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Making Some Noise

Jeremy Casey, managing partner of SR Commercial Realty

Jeremy Casey, managing partner of SR Commercial Realty

Jeremy Casey had decided it was time to move on from the banking business.

He had already been with several area institutions, working in commercial lending and, to a large degree, commercial real estate, and was seeing the industry change — and consolidate — around him.

He was with Chicopee Savings Bank and doing well there, but could see the handwriting on the wall in the form of a seemingly inevitable merger with Westfield Bank, one of his former employers.

“I didn’t want to be one of those people who jumped from bank to bank and to higher positions in those banks and then to another bank,” he said, adding that he had decided it was time to think about a change.

It would come first with some entrepreneurial undertakings, including an ill-fated venture called Name Net Worth, an app that would essentially measure what he called the ‘ripple effect’ from networking encounters. When that initiative failed, he took a big leap into commercial real estate and a managing-partner position with Springfield-based SR Commercial Realty, a company soon to mark five years in business.

It’s a growing, evolving venture that is making some noise in the market — figuratively but also quite literally. Indeed, Casey said that one trait that separates this company from other players in the market is its progressive and aggressive — some would say loud — marketing of properties.

“We’re noisy — you can’t get away from us,” he explained with a laugh, noting that the company has used large signs (the largest allowed by local ordinances), drone footage, videos, and other methods for bringing attention to properties in the portfolio, which is dominated mostly by industrial properties, retail, and land for development.

Many companies are using some of these tactics now, but Casey says SR Commercial Realty was breaking ground with such methods several years ago.

“Some brokers were actually mocking us at the time, but now, it’s the standard five years later,” he said, adding quickly that ‘noisy’ marketing is only one of three pillars that shape the company’s operating style. The others are communication and responsiveness, traits that have helped SR consistently build on its portfolio and add properties ranging from Thornes Market in Northampton to the former Channing Beete complex in Deerfield, sold to Treehouse Brewery; from the former Berkshire Industries property in Westfield to several properties in downtown Springfield and also downtown Hartford.

“Commercial real estate has been the same forever, but it will change, whether people like it or not. Technology will pay a huge role, and that gives us a good competitive advantage, because we’ve already been using it.”

Each of these properties is in some way unique, and they have been handled differently, he said, adding that this is one of the linchpins of the company’s operating philosophy.

“In commercial real estate, no building is the same, and no buyer is the same,” adding that this reality separates this sector from residential real estate to a large degree. “Residential is so black and white; with commercial, there’s very black and white and so much gray.”

Moving forward, Casey said the goal is to obviously continue to build the portfolio and expand the company’s reach — it has already added properties in the Boston area and on Cape Cod — while also being on the cutting edge of changes coming to the industry, not just in how properties are marketed, but to how business is done in general.

These are changes he believes are needed — and also inevitable.

“The industry needs to be disrupted,” he said. “Commercial real estate has been the same forever, but it will change, whether people like it or not. Technology will pay a huge role, and that gives us a good competitive advantage, because we’ve already been using it.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked at length with Casey, one of its 40 Under Forty honorees from his days in banking, about SR Commercial Realty and where he hopes to take this company in the years to come.

 

Building Momentum

The wall behind the desk in Casey’s office features a treatment depicting several of the landmark buildings in downtown Springfield — Tower Square, Monarch Place, the Colonial Block, the Campanielle, among others.

It’s one of the countless touches in the Willow State Building (so-called because it sits at the corner of Willow and State streets in downtown Springfield), which he co-owns with a few partners, that he did himself.

In fact, the partners did just about everything themselves, he went on, pointing to everything from the red, black, gray, and a little bit of green paint used on the walls in the SR Commercial Realty offices to the bathroom fixtures in all the suites; from the exterior façade (more black) to build-out for several new tenants, which range from Suit Up Springfield to HomeCare Hands to a new restaurant in the early stages of construction.

“We’ve put thousands of hours into this property — we’ve been working on it for three years straight,” he said, adding that he and his partners have succeeded in creating what he called a “community.”

Willow State Building

Renovating and securing new tenants for the Willow State Building has been one of Jeremy Casey’s passions. Growing SR Commercial Realty and expanding its portfolio and geographic reach has been another.

The Willow State Building has been a passion for Casey since he and his partners acquired it just prior to the start of the pandemic — or, more accurately, one of his passions, with SR Commercial Realty being the other.

Both have been works in progress and studies in entrepreneurship, resourcefulness, and well, different ways of doing things.

In many respects, anyway.

Indeed, Casey said the fundamentals of the commercial real-estate business, mostly the same as they are in banking, have not changed and won’t change.

Both sectors are grounded in relationship building and responding to the needs of customers, he explained, noting that he has taken these principles from his time in banking to this next chapter in his career.

This chapter started just after the demise of Name Net Worth, a very difficult time in Casey’s life, one when he looked inward and decided to move forward rather than look back or dwell on the present.

“I could have sat there and pouted and gone ‘poor me’ … it was a tough time, I had a newborn baby, we just bought a house, and we were gutting the house and redoing it, and I had no job, nothing,” he recalled, adding that he called his eventual business partner, who already had a small commercial real-estate business, and proposed a new venture.

“I linked up with him, and we took the same methodologies we used in the startup world and took them to commercial real estate,” he explained. “Specifically, that means listening to customers, not just coming up with what we think, but listening to where the pain points are in the industry.

“And, candidly, there were a lot of them,” he went on, adding that the company was founded with that focus on marketing, communication, and responsiveness.

With marketing, as he said earlier, the goal was to push the envelope and look for new, different, and more effective ways to do things.

“The way things were marketed before, you put a sign up, and you put the property on LoopNet or maybe that book you see in the convenience store,” he explained. “No one was using social media, no one was using video, no one was using professional photography.”

Partnering with Seven Roads Media (so named because it was based in East Longmeadow, where seven roads come together at that famous rotary), which is now a tenant in the Willow State Building, SR Commercial Realty worked to take commercial real-estate marketing to the proverbial next level with video and other strategies, including large signs.

“The largest sign we did was nine by 18 feet, and we did two of them — they were so large, they needed wind slits,” said Casey, referring to a property in Middletown, Conn. “We’ve painted buildings to bring attention to them … we try to get as much exposure as possible.”

This is what Casey meant by ‘noisy,’ which he believes is just one of the company’s attributes as it works to expand its portfolio and grow market share.

Others include the staff itself. It is young, with the average age of the brokers being in the 30s, and diverse, with brokers coming from different backgrounds in business, he said, adding that these various attributes are beneficial in this market and many others where demographics are changing.

“Not one person in this company had commercial real-estate brokerage experience prior to joining,” he said, adding that the different work experiences have brought fresh perspectives on how to do things.

Also beneficial, he said, is the high level of involvement, and communication, with clients, that has been the company’s MO.

“A broker is, by definition, someone who introduces two parties to consumate a relationship of a deal,” Casey explained. “But we’re very involved … the staff that we have here act like paralegals, so our deals don’t fall apart. We like to say that we provide a hands-on, white-glove experience with transaction coordination and transaction management; we work with clients so they truly get the experience they want.”

 

Signs of the Times

Like the lobbies of most all commercial-real estate firms, the one at SR boasts photos of properties it handles or has handled.

Casey pointed to framed aerial images of Thornes Marketplace, a section of downtown Hartford, and the Channing Beete property in Deerfield, before it was transformed by Treehouse.

The goal moving forward, obviously, is to build on this collection and fill more walls with pictures.

This can be done by focusing on the proverbial big picture, he went on, referring, again, to the company’s focus on listening to customers, hearing what they’re saying, and responding accordingly.

By continuing to do that, this growing company can make even more noise in this highly competitive industry.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The late Gregory Krupczak’s family say he played a significant role at Echo Hill Orchards and Winery.

The late Gregory Krupczak’s family say he played a significant role at Echo Hill Orchards and Winery.

In many ways, Monson is a sleepy New England town with a small Main Street lined with shops, as well as small and medium-sized businesses located throughout the town, in many different industries.

But years ago, Monson was a big mill town known for its granite quarries. As mill owners sought employees, the population grew. And it’s been a resilient community through decades of change, from the decline of the quarries to a tornado that cut through the center of town 2011, causing almost $12 million in property damage.

So, even though the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out plenty of businesses worldwide, Monson was “more resilient than other places that are more dependent on business,” said Andrew Surprise, CEO of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce.

“They have a captive audience. Monson isn’t really close to a lot of businesses; I think the closest and primary shopping area would be Palmer and maybe Wilbraham, or Springfield on Boston Road. Other than that, if you need something specific … there’s an optical business. So if you need eyeglasses, you’re gonna go to the eyeglass place downtown; it makes sense. If you need to run to the pharmacy, there’s one downtown. The supermarket? Downtown. So the businesses there really serve the members that are there in the community.”

Because of the size of Monson, with just over 8,000 residents, Surprise told BusinessWest that it’s all about making the region as a whole more marketable, modeling a tourism guide off of the Newport, R.I. guide.

It includes maps and “more touristy things … like a lot of businesses and organizations that have joined the chamber, wineries, breweries,” and others that will attract tourists, he explained. And because the surrounding region is made up of smaller towns like Belchertown, Spencer, Palmer, Brimfield, and Ware, Surprise said most people don’t come to the area just for one event.

“If we market as a region, there’s more reason to come to the region because you’re not just going for one thing in one town.”

“What we find is, if we market as a region, there’s more reason to come to the region because you’re not just going for one thing in one town. You’re going, ‘OK, I can go to the Keep Homestead Museum in Monson, but I can also stop at the Brimfield Antique Fair, or I can go over here to this brewery for lunch,” Surprise said.

The thrice-yearly antique fair is an example of one attraction that raises the profile of the entire region, including Monson. “We like to draw them out into the Quaboag region because there are a lot of people that go to those shows. It’s estimated to be about 250,000 people per year.”

With the help of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Monson was given $75,000 in grant funding for a variety of projects, including wayfinding signage for the downtown area to point out points of interest and historical sites, as well as $15,000 for events, which primarily run through the chamber in coordination with the town.

On top of the grants provided by state funding, Surprise is working with groups of businesses as well as chamber members and the town of Monson to revamp and create a Monson Business and Civic Assoc., which is essentially part of the chamber, but focused solely on Monson businesses and their marketing.

He went on to explain that this helps businesses with marketing and to create events that will attract people to their location and the downtown business corridor. The grants also allow businesses to incorporate more outdoor seating, places where people can congregate in the downtown area.

 

Family Fun

State Sen. Ryan Fattman worked closely with the chamber to put funding into the state budget, as well as into the economic-development package that just passed, providing $130,000 for agri-tourism businesses. One of the businesses that has received grant money is Echo Hill Orchards and Winery.

“We were planning on building a pavilion with it; it should actually be starting this month. And since we’re seasonal, we don’t have a whole lot of covered outdoor space, so the pavilion will allow us to have more room for people to sit outside so we don’t run out of space,” said Ashley Krupczak, manager of the winery/distillery and the second-oldest of the business’ second generation.

Echo Hill Orchards and Winery was just an apple orchard and fruit farm when the Krupczak family purchased it 25 years ago. Over the years, especially in the past decade, they’ve grown the farm into “more of a destination for families.”

They make wines, spirits, whiskeys, and moonshines out of their apples, as well as a pick-your-own orchard for families with kids of all ages. Visitors can pick pumpkins, pears, sunflowers, and peaches during their respective seasons.

But being part of Monson means working with other vendors throughout the town. During the busy harvest seasons, food-truck vendors from Monson have been invited to the orchards the past couple of years.

“It’s just such a comforting and fun thing to do to be involved with your community and have something to offer the town and have something to offer friends and family to come do at our own place,” Krupczak told BusinessWest. “Having one of the agricultural businesses in Monson means that we are taking a step in sustaining agriculture in a small town. And what means a real lot to us, but other people, too, is protecting the land that the orchards give us.”

Despite their apple crop depleting sooner than they’d hoped this year, the winery/distillery has brought more traffic to the orchards. Krupczak said pleasant weather was a driving factor in how well the business did. “We had great customers this year; a lot of memories were made.”

Echo Hill Orchards and Winery is completely family-owned and managed, she added. “My mom is down in the store, my sister and I work in the bar, and in the offseason, we have to prune all of the apple trees. So there’s a lot of work to be done. That’s also when we make all of our wine and our moonshine because we don’t have time in the fall season. It’s a lot of off time, but we’re still working hard, just on other things.”

Just like the Krupczak family, Monson Savings Bank President Dan Moriarty and his team like to stay involved with his community. He said many of his employees are involved with outside organizations and charities. For example, Moriarty and Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Rouette coached youth sports for many years in town.

“Having one of the agricultural businesses in Monson means that we are taking a step in sustaining agriculture in a small town.”

“Whether it’s the arts or sports and recreation, whether it’s seniors, whether it’s education, we just try, and it’s been like that for 150 years,” Moriarty said, noting this year’s anniversary celebration of the bank’s history. “I think the bank has always wanted to be a good civic partner with the organizations in town.”

The bank currently services 429 businesses that call Monson home, from mom-and-pop shops to larger companies that employ quite a few people from in town and outside it.

“I think, and I hope, the perception of MSB is that we’re trying to work with every business in town. The one thing that we pride ourselves on is trying to give honest, prudent business advice, whether we can do a loan for a business or not,” he said. “We always try to help a customer get to a place where we can put them in a position to expand their business.”

Moriarty went on to explain that 2021 and 2022 were the bank’s historic best years from a growth perspective, and he’s confident that, despite an economy that may be heading into a recession, both consumers and businesses have been resilient coming out of the pandemic. “I would describe 2023 as an environment of uncertainty, but with the potential to have some optimism.”

 

Honoring Tradition

Krupczak agreed. Even though this year was solid, business-wise, the family is hoping for a better year in 2023, even after the loss of their oldest brother, Gregory.

“He was great at woodworking and built benches for the orchard; he’d help us make and bottle the wine and whiskeys,” she recalled. “Chris, Gregory, Mia, and I would all bottle wine together each summer. That was a big part of spending time together and making the wines; we will miss that time spent together greatly this coming year.”

She added that the family appreciates the support of everyone in Monson, especially through the hard time they’re facing. “It just showed us so much. It keeps us going.”

But, in some ways, that support isn’t surprising, Krupczak added.

“It has something to do with keeping the town small and keeping traditions alive, like the families that lived in Monson and grown up here way before we owned this.” u

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at
[email protected]

Features

This Strategy May Help You Navigate ‘Wash-sale’ Rule

By Sean Wandrei

 

It is that time of year when taxpayers are looking for ways to reduce their tax liability. It has been a volatile year for the stock and cryptocurrency markets. There may have been some capital gains generated in the beginning of the year when stocks were sold and the markets were doing better than they are now. Now, as the year has progressed, there may be stocks that you are holding that have declined in value. These stocks are ripe for tax-loss harvesting.

Tax-loss harvesting is a strategy used to recognize capital losses by selling capital assets that have declined in value to offset capital gain already recognized. If you have capital gains from stocks that you have sold during the year, you can offset those gains by selling other stocks that have declined in value to generate a capital loss. The capital losses would offset the capital gains that would reduce the amount of taxes that would be paid on those gains by eliminating them. If you end up with capital losses in excess of capital gains during the year, you can deduct up to $3,000 of the net capital loss in the current year. Any capital loss in excess of $3,000 would be carried forward and used to offset future capital gains.

Sean Wandrei

Sean Wandrei

“Tax-loss harvesting is a strategy used to recognize capital losses by selling capital assets that have declined in value to offset capital gain already recognized.”

There could be an issue with this strategy, as the ‘wash-sale rule’ could limit its effectiveness. The wash-sale rule states that, if you are deducting a loss, you cannot buy a ‘substantially identical’ stock or security for 30 days up to the date of sale and 30 days after. If you do, the capital loss may be disallowed. This could be an issue when you sell a stock that you want to stay in, just to generate a capital loss.

‘Substantially identical’ generally means you cannot sell Tesla stock and reacquire Tesla right before or after the sale. If you are selling your Tesla stock just to generate losses and still want to be in Tesla stock, you need to wait 30 days to reacquire it.

What if you are investing in cryptocurrencies? The two most popular cryptocurrencies are Bitcoin and Ethereum, but there are hundreds more that you could invest in. Cryptocurrency prices can be volatile and widely fluctuate throughout the year. Bitcoin has dropped from a price of $66,000 per coin to $16,000 over the past year. Ethereum has seen similar declines over the year.

There may have been many investors who got into the cryptocurrency game hoping to ride the wave of optimism and are now looking at their portfolio, which shows built-in capital losses on their cryptocurrency investments. In 2014, the IRS declared cryptocurrencies to be a capital asset. As of this writing, cryptocurrencies are not stocks or securities and do not fall under the wash-sale rules. There has been some discussion in Washington, D.C. to expand the wash-sale rules to include cryptocurrencies, but as of now, that has not materialized.

If you believe in the underlying blockchain technology and the cryptocurrency associated with it, you may be a long-term investor and want to hold onto the investment believing that there will be future gains. There is an opportunity to reduce your tax liability by selling cryptocurrency that has decreased in value for a capital loss and then buy the same cryptocurrency immediately after the sale. This would not violate the wash-sale rules since cryptocurrency is not viewed as a stock or security. The capital losses generated by this strategy could be used to offset any capital gains that you may have.

Are there some risks with tax-loss harvesting? Of course there are. There is usually a transaction fee associated with buying and selling cryptocurrencies that some exchanges (such as Coinbase, Kraken, or others) charge. This fee could be as high as 4%. Does the cost of the transaction outweigh the tax savings that could be generated from this strategy? As mentioned previously, there are talks of pulling cryptocurrencies into the wash-sale rule, so this should be monitored if you are thinking about this strategy.

Lastly, while tax-loss harvesting defers your capital gains, it does not eliminate them forever. This is a strategy based on the time value of money where tax savings now can be used to invest in more capital assets that will generate income in the future.

As with any tax article, the famous last words: as always, you should see your tax professional advisor if you have any tax questions or concerns.

 

Sean Wandrei is a senior lecturer in Taxation at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst; [email protected]

Law

A Heads Up

By Briana Dawkins

 

Effective Oct. 24, Massachusetts joined 17 other states in passing the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, which bans discrimination against employees, students, and other individuals on the basis of natural or protective hairstyles historically associated with race.

The act applies to Massachusetts employers as well as all Massachusetts school districts, school committees, public schools, non-sectarian schools, and places of public accommodation. At the federal level, CROWN Act legislation has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is pending in the U.S. Senate.

The Massachusetts version of the CROWN Act amends the definition of ‘race’ contained in the state’s Fair Employment Practices Act, as well as other Massachusetts laws specifically applicable to schools, to include protection against such discrimination on the basis of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, hair length, and ‘protective styles,’ which include braids, locks, twists, Bantu knots, hair coverings, and other formations.

Briana Dawkins

Briana Dawkins

“To ensure compliance with the CROWN Act, employers and schools may want to consider avoiding language in their grooming or personal appearance policies that categorizes specific hairstyles or textures as ‘unkempt’ or, in the alternative, ‘socially acceptable.’ Such choice of words can create a presumption that some hairstyles or textures are less socially acceptable than others.”

The enactment of the CROWN Act in Massachusetts was founded in an incident that occurred at a Greater Boston charter school. In 2017, two Black 15-year-old sisters, Deanna and Mya Cook, were reprimanded at the Boston-area high school in Massachusetts for wearing braided hair extensions. At the time, the school had a hair and makeup grooming policy that prohibited hair extensions. The Cook sisters faced several hours of detention, were threatened with suspension, and, among other reprimands, were even barred from participating on the school’s sports teams after they refused to take down their protective hairstyles.

Thanks to the tenacity and grace of the Cook sisters, the issue reached a very public audience. The Massachusetts attorney general wrote a letter to the school informing the school that the grooming policy was discriminatory and in violation of state and federal law. The Cook sisters’ case also caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, as well as the NAACP. Then California state Sen. Holly Mitchell drafted the first CROWN Act legislation in 2019, empowering California to take the lead as the first state to enact this legislation.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed the CROWN Act into Massachusetts law earlier this year. While Massachusetts has not yet been confronted with a suit under the CROWN Act, a violation under the expanded protection may result in liability under the state’s anti-discrimination statutes (which provides for the award of lost wages, emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees).

Going forward, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) has been tasked with promulgating rules or issuing guidelines regarding the discrimination protections expanded by the CROWN Act. In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has been authorized to provide written guidance interpreting the Act. Nonetheless, employers and schools should not wait for the MCAD or DESE guidelines and should amend their equal employment opportunity policies, anti-discrimination policies, and any grooming or other appearance-related policies to ensure that the language appropriately reflects the added protections to race as a protected class.

To ensure compliance with the CROWN Act, employers and schools may want to consider avoiding language in their grooming or personal appearance policies that categorizes specific hairstyles or textures as ‘unkempt’ or, in the alternative, ‘socially acceptable.’ Such choice of words can create a presumption that some hairstyles or textures are less socially acceptable than others.

Instead, employers can enforce grooming requirements specific to a certain position or function of the job that apply to all employees regardless of race, hairstyle, or texture, such as a requirement to keep hair away from the face or pulled back. This same approach can apply to school grooming and uniform policies as well. Employers and schools should make efforts to ensure that the policies are enforced equally to all employees, students, and other individuals rather than selectively.

Employers and schools should also inform their managers, teachers, and other employees regarding policy changes and provide training on how to address potential policy violations. These preventive measures will help to ensure a welcoming environment for all hairstyles, textures, and the like that are historically associated with race in the work and school settings as required by the CROWN Act.

 

Briana Dawkins is an associate in Bulkley Richardson’s Employment and Litigation practices.

Law

This Developing Trend Is Moving in the Wrong Direction

By John Gannon, Esq.

 

Quiet quitting is a term many employers are familiar with — it involves a situation where an employee disengages from work and does only the bare minimum in order to get fired and collect unemployment.

Now, employers are firing back with quiet firings.

Quiet firing involves intentionally creating a difficult work environment and/or cutting pay or hours in a way that encourages people to leave voluntarily. In theory, the employee will quickly realize they need to get out and try to find alternate work elsewhere.

On the surface, ‘quietly firing’ a problematic or difficult employee might sound like a good idea. For starters, the manager or supervisor gets to avoid an uncomfortable conversation that will certainly lead to bad feelings and possibly boil over into a confrontation. Second, if the employee who is getting quietly fired is not meeting performance expectations, managers and supervisors avoid needing to coach them and give feedback.

John Gannon

John Gannon

“Managers and supervisors may prefer this method so they do not feel guilty about the end of the employment relationship. And quiet firing can be more easily accomplished in a remote or hybrid environment, as disengaging is easier when you do not have to see someone in the office.”

They can also avoid discussions about the consequences of continued poor performance. Managers and supervisors may prefer this method so they do not feel guilty about the end of the employment relationship. And quiet firing can be more easily accomplished in a remote or hybrid environment, as disengaging is easier when you do not have to see someone in the office.

Finally, some employers may see this as an opportunity to avoid unemployment compensation claims or claims of unlawful termination because employees who resign normally have trouble succeeding with such claims.

Despite what may appear to be advantages for employers who quietly fire employees, employers should resist the urge to utilize use this strategy for a number of reasons. First, creating a hostile work environment could lead to a lawsuit. It is unlawful for an employer to create a hostile work environment that is tied to an employee’s protected characteristics, such as gender or race. Creating a hostile work environment or reducing an employee’s hours could also be considered an adverse employment action, which can lead to claims of discrimination or retaliation.

Employees who are successful with these claims can sometimes recover big damage awards. For example, back in 2018, a jury awarded $28 million in damages to a nurse who succeeded in a retaliation claim against her employer. Part of her claim was that she was being verbally abused by her supervisor. The jury agreed, and the employer had to pay — a lot — for this supervisor’s mistake.

Employees who feel as though they are being squeezed out might resort to avenues other than the courtroom to air their grievances. It is not hard to leave damaging feedback on Glassdoor, a website where current and former employees anonymously review companies. Employees can (and probably will) share their negative feedback with co-workers, which could serve as the catalyst for good employees to start looking for a new job. It’s no secret that hiring and retaining qualified employees seems to be getting harder and harder each day.

Moreover, quiet firing is often the byproduct of a poor manager or supervisor who is unwilling to do one of the more difficult parts of their job — performance management.

So what should employers do? First, leaders should insist on managers and supervisors using traditional methods to address problematic behavior, such as coaching and progressive discipline. Should those efforts prove unsuccessful, managers and supervisors need to be ready to have the difficult conversation necessary to terminate the employee.

HR leaders should also be stepping in to prevent quiet firing from becoming a thing. This should involve regular check-ins with managers to talk about difficult employees and proactively asking how they are trying to solve the problem. Hopefully, the answer is performance management. If it’s not, maybe the manager is the one who needs some coaching and/or discipline. u

 

John Gannon is a partner with the Springfield-based law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, specializing in employment law and regularly counseling employers on compliance with state and federal laws, including family and medical leave laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate

Remaking History

The Franklin Community Co-op (FCC) announced on Nov. 16 that the former Wilson’s Department Store will be home to 65 mixed-income rental units and an expansion of the Green Field Market food store on the first floor and in the basement, under a plan announced last week by the city of Greenfield, MassDevelopment, and the Community Builders (TCB).

Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said that housing and maintaining a strong retail presence on Main Street have always been among her top goals since she took office.

The residential redevelopment of the historic property will be financed in part by a combination of federal and state low-income housing tax credits, new-market tax credits, and historic tax credits, pending approvals from relevant state agencies.

The city of Greenfield is also investing $300,000 in funds that must be used to create affordable housing. Wedegartner said the money comes from the city’s sale of the lease on another downtown housing development, the Mill House Apartments.

“Mixed-use buildings featuring housing and retail are a main ingredient for creating vibrant, walkable downtown neighborhoods.”

“Mixed-use buildings featuring housing and retail are a main ingredient for creating vibrant, walkable downtown neighborhoods,” added Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who serves as chair of MassDevelopment’s board of directors, in a news release.

The new placement of the retail store allows for new, full-service bakery, deli, meat, and seafood departments, as well as a large, on-site community room for public use and reservations for community gatherings, workshops, and events.

The co-op supports more than 220 local suppliers, including 40 local farms, producing $2.6 million in local sales in 2021 with two locations: Green Fields in Greenfield and McCusker’s Market in Shelburne Falls.

The 65 mixed-income rental homes for families will be one-, two- and three-bedroom units with a blend of workforce and income-adjusted units. Residents will be close not only to the co-op’s grocery store, but to healthcare, a pharmacy, the YMCA, the public library, and open green space.

“In addition to creating much-needed, high-quality housing in Greenfield, relocating and expanding Green Fields Market will provide the community with access to healthy food in an area of Greenfield currently without a full-service grocery store,” said Rachana Crowley, director of Real Estate Development at TCB. “We’re proud to be a part of this team which will create new housing, employment opportunities, and invest in a strong and robust Main Street in Greenfield.”

Wilson’s had long been an anchor downtown. The historical Wilson’s building was built in 1882 and was one of the last independent, family-owned department stores in the country before closing in January 2020. The building had supported businesses for 137 years before the closure.

“We’re thrilled we’ll remain a downtown anchor business,” said KC Ceccarossi, Franklin County Co-op board vice president. “We’ve been here for the last three decades, and it’s a critical part of our identity. We see this as such an important moment for the city. There aren’t a lot of towns that can boast a community-owned, full-service grocery store on Main Street.”

Owners of three businesses currently leasing space in the building were informed on Nov. 16 of the sale and told they needed to vacate by next spring, creating mixed emotions.

Kelly Archer, who has owned Lucky Bird on Main Street for five years, said she wasn’t sure yet what her next move was. “My time here has been awesome,” she said, but added that she needed time to process the information she’d been given earlier in the day.

Wedegartner said that the city and its partners will work with the businesses through the transition.

“We want them to stay in Greenfield,” the mayor said. “All of them — they’re all really important to downtown Greenfield. I’m hoping we will find each and every one of them the spot they want on Main Street to continue the business that they have.”

MJ Adams. Greenfield’s director of Community and Economic Development, said she was glad that, after a year of working out the details, the city was able to reveal the partnership, adding that “it’s going to be transformational to our downtown.”

Construction on the co-op is expected in 2023 and 2024, and the residential construction by 2025 and 2026.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Giving Guide Special Coverage

Regional Philanthropic Opportunities

When importance of giving to those in need — and to the organizations who help others secure their basic needs — doesn’t take a holiday, and there’s no season of the year when their work is not critical, especially at a time when the pandemic is barely in the rear-view mirror and an uncertain economy continues to pose challenges to so many individuals and nonprofits.

Still, there’s no doubt that people think about giving more around the year-end holidays, and that’s why BusinessWest and the Healthcare News publishes its annual Giving Guide around this time: to shine a spotlight on specific community needs and show you not only how to support them, but exactly what your money and time can accomplish.

On the pages that follow are profiles of 15 area nonprofit organizations, just a sampling of the region’s thousands of nonprofits. These profiles are intended to educate readers about what these groups are doing to improve quality of life for the people living and working in the 413, but also to inspire them to provide the critical support (which comes in many different forms) that these organizations and so many others so desperately need.

These profiles within the Giving Guide list not only giving opportunities — everything from online donations to corporate sponsorships — but also volunteer opportunities. And it is through volunteering, as much as with a cash donation, that individuals can help a nonprofit carry out its important mission within our community. And check out the giving opportunities being promoted by countless nonprofits on Giving Tuesday, Nov. 29.

BusinessWest and HCN launched the Giving Guide to 2011 to harness this region’s incredibly strong track record of philanthropy and support of the organizations dedicated to helping those in need. The publication is designed to inform, but also to encourage individuals and organizations to find new and imaginative ways to give back. We are confident it will succeed with both of those assignments.

George O’Brien, Editor and Associate Publisher
John Gormally, Publisher
Kate Campiti, Sales Manager and Associate Publisher

 

View the 2021 Giving Guide PDF Flipbook HERE

 

A Better Life Homecare, LLC

Children’s Advocacy Center
of Hampshire County Inc.

Holyoke Chicopee Springfield
Head Start Inc.

Home City Development, Inc. 24

Link to Libraries

Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services

Mental Health Association Inc.

Pathlight

Tom Cosenzi Driving For The Cure
Charity Golf Tournament

United Way of Pioneer Valley

Downtown Springfield YMCA/
Scantic Valley YMCA

YWCA of Western Massachusetts

Baystate Health Foundation

Glenmeadow

JGS LIFECARE

 

Presented by:

 

 

Law Special Coverage

A 2022 Year-end Wrap Up and a Look Ahead to 2023

By Justin Goldberg, Esq.

Within the broad realm of employment law, this past year was marked by increased protections to employees through changes to independent-contractor classifications, raising of minimum and service wages, increasing benefits for family and medical leave, safeguarding hairstyles of protected classes, and other changes.

Looking ahead to 2023, it certainly appears to be headed down a similar path, with employee safeguards continuing to solidify. Employee security and compensation guarantees to be a highly litigated issue in the coming year.

Here is a look back — and ahead:

 

U.S. Department of Labor Publishes Independent Contractor Proposed Rule

On Oct. 11, the Biden administration, via the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), proposed to modify Wage and Hour Division regulations so as to revise its analysis for determining employee or independent-contractor classification under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

This was done with the aim to be more consistent with judicial precedent and the act’s text and purpose. This will mark the administration’s second attempt at undoing the Trump-era standard, which it claims denies basic worker protections such as minimum wage and overtime pay.

Justin Goldberg

Justin Goldberg

“Operating costs will undoubtedly increase if they are required to reclassify their independent contractors as employees, due to the tax liabilities and minimum-wage, labor, safety, and other legal requirements that apply to employees.”

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh was quoted as saying, “while independent contractors have an important role in our economy, we have seen in many cases that employers misclassify their employees as independent contractors, particularly among our nation’s most vulnerable workers,” and that “misclassification deprives workers of their federal labor protections, including their right to be paid their full, legally earned wages.”

Industries such as gig companies, construction, trucking, home care, janitorial services, delivery, personal services, hospitality, and restaurants that use independent contractors as staff should pay close attention to this anticipated development. Their operating costs will undoubtedly increase if they are required to reclassify their independent contractors as employees, due to the tax liabilities and minimum-wage, labor, safety, and other legal requirements that apply to employees.

The Trump-era rule outlined a multi-factor test (five total) to determine if the worker is an independent contractor or an employee; however, it gave far greater weight to two core factors: the nature and degree of the worker’s control over the work, and the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss based on personal initiative or investment.

The Biden administration’s proposal would consider those two factors, but include four others for a total of six: investments by the worker and the employer, the degree of permanence of the working relationship, the extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business, and the degree of skill and initiative exhibited by the worker.

These six factors guide the analysis of whether the “economic realities of the working relationship” show a worker to be either dependent on the employer for work or in business for themselves based on a “totality of the circumstances.”

Under the proposed modification, no one factor or set of factors is presumed to carry more weight, and the DOL may also consider additional factors beyond those six, if they indicate the worker may be in business for themselves.

 

Increases in the Minimum Wage and Service Rate

Massachusetts employees making minimum wage are going to see a pay increase of 75 cents per hour, effective Jan. 1, 2023, bringing their pay to $15 per hour. This does not include agricultural workers, whose pay remains at $8 per hour. Workers under the service rate (those who provide services to customers and make more than $20 a month in tips) will see an increase of 60 cents per hour, beginning in 2023, as the service rate is now $6.75.

 

Changes to Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave

In 2022, the maximum weekly benefit for Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave is $1,084.31; however, in 2023, it will increase to $1,129.82. Also beginning in 2023, the contribution rate for employers with 25 or more covered individuals will decrease from 0.68% of eligible wages down to 0.63% of eligible wages. Employers should ensure that their wage deductions and contributions are adjusted accordingly. This is the second straight year the contribution rate has decreased.

Employees are still not permitted to use their accrued sick or vacation leave to ‘top off’ their weekly benefit. While there may have been rumors that Massachusetts was planning to change this in 2023, no such change appears forthcoming.

 

The CROWN Act

In 2022, Massachusetts enacted the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, making it the 18th state to pass similar legislation (see related story on page XX). This law is aimed at quashing discrimination on the basis of “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, hair length, and protective hairstyles.”

The law further defines “protective hairstyles” to include “braids, locks, twists, Bantu knots, hair coverings, and other formations.” Employers who violate the CROWN Act will be liable for compensatory damages, as well as possible punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The CROWN ACT was inspired by two teenage twin sisters’ alleged violation of a school hair and makeup policy that prohibited extensions.

 

Bottom Line

Given the changes that have taken place — and the changes to come — it is a good idea to have your business schedule a check-in with an employment-law firm as we approach 2023.

 

Justin Goldberg is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment-law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

Special Coverage Technology

Defense Mechanism

future site of the SOC and cyber range

STCC’s Mary Kaselouskas tours the future site of the SOC and cyber range with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and other stakeholders.

 

By now, Mary Kaselouskas says, the vast majority of people understand the importance of cybersecurity.

“Everyone is fully aware of the threats out there, how people become victims of cybercrime and the impact on an organization that’s involved in a breach,” said Kaselouskas, vice president ands chief information officer at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC).

What they might not know, she added, is the critical shortage in the cybersecurity workforce, with an estimated 20,000 more professionals needed in Massachusetts alone, not to mention about 1 million in the U.S. and 3 million around the world.

That’s why she, and other officials at STCC, around the state, and across the region’s IT sector are celebrating a new initiative to promote the development of a diverse cybersecurity workforce locally, with the goal of improving cyber resiliency in the Commonwealth.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, state and academic officials, and IT industry leaders were on hand at Union Station in Springfield on Oct. 31 to announce $1,462,995 in state funding will allow STCC to establish a security operation center, or SOC, at Union Station that will provide threat monitoring and other cybersecurity services for Commonwealth municipalities and small business and nonprofit customers. The funds will also establish a cyber range, a new testing lab to mirror real-world IT environments to provide hands-on training opportunities to local companies, universities, and other cyber-focused organizations.

“We’re seeking to establish Massachusetts as the national leader when it comes to cybersecurity infrastructure. We’re bringing together leading academic partners and businesses to support cyber resiliency and workforce development in the Commonwealth.”

“I have been involved with this for quite a while, and a steering committee was established many years ago, looking at how to address a shortage of cybersecurity workers in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley,” Kaselouskas said, noting that partners on the project include the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, a new entity called CyberTrust Massachusetts, the MassCyberCenter, and local colleges and universities, among others.

As the grant recipient, STCC will staff and operate the Union Station facility in partnership with a consortia of area higher-education institutions, including Bay Path University, UMass Amherst, Western New England University, Elms College, and Springfield College, each of which bring a range of undergraduate certificate and degree programs in IT/security, cybersecurity, computer science and programming, digital forensics, and criminal justice.

The SOC, Kaselouskas explained, is “a physical location at Union Station that monitors, detects, and responds to cyber threats 24/7/365, protecting organizations’ assets. A lot of companies don’t have the resources for a fully operational SOC, or can even afford to have managed SOC operations.”

The center will have full-time employees but also offer training opportunities for students at area colleges by way of internships and work-study programs, she added. “This will operate as a business once the grant money is gone. We haven’t discussed fees, but we will have an employee working in business outreach to get customers on board that will utilize the facility.”

Meanwhile, the cyber range will allow both students and employees of companies and municipalities to experience simulated threats in a virtual environment, with hands-on training in live-fire attacks, blue-team/red-team events (in which one team attacks a system and the other defends it), and other training models, potentially leading to certification in security fields for students.

“That’s the training part of this,” Kaselouskas told BusinessWest, noting that area colleges and universities will incorporate the cyber-range software into courses. “If a student is enrolled at STCC in the cybersecurity program, they may take a few courses that use the cyber range — so it’s not a whole course, but a component of a course.”

STCC President John Cook

STCC President John Cook says the cyber project at Union Station will be transformative for the region and higher education.

The grant to STCC will cover renovation and construction of the Union Station space, which is estimated to open in the first half of 2024. The facility will include a classroom and a conference room for up to 60 people, able to accommodate those cyber-related events and to serve as a space for collaboration, in addition to separate classroom space, workstations for use by academic partners, offices for facility staff, a tech-support area, a kitchen, and storage.

As part of a site-based service arrangement, STCC will provide administrative oversight for the facility, including all human-resources functions for employees and hiring of key personnel, plus the establishment of electronic-systems management. The facility will also be overseen by a steering committee of public, private, and academic stakeholders, which will include the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, the owner of Union Station.

 

Dollars and Data

The Union Station project is just one component of a more than $3.7 million outlay to bolster cybersecurity resilience — and the related workforce — across the state. The announcements were made during the sixth Massachusetts Cybersecurity Forum at Bridgewater State University, which brought together 100 executives from companies, municipalities, and leading universities.

The awards included a $1,086,476 grant to support the launch of CyberTrust Massachusetts, a new nonprofit that will work with business and academia statewide to grow the cybersecurity talent pipeline by increasing career pathways for underrepresented groups, and promote security operations to address the day-to-day needs of resource-constrained municipalities, nonprofits, and small businesses.

The Commonwealth also announced the $1,462,995 award to STCC and $1,200,000 to Bridgewater State University to establish SOCs and cyber ranges in the two cities.

“We’re seeking to establish Massachusetts as the national leader when it comes to cybersecurity infrastructure,” Gov. Charlie Baker said during the announcement event, adding that “we’re bringing together leading academic partners and businesses to support cyber resiliency and workforce development in the Commonwealth.”

CyberTrust Massachusetts was launched to address four key imperatives for the state:

• Undersecurity, as organizations across Massachusetts, especially municipalities, small businesses, and nonprofits, are challenged to find affordable resources to defend themselves against growing cybersecurity threats and maintain cyber resiliency;

• Underemployment, highlighted by the aforementioned 20,000 cybersecurity job openings in Massachusetts, and the fact that communities of color and women are underrepresented in the cybersecurity workforce and are frequently overlooked for employment due to a lack of opportunity to obtain hands-on cybersecurity experience;

• Employee training, as businesses across the Commonwealth typically do not have a location to send their employees to receive cybersecurity training at an affordable rate; and

• Business and economic development, specifically a need to convene regional hubs for business development where cybersecurity entrepreneurs can establish and grow startups or where specific industry segments such as defense contractors can receive specialized support.

“This first-of-its-kind collaboration among business, higher ed, and government through CyberTrust Massachusetts could transform our cyber education and training, growing our workforce and creating new opportunities statewide while helping to make our communities more cyber resilient,” said Pete Sherlock, CEO of CyberTrust Massachusetts.

“No organization is successful 100% of the time when it comes to defending against cyberattacks. With the new monitoring capabilities, organizations can increase awareness, detect intrusions faster, and respond more quickly to an incident.”

In February 2022, the MassCyberCenter released a request for responses seeking interest from entities interested in establishing an SOC and/or cyber range to support the dual missions around cybersecurity workforce development and for protection against cyber threats. Seven expressions of interest were received, including the proposals from STCC and Bridgewater State.

“We see these as the initial investments in a cyber-secure future, important investments to build out our plan for a cyber-resilient Massachusetts,” said Stephanie Helm, director of the MassCyberCenter. “The key word is ‘resilient,’ as no organization is successful 100% of the time when it comes to defending against cyberattacks. With the new monitoring capabilities, organizations can increase awareness, detect intrusions faster, and respond more quickly to an incident.”

STCC President John Cook agreed, noting that “this cybersecurity award will be transformative for our region and higher education. As one of the most pervasive liabilities for our businesses and communities, these funds ensure a regional center that will be a nexus for the cyber workforce with hands-on learning, in addition to establishing a resource for protecting our community partners against cybersecurity threats.”

 

Statewide Strategy

The grants are part of the Commonwealth’s ongoing investment in cybersecurity resiliency and workforce development. The award to CyberTrust Massachusetts is from the Massachusetts Cybersecurity Innovation Fund and will support the organization’s operating expenditures for a period of six months and will fund a contract for cyber-range services for one year.

“Leaders in the state’s cybersecurity ecosystem have been contributing to the establishment of CyberTrust Massachusetts because they see the imperative to help protect the undersecured and are passionate about training the next generation of our cyber workforce, including those from currently underrepresented populations,” said Jay Ash, chair of the CyberTrust board of directors and president and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.

Meanwhile, the grants to STCC and Bridgewater State were generated by “An Act Relative to Immediate COVID-19 Recovery Needs,” which provided $15 million to the MassCyberCenter to incentivize the creation of regional SOC services and expand the cyber workforce in the state, including a focus on “underserved and underrepresented populations.”

“Springfield Union Station is a world-class transportation hub that will now be home to a world-class cybersecurity training and security-management center,” Neal said. “The Baker-Polito administration has worked hand in hand with the city of Springfield, the STCC team, and my office to make this a reality.”

Kaselouskas believes the new SOC and cyber range can help Greater Springfield become a key region for the cybersecurity sector in the Northeast.

“Union Station obviously has a long history in Springfield, and the location is really centralized, and we’re hoping it will be a hub,” she said, adding that the facility could also bring in guest speakers for training — IT experts who hail not only from the area colleges and universities, but from large employers such as Baystate Health, MassMutual, and even the military.

“STCC is well-known and right around the corner, with 200 students in these programs right now,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re hopeful this will also boost interest in coming not only to STCC to explore these programs, but also to the other colleges we work with, which have strong programs as well.”

At STCC, she pointed out, many students hail from Western Mass. and then stay here, so any effort on the college’s part to train the future cybersecurity workforce will strengthen the sector locally.

“We’re hoping to make an impact in this area, to give back to local communities by educating students and keeping them close,” Kaselouskas added. “This program is going to be pretty big because not a lot of states do this. We expect to see this grow around the state and for Massachusetts to become a leader in cyber education.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Secure Solutions

Joel Mollison says Northeast IT

Joel Mollison says Northeast IT’s services have become more critical to businesses since the pandemic.

In a post-pandemic, technological world, one pocked with data-security threats, companies need a recovery plan more than ever. And Northeast IT is doing what it can to support small businesses during this time.

“Security is coming back into focus again,” said Joel Mollison, the company’s co-founder and president. “So we’re dealing a lot with that, making sure the people have adequate backup disaster-recovery plans. They’re able to recover the data, and their operations will be in better shape because we have certain preliminary pieces in place to protect their networks. And we’re expanding our offerings in the security sector as well, to kind of cover that.”

Northeast’s focus is on growth — steady, but controlled — in a world of change. But Mollison is no stranger to that, since he walked into college as an engineering student, but quickly realized higher-end math wasn’t his cup of tea.

“I was actually working in a computer lab at the time, and I had a personal computer at my house so I could do some of the high-end design work, and then it broke,” he recalled. “I had a Staples warranty, and it took forever for me to have someone come out to the house. In fact, it took weeks for them to come out, and then they didn’t fix it. Then I had to send it out to Worcester. And it became a huge rigmarole. And I was like, ‘wow, this is really terrible.’”

So he took it upon himself to fix the computer and, in so doing, found his love for hardware and IT. He changed his degree and graduated after the dot-com bust, at a time when jobs weren’t easily available for folks who hadn’t been in the field for a decade. So Mollison started his own firm under his name, fixing things for family, friends, and small businesses.

“I think one of the differences for us is that our growth is controlled. We’re taking on the right types of clients that really value our services, and we’re creating long-term relationships with those clients.”

“I was under that name for a long period of time, and then it transformed over time,” he said. “People thought we were too small, so I couldn’t get contracts. I ended up taking on a business partner, Brian Sullivan, in 2010, and we ended up rebranding as Northeast IT. It was all the same; it was just rebranded, and we started taking on more business clients.”

Today, Northeast IT is a managed service provider. Essentially, it acts as the outsourced IT department for companies that don’t have their own internal force, or want to augment their capabilities by doing a co-managed solution — they have a basic IT tech, but Northeast IT does the ‘heavy lifting,’ such as managing the network server, security, and more. Northeast also provides clients with backup, disaster-recovery, and cloud services.

These days, Mollison and his crew serve a broad gamut of industries, anything from financial institutions and medical agencies to engineering and municipalities.

 

Securing the Home Field

Before COVID-19, business was steadily growing. Named a Super 60 honoree in 2018 by the Springfield Regional Chamber, Mollison told BusinessWest that business was “just kind of flying” — and then the pandemic hit early in 2020.

“I wouldn’t say things stalled completely, but there was definitely a huge pivot. All of those major projects we had in the queue, people kind of panicked, and they pulled the plug. So we went from having a lot of projects and support work to a lot of support work, and then pivoting to moving people to the remote workforce,” Mollison said. “So we spent a good period of time, I would say from March through probably June, trying to transition a lot of managed clients into that remote workforce completely and cloud services.”

Because it has municipal clients, Northeast IT was an essential business during the pandemic and never stopped operating, though it did transition the way its work was done. Social-distancing practices were established, and some employees who weren’t needed in the office worked remotely for almost a year and a half. Mollison didn’t see some of his staff for six to eight months, but they were constantly out there.

With smaller providers not being able to provide services and others closing their doors, Northeast saw an influx of work and new clients, and the continuous growth hasn’t ended. If anything, the pandemic created many wins for Northeast IT.

“I think there was a shift prior to the pandemic, and now it’s starting again because there is a renewed focus on security,” he explained. “There’s a false sense of security, and there’s a million preventable measures. When you go into more of the small-business market, the data and operations of the organization require your IT infrastructure to be completely functional and your data to be protected.

“In the past 10 years, ransomware viruses have become more and more prevalent,” he went on. “They’re attacking hospitals, schools, it’s all over the news. If they get infected with a virus, all their data becomes locked; their computers cease to function. They can’t interoperate, they can’t access software, they’re frozen.”

Post-pandemic, businesses are starting to focus again on the importance of security, and Northeast has been diligent in helping them do so, especially for clients in the insurance industry.

Underwriters specifically are getting more stringent about annual review processes, Mollison explained. Clients are being asked to fill out paperwork regarding the kind of security measures they have, and Northeast IT, in turn, sits with them and answers with ‘yes, you have this,’ or ‘no, you don’t have this.’ But Mollison has come to realize that cyber-liability space in insurance is “like the Wild West.”

“What we’ve been finding is that, while a lot of the clients have always been on the fence about when to invest in these different security methods that we have available to them, they’re starting to get forced into these because, if they’re not doing it, they’re going to receive a much higher rate on their insurance underwriting, or some of them, in some cases, may not even be insurable, depending on their industry.”

 

Future in Focus

With a refocusing on IT, network security, and making sure client businesses are in good condition, Mollison remains focused on strategic growth.

“I think one of the differences for us is that our growth is controlled,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re taking on the right types of clients that really value our services, and we’re creating long-term relationships with those clients.”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Special Coverage

Leading the Charge

The dates seem … well, close.

Volkswagen wants all its cars to be electric by 2035. Nissan has set a 2030 goal. Volvo? 2025.

“So there’s a strong commitment from different manufacturers to become all electric. And you’re starting to see new models introducing more hybrid electric models across the entire lineup,” said Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group.

That may seem like a reasonable goal locally, she added, but manufacturers aren’t just building cars for Western Mass.

“We’re in a much different market than a lot of others. In our market, there’s a ton of electric infrastructure and high demand for electric vehicles, but I’m not sure what that looks like in other parts of the state or the country. And I think the infrastructure has to be there to make it realistic.”

Gary Rome, who owns a Hyundai dealership in Holyoke and a Kia dealership in Enfield, said he was the first dealer in the U.S. to deliver an electric vehicle from Hyundai, and his electric vehicle (EV) sales are up 38% over last year.

“There’s are state and federal rebates on these vehicles, which make them more attractive,” he explained. “You’ll pay more for an electric vehicle, but if you drive a lot, an electric vehicle pays for itself in short order. The metric is $1.25 per gallon to pay for electricity, versus $4 a gallon. We’ve had people trade in their gas-guzzling pickup truck, and they’re saving hundreds a month in fuel alone.”

About 15% of Rome’s sales are electric vehicles, which he estimated is about three times the national average, with the hottest model being the Hyundai Ioniq 5, which MotorTrend named the 2023 SUV of the year, among other accolades.

“We’re seeing a trend of manufacturers focusing more on electric vehicles than ‘ICE cars’ — internally combusted engines,” he told BusinessWest, though there’s still some hesitancy among motorists to try one. To that end, Gary Rome Hyundai is one of five dealers in the country offering a subsciption program, allowing customers to rent an electric vehicle for 28 days, including insurance, to see if it fits their lifestyle.

Rob Pion

Rob Pion says the industry’s inventory issues eased in 2022, but it was sometimes challenging to have the right inventory in stock.

“The adoption of electric vehicles is all about educating the client, and a lot of folks have range anxiety; they’re afraid of running out of charge,” he explained. “But you wouldn’t leave the house with an empty tank of gas without thinking, ‘where am I going to get my gas?’

“The range in our vehicles is quite extensive, about 308 miles. That’s plenty of driving time if you have a charger, and most utilities have a $500 or $1,000 rebate that will allow you to offset the cost of putting a charger in your garage. You plug it in, and the car is charged in four hours.”

In addition, EV drivers become familiar with other charging stations; Rome offers six at the Holyoke store, including two ‘superchargers’ that can fill a battery to 80% within 18 minutes.

Bob Pion Buick GMC is getting into the EV game as well, said General Manager Rob Pion, noting that GMC will be introducing an electric Hummer pickup and Hummer SUV by the second quarter of 2023, and an electric Sierra Denali pickup by 2024, while Buick is planning to go all-electric in the near future.

“That’s definitely coming,” he noted. “Electric is hitting our store. We haven’t had any experience with it up to now. In the next three years, we’re going to have a plethora of electric vehicles on the lot here to offer customers.”

Some customers are excited about the electric options, but others have reservations — for instance, what if the electric grid is strained, as it has been in some areas of the country, where people were told not to turn their AC on during certain hours?

“So now I’ve got an electric car charging at the house, taking as much power as that,” Pion said. “I’m looking at electric as a great option, but I share those concerns — is the infrastructure there?

Gary Rome

Gary Rome says customers will become more comfortable with electric cars as they deal with their “range anxiety.”

“But I do think it’s an exciting time, and there’s a future in it, even if it might not be right for everybody,” he added. “It’s definitely a conversation that goes on every day with customers.”

 

Rolling In, Rolling Out

Electric vehicles aren’t the only trend shaking the auto-sales industry lately. Through the latter half of the pandemic, inventory was a major problem as buyers swarmed onto lots much faster than manufacturers ramped up production after 2020’s dramatic slowdown. That problem is easing, to an extent.

“It’s a strange time in the auto industry,” Cosenzi said. “It’s so hard to predict right now, with so many different moving pieces constantly. We have been really fortunate; we have managed to keep a steady supply of inventory, so actually, it’s been a very good year for us. All our brands are doing really well.”

TommyCar’s used inventory has been healthy as well, she said, particularly the certified used inventory that comes with a warranty of three years or 100,000 miles. Because the company relies on market pricing at a time when used vehicles are in demand, both trade-in figures and sales prices are up.

“Business has been better than the past five years,” Cosenzi said, adding that low-but-rising interest rates have been a driver. “A lot of people who wouldn’t have been shopping for a new vehicle have upgraded to new vehicles.”

Pion noted that 2022 wasn’t quite as profitable as 2021, but with a month of business left in the year, sales have been healthy.

The inventory situation has definitely improved, he said, but getting the ideal mix of inventory can be an issue. “There’s more inventory than there was, but the challenge is getting the right inventory — you might have a half-dozen Buicks on the ground that are front-wheel drive, not the all-wheel drive customers might be looking for,” he explained.

“A customer can go online and find the exact car they want, and they can get their payment and interest rates right online. It really helps the customer to gauge what they’re looking for when they come into the dealership. It also helps us, as the dealer, make the best use of the customer’s time. The process becomes very efficient.”

“And this is another year end where the heavy-duty pickups are very, very difficult to come by. A lot of companies are looking for that end-of-year write-off for heavy-duty trucks, but they’re up against it this year. Even though there’s inventory, the inventory out there is a little bit of a hodgepodge, and not always what customers would want. I don’t know that I see that getting better anytime soon.”

Which is challenging at a time when customers often walk into dealerships knowing exactly what they want, with little flexibility, thanks to the information available on the internet.

“We’re very far from the time when a customer walked in the door looking for a $35,000 vehicle, asking, ‘what do you have?’ Instead, they come in and say they’re looking at a 2020 Buick Envision, pre-owned, stock number X, asking to pay Y.”

Cosenzi agreed. “Look how much technology has changed the automobile business — a customer can go online and find the exact car they want, and they can get their payment and interest rates right online. It really helps the customer to gauge what they’re looking for when they come into the dealership. It also helps us, as the dealer, make the best use of the customer’s time. The process becomes very efficient.”

Meanwhile, the used-car market has come down a bit from the low-inventory, high-price times of late 2020 into 2021, Pion said. Not that the values are that much lower.

“If you bought a heavy-duty pickup truck within the last couple of years, you’re able to return that truck today and get almost what you paid for it — if you can find a new one, because there’s such a shortage there,” he noted, adding that used-car inventory has also been affected by rental companies that sold off some of their fleets during the pandemic’s peak and then bought up huge numbers of cars afterward.

Carla Cosenzi

While it’s not easy to predict what the coming year will bring, Carla Cosenzi says, her dealerships posted strong sales in 2022.

“There’s still a lack of used inventory out there, and what is out there is worth more than had the market stayed status quo from three years ago,” he went on. “I would love to say there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We have inventory, don’t I think we are there yet. For the average person, it might not matter. But some businesses are really hurting, not getting the vehicles they need to actually do their jobs.”

Rome said the inventory issue is definitely easing. “We’ve done a very good job the past couple of years pre-selling our inventory, so they sell extremely quickly, and because we sell so many, we get more, and we’ve been selling them all over the country,” he said, citing states as far south as Florida and as far west as Colorado. “Folks have purchased their new cars from us; they either come here to pick them up, or we’ll deliver to them.”

 

Final Plug

All this considered, Rome said the outlook for 2023 is bright. “I think the manufacturers have had a vacation from having to spend money on incentives and rebates, and I think they’ll realize, as inventory accumulates and cars are more available, they need to add an appropriate amount of incentives to all the cars and offset any clients’ concerns about huge interest rates; they may offer a lower rate and rebate.”

His sales figures back up his general optimism, as Gary Rome Hyundai ranks fifth in the region from Maine to Virginia, comprising 169 dealers. “We’re definitely selling cars like crazy.”

Looking ahead, and judging by the plans of manufacturers, more and more of those cars are going to be electric.

“It’s a huge commitment. They’re not looking back — it’s full steam ahead by Hyundai,” Rome said. “They just broke ground outside Savannah, Georgia on $5.4 billion electric vehicle battery plant; it’s going to be employing 8,100 workers.”

He doesn’t worry too much about the public’s adoption of EVs, especially in Western Mass., where there’s a strong level of environmental consciousness and a good number of people who have already driven hybrid and all-electric vehicles.

“There’s already a market for the car out there, from people who are into reducing carbon footprint,” he said. “We’ve had people come from the Leverett area and the Berkshires, who already have solar in their house, a battery-operated lawnmower, a battery-operated bicycle — a lot of people are already in the fold.”

Cosenzi isn’t sure if Americans in general are ready to go fully electric, but she wouldn’t be surprised if more people start to move that way, whether driven by emissions concerns, long-term cost savings, or other reasons.

“If somebody is not ready to make full jump right away, they have the option of a plug-in hybrid,” she said. “I have a plug-in right now — it’s not 100% electric, but I love it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer says the city has made great strides when it comes to growing and diversifying an economy once dominated by GE.

It’s called ‘Site 9.’

This is a 16-acre parcel within the William Stanley Business Park, created at the site of the massive General Electric transformer manufacturing complex in Pittsfield, which closed nearly 30 years ago.

The site has been available for development for more than two decades now, said Linda Tyer, Pittsfield’s mayor for the past seven years, but there have been no takers because, in a word, this site is ‘intimidating.’

“Every time we host a business and we identify this as a potential location, they look at it, and they’re instantly intimidated because of the condition that’s in,” she explained. “It’s a big scar in the heart of our community that’s a remnant of our past. People have looked at it, and they’ve just said, ‘I can’t envision my business here.’”

Gov. Charlie Baker was in the city a few weeks ago to hand-deliver a $3 million check that might change this equation. The money will go toward infrastructure work, putting new roads in, greening the space, and other measures that will make this parcel more shovel-ready and, ultimately, a part of this city’s future, not merely its past.

“If we don’t get any interest for the next 10 years, at least it’s not this giant wound in the heart of our city,” Tyer went on, adding she is expecting plenty of interest in the years to come.

Site 9 is where we begin our look at Pittsfield, the latest installment of BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series. This is a city that has been trying to move beyond its past, and the dominating influence of GE on just about every facet of everyday life, since the company left. And in many ways, it has been making great progress.

Its economy is far more diverse and far less dependent on one company or one sector, said Tyer, adding that this was quite necessary given the devastation and outmigration that occurred when GE pulled up stakes. Today, the city boasts a few large employers — such as Berkshire Health Systems and General Dynamics — but the economy is dominated by small businesses across several sectors including manufacturing, IT, healthcare, and especially tourism, hospitality, and the arts.

Those latter categories now provide a good number of jobs and have contributed to a rebirth of North Street, the main thoroughfare in the city, after it was decimated by GE’s departure, said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, a county-wide organization focused on economic development and promotion of the region.

“The Pittsfield of 2022 is a completely different city than it was 20 years ago,” he said, adding that a strong focus on the arts and hospitality has changed the narrative in this community.

The pandemic obviously took a heavy toll on these businesses and the overall vibrancy of Pittsfield, said Butler, but it has managed to come almost all the way back this year, with the arts venues rebounding and hospitality venues back to something approaching normal.

James Galli, general manager of the Hotel on North, so named because it is on North Street, agreed. He said the hotel is on pace to have its best year since opening in 2015, and the mix of guests that it attracts provides some good insight into Pittsfield and what now drives its economy.

“The Pittsfield of 2022 is a completely different city than it was 20 years ago.”

“We get a lot of travelers coming in from Boston and New York to go to Barrington Stage and the Colonial Theatre,” he said, citing two of the main cultural draws in the city. “We get a lot of millennials coming in for hiking and the beauty of the area, some business travelers coming in for General Dynamics and some of the area businesses in town — and it’s a good mix. We are the center of the Berkshires, so we get people staying with us for two, three, four days at a time; they’ll go down to South County or up to North County or into the Pioneer Valley, but they’ll stay with us because we’re very central and they can do a lot more if they stay with us.”

In some ways, the pandemic has actually benefited the Berkshires and especially its largest city, said those we spoke with, noting that the remote-work phenomenon has made it possible for those working for businesses in New York, Boston, and other expensive metropolitan areas to do so from virtually anywhere.

And with its high quality of life and (comparatively) low real-estate prices and overall cost of living, Pittsfield has become an attractive alternative, said Tyer, noting that the city is in the midst of a housing boom that has slowed only slightly even in the wake of rising interest rates and persistently high prices.

 

The Next Chapter

It’s called the ‘Library Suite.’

This is the largest suite among the 45 guest rooms at Hotel on North, and easily the most talked about. That’s because, as that name suggests, it’s decorated with books — some 5,000 of them by Galli’s count.

“There’s a moveable ladder, and … it looks like a library,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s everything from full sets of encyclopedias to children’s books, the Harry Potter collection; we’ve found them at tag sales over the years and made it into a unique, different type of room. It speaks for itself.”

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“Pittsfield has benefited from planting its flag in the cultural and arts scene in the Berkshires; that’s a huge part of our growing economy and has been for the past 10 to 15 years.”

The library suite, which boasts about 850 square feet and goes for as much as $700 a night, depending on the season, has been occupied most every night over the past several months, said Galli, noting, again, that visitors of all kinds are coming back to Pittsfield, and to this hotel, which was created out of two historic buildings on North Street.

Business started to pick back up in June 2021 as the state essentially reopened, he said, and momentum continued to build into this year, which has yielded better numbers than the years just prior to the pandemic.

He attributes this to many factors, including some pent-up demand for travel and vacations as well as the unique nature of the hotel, which has several different kinds of rooms, each of them is unique.

“A lot of people are looking for a hotel that’s a little different — a boutique or independent hotel,” he said. “There’s a clientele that goes for the branded properties, but the people who stay with us are looking for that unique experience when they walk in the door.”

But Galli also credits Pittsfield’s resurgence in recent years, especially its cultural attractions and other quality-of-life attributes, making the city a destination for people of all ages.

Hotel on North is part of a new look and feel on North Street, said Butler, noting that the well-documented vibrancy of the GE chapter in the city’s history was followed by the dark and dismal time that he grew up in: “North Street was not a place to be in the ’90s.” The vibrancy has returned in the form of cultural attractions and new restaurants and bars.

“Pittsfield has benefited from planting its flag in the cultural and arts scene in the Berkshires; that’s a huge part of our growing economy and has been for the past 10 to 15 years,” he told BusinessWest. “You have investments like Berkshire Theatre Group with their theater in downtown Pittsfield, and Barrington Stage Company, which has become a major anchor, as well as a number of smaller cultural offerings and pop-ups and galleries in downtown Pittsfield.

“And this has been further bolstered by the emergence, over the past eight to 10 years, of a vibrant food scene — an exciting, trending type of food environment,” he went on, citing establishments, new and old, like Methuselah Bar and Lounge, Berkshire Palate (located in Hotel on North), Pancho’s Mexican Resaurant, Trattoria Rustica, Flat Burger Society, Patrick’s Pub, and Otto’s Kitchen & Comfort.

“There’s some finer dining options — downtown Pittsfield’s a great place to go host some clients if you’re a business or to have a good date night as a couple or a fancy night out with friends,” Butler explained. “But there’s also a lot of great casual offerings in downtown Pittsfield; there’s some great pubs, some great cocktail lounges. There’s also a lot of immigrant-owned businesses in downtown Pittsfield, which adds to the diversity and provides a more rich experience.”

 

At Home with the Idea

This diversification and strengthening of the city’s economy has become the main economic-development strategy for Tyer since she became mayor.

“I have some family history with General Electric — my great-grandparents were part of the GE economy,” she told BusinessWest. “And when I became mayor, I felt strongly that the economy cannot be dependent on one sector; my priority has been that we have diversity in the economy, and that includes everything from the travel, tourism, and hospitality sector to the cultural economy, and it also includes manufacturing and science and technology.”

To attract businesses across all these sectors, and to help existing companies expand, the city has created what Tyer calls its ‘red-carpet team,’ a name that hints strongly at its mission.

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 43,927
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.56
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.90
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

“We want to make sure that businesses that are here now, that are homegrown and might want to expand into a new market, expand their facilities, or grow their employment base, have the same level of support from the city of Pittsfield as we would give to a new business that wanted to start up in the city,” she explained. “We’ve been successful at balancing that approach.”

The red-carpet team consists of a number of city department leaders who work collectively to help counsel and guide a new or existing business toward fulfillment of whatever goal they might have. This integrated process enables a CEO to have one meeting, rather than several, said Tyer, adding that having everyone seated around one table enables the city to be more responsive and move more quickly.

And, overall, there have been a number of interested parties, she said, noting that the Berkshires, and Pittsfield, has a lot to offer employers, including quality of life and lower cost of living, as well as a population that is stabilizing, rather than declining, as it had been for decades.

“We have great neighborhoods, we’re still affordable, and we have beautiful outdoor recreation,” she said. “The combination of all of that is the magic that Pittsfield has going into the future.”

Much of this magic became even more forceful during the pandemic, said those we spoke with, noting that, while most hospitality-related businesses had to shut down for an extended period, the Pittsfield area’s outdoor recreation and quality of life came more into focus for many looking to escape what COVID brought with it.

The hiking trails became even more popular, and the Berkshires — and its largest city — became an attractive alternative for those looking to escape larger cities, their congestion, and their higher costs.

“Our housing market has been on fire,” said Tyer, noting that many professionals from Boston, New York, and other major cities have moved to the Berkshires. “And I think it speaks to this phenomenon that people can be employed by a Boston firm but work from home here in Pittsfield and have all the amenities and quality of life of a small city in a beautiful region of the state.”

The housing market shows no signs of slowing, said those we spoke with, despite rising prices and, more recently, soaring interest rates as a result of Fed action to stem the tide of inflation.

“There’s still this competition, these bidding wars, for homes,” Tyer said. “And the seller is still selling; the market hasn’t really slowed down.”

This phenomenon has led to an increase in the value of homes across the city, she went on, adding that this brings benefits on many levels — everything from the city’s bond rating to its tax rate. It also creates some problems for first-time homebuyers and those looking to trade up, and rising prices within the rental market as well, creating shortages of what would be considered affordable housing.

But in the larger scheme of things, these would be considered some of those proverbial good problems to have, said the mayor, especially in a city that had seen so much hardship over the previous 30 years.

 

The General Idea

The sports teams at Pittsfield High School are still nicknamed the Generals, said Tyer, adding that this just one of the myriad ways to measure the influence that GE had in this city for the better part of a century.

But while the city can still pay homage to its past in this and other ways, it has managed to move past it in almost all others.

Yes, Site 9 and many other parcels that were part of the massive complex remain undeveloped, but overall, Pittsfield and its economy have moved on. It took some time, as it does when a city loses an employer of such magnitude, but the city’s economy, like North Street itself, has been reinvented, and vibrancy has returned.

“We’ve overcome that group depression that we all suffered, and I think there’s a lot of excitement around the art and culture economy; the small-business, science, and technology economy; and some long-standing businesses that have grown since my time in public service,” she told BusinessWest. “I think we’ve overcome the ‘we’re a dying community because we lost GE’ sentiment, and I think we’re a growing, emerging community.”

 

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

Health Care

Crisis State

Cristina Rivera and Dr. Katie Krauskopf

Cristina Rivera and Dr. Katie Krauskopf say recovery is often a winding process marked by frustrating times and bumps in the road.

 

Christine Palmieri has read the numbers regarding a spike in overdose deaths in Massachusetts over the past couple years. But to her, they’re not just numbers.

“My role is to oversee our community-based programs that work with people who have experienced mental-health issues, substance-use disorders, and homelessness. As part of that, we run residential recovery programs for people who have a dual diagnosis, and we also run a number of different housing programs for people in recovery,” said Palmieri, vice president of Recovery and Housing at the Mental Health Assoc. (MHA) in Springfield. “And over the past year, maybe two years, we as a program have experienced more deaths by overdose than at any other time in my career.

“That’s troubling. There’s definitely times when it feels very hopeless and very frustrating, but I think our programs have done an excellent job of showing up every day, meeting people where they’re at,” she went on. “One of our programs is called GRIT, and that’s how I would describe what we need to keep coming back every day, and what the people we’re supporting in recovery need to keep coming back every day.”

After several years of decline, the rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts increased by 8.8% in 2021 compared to 2020, according to a June report by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Drug-overdose deaths in Massachusetts continue to trend lower than nationwide figures, but the statistics are still startling, with the rise in death rates reflecting the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and an increasingly poisoned drug supply, primarily with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

“Massachusetts and the rest of the country have definitely seen a rise in overdose rates during the pandemic,” said Dr. Katie Krauskopf, medical director of Substance Use Disorder Services at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke. “It looks like Massachusetts’ trend is better than nationally, and there is some indication that 2022 might be better than 2021. But we clearly saw people struggling during the pandemic, and a lot of that probably had to do with difficulty accessing care and the isolation that came along with it.”

In her experience, the pandemic impacted two groups differently: many of those with substance-use disorder who were already in treatment programs did better during the pandemic because the social restrictions helped them avoid some of the triggers they might normally have encountered more frequently. Meanwhile, regulatory changes around access to treatment allowed patients to take home medications they could not previously.

“People are reluctant to hire somebody with an history of opioid addiction; people are reluctant to house somebody with a history of opioid addiction, in lots of ways that aren’t based in reality, but based in fear, based in discrimination, based in stigma.”

“So patients in treatment have done quite well,” she went on. “The real issue was the patients who were not already engaged in treatment and were unable to do so.”

The DPH found clear evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on mental health and led to increased substance use and poorer mental health across the Commonwealth, especially among BIPOC communities and LGBTQ+ individuals.

“We continue to be relentless in our commitment to increase access to harm-reduction services, low-threshold housing, and treatment,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. “By working to destigmatize addiction and meeting people where they’re at, including with an expanded array of harm-reduction tools, we can reverse this negative trend.”

Locally, organizations committed to improving behavioral health — and removing the stigma and barriers that keep people from accessing care — are doing just that.

 

Support System

Palmieri said it’s important to remember that recovery doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is tied to social determinants like housing and economic stability.

“Whether it’s opioids or anything else, our role is to help people understand what’s getting in the way of their recovery and help fill the void that used to be filled with drugs or alcohol with things they can find meaning in,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re not only interested in sobriety and helping people stop using, but also, what are you going to do instead? Our primary goal in our residential programs and our housing programs is to make sure people have a safe, affordable place to go to live after treatment, someplace that isn’t necessarily the same neighborhood where they started using in the first place, someplace they can afford and sustain — but also to find employment, something that gives their life meaning beyond using, something they can wrap recovery around.”

René Piñero, vice president of Behavioral Health & Clinical Operations at MHA, said the pandemic curtailed some services in the community to counter addiction.

“But I definitely agree that it’s not all about accessible treatment; it’s about having housing and other supports. The state has provided funding for these programs and services, but it’s also about where people go to live after treatment, what supports they have, and opportunities to find employment. Even if we have treatment that is accessible for them, if we can’t find them a home address, it’s going to be more difficult.”

For those lacking access to care, the pandemic-driven isolation people felt didn’t help, Palmieri added — and in some cases increased a sense of stigma around seeking help.

René Piñero and Christine Palmieri

René Piñero and Christine Palmieri say addiction recovery often goes beyond treatment and entails social supports like stable housing.

“People are reluctant to seek support and services because asking for help means admitting there’s a substance-use issue that’s going on, and the stigma that surrounds opioid addiction is sometimes insurmountable,” she said, adding that stigma isn’t a one-way street. “We’re trying to get people connected, but we face barriers all the time. People are reluctant to hire somebody with an history of opioid addiction; people are reluctant to house somebody with a history of opioid addiction, in lots of ways that aren’t based in reality, but based in fear, based in discrimination, based in stigma.”

Krauskopf said the Greater Holyoke area has plenty of resources in place, from increased naloxone distribution to facilities like MiraVista, which offers a full continuum of substance-use programming, from acute inpatient detox to a clinical stabilization service to outpatient programs like an intensive, four-week program that teaches skills ranging from emotional regulation to mindfulness to dealing with triggers. “It’s not one-size-fits-all here at all. We have all these programs, and patients can really fit themselves into what they need at any given time and move through the services depending on where they are.”

The state has been aggressive with programming as well, expanding substance-use-disorder treatment and overdose-prevention initiatives since the start of the pandemic and investing $120 million in prevention programs from 2016 to 2022, as well as distributing well over 150,000 naloxone kits since March 2020 to opioid-treatment programs, community health centers, hospital emergency departments, and houses of correction.

 

Try, Try Again

Cristina Rivera, director of Outpatient Services and Substance Use at MiraVista, said everyone’s addiction-recovery journey is different.

“We know that recovery is ongoing, and there might be bumps in the road. In that sense, we help people wherever they’re at. If you start using substances again, it’s not like we’re not going to accept you into our program and try to get you back on track.”

Piñero said it’s helpful to recognize that mental-health and substance-use challenges require the same attention as any chronic, physical medical issue.

“Recovery has its ups and downs just like other medical issues. Often, with diabetes, cancer, and other medical conditions that aren’t stigmatized, people are more willing to recognize that.”

Krauskopf agreed, citing studies suggesting that rates of relapse and loss of control in addiction recovery are similar to those in people managing diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure.

“The notion that recovery is a straight line is not realistic; it’s really up and down. Part of the disease is that patients will relapse, and we’ll help them get their footing back,” she told BusinessWest. “People have begun to pivot to understand this condition as a long-term chronic condition that requires people’s full attention at different levels of intensity, and we try to provide that here.

“Recovery is about medication for some, but lifestyle modification, too,” she added. “When you think about diabetes, many people do well with changes in their diet and exercise, and many people do that and need something else at well. It’s all the same goal.”

While the need for more resources is high, she said, especially when it comes to residential programs, the hope is that those struggling with addiction will see past the persistent stigma and seek help from the many resources that are currently available, and that those overdose numbers will start to fall again.

After all, they’re much more than just numbers.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Shop Local

Serving Up a New Reality

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen says banquet facilities have had to become more selective about which events they take on.

For an events and catering industry devastated by the pandemic in 2020 and still hampered in 2021, this past year was certainly reason to celebrate.

“It’s been an incredibly strong year post-COVID,” said Seth Mias, owner of Seth Mias Catering in Leeds. “We had quite a few people making up for postponements, and a really robust season overall.”

The problem, said Mias and others we spoke with, is that it can be difficult to meet that demand due to a workforce crunch that has hit this sector hard.

“The challenge is staffing, obviously — getting people to come back to work — and supply-chain issues,” he noted. “Honestly, we were able to work through all that and had a really good season. To me, it seemed like clients were gracious and understanding about some of the challenges we’re facing as opposed to other years, like when certain products were unavailable.”

Peter Rosskothen has faced some of those realities as well, but said the Holyoke businesses he owns — including the Log Cabin, Delaney House, and Log Rolling Catering — have weathered them well.

“It’s been an above-average year — actually, a very good year,” he told BusinessWest. “Business has been very strong. Attendance to events is a little lower than it used to be, but the quantity of events, and the quality of events, has been better.

“The world is different,” he added. “We are much more focused on smart events for us. So we’re not giving stuff away, we’re charging more, and we’re being selective in the process to make sure we have staff and the ability to do something right.”

That selectiveness forced by workforce realities has changed the entire event industry quite a bit, Rosskothen added. “We just don’t say yes to everything anymore.”

Peg Boxold, owner of Elegant Affairs Catering in Springfield, has had to become more selective as well. “Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve got business, no problem, but we don’t have the staff. My staff have other jobs, just like the rest of the world. So we do what we can.”

During one past holiday season, she recalled, the company had a couple of days with 12 different events at different venues. “But now I have to think twice about doing two parties in one day, depending on whether I have staff. Also, it’s tough sometimes getting product for the kitchen, so if I don’t get the menu soon enough, I’ve got to hunt for the product. It’s not an easy world out there, and the profit margin is so much tighter now; we’ve had to go up on prices. It’s a new world.”

Like others we spoke with, Boxold said turning down business is simply a matter of not taking on a job she may not be equipped, because of staffing, to do well; she noted that she’s built up a reputation over more than three decades for quality events, and won’t risk that on understaffed bookings.

“I’ve worked too hard for too many years to jeopardize everything now for something I know I’m not going to be able to handle.”

“I had one lady call in September; she wanted a lunch on a Wednesday for 200 people, a plated meal. I said, ‘I can do a buffet setup the day before, but I don’t have the staff for plated.’ She wanted to be served, so I said, ‘sorry, I can’t.’ I’m not going to take something I don’t feel comfortable with in terms of quality of product and quality of service. I’ve worked too hard for too many years to jeopardize everything now for something I know I’m not going to be able to handle.

Even the events that do go on are more challenging, Boxold added. “Last week, I had a Thursday fashion-show luncheon in Wilbraham for 90 people. I begged, borrowed, and stole people to make it happen.”

 

Picking and Choosing

Rosskothen said he expects the upcoming holiday season to be a bit slower than in past, pre-pandemic years.

“I haven’t read any statistics, but my instinct tells me corporate is still slow to do group parties. So we see them, but we don’t see them to the level we used to. Every Friday and Saturday is booked, but if you go back a few years, we used to be booked five days a week. So it’s a little different than in previous years, and again, the selective process of picking and choosing the business that fits our company also gets rid of a few.”

The Log Cabin won’t be hosting group holiday parties this year, he explained, noting that the Delaney House, with its smaller rooms, is being used for smaller parties, while the Log Cabin focuses on big events.

And events are ‘big’ in different ways, Rosskothen noted. Wedding attendance is down, from an average around 170 years ago to 120 today, partly due to today’s marrying couples being slightly older. But the average per-head charge is up.

“This generation knows what they want; they’re very specific about their wishes, and it pushes the check average up,” he explained, noting that, once they book the event and set their guest list, they’re willing to pay more for certain things. “Prime rib used to be included in all our prices. Now, if you want prime rib, its $8 a head more. But the people who want it select it.”

The biggest challenge dealing with customers is that the price of everything is up these days.

“When somebody’s booked a long time in advance, which happens mostly on the wedding side of the industry, it’s very frustrating. There’s a budget established, and you kind of have a vision, but if you planned a wedding two years ago, you’re paying 20% more than you were planning. And that’s a big jump, especially if somebody’s on a budget. But there’s no choice; our costs are easily 20% higher versus pre-pandemic.”

For the most part, people have been understanding, Rosskothen added.

“I think most understand, though once in a while we get questions — ‘why this is $5 more a head?’ We go through the process and explain it, but I’d say 99% of the people kind of expect it.”

Mias agreed that this holiday season seems a bit slower than what he’s seen in the past. “I’m booking a solid base now, and just looking to do some fill-in booking at this point.”

Over the years, his business has morphed into a wedding-reception-focused enterprise, with those events gradually shifting from 10% to 15% of his bookings to around 85% today. “But we’re still doing corporate events, retirements, funerals, things like that.”

Many clients postponed events during the pandemic, he noted, which led to a scramble to fit them in with new business once COVID restrictions eased; only a few clients couldn’t make a new date work and had to go elsewhere.

 

Out and About

Rosskothen wonders how his industry will be affected by a trend he’s observed in the younger generation of not wanting to go out as much, and not valuing networking as much as young professionals used to. But he’s especially focused on economic trends.

“I think 2023 is going to be very interesting; I don’t know where it’s going to go. Are we really going into recession? I think people are going to contract and be careful. If the national climate changes, that’s going to affect us. So I’m a little worried about 2023, I really am.”

Still, he added, “it’s too early to tell. We might get out of this. There’s a lot of money in the economy, and a lot of companies have saved money, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.”

Most people these days are not afraid of COVID when it comes to gatherings, he added. Boxold agreed, but noted that Elegant Affairs has COVID-friendly, individually packaged meal options as well. “For a lot of companies, it’s important for them to be able to stay in business and make sure everything is COVID-friendly, so we can do something for their employees but keep it within the parameters of COVID-friendliness.”

As she noted earlier, demand for events of all kinds is there. Meeting that demand with steady staff, however, is a persistent challenge.

“Hopefully it changes somewhere down the road,” Boxold said. “I’m assuming people have to go back to work at some point; they have to pay the bills. I don’t know whether they’re opting for other jobs or still sitting at home. I just can’t get a good read on everything. But I think it’s coming back, and that people will be coming back to work.”

Mias said 2022 was one of his strongest years — if not financially, then with the quality of events.

“Looking at the product we were able to put out with all the challenges, I thought it was a great year,” he added. “Hopefully the next few weeks continue on that path, and 2023 is looking just as good. We keep plugging along.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture

Blueprinting a Succession Plan

new leadership team at Dietz & Co.

From left, the new leadership team at Dietz & Co.: Kevin Riordan, Tina Gloster, Jason Newman, and Lee Morrissette.

As he talked about the transition in ownership, and leadership, taking place at Springfield-based Dietz & Co. Architects, Jason Newman used the phrase ‘ease-in, ease-out mentality’ to describe the process.

By that he meant that Kerry Dietz, founder of the firm and its principal, has been easing out of the many responsibilities involved with leading this company of nearly 30 employees and its many projects, while a team of four leaders — architects (and principals) Jason Newman, Lee Morrissette, and Kevin Riordan, and CFO Tina Gloster — have been easing into them.

That’s a simple yet efficient way of describing what’s been happening at the Dietz firm for roughly the past two years now as it transitions from a single owner to one with an employee stock-ownership plan, or ESOP, which is a form of employee benefit plan, similar in many ways to a profit-sharing plan.

“Kerry didn’t want to just hand us the keys and walk away, and we didn’t want her to do that either,” said Newman, who studied under her while earning his degree in architecture at UMass Amherst. “We’ve been in our new roles and taking on new responsibilities as principals in the firm, but we also have the comfort, and benefit, of Kerry being here on a limited basis to help guide us and mentor us and still bring all the positive energy she brings to the office, which will sorely be missed when she finally steps away.”

And with Dietz, who is now working just a day or two a week, set to fully retire at the end of this year, the transition process is now pretty much complete, said Newman, adding quickly that those involved are still easing in or out in many respects, but settling into their new roles.

For Dietz, that means the next stage of her life after a more than 40-year career in architecture that saw her make her mark not only in her field, but in the city of Springfield, where she moved her firm into the renovated Union Station; and in the community, where she has been active and philanthropic, and made sure her company and its employees were as well. For this strong combination of business success and involvement in the community, Dietz became a member of BusinessWest’s inaugural Women of Impact class in 2017.

For those succeeding her in leadership positions, it’s a time to write the next chapter for a company that has changed the landscape in the region, literally, designing buildings across many different sectors, from housing to education; office to gaming (it designed many of the spaces at MGM Springfield).

 

Transparent Approach

As they start writing those new chapters, those we spoke with said the ESOP model, one in which ownership of the firm is essentially shared by all employees, will work well at Dietz, and for a number of reasons.

“It’s a very interesting way to look at a business, especially in the design industry, where so much of what we do is teamwork,” said Newman, adding that the ESOP model dovetails nicely with the company’s operating structure in ways that were not really anticipated, or fully understood, when the concept was first proposed in late 2020.

“The ultimate authority at the company is the employee. If we’re not running the company in a way that is benefiting, or for the benefit of, the employees, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

Another factor is the high level of transparency that has defined Kerry Dietz’s management style and now characterizes the company, said Morrissette, an experienced architect who came to Dietz in 2019 after working at firms in the Boston area.

“One of the things that is most remarkable to me, coming from other firms in the Boston area and elsewhere before that, is the level of business transparency that the Dietz company has offered from the very first meeting I came into,” he explained. “The quarterly performance of the company and our business initiatives are clear to all the employees, and we have an open-book policy when it comes to salaries, and that’s very uncommon in our industry.

“There has been a very consistent approach to sharing the business of architecture with the entire staff,” he went on. “It’s an education for everyone; it was for me when I first came here — I learned a lot about the business of architecture, and it’s made it a lot easier to do this transition, because we were included the whole time so we could take on more and more understanding and more and more responsibility.”

Riordan, who has been with Dietz for nearly 20 years, agreed.

“Kerry was one person running the firm, and that was a huge responsibility, with a lot of tasks and pieces attached to that,” he said. “It’s been really great to see everyone step into those roles in their own way and actually make a better process for running the firm, because there’s no one person trying to manage it all, plus run projects. There are four of us that are actually taking on the tasks and developing our own initiatives for how we make those tasks better.”

Still, there has been a sharp learning curve with this transition, said Newman, adding that it’s still ongoing.

“It’s definitely a completely different way to run a business,” he said. “Many of the aspects of being an ESOP are quite positive; we have a lot more opportunities for our employees to engage and reap the benefits of being a company owner, from the financial side as well as the cultural side. It’s not one person at the top who has full authority on decision making and the strategic direction of the company.”

Elaborating, he said that, in addition to the four in the four leadership positions, there is also a board of directors charged, in essence, with making sure the company is being run fairly and that all voices are heard.

“The ultimate authority at the company is the employee,” Newman went on. “If we’re not running the company in a way that is benefiting, or for the benefit of, the employees, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

With the transition in leadership, the three principals have taken on new responsibilities. Morrissette said he will be working on marketing, alongside Marketing Coordinator Ashley Solomon, while also directing the many housing projects the firm takes on, as well as municipal projects. Meanwhile, Newman said he will be working closely with Gloster and focusing on the business side of the company — “talking with our lawyers, corporate governance, contracts, insurance, all this stuff you love to do as an architect.”

Riordan, meanwhile, said he will be focused on “quality control” and developing systems to enable the firm to operate better and more efficiently, adding that all three principals will be involved in several aspects of management, including the recruitment and hiring of talent and building the book of business.

 

Branching Out

Moving forward, those we spoke with expect some changes at Dietz. One of them involves a broadening of the firm’s reach and getting closer to clients — quite literally, said Morrissette, adding that, with the firm doing consistently larger amounts of work in the Boston area, it will open an office in that city in the near future.

With the pandemic and the manner in which it allowed firms to connect with and work for clients remotely, he explained, the firm has taken on more projects outside the 413 and in areas like Boston, a trend that will continue into the future.

“We’re reaching out, geographically, more than we have in the past, and that’s very exciting,” he said. “This [remote] interaction is something we’re getting very comfortable and familiar with, and it has allowed us to reach much farther than we have before … that’s a big step forward, and it’s something we definitely gained from the pandemic.”

What won’t change, though, is the high level of commitment to the community, and giving back, that Kerry Dietz made part of its fabric of doing business.

“We have a long and strong history in affordable housing and in serving the organizations and the nonprofits that serve our communities,” Newman said. “And our passion to continue to fill that role has not wavered in the slightest. When Kerry was running the company herself, she had a very generous charitable-giving strategy, which we have looked at, revisited, and ramped up.

“We pride ourselves on being an architecture firm that supports the people who support us,” he went on. “And that won’t change.”

 

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

Shop Local Special Coverage

Local Call

Michelle Wirth, left, with Lexi Walters Wright

Michelle Wirth, left, with Lexi Walters Wright, owner of High Five Books, one of the many area companies now showcased on the Feel Good Shop Local platform.

If anyone needed any proof concerning the importance of buying local to the regional economy, Michelle Wirth said, it came during the pandemic.

As consumers were forced to shop from their computers, except for what they could find at the supermarket or the big-box stores allowed to stay open, they resorted to Amazon and, for the most part, the national brands with which they were familiar.

As a result, a good number of smaller retailers were just not able to carry on and had to close their doors, putting some people out of work as they did so. Many of those storefronts are still vacant, impacting vibrancy on Main Street — and many other streets as well. Meanwhile, the jobs created by those stores, and the local spending generated by them — on everything from marketing to signs; electricity to office supplies — have been lost.

“During COVID, all of us were relying on online shopping more than ever before — we were relying on Instacart or some of the big names, Amazon, Nordstrom’s, L.L. Bean, Walmart … and when we could finally raise our heads and we were comfortable leaving our houses and driving around the neighborhood, I noticed that a lot of the stores that I had frequented prior to COVID were closed or closing,” said Wirth, who said this harsh reality was one of many factors that led her to launch Feel Good Shop Local, or FGSL, as it’s called, an online e-commerce platform that makes it easier for area residents and businesses to find local retailers, and much easier to do business with them.

In a word, the site — feelgoodshoplocal.com — ‘connects’ consumers with local retailers, said Wirth, adding that these connections benefit consumers, retailers, and communities alike.

“The vitality of our local communities is important. How do you ensure the vitality of our local communities? By supporting our local neighbors, the local stores, things that are happening in our backyard.”

There are now more than 20 businesses on the site, including Lenny Underwood’s Upscale Socks; High Five Books in Florence; Hallie’s Comet Fine Jewelry; Feather & Bloom, a florist, plant, and gift shop in Suffield, Conn.; Relax.Rinse.Repeat, a Westfield-based provider of organic health and beauty products; and many others. Upon visiting a participating shop, one can learn about it, see products, read reviews, and — this is the ultimate goal — place orders (more on all this later).

The Feel Good Shop Local site is one of the listings in our annual Buy Local Holiday Gift Guide, which includes a lengthy list of gift suggestions and places to find them starting on page XX. Wirth and others we spoke with said that the holidays are a good time — although any time is a good time — to remind people of the importance of shopping locally for all those reasons mentioned above.

In many ways, that message is resonating, said Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of Placemaking at the Mill District in North Amherst, a mixed-use community that now features more than 130 housing units and an eclectic array of small shops. She noted that shopping with local retailers has become a priority for some, and even a political statement for others.

show off some of the many items at the store.

From left, Shauna Wallace, interim manager of the Mill District General Store; Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of Placemaking for the Mill District; and Tim O’Brien, senior Communications director for WD Cowls Inc., show off some of the many items at the store.

“People really find that, for them, shopping locally is meaningful beyond just the fact that it’s nice to go in and touch something and connect with someone,” she said. “They also feel a point of pride shopping locally, giving a gift that has a story they heard right from the artist that made it.

“It becomes this sense that people are part of the recovery,” Rechtschaffen went on. “And I think that this is both real and important. At places like this, people are able to come out and shop and meet the store owner, meet the people working there, meet people making things … it’s just a nicer experience and gives everyone a sense of recovery and reclaiming things.”

Melissa Peavay, marketing manager for Grove Real Estate, owner of the Longmeadow Shops, agreed. She said shopping local has, indeed, become a priority for many consumers, especially after the lessons — and the casualties — of the pandemic.

But she noted that ‘shopping local’ is a broad term. It means buying from local vendors, obviously, she said, but it also means buying from a local outlet of a national chain, one that is providing jobs and contributing to the vibrancy of a downtown, a mall, a shopping plaza (like the Longmeadow Shops), or a community.

“Shopping with people who own their own business and live locally is wildly important,” she said. “But it’s very important to come out and shop local, even if it’s a national chain; it’s local people who work at these stores.”

 

The Going Rate

There are two bathrooms in the General Store at the Mill District. One, very popular with children, features a jungle motif. The other one? Well, it features one-way glass on the entire wall facing the parking lot. Those using it can see out, but no one can see in.

“People really find that, for them, shopping locally is meaningful beyond just the fact that it’s nice to go in and touch something and connect with someone. They also feel a point of pride shopping locally, giving a gift that has a story they heard right from the artist that made it. It becomes this sense that people are part of the recovery.”

“Still, it can a little disconcerting or unnerving at first, but overall, it’s different, and it’s fun,” said Shauna Wallace, interim manager of the store, adding that the bathroom, said to be one of just a handful in the country with such one-way glass (the others are in tourist spots), has become a talking point. There’s even a sign on the property directing visitors to it that says “you have to go!”

While people might use this bathroom while visiting the store, and others at the Mill District, it is not the reason they go there, said Rechtschaffen, adding that their primary motivation is to find a unique mix of stores and shop locally. And the General Store provides maybe the best example of this.

It features thousands of different items, almost all of them from local vendors and artists: hand-made quilts from Night Sky Quilts in Amherst, maple syrup from Boyden Bothers Maple Syrup in Conway, dog treats from Berkshire Dog in Lanesboro, reclaimed cutting boards from Firefly Hollow in Leverett, local sauces and grocery items from the Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland … the list goes on.

Melissa Peavay

Melissa Peavay says the pandemic helped motivate many consumers to shop local.

As noted earlier, the General Store is just one of many small, locally owned shops in the Mill District. Others include the Closet, which offers vintage and ‘new to you’ clothing; Graze Craze, which offers customizable charcuterie boards and catering; the Lift Salon; Provisions, the Mill District Local Art Gallery; and many others. Collectively, they provide opportunities for people to find what they’re looking for, locate some unique gifts, and shop local in one spot.

It was this same objective that motivated Wirth to create the Feel Good Shop Local platform, which was sparked by the reality that local artists and retailers are simply not as visible as they would like to be.

“One of the reasons some people don’t shop local is because it’s hard — it’s time-consuming, especially if you’re a newcomer to the area, to find these places,” she said. “If you Google items, they don’t show up; if you Google ‘black sweater near me,’ you get the big-box stores, not the local stores. It’s a connection issue.”

Feel Good Shop Local was created to forge connections and enable people to shop at those stores when it’s convenient for them.

“As a mother of four, I’m shopping early in the morning and late at night, and, unfortunately, our local stores are not open at those hours,” Wirth said, adding that many people are similarly constrained by time.

But convenience is only part of the equation. The platform, which was launched during the Big E and is focused largely on gift giving, enables people to shop by recipient (everything from family members to pets; from teachers to co-workers), price, occasion, interest (from travel to wellness to pets — again), and values, everything from women-owned to BIPOC to ‘sustainable practices.’

Wirth considers the platform a classic win-win, or win-win-win, because it benefits consumers, local shops and artists, and communities across the region.

“The vitality of our local communities is important,” she said. “How do you ensure the vitality of our local communities? By supporting our local neighbors, the local stores, things that are happening in our backyard.”

As noted, 25 stores now participate on the platform, with another 25 or 30 in the pipeline, and as the holidays approach, Wirth expects interest in the site to rise. Participating businesses pay a 15% commission on each sale to FGSH, a lower rate than most other sites of this type.

The Mill District General Store is one of those businesses. Click on that site, and one can find a few dozen different items with the store’s own label, including spicy pickles, cracked peppercorn dressing, jams, salsa, and ‘Moonshine Barbecue Sauce.’

Wirth said the platform is essentially just getting started and is still “learning and growing.” She expects that as word of mouth spreads about its ability to make connections and generate sales, it will draw more local shops and artisans.

“The intention behind this is to create community — a community of sellers and a community of like-minded shoppers that are supporting these sellers in a way that is convenient for everyone.”

Meanwhile, with the holidays just a few weeks away, anticipation is building for the season, which is increasingly clouded by questions about the economy, recession, inflation, and the impact of all that on spending.

Amid these concerns, there is, as noted earlier, growing encouragement of efforts to shop local and support businesses looking to make a full recovery from the pandemic.

Peavay said 2020 and 2021 were very difficult times for most all retailers, and some, as Wirth noted, were not able to successfully pivot and navigate their way through the whitewater.

The Longmeadow Shops saw a few casualties, she said, adding quickly that these vacancies have been filled, and the outdoor shopping plaza is now fully leased.

It features several locally owned stores, including Caren & Company, a clothing store; In Chic Shoenique, a merger of two stores, In Chic and Shoenique; Batch Ice Cream; Delaney’s Market; Max Burger; Posto; and the Shot Shop, a salon and spa.

In addition, it features a number of national chains, from J.Crew to Ann Taylor to the Gap, that provide jobs and contribute to the overall vibrancy of the complex and the town itself.

“If people don’t come out and stroll our sidewalks and shop in our stores, those national chains will leave,” Peavay said. “And then, people are disappointed; you always hear after someone closes, ‘I loved that store … why did it close?’ It’s super important to shop locally owned stores and to shop local, at the Longmeadow Shops or any shopping center, if you find that shopping center convenient.”

 

Bottom Line

There’s a ticker of sorts on the Feel Good Shop Local Site. It keeps a running track of the money spent at participating businesses through the site, under the header ‘Money Invested in the Local Economy.’

At present, that number is still in the five digits as the site continues to build visibility and a presence across the region. In time, it will go much higher, said Wirth, adding that, beyond this number, the site is creating those all-important connections that make it much easier for consumers to shop local first.

When they do, it is truly a win-win-win scenario.

 

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

Architecture Special Coverage

Food for Thought

Dennis Group project

This aerial photo is of a large Dennis Group project under construction in Ohio.

 

At any given time, the Dennis Group is working on 400 to 500 projects around the world. But you wouldn’t know it by looking around New England.

Sure, it’s worked with Agri-Mark in West Springfield, Pepperidge Farm in Bloomfield, Conn., and a host of other companies locally over the years, but food-production plants — and that’s exclusively what this design-build engineering firm works on — tend to be bunched in certain pockets of the country, and for good reason, said Mike Damiano, head of the company’s process engineering group.

For example, “Pennsylvania supplies the Northeast. That’s a big distribution corridor. All the major players like to be within a stone’s throw of each other,” he noted, adding that other clusters are located in Ohio (serving the Midwest), Georgia (the Southeast), Texas (the South), and California (the West Coast). “We have a lot of work local to our Utah office, which seems abnormal, but it’s a growing area. A lot of it is about logistics, and where they can get to as many places in the U.S. as economically as possible.”

In addition, food-production companies find labor, taxes, and utilities less expensive outside New England, said Chris Siart, head of the firm’s civil, structural, and architectural group.

“We basically design and build food and beverage facilities. We started off doing food and beverage, and we’re still doing food and beverage, for a wide range of products and clients,” he told BusinessWest. “We work with small startup companies all the way up to top-100 companies — Nestlé, Kraft, Pillsbury, and all those other big guys.”

Damiano said the Dennis Group performs full-service engineering for the facility side of the production systems. That involves detailed design work, procurement of equipment and workforce, and management of the construction of the plant. “We don’t self-perform any construction activities, so we’re design-build in the sense that we do construction management.”

 

Up from the Attic

The Dennis Group has witnessed explosive growth since it was launched by founder — and still president — Tom Dennis in his attic in 1987. It now boasts about 200 employees in its headquarters in the Fuller Block building in downtown Springfield, and another 400 in seven satellite offices: in California, Georgia, Michigan, Utah, Brazil, and two in Canada.

Some of this success can be traced to timing — specifically, an explosion in the popularity of convenience-based foods and the recession-proof (and, as it turns out, pandemic-proof) nature of the food industry.

“A lot of it is about logistics, and where they can get to as many places in the U.S. as economically as possible.”

Each project begins with a concept, Siart said — a new product a company wants to develop or an existing product for which it wants to ramp up production. After a definition study, which is a report defining project scope, scale, cost, and schedule, the study is handed off to the food manufacturer for approval, with projects ranging anywhere from $1 million to $1 billion in cost.

“Then we set the engineering — we have all disciplines in house. We have civil engineers, architects, structural engineers … we have everything to do with the building, but also all the internal engineers as well — mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, control engineers, electrical engineers, basically designing all the equipment inside.”

One reason for the Dennis Group’s sustained success — it has topped Engineering News Record’s annual rankings of the top food and beverage engineering firms by revenue in numerous years — is due to its ability to tackle new industry trends, which constantly drive the design and construction of new plants.

For example, Damiano said, “we’ve been doing a lot of vertical farming, which is kind of new — it’s like a warehouse with an indoor greenhouse.”

That has helped stores keep ever-popular bagged salads on shelves longer because they’re arriving in stores sooner, particularly in the Northeast, said Nathan Marcucci, a process engineer and head of the firm’s project management group.

Mike Damiano and Chris Siart

Mike Damiano and Chris Siart say continual innovation in food trends drives robust production of manufacturing facilities.

“Bagged salads were always field harvested, and you had only a few days to get that salad from the field to somebody’s house,” he explained. “Now, with an indoor vertical grow facility in the Northeast in the wintertime, you can get that bagged salad to the consumer in the Northeast quicker, so it lasts longer. So it’s a combination of new technologies that invigorate some of these older products.”

The Dennis Group has also worked with the Impossible brand on alternative meats, ridden a wave of Greek yogurt and alternative milk production when those products became popular, and worked with Ocean Spray on Craisins.

“That used to be a byproduct; they used to pay to have it hauled away,” Damiano said. “Then they turned it into a product that was more profitable than the juice. The juice became a byproduct on the Craisins line. They basically flipped the table.”

Much of the product innovation in supermarkets begins with smaller companies and gets picked up by larger ones when products become popular. Larger companies are often hesitant to step out of their comfort zone, like J.M. Smucker, a repeat client that has long focused on peanut butter and jelly — and premade Uncrustables sandwiches — as well as a line of pet food. The Dennis Group is currently working on its third Smucker factory; a recently opened facility in Colorado was named Food Engineering’s Plant of the Year for 2020.

Sometimes innovation in the way food is packaged drives plant production as well, Marcucci noted, such as a move toward squeezable containers some years back for everything from peanut butter to yogurt.

 

No Slowdown

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Marcucci said, some jobs got put on hold, but the Dennis Group experienced no real downturn. In fact, demand soared for certain food products, like those aforementioned Uncrustables when kids were largely stuck at home.

“When the economy gets tough, people have less money to buy food at restaurants, so they want pre-made grocery food,” Siart said. “That’s when our clients’ orders go through the roof; they can’t keep up with the orders.”

And that’s when they call on the Dennis Group, which has developed a worldwide reputation in its engineering niche.

“There’s nobody with the title ‘salesperson’ in the company,” he added. “The way we look at it here is that everybody’s a salesperson. You’ve got to do good work to bring in repeat customers, and 80% to 90% of our work is repeat customers; basically, large food manufacturers come back to us and do multiple projects.

“A smaller percentage is new clients that are finding us through different ways — people moving from one company to another,” he went on. “Someone might have been working for Nestlé and is now working for another food company, and work comes to us through word of mouth from former clients. Some of it’s cold calling. Some of it’s someone doing a Google search and finding Dennis Group that way. That’s how our sales work: repeat business and word of mouth.”

It’s business the company’s leaders don’t expect to slow any time soon, if the way people shop — and the convenient products they desire — is any indication.

“Food is essential,” Damiano said. “If you go to the grocery store, you have that one section of fresh produce; everything else is processed. The minute people stop buying processed food, we’re in trouble.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Special Coverage

Match Makers

Hope Ross Gibaldi, executive director of Valley Venture Mentors (left), and her mentee, entrepreneur Lenore Abare

Hope Ross Gibaldi, executive director of Valley Venture Mentors (left), and her mentee, entrepreneur Lenore Abare.

Lenore Abare was familiar with Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) and even attended one of its events when she was dabbling with the idea of becoming an entrepreneur a few years ago.

“It all stayed in the back of my mind,” she said. “Now that I’m full-blown running my own consulting business, I knew it would be really important to align with other like-minded women who are hopefully beyond me, and learn from other people’s experiences.”

So she reached out to Women Innovators & Trailblazers, a VVM-affiliated program that matches professional women in mentor-mentee relationships. She was accepted into the program and found out last week that she was matched with Hope Ross Gibaldi, VVM’s executive director.

Seven years ago, WIT was the brainchild of Liz Roberts, then-CEO of VVM; Ann Burke, vice president of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, and a number of other women, Gibaldi told BusinessWest.

“It arose out of the need for female-based mentorships and knowing there’s such great human capital here in the Valley. There are so many women who are seeking mentorship. And it’s not that we feel women can’t benefit from male mentorship, but there’s a unique connection and bond when women are mentoring women — women understand the struggles, the unique challenges, and the system under which all of us are operating. There’s something unique about that relationship.”

The initial cohort in 2019 included 12 mentor-mentee matches, which has increased to 25 pairings in the just-announced fifth iteration, with specific matches based on shared interest, mentor experience, and mentee need. In Abare’s case, Gibaldi can help her with various entrepreneurship challenges as Abare builds Vircilitation Impact (the name is a play on ‘virtual facilitation’), a consulting business that works with training providers in the business world.

“I was really excited to be matched to her,” Abare said, minutes after meeting Gibaldi for the first time at a WIT mentor-match kickoff event on Nov. 2, adding that she’s excited about Gibaldi’s work with VVM on starting organizations, business acceleration, and more. “I’m definitely going to tap into that experience.”

Paulette Piñero, a leadership coach and CEO of Unstoppable Latina, was another mentor on hand at the kickoff to meet her new mentee and network with the group. Her main focus is building a strategic plan for a business, “and then building a brand to attract the right clients, the right opportunities, and the right partners, with a strong brand voice,” as she explained to BusinessWest.

“It’s very refreshing to be able to be vulnerable and talk to other women and realize that you’re not alone, and that we’re all trying to figure it out.”

“I’ve been part of other Valley Venture Mentors programs, and I’m very involved with the work they do — and I do mentoring for entrepreneurs for other programs, like EforAll and the Center for Women & Enterprise,” she said. “So when I had the opportunity to mentor with women and be part of an ecosystem of local entrepreneurs, of course I had to say yes.”

 

Lighting a Spark

The tagline of WIT is “igniting a women-led economy,” and the program is essentially a community of female innovators and trailblazers with the common goal of supporting other women in their professional and entrepreneurial aspirations. Members include entrepreneurs, professionals, students, educators, and business leaders at all stages of their careers. From the initial meetings of 30 women in 2015, WIT has grown to encompass more than 350 women.

The mentor-match program aims to provide mentoring that helps women navigate their business or career, develop key competencies, and/or grow their professional network. New cohorts begin each fall and run through the spring — typically seven to eight months.

Paulette Piñero

Paulette Piñero says women feel more at ease being vulnerable around other women.

“The program grew over time, and we’ve had a series of other offerings, like networking brunches and educational offerings and workshops,” Gibaldi said. “But over time, we’ve really focused on the mentor-match part of the program.”

WIT leaders spend a month recruiting mentors and mentees. First, the mentors rank several categories — including entrepreneurship, career development, networking, finance, executive presence, and work-life balance — based on their interest and experience.

“I would like to mentor somebody in my biggest background, entrepreneurship,” Gibaldi said a few days before her pairing with Abare was finalized. “I’m also great at networking, so I put that as my second category. The mentees then fill out a form that is basically a mirrored version of that, but they focus on the interests they have and where their biggest mentorship need is. Then we pair them.”

Once the matches are created, WIT gives little specific guidance to the pairs, beyond asking them to meet at least once a month, for at least an hour, in person or virtually — though the interactions can occur as often as they like.

“Once we’ve created the pair, it’s hands-off. There’s not a specific curriculum we follow; it’s based on the needs of the mentee,” Gibaldi said. “We do encourage the pair in the first meeting to create a set of goals and outline what they plan to work on over the next couple of months.”

Abare said the program’s women-mentoring-women model is a valuable one.

“I think, in general, there are unique challenges that are presented to women in our culture, in our society, and when we can understand that context with each other, I think it helps us provide more valuable insight so we can empower each other — because we know, even when it’s not said, some of the struggles and inhibitors, the things that might prevent us from taking a chance or taking a risk or asserting ourselves.”

That latter point is a key one, Abare noted, because women sometimes are not as assertive as men when it comes to stating their value proposition — charging a high-enough fee for their work, for example.

“Research shows that men see themselves as qualified even if they check two boxes,” she added. “Women think they’ve got to have everything checked before they take the initiative.”

Working through that process requires being vulnerable, Piñero added, and women often feel more at ease among their female peers.

“It’s very important to be able to have conversations where we’re vulnerable with other women, so that they can understand what we’re going through, what are some of the obstacles that we face, what are some of the barriers that we face, and hear stories about how we were able to overcome those obstacles so they don’t feel so alone,” she said.

“In my experience, you’re in so many spaces where you feel like you have to be perfect, and there’s this perception that, when you go into entrepreneurship, you should have it all figured out,” she went on. “And it’s very refreshing to be able to be vulnerable and talk to other women and realize that you’re not alone, and that we’re all trying to figure it out.”

Abare agreed. “I think that’s the unique thing about bringing women together in a space. We understand these things from an experiential perspective, so we can empower each other.”

 

From Mentee to Mentor

Gibaldi said WIT has evolved over time, and even though it’s under the umbrella of VVM, it boasts its own community and serves its own unique need.

“It’s always been received really well, and we have increased the mentor and mentee participation in the program; we have people with a lot of experience with social and intellectual capital participating,” she added. “It goes to show mentors want to give back, and mentees want to get tapped into this network.”

One gratifying element is the number of pairs from previous cohorts who continue to work together, Gibaldi noted. “I think that’s a good reflection on how that curated mentor-match process really works. We take good care pairing people up, and it shows when we have people continue to work together outside the cohort.”

In addition, “another great indicator of success is the number of people who participate as mentees and then return as mentors. We encourage people to go on that journey as well,” she added. “To be able to grow people and transition them from mentees to mentors is very powerful.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Staying Power

The Arbors puts a focus on resident quality of life.

The Arbors puts a focus on resident quality of life.

For the past 25 years, Sara Robertson and her family have run one of the most successful assisted-living facilities in Western Mass. and now Northern Conn. But she stressed repeatedly that this success did not come easily.

“We learned early on about the importance of all the hard work and dedication that our grandparents and parents put into evolving and growing the company,” she said, “and just how challenging making your own success truly is.”

Robertson, co-owner, her sister Emily Quinn, and cousin Amie Hanrahan grew up working for their parents and grandparents. Starting as teenagers, they handled just about every job one can take on at an assisted-living facility — landscaping, dishwashing, housekeeping, and more. Those assignments taught some invaluable lessons and have helped guide them every day as they manage Arbors Assisted Living Communities, grow the family business, and take it in new directions in this broad sector — everything from home care to memory care, as we’ll see.

Those same lessons helped guide the company and its leadership through the pandemic and the myriad challenges it brought to all those working in assisted living and related businesses.

“We learned best practices to keep our residents in communication with their families and loved ones when they weren’t able to visit,” Robertson told BusinessWest. “We adapted to new ways of activities and dining options. We eventually found our new normal, and all the practices we have in place to keep our residents and staff safe are a part of our everyday life now.”

 

Building Blocks

As the Arbors celebrates 25 years of success, growth, and evolution, Robertson reflected on where this family has been, where it is today, and where it might go in the future. She began with some history, starting with the venture known as E.A. Gralia Construction, launched by their grandparents.

“They would build everything from hotels and plazas to senior housing like Wilbraham Commons and facilities like that,” said Robertson. “Then my parents basically started to focus on senior housing.”

They built more than 5,000 housing units, as well as schools, hotels, nursing homes, and several elderly-housing developments, she went on, adding that, when this second generation took control of the family business, it evolved into what is now Arbors Assisted Living Communities.

From the beginning, the family sought out growth opportunities, and took full advantage of them.

Indeed, senior housing was available in Agawam and Wilbraham, but not in many other places around Western Mass. at the time, Robertson said. The first Arbors facility was built in Amherst in 1998. Five more facilities were added by 2009, in Chicopee, Greenfield, Stoughton, Taunton, and Westfield.

“At the locations [Agawam and Wilbraham] that our parents managed, we would do landscaping or activities or housekeeping,” she explained. “From there, they evolved into creating assisted living. Assisted-living facilities were few and far between at that point in time; we were one of the first assisted living in the area. And it obviously is an industry that has grown exponentially from there.”

“We eventually found our new normal, and all the practices we have in place to keep our residents and staff safe are a part of our everyday life now.”

The Arbors offers independent-living, assisted-living, and memory-care services. Robertson told BusinessWest that all needs are diverse and vary from person to person, so individuals are able to create their own service plan, detailing their personal-care needs and preferences.

Each resident has their own private apartment with a full kitchenette, private bathroom, living room, and bedroom. Staff members assist individuals with everyday tasks, such as bathing, dressing, preparing meals, and managing medications.

Respite services and short term/trial stays are also possible at the Arbors. With move-in-ready apartments, individuals are able to stay and make sure they find the right fit.

In 2010, the third generation took over the Arbors management, making it a women-owned and operated family business. Robertson, Quinn, and Hanrahan started Integra Home Health Agency and built new assisted-living facilities in Dracut and Stoneham. The third generation also created a Connecticut brand, the Ivy at Ellington and the Ivy at Watertown.

“At this point, we were fully immersed in the senior-living industry and our careers, so we decided to grow again,” Robertson said. “Our assisted living was all-inclusive. A lot of assisted-living facilities at the time were starting to transition into levels of care. We didn’t really want to do that because we liked that it was all-inclusive pricing at the time. So we were utilizing Integra Home Health to kind of fill that void to cover additional services that our residents needed that we weren’t able to offer. It took the business to the next level.”

Integra Home Health Agency offers personal healthcare services for those who feel more comfortable staying at home but need additional support beyond the basic assisted-living services. Integra’s staff can work alongside hospice agencies and also provide services to those in senior housing and nursing homes. They provide transportation to doctor appointments, as well as companion services to keep clients company, spend quality time, reminisce, and play games. The company also offers a variety of personal-care and memory-care services right in clients’ homes.

The Arbors has also diversified into memory-care services through its Reflections Memory Care Program, designed with four specific, resident-centered focus areas — life enrichment, personal care, serenity enrichment, and multi-sensory dining — to specifically address the challenges of living with memory loss and cognitive challenges.

Residents live in a specifically designed neighborhood that provides a safe and secure home with private apartments for each resident. The environment of Reflections is designed to minimize challenges and barriers, and to inspire confidence, peace of mind, and independence so each resident has the freedom to move about in a familiar, recognizable environment.

Through the years, Robertson said the leadership team at the Arbors has “fine-tuned the services we offer with current trends,” such as offering ‘anytime dining’ at its Connecticut locations and providing levels of care for services since assisted living is not a one-size-fits-all scenario.

“We listen to what our customers want and hopefully can work those suggestions into our offerings,” she said. “We also have a full array of activities and programming in our communities; social-engagement directors and memory-care directors create monthly calendars of a wide variety of options. Some examples might be exercise programs, card games, outings on the van, travel series, entertainment, cocktail hours and socials, lectures, religious services, arts and crafts, and so much more. There is something for everyone.”

 

At Home with the Idea

Robertson told BusinesWest that in college, she studied business and hospitality, but Quinn, co-owner and regional marketing and sales director, and Hanrahan, co-owner and co-director of Integra Home Health Agency, pursued degrees in communications and marketing, so they all have their own specialty when it comes to the business.

As long as Robertson can remember, the family business was something she’s always wanted to pursue.

“Growing up in a family business is unique in that your entire world revolves around business; you hear it at the dinner table, at family get-togethers, even at holidays,” she told BusinessWest. “I think at one time or another, all of us pondered what we really wanted to do in life, but the family business pulled us in. We had to be willing to put in the same amount of hard work, determination, and dedication that our parents and grandparents did.”

Robertson’s parents and grandparents never had to experience a pandemic like COVID-19. But the third generation took lessons from those who came before them — especially those involving hard work, determination, and dedication — to persevere through a period that tested them in every way imaginable.

Because assisted-living facilities have the most fragile populations to protect and keep safe, Robertson and her team had to learn to adapt and pivot in real time. There were safety guidelines coming from different agencies that had to be maintained and communicated to the staff weekly.

Robertson described the past few years as “by far the most challenging of our careers.” Not only did they have to pivot on the fly and adjust to constantly changing guidelines, but they had to cope with rising amounts of fear within the community about senior-living facilities, home care … essentially every aspect of their multi-dimensional business.

She went on to explain that making “huge life decisions” became even more challenging than they already were. The main goal was making residents comfortable with where they were and what they needed from the facilities and their loved ones.

Recovery took time, she added, as people needed time to feel comfortable again with placing their loved ones in an assisted-living community or to allow a caregiver into their homes.

“We had to be patient, yet stay front of mind,” Robertson said. “We had to get more creative in our marketing efforts, hosting outdoor events, drive-through dine-and-dash events, hot-chocolate deliveries, home visits, and so much more.”

The pandemic threw the Arbors facilities a curveball since it forced the company to stop growing its brand, so its leadership could focus all of its efforts on the safety of its current residents and on recovering and improving services.

Robertson said that they wouldn’t have made it through the pandemic without their staff. “They worked tirelessly under difficult circumstances for several years now. We were and are lucky to have them.”

As COVID restrictions loosen and the pandemic comes to a close, Robertson and her Arbors teams are continuing to grow the business. The industry has matured, and smaller family businesses have diminished, but being able to assist and serve more residents and more families has always been the top priority, moreso now than ever.

“I think people in general have learned to navigate the pandemic, making choices that are right for them and their families. We still have safety protocols in place in our industry,” she told BusinessWest. “We will always have the most fragile population that lives with us, so we have to remain diligent now and in the future knowing public-health crises are possible.”

She went on to explain that she has always said, “it is our family taking care of your family.” Robertson, Quinn, and Hanrahan are heavily involved in the daily operations and intend to continue in those roles. Whether there is an issue to address or someone just needs a friendly face to talk to, the third generation is right on the front lines, just as those who came before them.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Shop Local Special Coverage

Gifts Close to Home

 

It’s not always easy to find the perfect gift item for everyone on your list, but, thankfully, Western Mass. provides plenty of experiences to share — from axe throwing to massages; from wine tastings to pottery making — not to mention gift items like books, toys, locally created art pieces … the list goes on. So, if you’re looking to shop local, eat local, and support area businesses and organizations — and, in turn, boost the region’s economy at a time when it could really use the lift — here are some suggestions to get you started. Happy holidays, and happy shopping!

 

Agawam Axe House

396 Main St., Suite A, Agawam

(413) 292-6549; www.agawamaxe.com

The Agawam Axe House is one of only a few axe-throwing spots in the area. With an 18+, reservation-only hour slot, people can practice their aim in one of the six lanes available; parties and events are also welcome. For a more family-friendly approach, Agawam Axe House offers ‘footbowling,’ the perfect combo of the fun of throwing a football and trying to knock town 10 pins in bowling for ages 12 and up. Gift certificates are available online and in-store.

 

Berkshire East Mountain Resort

66 Thunder Mountain Road, Charlemont

(413) 339-6618;
www.berkshireeast.com

Berkshire East is a four-season resort that offers a downhill mountain bike park, skiing, snowboarding, tubing, snowshoe trails, three zipline tours, whitewater rafting trips, one of the longest mountain coasters in the world, an adventure park, a rustic farm inn and wedding center, a restaurant, and lots of facilities at which to host an event or stay at after a day on the mountain. It also hosts group events. Passes, admission, and gift cards are available online.

 

Bohdii Boutique

34 Center Square, East Longmeadow

(413) 224-1672;
www.bohdiiboutique.com

The Bohdii Boutique is a women’s clothing boutique with a focus on trendy and affordable clothing. It also sells shoes, jewelry, hats, and accessories; there is also a home and wellness section, stocked with phone cases, wine glasses and wine tags, dog clothes, candles and matches, and keychains. The boutique holds pop-up events throughout the month at both its East Longmeadow and Boston locations.

 

Champagne Apothecary

38 School St., Westfield

(413) 579-5077;
www.champagneapothecary.com

At Champagne Apothecary, owner Amber Champagne-Matos — a licensed esthetician and herbalist for almost a decade — offers a vast variety of handcrafted self-care products, scents, and gifts, including but not limited to nail care, hair care, skin care, men’s grooming, fragrance, and Champagne-Matos’s own line, ETHYST Skincare. Gift cards are available. She offers virtual skin-care sessions and business-consulting sessions as well.

 

Common Grounds Cafe

2341 Boston Road, Wilbraham

(413) 279-1700

Coffee Grounds Cafe in the Wilbraham Shops offers a variety of coffees, teas, lattes and breakfast foods. The menu of this family- and pet-friendly establishment changes regularly, with seasonal options available for takeout or delivery. A small seated area is also available for dining in. Wilbraham Local Gift Cards are accepted here.

 

Connecticut Valley Brewing Co.

765 Sullivan Ave.,
South Windsor, Conn.

(860) 644-2707;
www.ctvalleybrewing.com

Connecticut Valley Brewing Co. has a taproom in South Windsor that offers an array of IPAs, pale ales, sours, lagers, NEIPAs, spiked seltzers, spiked smoothies, and more. Events are held at the taproom with a family-friendly atmosphere. In late 2019, the company launched Birdhouse Coffee, a café and roastery that celebrates ethically sourced and produced coffee, and in 2021, it launched its an in-house kitchen producing a variety of shareables, entrees, breads, pastries, and more.

 

CyclePottery

CyclePottery

CyclePottery

42 Maple St., Florence

(413) 333-8893; www.cyclepottery.com

CyclePottery studio offers classes, lessons, and workshops for beginners to advanced potters; birthday parties, special occasions, and private workshops are also available. Extra-needs-friendly classes are available as well. The facility boasts five Brent wheels, a production-size Skutt kiln, a smaller L&L kiln, a North Star slab roller, two large hand-building tables, two large glazing tables, lots of light, and two porches. Gift cards are available online and in-store.

 

Echo Hill Orchards & Winery

Echo Hill Orchards & Winery

Echo Hill Orchards & Winery

101 Wilbraham Road, Monson

(413) 267-3303;
www.echohillorchards.com

Echo Hills is a family-owned and operated pick-your-own orchard that grows apples, peaches, pears, pumpkins, sunflowers, and wildflowers in season. It makes wine, moonshine, spirits, and liquors out of fruits that are grown on the farm, using apples as the base. The winery and distillery offers tastings, also including a variety of seasonal drinks made in-house. Because outside food and drinks aren’t allowed, food-truck vendors are on site to help soak up the alcohol.

 

Elements Hot Tub Spa

373 Main St., Amherst

(413) 256-8827;
www.elementshottubspa.com

Elements Hot Tub Spa offers an array of spa packages and services, including but not limited to massages, skincare, facials, waxing, body treatments, spiritual wellness, and enhancements. There are also a handful of hot-tub and sauna rooms for visitors, both indoors and outdoors. Gift cards are available online and in-store.

 

Elements Massage

379 Russell St., Hadley

(413) 301-0625;
www.elementsmassage.com/hadley

Elements Massage (not associated with Elements Hot Tubs Spa) offers an array of massages and packages, including but not limited to deep tissue, Swedish, sports, trigger point, stretch, and couples massages. Gift cards are available online and in store.

 

Enjoy Boutique

4 Deerfield Ave., Shelburne Falls

(413) 687-0827; www.storeenjoy.com

Enjoy Boutique is a boutique clothing, accessory, and gift shop, specializing in ethically and sustainably made goods; it sells brands like Cut Loose, Free People, Origin, Magnolia Pearl, and more. Adjacent to Shelburne Falls’ famed Glacial Potholes and just a few blocks from the gorgeous Bridge of Flowers, the boutique includes fair-trade items, organically grown textiles, eco-conscious wares, and one-of-a-kind artisan goods.

 

Feel Good Shop Local

(413) 252-5400;
www.feelgoodshoplocal.com

Fueled by the COVID-19 crisis, Feel Good Shop Local was founded in 2020 to ensure local small businesses would not be left out of the online shopping and discovery experience. The website has different options for how to shop: by occasion, price, recipient, interests, values, and what’s popular. The array of local shops feature clothing, jewelry, blankets, candles, accessories, skincare, and much more — and local retailers are being added all the time.

 

Flora! the Shop

61 Bridge St., Shelburne Falls

(413) 695-7379;
www.floratheshop.com

Flora! the Shop is a gift shop offering a wide variety of items: art, photography, and canvas prints from featured artists and artisans from Boston to Brooklyn to Burbank, as well as jewelry, face masks, lip balms and butters, calendars, chocolate, coffee and tea, candles, blankets, incense, planters, ornaments, pet bowls, pet placemats, gifts for holidays and special occasions, coloring books, puzzles, notebooks, stickers, and more.

 

Fun Hub Action Park

367 Russell St., Hadley

(413) 438-6482;
www.funhubactionpark.com

Fun Hub Action Park is a family-friendly arcade and play facility for ages 3 and up. Different admissions packages allow access to the various attractions offered, including climbing walls, a virtual-reality arena, bumper cars, a ninja course, trampolines, balance beams, ziplining, a multi-level playground, and much more. The facility hosts birthday parties, group events, and fundraisers. Tickets, packages, and gift cards may be purchased online or in stores.

 

Glendale Ridge Vineyard

155 Glendale Road, Southampton

(413) 527-0164;
www.glendaleridgevineyard.com

Glendale Ridge Vineyard estate wines are grown, produced, and bottled in Southampton. The business produces unique wines using grapes carefully sourced from the best vineyards on Long Island and in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Wines, select pantry goods, and merchandise are sold in store and online, and white, red, rose, dessert, and sparkling wines are available. The vineyard offers gift-box options with local ingredients. The grounds overlook Mount Tom and the Seven Sisters range, and the building features indoor seating and space for private events.

 

The Grati Shop

The Grati Shop

The Grati Shop

2440 Boston Road, Wilbraham

(413) 279-1546; www.thegratishop.com

The Grati Shop is a comfortable fashion boutique that focuses on doing good and giving back. The store offers a selection of sweaters, pants, shoes, jewelry, accessories, and a cruelty-free beauty line. Owner Kelly Partridge holds regular events and fundraisers to support small businesses and give back to the local community.

 

Hallie’s Comet Fine Jewelry

www.halliescomet.com

Christina O’Keefe, owner and craftsman of Hallie’s Comet Fine Jewelry, uses semi-precious gemstones and metals from gem shows and showrooms from across the country to make a variety of fine jewelry pieces, such as necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. Bridal and custom pieces are available upon request.

 

High Five Books

High Five Books

High Five Books

141 North Main St., Florence

(413) 200-0197;
www.highfivebooks.org

High Five Books is an independent kids’ community bookstore in downtown Florence — a local go-to for graphic novels, middle-grade readers, and picture books, plus art kits and other creative supplies. High Five Books offers storytimes, book and art events, author and illustrator experiences, and other family-based community programs around literacy and creativity. It shares a space with Art Always, an art school for children and adults.

 

Jackalope Restaurant

254 Worthington St., Springfield

(413) 233-4422;
www.eatjackalope.com

Jackalope Restaurant is part of downtown Springfield’s growing entertainment district. It offers a variety of foods, including seafood, beef, and poultry. The restaurant also offers an extensive drinks menu, including but not limited to red and white wines, bourbon and whiskey, cocktails, beers, and hard ciders. Reservations can be made online.

 

Kestrel

22 Masonic St., Northampton

(413) 341-3115; www.kestrelshop.com

Kestrel was born from a passion to merge the love of nature with the beauty of handmade craft and design. It carefully seeks out local and national artisans who make, create, and handcraft beautiful wares, furniture, and jewelry and nurtures a minimalist modern and vintage aesthetic with an emphasis on horticulture. Amongst the fine jewelery, visitors are able to browse plant pots, blankets, candles, ceramics, paper goods, and much more. Gift cards are available online and in store.

 

The Mill District

91 Cowls Road, Amherst

(413) 836-1765;
www.themilldistrictna.com

Built on the 275-year history of Amherst’s agro-industrial past, the Mill District boasts locally owned stores, events, and apartments that are intentionally designed to be a place to reconnect in the internet age. This mixed-use development is home to Graze Craze, Balanced Birch, the Closet, Provisions, Cowls Building Supply, Big Basket Market, the Mill District General Store, and the Mill District Local Art Gallery. Events are held throughout the month that often include pop-ups for other local artisans and business owners.

 

Monsoon Roastery & Espresso Bar

250 Albany St., Springfield

(413) 366-1123;
www.monsoonroastery.com

Monsoon Roastery & Espresso Bar is an environmentally conscious, community coffee roaster and hallway espresso bar serving serve lattes, cold brews, and cans of beans. Through the week, it brings in locally baked pastries from Nosh Bakery, Granny’s Baking Table, Comfort Bagel, and Wicked Whisk Creations. Monsoon offers an array of coffee-bean blends. Coffee subscriptions and Monsoon Roastery & Espresso Bar gift certificates are available for purchase.

 

Nosh Restaurant & Café

1341 Main St., Springfield

(413) 391-7948;
www.noshspringfield.com

Nosh Restaurant & Café is a vegan-friendly sandwich shop at the Shops at Marketplace. Other options include breakfast, salads, burgers, soups, sweet potato bowls, and desserts. All breads are house-made (and may vary daily), including a new gluten-free bread option. Nosh offers weekly specials, soups, and sweets based on seasonal foods. Catering and gift cards are available. The owners work directly with local purveyors such as Bardwell Farms in Hatfield, Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton, Monsoon Roastery in Springfield, Mama Life Oils in Wilbraham, and Top o’Hill Maple in Blandford.

 

Plum Boutique

281 Main St., Greenfield

(413) 475-3518; www.plum413.com

Plum Boutique seeks out the best in global design from women-owned enterprises and local artisans, then offers items to visitors as a curated experience. Plum prioritizes strategic partnerships with mission-based organizations and local businesses in an effort to galvanize and enrich the community. The boutique offers clothing, jewelry, shoes, accessories, bath and body items, crafts, journals, and more. Gift cards are available.

 

p.m. reed Carry Goods

p.m. reed Carry Goods

p.m. reed Carry Goods

www.pmreedcarrygoods.com

Peter Reed, owner and craftsman of p.m. reed Carry Goods, designs and builds totes, messenger bags, aprons, and accessories for function and durability. Using “the best-quality waxed canvas and leather available,” each item is made to order, Reed notes. “They’re a workhorse for carryin’ your books, laptop, tablet, camera gear, knitting, groceries, spirits, or whatever you might be transportin’.”

 

Puffer’s Salon & Day Spa

56 Southwick Road, Westfield

(413)568-9000; www.pufferdayspa.com

Puffer’s Salon & Day Spa offers an array of services, ranging from haircuts and colors to massages and skin esthetics. Packages are available as well, including but not limited to a Spa Energizer package, a Day of Relaxation package, a New Mom package, and more; clients may also customize their own package, which can include hair care, a massage, makeup applications, manicures and pedicures, and more. Gift certificates are available online and in-store.

 

Ten Thousand Villages

82 Main St., Northampton

(413) 582-9338;
www.tenthousandvillages.com/northampton

Ten Thousand Villages is a fair-trade retailer of artisan-crafted home decor, personal accessories, and gift items from across the globe. Featuring products from more than 130 artisan groups in some 38 countries, the shop has spent more than 60 years cultivating trading relationships by which artisans receive a fair price for their work and consumers have access to distinctive handcrafted items. It seeks to establish long-term buying relationships in places where skilled artisans lack opportunities for income.

 

Thornes Marketplace

150 Main St., Northampton

(413) 584-5582;
www.thornesmarketplace.com

This historic commercial building in downtown Northampton is home to an array of independent, locally owned retailers and restaurants — some of which have thrived in Thornes for more than 40 years. There are an array of shops and restaurants to choose from: Booklink Bestsellers and Café, Captain Candy, Cedar Chest and Cedar Chest Fashion, Glimpse of Tibet, Backstop Seated Chair Massage, Yoga Sanctuary, and more. Gift cards and certificates are available in stores and on the various businesses’ websites.

 

White Lion Brewing Co.

White Lion Brewing Co.

White Lion Brewing Co.

1500 Main St., Springfield

(413) 455-0820; www.whitelionbrewing.com

White Lion Brewing Co. is a local taproom in the Springfield entertainment district. With a variety of IPAs, ales, stouts, sours, and more, White Lion also partners with Springfield native Andrew Brow — owner of Highbrow Wood Fired Kitchen + Bar in Northampton — to provide a full menu to taproom guests. Catering is available through the Wild Dandelion Mobile Beverage Catering app, offering a 20-foot mobile beverage trailer. Gift cards are available for purchase in store or online.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship

The Science of Dream Teams

Mike Zani

Mike Zani says creating a community is important for workplace culture.

With 3.5% unemployment and a continuing recession, the pressure to build a collaborative, productive, and happy workplace is greater than ever.

“We all benefit on the business side from productivity, engagement, and performance. But more importantly, for every person in this room and every person you’ve ever worked with, is their act two: not work, but going home,” Mike Zani said. “And if you send them home more energized, happier, more fulfilled with purpose, then you’ve sent home a happier spouse, a better parent, better siblings, and better neighbors. If leaders do this right, they can create a more meaningful community than they already are.”

Zani was the 16th speaker at Bay Path University’s Innovative Thinking & Entrepreneurial Lecture. The university’s Business Leadership Council launched the series to connect students and others with innovators, such as Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick; Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT; and Michelle Wirth, president of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield.

Zani, CEO of the Predictive Index and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Science of Dream Teams: How Talent Optimization Drives Engagement, Productivity and Happiness, spoke to a large audience about the importance of talent optimization and how the Predictive Index (PI) Assessment is helping companies and organizations make better, data-driven, people-centered decisions.

 

What Is the PI Assessment?

Arnold Daniels, creator and founder of the Predictive Index Assessment, got the idea for it when he served as a flight navigator in World War II. His team logged more than 30 missions, all without a single combat casualty. When commanders noted the team’s record, they sent a psychologist in to work with Daniels to study just what made their teamwork so successful.

In 1952, Daniels released the first PI Assessment, and three years later, he founded PI Worldwide, now called the Predictive Index. The Predictive Index Behavioral Assessment was created through a normative sample of thousands of people and has since been the subject of nearly 500 validation studies. It has received continual updates and today represents a well-established, business-relevant, and scientifically proven measure of behavioral tendencies in the workplace.

“Talent optimization is linking the third leg of the stool, linking business strategy to results. If you don’t get results, you don’t have the privilege of staying in business.”

PI later introduced the PI Cognitive Assessment, which provides a better understanding of each person’s learning capacity, and the Job Assessment, which defines jobs via individual attributes and needs. Together with the PI Behavioral Assessment, this trio of tools has fulfilled Daniels’ vision — identifying what uniquely motivates and drives each person, and setting them up for ultimate success in their work.

Daniels paved the way for the future of workforce development and built a foundation for the new discipline of talent optimization, the framework that aligns business and talent strategy, which has since grown into a discipline powered by assessment data.

Today, the Behavioral Assessment helps employers understand the personality traits that make their employees and candidates tick. Assessment takers get two lists of adjectives. Using the first list, they are asked to select the words that describe the way others expect them to act. Using the second list, they are asked to select the words that describe them in their own opinion.

Each adjective is associated with one of the four key factors that determine workplace behavior: dominance, extraversion, patience, and formality. These four key factors — or key behavioral drives — provide a simple framework for understanding employees’ and candidates’ workplace behaviors; it lets employers see beneath the surface so they can predict how people will behave in given situations. Behavioral testing, combined with an understanding of cognitive ability, can dramatically improve the hiring process.

A good example of this is Maersk, the largest shipping company in the world. It has been using the PI assessment since 1972 and uses it for every single employee.

“They can tell the profile of the ship’s captain versus a navigator versus an engineer versus a deckhand,” Zani explained. “And, interestingly, this has changed over time. They have not only been using it for every position, but they’ve actually evolved over time as these positions have evolved with technology and with changes and how they operate, so that they’re always trying to make sure they have the right fit for the role.”

With the evolution of the workplace, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, managers are having to change their hiring strategies, and Zani thinks the assessment will be a step in the right direction.

 

Benefits of Talent Optimization

Zani went on to say the biggest mistake leaders make is relying on their own conscious and unconscious biases.

“They manage people the way that they want to be managed, or they don’t hire the person that walks in with a neck tattoo or knuckle tattoos; they just can’t get their arms around that, even though they’re the right candidate,” he said. “This is a problem today.”

Most leaders have a one- to five-year financial plan to support that strategy, but few have a talent strategy. And if they do, it doesn’t say what kind of people they are going to hire or who they need to fill in the gaps on the current team. It’s a critical element, as 65% of costs in businesses in an average company today are personnel-related.

“Becoming self-aware of your own strengths and weaknesses not only benefits the individual, but it also helps you understand others better so you can be a better teacher, a better manager.”

“Strategies don’t execute themselves; people execute those strategies,” Zani said. “Why wouldn’t you have a plan for 65% of your cost? Talent optimization is linking the third leg of the stool, linking business strategy to results. If you don’t get results, you don’t have the privilege of staying in business.”

Most businesses follow an unstructured interviewing model, where résumé checkers are taking less than six seconds to review the résumé, and interviewees are taking less than 10 minutes to prepare for the interview. There is a cycle of questions, such as ‘tell me about a time when you were challenged at work?’ or ‘why do you want to work here?’ And someone will ask the same questions in the following interviews.

This creates a system that doesn’t tell the employer who the best fit for the job will be. Embracing talent optimization creates what Zani calls a ‘T-shirt effect’ — the front of the shirt embraces a person’s strengths and capabilities, but the back ultimately shows their flaws. The PI Assessment helps leaders figure out the behavioral and cognitive abilities needed to create a well-meshed team.

“Becoming self-aware of your own strengths and weaknesses not only benefits the individual, but it also helps you understand others better so you can be a better teacher, a better manager,” he said. “You can modify yourself to get the best out of them so your people can be their best on their best day. It’s about understanding others.”

He continued by saying the onus is on the manager to modify themselves so they can get the most out of their people. The beauty in doing talent optimization well, he reiterated, is being able to send employees home more energized to be better parents, spouses, siblings, and neighbors.

“Community kind of stinks right now — like, there’s not a lot of it,” Zani said. “And if we can help create happier, better members of the community, we really impact the world in a positive way.”

The real inspiration is to make sure people feel like they can be successful and have purpose at work. By sending people home more energized, happier, and more fulfilled with purpose, leaders are creating a stronger community, both inside and outside the business world.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Accounting and Tax Planning

Learning Exercise

By Charles Jacques

 

With the rising costs of higher education, it is even more important to effectively plan for how best to finance your future goals, regardless of what level you are at or pursuing.

Qualified tuition programs (QTPs), or 529 plans, are one possible route that not only supports you in saving for education expenses, but also allows for tax incentives as established by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

 

What Is a 529 Plan?

Qualified tuition programs are established and maintained by either a state or educational institution (such as college or university) and are commonly referred to as 529 plans simply because their tax rules are governed by section 529 in the IRS code.

In short, these plans allow a taxpayer to either prepay or contribute to a savings or investment account that can appreciate in value over time, similar to a traditional IRA. When money from the account is later withdrawn by the designated beneficiary, the income will be excluded from federal income, provided, however, that these funds are being used for qualified educational expenses.

Common examples of qualified educational expenses include tuition, fees, books, and even room and board at eligible educational institutions (if at least a half-time student).

Charles Jacques

Charles Jacques

“These plans allow a taxpayer to either prepay or contribute to a savings or investment account that can appreciate in value over time, similar to a traditional IRA.”

How Do I Start a 529 Plan?

These plans can be created online or with the assistance of an investment advisor. Each state offers plans, and if you already have a relationship with a brokerage firm (Edward Jones, Vanguard, Fidelity, etc.), you can also partner with your advisor to set one up. Do keep in mind that, while the distributions are excluded from federal income, tax consequences vary by state. Make sure to research the tax rules for your state before setting up the plan.

 

Are the Taxpayer Contributions Tax-deductible?

Contributions to a 529 plan are not deductible for federal tax; however, some states do allow deductions. Be sure to check your state’s rules when setting up the plan.

 

What If the Beneficiary Doesn’t Use the Money for Qualified Educational Expenses?

The intent of these plans was to provide tax incentives to fund higher education. Distributions used for non-qualified expenses are generally treated as income, and the earnings in the account will also be subject to an additional 10% penalty (with some exceptions). It’s important to verify that the intended expense qualifies before deciding to take the distribution.

 

Who Reports the Income?

When a distribution is made, form 1099-Q will be issued, with information regarding the gross distribution, earnings within the account, and the type of account it is (such as a state or private plan). The individual receiving the distribution will usually be the one reporting the income, with their name on the form.

 

Can I Make a Gift Donation to a 529 Plan?

Yes. Keep in mind, however, that the gift amount is not exempt from the annual $15,000 gift-tax exclusion limit as established by the IRS. The IRS does, however, provide an option for taxpayers who gift up to $75,000 in a single year to split that gift in five equal parts over the next five years (as if it was actually split over those five consecutive years).

For example, if a taxpayer gifted $75,000 during the year, the gifting taxpayer can elect to report $15,000 ($75,000 / 5) in year one, and $15,000 again in the next four subsequent years, thereby not exceeding the annual limit. This election can be made for each unique beneficiary plan.

 

Can I Roll Over the Account Amount to Another Plan?

Yes. Perhaps the beneficiary doesn’t plan to go to college or accrue these qualified higher-education expenses in the foreseeable future. Plan benefits may be transferred from one beneficiary to another in the same family (although the IRS has a vast definition of what constitutes family) with no adverse tax consequences, with the one caveat being that you cannot roll over more than one QTP to a single beneficiary within a 12-month period.

Qualified tuition programs are an option to help fund educational goals and may be a helpful financial strategy when navigating those various costs associated.

 

Charles Jacques, staff accountant at Melanson, specializes in commercial tax returns and planning.

Accounting and Tax Planning

Million-dollar Question

Anew poll of Massachusetts voters conducted by Suffolk University, the Boston Globe, NBC10 Boston, and Telemundo found that 58% of respondents support ballot Question 1, compared to 37% in opposition. Question 1, on the Massachusetts ballot on Nov. 8, would create a 4% tax on the portion of a person’s annual income above $1 million and require that the funds be spent only on transportation and public education.

“Tens of thousands of educators, workers, small-business owners, parents, faith leaders, municipal officials, drivers and transit riders, and more than 500 organizations across the state are all working together to pass Question 1 in November,” said Lillian Lanier, field director for Fair Share for Massachusetts, the leading advocacy group working to pass the ballot initiative. “We’re supporting Question 1 because we know it will help improve our schools and transportation infrastructure, and only the very rich will pay more. A few billionaires are trying to mislead voters about what Question 1 does, but our grassroots supporters are having thousands of conversations every day to combat their misinformation.”

That survey result may be concerning to the Coalition to Stop the Tax Hike Amendment, the leading collection of organizations opposed to the initiative, claiming to represent more than 25,000 small businesses, in addition to thousands of homeowners, retirees, farmers, and large employers.

“If passed, Question 1 would be one of the highest tax hikes in Massachusetts history, immediately and permanently implementing an 80% tax increase and threatening small businesses across the state,” the coalition argues. “Question 1 captures tens of thousands of small-business owners who do not make more than $1 million per year and are working hard to rebuild after the negative impacts of the pandemic. At a time when we should be helping our small businesses recover, small-business owners will instead be left reeling from a new, unprecedented financial hit.”

As written, the proposed amendment to Article 44 of the Massachusetts Constitution states that, “to provide the resources for quality public education and affordable public colleges and universities, and for the repair and maintenance of roads, bridges, and public transportation, all revenues received in accordance with this paragraph shall be expended, subject to appropriation, only for these purposes.

“In addition to the taxes on income otherwise authorized under this article, there shall be an additional tax of 4% on that portion of annual taxable income in excess of $1 million reported on any return related to those taxes.

“To ensure that this additional tax continues to apply only to the Commonwealth’s highest-income taxpayers, this $1 million income level shall be adjusted annually to reflect any increases in the cost of living by the same method used for federal income tax brackets. This paragraph shall apply to all tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2023.”

The Coalition to Stop the Tax Hike Amendment argues that Question 1 impacts the tens of thousands of small businesses across the state that file taxes as pass-through entities, noting that these small businesses file their business’ revenue as personal income, even though much of it is reinvested back into their business. The coalition notes that many of these small businesses are operating on razor-thin margins and take home very little profit, yet the proposed amendment treats their business revenue as if they are a high-earning individual, threatening their business’ viability.

“Our organization represents 4,000 small businesses across the state, with a vast majority of these businesses set up as pass-through entities,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Assoc. of Massachusetts. “Many of these organizations could see their taxes nearly double under Question 1. This constitutional amendment will devastate our local economy and threaten small businesses statewide.”

The coalition also argues that Question 1 robs the nest eggs of small-business owners who are relying on the sale of their business to fund their retirement. Unlike federal taxes on personal income, this measure treats one-time gains — such as those from selling a business, home, or farm — as regular income, pushing many retirees into the new, higher tax bracket, and nearly doubling their taxes.

Among the organizations that have united against the amendment are the Massachusetts High Tech Council, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, the Massachusetts Retail Lumber Dealers Assoc., the Springfield Regional Chamber and many other chambers of commerce, the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative, and the Massachusetts Business Roundtable.

But Question 1 does have supporters, as the Yes on Question 1 campaign has been endorsed by 87 labor unions; 72 community organizing groups; 18 faith-based groups; more than 75 businesses; 64 city councils, select boards, and school committees; 89 local Democratic town and ward committees; and 115 other social-service and not-for-profit organizations focused on housing, education, transportation, public health, and the environment.

Supporters call the amendment an opportunity for Massachusetts to improve schools and colleges, fix roads and bridges, create jobs, and boost the economy, all without 99% of taxpayers paying a single cent more.

As a tax on personal income over $1 million, Fair Share for Massachusetts argues, business taxes would not be affected, and Question 1 doesn’t apply to any business revenues. It notes that fewer than 3% of businesses owners in Massachusetts have taxable personal income over $1 million that would be subject to Question 1, and many of them are primarily investors or shareholders, not people running a business day-to-day.

“If a business is generating more than a million dollars in personal profit for the owner, even after they deduct all their business expenses, let’s be real: it’s not a small business, and that super-rich business owner can afford to pay their fair share in taxes,” said Gerly Adrien, business director of Fair Share for Massachusetts and owner of Tipping Cow Ice Cream in Somerville and Boston.

Construction

View from the Top

Thomas Morin

Thomas Morin says the season has been busy as usual.

With recession clouds building and supply-chain issues still affecting industries across the board, area roofers say they’re still maintaining a steady workflow.

That’s partly because, when it comes to a leaky roof, there’s no skipping out on fixing the problem, said Fran Beaulieu, co-owner of Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement Inc. and PBHI Roofing. “Unfortunately for people, whether they beg, steal, or borrow to get money, when you have water leaking into your home, you have to fix it. So roofing is generally pretty consistent.”

PBHI was started in 1967 by Beaulieu’s father, Phil Beaulieu, and has been family-owned and operated ever since, offering full roof replacement and repair, new roof construction, roof inspections, flat- and low-slope roofing, storm-damage repairs, and skylight installation, as well as vinyl siding, windows, doors, decks, porches, and more.

The roofers at CDA Roofing and Siding agreed with Beaulieu’s take on basic demand for roofing services. Chris Dore, lead estimator and project coordinator, said that as long as the phones are ringing and estimates are going out, business can be considered healthy.

CDA has been family-owned and operated for the past 11 years in Agawam, since Clarke Dore and Jimmy Acerra merged their roofing businesses to strengthen their clientele. Dore owned and operated CDA Roofing, but primarily focused on residential shingle work. When merging the two companies, Acerra brought forth his expertise on commercial roofing; he has earned an A+ rating with Firestone Building Products, a leading roofing-products manufacturer.

Fran Beaulieu

Fran Beaulieu

“There has never in my adult life been a better time to get into the trades, period.”

A healthy flow of business doesn’t necessarily mean a peak year, however. Dore said he and his team have a theory: during a typical summer, kids are home from school and people are on summer vacations, but as the weather starts to change and people are getting their kids back into school mode, there’s an influx in business.

But this year, the recession has caused some hesitancy among homeowners.

“It was slow in the sense that people were a little gun-shy, I think, to commit. Regardless of the size of your house, roofing is a huge project, whether it’s a million-dollar mansion or a modest cape or even a shed or doghouse,” he said, noting that issues like inflation and the supply chain are disrupting homeowners’ decisions. “There’s a million fingers pointed at the highest level of government down to the local government. Who’s to really blame? Everyone’s got their theories.”

 

Fixing a Hole

Thomas Morin, owner of Valley Roofing and Restoration, agreed and said that people are being more conscious about what they’re spending their money on and “comparing apples to apples for every estimate.”

Shingles are generally the more affordable option depending on the company, but just like everything else in the world, the roofing industry is driven by petroleum costs. Each of the businesses BusinessWest spoke with said that, when the price of oil is high, all their building products are going to cost more, but roofing shingles, which are made with oil, and other commercial roofing products are especially vulnerable.

Morin launched Valley Roofing and Restoration about a decade ago. He specializes in new roof installations and repairs, and among his products is metal roofing, which he says is a growing trend due to its price.

“We’re just trying to stay busy at this point, but things have been good,” Morin said. “In roofing, it’s hard to expect anything. You have to go with the flow, and if something isn’t working, you change it.”

It doesn’t help, Beaulieu said, that roofing is one of the heaviest materials to transport, and diesel costs are through the roof (no pun intended). “When things are heavy, you need heavy trucks that are capable of moving really heavy materials, and they use a lot of diesel.”

Dore described the rise in prices as a “kick in the head.” In these circumstances, he explained, it’s difficult for businesses to maintain consistent profit margins. While prices seemingly never slow and continue to rise, that cost is relayed to the customer, but the company doesn’t benefit.

“The profit margin is what it is,” he went on. “You try to remain competitive — and there’s a lot of competition in this area. You just have to try to keep your head down, stay the course, and weather the storm; that’s really what it is.”

As the harsh cold of New England starts to settle in, both Beaulieu and Dore stress that homeowners should conduct due diligence and research the company it hires to do a job, but for different reasons.

Ice dams are a homeowner’s enemy in New England; those are ice buildups on the eaves of sloped roofs of heated buildings that result from melting snow under a snow pack reaching the eave and freezing there, especially in the middle of winter. The first inclination is to call a roofer, but Beaulieu advises against that.

Workers for Valley Roofing and Restoration make progress on a residential roof replacement.

Workers for Valley Roofing and Restoration make progress on a residential roof replacement.

“You need an insulator contractor. When you have ice dams on your house, homeowners tend to call roofers, and unfortunately, roofers in this industry aren’t always the most ethical guys,” he said. “They will just sell them a new roof or charge them to shovel snow off the roof, which causes all kinds of problems.”

Winter also brings an influx of storms and storm chasers. For example, after the June 2011 tornado, Dore explained, roofers from out of state were patrolling neighborhoods in hopes of “repairing” roofs.

“A lot of potential future work for myself and other companies in the area evaporated. I don’t want to say it hurt us by any means, but we noticed, ‘OK, there’s that house, that house,’ whole neighborhoods that got roofs that really weren’t ready for them,” he said. “They were done by guys who you can’t even get on the phone if you wanted to. They came in, and a lot of them did the wrong thing; we ran into it multiple times.”

 

Getting Better

As the roofing season heads into winter and unemployment is still high, Beaulieu, who is also president of the Western Massachusetts Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc., stressed the importance of trades as a career path, saying the writing is on the wall for continued disruption in the industry due to workforce challenges.

“There has never in my adult life been a better time to get into the trades, period,” he told BusinessWest. “Whether you want to be a mason, a carpenter, a vinyl-siding installer, a roofer, you want to do windows and doors, you want to build decks, there’s never been a better time because it’s really hard to find younger people that want to do it.”

And roofing is a place they can start at the top, in a sense — and only move up from there.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Super 60

A Tradition Returns

The Super 60, the Springfield Regional Chamber’s annual celebration of thriving companies in Western Mass., was riding high in 2019, when the program marked its 30th year.
Since then … well, you know the story. A pandemic and a wave of economic impacts not only curtailed live events in 2020 and 2021, but created anything but a festive environment for local businesses.
But the program is back this year, and chamber members are ready to celebrate success — and each other.
“It’s super exciting that we’re returning to in-person events in general, and we’re very excited to get back to Super 60,” said Diana Szynal, executive director of the Springfield Regional Chamber. “That’s an award that recognizes the success of local businesses, and it’s going to feel really good to be in person, celebrating business success.”
The Super 60 program celebrates the success of the fastest-growing privately owned businesses in the region. Businesses that rank in the top 30 of the Total Revenue and Revenue Growth categories for 2022 represent all sectors of the economy, including nonprofits, construction, insurance, finance, technology, manufacturing, healthcare, hospitality, and more. Some have been named to the Super 60 once or many times before, and some are brand-new to the list.
 They are profiled below, with the top five in each category ranked and the rest listed alphabetically.

The Super 60 Luncheon

The annual Super 60 luncheon will be held on Thursday, Nov. 10 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the MassMutual Center in Springfield. The keynote speaker will be Myke Connolly, the serial entrepreneur behind the successful marketing venture known as Stand Out Truck.

Szybnal said she first connected with Connolly when she was leading the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and noticed the breadth of his activities in Western Mass.

“I was fascinated by his story, his energy, and his presence on social media and locally, and I thought he would be perfect to talk to all of us about his success,” she told BusinessWest. “And what better time than when we’re celebrating local success stories?”

The cost to attend the Super 60 luncheon is $60 for members and $75 for general admission, and reserved tables of eight or 10 are available. Visit myonlinechamber.chambermaster.com/eventregistration/register/6186 to sign up for what promises to be an inspiring afternoon.

TOTAL REVENUE

1. Fontaine Brothers Inc.
2. Whalley Computer Associates Inc.
3. Marcotte Ford Sales Inc.
4. Tighe & Bond
5. Springfield Automotive Partners LLC
American Environmental Inc.
Andrew Associates
Appleton Corp.
Axia Group Insurance Services Inc.
Baltazar Contractors
Bart Truck Equipment LLC
Baystate Blasting Inc.
Baystate Crushing and Recycling Inc.
Chicopee Industrial Contractors Inc.
City Enterprise Inc.
The Dowd Agencies LLC
E.F. Corcoran Plumbing & Heating Co. Inc.
Freedom Credit Union
Hogan Technology Inc.
Keiter Corp.
Knight Machine Tool Co. Inc.
L & C Prescriptions Inc.
M. Jags Inc.
Market Mentors LLC
Maybury Associates Inc.
Paragus Strategic IT
Pioneer Valley Financial Group LLC
Sanderson MacLeod Inc.
Springfield Hockey LLC
V & F Auto

REVENUE GROWTH

1. Vanished Valley Inc.
2. Monty’s Motorsport LLC
3. Campora Construction Co Inc.
4. City Enterprise Inc.
5. Fontaine Brothers Inc.
Axia Group Insurance Services Inc.
Bart Truck Equipment LLC
Baystate Blasting Inc.
Baystate Crushing and Recycling Inc.
Chicopee Industrial Contractors Inc.
The Dowd Agencies LLC
Embracing The Creative Child LLC
FIT Staffing
Keiter Corp.
Knight Machine Tool Co. Inc.
L & C Prescriptions Inc.
L & L Property Service LLC
Ludlow Eye Care P.C.
M. Jags Inc.
The Markens Group
Market Mentors LLC
Maybury Associates Inc.
Northeast Security Solutions Inc.
Pioneer Valley Financial Group LLC
Sanderson MacLeod Inc.
Seaboard Drilling Inc.
Springfield Automotive Partners LLC
Springfield Hockey LLC
Tavares and Branco Enterprises Inc.
V & F Auto

Total REVENUE

1. Fontaine Brothers Inc.
510 Cottage St., Springfield, MA 01104
(413) 781-2020
www.fontainebros.com
David Fontaine Sr., President
Fontaine Brothers offers services such as general contracting, with a focus on K-12 schools, higher education, commercial properties, historical renovations, municipal work, and green buildings, as well as construction management. The firm has been family-owned and operated for 89 years.

2. Whalley Computer Associates Inc.
One Whalley Way, Southwick, MA 01077
(413) 596-4200
www.wca.com
Michael Sheil, President
Whalley Computer Associates offers data-center services, cloud backup, managed services, training, desktop services, network services, and staff-augmentation services. The company focuses its work in the corporate, finance, healthcare, K-12, higher education, retail, and SMB industries.

3. Marcotte Ford Sales Inc.
1025 Main St., Holyoke, MA 01040
(413) 650-9041
www.marcotteford.com
Mike Marcotte, President
Marcotte Ford Sales is a car dealership selling and financing new and used cars, trucks, and SUVs. The dealership also offers a wide range of parts and services, such as tires, brakes, oil changes, repairs, and alignment checks.

4. Tighe & Bond
53 Southampton Road, Westfield, MA 01085
(413) 562-1600
www.tighebond.com
Robert Belitz, President and CEO
Tighe & Bond offers engineering, design, planning, and environmental-consulting services, with focuses in building, transportation, water and wastewater engineering, coastal and waterfront solutions, environmental consulting, GIS and asset management, landscape architecture and urban design, civil engineering, and site planning.

5. Springfield Automotive Partners LLC
295 Burnett Road, Chicopee, MA 01020
(413) 624-4100
www.mbspringfield.com
Peter and Michelle Wirth, owners
Springfield Automotive Partners is the parent company of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield. With a showroom in Chicopee, the dealership sells new and used cars, as well as financing and buying back cars. The location offers service, parts, and tires for all maintenance needs, and provides roadside assistance and vehicle inspections.

American Environmental Inc.
18 Canal St., Holyoke, MA 01040
(413) 322-7190
www.amerenviro.com
Charles Hughes, President
American Environmental is a family-owned business providing services like asbestos abatement, structural demolition, boiler removal, commercial lead abatement, concrete cutting, floor preparation, interior demolition, water-jet blasting, roll-off service, and shot blasting. It has worked with property managers, schools, universities, hospitals, churches, stores, industrial sites, and public facilities.

Andrew Associates
6 Pearson Way, Enfield, CT 06082
(860) 253-0000
www.andrewdm.com
Tina Bazarian, Owner and CFO;
Graeme Bazarian, President
Andrew Associates is a printing and mailing service that makes signage and graphics for businesses, nonprofits, and government, with services including bindery, kitting, insertion, and postal presort. It also specializes in data security and analysis to better target viewers.

Appleton Corp.
800 Kelly Way, Holyoke, MA 01040
(413) 536-8048
www.appletoncorporation.com
Matt Flink, President
Appleton Corp., a division of the O’Connell Companies, provides property, facilities, and asset-management services, along with accounting and financial services, to managers and owners of commercial and residential properties across New England.

Axia Group Insurance Services Inc.
84 Myron St., Suite A, West Springfield, MA 01089
(413) 788-9000
www.axiagroup.net
Michael long, CEO
Axia Group Insurance Services is an independent insurance agency that provides personal lines of insurance, business insurance, and employee benefits, as well as group insurance plans. It represents numerous insurance companies, such as Liberty Mutual, MAPFRE, MassMutual, and Progressive.

Baltazar Contractors
83 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 583-6160
www.baltazarcontractors.com
Paulo Baltazar, President
Baltazar Contractors is a heavy civil construction company with services in utility construction, roadway construction, site work and development, culvert/bridge construction, earth support and shoring, and trenchless technology. It was started 29 years ago and has remained family-owned.

Bart Truck Equipment LLC
358 River St., West Springfield, MA 01089
(413) 737-2766
www.barttruckllc.com
James DiClementi, President
Bart Truck Equipment is a heavy-duty parts and trucking service company, offering different bodies (dump, platform, utility/service), snow plows and other winter removal equipment, truck-mounted generators, hook lifts and roll-offs, and more. It also custom-builds and fabricates parts for clients. It serves contractors, landscapers, fleets, municipalities, utility companies, and homeowners.

Baystate Blasting Inc.
36 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 583-4440
www.baystateblasting.com
Dinis Baltazar, President and CEO
Baystate Blasting offers services in ledge and rock removal, rock blasting, and rock crushing. It performs large and small construction-site preparation, road and highway work, line drilling and trench work, quarry shots, and residential work such as foundations and inground pools. It is federally licensed as both a dealer and user of explosive materials.

Baystate Crushing and Recycling Inc.
83 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 583-7856
Dinis Baltazar, President and CEO
Baystate Crushing and Recycling is a family-owned drilling and blasting firm that provides a full range of rock-blasting and rock-crushing services, including site work, heavy highway construction, residential work, quarry, and portable crushing and recycling. A federally licensed dealer of explosives, it offers rental of individual magazines and is a sister company to Baystate Blasting Inc.

Chicopee Industrial Contractors Inc.
107 North Chicopee St, Chicopee, MA 01020
(413) 538-7279
www.chicopeeindustrial.com
Carol Campbell, President and CEO
Chicopee Industrial Contractors is a woman-owned industrial contracting firm that specializes in rigging, heavy lifting, machinery moving, machine installation, millwrighting, machine repair, heavy hauling, plant relocations, concrete pads, foundations, and structural steel installations. It is celebrating its 30th year in business.

City Enterprise Inc.
52-60 Berkshire Ave., Springfield, MA 01109
(413) 726-9549
www.cityenterpriseinc.com
Wonderlyn Murphy, President and CEO
City Enterprise is a minority- and woman-owned design, build, and renovation construction firm specializing in government, municipal, and commercial projects. It has performed work on the Springfield Armory, various UMass locations, the Northampton VA Medical Center, and the Donohue Federal Courthouse. This is its eighth consecutive year on the Super 60 list.

The Dowd Agencies LLC
14 Bobala Road, Holyoke, MA 01040
(413) 538-7444
www.dowd.com
John Dowd Jr., President and CEO
The Dowd Agencies is an insurance agency that provides personal (automotive, renters, home, and condominium) and business (liability, commercial auto, liability, and more) insurance, as well as employee benefits. It also offers group packages for personal and business plans. The Dowd Agencies has been family-owned since 1865, welcoming its fifth generation in 2019.

E.F. Corcoran Plumbing & Heating Co. Inc.
5 Rose Place, Springfield, MA 01104
(413) 732-1462
www.efcorcoran.com
Brian Toomey, President
E.F. Corcoran Plumbing & Heating is a full-service plumbing and HVAC contractor, offering 24-hour plumbing services, HVAC installation, gas piping, boilers, heat recovery, and more. It serves the commercial, industrial, medical, and institutional industries and has performed work for Baystate Noble Hospital, Springfield College, UMass, Mercy Medical Center, and Stop & Shop.

Freedom Credit Union
1976 Main St., Springfield, MA 01103
(413) 739-6961
www.freedom.coop
Glenn Welch, President and CEO
Freedom Credit Union is a credit union that offers banking and loan services to businesses, the cannabis industry, and individuals. It also offers insurance plans for individuals and an investment-services division. The institution is celebrating its centennial in 2022.

Hogan Technology Inc.
81 East St., Easthampton, MA 01027
(413) 585-9950
www.teamhogan.com
Sean Hogan, President
Since 1986, Hogan Technology has offered a range of technology services to businesses, which now include audio-visual installation, cable installation, digital signage, and network infrastructure installation. Now run by Sean and his brother Andy, Hogan offers business clients value-added benefits including a trained team of certified installation and support professionals.

Keiter Corp.
35 Main St., Florence, MA 01062
(413) 586-8600
www.keiter.com
Scott Keiter, President
Keiter Corp. is a construction-services company working with clients on residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional projects of all sizes. The firm is divided into four divisions: Keiter Builders, Keiter Homes, Hatfield Construction, and Keiter Properties. The company has performed work for Amherst College, Bacon Wilson in Northampton, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and Look Park.

Knight Machine Tool Co. Inc.
1 Industrial Dr., South Hadley, MA 01075
(413) 532-2507
www.knightmachine.net
Gary O’Brien, President
Knight Machine Tool Co. Inc. specializes in machine and inspection equipment, such as head lathes, grinders, drill presses, calipers, and gages. It also offers turning, milling, round and flat lapping, EDM wire cutting, wet surface grinding, assembly, plating, and more. The company is ITAR-registered and ISO-certified.

L & C Prescriptions Inc.
155 Brookdale Dr., Springfield, MA 01104
(413) 781-2996
www.medibubble.com
Dr. Kara James, President
L & C Prescriptions, the parent company for Louis & Clark Pharmacy, provides medication solutions to individuals, healthcare providers, and assisted-living, independent-living, and memory-care communities, and offers online prescription refills, MediBubble pre-packaged pills, blister packs to manage daily medications, vial synchronization, consultations with registered pharmacists, and a delivery service.

M. Jags Inc.
197 Main St., Agawam, MA 01001
(413) 781-4352
www.taplinyardpumpandpower.com
Martin Jagodowski, President
M. Jags, also known as Taplin Yard, Pump and Power Equipment, is a supplier of water pumps, water conditioners, pump-repair services, and yard and garden power equipment. It offers new and used parts and services for repairs, as well as financing options and a parts finder on its website.

Market Mentors LLC
155 Brookdale Dr.,
Springfield, MA 01104
(413) 787-1133
www.marketmentors.com
Michelle Abdow, President
Market Mentors helps other businesses with marketing, advertising, public relations, graphic design, and website design. It serves the automotive, educational, energy, banking and finance, healthcare, insurance, industrial and manufacturing, legal, nonprofit, retail, political, services, sports, and entertainment sectors, and has worked with multiple companies on the Super 60 list, like the Dowd Agencies and Freedom Credit Union.

Maybury Associates Inc.
90 Denslow Road,
East Longmeadow, MA 01028
(888) 629-2879
www.maybury.com
John Maybury, President and CEO
Maybury Associates is a material-handling equipment company that provides parts and services, warehouse design, rentals, and products for sale to businesses big and small. It offers forklifts, cleaning equipment (sweepers, scrubbers, industrial and commercial vacuums, etc.), racking, conveyors, dock equipment, modular office construction materials, and more, and has been awarded with the MHEDA Most Valuable Partner award 12 years running.

Paragus Strategic IT
112 Russell St., Hadley, MA 01035
(413) 587-2666
www.paragusit.com
Delcie Bean IV, CEO
Paragus Strategic IT is an technology provider for small to medium-sized businesses in Western and Central Mass., offering both outsourced and co-managed IT experiences, allowing the client to choose what their preferred IT management looks like. Paragus serves the legal, manufacturing, medical and dental, cannabis, veterinary, insurance, and nonprofit sectors, among others.

Pioneer Valley Financial Group LLC
535 East St., Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 589-1500
www.pvfinancial.com
Charles Meyers, Edward Sokolowski, and Joseph Leonczyk, Founding Partners
Pioneer Valley Financial Group is a financial-planning service, offering services in retirement planning, business planning, asset growth, college funding, estate planning, tax planning, and risk management. It serves retirees, professionals, service members, young adults, and small and medium-sized businesses.

Sanderson MacLeod Inc.
1199 South Main St., Palmer, MA 01069
(866) 522-3481
www.sandersonmacleod.com
Mark Borsari, President and CEO
Sanderson MacLeod innovates, manufactures, and sources wire brushes, stylets, and assemblies. It serves the medical, cosmetic, firearms, and OEM industries. The company invented the twisted-wire mascara brush, the ZTip, and multiple other patented designs.

Springfield Hockey LLC
1 Monarch Place, Springfield, MA 02110
(413) 746-4100
www.springfieldthunderbirds.com
Nathan Costa, President
Springfield Hockey LLC, better known as the Springfield Thunderbirds, is the local affiliate of the St. Louis Blues and and the American Hockey League’s 2021-22 Eastern Conference Champion. The team gives back to the community in multiple ways, like the Thunderbirds Foundation, Stick to Reading school programs, Hometown Salute, Frontline Fridays, and more.

V & F Auto
443 Springfield St., Agawam, MA 01001
(413) 789-2181
www.vfauto.com
Frank Palange, President
V & F Auto is an automotive repair company that offers vehicle sales and financing as well as auto services, including brake repairs, alternator repairs, oil changes, engine repairs and maintenance, radiator and cooling system maintenance, and more. It has been family-owned since 1988.

REVENUE GROWTH

1. Vanished Valley Inc.
782 Center St., Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 610-1572
www.vanishedvalley.com
Mike Rodrigues, Restaurant Owner;
Josh Britton, Brewery Owner
Vanished Valley Inc. is a small-batch brewery that is family- and pet-friendly and holds events in its taproom and beer garden. The restaurant menu includes appetizers, pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, and barbeque. On tap, the brewery offers IPAs, seltzers, lagers, ales, and stouts, as well as wine and spirits.

2. Monty’s Motorsport LLC
1 Arch Road, Westfield, MA 01085
(413) 642-8199
www.montysmotorsports.com
Monty Geer, Owner
Monty’s Motorsport is a parts, sales, service, and gear store for motorsport vehicles, such as four-wheelers, dirt bikes, motorcycles, electric bikes, street bikes, and more. It offers new and used vehicles, with financing options available, as well as services such as winterization, battery inspections, accessory installations, chain adjustments, oil and filter changes, and full engine rebuilds.

3. Campora Construction Co Inc.
43 Owens Way, Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 610-1660
www.camporacc.com
Mario Campora, President
Campora Construction specializes in full-scale building construction and sidewalk, patio, and driveway installation for residential, commercial, and governmental projects. Services include custom home design and construction, complete home rebuilds from fire damage, home additions and sunroom installation, concrete demolition and infills, and commercial office fit-outs.

4. City Enterprise Inc.
52-60 Berkshire Ave., Springfield, MA 01109
(413) 726-9549
www.cityenterpriseinc.com
Wonderlyn Murphy, President and CEO
City Enterprise is a minority- and woman-owned design, build, and renovation construction firm specializing in government, municipal, and commercial projects. It has performed work on the Springfield Armory, various UMass locations, the Northampton VA Medical Center, and the Donohue Federal Courthouse. This is its eighth consecutive year on the Super 60 list.


5. Fontaine Brothers Inc.
510 Cottage St., Springfield, MA 01104
(413) 781-2020
www.fontainebros.com
David Fontaine Sr., President
Fontaine Brothers offers services such as general contracting, with a focus on K-12 schools, higher education, commercial properties, historical renovations, municipal work, and green buildings, as well as construction management. The firm has been family-owned and operated for 89 years.

Axia Group Insurance Services Inc.
84 Myron St., Suite A, West Springfield, MA 01089
(413) 788-9000
www.axiagroup.net
Michael long, CEO
Axia Group Insurance Services is an independent insurance agency that provides personal lines of insurance, business insurance, and employee benefits, as well as group insurance plans. It represents numerous insurance companies, such as Liberty Mutual, MAPFRE, MassMutual, and Progressive.

Bart Truck Equipment LLC
358 River St., West Springfield, MA 01089
(413) 737-2766
www.barttruckllc.com
James DiClementi, President
Bart Truck Equipment is a heavy-duty parts and trucking service company, offering different bodies (dump, platform, utility/service), snow plows and other winter removal equipment, truck-mounted generators, hook lifts and roll-offs, and more. It also custom-builds and fabricates parts for clients. It serves contractors, landscapers, fleets, municipalities, utility companies, and homeowners.

Baystate Blasting Inc.
36 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 583-4440
www.baystateblasting.com
Dinis Baltazar, President and CEO
Baystate Blasting offers services in ledge and rock removal, rock blasting, and rock crushing. It performs large and small construction-site preparation, road and highway work, line drilling and trench work, quarry shots, and residential work such as foundations and inground pools. It is federally licensed as both a dealer and user of explosive materials.

Baystate Crushing and Recycling Inc.
83 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 583-7856
Dinis Baltazar, President and CEO
Baystate Crushing and Recycling is a family-owned drilling and blasting firm that provides a full range of rock-blasting and rock-crushing services, including site work, heavy highway construction, residential work, quarry, and portable crushing and recycling. A federally licensed dealer of explosives, it offers rental of individual magazines and is a sister company to Baystate Blasting Inc.

Chicopee Industrial Contractors Inc.
107 North Chicopee St, Chicopee, MA 01020
(413) 538-7279
www.chicopeeindustrial.com
Carol Campbell, President and CEO
Chicopee Industrial Contractors is a woman-owned industrial contracting firm that specializes in rigging, heavy lifting, machinery moving, machine installation, millwrighting, machine repair, heavy hauling, plant relocations, concrete pads, foundations, and structural steel installations. It is celebrating its 30th year in business.

The Dowd Agencies LLC
14 Bobala Road, Holyoke, MA 01040
(413) 538-7444
www.dowd.com
John Dowd Jr., President and CEO
The Dowd Agencies is an insurance agency that provides personal (automotive, renters, home, and condominium) and business (liability, commercial auto, liability, and more) insurance, as well as employee benefits. It also offers group packages for personal and business plans. The Dowd Agencies has been family-owned since 1865, welcoming its fifth generation in 2019.

Embracing The Creative Child LLC
55 Deer Park Dr., East Longmeadow, MA 01028
(413) 525-1500
www.embracingthecreativechild.com
Sarah Gale, Owner
Embracing The Creative Child offers applied behavioral analysis (ABA) programs for children and young adults with developmental disabilities. Programs are geared towards the individual’s needs. Programs include at-home ABA programs, social skill groups, school consultations, and professional development for educators.

FIT Staffing
9½ Market St., Northampton, MA 01060
(413) 733-6466
www.fitstaffingsolutions.com
Anthony Ciak, Division Manager
FIT Staffing is an IT recruitment agency for both the employee and employer that serves all of New England. The agency offers a job search board similar to Indeed, and is affiliated with Maraton Staffing, ASA Recruitment, and the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

Keiter Corp.
35 Main St., Florence, MA 01062
(413) 586-8600
www.keiter.com
Scott Keiter, President
Keiter Corp. is a construction-services company working with clients on residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional projects of all sizes. The firm is divided into four divisions: Keiter Builders, Keiter Homes, Hatfield Construction, and Keiter Properties. The company has performed work for Amherst College, Bacon Wilson in Northampton, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and Look Park.

Knight Machine Tool Co. Inc.
1 Industrial Dr.,
South Hadley, MA 01075
(413) 532-2507
www.knightmachine.net
Gary O’Brien, President
Knight Machine Tool Co. Inc. specializes in machine and inspection equipment, such as head lathes, grinders, drill presses, calipers, and gages. It also offers turning, milling, round and flat lapping, EDM wire cutting, wet surface grinding, assembly, plating, and more. The company is ITAR-registered and ISO-certified.

L & C
Prescriptions Inc.
155 Brookdale Dr.,
Springfield, MA 01104
(413) 781-2996
www.medibubble.com
Dr. Kara James, President
L & C Prescriptions, the parent company for Louis & Clark Pharmacy, provides medication solutions to individuals, healthcare providers, and assisted-living, independent-living, and memory-care communities, and offers online prescription refills, MediBubble pre-packaged pills, blister packs to manage daily medications, vial synchronization, consultations with registered pharmacists, and a delivery service.

L & L Property
Service LLC
582 Amostown Road, West Springfield, MA 01089
(413) 732-2739
Todd Lapinski and Eddie Lapinski, Owners
L & L Property Service is a locally owned company providing an array of property services, including lawn care, snow removal, sanding, excavations, patios and stone walls, hydroseeding, and more. It is a family-owned business.

Ludlow Eye Care P.C.
200 Center St., #1, Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 583-3600
Dr. Catarzyna Babinski, Owner
Ludlow Eye Care is a practice specializing in optometry and offering eyeglass fittings, adjustments, repairs, sunglasses, and contact lenses. It also offers specialty glasses, such as blue-light glasses, computer glasses, kids’ glasses, reading glasses, and rimless frames.

M. Jags Inc.
197 Main St., Agawam, MA 01001
(413) 781-4352
www.taplinyardpumpandpower.com
Martin Jagodowski, President
M. Jags, also known as Taplin Yard, Pump and Power Equipment, is a supplier of water pumps, water conditioners, pump-repair services, and yard and garden power equipment. It offers new and used parts and services for repairs, as well as financing options and a parts finder on its website.

The Markens Group
1350 Main St., Springfield, MA 01103
(413) 686-9199
www.markens.com
Ben Markens, President; Jennie Markens, Partner
The Markens Group is an association management group that provides outsourced professional services including strategic leadership, financial management, event planning, member services, marketing and communications, program management, website and social-media services, and general administration to trade associations, membership societies, and not-for-profits.

Market Mentors LLC
155 Brookdale Dr., Springfield, MA 01104
(413) 787-1133
www.marketmentors.com
Michelle Abdow, President
Market Mentors helps other businesses with marketing, advertising, public relations, graphic design, and website design. It serves the automotive, educational, energy, banking and finance, healthcare, insurance, industrial and manufacturing, legal, nonprofit, retail, political, services, sports, and entertainment sectors, and has worked with multiple companies on the Super 60 list, like the Dowd Agencies and Freedom Credit Union.

Maybury Associates Inc.
90 Denslow Road, East Longmeadow, MA 01028
(888) 629-2879
www.maybury.com
John Maybury, President and CEO
Maybury Associates is a material-handling equipment company that provides parts and services, warehouse design, rentals, and products for sale to businesses big and small. It offers forklifts, cleaning equipment (sweepers, scrubbers, industrial and commercial vacuums, etc.), racking, conveyors, dock equipment, modular office construction materials, and more, and has been awarded with the MHEDA Most Valuable Partner award 12 years running.

Northeast Security Solutions Inc.
33 Sylvan St., #1, West Springfield, MA 01089
(413) 732-8748
www.northeastsecuritysolutions.com
George Condon III and David Condon, Co-owners
Northeast Security Solutions supplies security products and services within Western Mass., Northern Connecticut, and Southern Vermont. It offers door hardware, key control, locks, safes, burglar alarms, fire alarms, surveillance cameras, access control, and fire-extinguisher testing and inspections, and has been family-owned for the past 30 years.

Pioneer Valley Financial Group LLC
535 East St., Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 589-1500
www.pvfinancial.com
Charles Meyers, Edward Sokolowski, and Joseph Leonczyk, Founding Partners
Pioneer Valley Financial Group is a financial-planning service, offering services in retirement planning, business planning, asset growth, college funding, estate planning, tax planning, and risk management. It serves retirees, professionals, service members, young adults, and small and medium-sized businesses.

Sanderson MacLeod Inc.
1199 South Main St., Palmer, MA 01069
(866) 522-3481
www.sandersonmacleod.com
Mark Borsari, President and CEO
Sanderson MacLeod innovates, manufactures, and sources wire brushes, stylets, and assemblies. It serves the medical, cosmetic, firearms, and OEM industries. The company invented the twisted-wire mascara brush, the ZTip, and multiple other patented designs.

Seaboard Drilling Inc.
649 Meadow St., Chicopee, MA 01013
(800) 595-1114
www.seaboarddrilling.com
Jeffery Campbell, President and CEO
Seaboard Drilling is a geotechnical and environmental drilling services firm. It offers geotechnical and environmental borings, installation of standard and small-diameter monitoring wells, peizometers, geotechnical instruments, remedial recovery wells, and direct-push soil probing and sample retrieval.

Springfield Automotive
Partners LLC
295 Burnett Road,
Chicopee, MA 01020
(413) 624-4100
www.mbspringfield.com
Peter and Michelle Wirth, owners
Springfield Automotive Partners is the parent company of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield. With a showroom in Chicopee, the dealership sells new and used cars, as well as financing and buying back cars. The location offers service, parts, and tires for all maintenance needs, and provides roadside assistance and vehicle inspections.

Springfield Hockey LLC
1 Monarch Place,
Springfield, MA 02110
(413) 746-4100
www.springfieldthunderbirds.com
Nathan Costa, President
Springfield Hockey LLC, better known as the Springfield Thunderbirds, is the local affiliate of the St. Louis Blues and and the American Hockey League’s 2021-22 Eastern Conference Champion. The team gives back to the community in multiple ways, like the Thunderbirds Foundation, Stick to Reading school programs, Hometown Salute, Frontline Fridays, and more.

Tavares and Branco
Enterprises Inc.
1428 Center St., Ludlow, MA 01056
(413) 547-6667
www.villaroserestaurant.com
Tony Tavares, Owner
Tavares and Branco Enterprises owns and operates the Villa Rose Restaurant, lounge, and banquet hall, specializing in Portuguese and American cuisine. With a capacity of 150, the facility caters for parties, funerals, and weddings of 30 people or more. Villa Rose also offers breakfast and brunch for those who are looking to book a shower, seminar, business meeting, corporate functions, and more.

V & F Auto
443 Springfield St., Agawam, MA 01001
(413) 789-2181
www.vfauto.com
Frank Palange, President
V & F Auto is an automotive repair company that offers vehicle sales and financing as well as auto services, including brake repairs, alternator repairs, oil changes, engine repairs and maintenance, radiator and cooling system maintenance, and more. It has been family-owned since 1988.

Features Special Coverage

Group Created to Stem the Brain Drain Remains Loyal to Its Roots

YPS leaders past and present
YPS leaders past and present, from left: Michael Kusek, Kathleen Plante, Ryan McCollum, Kara Bombard, Heather Clark, and Tyler Hadley.

The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. That’s not a big number, but for a ‘young’ organization, in every sense of that word, it is a significant milestone. What is being celebrated is ongoing work to carry out a mission to bring young people together, to get them involved, to help shape them into leaders, and, while they’re at it, motivate them to stay in the 413. Much has changed over those 15 years, but that important mission hasn’t.

Fifteen years.

Depending on how old you are, it’s either a long time or … a really long time.

To those who were involved in the creation of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS), it certainly seems like the latter. The city and the region have changed considerably since 2007, and their lives have as well. Most are in different jobs than they were back then, and if they were in business for themselves, their venture is probably exponentially larger and more diverse.

Meanwhile, technology and social media have advanced in ways that probably could not have been imagined back then — early meetings were all planned by email, word got out through Evite, and organizers had real rolodexes, for example — and the physical landscape has been altered; many of the venues that hosted those early gatherings of this group, from the Keg Room and Cobalt to the Skyplex nightclub and Sam’s at the Basketball Hall of Fame, have been relegated to memories.

But through all that change — and, yes, there has been a lot of it — the core mission, YPS’s reason for being, is still the same. It is a vehicle for bringing ‘young’ — and that’s young in quotation marks — people together to network, do business with one another, learn, grow, get involved, consider the problems of the region and the world, and maybe discuss some ideas for solving a few.

“It was always hard to get a lot of young people in a room. Everyone was asking, ‘how are they finding their community?’”

While doing all that, it has made the phrase ‘Third Thursday,’ the traditional gathering night, part of the local lexicon, a tradition that has endured.

The motto back then was ‘live, work, play, and stay,’ with the last word perhaps being the most critical, said Mike Kusek, noting that it was added to convey the importance of keeping young talent graduating from area colleges and universities in this region and minimizing the brain drain that was considered a major problem for the region.

“It was always hard to get a lot of young people in a room,” he said of those days. “Everyone was asking, ‘how are they finding their community?’”

Kusek is one of those founding members, if you will, who has seen his life and career change considerably since 2007. Back then, he was handling marketing for the Valley Advocate. Today, he is the founder and publisher of Different Leaf, a publication dedicated to all things cannabis, especially the growing industry within Massachusetts and across the country (talk about a major change in the local landscape!).

Mayor Domenic Sarno, right, was among the attendees at one of the early YPS gatherings.
Mayor Domenic Sarno, right, was among the attendees at one of the early YPS gatherings.

He is one of several founders, as well as some current officers of YPS, who gathered for a roundtable to talk about YPS as it marks 15 years, a milestone that provided a time for reflection on how it got started, what has been accomplished, how the group has evolved, and what might come next.

As to that last question … a 15th-anniversary party is part of the answer. Those at the table agreed that one is certainly needed, and a format and date will come later.

As to those other questions … those at the table agreed that YPS has succeeded with its original mission, but it has also expanded it to include education — through initiatives like its early CEO Roundtables, where members could ask questions of leading area executives — and also involvement (YPS helped spawn the Onboard event aimed at recruiting young people, women, and diverse populations to serve on the boards of area nonprofits), charity, and even politics by encouraging members to register to vote (as part of the national Rock the Vote movement) and staging ‘meet-the-candidates’ gatherings.

The process of evolution continues, and it was accelerated in many ways by the pandemic, said Heather Clark, event manager for Baystate Children’s Hospital and the Baystate Health Foundation, the current president of YPS, noting that the group managed its way through that difficult time by bringing people together through Zoom meetings and finding new and different ways to connect young people and channel their collective energy.

“The pandemic made us look at how we do events and how we meet people differently,” she explained, adding that, now that COVID is essentially over, the challenge, and opportunity, moving forward is to determine what the future will look like in terms of where and how members will connect — with each other and the community. “We’re still trying to figure out what that looks like.”

“The pandemic made us look at how we do events and how we meet people differently.”

Tyler Hadley, director of Marketing for DDS Acoustical Specialties LLC in Westfield, and current co-vice president of the board, agreed.

“We’re trying to meet people where they’re at,” he explained. “Fifteen years ago, young people wanted to get out and do something; now, young professionals may just want to go on a website and look through a business directory. There’s always a place for the in-person gatherings, but we have to look at what else people are looking for.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several current and past leaders of YPS about this organization’s place in the region and within its business community, and about how the process of evolution will continue.

Young Ideas

As they talked about that first, very memorable gathering of YPS back in 2007, those founders (we won’t call them old-timers) we spoke with could remember many things, but especially the lines formed outside the Keg Room on Main Street, the huge crowds that gathered inside, the surprise with those numbers (especially on the part of some chamber and economic-development leaders who had expressed doubts about such an initiative), and the satisfaction that came with those numbers and how they validated the concept.

“We put the word out, there were lines down the street … the place was packed,” said Kathleen Plante, who was handling membership and events for what was then the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield and is now an advertising consultant for BusinessWest. “The leaders of the chamber and EDC [Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council] were shocked by the size of the turnout.”

Those founders just couldn’t remember the date of that memorable gathering.

From the beginning, one of the stated goals of YPS has been to give young people a place to gather and connect with one another.
From the beginning, one of the stated goals of YPS has been to give young people a place to gather and connect with one another.

Most recalled that it was warm. Most thought it had to be early fall, while others were convinced it was late summer. But a quick check of some early news stories on their phones revealed that the first meeting was in July.

Still, while the actual date is not etched into those founders’ minds, the motivation behind creation of the group certainly was.

Indeed, many can come from other markets — Plante from Seattle, and Ryan McCollum from Boston, where he worked at the State House, for example — where such groups were commonplace. With one voice, they were asking two questions: ‘why don’t we have a group like that?’ and ‘why don’t we start one?’

“I was working for Dave Panagore, then the chief Economic Development officer in Springfield, after coming back from Boston and working in the state Senate — and there were a bunch of young professional groups out there that I was a part of,” McCollum, now a political consultant and lobbyist, recalled. “I asked him almost in passing, ‘why we didn’t have anything like this,’ and he said, ‘why don’t you call down to the chamber and the EDC and find out?”

Plante recalled that there were already many discussions going on about a group for young professionals, and a core group of business and nonprofit leaders — including herself, Kusek, Tricia Canavan with the Springfield Public Forum, Michelle Sade with United Personnel Services, Maria Burke with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Alyssa Carvallo with the EDC, and Taryn Markham Siciliano at the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce — took the ball, ran with it, and started planning what would the first Third Thursday, even though that name would come later.

From the start, the idea was to bring young people together, on the theory that doing so would, first and foremost, give such people something fun to do with people their own age — or close to their own age. And in the early days, that’s mostly what it was, with gatherings that certainly helped many of the bar and club owners that were bringing a new vitality to downtown Springfield.

So much so, in fact, that YPS developed — and had to fight back against — a reputation of being a party group. But it only fought so hard, said Kusek, adding that it was created to give young people a place to go, a reason to want to stay in this market. Social gatherings with adult beverages are part of that equation.

“There’s real value in that,” he said. “There’s all this talk about the brain drain at the colleges … 22-year-olds want to do what 22-year-olds do, and if your city or town doesn’t give that social outlet and opportunities that 20- and 30-somethings want, then you’re never going to retain them for jobs; they didn’t graduate from college to be a drone.”

McCollum agreed. “There was a thirst and desire to do something like that, and a lot of it was social,” he said of the early days, adding the requisite ‘no pun intended.’ “For 15 years, it’s been Third Thursday, and that’s really cool.”

Today … and Tomorrow

From the beginning, the word ‘young’ in Young Professional Society has always been a relative term. While the broad implication is that it is for people under 40, this has never been a benchmark, much less a requirement.

“You can be young of age, you can be starting a career, you can be 40 years or older starting a new career,” Hadley said. “There’s lots of ways to be ‘young.’”

And YPS has celebrated all of them through a progress of birth, growth, evolution, and diversification, said Plante, adding that one of the early steps was to create a path toward sustainability.

This was accomplished by establishing a board of directors and officers and generating revenue through membership, which comes on several tiers, from ‘partner business membership’ to nonprofit and student membership, as well as sponsorships, events (beyond Third Thursday, such as the annual golf tournament and dodgeball tournament), some bylaws, and endeavors such as the CEO Luncheons.

By giving YPS that needed structure, the organization was able to move past that ‘party group’ reputation, to some extent, and become a stronger force within the local business community.

Today, the attendance at Third Thursday events is a fraction of what it was in the beginning, say the current board leaders. (The after-party at BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty gala in June was a notable exception.)

There are many reasons for this, but among the clearest is the fact that there are now several organizations devoted to young professionals. Indeed, each county now has its own, and some businesses, including MassMutual, have their own groups, which have the same basic mission — to bring young people together to connect.

Meanwhile, the pandemic forced groups like YPS, which currently boasts roughly 140 members, to come together in different ways, including Zoom, and now, hybrid formats have become the most popular option, and for a reason — they make it easier and more convenient for people to take part.

But Third Thursday lives on, and at a wide variety of venues across the region, including the Boathouse in South Hadley, the Student Prince in downtown Springfield, the Town Tap in Agawam, Hardwick Winery, and even a local Fred Astaire Dance Studio.

“They gave everyone a quick, 30-minute group dance lesson; it was a lot of fun,” said Hadley, adding, as others did, that with COVID receding into the past tense, there is more of a willingness on the part of many people to get out and attend events again.

Events like a membership drive at Paper City Bar and Grille in Holyoke, staged in conjunction with the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, that drew more than 170 people, said Clark. “I think that event really showed that people want to get back out,” she noted, adding that Third Thursdays remain just part of the equation.

Indeed, YPS carries out its mission the same way it has since the beginning, by bringing people together and getting them involved. There is camaraderie, learning — a series of Leadership Luncheons continues — and team building, through events such as an annual ‘golf escape,’ as it’s called, and an adult field day — the modern-day dodgeball tournament — which is just what it sounds like, a series of team field events that test “speed, wits, and strength (minimal).”

“The winning team gets to choose a charity of their choice for a donation,” said Clark, adding that the event drew 20 teams in its first year and has grown consistently in recent years. Meanwhile, the annual golf tournament continues to thrive as well.

Moving forward, YPS will continue to survey its members and the community at large to determine what they want and need from a young-professionals group, said Hadley, adding that, through such research, the group can continue to provide value to the many constituents it serves, including the region’s business community.

“We would love more data so we can go back to businesses and explain why this is valuable,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, since the beginning, providing value to those involved has been part of the mission.

Bottom Line

Over the past 15 years, YPS has helped spawn several business partnerships, some new ventures among members, some personal relationships, and even a marriage or two.

Mostly, though, it has succeeded in doing what it was created to do: bring young people together, get them involved and keep them involved, keep them in this region, and, overall, more effectively harness the energy and talents of those young people to make this a better place to live and work — and play and stay.

Fifteen years later, this is certainly something to celebrate — and there will eventually be a party. More importantly, there will be more chapters written in this unfolding story — a success story on many different levels.

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

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Modern Cost Accounting

By James T. Krupienski

The cost of delivering healthcare has been rising for years, and the current cost-accounting approach may no longer be effective in the post-COVID-19 world. A more modern cost-accounting approach is needed to accurately reflect the true cost of care and improve decision making.

In cost accounting, all of the various costs incurred in running a healthcare organization are tallied and categorized. This information is then used to inform decision makers about how to best allocate their resources. Healthcare cost accounting has traditionally been a very complex and manual process, involving a lot of data entry and number crunching. However, as healthcare organizations have become more data-driven, cost accounting has had to evolve to keep up.

One of the biggest challenges in cost accounting is accurately capturing all of the costs associated with patient care. These costs can include everything from the cost of medications to supplies, overhead, and the cost of labor. Additionally, cost accounting must take into account both direct and indirect costs. Direct costs are those that can be easily traced back to a specific patient or procedure, while indirect costs exist across the entire organization and cannot be directly linked to any one patient or procedure.

Organizations must also consider cost accounting when making decisions about billing and reimbursement. In order to set billing rates that reflect the true cost of care, cost accounting must be as accurate and up-to-date as possible. The pandemic has made this even more challenging, with many new factors, such as the cost of pre-visit COVID-19 testing.

There are several reasons why a more modern cost accounting approach is needed in healthcare post-COVID. First, the pandemic has resulted in a significant increase in the number of patients requiring care, while delivering care has slowed down. This has put a strain on resources and has made it more difficult for healthcare organizations to keep track of their costs in a timely manner.

Second, the pandemic has forced healthcare organizations to rapidly adapt their operations. For example, the pandemic has resulted in an increase in the cost of some supplies and medications. Specifically, personal protective equipment is now in high demand and can be quite expensive. This has made it difficult to accurately track costs using traditional cost-accounting methods, where more time and resources are needed to fully capture all costs.

Third, the pandemic has highlighted the need for better decision making about resource allocation. Cost accounting can help managers to make informed decisions about where to allocate resources in a time of crisis.

Finally, the pandemic has resulted in a change in the way that patients receive care, such as the seismic increase in the use of telemedicine. With more patients being treated at home, there is a need for a cost-accounting approach that takes into account the cost of care delivered outside of the traditional setting.

All of these factors have created a need for a more modern cost-accounting approach that can adapt to the changing landscape of healthcare. Cost-accounting software that is designed specifically for healthcare entities can help organizations to track and manage their costs more accurately. Such software can provide real-time cost data, which is essential in today’s rapidly changing healthcare environment. Additionally, more relevant software can be used to create cost models that can help organizations to make better pricing and reimbursement decisions.

James T. Krupienski

James T. Krupienski

“The current cost-accounting approach may no longer be effective in the post-COVID-19 world. A more modern cost-accounting approach is needed to accurately reflect the true cost of care and improve decision making.”

The bottom line is that a more modern cost-accounting approach is essential for healthcare organizations in the post-COVID world to more accurately track their costs and make informed decisions about pricing and reimbursement. Going about this can be done in a few simple steps.

Understand cost. The first step is to understand the cost drivers of care. Aim to identify the total cost of treatment. The cost of care should be examined in order to understand the costs within the entire treatment process.

Identify cost drivers. The second step is to identify the cost drivers of care. Once cost drivers are understood, healthcare organizations can allocate cost appropriately and make informed decisions about where to allocate resources. To identify cost drivers, ask questions such as, what are the major cost components? What is the cost per unit of care? How do cost vary by patient population?

Allocate cost. The third step is to allocate cost based on clinical and business value, particularly with indirect costs. When cost is allocated based on value, decision makers can make informed choices about where to allocate resources.

Analyze cost. Finally, healthcare organizations must analyze cost data to identify trends and improve cost management. Cost data can also help decision makers understand which cost-saving measures are working and which are not, and how to appropriately bill for their services.

Adopting a more modern cost accounting approach is essential for healthcare organizations to accurately reflect the true cost of care post-COVID. This will help improve decision making, better serve patients, and, ultimately, improve the bottom line.

 

James T. Krupienski is partner, Auditing and Accounting, Health Care Services leader, at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Construction Special Coverage

Managing Change

As Bryan Hughes listed off some recent projects at Western Builders, where he took the reins as president on Oct. 3, he mentioned the new Girls Inc. of the Valley headquarters on Hampden Street in Holyoke.

“I’m excited to see that project, how they’re doing in that building,” he said, “because I have some memories there.”

He certainly does, as the property was previously the headquarters of the O’Connell Companies, of which Western is one of five divisions. The main construction division, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC), is where Hughes cut his teeth in the industry and then built his experience and skillset for nine years.

While at DOC, Hughes filled numerous roles over the years, most notably as a project manager on several college and university campuses, overseeing projects that ranged between $30 million to $80 million in overall construction cost, including Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum and the UConn Athletic Village.

“We had a lot of diverse projects, and I was able to learn a lot just being in the field,” he told BusinessWest.

Construction management wasn’t his first career path, however. “I’m math- and science-based for the most part; that’s how my mind works,” he said of his enrollment at Lehigh University to study engineering.

East Gables in Amherst

East Gables in Amherst is a passive-house project, a voluntary standard for energy efficiency.

“I landed on civil engineering because I was interested in the building side of things and heavy, highway-type construction. But when I graduated, I realized I have people skills as well that would go underutilized if I stayed in the engineering field. So construction management was a perfect fit in terms of combining the technical and personal aspects of the the construction field. And I really fell in love with it when I started with DOC.”

During his time at O’Connell, Hughes attended a hybrid program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to earn his MBA. “That further honed my interest in the business side of things and ultimately got me interested and inspired to lead a company.”

When the opportunity came up to lead the 26-employee team at Western Builders, both Hughes and O’Connell leadership felt it was a good fit. “What led me to Western was my experience, just having a passion for construction and getting into the details of a project, both techically and in terms of relationships with clients and the community.”

“Part of what we provide as a service is to understand the issues with the supply chain and try to react to them as best we can, or at least propose solutions to owners to work around those challenges.”

James Sullivan, president of the O’Connell Companies, agreed. “We are very fortunate to have someone of Mr. Hughes’ caliber and experience, and I am very confident that Bryan will successfully lead Western and will do so with a clear understanding of our culture and reputation,” he said at the time of the hiring.

“He has exceptional operational and communication skills and is client- and employee-focused with deep leadership capabilities, proven to me in his nine-year tenure in another subsidiary company, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons,” Sullivan added. “With this renewed leadership, I am confident our best years lie ahead of us, and that Western will continue to be the builder of choice in the communities we serve.”

 

Learning by Doing

Hughes’s final job for DOC was managing a project in Rhode Island with the Narragansett Bay Commission, which followed a design-build project-delivery method.

“We were in control of the design process for two new buildings — the administration and maintenance buildings,” he explained. “I think design-build is a method that could be more ubiquitous in the future, combining our talents as construction managers to include the design team in that process.”

While his role will certainly change as the president of Western, his experience as a project manager on multiple large projects helped him hone his organizational and leadership skills.

Western’s 26 Spring development

Western’s 26 Spring development is among the projects in Amherst aimed at mitigating the town’s housing shortage.

“As a PM, it’s a lot of correspondence with the design team, building a relationship with the owner so there’s a trust factor there, and just bringing the team together — working with the superintendent to nail down a schedule and keeping subcontractors accountable.

“Inevitably in the construction industry, things come up, so PMs manage the change-order process as well and how to solve problems on behalf of the owner, and come up with solutions to those problems,” he added. “We provide the service for the owner so they feel a comfort level going into a project and through that project — we’re kind of looking out for their best interest.”

Hughes takes over at a company that has built a strong reputation in recent years in commercial housing projects, including two in downtown Amherst in partnership with Archipelago Investments that are attempting to fill a critical shortage of housing in town — an issue many municipalities are facing.

“There’s a lot in the pipeline in the housing sector,” he added. “That’s one thing people come to us with — people trust us based on past performance in the housing market, or the commercial-housing space,” he said. “We’re working with some developers now on some other potential properties, all in Western Mass. or Connecticut.”

While Western boasts a wheelhouse of sorts in housing, “we have the capability and the capacity to broaden those horizons and take on more challenging projects because of the experience level of our people,” he added, noting, as examples, a current project to build a PeoplesBank branch in South Windsor, Conn., and the firm’s work a few years ago to renovate the Basketball Hall of Fame and update the weatherproofing of its signature sphere, panel by panel.

“Developers and owners come to Western and ask us to help them with their projects because we have close-knit roots in the area,” Hughes went on. “And what I’ve really learned to love about Western is the sense of feeling comfortable and at home and part of the community. That makes Western more attractive to a lot of developers who are coming from New York City or Boston or all over the country to develop Western Mass. And I think we’re ready to take on the challenges of guiding those folks through that journey to develop the area.”

“If we have a plan to grow as a company and take on some of these challenging projects, we’re going to need more people to do that, especially as some of our highly talented, very experienced people start to retire. In terms of age demographics, there are more people going out than people coming in. So that’s a tide that’s working against us too.”

An increasing number of such projects involve passive housing, which is a voluntary standard for energy-efficiency in a building, he added. “We see that as a space that’s going to continue to grow. So, when I mention developing Western Mass., there’s a smart and climate-conscious way of doing that.”

 

Supply and Demand

While Hughes sees opportunities to grow the business at Western, he’s also dealing with the same inflation and supply-chain issues plaguing all other companies in this sector.

“The supply chain has been a challenge for us and for a lot of our competitors for sure,” he told BusinessWest. “Part of what we provide as a service is to understand the issues with the supply chain and try to react to them as best we can, or at least propose solutions to owners to work around those challenges. It’s nobody’s fault … it’s just another thing that has come up in the industry, like everything Western has dealt with for the past 45 years or so — just another bump in the road. It too shall pass.”

The hope is that price pressures will ease sooner than later, of course. “I think there will be some level of plateau, especially with interest rates going up, and hopefully the broader industry can find that balance of prices that are acceptable for everyone so that owners and developers still want to do business, still want to proceed with their projects. And I think we’re on that path for sure.”

As he looks to future growth, Hughes faces another national headwind — the challenge of hiring and retaining a workforce in a tight market for employers.

“Just like every other company around, we can always use more good people; it’s hard to find help,” he said. “If we have a plan to grow as a company and take on some of these challenging projects, we’re going to need more people to do that, especially as some of our highly talented, very experienced people start to retire. In terms of age demographics, there are more people going out than people coming in. So that’s a tide that’s working against us too.”

But he’s hopeful about the younger generation, noting that he attended an awards gala at Springfield Technical Community College earlier this month, and “we heard some stories about the students there and their willingness and excitement to get out into the industry. I think there are a lot of good opportunities for young people — at STCC, Bay Path, Westfield State, Putnam, even up at UMass there’s a building and construction technology program. That’s a lot of young people I hope are willing and excited to stick around Western Mass.”

Originally from Rhode Island, Hughes chose this region as well, as did his fiancee, an Ohio native whom he met playing dodgeball in Northampton seven years ago; they’ll marry in April.

“When I started working with DOC, I was able to find a home in Western Mass.,” he said. “I really enjoy this area of the country and hope to stay here for many years to come.”

He remembers first settling down here and those early days at O’Connell, when he was one of those young people excited to get started in construction.

“I really considered the older, more experienced people role models for me, listening to their stories. Coming up through the ranks as a laborer doing physical manual labor and working up to being a superintendent, those types of stories really inspired me; I knew I could learn a lot from those people. So while a lot of our more experienced people are on the way out the door, the more people we can bring in to learn from them before they’re gone, the better-positioned Western will be for the future.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Children’s Chime Tower has been in use since 1785.

The Children’s Chime Tower has been in use since 1785.

 

In a small town where art and culture have long been powerful economic and tourism drivers, the pandemic has been a hurdle — but one many Stockbridge institutions have weathered with aplomb.

Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG), said the town and its surrounding communities understand the importance of keeping live shows going and continuing on with normal life.

“There is no accounting how much the arts do for the community, both economically and sort of socially and spiritually, if you will,” she told BusinessWest.

The Berkshire Theatre Group was created in 2010 by the merger of two of Berkshire County’s oldest cultural organizations, Berkshire Theatre Festival, founded in 1928 in Stockbridge, and the Colonial Theatre, built in 1903 in Pittsfield.

BTG encompasses two stages in Stockbridge: the Unicorn Theatre and the Playhouse. The Playhouse was established in 1928 when the Stockbridge Casino was sold to Walter Clark; he called a few friends, and together, they formed the Three Arts Society.

The Three Arts Society remodeled the casino’s interior by adding a stage and seating for 450 people and christened the new theater the Berkshire Playhouse. And the rest was history — literally.

“If you go through the history of the Playhouse, it mirrors the history of the American theater. We have an incredible collection of archives and stars as luminous as James Cagney, Al Pacino, Katherine Hepburn, Holly Hunter, Cynthia Nixon — they’ve all performed on that stage,” Maguire said. “And often, when folks walk onto that stage at the Playhouse, they’ll say, ‘I have to be here at least once in my life or my career is not complete.’”

By the 1980s, the Unicorn Theatre became a home for new and experimental work, and in 1992, it hosted cabaret acts from New York City and a workshop-style production. In 1996, the Unicorn was reopened after a lengthy renovation and became Berkshire Theatre Festival’s official second stage. The now-U-shaped performance center, located in the barn, boasts 122 seats.

Today, the Unicorn Theatre and the Playhouse hold performances of both classics and new works for locals and tourists. BTG even made it possible for those to still gather during the height of the pandemic in 2020. BTG hosted outdoor productions of Godspell during the summer and Truman Capote’s Holiday Memories in December; the former was the only Actors’ Equity Assoc. live production being staged in the U.S. at the time.

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 2,018
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.38
Commercial Tax Rate: $9.38
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

As for the latter, “in 13- to 20-degree weather, the audiences came,” Maguire said. “They were so hungry for theater and to be together again. Everybody was spaced, everyone was masked. But we kept going, and I think, because we have been able to keep our audiences safe, people have trusted us through the pandemic.”

 

Things to Do and Places to See

When thinking of a small town that relies on tourism to support its economy, one might assume it turns into a ghost town during the winter months. But this is not the case for Stockbridge. In fact, this close-knit town provides plenty of museums, historic sites, and other activities for those who live there and visitors alike, and most don’t close down during the offseason. While summer and spring typically see the most tourism, Stockbridge still has plenty to offer year-round.

Along Main Street alone, one can find the Stockbridge Library, the Red Lion Inn, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Austen Riggs Center, the Mission House Museum, and many more.

Among the most popular is the Norman Rockwell Museum, which holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell art and provides educational opportunities for those who are interested in learning more about the universal messages of humanity and kindness portrayed in his work. The museum houses more than 100,000 original items from Rockwell’s life, including working photographs, letters, personal calendars, fan mail, and business documents.

Of the 20 studios that he worked in, Rockwell said the one he owned in Stockbridge was his “best studio yet.” The museum has turned back the clock to an earlier, active period in his career: October 1960, when he was hard at work on his painting, “Golden Rule,” which would later appear on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Another popular cultural destination is Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which straddles the Stockbridge-Lenox line. The summer 2023 season featured offerings ranging from Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert with BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons leading a program of Bernstein’s “Opening Prayer,” Bernstein’s “Symphony No. 2 the Age of Anxiety,” and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

Kate Maguire

“The first few moments of all of those shows that we did, I would watch the audience drop their heads and lift them, and you could see tears coming down their eyes. They were not only together again, even though the audience members were all socially distanced, but they were reminded of what it means to be human again.”

Among the museums and shops downtown is the historical Children’s Chimes Tower, which recently underwent some renovations. The bell tower was built on the site of the original church in Stockbridge, which stood there from 1739 until 1785. The church was established by John Sergeant, a missionary who moved to Stockbridge to convert the Mahican people, a local indigenous tribe, to Christianity. He served there until his death in 1749 and was replaced by Jonathan Edwards, the former Northampton pastor and prominent theologian who helped influence the First Great Awakening. Edwards remained in Stockbridge until 1758.

The Children’s Chimes bell tower in front of the current church was built in 1878 by David Dudley Field II in honor of his grandchildren, with the intention that “it will be a memorial of those who are enshrined in my heart, while the ringing of the chimes at sunset I trust will give pleasure to all whose good fortune is to live in this peaceful valley.” Today, almost 140 years later, it is still rung, according to his wishes, every evening between Memorial Day and Labor Day at 5:30 p.m.

 

Culture and Community

The creative economy keeps Stockbridge running. Whether it is the local museums, shops, restaurants, or shows at the Unicorn Theatre and the Playhouse, there are plenty of ways to experience culture.

“Doing Holiday Memories that winter of 2020 was a remarkable experience. I mean, the first few moments of all of those shows that we did, I would watch the audience drop their heads and lift them, and you could see tears coming down their eyes,” Maguire recalled. “They were not only together again, even though the audience members were all socially distanced, but they were reminded of what it means to be human again — because that’s what we do in a theater, right? So the culturals in the Berkshires are the driving force of the economy here.”

If someone sees a show, she explained, they will likely have a bite to eat at a local restaurant. Meanwhile, programs run by BTG bring in school-aged children who may later work in the box offices or house management, or take a summer job with the theater group. Annually, BTG hires about 700 people.

The group also makes almost 2,000 tickets available to community members who wouldn’t otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford coming to the theater. Sensory-friendly performances are also an option, Maguire said, “so for those members of our community that may have autism or may not be able to be in a room with loud noise, we make sure that one of our performances is specifically dedicated to making everyone feel comfortable at the theater.”

The arts and culture sector has always been a driving force in Stockbridge, and its resilience during — and recovery from — the pandemic has certainly been a performance worth hailing.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Taking the Reins

 

Thomas Meshako

Thomas Meshako

Greenfield Savings Bank (GSB) announced the appointment of Thomas Meshako as president and CEO. He brings to the role more than 40 years of experience in the financial-services industry in New England. He joined GSB in 2016 as treasurer and chief financial officer, and will continue in those roles as well until his replacement is hired.

Meshako was appointed by the board of directors after previous President and CEO John Howland’s resignation was accepted by the board of directors.

“I want to thank John Howland for his more than seven years as the head of the bank,” Meshako said. “John’s leadership and direction throughout the unprecedented time of the pandemic and his dedicated and genuine commitment to the communities we serve solidified the bank’s reputation as a community leader. We are grateful for his contributions to the bank and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Howland took over as president and CEO in 2015 from Rebecca Caplice, who had served in that role since 2006. Before joining Greenfield Savings, Howland was president of two banks, most recently the First Bank of Greenwich, based in Greenwich, Conn. He has worked in the financial-services field his entire career and holds a bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College and a juris doctor degree from the University of Maine School of Law.

Meshako, who earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Bentley University in 1982, is a resident of Greenfield, where he lives with his wife, Mary Ann. They have three adult daughters.

Founded in 1869, Greenfield Savings Bank has 180 employees and offices and ATMs throughout Franklin and Hampshire counties. Its branches are located in Greenfield, Amherst, Conway, Hadley, Northampton, Shelburne Falls, South Deerfield, and Turners Falls.

The bank operates the only trust and investment management company headquartered in Franklin County. Total assets under management, including both the bank and the investment management company, exceed $1.4 billion.

Banking and Financial Services

Uncertain Times

 

Another month, another rate increase from the Fed. The moves aren’t unexpected, and are needed to slow inflation, but they are concerning, especially to borrowers.

“We haven’t seen inflation like this since the ’80s. To anyone who remembers the late ’70s and early ’80s, when inflation was running really high, the dangers that represents are self-evident,” said Kevin Day, president and CEO of Florence Bank.

“The Fed responds immediately to a heated economy, and when the economy is overheated, that’s when they raise rates” in an effort to slow inflation, he told BusinessWest. “This time is a little different; inflation already showed up, and now they’re having to calm it down. So it’s a different environment than we’ve seen in the last 40 years, and that has created a great deal of uncertainty. And no one likes uncertainty.

“But they’ve been pretty consistent in that they’re going to raise rates to bring inflation under control, and they’re going to continue to raise them more until they get it under control,” Day added. “How far do they have to go? No one knows that, of course, and that’s what breeds the uncertainty.”

The Federal Reserve’s mission is to keep the U.S. economy humming, but not too hot or too cold. So when the economy booms and distortions like inflation and asset bubbles get out of hand, threatening economic stability, the Fed can step in and raise interest rates, cooling down the economy and keeping growth on track.

Kevin Day

Kevin Day

“It’s a different environment than we’ve seen in the last 40 years, and that has created a great deal of uncertainty. And no one likes uncertainty.”

On Sept. 21, the federal funds rate was raised by 75 basis points, to a range of 3% to 3.25%. The move followed 75-basis-point hikes in June and July, and two smaller rate hikes in March and May. The Federal Open Market Committee will meet twice more in 2022 to decide if further hikes are necessary in the fight against high inflation.

Still, “not everyone thinks higher mortgage rates are a terrible thing,” Forbes notes. “Some real-estate professionals see higher rates as one way to cool an overheated housing market. Others think it’s time to get back to normalcy after two years of artificially low borrowing costs.”

In addition, rising rates are not a bad thing for banks in general. When interest interest rates are higher, banks make more money due to the difference between the interest banks pay to customers and the interest the bank can earn by investing.

Still, banks also worry about recessionary environment when rates spike, an environment that opens the door to financial struggles, bankruptcies for individuals, and business failures, Day said. “Rates rising a bit is usually good for banks, but when it starts going too fast, it creates other problems no one likes to see.”

 

Historical Perspective

While inflation is at 40-year highs, interest rates are nowhere near the 6.5% seen in 2000, not to mention the record high of nearly 20% in 1980. Instead, rates have simply returned to pre-pandemic levels, which are historically on the low side.

“In terms of absolute levels, and in view of history, current interest rates are still at attractive levels,” said Mike Kraft, head of CRE Treasury at JPMorgan Chase. “Generally, I would say this is a great time to do business — before additional rate movements kick in.”

However, while historical trends favor current borrowers, people tend to think in the short term, and any rate increase dampens enthusiasm to borrow — which, after all, is the Fed’s intention: to slow the economy.

“Borrower behavior is always impacted by rising rates,” Day said. “People just tend to borrow less money, unless you’re in the credit-card business, which we’re not. We deal with mortgages and commercial loans, and borrowers are more hesitant as rates rise; they don’t want to commit until they have to. As rates rise, what happens is businesses take less risks — they don’t necessarily build or open that next location. Borrowing definitely declines as rates rise faster.

“In a perfect world, if it’s done at a moderate pace, nobody gets hurt too badly,” he went on. “It might slow a little bit, but businesses still make investments in property and equipment. But if it goes rapidly, it’s kind of an unknown. ‘Will this impact my business? Should I open that location? Will there be no business in six months?’ It makes businesses hesitant.”

On the other hand, people more focused on saving money than borrowing it may find the rate hikes a breath of fresh air, even if savings interest still lags behind interest on loans.

“How quickly you’ll see higher APYs on deposits depends on where you bank,” Forbes notes. “Online banks, smaller banks, and credit unions typically offer more attractive yields than big banks and have generally been increasing rates faster because they have to compete more for deposits.”

Day agreed that competition puts pressure on banks to raise deposit interest rates, while the gains are most prevalent in the CD market. “You can get 4%, where years ago, it was hard to get 25 basis points.

“So rising rates are generally beneficial to consumers who save money,” he added. “Borrowers usually don’t like them, but retirees on a fixed income might have assets in investments, and rising rates should help them have alternative ways to earn more money. So there’s two sides to this.”

 

Stay Tuned

The bottom line is that inflation is the highest it’s been since the early ’80s, and that makes everyone skittish, even if one of the remedies — rising interest rates — isn’t welcomed by everyone.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Ginger Chambless, head of Research for Commercial Banking at JPMorgan Chase. “By raising rates through this year, the Fed is trying to get a handle on inflation and slowly pull some of the excess liquidity out of the economy. I think it makes sense for the Fed to take a gradual approach. This way, they can see how the economy holds up along the way, as opposed to a more drastic increase, which might cause undue panic in the markets.”

Panic may be a strong word, but the word Day used — uncertainty — is definitely apt for banks, borrowers, and the financial industry as a whole. And with more decisions yet to be made by the Fed, the volatility may not be over.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Growing Concerns

By Ian Coddington

 

You may be a business owner looking to expand into a new market, purchase new equipment, or conduct development on a new product or design, but don’t want to use cash from operations. How do you complete this? One of the most common ways to fund these kinds of ventures is through financing, specifically debt financing. To effectively use debt, you need to understand covenants, which may be included in the loan agreement.

This article will help you understand what are covenants and why are they required, how covenants might affect your business, and managing your covenants.

Ian Coddington

Ian Coddington

“Using debt can be an effective way to expand your business, and by understanding the intricacies of bank covenants, you can make better decisions as a business owner.”

Using debt can be an effective way to expand your business, and by understanding the intricacies of bank covenants, you can make better decisions as a business owner.

 

What Are Covenants, and Why Do You Need Them?

Simply put, a covenant is a restriction. When a bank or financial institution underwrites a loan or issues a line of credit to a business, they take on a certain amount of risk.

How likely is the business going to pay in a timely manner?

Will the business pay back the loan?

How volatile is the company’s industry?

What is the collateral for the potential loan?

These are all questions lenders will ask and need to understand before issuing a loan. To protect their investment, the financing may require financial covenants. First, there are positive covenants; for example, you are required to have up-to-date insurance coverage and meet certain ratios. It might sound odd to call these positive, but these are items the bank wants to ensure you have in place to help protect the business.

Negative covenants act in the opposite way. Often times, the bank does not want the company taking on other debt obligations without the bank’s prior approval or until the most recent debt is paid off. In addition, negative covenants are often structured to look at a company’s solvency and not violating financial metrics. These are built into the financing to protect the bank, but also to protect the company and the business owner.

Some of the most common financial ratios and metrics that banks look at for assessing a loan are:

Leverage ratio: cash flow from operations divided by total debt. This ratio measures the number of years to pay off of a debt obligation, the lower the better.

Debt service coverage: net operating income divided by total debt service. This ratio measures the ability to service the current debt. The higher the ratio, the greater the ability of the borrower to repay.

Quick ratio: cash and equivalents, marketable securities, and accounts receivable divided by current liabilities. This ratio tests the ability of a company to pay its current liabilities when they come due with its most liquid assets. A strong quick ratio indicates the company will be able to pay its long-term obligations without needing to sell long-term assets.

 

How Covenants Might Affect Your Business

So you have met with a lender, gone through the approval process, and have your new loan right in front of you. Are you ready to sign it? Make sure you review any financing agreements or amendments with your attorney and accountant. Depending on the type of loan, it could require a compilation, review, or audit-level financial prepared by a CPA.

Financial preparation ranges in complexity: the more complex, the more intrusive and costly. Going from a review-level financial statement to audited financial statements could double your accounting fees that you already pay. This could come as an unwanted surprise if you are not ready for it.

There are changes on the horizon. As bankers look at new loan agreements or new amendments to current loans, be aware of the adoption of new lease accounting standards by the Financial Accounting Standards Board. Companies are not required to implement the new standard until years beginning after Dec. 15, 2021 (effective for fiscal years ending Dec. 31, 2022). This new standard could impact the definition or calculation of specific covenants.

 

Managing Your Covenants

You don’t want to wait until the end of the year to evaluate and determine the company’s overall position of compliance with negative and positive covenants. If you find yourself in a situation of continuously failing your covenants, your overall relationship with a bank might be impacted. To help alleviate this, a company should conduct tax planning and/or obtain advice during the year.

Debt is a great tool in a business owner’s toolbelt to grow their business. By understanding the restrictions, or covenants that a lender might use, you can make a more informed decision about whether debt financing is right for you. You also might use a professional to plan around your new debt to foster a healthy relationship with the bank. Strong creditors lead to happy lenders, which leads to better business for everyone.

 

Ian Coddington is a senior associate with the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Banking and Financial Services

Investing for the Long Run

By Barbara Trombley, CPA, MBA

 

As I write this article, the S&P 500 index, which tracks the performance of 500 large companies in the U.S., is down almost 22% for the year. Even more remarkable is that the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index is down more than 14% year to date. If the average investor had a 60% equities / 40% bond portfolio that followed these two indexes, they would be down 18.8% for the year! This is without any portfolio or advisor fees.

After many years of positive stock market returns, this is extremely unsettling for the average investor. Usually, investing in bonds or ‘fixed income’ serves as a buffer to the stock market by providing what is usually a more conservative return. This year, because of rampant inflation, the Federal Reserve has rapidly increased interest rates. Bond prices and interest rates move in opposite directions, leading to large drops in bond prices and, therefore, a depressed bond market.

Barbara Trombley

Barbara Trombley

“Sometimes during volatile market periods, an advisor may strive to counsel a client to change their withdrawal strategy from their portfolio or offer advice on large purchases that can be financed another way.”

As a financial advisor, I wear many hats. The obvious one is that I provide investment guidance and strive to help my clients make financial choices. A less obvious role that I play is that of cheerleader. At times, some investors are very tempted to sell out of the market when times are bad. They feel nervous and uncomfortable. But history has shown us that investing is a lifelong event. A financial plan needs to be followed in good markets and bad.

There is a J.P. Morgan asset-management study that shows that seven of the best ten days in the stock market occurred within two weeks of the ten worst days. Since Jan. 1, 2002 through the end of 2021, for example, an investor who was fully invested in the S&P 500 would have returned 9.52% year over year (without fees). If the same investor missed the 10 best days in the market during that same time period, their return may have been 5.33% year over year (without fees) — almost half! An advisor will strive to provide guidance and education to prevent their client from making rash decisions.

Another area where an advisor can assist clients during volatile stock-market periods (and other times as well) is, if appropriate, potential tax-loss harvesting. If an investor has money that is not in a retirement plan, they can sell positions held at a loss in order to offset any gains held in other stocks. The investor can also offset $3,000 in ordinary income each tax year (if he or she has already offset gains) and carry forward unused losses to be used against gains in future years.

The investor would want to be aware of wash sales rules, which prohibit selling an investment for a loss and replacing it with the same or a ‘substantially identical’ investment 30 days before or after the sale. This would void the loss that the investor was deliberately trying to achieve. The investor is allowed to sell a stock at a loss and buy a similar one in the same industry so that he or she can continue to have their money working for them. Tax planning in volatile times could be part of your financial plan as well.

Sometimes during volatile market periods, an advisor may strive to counsel a client to change their withdrawal strategy from their portfolio or offer advice on large purchases that can be financed another way. I have often counselled clients on the options available to them, from where to draw money for their monthly expenses. In a volatile market, for many clients, using cash savings to pay monthly expenses can take the stress off a portfolio that has declined.

The greatest benefit to you from using a financial advisor is having someone to listen to you, someone for you to seek out and reassure you that, based on history, industry knowledge, and their experience in the financial world day after day, you can pursue financial independence.

 

Barbara Trombley, MBA, CPA is an owner and financial consultant with Trombley Associates. Securities offered through LPL Financial. Member FINRA/SIPC. Advisory services offered through Trombley Associates, a registered investment advisor and separate entity from LPL Financial. This material was created for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as ERISA tax, legal, or investment advice. The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Education

What’s the Word?

Caroline Gear says the pandemic brought challenges

Caroline Gear says the pandemic brought challenges to ILI, but also new ways of connecting with language learners.

 

A global pandemic hit businesses and nonprofits in different ways. For the International Language Institute of Massachusetts (ILI), which relies on a steady flow of international students, the impact was especially great, as global travel slowed and those connections quickly dried up.

“We went from close to $350,000 a year in our Intensive English programs to $86,000,” said Caroline Gear, the institute’s executive director since 2015. She noted that the CARES Act and other emergency COVID relief, PPP loans, and an employee-retention tax credit helped ILI over the roughest whitewater, and international students are coming back … to an extent.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to come back to pre-pandemic times, but I like to say that we’re emerging anew,” Gear said. “I wouldn’t call it a recovery, because I don’t think we’ll ever recover to those numbers.”

The headwinds include a strong U.S. dollar making it expensive to travel to the States for study, as well as more competition from other countries with programs that teach English and other languages. “Canada opened up much quicker than us after the pandemic, so a lot of students went to the Canadian market and not to the United States. With Brexit, the U.K. lost a lot of international students, too.”

Still, Gear said, “I believe the United States academic culture and expertise and prestige is number one, but we have to make sure that we stay that way and continue to be welcoming. When you’re looking at where our students are coming from, I love the fact that we’re so diverse.”

The numbers bear that out. ILI’s Free English program alone — just one of several major programs at the institute (more on them later) — boasts 120 students from 27 different countries, ranging in age from 17 to 80. In one change from before COVID, five of the six sections are online, though the Intensive English program, because of its immersive aspect, is delivered in-house.

“We’ve all put in extra time because we all believe in this mission of promoting intercultural understanding and diverse communities through high-quality language and teacher training.”

“When the pandemic hit, we thought we would be back in a few months, but we wound up moving all of our classes online,” Gear said, adding that the Intensive English students were the first to return to face-to-face instruction, in August 2021. “Other than that, most of the classes were still meeting online. Our teachers are amazing; they went from emergency teaching to really creating an amazing curriculum online. Online teaching is another revenue stream, which is important for a nonprofit, but I really didn’t want to do it that way.”

But while much of the live instruction has returned to New South Street in Northampton, remote learning will remain part of the plan going forward, which allows ILI to reach students anywhere.

With nine full-time and 23 part-time instructors and staff at the moment, Gear said, “we’ve all put in extra time because we all believe in this mission of promoting intercultural understanding and diverse communities through high-quality language and teacher training.”

 

An Idea Takes Root

In 1984, Alexis Johnson was a language teacher without a job. But she didn’t lack for vision or passion. So she and another teacher, Janice Rogers, decided to open a language school, one that would meet the needs of myriad clientele, from local non-English speakers aiming to improve their workplace communication to student visa holders preparing for college stateside, to Americans skilled in other languages seeking training to become teachers overseas.

After decades of growth that affirmed her initial vision, Johnson stepped down from the executive director’s chair in 2015 after 31 years, handing the reins to Gear, who has been at the institute since the mid-’80s.

From left, Macey Faiella, director of English Programs; Heather Hall, office manager; Caroline Gear, executive director; and Samira Artur, instructor and program coordinator.

Perhaps the most well-known of ILI’s programs is its World Language program, which teaches a number of languages to students with a variety of goals. Some have a son or daughter marrying someone from another country. Others want to boost their communication skills on the job in an increasingly multi-cultural world. Still others want to advance on the job.

Another popular option is the Free English program, a partially grant-funded initiative that provides free classes for immigrants and refugees looking to improve their English skills for work, college, and their daily lives. English classes meet two evenings a week for a total of six hours.

On the flip side is the Intensive English program, which offers an immersive education for international students, with 21 hours of instruction weekly.

“Maybe their company sends them here, or maybe they know their ability to get a job is improved with a better English level,” Gear said. “The average intensive stay is three months; some take longer. Then they go to university or go home and get a job. Area employers will also send employees here to improve their English.”

Four scholarships — funded by Dean’s Beans; immigration law firm Curran, Berger & Kludt; an anonymous donor, and in honor of a board member’s late uncle, Richard Martin — are offered annually to move four students from the Free English program to Intensive English.

“It’s phenomenal to see what they have to say of the difference between six hours and 21 hours,” Gear said. “It takes about a year of classes in the Free English program to go from one level to another, and now they can do that in three months, so it’s really accelerated learning.”

Meanwhile, students in the University Pathways track of the Intensive English program receive individualized support to transition successfully to a university or college. Instead of cramming for exams or memorizing grammar rules, they practice a set of skills including essay writing, classroom participation, interactive presentations, small-group discussions, team collaboration, academic research, and critical analysis. By focusing less on test taking and more on academic training, they’re better positioned to succeed. 

ILI boasts partnerships with more than a dozen colleges and universities, Gear said, that offer these students conditional admission if they meet certain criteria. “They don’t have to take a standardized English test because those schools trust us and know we won’t recommend them unless they are ready to go. We’ve been in this business many years, and we know when people are ready to be successful.”

She added that, “no matter how great your English level is, academic culture in the United States is completely different from their home culture academically. We get them away from rote learning and rote test taking by working on cultural skills, active participation, written and oral production, independent self-direction, peer collaboration, and critical thinking. It’s really helpful for students because they’re so used to one way of teaching for so many years, and we don’t do it that way here.”

ILI’s Workplace Training program offers language courses for companies and employees that bring specialized language training to the workplace. Small businesses can apply to a state fund that pays for this training, Gear said, which makes sense at a time when worker recruitment and retention are such a challenge.

“We all know the situation with finding employees. So if a company finds a great employee but finds their language skills need improvement, working with the state of Massachusetts to have them pay for it is phenomenal.”

As one example, as Gear was giving a tour of ILI to BusinessWest, Office Manager Heather Hall had just gotten off the phone with Flour Bakery in Boston, which employs more than 400 people and was looking for English and Spanish training for many of its staff.

“I’m always learning from our students, and we are making a difference in so many people’s lives. It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to do this work.”

“We’ve also worked with the Holyoke public school system, where we teach the teachers Spanish and the parents English,” Gear said. “It’s not only about learning a language, it’s about learning a culture, navigating systems, and playing an integral role in making sure people feel safe to take risks and get to the next step of their career.”

The sixth — but certainly not least — major component of ILI’s programs is Teacher Training, specifically the SIT TESOL Certificate program, which becomes the graduate’s ticket to teaching language, both in the U.S. and internationally.

 

Diving In

At the heart of all these programs is a teaching style that, as noted earlier, ditches rote memorization for an immersion approach where constantly putting language into practice, student to student, trumps getting every word perfect.

There’s an element of fun to this immersion, too, Gear said. As one student told her, “we play a lot, but I’m learning a lot.”

Gear and her team are learning, too — about how to navigate a post-COVID world that offers new challenges, but new opportunities as well.

“We’ve diversified more, but we still do the same thing: we teach languages, and we train teachers,” she told BusinessWest, noting that a permanent online presence will be a positive from a revenue and growth perspective.

“It was pandemic-driven because our school runs tuition-based programs that support our partially funded Free English classes. So we need students as well as grants and incredibly generous donors to support our school,” she explained. “We wanted to do online instruction, and now we will always teach online, even as people start to come back to more face-to-face programming.”

After all, she said, “not everyone wants to have classes face to face. There are transportation issues, there are childcare issues, so it’s all about access to education. If we can continue to provide classes to folks virtually and also bring them back in here, that’s a positive.”

At the same time, those in the Teacher Training program are learning to teach online, too, a necessary skill post-COVID.

Coming up on ILI’s annual giving season, when letters of appeal are sent to potential supporters, Gear noted that “it’s not just one thing that runs this school; it’s a variety of revenue streams — tuition-based programs, generous community supporters, grant foundations that support us … and love.”

She’s also hoping for some of the ARPA money being distributed by the city of Northampton, which would be put to use upgrading the institute’s space and air flow as part of a three-phase improvement plan.

But mostly, she’s adapting — and appreciating the impact the International Language Institute has on individuals, families, businesses, and communities both locally and around the world.

“I love my job. I love who I get to work with, what we do to help people to the next step,” she said. “I’m always learning from our students, and we are making a difference in so many people’s lives. It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to do this work. It’s not been easy through the pandemic, but we’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty and look for opportunities.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Building Trades

Building Trade

Chicopee Mayor John Vieau joins, from left, Revitalize CDC Executive Director Colleen Loveless; Director of Programs Ethel Griffin; and Moyah Smith, board clerk.

 

On Sept. 29, Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC) brought its #GreenNFit Neighborhood Rebuild to Chicopee. About 100 volunteers worked on four homes on one block, all in one day. Two of the four homes are owned by U.S. Air Force military veteran families.

“We are so grateful to the city of Chicopee for welcoming us with open arms and supporting our initiative to help make homes safe and healthy for those in need,” said Colleen Loveless, president and CEO of Revitalize CDC, noting that the work the volunteers and building contractors tackled included replacing rotted porches and steps; repairing accessible ramps, roofs, and decks; installing a new shed, windows, storm doors, and gutters; power washing; painting; and yardwork.

Contractors and volunteers get to work.

Contractors and volunteers get to work.

The work was supported financially and with volunteers from American Red Cross and the Chicopee Fire Department, the city of Chicopee, Baystate Health, Berkshire Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the Center for Human Development, Country Bank, Go Graphix, the MassMutual Foundation, M&T Bank, Ondrick Natural Earth, PeoplesBank, Rocky’s Ace Hardware, TD Bank, and Westfield Bank.

“Our #GreenNFit Neighborhood Rebuild goal is to work on hundreds of homes in targeted neighborhoods, clean up vacant lots, improve playgrounds, and create community gardens,” Loveless said. “Revitalize CDC focuses on making meaningful improvements on homes to help reduce energy use, save money, and create a safe, healthy, and sustainable living environment for our residents and the community.”

Improvements have included installing or retrofitting HVAC systems to allow for oil-to-natural-gas heat and solar conversions; new roofs; energy-efficient windows, doors, and appliances; water-saving plumbing fixtures; electrical upgrades; mold remediation, lead abatement, and pest control; interior and exterior painting; and modifying homes for aging or disabled homeowners, such as building exterior access ramps.

Since Revitalize CDC’s inception in 1992, the organization has repaired and rehabilitated more than 1,100 homes with the help of 10,000 volunteers, investing $42 million into Western Mass. In the past year, Revitalize CDC completed 72 home-repair projects on the homes of low-income families with children, elderly citizens, military veterans, and people with disabilities.

The organiation’s JoinedForces, in partnership with businesses, civic organizations, and other nonprofit agencies, provides veterans and their families with critical repairs and modifications on their homes.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Century Unlimited

 

President and CEO Glenn Welch (center) with some of his team.

President and CEO Glenn Welch (center) with some of his team.

When asked what might come next for Freedom Credit Union, Glenn Welch said simply, “we’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing for the past 100 years.”

By that he meant … well, a whole lot of things, from continued growth and innovation to embracing new technology; from growing the base of customers to extending the institution’s geographic reach; from finding new ways to serve members to giving back to the community.

There will be more of all of that, said Welch, president and CEO of Freedom, who offered what amounted to a ‘state of the credit union’ report for BusinessWest on the occasion of its 100th birthday.

The milestone (July 22 was the official birthday) has been marked in various ways — from a 100-day summer food drive that raised $4,100 for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and collected 930 pounds of food for the Gray House, to a week of ice cream at all the branches in late July for members and employees; from raffles and giveaways for members to specials on loans and CDs.

“It’s a big milestone these days for a financial institution to be around that long,” Welch said. “So we wanted to celebrate with the community.”

Mostly, though, the institution has been quietly continuing those patterns of behavior listed above, he added, noting that he and his team are being both innovative and entrepreneurial as they go about writing the next chapter in a history that began with an institution known as the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union, formed when Warren Harding was patrolling the White House.

“It’s a big milestone these days for a financial institution to be around that long. So we wanted to celebrate with the community.”

Listing examples of both, he said Freedom will soon be introducing its first interactive teller machine (ITM) as well as credit cards and a new debit-card product. Meanwhile, it is continuing and broadening its push into Connecticut with the opening of a loan-production office on Elm Street in Enfield. Also, the credit union, which now boasts roughly $650 million in assets, more than 32,000 members, and 10 branches across Western Mass., has been making some inroads to service companies in the broad and ever-expanding cannabis industry in Western Mass., while continuing to aggressively pursue more business on the commercial-lending side of the ledger.

With the cannabis sector, the credit union recently started providing deposit and cash-management services for businesses in different kinds of businesses, said Welch, adding that this could become a vehicle for growth at Freedom.

“We have several clients that have signed on with us and we have a pretty good backlog of businesses that are looking to come on board with us,” Welch said, noting that the credit union is working with its regulator to make sure it is complying with guidelines for doing business with those in this sector.

It is certainly not the only institution looking to garner cannabis customers, he went on, adding that, as competition mounts, Freedom will work to remain competitive and secure market share in a sector where new businesses open every month, if not every week.

Cannabis was recently made legal for recreational use in the Nutmeg State, he went on, adding that this could be another avenue for growth in that market. “We think we’re in a good position with our expansion into that market.”

Overall, Freedom is still finding its footing in Connecticut, he said, adding that, over the next few years, it will explore opportunities to branch out south of the border, literally and figuratively.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says the basic strategy at Freedom is “to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the past 100 years.”

“We’re going to explore our options in Connecticut as we get a foothold there,” he explained. “There could be a possibility of branching down there; we signed a two-year lease in Enfield, and we want to explore the market with the loan production first; we thought that was a good way to get a good foothold.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Welch about the first 100 years for Freedom Credit Union, and what is on tap for this Western Mass. institution.

 

Answering the Call

Tracing the history of the credit union, Welch said it started in a small office in the telephone-company building on Worthington Street, serving only employees of that large and fast-growing industry.

In 1978, the institution relocated to a new home on Main Street in Springfield’s North End, which still serves as its headquarters today. In 1987, the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union merged with Monarch Credit Union. As demand for the benefits of a credit union grew, the institution applied for a community charter. In January 2001, membership eligibility was expanded to include anyone who lived or worked in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire county, and in early 2020, further expansion of membership eligibility included Hartford and Tolland counties in Connecticut.

In 2004, the institution merged with FHBT Credit Union, and the name of the larger entity became Freedom Credit Union. And with that new name came geographic expansion, with new branches in Chicopee, Northampton, and, later, Turners Falls, Greenfield, Feeding Hills, Easthampton, the Sixteen Acres neighborhood in Springfield, Ludlow, West Springfield (after a merger with West Springfield Credit Union in 2019), and then Connecticut.

Throughout its history, Freedom has consistently sought out new opportunities to expand and bring its products, services, and mission to new zip codes, said Welch, while also looking for new and better ways to serve its members, said Welch, adding that these trends continue today.

Especially with its push into Connecticut, but also with its work to attract residents and businesses in its service area that are looking for options in the wake of a seemingly endless string of bank mergers, the latest being M&T’s absorption of People’s United Bank.

“We’re going to explore our options in Connecticut as we get a foothold there.”

Connecticut has become the next frontier for many banks and credit unions based in Western Mass., and so it is with Freedom, said Welch, adding that the new office in Enfield, which opened earlier this month, will include both a commercial-lending officer and a mortgage originator.

“We had a lot of people in Connecticut who wanted to bank with us, so that’s why we expanded our charter in 2020,” he said, adding that COVID obviously slowed the pace of progress into that state, but with the pandemic easing in most all respects, the credit union is expecting to see growth in the numbers of members from across the border.

Meanwhile, Freedom will continue and escalate what has been an aggressive push into the commercial-lending market on both sides of the border, another initiative that has been slowed somewhat by COVID.

“We’re trying to expand on the commercial side, but obviously not ignoring consumers,” he told BusinessWest. “We did hire a new hire lender for the Connecticut market; we believe there is a lot of opportunity there — on both the commercial and consumer side.”

Overall, the credit union began its push into the commercial market roughly seven years ago, he said, adding that it has been making good inroads since, with two lenders in this market and now the one in Connecticut.

Its legal lending limit is $7 million, with a large sweet spot of $2 million to $5 million, Welch explained, adding that this range leaves plenty of growth potential in a region dominated, on both sides of the border, by small businesses.

“We have a very experienced lending team — we’ve been in the market in a long time,” he said, adding that Freedom will be rolling out some new products in the next few months that will make it easier for companies to obtain small-business loans.

“We’ve partnered with a credit-union service organization with an online app where people can go, and they will make the credit decision for us, based on our guidelines in place,” he explained. “That’s how we hope to help the small businesses in the area.”

Another new service soon to be unveiled by Freedom will enable area retailers to offer financing for purchase of their products through the credit union, an initiative that he believes will help small businesses while also creating potential new members for the credit union on the consumer side.

The credit union’s headquarters have been located on Main Street in Springfield since 1978 — before it was called Freedom.

The credit union’s headquarters have been located on Main Street in Springfield since 1978 — before it was called Freedom.

Overall, growth in membership has been steady, at perhaps 1% a year on average, which is typical of credit unions in this market, he said, adding that Freedom is trying to capitalize on the ongoing consolidation of the banking market and mergers like the one involving M&T and People’s United, which, by most accounts, did not go smoothly.

“I think that’s our biggest opportunity, especially in Connecticut, with M&T and People’s United being such big players in that market,” he said, adding that the credit union is conducting some marketing targeting customers of those institutions.

Meanwhile, as noted earlier, the credit union will soon roll out its own credit card as well as a new debit-card product, its first ITM, and other products and services aimed at making banking easier and more convenient for members.

“We just keep automating things as we try to make it easier for our members to do business with us,” Welch explained. “A lot of things are being done online, and I think we have very competitive products for that; if people want to apply for loans or open accounts, they can do it on their own time, but certainly we have the branch system in place to support them when they need help.”

 

By All Accounts

Looking at the business plan for the next several years, Welch said Freedom is looking at a number of growth opportunities — in Massachusetts, Connecticut, within the cannabis industry, in commercial lending, and with several new consumer products.

It is moving on several different fronts at once, with the goal of expanding its membership base, providing new and better products and services, and taking its mission in new directions.

These initiatives are new in some respects, but overall, they’re simply a continuation of what the institution now known as Freedom has been doing for a century.

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Anna Farrington says First Fridays are bringing out lots of locals, as she had hoped.
Photo by Ben Lamb

In a small city like North Adams, Ben Lamb says, economic growth is easy to see.

“Historically speaking, there’s always been a smattering of small businesses downtown, and we’ve seen that number grow; I believe there were at least six or seven small businesses that opened downtown over the last year,” said Lamb, director of Economic Development at 1Berkshire. “Some of those are growing even at this point; they’re expanding.”

In the past two years, small niche businesses have been moving into a downtown area where Lamb thinks people are looking for more than just a transaction; they’re looking for an experience.

The Plant Connector is a good great example of a shop that started very small on Eagle Street and, within the period of the pandemic, “scaled up fivefold from one footprint to another” because business was so strong, he noted.

However, while business has been strong, Nico Dery, Business Development director for the North Adams Chamber of Commerce, noted that there seems to have been less tourism this summer than in recent summers, with the possible exception of festival weekends.

“Historically speaking, there’s always been a smattering of small businesses downtown, and we’ve seen that number grow.”

“It’s all kind of speculation why that could be, but I do think that a part of it is the lift on COVID restrictions,” she explained. “People aren’t traveling as close to home as they would be. So we’re losing some of those tourists from Boston or New York who might be going abroad or somewhere else within the country rather than making the short trip over to the Berkshires.”

Lamb agreed. “That’s where the downtown small-business community can rise to the occasion,” he said, adding that business that can identify opportunities can make a workable business model out of a fairly niche opportunity.

 

Creative Businesses Surging

In 2015, Lamb founded the NAMAZING Initiative, a community-based organization focused on increasing the lovability of North Adams through creative placemaking in an effort to drive organic economic development. Through the effort, he and his team created points of excitement and attraction to get people to invest and look at what they could do in downtown North Adams.

“Now it’s the businesses themselves that are self-propelling,” he said. “If you see a cool business and then you see a vacant storefront next door, you want to be in that space next door to them.”

Jenny Wright says the vending machine at MASS MoCA has brought joy to not only the artists, but visitors too.

Jenny Wright says the vending machine at MASS MoCA has brought joy to not only the artists, but visitors too.

With the help of 1Berkshire, NAMAZING was able to directly invest and help set up pop-up shops to help small, niche businesses have a space on their own until they could hit the ground running.

For example, Walla-Sauce and Conscientious Cloth, two young businesses, are co-sharing a common space. Lamb explained that, with the resources provided to start up an operation for a three-month stint, they were able to extend their lease past the three months because they’re seeing enough business and revenue to do that.

“The First Fridays program that’s been going on over the summer — that’s spearheaded by two downtown property and business owners that wanted to see that sort of activity on a monthly business — really catalyzed something exciting over the past year,” he added. “And when you look at all of those opportunities, it also draws more attention to downtown.”

Anna Farrington, creator of First Friday events, owner and primary curator of Installation Space, and owner and principal designer at Anna Farrington Arts & Design, teamed up with Andrew Fitch to work on closing Eagle Street in downtown North Adams to specifically draw people to the local businesses.

Last spring, Farrington thought there was something missing downtown after the end of Down Street Art, hosted by MCLA; street art was starting to draw crowds at this time. Other communities like Pittsfield, Brattleboro, and Boston had a First Friday events program in place and had a lot of positive feedback. She then went business to business downtown and asked if and how they might participate in the First Friday events. Unanimously, the response was “yes, let’s do it.”

“First Fridays is a grassroots initiative; that means businesses participate at a level in which they’re comfortable,” Farrington told BusinessWest. “And the gallery [Installation Space] has been instrumental in helping to organize some of the First Friday events.”

Installation Space was opened five years ago to provide a space for installation artists where they could show their work without the pressures of a typical art gallery, where artists are expected to make sales and the gallery would then make commissions.

“It’s one thing to just point a global audience in the general direction of Main Street and send them on their way; it’s another thing altogether to be a full partner and develop a shared vision for what they encounter once they get there.”

There are typically up to four or five shows over the course of the year. Each show will have an opening reception that also takes place on First Fridays; “it’s a way to sort of maximize that appeal to people to come down to First Fridays,” Farrington said.

The gallery has been instrumental in helping to organize some of the First Friday events, drawing in artists, artisans, and locals. The inaugural First Friday event was held in August; a block party on the street featuring live music and games drew a successful turnout.

In September, Farrington and her team held a community picnic where a 100-foot-long dinner table was set up, thanks to the American Legion. Locals were asked to bring their takeout or picnics and come down and have dinner on the street together.

“It was very successful. I’m looking forward to doing that again next year,” said Farrington, who, at the time she spoke with BusinessWest, was planning the October First Friday event on Oct. 7, an Eagle Street night market. “We’ll be having 20 vendors on the street, including the Berkshire Cider Project.”

With the creative-economy surge in downtown North Adams, the First Friday events aren’t the only place local artists and artisans are able to share their work in more creative ways. Jenny Wright, director of Strategic Communications & Advancement at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), emphasized that they’re not just artists; “they are savvy entrepreneurs who understand the risk of starting a business during a pandemic” — and the risk is paying off.

 

Modern Ideas

For example, an artists’ collective repurposed a vending machine to sell art on MASS MoCA’s campus, which also promotes the local businesses that created the art. But that isn’t the only thing the museum is doing to help stimulate the new creative economy surge.

“It’s interesting because, in every strategic plan I think MASS MoCA has ever been involved with, there’s been a priority of making sure that patrons that visit MASS MoCA also visit downtown,” Wright said. “It’s one thing to just point a global audience in the general direction of Main Street and send them on their way; it’s another thing altogether to be a full partner and develop a shared vision for what they encounter once they get there.”

Historically, the city of North Adams has struggled physically and psychologically because of the overpass dividing MASS MoCA and the creative downtown. Even though the environment is improving, it is still an ongoing struggle to get people off the gallery’s campus.

In 2018, the North Adams Exchange was a research study, a collaboration between the city of North Adams, the downtown business community, the NAMAZING Initiative, and MASS MoCA to go into the city and determine how to create tactical and tangible ways of pulling people from the museum into downtown.

Because of the pandemic, Ben Lamb says, more dollars are being spent locally. Photo by Tricia McCormack

Because of the pandemic, Ben Lamb says, more dollars are being spent locally.
Photo by Tricia McCormack

The organizations created a pop-up space that was like an indoor park, with yard games, activities for kids, and a stage for music events. There was also a pop-up business that sold an array of North Adams-made items from artists and others. The initial pop-up park is where MASS MoCA then invested “a not-so-insignificant amount of money and resources” to make Big Bling Park, Wright said.

“That was like a great litmus test to see what can be done to actually pull those people in,” Lamb said. “MASS MoCA is really trying things, novel approaches, and seeing what sticks. I think having them there as a creative partner is really important because they’re used to that process that happens in the arts. And when you can apply that to planning and movement through a city, you can get some really interesting results.”

The museum’s new director, Kristy Edmunds, has made it her priority to really get to know the community, its people, and individual businesses, Wright added.

One event she hopes will spark more momentum is the museum’s annual gala, historically held in New York, which is moving back to North Adams. The museum is hosting the gala to coincide with the opening of E.J. Hill’s exhibition, Break Run Helix, in Building 5.

“I really think MASS MoCA has an opportunity to help as a catalyst for these creative businesses and in the creative economy of North Adams by partnering with the city, bringing in artists and creative producers from other parts of the country or other parts of the world, to partner with some of these local business that are starting,” Wright said. “That’s where I see our value moving forward.”

North Adams is ready to take this momentum and run with it. MASS MoCA will continue to hold live events throughout the year, from performances by national touring bands like Soccer Mommy to a roundtable with mixed-media artist Rose B. Simpson.

Dery added that retail shops and restaurants in town will congregate to see how the city can drum up business. One idea to reactivate the storefronts downtown is to decorate them with Christmas lights so people can enjoy dressed-up windows for the holiday season.

“I’m also excited, if the businesses are on board with this, to continue our Plaid Friday initiative and Plaid-urday, which is a grassroots initiative,” she said. “Instead of shopping in big-box stores or online for Black Friday, you spend your money in your community, so it stays local.”

Lamb explained that, because of the pandemic and locals working remotely, those dollars were brought back to the community and stayed there versus going to the city where the person was working. Even though people have built habits around the small businesses close to home, there is still a balancing act that every business needs to figure out for themselves in terms of what their customer base is.

 

Taking Stock of the Future

Businesses are prepared for things to slow down for the winter, but they still need to have a critical customer base, so they try to connect with the local community in whatever ways they can to garner support.

“Maybe that’s around pricing, maybe that’s around what they’re offering, doing special gift-card options. It’s really figuring out what is the thing that you can offer to the local market that is going to keep your doors open during the slow times,” Lamb said. “The businesses that take the time to do an analysis on sales and where their customers are coming from, and what those customers are buying, are the most informed and, therefore, the most able to pivot seasonally to fit the market. We’re seeing more businesses that are conscientious of that; they track metrics very intentionally and are planning that before even opening their doors.”

Meanwhile, he and other business leaders are pleased that North Adams is growing — and its creative economy booming — with the help of local partners taking the initiative to make the city a more attractive location for locals and tourists alike.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Education Special Coverage

Learning Experiences

Spearheading the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program are Elms College officials

Spearheading the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program are Elms College officials, from left, Anne Mistivar, project faculty coordinator and cultural consultant; President Harry Dumay; Maryann Matrow, director of School of Nursing Operations; and Deanna Nunes, assistant clinical professor and associate dean of the School of Nursing.

 

Harry Dumay says the initial talks began more than four years ago.

They involved nurse educators in Haiti and leaders at Elms College, including Dumay, who is from Haiti, and they centered around how Elms, which has a strong Nursing program, might be able to partner with those in Haiti to continue the education of nurses in a broad effort to improve health outcomes in that country through nurse-faculty development.

Through a $750,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partnership between Elms and the Episcopal University of Haiti School of Nursing (EUH) was created that brings together nurse faculty from across Haiti and uses a ‘train-the-trainer’ approach to instruct the faculty with leading-edge nursing skills.

To date, more than 47 nurses in two cohorts from all provinces of Haiti have gone through the program — there was an elaborate graduation ceremony in May for both groups — and a third cohort has begun, with a fourth and perhaps more planned, thanks to a second grant from the Kellogg Foundation for $1.1 million.

That is the short, as in very short, version of a truly compelling story.

“The Elms program was very helpful because in Haiti they don’t have this type of training for nurses. They have nurses that are in different specialties and in different roles, and they find themselves teaching, but they’ve never been taught how to teach, so this program is very important because they are learning how to be an instructor.”

The longer version involves how all this has been accomplished during a time of global pandemic and an earthquake, a severe hurricane, and extreme political upheaval and general unrest in Haiti, including the assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moise, more than a year ago.

In short, very little about this initiative has been easy, but those involved — here and in Haiti — have persevered because the stakes are high and need to train nurse faculty is great, said Dumay.

Elaborating, he noted that the original model for this program called for in-person learning, with educators from Elms flying to Haiti once a month to lead classes.

Those plans were eventually scrapped because of the pandemic and other factors, including safety issues, in favor of a remote-learning model that came with its own set of challenges, especially the securing of needed equipment (tablets, hotspots, and even solar chargers in case power was lost) and getting them in the hands of the students who would use it.

In May, the first two cohorts of nurse educators in the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program attended their graduation ceremony in Haiti. With the graduates in the front row are, from left, Anne Mistivar, project faculty coordinator and cultural consultant for the program; Hilda Alcindor, project co-director from the Episcopalian University School of Nursing in Haiti; Harry Dumay, president of Elms College; Joyce Hampton, associate vice president of Strategic Initiatives and dean of the School of Arts, Sciences and Professional Programs at Elms; and Bapthol Joseph, project co-manager from the Episcopalian University School of Nursing in Haiti.

And these issues were compounded by other challenges, including those aforementioned natural disasters and the general upheaval in the country. Some students had to stay at their workplaces to take part in the classes because the WiFi was better there; meanwhile, class times were shifted so that students wouldn’t be traveling after dark to take them because of the increased risk to their own safety.

But, as noted, all those involved have pushed through these challenges because of the importance of this training. Indeed, most healthcare in Haiti is provided by nurses, not doctors, so the need to train nurse educators and thereby heighten the skills of those providing care is paramount.

People like Lousemie Duvernat, a nurse who was part of the second cohort that went through the Elms program. Via Zoom and through an interpreter — Anne Mistivar, project faculty coordinator and cultural consultant for what has come to be known as the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program — Duvernat said the program, and, specifically, its ‘train-the-trainer’ approach, has made her a better nurse, not to mention a better educator.

“The Elms program was very helpful because in Haiti they don’t have this type of training for nurses,” she explained. “They have nurses that are in different specialties and in different roles, and they find themselves teaching, but they’ve never been taught how to teach, so this program is very important because they are learning how to be an instructor.

“This, in essence, has helped them to understand the students, how to deliver the message, how to present, and how to evaluate the students and make them better educators,” she went on, adding that she would like to see the program continue because they simply don’t have anything like the ‘train-the-trainer’ approach in Haiti.

Such sentiments clearly explain why this initiative was undertaken and why it has persevered through so many extreme challenges, said Deana Nunes, associate dean of the School of Nursing and assistant clinical professor at Elms and nurse educator and course faculty for the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program, adding that the results thus far have been encouraging on many levels, but especially in what she called the “thirst for learning” she has seen from the nurses from Haiti who have been involved with the program.

For this issue and its focus on healthcare education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this inspiring program, its goals, and the many ways in which success is being measured.

 

Course of Action

Duvernat — again, through her interpreter, Mistivar, who is also from Haiti — told BusinessWest that, since she was a child, she harbored dreams of becoming a doctor. In Haiti, though, the road to that profession is long and difficult, and she eventually set her sights on becoming a nurse, a vocation that, as noted, brings even more responsibilities than it does in this country.

But, and also since childhood, she has wanted to be an educator. And these twin passions, coupled with her desire to help others, have now come together as she advances her career as a nurse educator, with the goal to one day earn a doctorate — a path that has been accelerated and helped in many ways by the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program and its heavy emphasis on those words ‘continuing education.’

This is what all those involved with the initiative had in mind, said Dumay, noting that the program was born out of need, one that he was quite familiar with, and a desire among those at the college to meet that need.

“Elms College has a great School of Nursing and a strong reputation in the area for preparing great nurses and healthcare professionals in general,” he said. “But Elms College has also had a desire, and some efforts, in reaching outside Chicopee, outside Massachusetts; some of our students have gone to Jamaica for clinical programs, and we’ve had conversations with our partners in Japan around global health initiatives.
“I’ve also had interactions and collaborations with those in higher education in Haiti, and I’ve also had interactions and collaborations with the Kellogg Foundation,” he continued, while explaining the genesis of the initiative in that country. “And I know that one of the strong desires of the Kellogg Foundation has been to support the reinforcement of human resources for health in Haiti, particularly around the support of maternal and child healthcare.”

Looking at those synergistic aspirations and competencies, it was natural to propose to the Kellogg Foundation to help Elms in efforts to reinforce nursing education in Haiti, he continued, adding that the pieces eventually fell into place for what would become the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program, for which Elms would partner with the Episcopal University of Haiti and its school of Nursing.

That was back in early 2019, said Dumay, adding that there were visits to Haiti by officials at Elms and those with the Kellogg Foundation to explore the facilities of the Episcopal University of Haiti’s School of Nursing and meet with officials there to brainstorm about how the initiative could take shape.

Eventually, continuing education for nurse educators became the focus, he went on, adding that a ‘train-the-trainer’ model was identified as the most effective course of action — figuratively but also quite literally.

“We know that a lot of the nurse educators in Haiti are at varying degrees of preparation, and we heard from our partners from the healthcare system in Haiti that the nurses that are coming out of the various schools of nursing in that country have varying degrees of preparation as well,” Dumay explained. “So helping to reinforce the capacity, the level, and the preparation of nurse educators in Haiti so that they, in turn, can teach the nurses who are on the front lines became the concept that we created.”

Lousemie Duvernat shares the stage with Elms College President Harry Dumay

Lousemie Duvernat, a graduate of the second cohort of nurse educators, shares the stage with Elms College President Harry Dumay at the recent graduation ceremonies.

With a $750,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation, plans were put in place for two cohorts of 24 faculty members from approved nursing schools across Haiti to take part in this ‘train-the-trainer’ program, he noted, adding that the original plan was for in-person classes at the Episcopal University of Haiti — specifically a “very intense” once-a month model.

Obviously, this plan had to change, because of COVID but also other factors, including the growing danger of traveling from one province to another in Haiti, said Dumay, noting that the program was halted at one point as plans were developed for an online format. This was a challenging adjustment because of the need to provide the nurse educators with needed equipment in the form of laptops and hotspots — and then actually getting this equipment into their hands, an assignment fraught with challenge on many levels, from the transportation and safety issues to the pandemic itself.

“We worked with and leveraged the network of the telephone company in Haiti, which has stores throughout the country,” he said. “We worked with them to coordinate the distribution of the technology to individuals all across Haiti; it was a logistical feat to be able to have all of the students have access to that material so they could complete the program.”

Overall, said Mistivar, the move to a remote format provided other learning opportunities.

“Not only did they learn about nursing, but also about technology,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the students were nurses representing all 10 provinces in Haiti. Some were already nurse educators, and many were working in various hospitals. Some had bachelor’s degrees, while others had a master’s.

The common denominator was that they wanted to take their education, and their ability to train others, to a higher level.

 

School of Thought

Nunes told BusinessWest that the shift to remote learning in Haiti was similar to what was happening at Elms College and other schools in this country during the pandemic. But there were many subtle, and not so subtle, nuances and adjustments that had to be made.

“Each week, on Wednesday afternoons, we met with the students via Zoom,” she explained. “We had to adjust our course time because, once darkness comes, it becomes much more dangerous. It became an example of the ways we had to work with our students to make sure we were not only providing them with a great education, but also keeping them safe.”

Overall, the nurse educators displayed great resilience, she went on, and a strong desire to learn, despite the many challenges they are facing in their daily lives, because they understood its importance to them becoming better educators and nurses — and perhaps advancing in their careers.

This resilience, desire to learn, dedication to helping others, and the knowledge and experience they already brought to the table certainly made an impression on those at Elms.

“Speaking with them, it was just fascinating to learn the way Haitian medicine and nursing care is delivered, and the amount of experience these nurses have is incredible,” Nunes told BusinessWest. “For me, as an educator, I feel I learned so much from them in addition to what they learned from us.”

As she talked about what was taught, and how, Nunes said there was prepared curriculum, obviously, but those leading the courses would often take their cues from the students, the nurse educators.

“One of the courses I taught was ‘Health Assessment,’ and in the beginning, we asked them, ‘what do you want?’ she recalled. “One of the things they identified was maternal health, but one of the things that surprised me was that they wanted to know more about how to use a stethoscope because, in Haiti, they said, the physicians do that.

“But they wanted to become more competent as nurses and develop that skill, so we were able to provide resources online, such as videos that demonstrated the sounds they’d hear and where to listen, things like that. In the development of our curriculum, we wanted to integrate knowledge in addition to keeping the focus on how to teach this knowledge.”

This same approach is being used with the third cohort of nursing educators, which just began its course work several weeks ago. This latest chapter in the story has provided more insight into the many challenges to be overcome, and more lessons in perseverance, said Maryann Matrow, director of the School of Nursing Operations at Elms and project co-manager for the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program.

She noted, for example, that some students were held up on the road as they traveled to the kickoff for the third cohort, but eventually made it there safely. She also noted some the difficulties in getting new models of laptops to the students that will be using them.

“Once we found and ordered it, things began to get more difficult in terms of travel and delivery,” she said. “As for the kickoff ceremony … to be able to get the people there was trying.”

Despite all this, the attrition rates for the first two cohorts were extremely low, only a few students, said Matrow, adding that she attributes this to everything from that thirst for knowledge that all those involved recognized to the strong support system involving those in both Haiti and Chicopee that has helped students make it to the finish line.

For Duvernat, the challenges involved in taking part in this program went beyond transportation, navigating around extreme weather, and coping with crime. She also had a baby during the course and was working full-time as well, adding up to a juggling act and very stern test that she and others have passed.

“Life in Haiti is very stressful,” she said through Mistivar. “Every day, people have to deal with that stress, which makes them resilient and able to adapt. I was motivated to continue to attend the class because it was something that was very important to me. I tried to focus on the experience because I did not want to miss the opportunity.”

 

Bottom Line

While there are many words and phrases that can be used the describe the Haiti Nursing Continuing Education Program, including all those in its title, ‘opportunity’ probably sums it up the best.

For those in Haiti, it is an opportunity to continue their education and, as Duvernat said, learn how to become better teachers. Meanwhile, for Elms College, it is a chance to extend its reach and its ability to make a difference in the lives of others, well beyond Chicopee and Western Mass.

In short, it has become a learning experience on many levels and for all those involved. It is a compelling story that hopefully has many new chapters still to be written.

Building Trades Special Coverage

Making the Circuit

 

High-school students train at Elm Electrical as part of its summer First Step Futures program.

High-school students train at Elm Electrical as part of its summer First Step Futures program.

 

 

Over the summer, three cohorts of high-school students attended four-day training seminars, two in June and one in August, at Elm Electrical in Westfield.

Monday through Wednesday, the students received instruction and training in the state-of-the-art Elm University multi-media classrooms and hands-on lab. Thursday, the final day, was Challenge Day, when students applied what they learned and completed a project board challenge. Elm project managers evaluated their work, offered feedback, and got to know the students.

It was, no doubt, an enriching experience for many. But First Steps Futures, as Elm calls it, is more than a summer camp. It’s a program, to be repeated each summer, with an eye firmly on the future of the electrical industry.

“This is a great opportunity to showcase and utilize our training facility, expose kids to the electrical field, as well as instruct our current and future workforce,” instructor Paul Asselin said. “At the same time, we can get them excited about the field and see what the kids can do. Do they follow our strict safety protocols? Do they ask questions? Do they work well with others? Is their work accurate? Do they have a positive attitude? This gives us a snapshot of what they’d look like as potential co-op students on the job.”

The students, in grades 10-12, were recommended by their teachers or Elm employees to attend the free training seminar. Some were, indeed, invited back as co-op students, to get a better look at the field, and give Elm a better look at what they can do.

“This program also gives kids who don’t attend a technical school the chance to see if the electrical field is something they may be interested in pursuing,” Asselin added. “Oftentimes, students who go to a traditional high school think it’s too late to go into a trade. We make sure they know there is still an opportunity to pursue a career in the field.”

“Oftentimes, students who go to a traditional high school think it’s too late to go into a trade. We make sure they know there is still an opportunity to pursue a career in the field.”

The Elm University classrooms and lab weren’t created with young people in mind, however; they’re used year-round as Elm’s in-house training facility. Employees who want to become licensed electricians can opt into the company’s four-year apprentice program, working their jobs Monday through Thursday and then, every other Friday, attending school at Elm University for free, as an alternative to night school.

“We started our own training because we weren’t happy with the training we were getting, the conventional way of going two nights a week, three hours a night; most of these night classes are in a classroom setting and don’t have a hands-on component. They get what they need to pass the test, of course, but the hands-on component makes a big difference because that’s what their supervisors see out in the field. That’s what they need out in the field.”

In short, Elm has created a way to cultivate a pipeline of young talent at a time when older electrical workers are leaving the trade faster than they can be replaced. It’s a trend being observed in all construction trades, in fact, and it sometimes requires innovative solutions.

“We can complain like everyone else or do something about it, and we’ve chosen to do something about it,” Asselin said, noting that the effort and financial investment are paying back in the quality of workers the company is putting into the field. “It’s apparent it’s working.”

Jean Pierre Crevier, co-owner of M.L. Schmitt Inc., a 99-year-old electrical contractor based in Springfield, agrees that companies need to stay connected to the potential pipeline of young talent. He does so by participating in the interviewing process of the Joint Apprentice Training Committee of the Local 7 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, bringing new students into apprenticeship programs. “I was pleased with this year’s turnout — we had a lot of great candidates to choose from this year.”

Putnam Vocational Technical Academy teachers

Putnam Vocational Technical Academy teachers Michael Poole (far left) and Charley Jackson (far right) and senior students are joined in the electrical shop by M.L. Schmitt’s Bobby Williams (back left) and Pete Coppez (back right).

But he also does so with efforts like a recent partnership between M.L. Schmitt, Exposure, and two local electrical manufacturers, Legrand and Fidelux Lighting, to provide donations to the Putnam Electrical Shop at Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield.

The Putnam Electrical Shop works on a fixed budget, and donations like this give them additional supplies and equipment for student lessons, said teacher and master electrician Charley Jackson. “I share my work experience and testimony with my students, and it really helps them with their desire to learn. Our recent visit from M.L. Schmitt and donation of supplies really encouraged our students to keep pushing.”

The materials that the school received include low-voltage and line-voltage training kits, a variety of light fixtures, blueprints, surface raceways, disconnect switches and more. More donations are expected to take place this fall, and M.L. Schmitt has hired many Putnam graduates over the years.

“We’ve been conditioned to think you have to have a college degree to have a successful career after high school,” Crevier said. “But a lot of people struggling with college and looking at alternate solutions can make really good money in the trades. I know borderline geniuses who don’t have a really strong formal education behind them, but they can use their hands, and they’re virtual artists, interpreting visual drawings to see what the designer’s intent is. It’s a great career path.”

 

Mind the Gap

The workforce issue isn’t unique to electricians. A recent survey by Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA) found that, overall, construction firms are still struggling to recruit employees. Ninety-three percent of respondents say they have open positions that they’re trying to fill, and 91% indicate they are struggling to fill at least some of these roles. This issue is particularly pronounced among craft positions, which make up the bulk of construction work on job sites.

At the same time, AGCA reported, more companies are waking up to the fact that the future of the construction industry lies in youth, which is why firms are increasingly taking steps to engage younger generations. Fifty-one percent of survey respondents say they’ve gotten involved in career-building programs at the high school, college, and technical-school level in order to encourage students to consider a career in construction.

Jean Pierre Crevier

Jean Pierre Crevier

“But a lot of people struggling with college and looking at alternate solutions can make really good money in the trades. I know borderline geniuses who don’t have a really strong formal education behind them.”

It’s a task facing serious headwinds. Tallo, an employment and scholarship platform geared toward younger workers, issued a report in the spring analyzing survey responses from more than 29,000 high-school and college students about the brands, industries, and career paths they desire. In a ranking of 22 industries, construction attracted the interest of just 16.7% of respondents; only forestry ranked lower. In contrast, 76.5% want to work in technology.

What those who are looking at the trades are finding, however, is opportunity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, electrician jobs are expected to grow by 9.1% from 2020 to 2030, higher than the 7.7% growth rate projected for all occupations. The increase in demand is largely driven by an increase in devices, buildings, and vehicles that rely on electricity; from 2021 to 2022 alone, total electricity consumption in the U.S. is expected to grow by 1.4%. Meanwhile, as noted earlier, Baby Boomers are retiring at a faster rate than members of Gen Z are choosing careers in the trades.

“I was one of those people who went to a private high school, four-year college, got a bachelor’s degree in marketing, sat behind a desk every day, and decided it wasn’t for me and turned to the trades,” Crevier told BusinessWest. “I decided I was one of those visual people; I like to work with my hands, see my accomplishments at the end of the day, and be proud of what I did.”

One of his pitches to young people is that, particularly for those who enter a union apprentice program, they’ll get paid to learn a career path, rather than go into debt. “Instead of investing tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, into an education, you’re actually getting paid to learn, paid in the field, as you go to night school, at least on the union side.”

Bobby Williams, a purchasing officer at M.L. Schmitt, graduated from Putnam and is gratified to see more of its students become the future of his field. “Without our young, upcoming electricians, we won’t have a future workforce of skilled tradesmen and women.”

Which is why Jackson is gratified by the continued connection betweeen Putnam and area businesses. “These donations and visits from M.L. Schmitt let our students know they’re included,” he said. “It certainly motivates and keeps them encouraged about entering the trade.”

Michael Poole, who chairs the Electrical Department at Putnam, added that the donation gives students an opportunity to see and work with specialty items that they would otherwise not be able to afford. “It also shows them that the community cares about their future success in the electrical trade. I am grateful, and I know that our students are as well.”

 

First Steps on a Rewarding Path

Still, Asselin noted, with the manpower shortage, vocational schools can only put out so many students, which is why programs like Elm’s First Steps Futures, is so important, as the company brings in young talent who might otherwise have never thought electrical work was something for them.

“I’ve got them for four days, so I get a pretty good idea what kind of student and what kind of employee they may be. It was really eye-opening for us to see the quality of some of the students out there,” he said. “Some kids who go to a traditional high school or some other alternative school think they can’t go into a trade because they didn’t go to trade school. That’s not the case. Companies like ours will train them both in the classroom and hands-on. We have that ability to get them up to the same level as, say, a vocational student that went through a three-year vocational program.”

Moving forward, Asselin said Elm might open the week-long program to veterans looking to get into a trade. “It’s a different way to approach the problem.”

But Elm University itself, where current employees skill up for better career opportunities, has been a crucial element, he added. “This is what we should have done a long time ago. We kind of had our hand forced because certain jobs require traveling, guys are out of town for a week, and it’s hard to be in school during the week and also be at work. Now, they can travel during the week and get back for class.

“This is a great option for those who don’t want to have to go to night school,” he added. “In four years, students will be ready to sit for their exam to be licensed electricians. Adding our First Steps Futures program to our Elm U program really allows us to groom our future workforce from the very beginning.”

Offering young people pathways into a career is important, but so is showing them how much satisfaction can be found in the work.

“Really, it’s a tangible thing. I tell students, there is a tangible output from what you do,” Crevier said, adding that he tells students about area jobs his company has worked on, from Union Station to the light and visual displays at Thunderbirds games to hospitals, which rely on electrical networks to save lives. “These things might last decades or hundreds of years, and people will always see the product of what you did. Kids today have never thought about that aspect before.

“We can all find people,” he added. “It’s a matter of finding qualified candidates who have the initiative, the drive, and the desire to differentiate themselves and be leaders. Too many people in the workforce today are complacent to show up and participate and don’t want to do more.”

But Schmitt, a company that’s been around for 99 years and doesn’t plan on going anywhere, won’t always have Crevier and his team at the helm, so a job there, as at many companies, is a chance to grow into higher roles.

“We’re not going to be here for 30 years, but we’re looking at the next 30, 40, 50 years, and even beyond that,” he said. “There’s always an opportunity for the right individual.”

At a time when electrical and all other building trades are scrambling to find talent and restock an aging workforce, it’s just one more factor that might draw a Gen-Z student to a career he or she might never have considered before.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The new Pafumi’s Pizza and Scantic River Brewery

The new Pafumi’s Pizza and Scantic River Brewery building creates a family-friendly hangout spot on Main Street.

As he talked about the new home for Scantic River Brewery in Wilbraham, Dave Avery stressed repeatedly that this will be much more than a facility to make beer — although that will happen, too.

“This is a place where people can come and hang out,” said Avery, co-owner of Scantic River with Dave Buel, as he discussed the new setting on Main Street and the taproom planned for it. “The location is extra special for us because it’s right in the community, and we’re looking at this as much more than just a beer-making place.”

It will be a destination, he noted, adding that Scantic River will share the facility, now under construction, with Pafumi’s Pizzeria, long a staple in the community, in an intriguing business development that will bring more visitors, and vibrancy, to an already-busy business corridor in this mostly residential community that also has a diverse, and growing, collection of businesses both large and small.

Overall, maintaining a critical balance — between welcoming new businesses and the many benefits they bring and maintaining the small-town vibe and high quality of life this town is known for — has been the mission of town officials for decades now, said Michelle Buck, Wilbraham’s Planning & Community Development director.

Michelle Buck

Michelle Buck

“There hasn’t been explosive growth; it’s just been steady increase after steady increase.”

She told BusinessWest that the town has long seen steady growth in its economy and business community, and it is the goal of town officials to continue that pattern.

“There hasn’t been explosive growth; it’s just been steady increase after steady increase,” she noted.

Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce (ERC5), agreed. The growth she is seeing comes from people who have taken time to explore their passions; that little business that they thought would be a side hustle is really taking off and being produced on a larger scale. She added that Boston Road and Main Street are the central hubs for activity.

“There’s a lot of great places on Boston Road; it is very well-traveled, and there’s so many wonderful shops and restaurants and businesses there,” she said. “The Gratti Shop just opened; Sandy from the Scented Garden has been there for so many years. If you’re traveling to and from, you can pull into Delaney’s Market and pick up a meal. We’ve got Fieldcrest Brewery on that strip as well. The roller-skating rink is there … we’ve got a lot of stuff to do, and there’s a lot of businesses to visit.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest explores this ‘stuff,’ and how it has come together — with more on the way — to make this town a great place to live, work, and start a business.

 

Draught Choice

Those sentiments describe the thought process that compelled Avery and Buel to make Wilbraham their new mailing address.

And the location on Main Street essentially sealed the deal, said Buel, because it allows this venture to get to the critical next level in its growth and development.

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,613
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.49
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.49
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

“We kept hearing about people wanting to come to our brewery, and a lot of people were asking about hosting events, birthday parties, and stuff like that,” he explained. “So there were opportunities there, and we decided we needed to build a taproom. We realized we’re really missing an opportunity there. We decided to look around, and this place on Main Street in Wilbraham just looked like the ideal location for us.”

Avery and Buel have been brewing for more than a decade; they are from the area, and their daughters went to school together and played on the same sports teams.

Because they were both interested in exploring their passion, Buel started formulating recipes, and the partners started brewing beers in the back of Buel’s garage. They quickly outgrew the small system when their brand began to grow momentum. They then opened a brewing and distribution warehouse in Hampden.

Scantic River Brewery has been able to expand its distribution to Long Island, Upstate New York, Cape Cod, and the area east of Worcester; their labels are sold in 150 Market Basket locations around Massachusetts. But with a growing popularity comes increasing demand.

“The industry changes quite readily in every aspect that you can imagine between ingredient changes and style changes. And as part of those changes, the bottling turned to 16-ounce cans, or cans in general, like overnight,” Avery said. “Within a year, we had to quickly change that. So it became a little harder to do the canning in the garage — the bottling wasn’t terribly hard, but that kind of forced us to switch. Plus the volumes were picking up, so that’s where we had to get better capability.”

Buel added that, if not for the location and people in Wilbraham, the two might well have given up on the constantly changing industry. Instead, they are taking their venture in a new and intriguing direction.

Avery and Buel originally approached Mark Pafumi, co-owner of Pafumi’s Pizza, about leasing space in the proposed building, but then decided to buy into the property along with another investor. “We felt that owning and renting to ourselves made a lot of sense, as opposed to renting from someone else,” Avery said.

Three historical buildings, including the Landry, Lyons, and Whyte Real Estate office, were demolished to allow space for a new joint facility. The new location will be about 8,000 square feet, featuring two outdoor dining areas — one for each business — a taproom in the rear, Pafumi’s Pizza restaurant in the front facing Main Street, a small rental area for outdoor performers, and a second story of apartments.

Scantic River Brewery owners

Scantic River Brewery owners Dave Avery, left, and Dave Buel, with Catherine Avery, who designs logos for their beers

“We wanted to make it bigger and better to suit our needs, the needs of Scantic River, and the needs of the community,” said Pafumi, noting, as Buel and Avery did, that the new facility will be a true destination.

“The restaurant and the brewery will bring some life — there will be a lot of added foot traffic,” he said. “The center is the most heavily foot-trafficked area in the whole town; we’re a restaurant for the community, a place to bring your family.”

 

School of Thought

Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA) is looking at taking a couple of spots in the apartments as well, according to Barone. Because the school serves a diverse population of international students from 34 countries, families will need space to come and visit.

WMA was created in 1971, a time when the prep schools of New England began to merge, often with a school for girls merging with a school for school for boys, creating a coed institution.

“It was a good business strategy for the time; times were tight during the 1970s,” said Brian Easler, head of school at WMA. “It was a way for schools to tighten their budgets and eliminate a lot of their debt all at the same time. But Wilbraham Academy & Monson Academy were both all-boy schools, so the merger didn’t go quite as smoothly — they were archrivals for sports. It was kind of a tricky situation.”

Since then, the school has grown exponentially, a pattern that continued even during the pandemic.

“In a lot of ways, the academy is a smaller version of a college. We don’t have the amount of students that colleges do, but we do have a strong amount of students that do impact the economy in a positive way.”

Indeed, Easler told BusinessWest that the school was able to stay open during the pandemic when many public institutions had to close their doors and resort to remote learning. Through rapid antigen testing and taking precautions as early as the summer of 2020, WMA was able to keep its positivity and transmissions rates relatively low throughout its community. Astoundingly, only 50 international students were not able to travel to the U.S. due to travel restrictions.

Surveing the current landscape at WMA, Easler said it is very close to business — or school — as usual, only with even better recruiting of top students.

“I had a senior faculty member, someone who’s been here longer than me, tell me the other day that the incoming class this year is the strongest group of students she’s seen in his 30 years at the academy,” Easler told BusinessWest. “We had one of our best college-admission lists in recent memory, and I’ve been here for about 25 years; I think it was our strongest college-admissions list yet.”

Students are excited to return to a normal school year, he continued. Classes are filling up, and families are having to be turned down. WMA is a nonprofit — all of the money that comes into the school goes to support the school, finding a way to “flood back out” to the community through consultants, service providers, contractors, and employees that live in the area — not to mention the 400 customers every year for the businesses in the center of town.

In short, WMA is an economic driver in the community, Easler said.

Brian Easler

Brian Easler said WMA’s 400 students add to the economic vibrancy in town.

Barone agreed. When school is back in session, Wilbraham’s economy grows, she said, adding that the Village Store and Rice’s Fruit Farm are in walking distance from the academy, along the side of historical Main Street.

“They’re engaged in shopping in the area — they’re visiting that Boston Road sector, they’ll go out and shop for the holidays, and they’re buying gifts to bring home to mom, dad, siblings, and so forth,” Barone said. “When their parents come to visit, they’re going out to dinner, and they’re doing all that Wilbraham has to offer. In a lot of ways, the academy is a smaller version of a college. We don’t have the amount of students that colleges do, but we do have a strong amount of students that do impact the economy in a positive way.”

 

What’s on Tap?

As noted earlier, Avery and Buel are looking at their new home as more than just a beer-making place; it’s a place to hang out and unwind. With local breweries like Iron Duke, Fieldcrest, and Vanishing Valley all within 30 minutes of each other, opportunities for collaboration abound.

“I’m sure we’ll collaborate on some things with them, maybe get a beer-trail type of thing going. We can get together as a group and somehow figure something out,” Avery said. “Rice’s is right down at the other end of Main Street, and there’s a sidewalk that runs the full-length between us; we could possibly do things there, like road races.”

Overall, it’s an exciting new development in a community that has put a premium on balancing business with quality of life, and only one of many stories to watch in the months and years to come.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

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