessly, the reality is much different.

Indeed, funding the various events and initiatives is an ongoing battle, said Matt, adding that even Bright Nights, which many perceive to be a huge money maker, struggles in its mission to both pay for itself and fund other events such as the balloon parade. And a rough winter — like the one experienced in 2013-14, when five nights were lost due to snowstorms — can wreak havoc with the agency’s budget.

“Doing all that she does hasn’t been easy — it hasn’t been easy at all,” said Pepin. “Once in while I’ll run across someone who will say ‘Bright Nights … they’re making a lot of money off that.’ The reality is that they’re not — they’re surviving.

“It’s not like they’re rolling in dough — they’re not holding their board meetings in Tahiti,” he went on. “Funding all these events is a constant struggle.”

And fighting the budget battle is only one challenge that Matt must confront. There is the lingering perception that the agency, its many initiatives, and Matt’s salary are funded by the city, a factual error that can make it difficult to secure funding or support in the court of public opinion.

Meanwhile, Matt has often had to battle red tape and both bureaucratic and fiscal obstacles put in front of her by the communities she’s serving.

“She was doing things for the city when everyone else had essentially given up — she was trying to make things positive for the city,” said Pepin.

“And the city itself hasn’t really gone out of its way to make things easy for her or for organization,” he added. “Here’s an organization that’s trying to do positive things for the residents of Springfield and the surrounding areas, and over the years, they’ve thrown obstacles in her way. Instead of rolling out the red carpet and saying, ‘how can we help you?’ they’ve created issues and obstacles.”

The funeral for slain Springfield police officer Kevin Ambrose

The funeral for slain Springfield police officer Kevin Ambrose was one of many special events that Judy Matt has helped coordinate for Springfield leaders.

In the course of navigating all that, Matt has been driven, said those we spoke with, to create special and lasting memories for area residents, and make things brighter during dark and difficult times. And there have ben many such periods, ranging from city fiscal crises to the events of 9/11 to the tornado that roared through the region on June 1, 2001.

And, again, Bright Nights is a good example.

“Springfield was in a dark and low point at that time,” said Sullivan in reference to the mid-’90s, when the project was conceived and taken from the drawing board to reality. “There was a recession and things happening that you don’t want to happen.

“There wasn’t a good feeling in the city overall — the economy was distressed,” he went on. “And Bright Nights was a catalyst … it helped project that feeling you needed in the city, that Springfield was a place to come and visit, and we should be proud to live in the city. That’s what it meant to me.”

Albert remembers the days after the tornado struck, when there were discussions about whether the city should go forth with the fireworks at a time when so many had seen their lives uprooted. And she remembers Matt not only insisting they that go on, but that they be made special.

“She was so committed to making it incredible for the residents because it was such a low time for the city,” said Albert. “There have been many times when the city was challenged, but the tornado was a very difficult time for the community, and she just said, ‘we have to do this … we have to make this happen for the city, and we have to do a great job.’ And she did.”

Matt’s ability to get things done has prompted several mayors and other administrators to call on her to help with events that are not directly under the purview of the Spirit of Springfield, but nonetheless reflect on the city in many ways.

Albert cited the funeral arrangements for Ambrose as just one example of how Matt can move quickly and decisively and maximize the many strong relationships she’s built over the decades to the betterment of the city.

“There were 1,000 to 1,200 police officers in Court Square for that event,” Albert recalled of the Ambrose proceedings. “She had just a few days to pull that together; she just picked up the phone, called the presidents of large companies in this area, and said, ‘we need some funding to do this,’ ‘this is what we need to do,’ and ‘will you help?’

“I’m not sure if the city went to Judy or if this was Judy’s idea, because she’s always had that sensitivity,” she went on, “and has always wanted to help the city put its best foot forward.”

The Spirit Moved Her

For that interview with BusinessWest back in 1998, Matt summed up her office and her work this way:

“A city isn’t just buildings and streets and bridges. Those things don’t make a city, people do, and part of what makes a community livable is celebrations — they’re a part of us.”

Anyone who has driven through Bright Nights, taken in the fireworks on the Fourth of July, or watched the giant balloons make their way down Main Street would agree.

And for making all these happenings happen and putting smiles of the faces of millions of people, Matt is truly the First Lady of Springfield — and certainly a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2015 Difference Makers
Company’s Contributions to the Region Extend Well Beyond Check Writing

Nick Fyntrilakis

Nick Fyntrilakis, the company’s vice president of Community Responsibility.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Nick Fyntrilakis certainly wasn’t around for what’s known in local lore as the Great Flood of ’36, when the Connecticut River, swollen by large amounts of melting snow and persistent rains, spilled over its banks in mid-March, breaching dams, knocking bridges off their foundations, and destroying homes and businesses.

But he’s heard the stories — and seen some of the photos — related to how MassMutual Financial Group, the company he now serves as vice president of Community Responsibility, opened its purse strings, not to mention its doors (quite literally), to help Springfield residents weather that disaster.

“We sheltered people in our home office on State Street because they didn’t have any place to go — we had people sleeping on cots in a gymnasium that we had at that time,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he references that story often because it helps explain the company’s long history of community involvement and the many different forms it has taken.

Actually, that history goes back well before 1936, he said, adding that it is his unofficial job description to help write more chapters and also create new ways to support area cities and towns (especially Springfield, its home base) and improve overall quality of life.

And in recent years, he and others at the company have added to the portfolio of community involvement in some intriguing — and what many would consider non-traditional — ways, from the many layers of support provided after the devastating tornado in 2011, to several forms of assistance to the nonprofit agency DevelopSpringfield, which grew out of a State Street revitalization initiative and is now involved in a wide range of economic-development-related activities, to multi-tiered support for Valley Venture Mentors and other groups and initiatives created to foster and nurture entrepreneurial activity and, ultimately, create jobs.

These come on top of more traditional forms of support, such as scholarships for high-school students, mentoring and internship programs, funding of cultural institutions such as the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and CityStage, and continued support for the many events staged by the Spirit of Springfield, including its annual Fourth of July fireworks display.

Add it all up, and it becomes apparent that MassMutual, a Fortune 100 company (number 96 in the last compilation, with more than $33 billion in annual revenue) is making a huge impact in the community, one that certainly epitomizes the phrase Difference Maker.

The numbers certainly support such a designation:

• In 2014, MassMutual supported 109 Springfield-area entities, spreading $4.8 million among them;
• The company’s aggregate support of DevelopSpringfield from 2008 to 2014 totals more than $4.3 million, including a $1.6 million contribution toward planning and rebuilding following the tornado;
• This past year, MassMutual awarded $1.6 million to Valley Venture Mentors over the next three years to support an accelerator program and created the $5 million Springfield Venture Fund;
• Over the past five years, the company has granted internships to nearly 500 high-school and college students. Job offers were extended to 23 of the participants, and 17 are still with the company; and
• Company employees mentor roughly 35 Springfield high-school students each year, and has had 175 mentor matches since the 2010-11 school year.

But such statistics tell only part of the story. Indeed, Fyntrilakis, as well as representatives for some of the agencies supported by MassMutual, say the company’s involvement goes well beyond check writing, and is part of broad strategy to strengthen the Greater Springfield area and position it for a better economic future.

Jay Minkarah, president and CEO of DevelopSpringfield, called it a “holistic approach,” one that he believes separates MassMutual from most other corporate donors.

“One of things that distinguishes MassMutual’s support for initiatives like ours is that these are not just a nod toward giving back to the community or a feeling that the company should support charitable endeavors,” he explained. “These are different. These are strategic investments in the community.”

Summing up the company’s philosophy involving community involvement, Fyntrilakis said it mirrors its corporate outlook as well, meaning a focus on the longer term.

“We make decisions that are 50-year decisions — we don’t worry about the next quarter or what the stock price is going to look like in two days; we’re worried about how our company is going to be faring 50 years from now so we can deliver on the promises we make to our policy holders,” he explained. “And as a result, that translates into the way we engage our community and our corporate responsibility. We want to ensure that our region is strong into the future so that we can have a workforce that can deliver on the things that we need for our policy owners, and we want to continue to thrive as an organization. As goes our community, so goes our ability to do things.”

In Good Company

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno told BusinessWest that any community fortunate enough to have a Fortune 100 company headquartered within its boundaries should certainly expect that employer to be a solid corporate citizen.

Springfield’s fireworks

Springfield’s fireworks display now bears MassMutual’s name as lead sponsor — one of the company’s many examples of philanthropy in the category of community vitality.

But he and others are of the opinion that what MassMutual has done over the past 164 years goes above and beyond what could — and should — be expected.

“From the beginning, this city has always been able to count on MassMutual,” said Sarno, who has been in the corner office through a number of natural disasters and economic initiatives that the company has responded to. “It’s been a source of jobs, a force on economic development, and a philanthropic monster. And it should never, ever be taken for granted, because not every city has a MassMutual — and every city would love to have one.”

Fyntrilakis said the contributions made within the community are part of a corporate culture. “We are responsive and engaged and committed to serving our community,” he said, adding that, as the company has grown over the decades and expanded physically within other communities, that philosophy has followed.

“We support other communities where we have a presence,” he explained, “including Enfield, Phoenix, Memphis, and now Boston, where we have an office. We are engaged there as well.”

But the level of engagement is much higher in Springfield, he said, and for obvious reasons. The company traces its roots here, to 1851, when Caleb Rice, then an insurance agent working for Hartford-based Connecticut Mutual Life, decided to open a similar company — one owned by its policy holders — in Massachusetts. The company’s growth mirrored the nation’s — in other words, it expanded west, opening offices in several Midwestern states, and eventually reached the West Coast in 1868.

But it has always had Springfield has its base, with several headquarters facilities, including the current home on State Street, opened in 1927. Along with Smith & Wesson (because of that company’s strong brand recognition), it is the corporate entity most associated with the City of Homes.

“We have a much deeper involvement in Springfield, both from a financial perspective as well as a human-engagement perspective,” said Fyntrilakis, “in the sense of me serving on boards of directors, having our employees volunteer in the community on various things, and employees being generous with their own dollars to causes that we support or drives that we have for food or toys or things of that nature.

“It’s pretty special — it’s a meaningful degree of support,” he went on. “It goes along with being a Fortune 100 company, but it’s not just about how big we are or what people think we should do. It’s about what we think we should do and our own commitment.”

Fyntrilakis told BusinessWest that the phrase ‘corporate responsibility’ cuts across most all aspects of the company and includes employees in many departments and on many levels. Examples include everything from environmental responsibility — an important consideration for a company with such a large footprint, and one embodied in such initiatives as solar panels on the roof of the company’s headquarters and electric-car-charging stations in the parking lot — to employee benefits and training initiatives.

But perhaps the most visible component of corporate responsibility is the many actions that fall into the broad category of philanthropy or community involvement.

Historically, there are three main categories for this involvement, he said: education, economic development, and what the company calls ‘community vitality,’ and there are many examples of each.

School of Thought

Before elaborating on each area, Fyntrilakis first went into more depth about the philosophy that governs decisions on community involvement, because doing so helps explain directions taken by the company.

“We’re not ashamed to say that it’s important for our charitable activity to align with our business strategy,” he explained. “Because, in order for us to support charitable activity, our business needs to be strong.”

And one of the keys to achieving that strength (again, for the long term) is through a quality workforce and effective means of attracting and recruiting talent. Thus, many of the philanthropic initiatives within the realm of education involve initiatives that would help better train a workforce locally and also introduce young people to the company and its myriad employment opportunities. Meanwhile, initiatives within the area of community vitality are aimed at improving quality of life, but also to make the region more attractive to potential job candidates.

On the national level, he went on, many initiatives, such the LifeBridge and FutureSmart programs, are designed at enhancing the corporation’s brand and reputation, as well as empowering more Americans to become educated financially, which ties into MassMutual’s core business.

LifeBridge is a unique, free life-insurance program that helps children of income-eligible families pay for their education expenses if their insured parent or guardian passes away during the term of the policy, while the FutureSmart Challenge, conducted in conjunction with select NBA teams, stages interactive seminars at which students learn the importance of savings, career choices, staying in school and going to college, and how each has a profound impact on their future financial success.

Locally, within the category of education, said Fyntrilakis, the emphasis is on grades 6-12, with a focus on academic achievement and career pathways. Individual initiatives involve grants to specific programs to improve academic achievement, scholarships, mentoring students at the Springfield High School of Science and Technology and Putnam Vocational Technical High School (both located nearly across State Street from the company’s headquarters building), internships, job-shadowing programs, and others.

“Our hope is that we can create a pipeline for some of those young people to come and work at MassMutual,” he explained. “Many of our initatives are aimed at prompting the diverse, talented young people that we have to think about a career at MassMutual, and have a progression and a way that they can do that.”

MassMutual’s support to Springfield

MassMutual’s support to Springfield after the 2011 tornado came in many forms, from a $1.6 grant toward the rebuilding effort to a loaned executive to help draft a recovery plan.

In the realm of community vitality, support is directed toward those events and institutions that will attract people to the city of Springfield and the region as a whole, said Fyntrilakis. That list includes everything from the recent Spalding Hoophall Classic, which brought top high-school basketball players from around the country to the City of Homes for a three-day tournament, to Bright Nights, the Fourth of July fireworks, and other events staged by the Sprit of Springfield; from the SSO to CityStage and the Springfield Museums.

As with programs in the realm of education, MassMutual’s initiatives in community involvement usually go well beyond simply writing checks.

Indeed, Audrey Szychulski, outgoing executive director of the SSO, said the company’s contributions to that institution go well beyond its sizeable season sponsorship (a six-figure gift). Indeed, several officers of the company sit on the orchestra’s board, including Chief Marketing Officer John Chandler, the current chair.

“Besides funding, MassMutual has a core group of people who interact with us on a regular basis,” she explained, adding that the company has also assisted with strategic planning, marketing initiatives, introducing the SSOP to young professionals new to the region, and even a complete IT analysis. “And when it comes to a donation of that size, it’s really an investment in our general operating needs to ensure that we really can serve our community. To them, it’s not just about the concert, but the whole experience and helping to ensure that we can touch as many people as possible through outreach initiatives.”

Response to the tornado of 2011, as well as the flood of 1936 and other natural disasters, does not fall neatly into any of the three main categories of community involvement, but it does reflect the company’s sense of responsibility to the city and its residents.

“It was an extraordinary event, and we certainly wanted to step in,” Fyntrilakis said, adding that support took forms ranging from an immediate $100,000 donation to the American Red Cross to a $1.6 million contribution to DevelopSpringfield for its Rebuild Springfield Fund, to a donation of his time and energy to co-chair the rebuilding effort.

Fueling Entrepreneurship

But if the tornado does fit into a category, it would likely be economic development, said Fyntrilakis, adding this is a relatively new classification of community involvement for the company — but one that has garnered most of the headlines in recent months.

The sharpened focus on this realm dates back roughly to 2008 and the Great Recession, he told BusinessWest, noting that the company recognized a need to reach out and help the city, which was, like many former manufacturing centers, struggling to reinvent itself and stimulate new job growth.

“We stepped back and we decided that we really needed to help the community leverage the assets it had and really take advantage of opportunities to grow and strengthen its economy,” he explained. “It’s great for us to be able to do lots of things charitably, but the reality is, the better the economy is, and the better the opportunities for people to get jobs and for the tax base to grow — that’s really what’s going to help strengthen the community a lot more than charitable contributions that aren’t going to facilitate that.”

This emphasis on economic-development-related support has taken more forms, starting with a State Street Corridor initiative that remains a work in progress. As part of that endeavor, the company helped facilitate creation of DevelopSpringfield, which Fyntrilakis called a “bricks-and-mortar organization” charged mostly with developing and repurposing underutilized properties, thereby revitalizing many of the city’s neighborhoods.

Current projects include several on State Street, including development of a supermarket, reuse of the former River Inn, razed in 2013, and redevelopment of the so-called Gunn Block. Other initiatives include renovation of the Ansel Phelps House on Maple Street and DevelopSpringfield’s commitment to build an innovation center in two long-vacant buildings on Bridge Street.

That facility will become the new home to Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), another of the Difference Makers for 2015 (see related story, page A28) and one of the focal points for MassMutual’s multi-pronged efforts to promote entrepreneurship and encourage businesses to locate within Springfield.

Overall, the company is investing $6.5 million in that realm, with $1.5 million going to VVM over the next three years for a startup accelerator — the first cohort of 30 companies started its six months of programs in January — and $5 million for creation of the Springfield Venture Fund, which will invest in startups located in Springfield or willing to relocate there.

In December, video-game developer HitPoint Studios became the first company to receive an investment ($500,000) from the fund, relocating from Amherst to a suite in 1350 Main St. in Springfield.

“We kept hearing how entrepreneurs were chasing capital, and capital was dictating where folks were locating — Boston, Cambridge, and San Francisco were putting money on the table and driving people to those communities,” said Fyntrilakis as he discussed how and why the fund came about. “Those are great cities with wonderful entrepreneurial ecosystems, but we felt that we had, through VVM and others, a good entrepreneurial ecosystem in Springfield, but the early-stage capital just wasn’t available, and folks were leaving to pursue capital elsewhere.”

By providing that early-stage capital, as well as other forms of support for entrepreneurship, MassMutual is taking a somewhat bold step in the arena of community involvement, one that should pay huge dividends down the road, said Jay Leonard, a board member at VVM and one of those who helped guide it though its formative years.

“MassMutual’s support of both the accelerator and the fund has been critical,” said Leonard, who serves as an economic researcher for one of the company’s subsidiaries, Babson Capital Management, and has served as a go-between of sorts for VVM and the corporation. “The best way to provide economic development is to invest in companies that are going to be successful, and MassMutual’s doing that.”

Minkarah agreed, and returned to that word ‘holistic’ to describe the company’s community involvement, especially with entrepreneurship initiatives.

“The company has provided support for the Springfield Innovation Center and Valley Venture Mentors, and it created the Springfield Venture Fund, and you can’t just look at any of these in isolation,” he explained. “When you look at that total package, here are very well-thought-out strategic investments designed to create a physical place that will support and foster innovation and entrepreneurship, support an organization that can actually run the program, and provide funding to support startups and high-growth companies that are innovative and entrepreneurial themselves.

“These are investments that MassMutual is making in the long-term economic health of the community,” he went on, “because they believe these are strategically positioned initiatives that can have a catalytic effect.”

Flood of Memories

It’s unlikely that anyone was using the word ‘catalytic’ with any degree of frequency back in 1936.

And that term probably wouldn’t be used to describe people sleeping on cots in MassMutual’s gymnasium because the flood leveled their homes.

But times change, in some ways, and that word is certainly appropriate now.

That’s because, while the company is basically continuing a 160-year-old tradition of community involvement, it is finding new, dynamic, and in some ways groundbreaking ways for it to evolve.

And that’s one of many reasons why it is a Difference Maker.

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