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Molly Keegan

Molly Keegan says the Route 9 project is just one of many ongoing issues in Hadley.

 

There is no official countdown clock on the massive project to widen and reconstruct roughly 2.5 miles of Route 9 in Hadley.

But there might as well be.

Indeed, many business owners and residents alike are counting down the months, weeks, and days until this important undertaking, launched in 2021, is in the books; April 2026 is the projected date. Everyone agrees that, when finished, the project will be well worth the trouble and inconvenience it is creating. But getting there … well, that is an ongoing challenge and topic of frustration for many.

“Yes, it’s a disruption, especially for some of the businesses along Route 9 that have had more disruption to date than others,” said Molly Keegan, a principal with Curran & Keegan Financial, a Select Board member in town and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Hadley Business Council. “But, ultimately, I think it’s really going to serve the business community well once it’s completed.”

The Route 9 project is one of many ongoing issues in this community of just over 5,000 people, said Keegan and Town Administrator Carolyn Brennan. Others include a growing need for a full-time planner, the advancement of plans for a new Department of Public Works facility, and ongoing work to maintain the town’s dikes, a costly but necessary initiative.

But it’s a housing problem — which mirrors what’s happening in many other communities but is perhaps more acute because of the surging cost of real estate in Hadley — that has perhaps taken center stage, Brennan said.

“Ultimately, I think it’s really going to serve the business community well once it’s completed.”

As in many other communities, she noted, a shortage of affordable housing is certainly impacting seniors and young families. The former want to stay in town but don’t have any place to go except the large homes they no longer want or need, and the latter are finding it increasingly difficult to come to Hadley because there is very little that they can afford.

“If you do any search on housing in Hadley, at any given time, there’s maybe five or six houses, and they’re extremely expensive,” Brennan said. “There are a lot of parents who have raised their kids here — and those kids can’t afford to raise their own children here.”

Keegan agreed. “It’s very difficult for people on either end of the spectrum to buy in,” she said. “If you look right now and see what’s for sale in Hadley, you’ll find houses for $900,000 to $1 million. Young people looking to start a family are not going to be able to afford that.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Hadley, a community known for its asparagus, but also a lively, diverse business community that continues to take advantage of the town’s unique spot on the map.

 

Location, Location, Location

As she relayed the story of how Curran & Keegan relocated from Northampton to Middle Street in Hadley, in the center of town, in 2021, Keegan explained, rather succinctly and effectively, why this community has become such a popular mailing address for businesses of all kinds.

In short, it’s that oldest and most absolute of commercial real-estate values: location, location, location, in this case between two college towns and two of the most popular destinations in the region — Amherst and Northampton — a spot that has made Hadley a destination itself.

Carolyn Brennan

“If you do any search on housing in Hadley, at any given time, there’s maybe five or six houses, and they’re extremely expensive. There are a lot of parents who have raised their kids here — and those kids can’t afford to raise their own children here.”

“We had been renting and were looking for a property to purchase,” she explained. “This particular property we’re in had been a residential property, but given its proximity to Route 9, it happened to be zoned commercial. We fell in love with it; it’s a wonderful location for our clients on both sides of the river, and also those coming down from Franklin County. We’re in the perfect spot at the crossroads of Route 47 and Route 9.”

Business owners in virtually every sector can say essentially the same thing, which is why Hadley, and especially that Route 9 corridor, is home to everything from hotels and restaurants to big-box retail stores; from car dealerships to cannabis dispensaries; from tech companies to the world headquarters for V-One Vodka.

All or most of them are taking full advantage of the 100,000 or so cars that pass along Route 9 every day, although there are certainly fewer these days as the construction project continues and many bypass the thoroughfare — if they can. And those that are on it are moving more slowly because of that work.

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,325
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $11.39
Commercial Tax Rate: $11.39
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

But, by and large, businesses along the road are getting by, said Keegan, adding that project was one of the motivations for creation of the Hadley Business Council, and it has certainly become a priority for the agency, which meets on the last Friday of each month.

The council has helped generate ongoing communication among the business community, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and Baltazar Contractors, the general contractor handling the Route 9 project, which has in some ways eased the disruption.

“They recognize the negative impact on businesses, and they’ve been doing everything they can to make sure that there’s signage to indicate that businesses are still open and that they’re not blocking people from entering those businesses,” Keegan said. “So we’ve established a good working relationship.

“That said, there has been an impact on certain businesses,” she said, listing ventures ranging from Hillside Pizza to Wanczyk Nurseries to Exotic Auto, which had to be relocated to another spot on Route 9 because of the project.

As noted, the road work is one of the main focal points at present for the business council, which was formed, she explained, to improve communication between the town and its business community — “in both directions.”

One of the council’s priorities is educational opportunities, she said, adding that the town’s building inspector has appeared before the group to talk about the permitting process. Meanwhile, the council serves as a voice for the business community if it wants to bring something to the attention of town leaders, such as the need for specific bylaws and zoning on food trucks.

“I think we’ve done remarkably well for a long time, but there is so much out there in terms of grant opportunities, especially around housing — the state is really promoting housing construction — and it’s difficult to take advantage of those opportunities when you don’t have someone focused on it on a full-time basis.”

One of the issues moving forward is a heavy reliance on volunteer board members, said Keegan, adding that, for some time, the town has looked at hiring a full-time planner but hasn’t been able to fit such a position into the budget. Money remains tight, but the need for a planner continues to grow, she told BusinessWest.

“I think we’ve done remarkably well for a long time, but there is so much out there in terms of grant opportunities, especially around housing — the state is really promoting housing construction — and it’s difficult to take advantage of those opportunities when you don’t have someone focused on it on a full-time basis,” she explained. “So that’s something we will continue to take a look at; ultimately, a position that like that will pay for itself over time.”

 

Housing, Housing, Housing

As she talked about Hadley’s housing challenges, Brennan referenced a recent project undertaken by students in the architecture and landscape architecture programs at UMass Amherst.

As part of a studio course, the students were asked to develop potential plans for re-envisioning the Hampshire Mall, a 33-acre property on Route 9 that, like many malls, has suffered from the growing popularity of online shopping and other sea changes in retail and has lost of many businesses.

The course, “Reimagining the Hampshire Mall: Exploring Opportunities for Intergenerational Housing and Community Development,” yielded a proposal to convert the space into 40 rowhouses and 150 apartments with recreational areas.

“It was really fascinating; we sat and listened to the students, who showed us the design and engineering of what the mall could look like by bringing housing and commercial together, and that was very interesting,” said Brennan, noting that the audience included many from the business community and Hadley’s Economic Development Committee, as well as representatives of the mall. “There is definitely some potential for something like this in Hadley.”

While she acknowledged that this was a course project and such an initiative is a long way from reality, Brennan said it will require some real imagination and, most likely, creative reuse of properties like the mall to ease the town’s housing shortage.

“It was a good visual for people on those committees to see what the opportunities are in Hadley,” she said, adding that, like other cities and towns in the region, Hadley is finding it challenging to interest the development community in affordable-housing initiatives, which is the type of project most needed at the moment.

Indeed, Keegan noted that the town’s senior population continues to grow each year, and there is a huge shortage of housing for that constituency.

She offered hope that town officials might be able to take advantage of state Chapter 40R, which encourages the creation of dense residential or mixed-use smart-growth zoning districts, including a high percentage of affordable-housing units, to ease the crunch.

“40R could go a long way toward helping us increase the housing stock,” she said. “But like anything, whatever changes are made are done thoughtfully and over some period of time.”

Housing is one option being considered for the iconic, 129-year-old Russell School, said Brennan, noting that the landmark has been vacant since 2015. A reuse study has identified several alternatives, including keeping the property as a municipal building and renovating it and creating a public-private partnership, she noted.

“The study is going to determine what the market might be for various uses and what it would cost to renovate the Russell School,” she said, adding that housing is certainly a consideration. “We’re hoping that we’re going to get some options to put in front of the voters to see how they would like to proceed with the school.”

Banking and Financial Services

Doubling Down

Community Bank’s branch inside Tower Square

Community Bank’s branch inside Tower Square will be complemented later this year by a second Springfield location on Boston Road.

 

 

 

When Community Bank expanded in 2017 with the acquisition of Merchants Bank, it gained a large network of branches in Vermont … and one in Massachusetts.

That office is located in Tower Square in downtown Springfield and had been NUVO Bank before hanging the Merchants banner. Located far from any other Community location — the organization has a strong presence in Pennsylvania and New York as well as its newer footprint in Vermont — it wouldn’t have been surprising had Community shed it altogether. But the bank saw value in a Springfield presence.

And now, seven years later, it’s doubling down, planning to open a second Springfield location on Boston Road later this year.

“It’s a market that’s not too far from Albany, but far enough where it’s a very distinct market by itself. And because it’s one branch, it’s been a little bit under the radar,” President and CEO Dimitar Karaivanov said. “But it’s a good market with good opportunities, and we have a really good team in the market, and the level of energy and activity in Springfield has been very hot.

“So almost a year ago, we decided we hadn’t given Springfield its rightful chance to succeed,” he went on. “We’re just one branch and have a good team, but we’re somewhat limited by the fact that it’s only one branch downtown. So we decided to kind of invest in the team and the opportunities that we have in the market, and we’re going to double our presence.”

The bank is doing so, he said, in locations that make strategic sense, and also, in some cases, investing in lower-income areas. “We’re looking at communities that offer opportunity from an economic perspective, but we also consider it our responsibility to invest in communities and bring them along in terms of growth. That’s how we’ve been selecting some areas that we’re going into.”

While Greater Springfield has been called overbanked, Karaivanov said Community Bank sees plenty of potential in expanding.

“We’re just one branch and have a good team, but we’re somewhat limited by the fact that it’s only one branch downtown. So we decided to kind of invest in the team and the opportunities that we have in the market, and we’re going to double our presence.”

“There’s no lack of competition in Springfield — there are a lot of banks, a lot of mutuals, a lot of credit unions,” he said. “But the reason that we feel like we can be successful is our team. So we’re really investing in our team. That’s how we look at expansion; it’s really people-based. Obviously, the market needs to be sizable enough for another entrant, but we feel like we’ve got a team that we have basically under-leveraged over the past several years. And now we’re trying to give them more runway and opportunity to be successful.”

 

Branching Out

As Community Bank expands in Springfield and other markets, it’s doing so, the organization explains, by reimagining the in-branch experience with clean, modern designs that encourage customer and banker collaboration, local community tie-ins, and staff that can handle a wide array of financial needs.

“Branches are still pretty important, and I think they will continue to be important,” Karaivanov said. “If you look at where most accounts, especially new accounts, are opened, it is still predominantly in the branch. People still get their mortgages predominantly in the branch. That initial contact with a financial institution is mostly in the branch.

“Now, when you open your second account, or if you are already a customer of a bank, you might go online to apply for a mortgage and other things. But to get into the ecosystem, usually the average person still starts in the branch.”

He cited the example of JPMorgan Chase launching an online-only bank six years ago, “and no one’s heard of it since,” he noted. “Instead, you’re seeing JPMorgan open branches all over the place. It’s hard to be just online. You need both parts.”

To that end, modern branch designs are different than the old, traditional model of counters and lines, he added.

“Today, the branch is really more advisory and consultative than transaction-based because transactions are easy to do on your phone, and you don’t need to go into the branch for a specific transaction anymore. But people do go to the branch for advice and for questions and when they have a problem. So spaces in the branch are designed in a much different way.”

Dimitar Karaivanov

Dimitar Karaivanov

“Transactions are easy to do on your phone, and you don’t need to go into the branch for a specific transaction anymore. But people do go to the branch for advice and for questions and when they have a problem.”

Community Bank currently boasts 28 branches in New England, all but one of them in Vermont, and its current expansion plans include the first New Hampshire branch in addition to the second Springfield location.

“Community Bank is not just expanding, but deepening our roots in New England,” said Matthew Durkee, regional president for New England. “Our branches are the cornerstone of our retail business, and each one allows us to support the community and deepen our relationships with our customers as we partner together throughout their financial journey.”

Those community relationships involve philanthropy and volunteerism in communities where the bank has a presence, Karaivanov added.

“We do a lot of that, led by our branch staff most of the time,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s in our name, right? So we live by it. Our people are involved, they’re on boards, they’re in the Rotary Clubs, they know their neighbors, they’re supporting the local schools, teams, and everything else. It’s how we distinguish ourselves. Those are our neighbors, they’re our friends, and being part of the community is just as important as being a financial institution.”

With its commitment to Springfield affirmed, he added that Community Bank could look to expand further in Massachusetts where it makes sense.

“Hopefully, as we are successful in this expansion, we would like to do more. I’m a big believer in getting behind your success. So if we continue to be successful in Springfield, we’re going to continue to grow.

“Again, this has been a little bit of an outpost for us. Meanwhile, the team’s been doing a great job. And now is the time for us to empower them to do even more.”

 

One-stop Shop

Earlier this month, Community Bank System Inc. — which encompasses four key businesses: banking, benefits administration, insurance, and wealth management — changed its name to Community Financial System Inc. to better reflect the company’s reach.

“The new name allows us to emphasize the evolution of our capabilities, solutions, and focus,” Karaivanov said. “In aggregate, over 39% of our revenue is comprised of diversified fee-income businesses, well over twice that of industry peers. Bringing all of that under the new name, Community Financial System, underscores our mission and drives our inclusiveness as one company.”

It’s a different model, he said, than financial-services organizations in which banking is 90% of the pie.

“We’re a bit of a unicorn because we have four different businesses, and the way we run the company, the bank is our largest business, but it’s not the whole business. With our benefits business, we help people with their 401(k) plans; we administer those all over the country. Or, if you’re an individual and you’re coming for a mortgage from us, we can directly give you a quote for the homeowners’ insurance as well.”

Meanwhile “if you have amounts in your banking accounts that clearly can be invested in better outcomes for you, we’ve got the wealth-management side of the house, or the trust capability. And on the commercial side, especially for small to mid-sized businesses, we can provide everything from capital to insurance to managing their benefit plans, actually helping them with HR consulting.

“It gives us a real leg up when we talk to customers because we’re not just a one-widget shop,” Karaivanov added. “We can provide comprehensive solutions.”

Restaurants

Yes They Can

 

From left, Vanished Valley principals Joshua Britton, Michael Rodrigues, and Manny Vital

From left, Vanished Valley principals Joshua Britton, Michael Rodrigues, and Manny Vital.

 

Josh Britton remembers the early, heady days of Vanished Valley Brewing Co. — and the challenging ones that followed.

He had started brewing beer in his garage around 2015 when he met Michael Rodrigues, owner of Europa Black Rock Bar & Grille in Ludlow, and Manny Vital, who owned Europa’s building on Route 21. Vital retrofitted a building out back that became the first Vanished Valley brewery; the name was chosen to honor the drowned Quabbin Reservoir towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott.

“We started that process in 2016, but the licensure took nine months for approvals at the state level. Then we started hammering it out in 2017,” Britton said. Within a year or two, the brewery was rated third-best in Massachusetts by BeerAdvocate.

“We had lines out the door,” he added. “We were only producing like 10 barrels at a time, which for that space is a lot of barrelage; it’s pretty tight in there. We were selling cans in a tent next to the building and doing well. And we were fueling Europa with our kegs. We had people show up and ask, ‘oh, where’s your taproom?’ And they found out it was just a small, 20-by-20 space.”

Rodrigues decided to retire the Europa brand early in 2019 when he saw an opportunity to expand Vanished Valley with expanded production space and a food operation, and the three principals started gutting and updating the building, and also putting up an addition.

“Mike stayed up nights smoking meat — night after night after night, just to meet demand. So we were delivering barbecue and beer to door to door, and it stuck.”

“We wanted to add the food element in a bigger retail space, so it made sense, obviously, to do it right there,” Britton said. “We worked on it all throughout 2019 while still producing beer, and then we were ready to go in January 2020.”

Everyone knows what happened next.

“We had just opened our doors, and then a couple months later, it came to a halt because of COVID,” he said. “It was an interesting time. It forced us to kind of relook at the brand and pivot and decide what fell within the guidelines of what we could and couldn’t do.”

The pivots they came up with not only kept the business afloat during the pandemic, they may have actually raised its profile.

“No place could open and serve food, but we were allowed to deliver food — and beer, for the first time in Massachusets. So we started doing takeout. We didn’t have barbecue as a food option at the time, and Mike came up with the great idea to say, ‘hey, how cool would it be to have fresh barbecue and beer delivered to your door?’

“So we added that as a takeout option, and it was the most popular one we had,” Britton continued. “Mike stayed up nights smoking meat — night after night after night, just to meet demand. So we were delivering barbecue and beer to door to door, and it stuck. We still have great barbecue today; we kept it on the menu.”

Murals in Vanished Valley’s lower level reflect the theme of the drowned Quabbin towns.

Murals in Vanished Valley’s lower level reflect the theme of the drowned Quabbin towns.

Between the successful delivery operation, as well as two Paycheck Protection Program loans and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, the team was able to keep the operation running. “It was a stressful year, but we made it. Once we were allowed to open the doors, we took all the necessary precautions with social distancing and things like that. It kept the lights on, and it kept the brand alive.”

 

Beneath the Surface

Some of the brewery’s beer selections — 1939 Amber Ale, Cellar Hole Series, Lost Town Stout, etc. — pay homage to the history of the Quabbin.

“The name itself, Vanished Valley, is the tip of the cap to the Quabbin Reservoir and the people that sacrificed for the benefit of others,” Britton said. “We try to keep the names of the beers as Quabbin-esque as possible. Sometimes it’s hard to do, and we just come up with other ideas. But the brand itself commemorates the Quabbin area.”

At any given time, Vanished Valley makes, pours, and distributes — to liquor stores and other restaurants across Massachusetts, from New York to Cape Cod — an array of IPAs, ales, stouts, and more, he added.

“We are very IPA-heavy, but that’s not to say that we don’t appreciate and still produce the classic brands, like a good lager or a pilsner. Some of our bestsellers in-house are actually our light beers. But when we distribute, the more popular ones are the IPAs.”

Britton explained that Vanished Valley straddles two different models.

“When you’re thinking about a brewery, you can be one of three different types of breweries. You can be a contract brewer, where you hire someone to brew your beer for you, and they send it out, and that’s it. Look at Jim Koch’s story with Sam Adams; that’s how he started. Then there’s a straight manufacturing-like brewery, where all you’re doing is pumping liquid out the back door and putting it on the shelf in the store.

“Then there’s us. We’re a brewpub,” he went on. “We wanted to have the food element, but we didn’t want to give up on the opportunity for mass distribution. So we built the brewery to be a distribution model, but the retail side of the house is a straight brewpub. So I don’t need to produce a ton of beer for here, but I need to produce a ton of beer for the market. We wanted to go at it from both angles.”

As for the food element, Vanished Valley serves a broad menu of appetizers, soups and salads, wood-fired pizza, burgers and other handhelds, and, of course, barbecue platters featuring pulled pork, brisket, chicken, and St. Louis-style ribs. Dinner hours are more crowded than lunch, and Thursday through Sunday draw the biggest crowds.

“We have a beer garden out there in the warmer weather, with a massive tent,” Britton said, adding that Vanished Valley now allows groups to rent the space for weddings and large parties. “We have music out there; Manny built an amazing stage for our bands. We have a firepit … all the stuff that makes for a better environment.”

Inside, the brewery has also hosted events from a murder mystery dinner to a bonsai tree event to charcuterie board design, as well as events featuring outside vendors, like a chili cookoff.

“We wanted to have the food element, but we didn’t want to give up on the opportunity for mass distribution. So we built the brewery to be a distribution model, but the retail side of the house is a straight brewpub.”

“We rent this for smaller parties, too: birthday parties, anniversaries, retirement parties, stuff like that. We try to be a one-stop shop for as much as possible,” Britton said. “It’s hard to do sometimes, but compared to other brewpubs and breweries in the region, we are very, very diverse.

“I think we’re doing really well compared to a lot of other breweries in the industry,” he went on. “There have been some closures in the state, and we’re not going to be one of them. But you constantly have to tailor things to the customer, and that’s a constantly moving target. So one of the bigger challenges is staying fresh.”

 

Lager Than Life

Despite some shifts in the market, Britton said, Vanished Valley is doing well on both the brewpub and distribution sides.

“Our first struggle was dealing with the holy-grail beers — you know, what’s the next best thing? That’s what the craft-beer fanatics want — the search for the white whale, or whatever they want to call it. We were one of those whales initially, and we gained a lot of loyal customers, but there were some falloffs of people that wanted to find the next best thing.”

Another challenge has been the rise of ready-to-drink cocktails. “That sector of the industry is really doing a number on craft beers,” he said. “And now you have CBD-infused seltzers and stuff like that. So our distribution has gone down a little bit because of that.

“But our overall growth in sales has continued every year because of what we do here in the retail area with the restaurant,” Britton added. “If we were a straight production brewery, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. But on the restaurant side, the amazing customers we get here — from a local standpoint and people from out of state — have helped us stay afloat as a small, local business. We’re still very young. We’ve been going at it since 2017, but we’re still young.”

Vanished Valley also makes an effort to give back to the community, such as a beer produced to honor veterans every November, with proceeds donated to veteran organizations. The brewery also sponsors golf tournaments and gets involved with events like Ride to Remember, which honors fallen heroes.

“This is our backyard,” Britton said. “We all grew up here, and we’ve got to take care of it.”

Despite the challenges throughout the years, he added, Vanished Valley has continued to grow — from three employees just a few years ago to more than 30 today.

“We’ve done really well for ourselves. We’ve made a home for a lot of great customers that we appreciate so much. And the town has been nice to work with; they appreciate what we’re doing here from an economic standpoint. It’s just been a fun ride.”

Education

Giving a Hand Up

 

On April 30, representatives from Holyoke Community College and the Springfield-based nonprofit I Found Light Against All Odds agreed to work closely to increase educational and workforce training opportunities for young women at risk for homelessness. 

HCC President George Timmons and Stefan Davis, CEO, president, and founder of the Springfield-based I Found Light Against All Odds, met at the college to sign a memorandum of understanding outlining the terms of the agreement.  

I Found Light Against All Odds provides support services for young women to help address social and economic issues that can lead to poverty and homelessness. Specifically, by signing this memorandum, HCC and the foundation agree to broaden support services for area women, ages 18-20, to help them obtain safe housing and career opportunities through education and training. 

“This agreement is firmly in line with HCC’s mission and vision to remove barriers to student success, to break cycles of poverty, and provide opportunities for education and training that will allow more young women to be successful, earn a livable wage, and enjoy all that life has to offer,” Timmons said.

According to statistics cited in the memorandum of understanding, Hampden County has a poverty rate of 16.9%, which is higher than the national average of 11.5%. Meanwhile, the poverty rates in Springfield and Holyoke are even higher at 25.5% and 26%, respectively. 

“This agreement is firmly in line with HCC’s mission and vision to remove barriers to student success, to break cycles of poverty, and provide opportunities for education and training that will allow more young women to be successful, earn a livable wage, and enjoy all that life has to offer.”

“At the same time, research shows that many community-college students in Massachusetts experience hunger and/or homelessness, as well as other types of basic needs insecurity that can serve as barriers to degree completion and thereby limit economic sustainability and mobility,” the memorandum states.

Davis thanked Timmons and HCC faculty for the partnership. “We look forward to working with you and your staff to help these young women that are in darkness, searching for light and education. These women have dealt with a lot of trauma throughout their lives and are looking for ways to end the cycle of poverty. This collaboration proves that we care about them and that they have our support.”

Through the agreement, the foundation is looking to connect with HCC’s existing academic support services, such as admissions and financial-aid counseling, as well as career and transfer advising and more. 

“It’s a natural fit between an agency that works to support young women and a college, HCC, which is known for its wraparound support model,” said Jeff Hayden, HCC’s vice president of Business and Community Services.

Before the signing, Davis introduced a video about I Found Light Against All Odds that featured interviews from two of its consumers. One of them was Alisandra Pantoja from Springfield, who attended the April 30 event. 

Pantoja also stood beside Davis as he put pen to paper. She will be taking advantage of all the opportunities outlined in the agreement as a student at HCC starting in September, and plans to major in human services. “I like working with people,” she said.

Education

Expanded Opportunity

 

On May 6, Senate leaders unveiled MassEducate, a proposal for tuition-free, universal community college for all Massachusetts residents, aimed at boosting the state’s workforce and expanding opportunity for students and families in every part of the Commonwealth.

The announcement was made during an event at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, where Senate President Karen Spilka, Senate Ways & Means Chair Michael Rodrigues, and Senate Higher Education Chair Jo Comerford gathered with members of the Senate, presidents of the Commonwealth’s 15 community colleges, business leaders, students, and advocates.

“Today, we shift conversations about college from ‘I wish’ to ‘I will’ for thousands of students and families in Massachusetts,” Spilka said. “We are investing in talent that is right here at home and opening the workforce floodgates to employers who are starved for graduates, so Massachusetts keeps the competitive edge that we pride ourselves in.”

MassEducate would invest $75.5 million in new spending to cover tuition and fees for all residents, as well as up to $1,200 for books, supplies, and other costs to students who make up to 125% of median income in the state. Pell-eligible students already eligible for a books stipend through state financial aid would also be eligible for a stipend for books, supplies, and costs of attendance, for a combined amount of up to $2,400 per year.

“Today, we shift conversations about college from ‘I wish’ to ‘I will’ for thousands of students and families in Massachusetts.”

“With the historic investments announced today, ushering in universally free community college and more, the Senate doubles down on our commitment to build back the power and promise of public higher education,” Comerford said. “The Senate investments will propel the Commonwealth forward toward greater social equity and greater economic competitiveness.”

The Senate’s plan, which will be included in the chamber’s FY 2025 budget, would continue to invest in programs created in the FY 2024 budget, including $18 million in free nursing programs at community colleges and $24 million in free community college for residents over age 25.

Students would be eligible for free tuition, fees, and the stipend in the fall 2025 semester if the proposal is included in the Commonwealth’s final FY 2025 budget.

To support students whose education paths can be jeopardized by unanticipated life events, Senate leaders announced the creation of the Student Persistence Fund, a $10 million investment that would go directly toward aiding community colleges and state universities in supporting low-income students with such costs that are shown to put someone’s chance of finishing school at risk, such as transportation, childcare, or food insecurity.

Understanding that retention and graduation is directly tied to support systems like advising and career planning, the Senate also proposed an $18.3 investment in the Supporting Urgent Community College Equity through Student Services (SUCCESS) program, which is designed for community colleges to invest in wraparound supports and services using models proven to strengthen outcomes for students facing systemic barriers, especially for colleges’ most underserved populations.

To ensure the long-term fiscal sustainability of the program, the Senate’s proposal would institute annual tuition-increase caps at community colleges set at an inflation index. And to hold community colleges accountable for producing positive outcomes, the proposal creates a working group to re-evaluate community-college performance funding, aimed at better aligning state funding with key metrics such as student success and workforce alignment.

Recognizing that many Massachusetts students opt directly for four-year universities, the budget makes a $105 million investment in the Massachusetts financial-assistance program MassGrant Plus, which keeps college costs low for students at all public colleges in the Commonwealth. This increased investment builds on recent investments that have allowed all Pell-eligible students in Massachusetts to go to a community college, state university, or UMass campus without paying tuition or fees.

The proposal additionally includes policy directives to study future paths to success for the Commonwealth’s students. It directs the Department of Higher Education to improve the credit transfer pathway between two- and four-year institutions so students can easily transfer to a public four-year institution. It also creates a new commission to evaluate current state financial assistance for students to attend state universities and UMass and evaluate ways to further ensure accessibility and affordability of an education at these institutions.

Technology

The Science of Naps

A UMass Amherst sleep scientist, funded with $6.7 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has launched two unprecedented studies that will track over time the brain development of infants and preschoolers to confirm the role of napping in early life and to identify the bioregulatory mechanisms involved.

Rebecca Spencer, a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences who is well-known for her groundbreaking research into napping, is testing her theories about what’s happening in the hippocampus — the short-term-memory area of the brain — as babies and young children undergo nap transitions.

This new research is expected to become the gold standard of scientific evidence that emphasizes the importance of healthy sleep for young children as their brains develop. The findings will help inform nap policies for preschool and pre-kindergarten and be useful to teachers and parents of both neurotypical and neurodiverse children.

“The work we’ve been doing has always pointed to this interaction of sleep and brain development,” said Spencer, who carries out research in her Somneurolab at UMass Amherst. “We think that kids get ready to transition out of naps when the brain is big enough to hold all the information of the day until nighttime sleep.”

The study involving preschoolers is a collaboration between Spencer at UMass Amherst; Tracy Riggins, a developmental psychologist specializing in memory development at the University of Maryland (UMD); and Gregory Hancock, a UMD professor of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology. Previous research by Spencer and Riggins showed differences in the hippocampi of kids who nap compared to those who have transitioned out of naps.

“The work we’ve been doing has always pointed to this interaction of sleep and brain development. We think that kids get ready to transition out of naps when the brain is big enough to hold all the information of the day until nighttime sleep.”

“So far, we’ve used cross-sectional approaches,” said Spencer, referring to research that analyzes data at one point in time, as opposed to longitudinal studies that involve repeated observation over time. “We really need to show longitudinally within a child that the point when they transition out of naps is predicted by a transition in the development of their hippocampus.”

The hippocampus is the short-term location for memories before they move to the cortex for long-term storage. Naps allow children with an immature hippocampus to process memories. Young children give up their afternoon nap, not based on their age, but their brain development, Spencer hypothesized.

“Naps are beneficial to everybody. Naps protect memory for everybody, no matter what age. Kids who are habitual nappers really need the nap. If they don’t nap, they get catastrophic forgetting. That’s the difference between habitual and non-habitual nappers — not how good is the nap, but how bad is staying awake,” she explained.

Added Riggins, “in the end, being able to tell parents that those little deviations from routine that keep their children from napping might not have these huge implications for a neurotypical child in the long run would be great. And the more we know about how the brain works in a typically developing child during this nap transition, the more we will be able to know about where we could possibly intervene to help neurodiverse children — like children with autism and ADHD, whose sleep patterns tend to be disrupted — since we will have some sort of scientific basis.”

 

Go to Sleep

The research team is recruiting 180 children, ages 3 to 5. The researchers will track their brain development, memory performance, and nap status over the course of one year at three checkpoints. During the first and second sessions, the children will wear activity-tracking watches and EEG equipment to record naps and overnight sleep. They will also play memory games before and after naps. The children will undergo an MRI brain scan during the third session.

Monica and David Dumlao signed up their son Miles, 4, for the preschool study after watching the Netflix documentary series Babies, which features Spencer in the episode about sleep. “We like learning about the neuroscience behind brain development,” Monica Dumlao said at a recent study session in Spencer’s lab. “We thought this was a good opportunity to contribute to the science about the importance of naps.”

In the three-part infant study on nap transitions and memory, Spencer is studying the period before and after babies transition from two naps — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — to one, richer afternoon nap. She is recruiting 140 infants 7 to 9 months old. The babies will play a memory game before and after their naps. Their brain activity will be recorded during their naps using a non-invasive electrode cap. The sessions will take place at 9, 12, and 15 months.

“We think as they are getting ready to drop the morning nap, staying awake in that morning interval will be less and less damaging to their memory,” Spencer said. “But we don’t think that’s going to happen with the afternoon nap at this age. We think the afternoon nap stays superimportant.”

Banking and Financial Services Cover Story

A Community Asset

 

Country Bank president Mary McGovern

Country Bank president Mary McGovern

 

Country Bank, according to its slogan, is “made to make a difference.”

Mary McGovern has taken that as a personal challenge.

“I’ve been at several institutions, public institutions, that run a little differently than mutuals, having to answer to shareholders every quarter,” said McGovern, who recently became Country’s first female president in its 174-year history. “With a mutual bank, we feel we take a different approach with our customers, and our involvement in the community means a lot to them. It’s a differentiator.”

McGovern brings three decades of context and experience — at different types of institutions — to that philosophy.

Prior to her 13-year rise at Country Bank, where she has served as chief financial officer, executive vice president, and chief operating officer, McGovern served in management roles at Danversbank, Capital Crossing Bank, and Boston Private Bank & Trust. Her areas of expertise include finance, operations, information technology, retail banking, commercial lending, financial and credit analysis, compliance, risk, sales, and strategic business and relationship development.

“With a mutual bank, we feel we take a different approach with our customers, and our involvement in the community means a lot to them. It’s a differentiator.”

“I started at Boston Private when it was a de novo with $80 million in assets. I was the 20th or 22nd person they hired. I came in on the ground floor in a finance role, in accounting, and grew with the department,” she recalled.

After that institution went public and was acquired, she left, earned her MBA, and moved to Capital Crossing in the late ’90s, doing a lot of work with distressed real estate. Danversbank, her next stop, was a reunion of sorts with some individuals she had worked with at Boston Private.

“They were like Country Bank is today, a nice, local, mutual community bank,” she said, adding that she served Danversbank as senior vice president and chief accounting officer. “But they went public in 2008 and were sold in 2011, and my position was eliminated.”

So, the same year, she joined the team at Country — and has never looked back.

“The mission is to be the bank of choice in Central and Western Massachusetts,” McGovern told BusinessWest. “I’m excited to lead as the first female president of Country Bank as we approach our 175th anniversary. It’s a good opportunity to get out and talk in the community, talk to our customers, put a new face in front of them. It’s been really exciting.”

Country Bank’s productive partnership with the WooSox

Country Bank’s productive partnership with the WooSox is reflected by its prominent right-field signage.

From a bottom-line perspective, she said, Country is doing well, even showing growth in the mortgage market, despite high rates and higher prices.

“Obviously people still have to buy and sell homes and move different places. The pipeline may not be as robust, but there’s still a lot of activity.”

On the commercial side, the bank is being selective, focusing on building lasting relationships and not targeting huge volume for its own sake, to maintain liquidity. “We’re looking for 5% to 6% growth in loans this year, so we’re keeping busy for sure.”

Geographically, the bank is in a growth mode as well. With a physical footprint that currently stretches from Springfield to Worcester, with the Ware headquarters between those two cities, County is adding two additional locations to the east this year — a second in Worcester and one in Uxbridge — while making plans to add two more branches to the west, in Springfield and another community.

Earlier this year, the board of trustees announced it had full confidence in McGovern to lead that strategy, as well as all of Country’s other operations and activities in the community. Paul Scully, who has been president and chief executive officer since 2004, remains in the CEO role.

“We are thrilled to announce Mary’s appointment as the next president of Country Bank,” James Phaneuf, board chair, said when the selection was announced. “Mary’s proven track record, dedication, and strategic vision make her the ideal candidate for this role.

“In a challenging time of food insecurity and other challenges out there, it’s important to give back to local nonprofits. They need our support to do their important work. That’s valuable to our staff, and I believe it’s valuable to our customers as well.”

“The board is confident that Mary’s leadership will drive the bank’s continued success and growth,” he added. “With her extensive experience, strategic mindset, and dedication to excellence, Mary is poised to lead the bank into a new era of innovation and customer satisfaction while maintaining its position as one of the most highly capitalized financial institutions in the region.”

 

Community Partner

Country is also well-known for its community involvement. Those efforts have focused in recent years on a number of priorities, including food insecurity, health, and education, as well as homeless shelters, senior-serving programs, youth organizations, and more.

To that end, Country reported more than $1.2 million in donations in 2023, with 463 organizations receiving grants. In addition, the bank’s team members volunteered 1,255 hours of community service in 2023, while 37 employees served on a total of 65 nonprofit boards and committees.

“We are a valued piece of the community. We try to give back to all the communities we serve,” McGovern said, adding that the bank’s financial-literacy programs continue to be a priority, as is a partnership with the WooSox — signified by a very prominent Country Bank sign in right field at Polar Park — and the team’s WooStars awards and its teacher-recognition program.

“We’re just continuing to build on a great foundation set by Paul in his 20 years here,” she added. “Being a community bank, we’re really invested in the health of our communities.”

McGovern speaks the language of community-bank presidents in Western Mass. that place a high value on local philanthropy.

“We’ll continue to do a hybrid approach. It seems to be working. The staff seems to be happy. We don’t see that changing — in the foreseeable future, anyway.”

“We’re different from a big commercial bank that’s not as worried about the individual communities that they serve,” she said. “As a mutual bank, obviously it’s important to make money, but making money also allows us to give back. So we’re trying to give back to our communities. In a challenging time of food insecurity and other challenges out there, it’s important to give back to local nonprofits. They need our support to do their important work. That’s valuable to our staff, and I believe it’s valuable to our customers as well.”

Also of value to customers is a physical presence in their communities, even at a time when online banking is dominant.

“There are differences of opinion among financial institutions, some of whom are pulling back from their banking centers,” McGovern said. “But we feel it’s important to support the different ways our customers want to bank.

“There are plenty of the younger generation who don’t want to talk to people, who would prefer to do everything online; self-service is important to them,” she added. “But we have a good component of customers who like to go in and talk to people face to face. Even younger people want to sit down and talk to somebody when they’re buying their first house; it’s an important, life-changing kind of event.”

In addition, she said, “I feel it’s important that we show our presence. It’s hard to say that you’re in Springfield without having signage there. We have a business center in Tower Square, but it’s not quite as visible as having a branch location with a sign.”

Country Bank has consolidated in some cases as well — for instance, it used to have three branches in Ware, but now only houses its headquarters and a digital banking center there. And many branches are staffed with fewer employees than in years past, to reflect how many customers bank online only.

“But while there’s less foot traffic, we’re still there to serve people, allowing customers to bank how they want.”

Other elements of the bank experience have changed over the years as well, including how — and where — employees work.

“Since the pandemic, it’s been a different way of working,” she told BusinessWest. “For some time, we were fully remote. Over time, we went with a more flexible work arrangement. So the average employee works three days in and two days out. There are some with a little more flexibility based on what kind of job it is.”

While some employees prefer to come in five days a week, and do so, McGovern added, for most of them — those who don’t deal face to face with the public, anyway — working remotely at least part of the time is a valued part of their job. “I don’t see how we can be competitive without that. I know different institutions that have lost staff when they requested people come in five days.

“So we’ll continue to do a hybrid approach,” she went on. “It seems to be working. The staff seems to be happy. We don’t see that changing — in the foreseeable future, anyway.”

 

Making a Difference

McGovern also doesn’t want to change a culture at Country Bank that she feels benefits both employees and customers.

“It’s hard to be a differentiator when all banks sell the same products, but I feel we are different,” she said. “Our people are spending a lot of their life doing something they like in an institution they like with peers they like. And we’re trying to keep that culture going.”

The challenge, she said, is understanding that employees want and appreciate hybrid work schedules, while maintaining a positive office culture whether they’re in the office or not.

“It’s a fine line managing both aspects,” she said. “But I think we’ve got a good thing going, and hopefully I can keep it going into the future.”

Restaurants Special Coverage

Good Vibrations

Andrea and Tim Monson

Andrea and Tim Monson, owners of Monsoon Roastery, are two of the original partners who brought the Urban Food Brood to life.

Almost a decade ago, Tim and Andrea Monson started a small business roasting and selling coffee, which grew to the point where they opened a retail and operating space on Albany Street in Springfield in 2019.

Not long after, the owners of Monsoon Roastery began talking to the owners of two other small businesses — Nosh, a downtown Springfield eatery, and Urban Artisan Farm, which specializes in hydroponic food production — about a concept that has now become one of the city’s most unique food-centric success stories.

“It started after COVID when small businesses were struggling to survive,” Andrea said. “We already did business with Nosh — we would carry her food products, and then they would carry our coffee. So that kind of social capital started very early on. We actually did that with a lot of small businesses. So we started to think … what if we were a small business corporation — a bunch of us kind of fighting together?”

That’s how the Monsons, Nosh owner Teri Skinner, and Urban Artisan Farm owner Jack Wysocki launched their concept, envisioning a place where small businesses could support each other in a shared space with a common kitchen and other amenities, and people could come stop by for lunch or a coffee and bring home some fresh produce, meat, or other items.

“We started to think … what if we were a small business corporation — a bunch of us kind of fighting together?”

“It took us three years to get financing and to get organized,” Monson explained. “This was an office building. So we had to transform it into food-manufacturing collaborative, which cost a lot of money. In the middle of COVID, there were a lot of shortages, a lot of delays. But we kept fighting for this dream and investing our own funds and sacrificing a lot of time and a lot of sweat equity, and it finally came together in July of last year.”

Skinner recalls collaborating with the other founders on ideas, looking into grant funding to turn the building on Albany Street — a stretch of road known as Gasoline Alley, due to the giant fuel tanks that line it — into a collaborative workspace that eventually became known as the Urban Food Brood.

“The three of us sort of came together, wanting to expand our businesses,” she said, adding that the project ran into a lot of infrastructure and renovation issues that weren’t expected, and cost more money than expected. “But now it’s flourishing,” she added.

Nosh is actually the latest — and largest — operation to move into the space, which, along with Monsoon and Urban Artisan Farm, also includes Corsello Butcheria, Happy Man Freeze Dried, Wicked Whisk, and Rocka Docka Foods.

Vincent Corsello

Vincent Corsello says the Urban Food Brood offers fresh options amid a food desert.

“Happy Man had a certified home kitchen, but he was expanding tremendously. He needed a kitchen, so he ended up taking a room here,” Skinner said. “Wicked Whisk acquired a food truck, but she also needed a commercial kitchen so she could produce her products, as she was growing as well.”

Vincent Corsello, who runs Corsello Bucheria, an Easthampton business that has expanded into the Urban Food Brood, said he took part in a pig roast on Albany Street a few years ago and was struck by the uniqueness of the setup.

“This place is magic. There’s such a vibe here,” he remembered thinking. “So I started coming — I don’t know to what end, exactly, but they were open to a collaboration. They got a grant to do a community kitchen, and I said, ‘can I be a part of it?’ And they said ‘yes.’ And then we went from there.”

 

Creating a Vibe

The building, with its community spirit and that creative vibe — the walls are lined with works from local artists, which are displayed on a rotating basis and available for sale — is a stark contrast to its surroundings, Corsello said.

“It’s in the middle of a brownfield, essentially. They call it Gasoline Alley for a reason; we’re surrounded by a million gallons of gasoline.

“I have a big window, and I did a brick facade outside the bakery so you can look through the window and see the bakers cooking.”

“But it’s easy to get to, and there’s plenty of parking, so it’s a good location,” he was quick to add. “And the vibe really attracted me to this this campus; it’s like a modern-day boys’ club, only it includes all different types of people.”

Indeed, Monson noted that she’s seen people of different backgrounds, experiences, and even religious persuasions enjoying the welcoming vibe of the space together.

“We have students, we have professionals, we have the police, we have the firefighters, we have EMTs, social workers, teachers … we have so many different people that come in here to enjoy the food or the coffee or the environment. Everybody’s here.

“The one thing I hear over and over again — unfortunately — is, ‘wow, I can’t believe this is in Springfield,’” she went on. “I both love and hate that. As a Springfield resident, a Springfield business owner, someone who grew up in Springfield, I feel like Springfield always gets the short end of the stick. There’s a lot of negative perception about Springfield. And we’re trying to disprove that. We’re saying, ‘hey, look, we built this thing, and people are coming.’

“I’ve heard, ‘this feels like I stepped into Northampton,’ which is, I guess, a compliment. But we’re not Northampton; we’re Springfield.”

Teri Skinner

Teri Skinner, seen here at her downtown Nosh location, is the most recent of the original Urban Food Brood partners to move to Gasoline Alley; she will continue to operate at both sites.

Corsello said the uniqueness extends to the business model, with the various tenants sharing one register, and the businesses sharing their products.

“So when I make sandwiches, I use Teri’s bread, and I use Jack’s vegetables. We use each other’s products to create. So you not only have an opportunity to get something for yourself, but if you like what you taste, you can buy any of those components here at the market. Plus, a lot of Springfield is kind of a food desert, and we’re small businesses offering locally created food products.”

He said patrons appreciate being able to eat or drink something on site, then bring something home to prepare.

“Anybody can come in here and get a cup of coffee, they can shop, they can get some vegetables, they can get some meat, they can get something freeze-dried. For us, it’s a model that doesn’t come without its challenges, and we’re still figuring some of that stuff out, but it’s very unique. People like a one-stop shop.”

Skinner, whose downtown Nosh location has long had an artistic, funky décor, appreciates the way the Urban Food Brood prioritizes art as well.

“People come here, and they’ll pick up some sausage and go, ‘you know, let me get a kombucha, let me get some mushrooms, let me get some spinach.’ And you go home, and you have all of this really good product that’s manufactured here in Springfield.”

“We have lots of artists that come in and display their work on a monthly basis, and then people can purchase their artwork. They’re in a rotation; if the art is there for too long, it seems like it’s just part of the décor. So it moves in and out, and there are some super talented artists that provide works for us.”

Monson said many artists have sold works in the space, or even gotten commissions based on their displays. “So it’s very cool that we can provide that.”

Skinner appreciates other elements of the Urban Food Brood vibe, like how it feels like the center of a town, only indoors and on a smaller scale, with each of the businesses acting as a storefront of sorts.

“I’m super happy with how it all came out,” she said. “I have a big window, and I did a brick facade outside the bakery so you can look through the window and see the bakers cooking. Vincent has the same idea; so do the others. That’s kind of neat.”

The complex, which is open Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., also hosts regular events, such as food truck Fridays and Thursday farmers markets from 4 to 8 p.m., which have already begun for this season.

“It’s early in the season for farmers markets, but hopefully, as the season progresses, we’ll have more and more items. We’re also going to try to do music,” Skinner said.

A sign outside the Urban Food Brood

A sign outside the Urban Food Brood lists the businesses currently operating there.

“The thing that’s great about the nighttime market is that all of our downtown Springfield markets have always been during the day, when people are at work. What are they going to do with their products after they’ve purchased them? Are they going to put them in the car or bring them back to the office? So this is kind of nice. People can just stop on their way home.”

 

Fueling Growth

Andrea Monson said the partners in the Urban Food Brood have been pleased with the organic growth of the Gasoline Alley complex.

“We don’t actively market; we rely on word of mouth,” she told BusinessWest. “And I have to say that the people who come here are very cool. They’re great customers. They’re great to my staff, they’re great to all of us, and they’re very supportive. They tell people who tell people who tell people, and now we have this amazing group of people that come here to support us.

“The cool thing is, we all have our own following. Wicked Whisk has their own following. Nosh has their own following. People come here, and they’ll pick up some sausage and go, ‘you know, let me get a kombucha, let me get some mushrooms, let me get some spinach.’ And you go home, and you have all of this really good product that’s manufactured here in Springfield.”

And it’s not just people from the city, Corsello said. Urban Food Brood has been drawing from all the surrounding towns, steadily developing a reputation … not as something vaguely Northampton-ish, but something uniquely and vibrantly Springfield.

“We’re really excited about it,” he said. “It’s only the beginning.”

Features Special Coverage

Beyond the Forecast

Dave Hayes

Dave Hayes

Like many New Englanders, Dave Hayes remembers the significant weather events of his childhood, like the Mother’s Day snowstorm that struck the region in 1977, dropping a foot of snow on parts of Massachusetts, and the Blizzard of 1978 that crippled much of Southern New England the following February.

But he also remembers something else weather-related from his youth: watching a Boston-area forecast, intrigued by the bright colors of the radar display, and then almost immediately watching the skies outside his living room grow dark, and a storm suddenly arise.

“Five minutes later, what was on the radar was overhead, and something lit up inside of me. I became obsessed with the weather,” he said — to the point where he’d flip between local TV forecasts to compare them. “I found I gravitated toward the meteorologist who explained why the weather is doing what it’s doing, rather than just what it’s doing.”

Hayes never lost that obsession with the weather, and it led to an unlikely, donation-funded career as Dave Hayes the Weather Nut, through which he posts and discusses the day’s current weather and upcoming forecast on social media, as his myriad followers converse about it all in the comments.

And there are a lot of followers — more than 57,000 on Facebook, in fact, and 6,600 on Twitter.

But while Hayes is widely known on Facebook today, early in 2011, he had become disenchanted with the site and deactivated his account.

“I didn’t get it yet. I didn’t understand virality and sharing with people and the idea that this might possibly be useful in some way.”

However, when a tornado struck Springfield and a host of other communities on June 1 of that year, he heard talk of his friends chattering online about what he thought about the destructive event. So he eventually logged back on and started talking more often about weather events. When an acquaintance complained that he was doing too much of that, Hayes decided to create a page separate from his personal account, called Dave Hayes the Weather Nut, where friends — or anyone else — could follow him if they wanted to.

And what a year that was for weather in Western Mass. — 2011 featured not only the tornado, but Hurricane Irene in August, the freak pre-Halloween snowstorm that felled countless trees, and a few other events. His reports about a big snowstorm early in 2012 had about 200 people taking part in the conversation, and his reports on Hurricane Sandy that summer — which seemed to be threatening New England before turning toward New Jersey — tripled that, to 600.

“People wanted to know what was going on,” he said. “I didn’t get it yet. I didn’t understand virality and sharing with people and the idea that this might possibly be useful in some way — a hub for weather that’s interesting. But I kept doing it.”

Dave Hayes collects raw data from numerous sources and uses it to craft his daily reports.

Dave Hayes collects raw data from numerous sources and uses it to craft his daily reports.

A blizzard in February 2013 saw Hayes’s audience crest to more than 1,000 people. “People said how helpful my work was to them. And as someone who hadn’t really launched in life yet, I wanted to be helpful to people. So that lit a fire inside of me, and I said, ‘I’m going to do this daily. This is something that people find useful.’”

When he began daily reports, which continue today, the audience doubled to 2,000, then swelled above 10,000 early in 2014, during a colder and snowier winter than any Western Mass. has seen since. Around the same time, he was laid off from a sales job when his company downsized due to the lingering effects of the Great Recession.

“Without a job, looking for work, not finding anything, I went deeper into weather reporting,” he said, and began attracting the attention of public radio, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and other media — and wondering if this could actually become a career.

 

Weather or Not

Indeed, when the page was taking off in 2014, Hayes’s father and others in his life started asking him seriously if he could make a living at this, he recalled. “I said I didn’t know. I hadn’t even thought of it. I was just doing something I love.”

But around that time, crowdfunding was becoming more popular, so he threw up a GoFundMe link.

“Without a job, looking for work, not finding anything, I went deeper into weather reporting.”

“I figured, if people want to support my work financially, they’ll do it. If they think it has value, they’ll kick me a few bucks. I linked to it during big storms, and during 2015, I produced a crowdfunded support drive, about four or five weeks, talking about different aspects of what I was doing. I was teaching myself as I went along. It was a very unorthodox way of making a living.”

But Hayes did, in fact, begin generating steady income through donations, and while he still does some paralegal work on the side, Dave Hayes the Weather Nut is, in fact, his living now. He compares the model to Patreon, a popular site through which people can directly support artists producing content.

“It’s very unorthodox, how my life has played out,” he added. “You never know what’s going to happen until you work on something and ask for assistance.”

In creating daily content, Hayes gets his own assistance from multiple sources, gathering data and modeling from the National Weather Service, other meteorologists, and personal weather stations, then creates his own forecasts and analysis that people from across Massachusetts and parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have come to rely on.

“I’m not a meteorologist,” he said. “I pay for subscriptions, and I get forecast discussions and other data from meteorologists in the Northeast region I’ve come to rely on and trust. I take all that information and use my own process to produce my reports.”

Dave Hayes says winter storm trends can be slow-moving

Dave Hayes says winter storm trends can be slow-moving, while severe summer weather can emerge with little warning.

The next phase for Hayes will be a mobile app, which he plans to introduce in 2025, and which will replace the social-media presence.

“Three out of four people look at my info from their smartphone, so I figured I need to have a way to reach people more directly, especially during the summer severe events,” he explained. “Winter storms develop more slowly. You see them building across the country over three or four days. But thunderstorms, microbursts, and tornadoes can form within five, 10, or 15 minutes.”

He plans to offer both free and paid versions of the app with different features, and will definitely retain the all-important interactive aspect, with users able to comment. After all, that may be the most compelling and popular aspect of his passion turned unlikely career.

“The way we watch the forecast has traditionally been on TV; you consume the forecast, and that’s it. There’s no conversation about it,” Hayes explained. “What I’ve tried to create with social media is a two-way street where we can go back and forth and answer as many questions as we can.”

It essentially adds another dimension to weather reports, one he’s been delighted to find so many people are passionate about.

“The way we watch the forecast has traditionally been on TV; you consume the forecast, and that’s it. There’s no conversation about it. What I’ve tried to create with social media is a two-way street where we can go back and forth and answer as many questions as we can.”

“People are talking to each other — ‘I got this much snow in Belchertown.’ ‘Oh, I got this much down in Palmer.’ It’s a whole community vibe around something that we all have to deal with. Everyone has unique lives, but we all have to deal with the weather. So by fostering this community, we can all talk about what’s impacting all of us.”

It also lends an element of “ground truth” in real time, he added. Because a temperature difference of a degree or two can turn rain into snow quickly, not only can he quickly adjust a report based on comments, but a weather forecast becomes not a static report, frozen in time, but a living, evolving thing.

 

Seeing the Light

Speaking of evolving, Hayes has taken note of the trend toward warmer, wetter winters over the past decade, as well as more flooding events. But he says he’s not a climatologist and continues to focus on his bread and butter — forecasting, reporting, and talking about each day’s weather with a growing fanbase in the tens of thousands.

Even “space weather,” as he put it, got plenty of attention recently, as followers snapped, shared, and commented on photos of the aurora borealis making a rare appearance across the U.S. on May 10. With the solar maximum not having hit its peak yet, such a shared experience might happen again within the next year or so.

“It was beautiful and otherworldly; humans think they’re amazing, and it really puts things into perspective, shows how small we are,” Hayes told BusinessWest. “But you don’t want too many solar storms. The Carrington Event in 1859 fried the entire telegraph system. One hundred and sixty-five years later, we’re a lot more reliant on the power grid for a lot of things. So while the aurora is fun to see, I don’t want to see it too often.”

Education Special Coverage

A Bold Step Forward

Bay Path University President Sandy Doran

Bay Path University President Sandy Doran

 

As she talked about how Bay Path University’s acquisition of Cambridge College came about — and, more importantly, why — Sandy Doran, Bay Path’s president, turned the clock back almost a year to when the university undertook a ‘strengths and opportunities’ analysis to understand where its growth opportunities might lie.

This led to creation of a cross-disciplinary leadership task force to conduct an analysis of strategic growth opportunities, building on the things the school does well while also focusing on ways to amplify those traits.

This task force eventually identified five opportunities for growth — everything from graduate programs to business-to-business corporate sponsorships; from expansion of its online American Women’s College to growth in enrollment among Latino populations.

As it considered these opportunities and how to seize them, Doran said Bay Path, its leadership, and its board could “do some things around the edges” with all or several of them, as she put it, or “do something bold and think about our future in a transformational way.”

Given Bay Path’s recent history — one that has seen it achieve dramatic growth and rise from a two-year college to a four-year university with a growing slate of degree options and national recognition in fields like cybersecurity — the latter course was essentially a given, said Doran, now in her fifth year as president of the college, adding quickly that the question became what this bold move would be.

“Outside of Puerto Rico and New York City, Western Massachusetts has the largest Hispanic population in the United States. We knew that, in order to meet the needs of that population, we needed to grow our student services, we knew we needed additional support, and we identified it as a potential growth opportunity.”

As different opportunities were considered, the answer became an acquisition of Cambridge College, a Boston-based, private, nonprofit institution established in 1971, a move that should enable Bay Path to double its overall enrollment; gain a presence in other markets, including Boston and Puerto Rico, which Cambridge as a campus; and, overall, achieve growth in all those areas identified by the task force.

This includes enrollment among Hispanic populations, she said, noting that this is one of the fastest-growing constituencies in this region.

“Outside of Puerto Rico and New York City, Western Massachusetts has the largest Hispanic population in the United States,” Doran told BusinessWest. “We knew that, in order to meet the needs of that population, we needed to grow our student services, we knew we needed additional support, and we identified it as a potential growth opportunity.

“We wanted a partner that had experience serving this Hispanic market,” she went on, adding that Cambridge College, which is a designated Hispanic-serving institution, has this experience, among many other qualities.

Indeed, overall, Bay Path and Cambridge share a number of other strengths — everything from online programs (locally, Cambridge, which had a location in Springfield’s Tower Square, now offers programs only online) to meeting the needs of first-generation college students, said Doran, adding that the schools also share missions and values.

Longmeadow campus

Much of Bay Path’s growth is taking place beyond the borders of its Longmeadow campus.

“Those cultural aspects — of serving the same student populations, of thinking about our values and joining together with another organization and making sure that their values were compatible and strengthened ours — are key; we just knew that, without that shared mission, those shared values, we wouldn’t be able to move forward,” she said, adding that this merger represents the latest in a series of bold moves for Bay Path.

The ones to come before have taken it to levels that might not have been imagined 25 years ago. This latest one will build on those efforts and take the university to different places — quite literally, in the case of Puerto Rico and the Boston market — and figuratively when it comes to needed size and higher status among the region’s and country’s higher-ed institutions.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this intriguing merger — how it came about and what it means for Bay Path as it continues its recent history of taking bold steps.

 

Course of Action

Sounding much like area bank presidents, which have been harping on the need for size in a changing financial-services environment for years now, Doran said growth is perhaps more important than ever for institutions of higher education.

Given the spiraling costs of doing business and the many challenges facing colleges and universities, including demographics in the form of smaller high-school graduating classes, growth in overall enrollment is critical.

“To be a financially sustainable institution, it’s important to have 5,000 students or more,” she said, adding that Bay Path now surpasses that number. “Five thousand students gives you the resources, it gives you the financial strength, the revenue streams — all those things that are essential to a sustainable institution.”

And, as in the banking industry, there are different ways to achieve growth in higher education. One method is organic growth, through everything from more aggressive marketing to creation of new degree programs, especially at the graduate level, a course taken by many schools locally, including Bay Path.

But there are also opportunities to partner with other schools and, increasingly, to acquire them, especially as more struggle with enrollment, face uncertain futures, and, in some cases, even close their doors.

Doran said Bay Path has been looking at many growth strategies, including acquisition, and had looked at several different institutions.

“We talked to some colleges in the Southeast, we talked to some in the Southwest, we talked to some in the middle of the country, and ultimately, we were very fortunate to find a partner here in Massachusetts,” she said, adding that Cambridge College emerged as the option that made the most sense, for many reasons, especially those shared traits and values, as well as areas of focus — particularly online programs and service to Hispanic students — that would provide Bay Path with avenues for growth. “They had so much of what we were looking for in a partnership. What they have to offer lines up beautifully with what we were looking for.”

Doran said she didn’t know if Cambridge was looking to be acquired, but did know that it was looking to partner, as many schools are in these challenging times. Elaborating, she said Cambridge certainly suffered during the pandemic — again, as many schools did — but coming out of COVID, its enrollment has been increasing over the past few years, with much of that growth coming in online programs.

“It’s not a just a checklist of how you communicate with students and families whose first language is Spanish. Are we offering all the right supports? Do we understand the cultural nuances of how to serve the Hispanic market, which is very much growing in Western Mass.?”

And while talks with other potential acquisition candidates progressed to different degrees, Bay Path eventually crossed the finish line with Cambridge College because the ‘fit’ — the word you hear so often in these transactions — was right for both sides, and especially Bay Path.

“It’s one thing to read about mission and culture and values on a website and talk about it with people inside an organization,” Doran said. “But it’s really when the boards sit down, the leaders sit down, and you have a chance to meet with students that you get a true picture. I had the chance to meet with students at Cambridge College, and that is really what convinced me, the board, and others that this is really the right fit.

“And that’s because their students are our students,” she went on. “Half are students of color, half are first-generation students, 60% of their students are in graduate programs, and 60% are online.”

 

Class Acts

Getting back to the growth-strategy exercises of a year ago and the establishment of a matrix to determine whether a potential partner might be right for Bay Path, Doran said several necessary common threads were identified, with shared mission and values being just one.

Others include everything from a strong culture of innovation to an opportunity to “expand our reach,” as she put it; from a commitment to workforce development to strong business-to-business partnerships.

When it comes to expanding reach, this is a broad term that covers considerable ground, said Doran, encompassing everything from expansion into new geographic regions to reaching new populations to expansion of online and graduate programs.

Merging with Cambridge College allows the university to do all of that, she said, adding that the acquisition brings with it a number of huge growth opportunities.

As one example, she returned to the Hispanic population and Bay Path’s desire to better serve — and, yes, capture more of — that market, explaining why this acquisition makes sense for the institution.

“We have here a limited experience in terms of fully serving the Hispanic market,” she explained. “We’ve developed some student supports; we’ve given them some academic supports. If you peruse our website, you’ll see that many of our web pages are now in Spanish, so we can speak directly to students whose native language is Spanish and to their parents.

“But we knew that we didn’t know enough because there’s a huge cultural component,” she went on. “It’s not a just a checklist of how you communicate with students and families whose first language is Spanish. Are we offering all the right supports? Do we understand the cultural nuances of how to serve the Hispanic market, which is very much growing in Western Mass.?

“We really wanted to reach into that marketplace because we knew how important it was for Western Mass., and for the nation, for that matter,” she continued. “This is the fastest-growing population in the country, and as an institution, our job, our mission, is to serve those students with equally robust and dedicated resources.

There are other benefits to be gained from this acquisition, obviously, said Doran, who listed Cambridge College’s portfolio of graduate programs as another of them.

Elaborating, she explained that developing new graduate programs and bringing them to market is a costly, very involved process that can take years, when time is a luxury few institutions have.

“To bring a new program to market can take two to five years,” she explained. “So the opportunity to grow graduate programs by acquiring another college was absolutely essential to what we were thinking about, and with Cambridge, we’re acquiring about 30 new graduate programs.

“So if you think about it, even taking two years to bring a program to market, it would have taken 60 years,” she went on. “That’s a long time, even for me.”

 

Grade Expectations

Doran said full integration of Cambridge College into Bay Path will take 18 to 24 months, and over that time, several issues will be settled, including whether — and in what ways — the Cambridge College name will live on.

That name has some value in various markets, she said, adding that she hopes the brand lives on in some form.

Meanwhile, she’s more certain about other aspects of this acquisition, especially the part about it being a bold, decisive step at a time when such actions are required of higher-ed institutions looking to fully emerge from the challenging pandemic and post-pandemic periods in a position to not merely survive, but grow and thrive.

“I will credit our board with being such strong partners,” he said. “They’ve always been bold, they’ve always been strategic — we were the first in the region to have online education — and that kind of support is very critical.”

And it’s yet another example of how a school with a rich past is focused, as Doran put it, on thinking about the future in a transformational way.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

The Next Chapter

Brendan Greeley, president of the R.G. Greeley Co.

Brendan Greeley, president of the R.G. Greeley Co.

Growing up, Brendan Greeley never thought much about going to work for his father at the commercial real-estate firm he started the same year Brendan was born — the R.J. Greeley Co.

But as his undergraduate work was wrapping up at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, his father, Robert Greeley, asked him to start thinking about it.

And there was a lot to think about. Brendan didn’t really know much about this business, or business in general, and his college work didn’t exactly prepare him for that industry.

“I was a sociology and anthropology major with a minor in religion,” he said. “I was a singer in a band … and I never really thought much about my career.”

After telling his father he’d think about his invitation, Brendan sought the advice of one of his uncles, who told him, among other things, that commercial real estate was a good business for meeting … well, all kinds of people in many different businesses, exposure that could lead to different types of career opportunities.

“He said, ‘at the very least, you can go work for your dad for a little while, get a snapshot into different kinds of businesses, and see what you like,’” he recalled, adding that he went to work for his father for more than a little while, and eventually determined that commercial real estate was something he liked.

Fast-forwarding a little (we’ll go back and fill in some details later), Brendan learned a lot from his father, gradually assumed more responsibilities for running the business, and eventually became its president in 2017. After what he described as a somewhat difficult transition process, he bought his father out in 2019 and steered the company through the difficult COVID years and their aftermath.

Now, just over a year after his father passed away at age 73, the younger Greeley is writing new chapters in the history of the 43-year-old company. The firm is smaller now, with a staff of just two, but “doing more with less,” as he put it.

He is continuing to build on the portfolio of properties the firm handles, which is anchored by the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College in a collection of buildings that were once part of the Springfield Armory and later home to a massive Digital Equipment Corp. operation.

“My father always impressed upon me, from the beginning, that you have to go out and establish your network, the people you’re going to be doing business with — the people, as my father used to say, that you’re going to be in the trenches with.”

The Tech Park, as it’s called, has been around about as long as Brendan Greeley has been with the family business (which calls the park home itself), and it has been a career-long focal point and passion, he said, adding that the company has successfully filled most of the space vacated by a Liberty Mutual call center and continues to work to fill remaining vacancies in the sprawling complex.

“We had a great year last year — we brought on the Department of Developmental Services with a lease for just under 30,000 square feet for 10 years,” he said, adding that the state agency and other signed tenants now fill most of the 55,000 square feet once occupied by Liberty Mutual.

Meanwhile, the R.J Greeley Co. continues to respond to changes and trends within the market — everything from growing inventories on the office side of the ledger (a byproduct of remote work and hybrid schedules at businesses in virtually every sector) to an extreme tightening of the industrial and distribution markets, a byproduct of rising interest rates that have produced an environment in which it is far more advantageous to buy or lease than build new.

Technology Park at STCC

Brendan Greeley continues to build on his firm’s portfolio of properties, which is anchored by the Technology Park at STCC.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Greeley about the market and what the future might bring, and about what might come next for the company that was started by his father and still bears his initials, but is now being steered by his youngest child.

 

Right Place and Time

As he talked about his time with the company, and especially about life in a family business, Greeley spoke for everyone who has ever had that experience when he said, “it’s not all rainbows and sunshine, that’s for sure.”

Elaborating, he described his father as a great real-estate broker, teacher, and mentor — “I wish I had his ability to mentor people and bring them along” — but not the easiest person to work with or for, and someone who didn’t think much about succession planning, didn’t really want to think about it, and did so only when the matter was pressed.

Indeed, when asked when his father first started talking to him about succession planning, Greeley laughed and said, “never.”

“That was a painful process,” he recalled. “Succession planning was really hard for him. He never really thought about wanting to retire, it seems, and he was pretty reluctant to think about it.”

So much so that Greeley admitted to thinking about perhaps doing something else because of that reluctance.

“I had to impose some timelines to move things along,” he went on. Eventually, a successful transition was achieved, made easier by some very strong years leading to that changing of hands, punctuated by the brokered sale of the former Westinghouse property to one of the players trying to bring a casino to Springfield.

Flashing back further, Greeley recalled that, as he entered the business, he certainly learned a lot from his father, especially when it came to the all-important work of getting in front of people building and maintaining relationships — duties that he referred to collectively as the “grunt work.”

“Those first few years, I was going out and getting to know people,” he told BusinessWest. “My father always impressed upon me, from the beginning, that you have to go out and establish your network, the people you’re going to be doing business with — the people, as my father used to say, that you’re going to be in the trenches with.

“So the first few years were filled with inserting myself into circles of attorneys, accountants, bankers, insurance people — those we work with often — and just making friends with them and creating a network,” he went on.

“There was a lot of driving around, pulling up to businesses, knocking on doors and saying, ‘I’m Brendan Greeley with the R.J. Greeley Co. — I just want to let you know that we’re out there and that, if there’s anything you need with commercial real estate, give us a call.’ There was a lot of going to lunches, playing in golf tournaments, and just … being out there.”

This grunt work has certainly paid off over the years, as the Greeley company has continued its run of success, even during times of stress and duress for the commercial real-estate industry, which is still coping with many lingering effects from the pandemic.

“When I came into the business, a manufacturing building was $50 a square foot, and now, it’s commonly $100 a square foot or more. To build new would be $200 a square foot.”

Foremost among those is the sea change in the office market, which has definitely slowed since the pandemic and has seen vacancies increase as remote work impacts whether companies will renew leases, as well as how much space they take if they do renew.

“Firms are creating opportunities for people to work at home, and that has certainly created some shifts in the office market,” he said. “We have some big chunks of office space that are available or coming available; as leases expire, people are renewing for less space, and that adds up to more inventory.”

This shift is certainly countered by a tightening on the industrial and distribution side of the ledger, where fewer properties are coming on the market and those frequented by ‘for sale’ or ‘for lease’ signs are not on the market for long, and for obvious reasons.

“There are far fewer construction projects taking place in this market because of higher interest rates, and this obviously helps with the value of existing inventory,” Greeley said, citing the laws of supply and demand. “The alternative is to build new, and building new is going to be very expensive.

“When I came into the business, a manufacturing building was $50 a square foot, and now, it’s commonly $100 a square foot or more,” he went on. “To build new would be $200 a square foot.”

As for the value of commercial properties — a huge issue in most major markets and communities of all sizes in the wake of COVID — Greeley said that, by and large, most properties in the region are holding their value, but this ability is being sternly tested by rising interest rates.

“Someone can afford to pay less for an investment property if they’re financing some portion of the transaction,” he explained. “So I would say that investment real estate has deflated some, although the quality inventory seems to be holding value better than the lesser-quality inventory.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead, Greeley said his company will continue to do more with less in terms of office staff, but continue to look for growth opportunities.

This could include hiring an additional broker or perhaps more, he said, adding that he is always looking for good fits. Meanwhile, the firm is looking at opportunities on the property-management side of the ledger and on the development side as well.

“I have an open mind for opportunities that may present themselves in the future,” he said. “I’m always looking at ways to grow.”

Not bad for someone who never gave much thought to working at the family business growing up — and is now the owner of the family business.

Special Coverage Technology

Inside the IT Academy

Academy’s Pathway to Cybersecurity program at STCC.

April Bellafiore teaches the IT Academy’s Pathway to Cybersecurity program at STCC.

The IT Academy at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) is a “life changer” for Juan Burgos.

Echoing comments from other students enrolled in the IT Academy at STCC, Burgos said he’s excited to be working toward certifications that are tickets to good-paying jobs in the cybersecurity industry. Students in the first cohort, held this spring, are enrolled for free, supported by a grant.

“This opportunity came up, and I jumped on it,” Burgos said one Wednesday afternoon at STCC, where he was seated in a classroom with the other students. “This is a life changer. This is going to change everything.”

Launched on March 12, the IT Academy’s Pathway to Cybersecurity program at STCC supports non-traditional students who are new to information technology (IT) and computer technology. They are learning skills that set them up for entry-level IT careers. Students also have the option of moving into the two-year Cybersecurity program, which can lead to an associate degree.

The comprehensive curriculum combines theoretical knowledge with practical, hands-on experience. The program includes a part-time option running classes three evenings a week for nine months. A summer and winter boot camp will be offered that runs for 10 weeks (full-time day program), which allows students to attend classes five days a week.

Eventually, students who follow the cybersecurity track will use the Richard E. Neal Cybersecurity Center of Excellence in Springfield, scheduled to open later this year. The facility will serve as a dynamic hub for advancing cybersecurity awareness, education, innovation, and battling global security threats.

“This opportunity came up, and I jumped on it. This is a life changer. This is going to change everything.”

The 6,000-square-foot facility will include a cyber range, which is a simulated training environment, and security operations center, which is envisioned as a support service for Massachusetts municipalities, as well as regional businesses, to detect cybersecurity events in real time and respond quickly.

STCC offers a number of training opportunities through its Workforce Development division, from a free program that prepares students to be paraeducators in Springfield to the Hampden Prep program, which provides basic computer skill training.

“We are excited to offer a wide range of training programs that help non-traditional students pursue their dream careers,” said Gladys Franco, assistant vice president of Workforce Development at STCC. “Our goal is to make it easier for people looking to get started in a career. We’re particularly excited about the IT Academy, which provides a pathway to build a career in IT and cybersecurity. It’s a growing field with many opportunities.”

 

Immersive Education

Students in the Pathway to Cybersecurity program are learning in person in a classroom taught by April Bellafiore, Cruz Antonio Pagan, and Andrew Collins, a professor for the Cybersecurity program at STCC.

Students also participate in interactive computer training labs focused on obtaining CompTIA certifications, which are industry standards that IT professionals can use to demonstrate their knowledge and skills to potential employers.

The training is “beginner-friendly,” Bellafiore said. The course provides students with skills to be successful in the Cybersecurity program and in the workforce.

Students enrolled in the course come from a variety of backgrounds. Shelby Kiendzior graduated from STCC with a degree in dental hygiene and worked in the field, but plans on changing her career.

“We are excited to offer a wide range of training programs that help non-traditional students pursue their dream careers.”

“I will be getting four certifications in different IT-related courses,” Kiendzior said. “This course will set me up for where I want to go in IT or tech.”

Luz Padilla, who hails from Puerto Rico, called the IT Academy “the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

She added, “I love computers. I love troubleshooting, and I would like to work in homeland security someday. The class is amazing. The teacher’s great. I got a lot of encouragement from everybody here, especially Miss April.”

She was referring to Bellafiore, an instructor who has taught in-person and online courses for more than 20 years.

“I am excited to work with the IT Academy students to prepare them for a dynamic and exciting industry,” Bellafiore said. “We also encourage students to continue their education and apply for the STCC Cybersecurity two-year degree program. In today’s digital age, every industry relies on IT expertise. It’s a growing field with many rewarding and diverse job opportunities.”

Law

Gainful Employment

By Abby M. Warren, Esq. and Virginia E. McGarrity, Esq.

 

Whether you are picking up a well-respected periodical or a celebrity newsmagazine, you cannot avoid reading about semaglutide injection drugs — drugs used to control blood-sugar levels for individuals with type-2 diabetes and weight loss.

‘Ubiquitous’ is the only word to describe the news coverage of these ‘miracle medications.’ As news has spread about these medications, their use has expanded far outside of Hollywood to individuals across the country, ultimately leading to a reported shortage. So, what impact, if any, does weight, weight loss, or the spread of such medications have on the workplace?

 

Weighty Considerations

First, studies have long concluded that discrimination based on appearance, including weight, occurs in employment and other areas of life and that it may disproportionally impact a specific group or groups of individuals. Likely in response to such evidence, effective Nov. 26, 2023, New York City passed a law protecting individuals who live in, work in, or visit the city from discrimination based on their height or weight regarding employment, housing, and public accommodations.

While New York City may be an early adopter of such a law, there may be more jurisdictions that follow this trend. Further, on the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long taken the position that height and weight are generally unacceptable pre-employment inquiries as they may disproportionately impact employees of different protected characteristics. In short, weight has always impacted the workplace, including workplace decisions.

Second, there may be harassment or workplace bullying related to appearance, including weight. Harassment, whether sexual or based on other protected characteristics, can involve comments or actions related to the physical body and appearance. The same is true of bullying and targeting in the workplace. In today’s climate, where millions of employees are being prescribed or taking weight-loss drugs, this may include employees asking questions of a co-worker who has lost weight, asking whether a co-worker is taking a weight-loss drug, making judgmental statements, stigmatizing such individuals, and similar behavior.

While harassment and bullying related to appearance may not be new, such treatment based on the perception that an employee may be taking a weight-loss drug could be a more recent area with which human resources must grapple.

Third, workplace culture may be impacted by the recent focus on weight and weight-loss medications, and the level of such impact may depend on several factors. For example, the employer’s geographic location, the industry, the overall focus on health and wellness in the workplace, and the employer’s commitment to inclusivity and belonging may all impact how weight and height will be viewed, including using such weight-loss medications.

In light of these workplace considerations and the attention that these weight-loss medications have received in recent months, a number of employers have opted to implement clinical lifestyle programs and personalized weight-loss management plans. The goal of these programs is to reduce the number of employees who might benefit from weight-loss medications like Wegovy.

To the extent employers have control over their healthcare coverage (fully insured plans are typically subject to state insurance laws and individual determinations made by insurance carriers), the decision of whether to cover these weight-loss medications is a challenging one. While these drugs have potential for long-term improvement in the health of employees and can drive future cost savings for the health plan, the cost of covering them today may not align with budget constraints and sustained increases in healthcare spending over the long term.

For example, the current list price of Wegovy is more than $1,300 per month, and most patients take it indefinitely to maintain their weight loss. North Carolina recently announced it would no longer cover Wegovy and other similar weight-loss medications for its employees, estimating that such continued coverage would cause premiums to double for all employees (not just those who are taking the medications). While it is difficult to determine how many private-employer health plans are covering these weight-loss medications, it does not appear that such coverage matches the rampant surge in popularity these medications have experienced in the past year.

 

Advice for Employers

At this juncture in history, where celebrities, media, and the American public are hyper-focused on weight, including weight-loss medications, what actions can employers consider?

First, it is essential to continue fostering a positive and inclusive work environment that extends to weight, height, body shape, and appearance. Trainings, policies, town halls and education, and other visible commitments to such inclusivity can all support such a culture.

Second, businesses should establish specific training of managers, supervisors, and individuals involved in recruiting and hiring about weight and height discrimination and bias (including studies that have demonstrated the existence of this bias), and how these employees can foster an inclusive work environment, and remove any relevant barriers that may exist.

Lastly, employers may wish to review their current culture, policies, and benefits to determine if the employer is supporting the health and well-being of employees and their health journeys, and whether there are potential areas of improvement.

 

Abby Warren and Virginia McGarrity are partners at Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Conn. Warren is a member of the firm’s Labor, Employment, Benefits, and Immigration Group, while McGarrity is a member of the Employee Benefits and Compensation Group.

Healthcare News

Meeting a Need

 

MiraVista Behavioral Health Center recently announced the expansion of its facilities with the opening of new adult inpatient treatment beds. These adult beds are in addition to the 16-bed adolescent unit which was recently renovated and now reopened.

The addition of these specialized beds reflects MiraVista’s ongoing commitment to meeting the growing demand for high-quality mental-healthcare services. With mental-health challenges on the rise globally, the Holyoke facility recognizes the importance of providing comprehensive and compassionate care to individuals with mental illness.

“We believe that everyone deserves access to effective treatment in a supportive environment, and these new beds will enable us to provide specialized care to more individuals in need.”

“Our decision to expand our inpatient treatment capacity underscores our dedication to serving our community and the Commonwealth and addressing the increasing need for mental-health services,” said Shelley Zimmerman, MiraVista’s hospital administrator. “We believe that everyone deserves access to effective treatment in a supportive environment, and these new beds will enable us to provide specialized care to more individuals in need.”

The new adult inpatient beds will offer a range of therapeutic interventions tailored to meet the unique needs of each patient. MiraVista’s multi-disciplinary team of experts, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and nurses, will work collaboratively to develop personalized treatment plans focused on promoting healing and recovery.

In addition to individualized therapy sessions, patients will have access to group therapy, medication management, recreational activities, educational workshops, and peer support, all designed to foster personal growth and empowerment. MiraVista’s holistic approach to treatment emphasizes wellness and resilience, empowering patients to achieve lasting positive change in their lives.

Direct admission without first being seen in an emergency department is a new process MiraVista introduced with the reopening of its adolescent unit.

 

Hope and Support

MiraVista also recognized May as Mental Health Awareness Month with a flag raising on May 9 and by illuminating its façade green.

“Green is used for the month to symbolize hope and support for individuals living with a mental illness,” said Kimberley Lee, chief of Creative Strategy and Development. “Our clinicians work across populations to help patients successfully manage their mental-health challenges and lead fulfilling lives in community.”

In conjunction with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) observance of the month, Lee explained, MiraVista will highlight on its social media the diverse mental-health needs of various populations and encourage people to wear green.

“These 31 days are about advancing better understanding of mental health as a component of overall health and the importance of seeking evidence-based treatment for it when needed,” she said. “Whether someone is navigating personal challenges or extending empathy to others, this month holds significance for us all in showing support for mental healthcare.”

Lee said MiraVista will follow SAMHSA’s suggested weekly themes in highlighting the mental-health needs of older adults, children and teens, marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+ and, as a result of bullying and discrimination, are at high risk for mental-health conditions.

“We are amplifying our efforts during May to destigmatize mental health, enhance understanding, and cultivate a supportive environment,” Lee said. “Promoting mental health and treatment for it benefits everyone — from the individual managing it to the family and friends who love them, to the community in which they live and contribute.”

Law Special Coverage

Firm Resolve

Sean Buxton was talking about why he chose to join the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson, and what he’s found since he came on board not quite a year ago.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” said Buxton, who handles general commercial litigation and is currently doing a lot of work in the firm’s new office in Greenfield, referring specifically to being around — and being mentored by — seasoned attorneys with decades of experience.

“Just in the Litigation department alone, we have Sandy Dibble — I can’t even tell you how long he’s been practicing — and Mike Burke, too; they’re such valuable asssets,” he said. “In the legal field, you get this feeling sometimes that the problem you’re coming on is something you’re seeing for the first time and that no one’s ever dealt with this before. To have someone to go to and have them say, ‘that same exact circumstance hasn’t happened to me, but here’s what my instincts say’ and ‘here’s what I’ve experienced,’ that is so valuable.

“You can bounce ideas off so many people here and make sure that your decisions are informed not only by you and what you’ve learned, but by the instincts and experience of everyone around you,” Buxton went on. “And they’re just fascinating people; we have Judge [John] Greaney here, who sat on the Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court, and Sandy as well; the stories they tell and the experiences they can relate … they’re great mentors.”

While the names of the older lawyers and mentors may have changed, and the exact words used to describe their impact may have changed as well, generations of lawyers who have worked at the firm have been saying pretty much the same things as Buxton.

“You can bounce ideas off so many people here and make sure that your decisions are informed not only by you and what you’ve learned, but by the instincts and experience of everyone around you.”

And that’s just one of many things the firm is celebrating as it marks its centennial this year in what could be described as quiet, poignant fashion (we’ll get back to that in a bit).

It’s taking place at a time of change in the business landscape, such as the rise of the cannabis industry, and at a time when many firms are smaller or have been merged into larger entities. Meanwhile, the firm’s ongoing commitment to the community has become a focal point of the centennial, said Managing Partner Dan Finnegan, who came on board in 1992.

“We wanted to celebrate all of the amazing work that has gone into supporting, celebrating, and engaging in the communities in which we live, work, and play through initiatives such as helping to feed the hungry and addressing food insecurity, supporting arts and culture, contributing funds to lifesaving healthcare and research organizations, and providing pro bono legal services to those in need, among many, many others,” he explained. “Members of the firm have contributed time, resources, and finances to help so many worthy causes over the past century, and we plan to continue that legacy.”

Dan Finnegan

Dan Finnegan says the firm’s commitment to the community has become a focal point of its centennial celebration.

Elaborating, he said the firm has launched a new campaign called ‘Be the Change.’ It will connect lawyers and staff with opportunities to engage with organizations in Western Mass. and beyond so they can act together to bring positive change.

The campaign was launched last fall, with a team of 50 from the firm taking part in the annual Rays of Hope breast-cancer walk. Other specific initiatives include a YMCA clean-up day on May 3, when attorneys and staff rolled up their sleeves and helped prepare Stony Brook Acres, a YMCA camp in Wilbraham, for a June opening; partnering with Greater Springfield YMCA to assist area boys and girls attend summer camp (the firm will send 16 youth campers to a YMCA-run camp this summer for one week); and a $10,000 donation to Baystate Health to purchase infusion chairs.

“Giving back to the community is one of the core values that differentiates us,” said Peter Barry, who joined the firm in 1982 and preceded Finnegan as managing partner, adding that this is one of many qualities and traditions that essentially go back to 1924.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest takes a look at 100 years of tradition, expansion, innovation, entrepreneurship, and giving back — and at how these traits will continue to define the firm moving forward.

 

Making Their Case

When asked how Bulkley Richardson intends to celebrate its centennial — beyond ‘Be the Change’ — Finnegan suggested that the annual holiday party “might be a little more robust this year.”

In most respects, though, it will be business as usual.

And it has been this way since 1924, when R. DeWitt Mallary became associated with the law firm of Frederick Wooden and Harold Small, located in an office at 387 Main St. in Springfield, several blocks south of where the firm is headquartered now, in Tower Square. Eventually, the firm would become Wooden, Small & Mallary.

Peter Barry

Peter Barry says the firm has had a noticeable impact on Springfield and surrounding communities over the years.

Mallary would later partner with Morgan Gilbert to form Mallary & Gilbert, and in 1934, J. Bushnell Richardson, a graduate of Springfield’s Central High School, Amherst College, and Harvard Law School, would join them, and in 1947, the firm became Mallary, Gilbert & Richardson.

In 1950, the firm was reorganized, with the law practice conducted in collaboration by two separate partnerships — Mallary & Gilbert, and Richardson Dibble & Atkinson, adding Norris Dibble and Robert Atkinson as partners. The firms practiced together in shared office space.

Fast-forwarding through the middle of the 20th century, Richardson Dibble & Atkinson merged with the firm of Gordon, Bulkley, Godfrey and Burbank in 1956, and the firm was renamed Bulkley, Richardson, Godfrey and Burbank. A year later, Robert Gelinas joined the firm, and in 1964, Godfrey left to form a partnership with Edwin Lyman. Matthew Ryan Jr., elected as district attorney, a part-time office in those days, joined Bulkley, Richardson, Godfrey & Burbank soon thereafter. And with Burbank’s departure in 1972, the firm was renamed Bulkley, Richardson, Ryan, and Gelinas.

In 1978, the district attorney’s role became full-time, and Ryan left the firm, whch was renamed Bulkley, Richardson, and Gelinas. By 1983, the firm consisted of 27 attorneys and was occupying a suite of offices at Baystate West, which later became Tower Square.

It is still there and recently renewed its lease, said Finnegan, so it will be there for a long while to come. Meanwhile, the firm recently opened a Greenfield location (it also has one in Hadley), and now consists of 40 attorneys and more than 30 staff.

“We work hard, and we provide quality service, but we’re pretty good at work-life balance and understanding that folks have to have lives outside of the office.”

That brings us to today, when the firm is marking what have remained constants through all those changes to the letterhead over the past 100 years — especially quality service to a wide array of clients across dozens of different specialities, and an environment where generations of lawyers have, as Buxton noted, worked together and mentored those new to the profession.

It is also marking change, including the contunuing expansion of its practice areas — there are now 32 of them, Finnegan noted.

“We’ve always been a full-service law firm, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the area,” he said. “And we’ve always been able to provide a wide array of services to clients.”

Within those 32 practice areas there have long been specific strengths, such as health law, said Barry, noting that the firm has long represented many of the region’s larger providers, as well as education, representing several colleges and universities.

Bulkley Richardson’s leaders say the firm was built on excellence and has maintained it through the decades.

But there have been important additions to the portfolio over the years as well, he went on, citing the broad realm of cyber law and service to the growing, changing cannabis industry as just two examples.

 

Continuing a Legacy

Barry, who has been with the firm for 42 of its 100 years, joined it just before it relocated from State Street to Tower Square, a big move and a rather large risk for the partners at the time, he said, adding that downtown Springfield was a much different place at the time.

And the firm has been involved in many of the changes that have taken place since, representing entities ranging from the Basketball Hall of Fame, which built its new home just over 20 years ago, to the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, which presided over the renovations that brought Union Station back to productive life after nearly 40 years of dormancy, to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which operates the MassMutual Center.

“It’s nice to be able to drive around and say, ‘we were involved with that,’” Barry said, adding that the firm has also represented the Westover Metropolitan Development Corp. in its many endeavors in Chicopee and Ludlow and countless other clients as well.

Like Finnegan, Barry said many changes have come to the field of law and the firm over the past few decades, let alone the past century — everything from the demise of law libraries, with all that material now online, to the advent of depositons and other legal functions via Zoom.

What’s probably more important is what hasn’t changed — and won’t change, they said, especially the firm’s commitment to excellence as well as the environment that Buxton described earlier, one where lawyers and staff with wide ranges of experience and knowhow work together to generate positive results for clients while learning from each other.

In fact, both Barry and Finnegan used similar words and phrases to describe those who mentored them when they arrived four and three decades ago, respectively.

“I’ve had a lot of great mentors here,” said Barry, noting that he and others now serve as mentors to the younger atttorneys.

Finnegan said the firm has created a strong culture, one that has promoted many lawyers (he’s one of them), and staff members as well, who then spend their entire careers at Bulkley Richardson.

“That’s a testament to the culture of the firm,” he said. “We work hard, and we provide quality service, but we’re pretty good at work-life balance and understanding that folks have to have lives outside of the office.”

Looking ahead, Barry and Finnegan said the business plan is rather simple. It calls for continued growth and building upon the solid foundation laid in 1924.

“We’ve made a commitment to growth. Within the past few years, we’ve hired quite a few young lateral attorneys, as well as several attorneys right out of law school,” said Finnegan, adding that the firm has what he calls a rather robust summer associate program (he was one himself) that has served to help keep talent flowing through the pipeline. “We have a lot of young lawyers that we’ve hired over the past few years.”

“Overall, the firm has long managed to maintain an important mix of older attorneys, those in the middle of their careers, and those just joining the profession,” said Barry, adding that such a mix is critical to the ongoing success of any law firm.

Finnegan agreed, noting that this quality is one of many that have defined the firm since Warren Harding was in the White House, and will continue to do so moving forward.

“When I got here, the word I always heard was ‘excellence’ — this firm was built on excellence,” he said. “The firm has always been a collection of exceptional lawyers providing top-quality legal services to our clients. I don’t think that’s ever changed over the 100 years the firm has been in existence, nor is it going to change moving forward.”

Healthcare News Special Coverage

Breaking Down Barriers

Gándara’s Family Resource Centers

Gándara’s Family Resource Centers each provide a number of services for families in one location.

 

There’s no doubt, Lois Nesci said, that the COVID years triggered or exacerbated a lot of mental-health issues, which makes the multifaceted of Gándara Center more important than ever.

At the same time, the pandemic’s impact on mental health also got more people talking than ever before — and that’s good for everyone.

“The need has increased, absolutely,” said Nesci, Gándara’s CEO. “But at the same time, as we continue to break the stigma around mental health, people become more and more willing to discuss some of their struggles or ask for help. We as a society have been educating people: what are the signs people exhibit if they’re not doing well, if they’re depressed, anxious, or struggling with substance abuse?”

To help those who fall into those categories, as well as many others, Gándara’s services fall into five buckets:

• Behavioral health, which encompasses a broad array of clinical and substance-use services for adults, families, children, and adolescents, including individual and group psychotherapy, diagnostic assessments, and treatment;

• Youth, young-adult, and family services, including children’s behavioral health, foster care, and youth and young-adult residential ​homes;

• Substance use and recovery, with services include recovery coaching, peer recovery centers, and long-term residential treatment for men, women, and young adults with substance-use disorder and co-occurring mental-health disorders;

• Community and prevention, including health-education programs and initiatives that provide resources and information addressing numerous public-health areas while representing the multicultural needs of the region; and

• Intellectual and developmental disability services, which promote the health and well-being of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and those with behavioral health and/or substance-use disorders.

Gándara’s mental-health services — its most robust collection of offerings — focus on a few key areas: outpatient behavioral-health clinics, children’s behavioral health, substance-use and recovery services, and adult community clinical services.

“As we continue to break the stigma around mental health, people become more and more willing to discuss some of their struggles or ask for help.”

“Gándara has always had a mission to help people at the grassroots level,” Nesci said. “We’re in communities where people live. We’re accessible and very visible. We provide the linguistic ability to meet people where they’re at, and the staff reflects the population we serve.”

As a multi-service organization with a geographic footprint statewide, Gándara targets many of its programs at specific populations, such as recovery programs for Hispanic individuals and a residential group home for LGBTQ+ youth, Nesci noted. “Gándara has always responded to individual needs in the community.”

 

Five Decades of Growth

According to its website, Gándara Center was founded in Springfield in 1977 to advocate and provide for equal, culturally competent behavioral-health services for the Hispanic community.

The 1970s saw a large wave of Hispanic migration to the Greater Springfield area, and the portion of newcomers who had mental-health and substance-use issues had limited access to services that could help them.

Lois Nesci

Lois Nesci says mental-health needs have increased, but so have the conversations around them.

Fortunately, in 1977 — and later, as a part of President Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 — funding was made available to communities across the U.S. to address the mental-health needs of individuals suffering from serious mental illness, including the elderly as well as racial and ethnic minority communities.

The city of Springfield submitted a citywide application that included needs in both the Hispanic and African-American communities. This funding strengthened the city’s mental-health services and aided the Gándara Center, whch was named after Dr. José Gándara Cartagena, a prominent physician and public servant from Puerto Rico who dedicated his life to providing services for those who could not afford medical care. He also advocated for urban renewal, especially the construction of much-needed new public housing.

Gándara Center was first housed in a storefront on Main Street in Springfield and then on the Mercy Hospital campus on Carew Street. In 1982, when the center opened an outpatient clinic on Main Street, it was the only agency in the area specifically providing culturally sensitive care to the Hispanic community.

In the early years, Gándara’s first executive director, Dr. Philip Guzman, laid the foundation for what the agency would later become. In 1982, Dr. Henry East-Trou joined the team as a supervisor for the agency’s psychiatric day treatment program. At the time, Gándara had just one Springfield location and approximately 50 staff to house all of residential, outpatient, and substance-use programs. Over the years, the agency secured numerous contacts and grants, expanded services, created additional programs, and increased staff size.

In 1989, when East-Trou began shepherding Gándara Center through an unprecedented era of growth as executive director, the agency employed 100 people and served approximately 2,000 individuals.

“We’re in communities where people live. We’re accessible and very visible. We provide the linguistic ability to meet people where they’re at, and the staff reflects the population we serve.”

After 30 years of service, East-Trou retired in May 2019. Throughout his tenure, he further expanded the agency and its services, which by that time offered behavioral-health, substance-use, prevention, and educational services to more than 40 communities throughout the Commonwealth, employed more than 900 staff, and served nearly 13,000 adults, children, and families from all backgrounds.

Gándara’s foster care program

Gándara’s foster care program has been placing youth in temporary, safe, therapeutic home environments for more than 30 years.

In 2020, Nesci joined the agency and assumed the role of CEO, bringing experience working with individuals from all races and ethnic backgrounds. In her time at the agency, she has led several relocation projects, program expansions, and agency-wide accreditation from the Council on Accreditation.

Today, around 1,100 Gándara employees serve more than 17,000 clients at more than 100 locations.

“We have a full complement of behavioral-health services delivered in community-based clinic settings, as well as our home behavioral-health services for youth and families,” Nesci said. “We’ve expanded and grown our in-home services to include hospital diversion for youth. In addition to that, we also provide services for people who are struggling with substance abuse. We have six recovery centers statewide, and then we are also providing recovery coaching to individuals in the community who are in recovery.

“I’ve been here almost four and a half years,” she added, “and during that time, I’ve seen our services grow in a lot of areas, particularly in the area of substance-abuse services, our youth services, and our behavioral-health services to children and adults.”

The organization’s footprint has also grown, expanding into the Berkshires, Fitchburg, Falmouth, and Worcester, to name a few more recent locations.

 

Starting the Conversation

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but Nesci wants critical conversations to happen year-round.

“There was a time when mental health was something that was never discussed,” she said. “People didn’t understand it; therefore, they feared it. Subsequently, they made judgments about it.”

Participants in Gándara’s PhotoVoice educational campaign

The Problem Gambling Prevention: Youth and Caregivers Photovoice 2.0 program provides youth with leadership skills and knowledge to become change agents in their community, committed to raising awareness and prevention of underage gambling.

Though stigma still exists, she added, plenty of progress has been made to break down those barriers, and Gándara’s focus on cultural competency is part of that.

“When we started talking about mental health being just as important as physical health, it began to change the rhetoric around providing safe spaces for individuals to be able to get services.

“It’s very important to have a space that’s judgment-free,” Nesci continued. “When an agency like us meets people where they are in the community, as recovery coaches or with behavioral-health therapy in their homes, speaking the language of individuals, understanding cultural backgrounds, people feel welcome. They don’t feel judged. They feel like someone understands them.”

And that builds trust and relationships, which she calls the greatest catalyst for people to make needed improvements in their lives — which has, after all, been Gándara Center’s mission for almost 50 years.

Law Special Coverage

Challenging the Rule

By Trevor Brice, Esq.

 

On April 23, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a final rule banning non-competition agreements for all employees. While this action by the FTC was expected, there were many unanswered questions about the final impact of the non-compete rule in regard to existing non-compete agreements and its scope as applied to future non-compete agreements. These questions were answered under the final rule as promulgated.

 

Most Non-competition Agreements Banned

The FTC’s final rule banning all non-competition agreements is effective 120 days after its publication in the Federal Register. As of the effective date, all non-competition agreements are banned, with close to no exceptions, except for franchisor/franchisee relationships and for sales of a business between buyer and seller.

Independent contractors are also included under the umbrella of employees that would no longer be subject to non-competition agreements under the final rule. This would effectively mean that many employees in industries such as film, finance, and other professional services now have the right to switch between employers, which the FTC states “will ensure Americans have the freedom to pursue a new job, start a new business, or bring a new idea to the market.”

Trevor Brice

Trevor Brice

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already vowed to block the rule, calling it ‘an unlawful power grab’ and arguing that the authority to govern non-competition agreements should be left to the states.”

However, and of note, the FTC does not have jurisdiction over nonprofit employers, so non-competition agreements are enforceable in this regard despite the FTC’s final rule.

 

Final Rule Retroactive as to Lower-wage Workers

In addition to prohibiting all non-competition agreements after the effective date of the final rule with limited exceptions, the FTC’s rule is retroactive, prohibiting certain non-competition agreements before the effective date of the rule as well.

Existing non-competition agreements can remain in effect as to senior executives, which are defined in the rule as employees in ‘policy-making positions’ making at least $151,164 per year. Existing non-competition agreements with employees who do not meet this definition are no longer enforceable per the final rule.

Despite the final rule, employers do not need to modify existing non-competition agreements by rescinding them. Employers do, however, need to notify their workers that the employer will not enforce non-competition agreements in the future. The FTC has included in its final rule model language for informing employees of this change, which can be communicated through email, text, or in paper format.

The final rule does not generally impact non-disclosure agreements or non-solicitation agreements unless they prohibit a worker from seeking or accepting work or operating a business. Employers should be aware that more restrictive state laws governing non-competition agreements remain in effect.

 

Challenges to Final Rule Looming

As of the announcement of the FTC’s final rule, challenges are already looming. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already vowed to block the rule, calling it “an unlawful power grab” and arguing that the authority to govern non-competition agreements should be left to the states.

The statement issued by the Chamber of Commerce goes on to note that, “since its inception over 100 years ago, the FTC has never been granted the constitutional and statutory authority to write its own competition rules. Non-compete agreements are either upheld or dismissed under well-established state laws governing their use.”

This announcement by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will undoubtedly lead to other challenges through the court system. Indeed, a Dallas-based global tax-services and software provider has already filed suit against the Federal Trade Commission over the impact of the final rule.

The FTC, as the Chamber of Commerce rightly points out, has no authority to write its own competition rules. The FTC can, however, make rules if it goes through the proper rule-making process, including introducing proposed legislation and leaving it open to comment for a certain amount of time, which did occur here.

However, even following this process does not ensure that the rule will stand. The rule still remains open to court challenges from the Chamber of Commerce, individuals, or organizations affected by the rule or any other stakeholders within the final rule. This could mean that changes would be on the horizon for the rule, and possibly a narrowing of its already expansive application.

 

Takeaways

As noted, the FTC’s final rule is already being challenged through the court system, and a challenge from the Chamber of Commerce will most likely follow suit. Therefore, if an employer has existing non-competition agreements, the employer may not need to rescind them just yet.

Further, if employers are intending to enter into non-competition agreements that are reasonable and enforceable under existing state laws, other options, such as non-disclosure agreements and non-solicitation agreements, may have to be used, but it would be prudent to wait on further ruling from the existing challenges to the final rule.

In the meantime, consultation with an attorney will aid in navigating the changing landscape of non-competition agreements.

 

Trevor Brice 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 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.

Health Care Special Coverage

Toward Their Best Life

 

The Mental Health Assoc. (MHA) recently announced the launch of its new community support program (CSP), which is part of its BestLife Clinic.

The program aims to help individuals who are facing social, economic, and environmental factors that significantly impact their ability to access healthcare and live independently. CSP is a mobile, short-term (three to six months), intensive case-management service that helps clients who are dealing with unemployment, food insufficiency, transportation, and housing issues.

CSP services are available to individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental-health, substance-use, or co-occurring disorder. To qualify for these services, individuals must have had either a psychiatric hospitalization discharge within the past six months, multiple emergency-room visits within the past 90 days, or documented barriers to accessing and consistently utilizing essential medical and behavioral-health services. Clients must be at least 18 years old and actively enrolled in therapy, and they must be residents of Hampshire or Hampden county and not receiving other case-management services.

“The services they provide allow for our clinicians, recovery coaches, and medication prescribers to focus on their main tasks of providing therapy, peer support, and treatment, while they also serve as another set of eyes helping to monitor our participants’ needs and overall well-being.”

“Community support programs are very important for our participants as well as for our other service providers, such as clinicians, recovery coaches, and medication prescribers,” said René Piñero, vice president of Behavioral Health and Clinical Operations. “The services they provide allow for our clinicians, recovery coaches, and medication prescribers to focus on their main tasks of providing therapy, peer support, and treatment, while they also serve as another set of eyes helping to monitor our participants’ needs and overall well-being.”

Clients who qualify will work with MHA’s behavioral-health case managers to improve their overall lives by developing their daily living skills and helping them access critical resources such as benefits, housing, and healthcare. Clients will also receive assistance with accessing recovery-oriented peer-support groups and temporary assistance with transportation to essential medical and behavioral health appointments.

CSP services are available via community outreach, telehealth, and in-person. MHA accepts referrals through its Central Intake Department and accepts MassHealth and some insurances. To get in touch, call (844) 642-9355 or email the BestLife Clinic at [email protected].

MHA provides access to therapies for emotional health and wellness; services for substance use recovery, developmental disabilities, and acquired brain injury; services for housing and residential programming; and more. Its goal is to provide person-driven programming to foster independence, community engagement, wellness, and recovery.

BusinessWest Anniversary

The Pendulum Has Shifted — Maybe for Good

Allison Ebner recalls that, when she first entered the workplace just over 30 years ago, the overriding question still concerned what the employee could do for the employer.

Over the years, and especially over the past decade, the pendulum has certainly shifted to where it’s now more about what the employer can do for the employee.

Indeed, while there have been cycles with the economy and the job market — and, thus, times when the employer and employee have alternated when it comes to having the proverbial upper hand, if you will — the employee has been in control for a while, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.

“It’s been flipped on its head, and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to flip back that much moving ahead,” Ebner said. “As employers, we’re constantly trying to figure out ways to retain top talent, and I think that is something we’ll see continuing into the future.”

This is just one of many changes that have come to the workplace over the past four decades, and especially the past four years, as the pandemic created a new paradigm. Others involve everything from how people work and where to dress codes; from technology and the emergence of AI to how to maintain a company culture when people are all together maybe, as in maybe, a day or two a week.

Drew Andrews, managing partner and CEO of the accounting firm Whittlesey, touched on many of these trends and issues as he flashed back almost exactly 40 years to when he started with the firm in June 1984.

“There was one computer in the corner of the office; it was a desktop that no one knew how to use. I was the bright, young kid who came out of college and somehow took a course my senior year on how to use that software, Lotus 1-2-3,” he recalled. “I was the only one who knew how to use it, so they had me start to train people on how to do spreadsheets on it. It was so slow and so ineffective that I can remember partners saying, ‘we’ll never be using this … I can do in 10 minutes what you just did in an hour.’”

Meanwhile, he was doing this work in a three-piece suit. “My first day, it was about 85 degrees out, and I’ve got this suit and tie on, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘why am I doing this?’” he recalled. “I was thinking that I should have taken the summer off and worked at the beach.”

Flash ahead to late last month, and he was doing this interview with BusinessWest via Zoom, from his home, wearing an unbuttoned collared shirt, and marveling at just how much things have changed — not just since he was that kid fresh out of school, but since the start of this decade.

And he’s certainly not alone.

Indeed, one of the common threads running through the stories in this 40th-anniversary issue is the dramatic changes that have come to the workplace in recent years, what they mean, and what might come next.

Allison Ebner

Allison Ebner

“It’s been flipped on its head, and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to flip back that much moving ahead.”

Many of those we spoke with have been working for three or four decades and referred to themselves as ‘old timers’ or even, in one case, a ‘dinosaur.’

And while some admit to being a bit stubborn when it came to those changes that have come in realms from relaxed dress codes to remote work, in almost every case, reason — driven by many factors, but especially the need to attract and retain talent — has won out over stubbornness.

“I’m a suit kind of guy,” said Tom Senecal, chairman of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank. “And it’s taken me a while, but the pandemic changed things. People wanted to go to casual; I said ‘no,’ but finally acquiesced. Then they wanted jeans on Friday, and I acquiesced. And then they wanted jeans every day, and I acquiesced, and it hasn’t really changed.

“I acquiesced on all of them,” he went on, “because who wants to go work at a stodgy, old-perceived institution versus one that’s flexible? I’m competing against tech companies and insurance companies and financial-services companies. You want to wear jeans? You want to work at home? I have to compete, so I have to acquiesce to what the market is doing.”

Moving forward, Ebner and others are seeing some slight movement toward returning to the office, or at least strong efforts in that direction. What they don’t see is the pendulum (meaning that upper hand) swinging back to the employer any time soon.

 

Is This Work in Progress?

As he talked about all the changes that have come to the workplace, Andrews put things in poignant perspective when he said he would prefer to visit his firm’s three offices, scattered across Northern Conn. and Western Mass., on Monday or Friday, because there are noticeably fewer people on the road those days courtesy of hybrid work schedules and a desire to be home those days.

His own employees are among those who fall into these categories. “So, if I went on Monday or Friday, I’d be visiting myself,” he said with a laugh.

Drew Andrews

Drew Andrews

“I was the bright, young kid who came out of college and somehow took a course my senior year on how to use that software, Lotus 1-2-3. I was the only one who knew how to use it, so they had me start to train people on how to do spreadsheets on it.”

So he winds up visiting toward the middle of the week, when people are around — at Whittlesey and most other larger places of business across sectors and jobs in which hybrid schedules are feasible.

And that’s a large list, said Ebner, noting that, while profound changes have come to the workplace since the pandemic arrived in 2020, there were already shifts in those directions years before COVID. The pandemic simply accelerated the process, and on many levels.

Also, the period just after the height of COVID became one of the most competitive in recent memory when it came to talent, the shortage thereof, and the lengths that employers would go to attract talent and then retain it.

“Employers pulled out all the stops to keep their people and attract talent, in terms of raising wages, enhancing benefits, and working on ways to keep their people happy,” she said. “It’s settling down just a little bit; we’re seeing a little bit of a cooling on wages — increases for 2024 were not predicted to be as high as they were in 2023 — and benefits are scaling back, especially in terms of employers sharing the increased cost of healthcare. And some of the other benefits around wellness have gone away.

“We’re trying to find that next normal,” she went on, acknowledging a dislike of the phrase ‘new normal.’ “And we’re still settling into that; we’re trying to find the right balance of productivity expectations for employees versus what we’re offering — the employee value proposition. What does that look like?”

Meanwhile, the workplace has changed in other ways, again mimicking society in many respects.

Today, Ebner said, it’s a less tolerant place than it was years ago, with co-workers becoming seemingly less willing to accept points of view — on a wide of topics — other than their own.

“There’s a lack of respect in our workplaces today for ideas, thoughts, basically anything that someone has that differs from yours,” she explained. “There’s a very confrontational undertone in our workplaces today.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“You want to wear jeans? You want to work at home? I have to compete, so I have to acquiesce to what the market is doing.”

“The congenial tone of our workplaces where we were more accepting of people who don’t think and do things like us has really diminished, and it’s causing a lot of chaos for employers trying to manage a respectful workplace,” she went on, adding that this chaos has manifested in everything from microaggressions — stealing coworkers’ lunches and messing with their workstations — to sharp rises in requests at EANE for conflict-resolution training and coaching for people who can’t get along.

 

Remote Possibilities

Certainly, the biggest change to come to the workplace involves fewer people being in the workplace day in and day out.

We all know what happened. COVID forced most people to work remotely, and over the course of weeks that eventually turned into months, people found they liked it, and they were, by and large, just as productive. And when it came time to go back to the office, many weren’t ready to do so. At least not every day.

Over the past few years, remote work and hybrid schedules have ceased being a perk, if that’s even the right word. They became a demand, or an expectation.

As noted earlier, this was not the first preference for the old timers, who came into a world where everyone worked 9 to 5, or something close, and couldn’t work remotely even if they wanted to, because the technology wasn’t there.

It’s certainly there now, and in recent months, two camps have seemed to develop, at opposite extremes.

“There’s a camp on one side that says everyone has to be in the office, and there’s no remote work, and they don’t want to offer any flexibility. And then, you have the other group that says everyone should be virtual, and if you’re not virtual, you’re not a modern employer,” said Ebner, adding that there is room in the middle and one size (or two) does not fit all.

Meanwhile, many of those who recognize this middle ground still believe something important is missing when people are not in the office, even a few days a week.

Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Middletown, Conn.-based Liberty Bank, said his institution has largely solved the issues involving productivity when it comes to remote work. But he worries about culture and the overall development of younger team members.

“When I came up, I don’t know how many times I sat in the conference room and listened to grizzled veterans talk about problem commercial credits and about how you go to market,” he recalled. “That learning was invaluable to me as I came up, and there are now fewer opportunities for young people coming up to experience that.”

As a result, the bank puts great emphasis on ways to maintain culture when people are not in the office every day, because of its importance to the institution’s overall well-being. Initiatives include everything from professional-development programs to outings where teammates can come together, such as a recent ‘bring your kid to work day’; from food trucks and ice-cream trucks to an all-employee gathering at Mohegan Sun.

“I’ve always said that if a company has no culture, it has no soul, and it takes years to build a good culture,” Glidden told BusinessWest. “But you can lose a culture in minutes or 30 days, you really can.”

Andrews agreed.

“Going back to 1984, my seat was outside the boss’s office; just listening to how he talked to clients … I learned so much,” he recalled. “I was a 21-year-old kid; all I knew how to talk to was other 21-year-old kids. Listening to how that person was interacting with clients and handling situations … I just learned from that.

“I’ve been saying this for a while … we as leaders need to get people back into the office more, and for the right reasons — not just to sit there and talk with people who are remote,” Andrews went on. “We have more fulfilling days when we’re together.”

 

BusinessWest Anniversary

Welcome to an Exciting, Uncertain New World

On Jan. 22, 1984, a good deal of the U.S. watched — for the only time, because it never aired again — a commercial that was, in many ways, more interesting than the beatdown the Los Angeles Raiders were putting on the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.

Directed by Ridley Scott, the spot, titled “1984,” used dystopian imagery to introduce Apple’s Macintosh personal computer, which would hit stores two days later, with the promise of allowing the average person access to the kind of computing power formerly reserved for big corporations.

The world would never be the same. The home computer was already a thing — it was, in fact, Time magazine’s ‘Machine of the Year’ in 1982 — but the Macintosh introduced a wave of innovation and ease of use that eventually made computers ubiquitous in both homes and businesses — for better (productivity) and, arguably, worse (a pervasive blurring between work and home life).

The latter, of course, became possible with the rise of the internet, email, and, later, social media.

“The internet has completely changed how we work, how we communicate, how we conduct business, how we learn, how we consume entertainment, and a million other aspects of our daily lives that have become so normal, we have forgotten that, 30 years ago, they didn’t exist,” said Delcie Bean, CEO of Hadley-based Paragus Strategic I.T., adding that technology is still changing things, in ways that feel unstoppable.

“If we step back and truly think about just how much changed as a result of the internet and we look at how quickly it happened,” he went on, “AI is going to have a much bigger impact in a much shorter amount of time.”

And that will require the kind of nimbleness and ability to pivot that Sean Hogan has demonstrated through his entire career, since launching Hogan Associates (later Hogan Communications and now Hogan Technology, based in Easthampton), with an initial focus on cabling and infrastructure.

“We saw the ethernet becoming a thing, and everyone needed wiring; there was no networking back then,” he told BusinessWest. “For six or seven years, we did strictly cabling. We ran it up and down the East Coast; we had a ton of work.”

After surviving the recession of 1989-90, Hogan began to see telecommunications as a huge opportunity, and that became his first major pivot.

“Back then, very few companies had voicemail. People hate it nowadays, but they wanted it then. So we started selling phone systems that could integrate with computers and voicemail. We did very well selling phone systems, started getting attention from bigger companies, and ended up selling the Toshiba name. That brand gave us recognition. As a company, we built a great base of clients; we were thinking phones would never go away.”

Delcie Bean

“If we step back and truly think about just how much changed as a result of the internet and we look at how quickly it happened. AI is going to have a much bigger impact in a much shorter amount of time.”

About 16 years ago, Hogan began to move toward its current IT management model — which, these days, focuses on managed security as much as anything else, to respond to ever-growing cyberthreats. “The help desk is still critical, but if you’re not secure, that’s the biggest problem.”

And in the next few decades, companies like Hogan’s will have to keep adapting, because opportunities, challenges, and threats in the IT world certainly will.

“We’ve been able to keep educating ourselves enough to know that we have to be willing to change and accept change as an opportunity,” he said. “We totally believe that’s our culture here. We change when we have something new to learn. We consider ourselves security fiduciaries for clients. We protect our clients to the best of our ability; that’s our number-one job these days.

“Thirty years ago, we’d say we’d provide a solid ethernet foundation and a good network infrastructure,” Hogan added. “We’re still able to do that. But if you’ve got a bad network cable, that’s one thing; if you’ve got CryptoLocker or some other ransomware, that’s a huge threat to your business.”

 

Breaking the Mold

Joel Mollison, president of Northeast IT in West Springfield, shares a similar story of adaptation and evolution.

“When we started 21 years ago, the market was referred to as ‘break and fix’: if something breaks, we fix it,” he said, adding that he might do some network troubleshooting or provide very basic antivirus solutions, but in general, the work was sporadic.

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“We change when we have something new to learn. We consider ourselves security fiduciaries for clients. We protect our clients to the best of our ability; that’s our number-one job these days.”

Around 15 years ago, Northeast switched to the model of a managed service provider, providing ongoing services under contracts, doing more diligence for each client. “We created the ability to form long-term relationships with clients, understanding their networks and providing them with hardware and other services, and also networking equipment.”

The Great Recession impacted the IT world, and many businesses were just trying to stay afloat and weren’t necessarily investing in their systems, Mollison recalled, but as brighter economic times re-emerged, managed services and IT tools had become more sophisticated, with more integration across platforms, automated monitoring services, and more complex cybersecurity tools, and businesses of all kinds were increasingly recognizing the need for them.

“Things have escalated in terms of the veracity and tools used by the threat actors; they have better tools and techniques,” he explained, noting that businesses need to combat online threats not just by installing protective technology, but by training employees to recognize increasingly sophisticated phishing schemes, which promise to become more realistic and targeted in the AI era.

“A lot of this has been driven by insurance — cyberliability policies dictating that businesses must have certain elements,” Mollison noted. “We get handed policy affidavits to review what’s installed. But it’s a good conversation piece, a chance to talk about where they’re at and where they can make some progress.”

Bean, who launched a solo business fixing home computers in 2002 and now boasts a growing team of 65 employees, made his own important pivot around 2011, choosing to focus only on commercial clients at a time when residential work still represented 60% of his revenue.

It has proved to a successful decision, as more businesses have realized they need a partner like Paragus (or Hogan, Northeast, or other regional IT players) at a time when, as noted earlier, networks and cybersecurity are becoming more complicated.

“Even the large Fortune 100 companies rely on consultants and experts and advisors because this field is just so broad, and it’s touching businesses in so many ways,” Bean said. “It takes a team of experts with a lot of different experience. Even we are constantly leaning on experts and outside advisors and doing research because it is just such a broad field, and it’s changing so quickly.”

Joel Mollison

Joel Mollison

“Things have escalated in terms of the veracity and tools used by the threat actors; they have better tools and techniques.”

Mollison said there’s a reason his firm has become more security-centric than ever. “We’ve had customers come to us who have experienced a breach, dealt with ransomware, lost hundreds and hundreds of hours while the whole rebuilding process took place. They couldn’t produce anything, there were legal fees, information was compromised. A lot of those factors are at play.”

Indeed, 20 years ago, smaller businesses didn’t have much to worry about when it came to aggressive cyberattacks, but experts agree that everyone is a target now.

“The thing that’s going to cause some chaos for everyone is the introduction of AI,” Mollison said, citing Microsoft Copilot — an AI-powered tool that automates features for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Teams — as one example of opportunity married with concern.

“If you’re allowing a system to comb through documents, you know there might be some bad intentions,” he told BusinessWest. “In the wrong hands, somebody could gather a lot of information that could be detrimental to your organization or turn into a security vulnerability, with espionage potential. We’re going to see a lot more AI-generated attacks in the future.”

And AI isn’t going anywhere, Bean said — with all its benefits and potential worries.

“I hate really dire predictions like, ‘if you don’t do this, you’re going to be out of business,’ but in this case, I think it’s right,” he said, adding that AI could be as transformative as the internet started to become 30 years ago. “And I’d like you to name how many businesses you know that don’t use the internet in any way, shape, or form. I would imagine it’s going to be zero.”

Therefore, “if you’re not having those conversations yet, asking those questions, talking to partners, going to webinars, getting informed and educated, I think you’re starting to fall behind,” Bean added. “There’s still plenty of time, but there won’t be for that much longer. I think now is the time for CEOs and C-level staff to really get engaged, to ask questions, to get educated, and to start to figure out where this fits into their business’s strategy and life cycle before they get left behind.”

 

Future Shock

Hogan has long recognized the growing importance of cybersecurity and its continuing evolution.

“Fifteen years ago, small companies weren’t a target. You had viruses isolated to desktops, but now, everyone’s a target,” he said — and AI will only complicate matters. “You see the bad actors out there that use AI to do deepfakes, do all sorts of bad things. We’re already seeing AI with voice recognition, duplicating voices on the phone. I fear for seniors out there. I’m afraid that’s going to be an issue.”

But AI poses great opportunity as well, Bean said, especially with the emergence of predictive AI.

“It’s going to be based on your specific niche industry, where it’s going to be able to run models and simulations and solve problems within your business or give you hypothetical outcomes to new products or things that you’re thinking of developing,” he explained. “We haven’t quite seen that hit the masses yet, but it’s coming in the next 18 months. And that’s what we need to be prepared for.”

Bean cited Moore’s law, a long-standing observation in the IT world that the number of possible transistors in a computer chip doubles every two years or so.

“This is going to be exponentially faster,” he said. “We are going to see that apply to innovation, where what used to take a decade has already been cut in half a handful of times, and now happens in 12 to 18 months. Soon, that will become six months, and then three months, and then we are going to reach a point where things are changing so quickly that, for a while, it is going to be very difficult to manage until we find some kind of equilibrium and things stabilize — or we find a new normal.”

This brave new world will be a far cry from what we were seeing in 1984 (to cite the titles of two classic dystopian works), but businesses that specialize in IT will have to do what they’ve always done: keep pivoting, keep learning, keep adapting … and keep their client businesses from being overwhelmed by the next big thing.

BusinessWest Anniversary

In Law and Accounting, It’s a Different World

When Rudy D’Agostino entered the accounting profession back in 1985, there was what they called the ‘Big 8.’

These were the very large firms that dominated the industry at the time — Arthur Anderson, Arthur Young, Coopers & Lybrand, Deloitte Haskins and Sells, Ernst & Whinney, Peat Marwick Mitchell, Price Waterhouse, and Touche Ross.

“Everyone wanted to work for the Big 8 firms, and there was enormous competition for those jobs,” said D’Agostino, a partner with Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, who got his start at Coopers & Lybrand.

After a series of acquisitions, the Big 8 is now the Big 4 (Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler, and PricewaterhouseCoopers), fewer accounting graduates want to work for those giants, and … well, there are fewer accounting graduates in general, a challenge for firms of all sizes.

These are just some of the many changes that have come to the sector, and professional services in general, said D’Agostino and many others we spoke with, who highlighted everything from the way people work to the way people dress to the way firms market themselves — something they couldn’t do in the legal profession, other than the phone book, until 1977. And in accounting, getting Fridays off during the summer, or at least Friday afternoons, has become the norm as firms’ staffs look to recover after a long, seemingly never-ending tax season.

Overall, the biggest change is in how people communicate and a resulting faster pace to the work, said Amy Royal, founder and principal with the Springfield-based Royal Law Firm. She noted that, when she broke into the field in 2000, most correspondence was still by mail. Now, the postage machine sees less use seemingly every month, and very little is actually done by mail.

Instead, much more is being done by email and phone, specifically the cellphone.

Indeed, Royal remembers walking into the office once maybe 15 years ago, and noting, with alarm, how infrequently the office phone had been ringing of late.

“I said to my office manager, ‘do we have a problem? — our office phone isn’t ringing as much,’” she recalled, noting that, after some perspective, she was simply recognizing a trend — people were finding other ways to reach out. And they were doing so at seemingly all hours of the day and night.

Indeed, modern communications technology allows people to reach their accountant or lawyer at any hour, said Jeff Fialky, managing partner of the Springfield-based law firm Bacon Wilson, and, increasingly, they’re doing just that.

Meanwhile, there have been other changes in these fields, including consolidation, especially in accounting, said Patrick Leary, a principal with the Springfield-based firm MP CPAs, noting that many of the smaller firms doing business in the ’80s, ’90s, and earlier this century have been merged into larger firms, a reflection of a broader trend in business.

Jeff Fialky

Jeff Fialky

“We’ve seen substantial consolidation in the banking environments. We have larger and larger and fewer and fewer banks, and the same consolidation across the service industries.”

There are several reasons for this, including the rising costs of technology and retiring Baby Boomers, he noted, but one of the biggest is something that probably couldn’t have been imagined in 1984 — the deepening challenge of finding and retaining talent.

Accounting was never a ‘sexy’ profession, and modern technology has only made it slightly more so, said Leary, adding that this reality, coupled with the fact that a fifth year of college is now required to become a CPA, is leaving fewer people interested in entering the field, at the same when most Baby Boomers are on the doorstep of retirement, if not there already. This has led to firms boosting salaries and sending more work overseas.

Efforts to recruit more students into the field have become a topic of conversation and concern among CPAs and industry groups, said D’Agostino, and greater reliance on internship programs as feeder initiatives.

It’s the same with clerking programs in the legal profession, said Fialky, adding that, overall, law-school enrollment is down, and many firms face challenges with keeping talent in the pipeline.

 

Case in Point

It’s not exactly what you would call a pressing matter — not like some of those other challenges mentioned above — but one of the challenges facing law firms today is deciding what to with their libraries.

Once an important part of any firm’s operation, they are now all but obsolete, used by only the occasional old-timer now that every piece of information available in those books and journals can be found online, said Royal, adding that, at most firms, law books are decoration — and an enduring background for photos.

Fialky agreed, noting that the demise of libraries is just one of many changes to the profession. Others include the now-24/7 nature of the work, the desire among clients for information immediately — not the next day or even in a few hours, as was once the case — and even the work that lawyers are doing, work that reflects shifts in the market and also movement toward lawyers being more generalists than they are specialists.

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

“For a long time, I resisted putting my cell phone on my business card. Post-COVID, that became a necessity, and now people will just call me on my cell or text because they know they can get me.”

“I’m a transactional attorney; 25 years ago, transactional attorneys were not handling M&A transactions and purchases and sales and private equity,” he said. “That’s something we’ve seen become more prominent, especially in our market, over the past 15 years or so, as we’ve seen these maturing, multi-generational companies that have contemplated their outcome being that it’s a matured asset, and their contemplating sale to, in many circumstances, a private-equity-funded purchaser.

“And this has certainly changed the marketplace,” Fialky went on. “We’ve seen substantial consolidation in the banking environments. We have larger and larger and fewer and fewer banks, and the same consolidation across the service industries — not only in law, but in accounting, architecture, landscape architecture, and other sectors.”

But perhaps the biggest change to come to this sector involves technology and how it has changed the pace of work.

Royal noted that lawyers have never exactly been 9-to-5 professionals, and now, they are far less so, with calls, texts, and emails coming at all hours of the day, and with those on the other end expecting an immediate reply.

“For a long time, I resisted putting my cell phone on my business card,” she said. “Post-COVID, that became a necessity, and now people will just call me on my cell or text because they know they can get me.”

Fialky agreed. “The pace has increased precipitously; the volume of correspondence has increased exponentially. In the course of a day, it’s not uncommon, at least in my experience and in my practice, to receive hundreds of correspondences, and those are texts, calls to my cell phone, calls to my hard line, and more, and a lot of that is transferred direct to attorney.”

 

Adding Things Up

As he talked about his profession, Leary said it was never just about adding up numbers and being a proverbial ‘bean counter.’

There was always a consulting component to the work, he said, adding that now, there is much more of this kind of work, as software has taken over some of the tasks handled with the old calculator that still sits on his desk but is rarely used.

Patrick Leary

“It’s fascinating what you can get involved with in public accounting today, whether it’s forensic accounting or foreign taxation issues and so forth.”

“Today, most businesses, regardless of size, have some accounting software, so you’re getting information from them that’s already compiled and put together, so they’re relying on us for more strategic analysis of those numbers,” he explained. “You’re not questioning whether two plus two equals four; now it’s ‘let’s see what four means.’

“It’s a higher level of skill than what you needed before,” he went on, adding that this shift is one of many to come to the industry.

Another is how the work is done. Indeed, years ago, said D’Agostino, much more time was spent with the client, in person. Today, there is still some face-to-face interaction, obviously, but much more is done by Zoom or over the phone. And those face-to-face meetings are much different.

Leary agreed.

“If we were going to audit ABC Company, we’d back up last year’s paper files and head over there,” he said. “You would spend a couple of weeks with a client, meeting with them, going through their records, pulling invoices, and doing reports. You’d spend a few weeks there — which I really liked, being out of the office, meeting with clients — and building that relationship. And you got a workout because you’d be hauling loads of paper. Today, you’re going out with your laptop, and you’re not necessarily going out to see clients.”

Still another change to come to this field, as noted earlier, is the fact that fewer people are choosing to enter it.

“The accounting field has been experiencing a decline nationally because people who are driven by numbers are leaning more toward the software industry,” Leary said. “And the profession is certainly looking to change that; you can have an excellent career in accounting, because it goes well beyond simple bookkeeping. It’s fascinating what you can get involved with in public accounting today, whether it’s forensic accounting or foreign taxation issues and so forth.”

Rudy D’Agostino

Rudy D’Agostino

“It really hit home during COVID, and it has only continued since — there are just not enough professionals coming into the workforce.”

D’Agostino agreed. He noted that the required fifth year of college, compensation that is less competitive than some other fields, and a general interest among young people for something sexier than what they perceive accounting to be has led to what is becoming a critical problem for the industry.

“It really hit home during COVID, and it has only continued since — there are just not enough professionals coming into the workforce,” he told BusinessWest. “So accounting firms have to think outside the box to get things done — and also to keep professionals here, which has necessitated being creative, compensation increases, and, with some firms, outsourcing work to other countries.”

One initiative that has helped put young professionals in the pipeline at MBK is an internship program, D’Agostino went on, adding that the firm has four or five interns that come on board annually, and maybe one or two of these will join the firm when they graduate.

“That’s a way to introduce students to the work they will be doing and get them into our firm,” he said. “And we have a pretty good success rate.”

Despite this success, workforce issues will continue into the future, said those we spoke with, creating a greater reliance on technology, automation, and, increasingly, AI to get the work done, leaving accountants with more time to do analysis and consulting.

“There are routine tasks that will get taken over by AI, such as data entry, which can be automated to some extent,” Leary said. “And that provides the time and the tools to analyze data for clients much better. Rather than spending your time keying in data, you’re taking a hard look at it and understanding what those numbers are telling you.”

 

Bottom Line

When asked to look ahead and project what might happen next within the legal sector, Royal started by saying that, if she was asked that question 25 years ago, she could not possibly have predicted what her world would like today.

That’s a world where most meetings are conducted by Zoom, where lawyers and accountants work remotely in some cases and wear jeans to work when they’re not in court or visiting clients, where the office phone doesn’t ring nearly as much, and where clients’ names come up on cellphones at 10 p.m. — and even 3 a.m.

This is the new reality for those in professional services, she said, joking that maybe what will come next is a shift back to the way things were.

That is certainly not likely. What is likely is that law libraries and those old-fashioned adding machines will become more obsolete and more office decoration than anything else.

 

BusinessWest Anniversary

Increasingly, They Operate as an Ecosystem

The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts has been funding the work of charities and nonprofits across the region since 1991. And its overriding mission hasn’t changed.

What has changed, at least recently, is how CFWM accomplishes that mission — specifically, moving away from specifically targeted grants into a more trust-based model. Instead of seeking to put some dollars toward a specific goal, the foundation gives to organizations in a way that puts them at the center of it and allows them to dictate how they want to spend their money.

“It’s a recognition that funders don’t necessarily know what’s best for nonprofits,” said Megan Burke, the organization’s president and CEO. “It’s the people on the front lines who are dealing with constant change in the community who know the best places to use those funds.”

The Community Foundation was moving in that direction before the pandemic, but COVID, and the urgent needs it exposed, really accelerated the process, she explained.

“If we know you have a strong mission, a strong organization, we’ll put the money in your hands and say, ‘use it well.’ We’ll ask afterward how that went, but in the moment, you know what you need to achieve and how to get there.”

Meanwhile, the mission of Square One, which began life in 1883 as Springfield Day Nursery, has in many ways remained consistent for more than 140 years.

“We’re still doing the same type of work, although the world has changed enormously,” president and CEO Dawn DiStefano said. “Children still require care for their parents to go to work. And we’re a company that cares for children and instills confidence in our community that we are a safe, healthy, and high-quality place for young children to learn and be cared for.”

At the same time, she added, much has changed.

“Probably around the time BusinessWest started,” DiStefano said, “we realized something that today is quite obvious — that you can do a lot of work with children all day, but if you’re not in partnership with families and caretakers, you can hinder permanent growth and change. After all, learning happens 24/7.”

Specifically, Square One — it took that name in 2008 to reflect its role as more than just a day nursery, but as a key foundational element in the lives of preschoolers — has made a point over the past few decades to communicate more thoroughly with parents at the start and end of each day about the child’s lessons, experiences, and mood. That way, parents can continue the conversations at home — and, in many cases, start their own, which builds trust between the parents and Square One’s providers.

The organization has gone beyond that level of communication as well, opening a Family Support Services division about 15 years ago, which includes a home visitation program for parents who request it, including specific programs for young, first-time parents and parents in recovery.

Megan Burke

Megan Burke

“If we know you have a strong mission, a strong organization, we’ll put the money in your hands and say, ‘use it well.’ We’ll ask afterward how that went, but in the moment, you know what you need to achieve and how to get there.”

“We see ourselves as partners with families,” DiStefano said. “If we can bring out the best in the child and families, they become productive members of our community, and we all benefit from that. We all do better when folks are able to engage in our world.”

Megan Moynihan, CEO of the United Way of Pioneer Valley, said her organization’s goal since its founding 103 years ago as Springfield Community Chest has been to meet the greatest needs of the region, from early education to food insecurity to financial literacy.

“Post-COVID, we did a community assessment to really understand where the needs in the community are, if they had changed or not,” she said, noting that the greatest needs right now run the gamut from basic services, like food, to financial wellness, housing access, and mental-health support.

It meets those needs through its community service centers, where people can access emergency food supplies but also mental-health resources, including a suicide-prevention hotline. There’s also a financial-wellness program called Thrive, a partnership with Holyoke Community College on career training — in fields like culinary arts and medical assisting — and a host of other outreaches.

“Understanding the pulse of the community is the number-one issue that needs to be addressed,” Moynihan said. “It can be mental health tomorrow, but in 10 years, it might solar power and how to transition to that. We know what today’s needs are, but we have to be responsive to those needs, and when community needs change, we have to change, too.”

 

Come Together

One thing the United Way has done well over time, Moynihan noted, is connecting many resources in the community.

“If someone comes in and they are are housing-insecure, we’ll call one of the outreach workers at Health Care for the Homeless and see what kind of services are out there for them,” she said as one example. “We’ve always been a connector in the community, finding where the needs are and connecting individuals to the services they need. We can’t do the work alone.”

Megan Moynihan

Megan Moynihan

“We’ve always been a connector in the community, finding where the needs are and connecting individuals to the services they need. We can’t do the work alone.”

It’s a philosophy many nonprofits were already moving toward even before COVID — and the way it isolated people and organizations — really laid bare the need to connect and work together as a nonprofit ecosystem.

For example, Burke said, someone might seek job training, but they might also face other barriers to employment, from unreliable transportation to unaddressed health issues, and nonprofits can refer clients to each other to address multiple needs at once.

“A healthy nonprofit ecosystem, made up of nonprofits of all different sizes, is the best way to meet folks’ needs. No single nonprofit can do everything; there are so many different needs,” she told BusinessWest. “So coordination and collaboration with each other is really important.”

DiStefano used the example of connecting a parent of a child at Square One with Way Finders if they’re in need of housing support.

“We serve 1,200 families a year. Most are working one or two jobs, working eight to 12 hours a day, maybe even riding the bus, going to appointments,” she said. “I’m not in the housing business, but I’m not going to say to families, ‘I can’t talk to you about housing.’ That’s a big part of our evolution.

“Society 140 years ago was harsher in its opinion that your family was your business; it really wasn’t the business of social-service agencies or the government to help your family. But as a society, we noted over time that you can ignore problems, but that only costs more money down the line,” DiStefano went on. “The more you can invest in the child, especially between age zero and three, when the brain is doing the most developing, the better off they’ll be. Why not sink every resource we have into making sure the child has the healthiest opportunities in those years?”

The Center for EcoTechnology, which predates BusinessWest by eight years, has certainly been a connector of resources, in its case programs focused on energy efficiency, sustainability, and the environment.

In the years leading up to CET’s founding in 1976, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the establishment of Earth Day saw Americans more focused on environmental concerns, and CET began its work largely in the realm of energy efficiency and home-energy audits. Today, the initial vision is largely intact, but the work has expanded into commercial waste, decarbonization, and recycled building materials.

dawn DiStefano

Dawn DiStefano

“As a society, we noted over time that you can ignore problems, but that only costs more money down the line.”

“We’re still doing energy conservation and energy efficiency. In some ways, we’ve remained true to our origins,” said Ashley Muspratt, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. “But we’ve modernized some of the language and approaches to evolve with the times — for example, shifting the conversation to electrification, which is no longer about just saving energy, but shifting away from fossil fuels to electricity and renewable sources of electricity.”

CET got involved in waste reduction in the 1980s, and that remains a core area of its work today. In addition, it’s more focused now on the question of environmental justice, aiming to ensure that no communities or customer segments are left behind or harmed by the transition to a lower-carbon or no-carbon economy.

“We offer our services in dozens of languages and have made an effort to recruit multilingual staff. We also work with a translation company, so we can provide real-time interpretation on the phone or in the field,” Muspratt added. “We want to make sure we have a staff that reflects and looks like and understands the different communities that we’re trying to serve.”

That hits home for Burke, who noted that the Community Foundation adopted a new strategy a few years ago around diversity and increasing opportunity and equity in the community. To her, that means nonprofits should have staff members that share the lived experiences of clients — not just ethnic background, but, to cite one example, serving people in Franklin County who are living with limited means trying to address all the challenges rural families have.

“Having people on their staff and on their board who may have lived those experiences allows them to develop programs to be more successful,” she noted. “We’ve stressed the importance of organizations really thinking about what perspectives they need on their staff and board.

“And it’s not just so they can feel good or have a great photo that shows diversity; it’s to be more successful in delivering the services they were founded to provide,” Burke went on. “Nonprofits recognize there really is value in incorporating a lot of different perspectives in the work they do.”

 

Thoughtful Evolution

While focusing their work in a more connected way and dealing with, in many cases, greater levels of need, some the region’s most venerable nonprofits have expanded in other ways.

Square One, for instance, has grown its family childcare program, where children are cared for and learn in home settings instead of one of the organization’s centers.

“I predict, in the next 10 years, we’ll see an explosion of interest in family childcare,” DiStefano said. “Some people, post-COVID, found comfort working from home. It’s a great business opportunity; they can make money, and Square One can help coordinate these services, so we’re supporting businesses.”

At CET, Muspratt said the organization has launched a strategic plan to grow its impact by five times by 2030, because, she noted, that’s what the climate needs, and there is plenty of money at the state and federal level to do the work, as well as private funders.

“More and more philanthropic donors want to support climate work, so that pace of growth is possible,” she said. “This region has always had an environmental bent.”

The organization has grown by 20% each of the past two years, with a staff of 100 that could double if the 2030 goals are hit, she added. “We became a more remote organization during the pandemic, and that has helped us cast a wider net. It’s good to have been able to expand our pool of candidates outside the Western Mass. region, though the majority of our staff are still based in Massachusetts.”

Nonprofits also thrive off volunteers; the United Way’s Volunteer Connect program has been successful at, well, connecting area agencies that need help with people who have time and talent to offer. It’s just one more way, Moynihan said, that nonprofits are operating in tandem.

“Everyone is working hard and chasing the same dollars,” she added, “but if we do it together, do it as a community, the outcome is always better.”

BusinessWest Anniversary

Companies Still Find Ways to Make It Here

Rick Sullivan calls manufacturing the “invisible backbone” of the Western Mass. economy.

That’s not an adjective he would likely have used 40 years ago, not when the region and many of its communities were dominated by large individual manufacturers or clusters — like GE’s massive transformer complex in Pittsfield, American Bosch and other major players in Springfield, and a still-sizable paper-making sector in Holyoke.

But it works today.

Indeed, while there are still some large manufacturers employing hundreds of people (as opposed to thousands 40, 50, or 100 years ago), this sector is now dominated by smaller players employing maybe a few dozen people each.

And what they’re making has changed as well. While local manufacturing was dominated by firms making tires, matches, paper, and, before that, arms for the U.S. military (at the Springfield Armory) and even monkey wrenches and ice skates, today, they’re making parts for stealth fighters, infrared goggles, medical devices, and other sophisticated products. And soon, in Holyoke, one will be making what is billed as ‘green’ concrete.

“I say invisible backbone because the manufacturing sector in Western Mass., for the most part, is made up of small- to mid-sized manufacturers that are in the supply chains of the larger companies,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and formerly the long-time mayor of Westfield, one of the region’s manufacturing hubs. “And many of those companies are not situated in Western Mass. or Massachusetts, for that matter; they’re in Connecticut or worldwide.

“And they make important parts for the industry,” he went on. “Back when I was mayor of Westfield, there was $100,000 worth of parts of on every single commercial airplane that went through the city of Westfield, and that has only increased.”

These are some of the shifts that have come to this important sector over the past four decades. Others include a seismic shift in how such jobs are perceived, one that has contributed to a lingering workforce problem, and one that has led to a sea change in how hard companies must work to attract and retain talent — and some initiatives that probably couldn’t have been imagined 40 years ago.

Like ‘Barbecue Friday’ at Boulevard Machine in Westfield.

Susan Kasa, president of that company, which makes parts for the military, aerospace, and outer space, among other sectors, said Boulevard feeds its workers breakfast and lunch each day, and, as that name suggests, it devotes Fridays to barbecuing.

“People will take turns being the chef,” she explained. “We’ll do a lot of hot dogs and hamburgers, but sometimes we’ll go all out and do chicken and other meats; our people really enjoy it. You know it’s Friday because you can smell the barbecue.”

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“I say invisible backbone because the manufacturing sector in Western Mass., for the most part, is made up of small- to mid-sized manufacturers that are in the supply chains of the larger companies.”

This new tradition is one of many efforts that fall in the broad category of attracting and retaining talent, she said, with others including everything from advertising open positions in church bulletins to programs to introduce young students to manufacturing and the opportunities in this field — starting with middle school.

“We’re not your grandfather’s shop,” Kasa said, adding that the machinery is both more complex and cleaner, and one ongoing challenge is educating not only young people but their parents about this new reality.

Mark Borsari agreed.

He’s president of Sanderson MacLeod, a Palmer-based maker of twisted wire brushes. That’s not as sophisticated a product as infrared goggles or parts for artificial knees, but is an example of how traditional manufacturing is still making it in Western Mass., although it’s challenging — when it comes to everything from competition for orders to competition for people.

“It’s a different world, a different environment than it was 40 years ago and even 20 years ago,” Borsari said. “It gets down to the perception people have and the pride people have in making things and the importance of community; it’s just different.”

Susan Kasa

Susan Kasa

“Young people have such a bright future in manufacturing, and without incurring all that college debt.”

Like others we spoke with, he said technology, automation, and lights-out manufacturing, where machines run unattended at night, will play ever-larger roles in this sector. But it will always need people, and finding them will continue to be a challenge, especially as the Baby Boomers continue to retire in large numbers.

 

Tradition of Innovation

As he talked about this important sector, Sullivan stressed what hasn’t changed in 40 years or 250 years, and hopefully won’t change moving forward — that manufacturing is a source of what economic-development leaders have long called ‘good jobs at good wages.’

That is, the kind of jobs every region and every community wants and compete tooth and nail to get — and retain.

This region has always had a strong tradition of manufacturing and innovation — Sullivan said those words are essentially interchangeable — that goes back to the Springfield Armory and even before that. And it continued with the production of everything from firearms to toys; from automobiles and trolley cars to textiles; from home appliances to buggy whips, products that even gave some area communities their nicknames.

Many of these items are no longer made here (although trolley cars are again with the arrival of CRRC). In their place, manufacturers are making parts for jet liners, lunar landers, and the SpaceX rocket. But they also making timing chains for automobiles in the case of U.S. Tsubaki in Holyoke and Chicopee, and fasteners for the roofing industry in the case of OMG in Agawam.

“The manufacturing base in the region still runs the gamut,” said Sullivan, adding that this diversity is certainly a positive, with communities no longer dependent on one company or one sector (Westfield, for example, once home to several buggy-whip manufacturers, suffered greatly with the invention of the automobile).

Mark Borsari

Mark Borsari

“You can’t have culture when you have people transitioning every two or three years to chase the latest and greatest thing.”

Overall, the sector is smaller and much more invisible, a trait that emerged as many jobs in manufacturing went south or overseas — Bosch closed in 1986, for example — movements that prompted many to question the sector’s viability, contributing to today’s workforce challenges.

Those we spoke with said there has been some progress from efforts to introduce young people to the field, from initiatives like Barbecue Fridays to the rising cost of higher education and a willingness to look at fields that don’t require advanced degrees.

“Young people have such a bright future in manufacturing, and without incurring all that college debt,” Kasa said. “That debt is getting way out of hand, and rising interest rates aren’t helping. These kids going to vocational schools, and they can be an entrepreneur; they can make six figures and be an integral part of the community. So we’re really working to educate parents about this.

“Not every student is cut out for a college degree, and meanwhile, four years is getting them nowhere in this day and age,” she went on. “Having the vocational education does so much more for these kids, and there’s such a future in it.”

She said showing young people where the parts made at Boulevard are going — into the SpaceX rocket, for example — generates enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, valuing employees and cultivating a strong sense of team are also important, she said, not just with breakfast and barbecues, but by creating a culture, building camaraderie, and even grooming the next generation of leadership for the company.

Borsari agreed, noting that building a team and creating a winning culture are some of the things that haven’t changed over the years.

“Years ago, a good business realized they had to have talented people who could add value to their business feel well-compensated to stay with them,” he explained. “It’s the same today, but the difference is that, a lot of times, the high compensation and all those things need to be there before people can demonstrate that they have value.

“And you see that everywhere,” he went on. “You see that in companies with very little longevity; there’s no culture left. You can’t have culture when you have people transitioning every two or three years to chase the latest and greatest thing.”

Overall, Borsari said the culture he and his team have created — one where people enjoy working well together — is perhaps the company’s greatest competitive advantage because such a culture is less common than it was years ago.

“It’s pretty simple stuff, really,” he said. “It’s a refusal to take the cheap way out and at the end of the day, and it’s doing right by the people who count on us to treat them like we would want them to treat us.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead, Sullivan repeated his oft-stated view that this region needs a growth strategy, one that will emphasize both the lower cost of living here and the strength and diversity of the local economy in an effort to convince more young people to stay — and more people from outside the region to find the 413.

And manufacturing is a big part of that story, he said, adding that the innovation that has defined the region for hundreds of years lives on in this sector.

You can’t look up a passing jet fighter out of Barnes and see the parts made here, said Sullivan, but they’re there. Just like this all-important component of the region’s economy.

 

BusinessWest Anniversary

Colleges Adapt to Non-traditional Realities

At the recent ceremony that officially installed him as chancellor of UMass Amherst, Javier Reyes noted that attitudes about higher education are changing, while rapid advancements in technology, with artificial intelligence at the center, are forcing colleges and universities to find new ways to meet their obligations.

“How does higher education respond to these challenges?” he asked. “How do we meet the needs of today’s students — students who are increasingly mobile and more agile? How do we meet the needs of a changing society? How do we remain nimble and adapt so that our students are prepared to be active and engaged members of their communities today, tomorrow, and for decades to come?”

That’s a lot to unpack, but UMass will focus on six key areas, Reyes explained: education, research and creative activity, translation and knowledge transfer, engagement, inclusivity and wellness, and financial and operational viability.

Then, importantly, he added, “it is important to stress that these are not six independent areas. Rather, they are six interconnected areas that must work in synergy with each other to achieve our goals.”

It’s a theme of connectivity that … well, connects Reyes’ thoughts with the conversations BusinessWest had with three other area higher-education leaders as they considered how academia has changed over the years — and where it’s going next.

“There’s been an evolution in higher education,” Elms College President Harry Dumay said. “About a decade ago, we knew there was a demographic cliff coming up for traditional undergraduate students. So everyone was thinking about the non-traditional population. And Elms had a strategy of partnering with community colleges to create degree-completion programs, which was very successful in growing enrollment in college through non-traditional students.”

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), said the role of his institution has become more prominent with last year’s launch of MassReconnect, which makes community college in Massachusetts free for adults over age 25 — another example of how colleges are prioritizing non-traditional students.

“We’ve become even more essential,” Cook said. “The fundamentals of what community colleges offer are even more important, if that’s possible, than they were 40 years ago. Access, opportunity, equity — all the things we talk about in the public sector — are really part of our DNA. And it’s invigorating to be a part of this, especially with MassReconnect, with a different kind of spotlight shining on us that further underpins this value that our name represents.”

Whether attending college right out of high school or returning as part of that older, non-traditional, often career-changing crowd, today’s students are increasingly facing an economy in flux, so they need, more than anything, to learn how to learn, Bay Path University President Sandra Doran said.

“Today’s graduates will have, on average, seven careers — not seven jobs, but seven careers,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s why we’re really committed to the concept of lifelong learning.”

Elaborating, Doran said, “in the past, you’d go to school for four years, then start your career. But that’s not always how higher education works. You might be taking college courses as a high-school student, or between ages of 17 and 24, or, sometimes, when you’re 50 years old. You might be in the workforce and, at the same time, taking college courses. This continuum of being able to learn any time you need to learn — and have the courses and programs available to do that — is really important to your future. And being adept at online learning is absolutely critical.”

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

“Today’s graduates will have, on average, seven careers — not seven jobs, but seven careers. That’s why we’re really committed to the concept of lifelong learning.”

In such a different environment from 40 years ago, she added, colleges and universities need to provide pathways, credentials, certificates, and degrees that are adaptable to people at all stages of life, not just those in that 17-24 age range.

“What we used to refer to as a student conjured up notions of sitting at a desk, taking notes, listening to a professor. But that’s not the only way education is delivered anymore,” Doran added. “People can learn forever.”

 

Into the Real World

Students are also training for a work world that’s fiercely competing for top talent — meaning not just graduates with skills, but those able to keep learning on the fly. With that in mind, Elms College recently crafted a strategic plan that emphasizes the core value of a liberal-arts education, experiential learning in the real world while still in college, and innovation.

“The employers of today are really desperate for students who are real-world ready; you don’t have to teach them how to behave in the workforce,” Dumay said. “At the same time, they can think on their feet. They have that critical thinking. A liberal-arts undergraduate education prepares students to think on their feet, articulate their thoughts, work in groups, all the soft skills that employers are looking for.”

At the same time, he said, the Elms has brought flexibility to the forefront, offering non-traditional students everything from remote options to short-term certificates and stackable credentials that will get them into careers, with growth potential, more quickly than in a full, four-year program.

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

“A liberal-arts undergraduate education prepares students to think on their feet, articulate their thoughts, work in groups, all the soft skills that employers are looking for.”

The presidents we spoke with also emphasized the importance of offering programs relevant to growth industries, like STCC’s future involvement in the Richard E. Neal Cybersecurity Center of Excellence being built at Union Station in Springfield, or its continued leadership in health sciences (at a time when healthcare deals with persistent staffing shortages), and HVAC and energy systems (as green energy continues its ascent).

“These are really, really helpful programs to have when we map out what the needs are in the workforce,” Cook said, noting that STCC’s School of Health will be renovated in a major capital project.

Doran takes a similar approach. “Bay Path has always been workforce-driven. That, again, relates back to lifelong learning — always being responsive to the marketplace, to employers. We started in 1897 as a business institute, as a reaction to what was needed in the workplace. That commitment to providing employers with a talented, long pipeline of potential employees really is a commitment to our region, and our lifelong learners.”

She, like Dumay, stressed the importance of flexible programs adaptable to the needs of non-traditional learners.

“It’s not one size fits all. Personalized education is a continuing trend,” Doran said. “We know how important it is for students to feel their college experience is valuable and works for them.”

Reyes said UMass intends to strengthen its role as a public research university in the coming years.

Javier Reyes

Javier Reyes

“We must continue to embrace our role as the primary developer of talent in the Commonwealth while ensuring that all of our students — regardless of their discipline — have the core skills, soft skills, and critical-thinking skills that will allow them to thrive in a rapidly changing economy and a rapidly changing world.”

“Fulfilling our role as a premier land-grant public research university will require us to continue to grow our research infrastructure while also expanding opportunities for students across all disciplines and at all levels to engage with research and hands-on learning opportunities,” he said, noting that, in FY 2023, UMass faculty received 1,164 research awards totaling nearly $240 million. “This is tremendous and speaks to the confidence in the research that is happening at UMass Amherst and the impact that our faculty have on the common good.”

In the current academic year alone, he noted, the campus became home to the National Science Foundation’s Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Academic Center for Reliability and Resilience of Offshore Wind, while UMass Amherst became one of just 18 institutions to receive the National Science Foundation’s inaugural Accelerate Research Translation Award, aimed at translating the research conducted in campus laboratories into tangible solutions to real-world problems.

“We must continue to embrace our role as the primary developer of talent in the Commonwealth while ensuring that all of our students — regardless of their discipline — have the core skills, soft skills, and critical-thinking skills that will allow them to thrive in a rapidly changing economy and a rapidly changing world, so that they can succeed and grow in the fields that they choose to be a part of.”

 

Better Days

Going back to MassReconnect for a moment, Cook noted that community-college enrollment had been on a downward trend in the Northeast for a while, but for both the fall and spring of the 2023-24 academic year, STCC saw a double-digit increase in enrollment, and he expects that pace to continue.

John Cook

“We’re not all the way back to pre-pandemic, but we have changed the trend, and we hope to continue to build on that.”

“We’re not all the way back to pre-pandemic, but we have changed the trend, and we hope to continue to build on that,” he said.

“We’ve been through COVID, which were pretty tough years,” Cook added. “When you combine the momentum of a major capital project and MassReconnect and our equity outlook and the fact that we’re the most affordable college in Springfield … these are wonderful fundamentals. It’s a great place to be.”

BusinessWest Anniversary

Hospitals Grapple with Some Significant Trends

Twenty years ago, in the issue commemorating BusinessWest’s 20th anniversary, area hospital leaders talked about what had changed the most over two decades, and they all mentioned the same thing: a shortening of hospital stays, with procedures that once required a several-night stayover now requiring only one — or none at all.

Today’s hospital leaders are still talking about it — because the trend has only accelerated.

“The time people spend inside the hospital for various procedures has been shortened significantly,” Holyoke Medical Center Spiros Hatiras said. “When I started in healthcare 30 years ago, someone would come in for a gallbladder surgery and spend four days in the hospital. Now it’s the same day, come in and leave.

“The same with other procedures,” he went on. “People even get knee replacements and leave the same day. For bariatric surgery, they just stay one night. They used to spend more time in the hospital, so that definitely has changed.”

Dr. Mark Keroack, president of Baystate Health, noted that, around the time BusinessWest ran that story, he started seeing an accelerating shift to more procedures done in the outpatient arena — which has impacted revenues across virtually all hospitals.

“We have 1,000 hospital beds, but 60% of our revenue comes from the ambulatory side. And even in my career, things that used to land you in the hospital for a week don’t anymore. Now you’re out in a day. That is an incredible advance because of microsurgery and advanced techniques.”

The other dramatic shift regionally — and nationally — has been a trend toward consolidation. Over the past four decades, Baystate Health, and its flagship hospital, Baystate Medical Center, have brought formerly independent hospitals in Greenfield, Palmer, and Westfield under its umbrella, while Mercy Medical Center was acquired by Trinity Health, and Cooley Dickinson Hospital is now part of the Mass General Brigham family.

“Healthcare has been evolving, and how hospitals are reimbursed has become extraordinarily challenging. There’s been a shift from inpatient care to outpatient care, which is beneficial for the community, but challenging to maintain revenues to support hospitals, which communities rely on for services,” said Dr. Robert Roose, president of both Mercy and Johnson Memorial Hospital in Enfield, Conn., both part of the Trinity family.

“And as those trends continue to shift and reimbursement rates for services decrease, that has reinforced the value of being part of a large system that has scale, that can leverage strengths across the service area.”

Cooley Dickinson Health Care President Dr. Lynnette Watkins said Cooley becoming part of Mass General Brigham just over a decade ago has been a benefit in many ways, and a model for what’s happening with formerly independent hospitals across the country.

Dr. Mark Keroack

Dr. Mark Keroack

“We have 1,000 hospital beds, but 60% of our revenue comes from the ambulatory side. And even in my career, things that used to land you in the hospital for a week don’t anymore. Now you’re out in a day.”

“So you still have that community impact, but you’re also backed by a larger network,” she told BusinessWest, citing, as one example, a current, $26 million capital project that will add about 7,700 square feet to the Emergency Department, increasing its footprint by about 40%. “We would not be able to undertake a renovation like this without the support of Mass General Brigham and its ability to engage and identify contractors and work through supply-chain issues and, candidly, to finance a project as large as this.

“Also, in order to be able to recruit and retain talent, particularly in primary care, we have to be competitive in the market,” Watkins continued. “And a lot of our colleagues come to Cooley Dickinson for that great community feel and care, but also are attracted by competitive compensation and the fact that we’re part of Mass General Brigham.”

Baystate’s own growth story began almost 50 years ago with the merger of three facilities into what is now known as Baystate Medical Center — and it has grown significantly since, with the expansion of Baystate Children’s Hospital, a massive addition known as the Hospital of the Future in 2012, and other projects.

But Baystate Health also encompasses Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield, and Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer, along with a host of physician practices and a cluster of specialty services in Springfield’s North End, most notably the D’Amour Center for Cancer Care, which opened in 2004.

“People don’t have to leave the area to get their care, and to get advanced medical care — level-1 trauma, neonatal ICU, specialty cancer care, specialty pediatric care, all those things that built up over the years,” said Keroack, who will retire from a more than four-decade career in healthcare this year. “Baystate has grown to the point where we’re doing roughly 65% of the medical care in Western Mass.”

Dr. Lynnette Watkins

Dr. Lynnette Watkins

“During COVID, we lost hospital personnel because they got sick or their families got sick or burnout occurred and individuals decided to take time off. We also had trainees in the pipeline that, for a couple of years, did not have the ability to learn at the bedside.”

At the same time, he added, a number of small hospitals closed or were repurposed over the years, from Ludlow Hospital to Farren Memorial Hospital in Turners Falls to Mary Lane Hospital in Ware, partly because of that shift to outpatient care and the ability of the region’s larger hospitals to diversify what they offer. “It’s hard for a small community hospital to make it.”

 

Getting Back to Work

That said, all hospitals these days, of all sizes, are struggling with workforce shortages across the spectrum, from nurses to many specialists.

Keroack said Baystate employs around 13,500 people and, before the pandemic, typically averaged 600 to 700 open positions at any given time. That number shot up to 2,100 during the Omicron phase of COVID — a time known in healthcare as the Great Resignation.

“No one wanted to work in healthcare. It was scary and difficult,” he recalled. “But we’ve done an awful lot to be better employers — we’ve done a lot with workplace safety, flex schedules, employee wellness, and novel approaches to new pipelines with our education and training partners.”

With almost 1,500 openings currently, “we’re about halfway back to where we used to be,” he added. “There’s still some work to do, but we’re making good progress and heading in the right direction.”

Watkins agreed that COVID took a toll on the workforce at Cooley Dickinson.

“We’ve had shortages before, particularly in nursing, but in the technical fields as well — radiology technologists, pharmacy techs, laboratory techs — but during COVID, we lost hospital personnel because they got sick or their families got sick or burnout occurred and individuals decided to take time off.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras

“Even though you have interoperability, the systems are not talking to each other. It’s a mess, if you ask me, where you could have made a really big breakthrough in medical records.”

“We also had trainees in the pipeline that, for a couple of years, did not have the ability to learn at the bedside,” she added. “And learning on the screen or in a sim lab is not the same as learning at the bedside. So these graduates are taking longer to complete their training, and taking longer to onboard and orient. That means more folks, particularly those that enjoy teaching and mentoring, are really required in order to bring this new cohort along.”

That has ramped up partnerships with UMass Amherst, Bay Path University, Springfield Technical Community College, and others on targeted programs to get more talent into the pipeline, from certified nurse aides to lab techs and surgical techs.

“One of the silver linings is that it has really forced us to be creative and collaborative,” Watkins said. “We even have high-school and college students as a part of our volunteer programs here at the hospital, so that young people can get exposed to what it means to be in a hospital, and what sorts of positions there are. Doctors and nurses are important, but there are other ways that you can work in the hospital and have a great experience.”

Roose said healthcare leaders have come to understand the importance of caregivers’ concerns at a time when the industry in general is at “an inflection point” when it comes to how hospitals operate.

“We need to double down and maximize our efforts to support caregivers through systems that keep people well and transform the systems that keep people well and transform our services in ways that meet the evolving needs not only of the patients we serve, but the colleagues that are part of our mission and drive service.”

Holyoke Medical Center has taken big steps to address those concerns as well, Hatiras said, including with compensation, but the system has still struggled, emerging from the pandemic, with employee expectations when it comes to long hours, weekends, and on-call hours — and a desire for more of their work to be remote, which isn’t always possible.

That said, artificial intelligence could begin to have a broader role, not in replacing providers, but making their jobs a little easier.

“You can have a natural conversation with the patient about their condition; the doctor can tell you what your blood pressure is, the patient can say what their symptoms are, and you can have AI listening in and creating an actual note for the chart instead of someone having to transcribe it or dictate it or type it,” Hatiras said, adding that AI can process copious amounts of information and … not make a diagnosis, exactly, but augment the doctor’s own decision making.

“It could be helpful as an overlay with all the patients that come and go — ‘hey, doctor, can you check this patient based on the data input? He may need attention; he may have sepsis; he may have an infection.’ It can be a tool to assist.”

 

Evolution Continues

Speaking of technology, Hatiras noted that one of the most monumental changes in healthcare in recent decades is the electronic medical record.

“I would say there are benefits and drawbacks. One benefit is that you can access certain information from anywhere. In the old days, you had paper charts, and if a doctor was on call and needed to look at somebody’s chart, he couldn’t. Now you can look at it — X-rays, lab results, all sorts of things. And there’s certainly more data being captured this way.”

The main downside is what Hatiras characterizes as a big missed opportunity, and that’s the failure of the U.S. government, early on, to establish a bid process and choose the best electronic medical record system and make it the national standard.

“What has happened is we have a hodgepodge of a system,” he explained. “If you physically cover more than one hospital, it’s a bear; you’ve got to learn each other’s systems: how to input orders, how to check labs. It’s not easy. Secondly, you can’t train for it in medical school because what system are you going to train on? If we had a national system, we could be learning this from year one in medical school. And even though you have interoperability, the systems are not talking to each other. It’s a mess, if you ask me, where you could have made a really big breakthrough in medical records.”

Speaking of government, Keroack noted that the way healthcare is paid for has changed dramatically, especially over the two decades since Romneycare; today, 97% of Massachusetts residents carry health insurance.

And with more than 90% of Baystate patients cared for under a global budget — specifically, Medicare and Medicaid accountable-care organizations — “if we overspend or are inefficient, we have to eat the difference. It leads us to emphasize prevention, wellness, and coordination of care. It’s changed the way doctors think about keeping people healthy.”

Today, with an older population than the national average, 70% of Baystate’s payments come from Medicaid and Medicare and 30% from commercial managed care, while the average hospital in the U.S. is 40% government and 60% managed care.

“Over time, the country’s going to have to tackle the question of whether we move to some single-payer health approach,” Keroack added. “We’re not done as a nation dealing with the cost of healthcare. We have the highest cost of healthcare in the world and the most splintered, uncoordinated program of paying for it.”

Meanwhile, major projects continue locally in an effort to meet community needs, from Cooley Dickinson’s Emergency Department overhaul — the ER was built in the 1970s when ER visits were less than half what they are today — to Trinity Health’s Enfield Ambulatory Center, which will reflect that overall shift toward outpatient care.

“There will continue to be an emphasis on innovation, technology, and what will be known as precision medicine or personalized medicine as we move into the future,” Roose said, citing projects at Mercy from a new palliative-care center to an agreement with the US Oncology Network to improve services, technology, and access to clinical trials.

“The main emphasis will continue to be on compassionate care and creating experiences that are holistic and compassionate and help people along their healing journey.”

BusinessWest Anniversary

Technology, Immediacy Have Changed the Game

When she first started working for Merrill Lynch in 1985, Pat Grenier had a desk, a phone, a phone book, and a street directory. And there was a lot of cold calling.

“I picked a street, and I would call everyone on that street; you can’t do that anymore,” she said, adding that it goes without saying that there’s no phone book anymore. And there’s nowhere near as much cold calling — in this sector and most others. And the desk and desk phone are not used nearly as much as they were even five years ago.

These are just some of the changes that have come to the broad financial-services sector, said Grenier, president of Grenier Financial Advisors, noting that, back when she started, and until maybe a few decades ago, this was what she called a ‘transactional’ business. Now, it’s far less about making transactions — especially the buying and selling of stocks — and more about partnering with the client to secure lifelong financial security.

“Now, our business is far more planning-oriented, and advisors are working more as a part of a team,” she said, adding that, instead of buying and selling stocks for clients, professionals like her will advise clients on everything from retirement planning to the specifics of a senior-living facility contract, to helping family members find bookkeepers or companions for their parents. “All that is not transaction work.”

Barbara Trombley, president of Trombley Associates, agreed, noting that the word advisor has come into popular use only over the past two decades or so.

Years ago, she said, individuals would have called someone who did what she does a stockbroker or even ‘my guy’ — a nod to how few women ventured into this field.

“It’s not just us putting together a portfolio — it’s how do you spend your money? How do you make it last? How do you leave money to your kids? And it’s a lot more personal,” she told BusinessWest. “I don’t get upset about the market going up and down on a day-to-day basis because I’m not trading stocks.”

Much has changed, and the same is true in another branch of the broad financial sector — insurance.

Indeed, when Sam Hanmer, president of Rush Insurance and a nearly 40-year veteran in this field, first started, he used “manuals, microfiche, the fax machine, and a dot-matrix printer,” he recalled. And customers were OK with getting answers to their questions in a few days.

Now, everything is stored in the cloud, and those same customers want this information instantaneously.

“The expectation is that they call, and they want the answer,” he said. “It’s on-time delivery in just about any setting, including insurance.”

Lisa Johnson, chief operating officer of Amherst-based Encharter Insurance, agreed, and said this business has changed in many other ways as well. Maybe the biggest has been consolidation brought on many different factors, ranging from the higher cost of doing business in a far more technology-driven field to retiring Baby Boomers looking for an exit strategy.

Pat Grenier

Pat Grenier

“Now, our business is far more planning-oriented, and advisors are working more as a part of a team.”

“It just became too difficult for small, independent businesses to survive given the amount of technology needs required to run an agency these days,” she said. “Human resources has changed so dramatically; you almost can’t run a business without having a human-resources expert to turn to. A lot of this has driven many of these smaller agencies to decide that this is the time to sell.

“What used to be your neighborhood agency is now likely owned by a much larger entity,” Johnson added, referring to a trend that covers not only insurance but many any business groups as well, from banks to accounting firms to law firms.

Meanwhile, another trend impacting almost every sector — challenges with finding and retaining talent — is also prevalent in this field, she said, using understatement when saying, “young people are not turned on by insurance.”

This has led to ever-greater amounts of automation and use of AI, she said, adding that these trends will only accelerate in the years and decades to come.

 

Money Never Sleeps

Flashing back to when he started in financial services nearly 40 years ago, Mike Matty, president of St. Germain Investment Management (which is celebrating its own milestone: 100 years), started by talking about technology and how it has profoundly changed this business and financial services in general.

“I always say that people have more information available to them today, on the internet and on their phone, than I had available to me as a mutual-fund manager back in the ’80s,” he told BusinessWest.

Barbara Trombley

Barbara Trombley

“It’s not just us putting together a portfolio — it’s how do you spend your money? How do you make it last? How do you leave money to your kids? And it’s a lot more personal. I don’t get upset about the market going up and down on a day-to-day basis because I’m not trading stocks.”

“There wasn’t even CNBC back then,” he added. “If you wanted to know what happened with the stock market back in those days, you turned on the 6 o’clock news and waited for the business segment. The world is so different right now.”

That goes for everything from the Dow, which was at or around 2,000 in the late ’80s (except for that fateful day in October 1987, when it lost 25% of its value) and is now at 38,000, to the way information is available instantly.

Too much information in some respects, said Matty, noting that the 24/7 nature of CNBC and other outlets creates higher levels of anxiety among those watching their wealth.

“Everything becomes an immediacy that they need to do something about,” he explained. “They’ll say, ‘the opening bell in seven minutes’ or ‘the most important hour of the day, the closing bell.’ They try to create anxiety and news out of a clock.”

This anxiety, and need to do something, certainly contributes to the wild fluctuations that have defined the markets in recent years, he said, joking that people might be better off if they waited for the 6 o’clock news.

They are certainly better off with today’s financial professionals, who do far more advising than their predecessors did 40 years ago.

“In 1984, most folks on this side of the table were more asset managers than financial planners,” Matty explained. “Now, the term we use is ‘wealth managers,’ because with that term comes the financial planning and the estate side of things; it’s a holistic approach as opposed to just managing a slice of your assets, which is more the way the business was years ago.”

Grenier agreed and described a typical day, and typical customer interaction, 40 years ago this way: “We focused on … ‘well, we have A, B, and C for you to buy because we think it’s going to do this, that, or the other thing.’ We didn’t look at the entire person, whereas now we are looking at the entire person, as well as their family.

Sam Hanmer

Sam Hanmer

“The expectation is that they call, and they want the answer. It’s on-time delivery in just about any setting, including insurance.”

“And we’re talking with them about transitioning wealth and protecting wealth,” she went on, adding that financial-services professionals are coaches, counselors, caretakers, and mediators — even if these words aren’t necessarily printed on business cards. “‘If you have a trust, is it titled properly? Are your beneficiaries up to date?’ I talk to them about all of that, whereas, when I first started, it was, ‘OK, I have this municipal bond,’ or ‘I have this stock.’”

This represents a dramatic change in this field that is still ongoing, said Matty, adding that today’s financial advisors serve in the same way Google Maps does.

“We guide people,” he said. “We need to know where you are, so let’s find out where we’re starting from. Let’s then figure out where you want to go and look at the options for getting there.”

Meanwhile, some important things haven’t changed.

“Oftentimes, you’ll have these conversations with people, and they’ll say, if I die…’ And I say, ‘let’s back up a minute. There is no if, there’s only going to be a when, unless you know something that I don’t, so let’s talk about what you want to do with your money between now and then to help you accomplish your goals.’”

In other words, death and taxes are still the only certainties in this business.

 

Policy Makers

Turning back the clock to to 1985, when he got his start in the insurance business, Hanmer, who has been with several agencies over the decades and unretired a few years ago, said there are certainly more players in this sector, primarily because the business was in many ways easier and less costly.

Mike Matty

Mike Matty

“People have more information available to them today, on the internet and on their phone, than I had available to me as a mutual-fund manager back in the ’80s.”

“When I started in the agency, your personal lines and your automobile insurance, specifically, had what they called ‘fixed and established rates,’ and that was all set by the state; the insurance companies didn’t set the rates,” he explained. “And that allowed you to have a mom-and-pop agency on just about every corner because it was more of a convenience buy then ‘I need to go shop my insurance to see if I can get the best deal,’ because every agency would provide you with the same number when it came to auto.

“All this allowed for what I call a lifestyle business,” he went on. “You could make a pretty good living with two, three, or four people in your office, and there would be one right down the street and another right down the street from that.”

It’s much different now, Hanmer said, adding that, when the state changed to competitive rating a quarter-century ago, that changed the dynamic in the industry. Prior to that time, and because the state set the rates, most direct writers didn’t have a presence in the state.

Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson

“Businesses look to cut down on the vulnerabilities they have. And a big vulnerability for all of us in insurance over the past decade, and I’ve really seen it accelerate, is personnel — trying to get people who are well-trained and understand that the insurance business is just really difficult.”

“They didn’t want to play that game,” he said, adding that the Progressives, State Farms, and Liberty Mutuals of this world now have a huge presence in the state, and its residents are subject to their endless TV commercials.

“With that competition, agencies had to work a whole lot harder because they had to shop everything,” he went on. “A lot of them said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ and that started the consolidated process.”

And it has continued unabated, said Johnson, noting that private-equity funds have discovered the insurance industry, and now, many of the mergers are driven by aggregators backed by private-equity funds.

All this consolidation is in some ways good for consumers because larger agencies provide them with more choice, she said, adding that this is countered by perhaps not knowing the person behind the counter — or on the other end of the phone — as well.

Meanwhile, the players left in the industry now find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain talent (yes, you’ll read these same words in just about every story in this 40th-anniversary issue), which is prompting many to outsource tasks and turn to virtual assistants based in other states or, increasingly, other countries.

“A lot of quoting of business is now automated, as are some aspects of claim handling, billing, invoicing, those types of things,” Johnson said. “Anything repetitious is now likely to be automated, and that’s not unique to the insurance industry.

“Businesses look to cut down on the vulnerabilities they have,” she went on. “And a big vulnerability for all of us in insurance over the past decade, and I’ve really seen it accelerate, is personnel — trying to get people who are well-trained and understand that the insurance business is just really difficult.”

 

BusinessWest Anniversary

Workforce Challenges Have Emerged over Time

When you’ve been building things for as long as Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC) has, well … sometimes you enjoy the sequel.

Take, for example, the Montgomery-Russell bridge on I-90 over the Westfield River. DOC is currently renovating it, a $46.9 million project that includes deck rehabilitation, lighting and drainage improvements, and a major steel component replacement.

It’s a return of sorts for Holyoke-based DOC, which built that bridge nearly 70 years ago.

“When you have situations like that, it’s kind of cool,” said Joubin Hassanein, the company’s president. “You look back at photos of the people that were working on that original bridge, and to know that they’re kind of connected to you in some way is pretty awesome.”

With a 145-year history of major projects, from Springfield’s Memorial Bridge to Rowe’s Wharf in Boston and that city’s Leverett Circle Connector Bridge, the leaders at O’Connell’s can take a long view of what has changed in the construction industry, but Hassanein believes some of the bigger changes are still to come.

“Construction in general has been an industry that hasn’t seen a lot of change over the course of a long time — except for the period that we live in now,” he told BusinessWest, especially in the realm of technology. “We’re seeing a rapid adoption of technology into construction. We’re probably in the early stages of a very fast-changing scene within the construction industry. And I think it’s important for companies to be nimble enough to move with that change, and we’re heavily invested in that.”

DOC is equally invested in wastewater and drinking-water facilities, which now account for about 40% of its work, with the other 60% falling mostly into the education sector, but also healthcare, hospitality, senior living, and other areas. With two offices in Massachusetts and one each in Connecticut, New York, and Florida, it’s also looking to expand geographically.

David Fontaine Jr., CEO of Fontaine Bros., has also had a hand in plenty of large-scale public work, as well as helping to shape the landscape of downtown Springfield, from the MassMutual Center project 20 years ago to the recent conversion of the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate apartments.

“It’s great to see the momentum that’s generating for the area,” he said, adding that high schools and colleges have been another mainstay, with work at Deerfield Academy, Wilbraham Monson Academy, and a host of other schools, as well as healthcare projects for clients like Baystate Health and Mercy Medical Center. “We intentionally keep a mix of work in public and private sectors. The public sector is a little less sensitive to the ups and downs of interest rates.

“Almost 70% of our work is with repeat clients, so that’s important,” Fontaine added. “When there are fewer projects out there and they’re more difficult to get, we see fierce competition for every project we’re going after. But even with that fierce competition, we’ve won six of the last seven projects we competed for. We attribute a lot of that to those repeat relationships.”

When Joe Marois opened the South Hadley-based construction firm that bears his name in 1972, business was conducted differently, and he was discouraged to see some of that fall away.

Joubin Hassanein

Joubin Hassanein

“We’re probably in the early stages of a very fast-changing scene within the construction industry. And I think it’s important for companies to be nimble enough to move with that change.”

“It was a complete joy. A lot of the work we did initially was, believe it or not, on a handshake. We were doing colleges and private work, a lot of the mills, very little public work. But there was an abundance of work, and we had large crews, and it was a different time.”

Heightened competition in the private sector, however, eventually shifted the dynamic.

“As people started seeing what we were doing, they started migrating into our area to the point where the profits became problematic for us. So we migrated into the public sector. And that’s a lot more difficult — it’s permitting-intense, it’s paperwork … the process is very difficult. We’re dealing with engineers who have to deal themselves with peer review, which increases the requirements for the project substantially. We’ve had to use attorneys more in the last 20 years than in prior years just to make sure we cross our Ts and so forth.”

Ryan Pelletier, project manager for Houle Construction in Ludlow, said his firm has been focused for more than 30 years on the healthcare and hospital industry.

“That’s been our mainstay, our bread and butter. We do other things, all kinds of commercial work. But 90%, of what we do is healthcare by virtue of our repeat customers.”

His father, company President Tim Pelletier, arrived at Houle as an estimator back in 1989, working for company founder Ray Houle. At the time, the firm was building Friendly’s and Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants up and down the East Coast, as both were in serious growth mode.

Later, “Ray saw some opportunities in healthcare, and also, some of the guys were settling down with wives and kids, and fewer of them wanted to do the traveling,” Ryan said. “So the team leaned into the healthcare sector. They found some idiosyncrasies and peculiarities about the sector that makes it unappealing for some companies, but we found a niche there.”

David Fontaine Jr.

David Fontaine Jr.

“When there are fewer projects out there and they’re more difficult to get, we see fierce competition for every project we’re going after.”

COVID was an interesting time, he added, as Houle built temporary structures at Baystate Medical Center and Cooley Dickinson Hospital to handle COVID overflow, among other projects, but infection-control measures at area hospitals didn’t make things easy. “We were really, really needed, but they also didn’t want us there.”

All these firms have traveled different paths and made unique impacts on the landscape — both literally and figuratively. But they’ve shared many challenges, too.

 

Priming the Pump

One substantial change across the industry has to do with workforce — in particular, the flow of young workers into the industry, which has slowed to a trickle, something every contractor we spoke with for this story recognized.

Many years ago, Marois said, each summer, “we’d have nine or 10 or more college students that would come here automatically, and we’d hire them all. They’d stay for the four-year college stint.”

Nowadays, even vocational-school graduates are slim pickings, he went on. “It doesn’t seem like a lot of people have ambitions to be in the trades anymore. Not a lot of people are showing up. We’re even advertising on television.”

Joe Marois

Joe Marois

“It doesn’t seem like a lot of people have ambitions to be in the trades anymore. Not a lot of people are showing up.”

Pelletier agreed. “The economy has been shifting. Traditionally, you got apprenticeship work in the field. Today, a lot of young people are being pushed toward college, and none are excited to come out of school with an expensive degree to go into a career where they didn’t need a degree to begin with.”

He hopes some might be drawn by rising salaries, especially for in-demand trades like HVAC. “Demand is as high as ever, so beginning wages are increasing, and the costs to us are increasing.”

Indeed, Marois said someone still learning on the job can make $17 an hour, and they could be making $45 to $50 on a public-works project not too much later. “There’s some incentive there for young people, the fact that you can start at that level that quickly. But it doesn’t seem to be enticing for a lot of these young people.”

Hassanein said some of the technology being used in construction today may draw more individuals to consider a career.

“We have a lot of connected systems and data, and being able to make decisions and being guided by that data is becoming more and more prominent in our world, where it wasn’t before. So the people you want to bring in are people that can do that type of work and can process that information and translate it to the job.”

Pelletier added that “the obvious answer is to make it more appealing, pay more, and offer more benefits, but we can also get people from different sectors, like warehousing and retail. That’s something I like to do — find people in my daily commute, at Dunkin’ Donuts or Men’s Wearhouse, somebody who has a good personality and is always working hard; I encounter them daily. They may be at a job that’s just paying the bills, and if I have a need for an apprentice, I can put them on a career path.

“Our only option at this point is to be more proactive than looking for the kids who go from trade school right into the industry,” he added. “Those kids don’t exist in large numbers anymore. So we have to deal with that.”

Hassanein added that the workforce shortage across the industry was in evidence before COVID, but the pandemic exacerbated the situation.

“When we talk about the workforce, there’s certainly a focus on inclusion — a broad mix of people of color and women, people who represent the area that we’re building. We want to help them not only get into the trades, but be successful in the trades.”

“I think our industry lost quite a bit of people in the last downturn and never really recovered. So, as an industry, we’re challenged,” he said, adding that casting a net for a more diverse workforce, including more women, would help.

Fontaine agrees, noting that Liz Wambui, the firm’s director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Impact since 2021, has made some positive headway in workforce matters.

“It’s great to see the construction industry embrace diversity in the workplace,” he said. “When we talk about the workforce, there’s certainly a focus on inclusion — a broad mix of people of color and women, people who represent the area that we’re building. We want to help them not only get into the trades, but be successful in the trades.

“That’s where Liz goes above and beyond; she works with different partners on pathways into the industry, and once someone is in the industry, she partners with them to help them transition from project to project and make those first couple of years a success so they can have a long-term career.”

Considering the current challenges, Fontaine added, “a lot of Liz’s role is focused on the workforce generally. It’s a need we have across all the trades we work with, and we’ve done some innovative things, like partnering with unions, which are very forward-thinking and helpful in coming up with ways to attract people into the trades and keep them.”

 

Something to Build On

Some of the challenges of today’s construction industry are sector-specific, like the trend toward hospitals being acquired by national players, as in the case of Mercy Medical Center and Trinity Health.

“Where that becomes a challenge is the powers that be are located elsewhere, and decisions are being made halfway across the country for things that are local,” Pelletier said. “They don’t necessarily understand the complexities of the local market.”

Hassanein said it’s a good time to work in education because many colleges are prioritizing energy efficiency and carbon neutrality, and DOC is helping them achieve those goals over a number of years. “We’re at Mount Holyoke, Trinity, and Amherst right now, for example. Those are multi-year projects.”

Some of this work is still in its infancy, he added, but it’s expanding quickly. “It’s definitely a great place to be. Almost every academic institution has a goal established, with a deadline, and until now, they’ve been kind of waiting because the technologies have been changing at a rapid pace, so they didn’t want to invest a lot too early and realize that it’s outdated. But now, the clock is ticking, and they’re all in full motion.

“We’re always evolving, and you have to be a company that’s nimble enough to evolve with the environment that you have,” Hassanein went on. “The continuous-change element is a really key part of any company’s success going forward.”

Fontaine agrees that sustainability, green building, and new technology are exciting elements of construction today, but he added that another aspect of his firm’s success is not getting too busy when times are busy.

“A lot of people will chase whatever the new sector is, whatever they think the new geography is; they want to grow just to grow and do as much volume as possible. Our goal is always to do as good a job as we can on projects where we can be successful and execute.”

Despite the workforce challenges, he added, “I think the industry is in a good place. It’s been a positive profession for the last 20-something years that I’ve been in it.”

 

 

BusinessWest Anniversary

The Landscape Has Changed — in Many Ways

When Jack Dill, president of Colebrook Realty Services, arrived in downtown Springfield in the mid-’70s, it was a different world and a much different city.

The still-new mixed-use complex on Main Street, then called Baystate West, complete with a 28-story office tower, was crammed with retail on two floors (much of it migrating from storefronts elsewhere in the downtown), everything from a Friendly’s to a sporting-goods store to a men’s clothing shop.

It was connected via airwalks to two major department stores, Forbes & Wallace and Steiger’s, the latter of which was also connected via airwalk to an even more recent addition to the landscape, the new home of Springfield Institution for Savings, which Dill helped conceptualize and build as an employee of the bank. It, too, had retail and restaurants on two floors.

By 1984, the scene had started to change, with retail experiencing a sharp decline in Baystate West with the opening of the Holyoke Mall in 1979. Forbes & Wallace was soon demolished to make way for what is still known as Monarch Place, even though the namesake tenant and partner in the project, Monarch Capital Corp., filed for bankruptcy in 1991, and the property was subsequently sold at auction to Peter Picknelly.

By the mid-’90s, Steiger’s was demolished as well. In its place was built a park dubbed “a little park for a little while.” It’s still there. Meanwhile, at what is now Tower Square, there is very little retail (although Big Y is now a tenant), but two colleges (UMass Amherst and Cambridge College) and the YMCA of Greater Springfield call it home. And at what is now the TD Building, which Dill now co-owns, there is just a single restaurant, but the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, United Way of Pioneer Valley, and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and its many affiliates are based there.

This quick history lesson helps show the many ways the landscape has changed over 40 years and continues to change, said Dill, adding that downtown Springfield is not unlike many other downtowns that suffered losses in retail to the malls and, later, internet shopping, and other properties — from the offices of banks that no longer exist to long-closed mills, to most of the Springfield Republican building — given over to new uses ranging from housing to breweries; from cannabis dispensaries to co-working facilities.

And we haven’t even mentioned the new, $1 billion casino complex built a few blocks south on Main Street.

“And now, the internet and that kind of distribution model is creating real problems for the large, enclosed malls,” said Dill, citing the ongoing demolition of the Eastfield Mall, the first such facility in the region, and the start of work to transform it into a mix of retail, housing, and other uses, as an example of how the scene continues to shift and change the landscape in the process.

Jack Dill

Jack Dill

“The internet and that kind of distribution model is creating real problems for the large, enclosed malls.”

Evan Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, agreed. He said the landscape has certainly changed from a commercial real-estate perspective, and it continues to evolve due to powerful forces ranging from malls to consolidation of the financial-services sector to, most recently, the COVID 19 pandemic, which introduced the world to remote work and hybrid schedules that left many to ponder the fate of office facilities in communities of all sizes.

He has seen, and been part of, movements to create dedicated facilities for healthcare practices (something that was novel four decades ago when such businesses would be next to accountants and lawyers) and to rethink downtown office towers, such as the one he owns, 1350 Main St. in Springfield.

Plotkin said the rise of remote work will certainly impact demand for office space, but he sees a partially offsetting force in east-west rail, which has the potential to put some area communities on the map, drive development in areas near the rail stops, and even prompt some businesses to realize they don’t have to be in Boston anymore.

“It could be transformative; in Springfield, for example, it could drive development in the Union Station area and make that area much more attractive,” he said, adding that he’s already seen more interest in properties there. “If east-west rail is successful, and I think it will be, and it becomes a reliable way to get to Worcester or Boston, it changes things dramatically.”

 

Space Exploration

Overall, the real-estate sector has seen a number of ups and downs over the past 40 years, from the boom times of the mid-’80s to the bust that came later that decade; from the surge provided by the arrival of the cannabis industry — which impacted most communities, but especially Holyoke — to the most recent turmoil resulting from the pandemic. And there have been headwinds of different strengths, from the tornado in 2011 to the Great Recession of 2008 to Springfield’s being placed in receivership 20 years ago.

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin

“If east-west rail is successful, and I think it will be, and it becomes a reliable way to get to Worcester or Boston, it changes things dramatically.”

Overall, compared to other regions, the scene in Springfield and surrounding communities has remained relatively flat, said those we spoke with. There has been some new building and notable renovation projects — Springfield’s Union Station tops that list — but, overall, little movement of new businesses into the region (MGM Springfield being a major exception) and large amounts of what Plotkin called “musical chairs,” tenants moving from one location in the region to another.

“I’m seeing a lot of businesses move from property to property, but not really much new growth,” he explained. “We really need to look at how we can bring new businesses here.”

Meanwhile, the landscape has certainly changed on the retail side — everything from the departure of Johnson’s Bookstore, a watershed moment in the history of downtown Springfield, to the ongoing redevelopment of the site of the massive GE transformer complex in Pittsfield; from the successful conclusion of decades-long efforts to convert the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into a mix of retail and market-rate housing (the first tenants have started moving in) to the massive, ongoing effort to redevelop the massive Ludlow Mills property. That undertaking, a mix of brownfield and greenfield development led by Westmass Area Development Corp., is already more than a decade along, and will likely take another decade.

At present, with interest rates high and questions about the economy (let alone who will occupy the White House) moving forward, new building has been mostly stagnant, said those we spoke with, creating a white-hot market for manufacturing and distribution facilities. Meanwhile, cannabis is starting to retreat, with some of the properties turned over to that use (or intended for that use) now back on the market, especially in Holyoke.

But the biggest area of concern moving forward is the office market. Remote work and its impact on how much space companies will need is a huge factor, but there are other considerations as well, said Plotkin and Dill, noting that the continued consolidation of many sectors (a thread running through these 40th-anniversary stories) is an issue as well.

And it has been for decades now.

“Coopers & Lybrand had a large presence here, and they consolidated and moved to Hartford,” said Dill, citing just one example of this movement from years ago. “There are fewer banks, fewer head offices … fewer players in many sectors, and it has certainly impacted the market.”

“Having access to Boston that’s walkable from your downtown … that will have a big impact. You can live in downtown Springfield and, in an hour and a half, be in Boston. It takes longer than that to drive to Boston from Sudbury.”

As for remote work, Dill preferred to remain somewhat optimistic about its future and, thus, its overall impact on the real-estate market, despite growing concern, if not outright panic, in larger cities such as Boston and San Francisco.

“It’s taken some time, but we’re starting to see a return to the office,” he said, noting that several major corporations are ordering workers back, or trying to. “Work is kind of a social activity — there’s a reason we were all together in the first place as opposed to being out tending our own field.

“The joys of working at home, working in your pajamas, gets old after a while, I think,” he went on, leaving room for a measure of compromise in the form of a four-day workweek.

Plotkin is not quite as optimistic. He sees more permanence to remote work and hybrid schedules, and noted that Zoom has greatly reduced the need for people to be in their offices and for consumers to visit these offices.

This leaves questions about existing office towers and other facilities and their futures, he said, adding that conversion to residential use is an option that should be explored.

There is a huge need for housing in the region, he went on, and the need may grow if east-west rail becomes a reality, which he believes it will.

“Having access to Boston that’s walkable from your downtown … that will have a big impact,” Plotkin said. “You can live in downtown Springfield and, in an hour and a half, be in Boston. It takes longer than that to drive to Boston from Sudbury.”

 

Bottom Line

Flashing back 40 years, Dill said that, in many respects, downtown Springfield still looks a lot like it did then, at least from the street.

But a closer look — one inside the buildings on either side of Main Street — reveals large amounts of change, especially in Tower Square and the TD Bank building.

It’s very difficult to project what might come next given all that has happened over the past four decades, from the rise of malls to the demise of many of them, said Dill, adding quickly, and forcefully, that the only constant is change.

BusinessWest Anniversary

The Environment Has Shifted Profoundly

Tom Senecal used some hard numbers to detail what is perhaps the biggest change in the banking industry over the past four decades.

“In 1985, there were 18,400 banks in this country,” said Senecal, chairman of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank. “We are now down to 4,600; we’ve lost 13,000 banks in those 40 years. Credit unions … there were around 12,000; now they’re down to 4,200, so they’ve lost more than 7,000. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, there were 230 banks in 1985; I think we’re down to 130, and we expect to be down to 80 by 2030.”

That consolidation, brought on by many factors, but especially the higher cost of doing business and shrinking margins, has changed the local landscape in all kinds of ways, including commercial real estate, with dozens of former bank buildings and offices given over to new uses, from jewelry stores to cannabis dispensaries.

Indeed, it would take quite a bit of space in this story to list all the banks that were here 40, 30, or 20 years ago that aren’t here anymore. Just a partial list would include, on the larger-institution side, Bank of New England, Springfield Institution for Savings, and BayBank (names and letters that were once on office towers in downtown Springfield), and also Shawmut, Fleet, and BankBoston. On the smaller, community-bank side, Hampden, Heritage, Chicopee Savings, United, Woronoco, and Westbank are just some of the names that have disappeared from the landscape.

All of this is reflected in the large collections of business cards amassed by some bankers in this area, sometimes without actually leaving their office — it was only the name and logo on the card that changed.

But consolidation of the industry (and we’ll get back to it later) is obviously just one of many changes in this sector since Ronald Reagan was running for a second term in the White House. There have been huge changes in technology and how people bank, in how many non-bank entities are now vying for market share in this industry, and also in how people work, where, and even what they wear to the office.

Indeed, Lauren Duffy, executive vice president and COO of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, is one of many officers at the institution that do not have their own office anymore. She works remotely a few days a week, and for the days she’s in, she reserves a desk online.

“I try to make sure I get one with a good window,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she usually does. And this sea change is only one of many in the world of credit unions, which four decades ago might have served the employees of one company or institution (like UMass Amherst or Mercy Hospital) and now have memberships that are much larger and more diverse.

There have been other changes as well, said Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, who has almost exactly 40 years of experience in the industry and is one of those who saw his business card change repeatedly, but not the location of his desk. He said the business is, well, less formal now, reflecting trends across business.

“When I started out back in the ’80s, you had to wear a suit and tie every day,” he recalled. “If you left the floor you were working on, you had to put your suit jacket back on; you couldn’t walk through the lobby without being very formal.”

Dan Moriarty

Dan Moriarty

“Over my career, people have always been talking about how branches were dying or how we wouldn’t need anymore. But for small community banks or community banks in general, a physical presence will always be a necessity.”

Getting back to technology, it is a thread that runs through each and every story in our 40th-anniversary edition, and for good reason. In banking, the changes have been profound, with paper and old-fashioned bankbooks giving way to automated tellers and mobile banking, greatly reducing the need to visit the local branch and generating discussion and debate about whether banks will need such facilities moving forward — and, if so, how many.

Senecal said PeoplesBank plans to add three branches just this year as the institution plots an organic growth strategy while also looking hard at mergers and acquisitions. Meanwhile, Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Middletown, Conn.-based Liberty Bank, can see a day, not far ahead, when the bank will make net reductions in the number of branches in its portfolio. And Dan Moriarty, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, like others we spoke with, noted that, while the branch is visited less often today than before, and this trend will likely accelerate in the future, there will always be a need for face-to-face, in-person service.

“Over my career, people have always been talking about how branches were dying or how we wouldn’t need anymore,” Moriarty said. “But for small community banks or community banks in general, a physical presence will always be a necessity.”

 

By All Accounts

As he talked about the changes that have come to this sector since he entered the business more than 30 years ago, Senecal reflected on the building, and the office, he was sitting in.

This is the inverted-triangle-shaped office tower off I-91, across the street from the Holyoke Mall. It was once the headquarters to Heritage Bank, which famously failed amid excess and scandal in 1992, a time when many institutions were failing and the banking industry was in a state of turmoil.

Lauren Duffy

Lauren Duffy

“When I started working in credit unions almost 20 years ago, our financial services were fairly simple. It was a savings account, a checking account, and, most commonly, a car loan, a mortgage, or a personal loan. We’ve evolved with the economy and with the region, and it’s so complex now, the many things that we can offer.”

“The top floor here, the eighth floor, is much larger than the second floor, because of the shape of the building,” he explained. “Heritage had four offices on the eighth floor; we have maybe 30 on the second floor now. The eighth floor was extremely opulent. Joe Lobello, our president at the time, was pretty adamant that he did want the negative association of a failed bank; we were looking to move our headquarters, but he did not want to buy this building because of that negative association.

“Joe realized how inexpensive it would be to buy this building as opposed to building something new, so he finally acquiesced,” Senecal went on. “But my office is on the second floor because Joe did not want to be associated with the opulence of the eighth floor. Twenty-five or so years ago, Joe’s office was on the second floor, and today, my office is still here.”

Perhaps, but very little else about this sector is the same as it was a few decades ago. As noted earlier, institutions have disappeared, and many others have changed their name, in many cases dropping the word ‘Savings’ from the sign over the door because that word did not accurately reflect all that an institution could provide for its clients.

“When I started working in credit unions almost 20 years ago, our financial services were fairly simple,” said Duffy, speaking for other credit unions and banks as well. “It was a savings account, a checking account, and, most commonly, a car loan, a mortgage, or a personal loan. We’ve evolved with the economy and with the region, and it’s so complex now, the many things that we can offer — all the many things that we can do with cards and mobile apps, and all the ways we’re trying to be more accessible to people and really innovating around the idea of financial wellness.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch

“There’s not necessarily that loyalty now, especially when people can go online and see what others are paying on accounts or charging for fees or charging for loan rates. So you have to be more competitive.”

“That’s what credit unions were founded to address all those years ago,” she went on. “But we were addressing it in a more simple way 40 years ago than we are today.”

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts/Connecticut border, which wasn’t crossed by institutions based on either side years ago, is now readily crossed, with PeoplesBank advancing south, for example, and Liberty marching north.

The biggest change, though, has come in how people bank and the technology they use. It brings convenience, obviously, with people able to do almost everything by phone now.

This convenience brings expectations, on the part of consumers and commercial clients alike, Glidden said. “Everyone is trying to deliver that Amazon experience, and it’s of great importance today for a bank to stay up with what the consumer’s expectations are — and that’s higher, probably, than what banks have historically delivered.”

But this convenience also brings the ability to change banks quite easily, said Welch, which is forcing institutions of all sizes to pay even more attention to what the competition is doing and adjust to remain competitive.

“At the touch of a button, people can move their money anywhere, within seconds or minutes,” he said. “It used to be that you would have to go into the bank and have them draw up a cashier’s check, go down the street, sit down with someone to open a deposit account, and then move money over. Now, it can be done in an instant.

Dave Glidden

Dave Glidden

“Everyone is trying to deliver that Amazon experience, and it’s of great importance today for a bank to stay up with what the consumer’s expectations are — and that’s higher, probably, than what banks have historically delivered.”

“So there’s not necessarily that loyalty now, especially when people can go online and see what others are paying on accounts or charging for fees or charging for loan rates,” Welch went on. “So you have to be more competitive.”

Senecal agreed, noting that this is just one of the many pressures facing financial institutions today.

“Banks used to have 4% margins; getting out of bed, they had 4% margins — they didn’t have to do anything,” he explained. “Margins are down to 2.5% now and struggling to get to 3%. No banks in this country are enjoying those 4% margins we used to enjoy because information is so readily available that consumer behavior can change in an instant. You can move your money so fast, and that sort of competition drives attractive prices — it drives mortgage rates down, and it drives savings rates up, which squeezes margins.”

 

Points of Interest

This simple math explains why size is more important than ever before in this industry, and thus why the current pattern of mergers and acquisitions will continue into the future, with both banks and credit unions.

“It’s a consolidating industry, and we’ll continue to consolidate,” said Glidden, adding that, for a number of reasons, ranging from rising interest rates to the current administration in the White House, the pace of such transactions has slowed somewhat in recent years.

But consolidation will continue, he said, and especially on the community-bank level.

And while the number of banks continues to shrink, it is likely that there will be fewer of the traditional branches that have come to symbolize the industry, said Glidden, who worked for many of those institutions no longer here — Shawmut and then Bank of Western Massachusetts., for example — before arriving at SIS (which was later acquired by Banknorth, which was subsequently acquired by TD Bank), before moving on to Liberty.

He made it clear that branches are still critical to any institution’s success, and they provide great visibility. But there is no denying that use of these facilities continues to decline.

“Many of our younger generations have never been in a branch and probably never will be in a branch and are fine with a totally digital banking experience,” he said. “And this has really changed the dynamic of how we as bankers and financial advisers have to respond and engage our customers.

“Years ago, you might have gone to the branch once a week, or, if you were a small-business owner, you might go five times a week,” Glidden went on. “The reality now is that you might go the branch every two or three weeks, or you might go to it when you really have a question or problem you want resolved and you don’t want to do it through the call center or any of the other channels.”

As a result of these trends, banks are looking to maximize the visits that do happen, he said, while also thinking hard about consolidating their branches. He can see a day a bank with maybe 20 branches in an area like Greater Springfield might want to get down to 10.

Moriarty agreed that fewer people are visiting branches and those that do visit them less often, but he stressed that there will always be a need for such facilities.

“I feel that customers still want to come in and talk to someone, either to better understand a product or get advice or just get that face-to-face interaction because trust is a big part of the equation,” he told BusinessWest. “Down the road, we’ll still see that kind of interaction because people want and need it.”

Whether they will still need cash is another story, he went on, adding that, given the pace of change and the emergence of debit cards, he wonders how long consumers will still need coins and currency.

That might be the next chapter in the ongoing evolution of banks, credit unions, and the entire financial-services industry.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jacob Robinson

Jacob Robinson took the helm at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce earlier this month.

After relocating to Belchertown a few years ago, Jacob Robinson found himself a frequent visitor to nearby Amherst and admits to falling in love with its downtown — as many do.

He confided to BusinessWest that, on more than one occasion, while walking along South Pleasant Street and passing the building that houses the town’s chamber of commerce, business improvement district, and visitors’ center, he thought to himself, “how cool would it be to work in a place like that?”

And now … he gets to answer that question.

Indeed, late last month, Robinson was named executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, and he took the helm on April 1.

“No joke,” he said in reference to his start date, adding that what he likes about the job, and what prompted him to seek it, besides its mailing address, is that it involves high levels of collaboration and the fostering of partnerships, which he believes are personal and professional strengths gained from more than 15 years of work with various nonprofits, most recently the West Roxbury Main Streets program, which he served as director.

“There’s a special energy to this town,” he said when asked what attracted him to the position. “And I wanted to be part of it.”

Robinson’s arrival is one of the many converging storylines in this community, known for its liberal leanings; college-town character; rich mix of museums, restaurants, and other tourism and hospitality businesses; its reputation as a great community to retire to; and a bustling, ever-changing downtown.

“There’s a special energy to this town.”

Others include a nearly $50 million expansion and renovation of the Jones Library; a $2 million renovation of the North Common adjacent to Town Hall; new businesses, such as the Aster & Pine Market, a specialty store, which cut the ceremonial ribbon on April 20; and a number of ongoing residential and mixed-use projects that will address a perpetual need for more housing while also, in many cases, bringing more vibrancy to the downtown.

These include several being developed by the Roberts Group, including a much-anticipated re-imagining of the property (just a few doors down from the chamber) known as the Hastings Building, because it was home to the legandary office-supply store for more than a century, and new construction on adjacent property.

Hastings Building

An architect’s rendering of the planned mixed-use development at the Hastings Building and adjoining property on South Pleasant Street.

Barry Roberts, president of the Roberts Group, said plans call for six units of market-rate housing on the upper floors of the Hastings Building and the Amherst College bookstore on the ground floor, with work on the latter already underway, with the goal of that facility being open for commencement. The adjacent 55 South Pleasant St. will be torn down, as well as property that served as cold storage for Hastings, with a five-story property to be built on that site that will feature 16 units of market-rate housing.

Meanwhile, another, much larger project is being planned for the former Rafters sports bar property at the corner of University Drive and Amity Street, most recently home to Pleasantrees, a cannabis dispensary that closed after operating for only a year. The site will be transformed into 85 units of housing in two five-story buildings, as well as retail and office space (more on this later).

There are also some ongoing stories, such as the Drake, the live-event space that brings hundreds of people to the downtown for shows each week; White Lion Brewing Co., located in the same building as the Drake, which is still acclimating to doing business in Amherst six months after opening (more on that later as well); and the largest of these ongoing stories — continued recovery from the pandemic, which devasted a business community that is largely dependent on the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents from the surrounding colleges.

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Amherst, a community that is in a seemingly constant state of motion — and change.

 

What’s on Tap?

Ray Berry has been in business with White Lion, launched in Springfield, for several years now, but he told BusinessWest that his location in Amherst amounts to a learning experience on several levels, with new lessons every day.

Indeed, he said the intriguing nature of this community — it’s not just a college town, but a three-college town with two more just a few miles away — presents challenges and opportunities that are unique and require some … well, getting used to.

“As a business, we continue to learn from the ebb and flow of the Greater Amherst community; every day is a learning process.”

“As a business, we continue to learn from the ebb and flow of the Greater Amherst community; every day is a learning process,” he said. “Whether it’s the population coming and going or special events in the town, we continue to learn and appreciate; it’s all new to us.

“In Springfield, we have pretty much 24/7, 365-days-a-year activity — there’s plenty of activity, and we don’t have to incorporate the university population that’s close by,” he went on. “But in Amherst, we have to be very mindful of how the university and private-college student activity, and faculty activity, impact the day-to-day business community.”

Elaborating, he said White Lion, now proudly serving Marcus Camby New England IPA, which is especially popular in Amherst, has operated through winter break, spring break, St. Patrick’s Day, March Madness, and other annual happenings, but the learning process will continue when the colleges shut down, or mostly shut down, for the summer and then reopen in September.

Learning these ebbs and flows is part and parcel to doing business in Amherst, noted Robinson, who is on a learning curve himself. Indeed, while already quite familiar with the town, he will now take his knowledge to a much deeper dive, while also getting further acquainted with the other six towns represented by this chamber, all with their own distinct personalities: Belchertown, Hadley, Leverett, Pelham, Shutesbury, and Sunderland.

Since arriving, Robinson has been busy with everything from staging one of the chamber’s signature networking and fundraising events, Margarita Madness, to planning the next events, including After-5s, workshops, and a new-member reception coming up in May, as well as early-stage work to hire a new marketing and events coordinator for the chamber.

“I’ve had to hit the ground running,” he said, adding that the chamber position presented a unique opportunity for him to continue what he calls “community work,” as both a volunteer and a nonprofit leader, most recently with Main Streets program in West Roxbury.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,263
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.51
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.51
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Select Board, Town Meeting
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

He was commuting to that job from Belchertown — though also working remotely, to a large degree — when his brother-in-law brought the posting for the executive-director position at the Amherst Area Chamber to his attention. He applied with the intention of enthusiastically taking part in building on what he saw, heard, and experienced during all those visits to downtown Amherst — its restaurants, coffee shops, and theater.

“There is so much charm here; there’s the connection to the universities, the energy that comes from all those students, and the vibrancy of a town that’s connected to the college communities,” he said. “There’s a healthy mix of businesses and services, and that’s very telling of a dynamic and strong community here in downtown Amherst.”

 

Building Momentum

Long-term, the obvious goals are to continue building partnerships and creating collaborative efforts to promote the community, attract new businesses, and continue the ongoing recovery from the pandemic, which, as noted, hit this community perhaps harder than any other in the region because it shut down the Five Colleges and removed from the business equation tens of thousands of people and countless gatherings, from sporting events to commencements.

“It was very tough on everyone — it was shocking. Who would ever have imagined that the universities and the colleges would be closed for that length of time?” recalled Lisa Johnson, president of Encharter Insurance, the latest name on an Amherst institution that has been around since the late 1800s. “It was shocking to be on the streets and have them be so quiet.

“But the bounceback has been strong even though it took a while before people started coming out again, even the students,” she went on, adding that, perhaps because of the hard lessons learned during the pandemic and its aftermath, she believes the town and its business community are devoting more time and energy to attracting visitors while being slighly less dependent on the colleges.

Which is why she is encouraged by projects like the ones planned for Amity Street and the Hastings Building, initiatives that will bring more residents, but also opportunities for new businesses to settle in the community.

Roberts agreed, telling BusinessWest that, by and large, his ongoing projects are simply taking the names of their street addresses. Like ‘422 Amity.’

This is the the mixed-used project at the old Rafters property, and one that has the potential to change the landscape, in all kinds of ways.

The 85 units of housing will help meet an enormous need in that realm, he said, adding that the complex will bring new retail and new office tenants — and, therefore, more vibrancy — to that area just a few hundred yards from the UMass campus and a few blocks from downtown.

“It will even provide the town with the opportunity to apply for a Community Development Block Grant to put a roundabout at that crazy intersection there,” said Roberts, whose company has been, in a word, busy over the past few years.

Indeed, it has been involved in a number of initiatives, from the Drake project to bringing new tenants to several properties downtown, to another ambitious housing project, this one called 180 Fearing St., or simply One Eighty, which is in its final stages of construction and is fully rented through 2026.

The complex of duplexes features 22 versatile units ranging from studios to four bedrooms, said Roberts, adding that it has succeeded in attracting a wide range of tenants, from students and young families to professionals to retirees, which was the goal when it was put on the drawing board several years ago.

“This is an exciting project, and it has attracted an intriguing mix of tenants that really reflects the Amherst community — students, professionals, and retirees alike,” he said, adding that the same is expected from the project on the Hastings site, as well as another initiative in its early stages: the razing of a building across South Pleasant Street from the Drake — home to the former McMurphy’s bar and the Knights of Columbus — and construction of high-end condos (with accompanying parking) and commercial businesses on the street level.

“We’re still working on getting the permitting,” said Roberts, adding that this hurdle should soon be cleared, and another endeavor to bring more people, and vibrancy, to the downtown will be underway.

Business of Aging

Season of Change

By the Arbors Assisted Living

 

Senior planning presents significant challenges as society ages. Evolving care needs; quality of care; emotional, physical, and financial burdens on caregivers; social isolation and loneliness; and healthcare accessibility are all concerns families face when recognizing a need for change.

While change can be scary, it’s also an inevitable part of life and can lead to many positive outcomes, such as new opportunities and fresh perspectives. In regard to senior planning, here are some positive changes you may find in addition to improving the quality of life and overall well-being of your loved one:

Person-centered Care: There has been a shift towards person-centered care in senior living communities, focusing on individual preferences, needs, and goals. This approach emphasizes dignity, autonomy, and respect for seniors, allowing them to make choices about their daily routines, activities, and care.

Increased Focus on Wellness: Many senior living communities now offer comprehensive wellness programs designed to promote physical, emotional, and social well-being. These programs may include fitness classes, recreational activities, educational seminars, and mental-health support services.

“Many senior living communities now offer comprehensive wellness programs designed to promote physical, emotional, and social well-being. These programs may include fitness classes, recreational activities, educational seminars, and mental-health support services.”

Age-friendly Design: Senior living communities are incorporating age-friendly design principles to create environments that are accessible, comfortable, and supportive of older adults’ needs. This includes features such as wheelchair ramps, grab bars, non-slip flooring, and well-lit common areas.

Community Engagement: There is a growing emphasis on fostering community engagement and social connections among seniors in senior living settings. Communities offer social events, group outings, volunteer opportunities, and intergenerational programs to combat social isolation and loneliness.

Flexible Living Options: Senior living options have become more diverse and flexible to accommodate varying preferences and care needs. In addition to traditional assisted living and nursing home facilities, there are now more options for independent living, continuing-care retirement communities, and aging in place with home-care support.

Culinary Excellence: Senior living communities are elevating their dining experiences by offering restaurant-style dining, diverse menus, and nutritious meal options tailored to seniors’ dietary preferences and health needs.

Emphasis on Lifelong Learning: Senior living communities are providing opportunities for lifelong learning and personal enrichment through educational classes, workshops, and cultural activities. These programs help seniors stay mentally stimulated, engaged, and connected to their interests and passions.

Family Involvement and Support: Senior living facilities are recognizing the importance of involving families in the care and decision-making process. They may offer family-support services, communication channels, and family-engagement activities to foster collaboration and support among residents and their loved ones.

Advancements in Memory Care: For seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, there have been advancements in memory-care programs and specialized services. These programs focus on providing personalized care, sensory stimulation, and meaningful activities to enhance quality of life and preserve cognitive function.

 

Having the Conversation

Many families we encounter struggle with navigating this type of change with their loved ones. While we recognize the benefits and importance of senior planning, it’s important to understand that the seniors in our lives come from a different generation and may not fully grasp how much the industry has evolved.

Initiating a conversation can be the most challenging aspect. However, when explaining the need for change to a senior, it’s crucial to approach the discussion with empathy, respect, and clarity. Here’s how you might do so:

Acknowledge Feelings: Start by acknowledging any concerns or fears the senior may have about the proposed change. Let them know that it’s normal to feel apprehensive about new things, but change can also bring positive opportunities and improvements.

Highlight Benefits: Explain the reasons behind the proposed change and the potential benefits it could bring. For example, if you’re discussing a move to a senior living community, you might highlight the social opportunities, amenities, and support services available that could enhance their quality of life.

“If they’re concerned about losing independence, you could discuss how the new arrangement will still allow them to make decisions and maintain control over their life.”

Address Specific Concerns: Listen attentively to the senior’s concerns and address them one by one. Offer reassurance and practical solutions to alleviate any worries they may have. For instance, if they’re concerned about losing independence, you could discuss how the new arrangement will still allow them to make decisions and maintain control over their life.

Focus on Needs and Preferences: Emphasize how the proposed change aligns with the senior’s needs, preferences, and goals. Help them see how it could better meet their current and future needs, whether it’s improved safety, access to healthcare, or opportunities for socialization.

Involve Them in Decision Making: Involve the senior in the decision-making process and respect their autonomy. Encourage them to share their thoughts, preferences, and concerns, and consider their input when making plans for change. This can help them feel more empowered and in control of the situation.

Provide Support: Offer practical support and assistance throughout the transition process. This could include helping with logistics such as packing, moving, and settling into a new environment, as well as emotional support to help them adjust to the changes.

Highlight Past Successes: Remind the senior of times when they successfully navigated change in the past. Reflecting on past experiences of resilience and adaptability can help boost their confidence and willingness to embrace new challenges.

Offer Time and Patience: Give the senior time to process the information and adjust to the idea of change. Be patient and supportive, and avoid pressuring them to make decisions before they’re ready. Let them know that you’re there to support them every step of the way.

Stay Positive and Encouraging: Maintain a positive and encouraging attitude throughout the conversation. Focus on the potential opportunities and improvements that the change could bring, and express confidence in the senior’s ability to adapt and thrive in the new situation.

Follow Up and Check In: After the change has been implemented, continue to check in regularly with the senior to see how they’re adjusting and address any ongoing concerns or challenges. Offer ongoing support and encouragement as needed to help them navigate the transition successfully.

 

Conclusion

By approaching the conversation with empathy, understanding, and support, you can help your loved one feel more comfortable and confident about embracing change and navigating new opportunities in their life.

While we may be biased, we genuinely believe that embracing change during your loved ones’ golden years can be positive. As a family member, you’ll find comfort in knowing they’re receiving excellent care and enjoying a fulfilling experience.

Features Special Coverage

Seed Money

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan says the new report calls for admittedly significant financial investments — but that other regions have met such challenges with positive results.

The surprise was food science.

At least, that industry’s prominent place on a recent report outlining economic potential in Western Mass. was a mild surprise to some, Rick Sullivan said, but maybe it shouldn’t have been.

The report in question — commissioned and funded by the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC) and produced by MassINC and Cambridge Econometrics — is called “Accelerating Inclusive Growth in the Pioneer Valley: A Prospectus for Transformative Investment.”

At its heart, it determines that the Pioneer Valley has considerable strength in certain industries and technologies poised to grow with the transition to a low-carbon future, specifically detailing competitive advantages — and, hence, major economic opportunity — in the realms of food science, advanced materials, and clean energy.

Sullivan, EDC president and CEO, noted that Big Y Executive Chairman Charlie D’Amour, who sat on the project’s advisory group, knows his way around matters of food science, food security, and food-delivery systems. “And I think he didn’t even have any idea about how deep the work being done at UMass was and their leadership position in this field, and how we could tie it all in together. I mean, UMass has the number-one food-science program in the country. Who knew?”

When the report was released last month, D’Amour noted that Western Mass. should capitalize on disruptive changes in the food industry. “From biotechnologies under development at UMass to innovative efforts to support local food entrepreneurs, the Pioneer Valley is situated to generate broadly shared wealth, positioning itself as a leading producer of sustainable food products.”

The report makes a broad case for transformative investment, pointing out data showing that:

• The Pioneer Valley retains manufacturing strength, but lacks growing industry clusters;

• The Valley is underperforming relative to its potential to conduct research and development and commercialize new technology;

• GDP per capita in the Pioneer Valley is half that of Greater Boston and below the metro-area average for the U.S., heightening the need for new, high-growth clusters;

• Inflation-adjusted median household income in the Pioneer Valley grew by less than 5% over the past decade, compared to nearly 9% nationally and 12% for Massachusetts statewide; and

• High concentrations of poverty undermine the potential of the region’s future workforce.

The report also details success stories of transformative investment to the east and west, with high returns on investment: the Albany, N.Y. nanotech cluster, which drew on hundreds of millions in state funding and tax incentives; and the Worcester health research and biomanufacturing cluster, which is similar to the Albany model but achieved over a longer time period and with more modest state investment.

Javier Reyes

“As the Commonwealth’s land-grant university, our researchers make new discoveries and develop technologies that support local industry and prepare the workforce required for the Commonwealth to flourish in the decades ahead.”

“The Pioneer Valley certainly has the preconditions to compete globally in knowledge industries — it is home to the University of Massachusetts flagship campus at Amherst, along with 10 four-year colleges and three community colleges. Together, these institutions develop an enormous amount of talent, as well as a significant volume of basic and applied research,” the report notes, also highlighting the region’s abundant outdoor recreation opportunities, strong healthcare and hospital systems, an international airport, advanced manufacturers, and a rich food ecosystem, from farmers and specialty food producers to larger-scale food manufacturing.

Hence, the region is ripe for dramatic investment and growth in general, and in the three sectors the report focuses on — food science, advanced materials, and clean energy — specifically.

“With these indisputable economic assets, it is striking how little proactive economic-development investment the region has seen in the past several decades,” it continues. “Blinded by Boston’s enormous output, it is difficult for many to appreciate the true potential of the Pioneer Valley.”

UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes agrees. “UMass Amherst is committed to working closely with our partners in Western Massachusetts to play a central role in fostering economic development and growth for the benefit of our region,” he said. “As the Commonwealth’s land-grant university, our researchers make new discoveries and develop technologies that support local industry and prepare the workforce required for the Commonwealth to flourish in the decades ahead.”

But, as we will see, investment means money — lots of it.

 

Not a Small Ask

Specifically, the report calls for establishing what it calls a Fund for the Pioneer Valley — a dedicated pool of resources for transformative investment in advanced industries that positions the region for growth while supporting the state’s overall economic-development strategy as it relates to the clean-energy transition.

Charlie D’Amour

Charlie D’Amour

“From biotechnologies under development at UMass to innovative efforts to support local food entrepreneurs, the Pioneer Valley is situated to generate broadly shared wealth, positioning itself as a leading producer of sustainable food products.”

Based on similar efforts, the report calls for committing at least $50 million per year in state resources to targeted economic investments in the Pioneer Valley over a 10-year period: $400 million for a strategic portfolio of innovation investments, $90 million for site development, and $10 million for economic-development implementation capacity.

To help ensure that the fund makes worthy investments and that it fully leverages the state’s capital, the report continues, each allocation should leverage additional federal and private investment at a ratio of at least one-to-one, resulting in at least $1 billion in total investment in the Pioneer Valley economy over the next 10 years.

“I’ll be the first one to sit here and say that’s a big number,” Sullivan told BusinessWest, but the results of similar efforts in places like New York and Georgia have borne fruit, and investments in IT, life sciences, and even offshore wind in the eastern part of the Commonwealth haven’t generated much spillover for the Pioneer Valley economy — meaning this region needs its own targeted strategy.

“Is there a component where we will seek state investment? Yes. Will it involve federal investment? We hope so. But at the end of the day, if it’s going to truly be successful, there has to be the private investment on the other side,” Sullivan added, pointing to the example of Clean Crop Technologies, which BusinessWest profiled in its March 18 issue, and which hopes to revolutionize food safety and production in the green-tech sector.

“Other companies are, if not outright investing in Clean Crop, they’re working with or contracting with them. Those are dollars that are coming into the region from well outside the region, and from companies that have typically not played in this region,” Sullivan explained.
“So for this to be successful for the long term, there absolutely has to also be that private investment. This cannot just be a government initiative. It can start as a government initiative, but it clearly must have private investment.”

While the federal government has been discussing ways to transition to a low-carbon future — and, in so doing, spur new forms of economic activity in metropolitan areas across the U.S. — Gov. Maura Healey has called for the development of a clean-energy corridor across all of Massachusetts, and the investments suggested in the report could dovetail with that effort.

Jay Ash

“This research illuminates promising opportunities unique to the Pioneer Valley as we develop low-carbon technologies. We must work together to help the region tap these opportunities to generate strong and equitable growth.”

“This research illuminates promising opportunities unique to the Pioneer Valley as we develop low-carbon technologies,” said Jay Ash, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership. “We must work together to help the region tap these opportunities to generate strong and equitable growth.”

In the clean-energy realm, the report notes that the Valley has been a regional leader in clean energy, with ISO New England headquartered in Holyoke, extensive hydroelectric power (Holyoke Gas & Electric and FirstLight), early adoption of solar generation (conversion of the Mount Tom coal-fired power plant), and an effort to promote equitable business ownership and workforce training in the sector in partnership with the Emerald Cities Collaborative.

“Despite these advances, the region has struggled to define its economic role in the clean-energy transition,” it adds. “A robust strategy is critical because the clean-energy transition is the largest market opportunity by several orders of magnitude. Efforts to decarbonize the economy are drawing $2.8 trillion in investment globally each year, and estimates suggest spending must increase to $4.5 trillion annually to reach net zero by 2050. The Healey-Driscoll state economic-development plan seeks to position the entire Commonwealth to complete for this investment.”

Clean tech is a broad umbrella, Sullivan said, and includes the region’s broad research involving water — security, delivery systems, purification, and more — much of it from UMass, but also from a host of small companies.

“There’s a real opportunity to grow that. We’re looking at sectors that are only going to be more important in five and 10 years, not less,” he added. “The issues around water — water purity, water scarcity, water delivery — those aren’t going to go away. And they’re international problems. So that market is always going to be there. It’s an area that will grow.

“It’s the same thing with food,” he went on. “With climate change and global warming, the issue of how we raise, grow, deliver, and manufacture food isn’t going away. These are transformative in the sense that they’re sectors that are not totally built out — and they fit into the fabric of who we are as a community. They are environmentally based for the most part, particularly food science and clean tech. And they’re not going to go away.”

 

Drawing on Strengths

The report, which also drew financial support from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Davis Foundation, MassDevelopment, and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, is available online at www.westernmassedc.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/white-paper-FINAL.pdf, and includes exponentially more detail than this article can convey, including specific ventures (along with specific dollar figures) by which the sectors of food science, advanced-materials, and clean energy may be cultivated.

The vision is to create clusters that become nationally recognized, drawing more companies and more investment, and make Western Mass. a dynamic and attractive place to launch businesses of all kinds, raising all boats, so to speak.

That was the goal of the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA), established in 1990. That nonprofit, public-private partnership was created to help industry, research universities, and state government agencies collaborate to build a technology-driven economy fueled by advanced research.

The state of Georgia provides the alliance with about $23 million annually to support its operations, from recruiting top research talent to building state-of-the-art labs. GRA also provides seed funding, legal assistance, and other services to support the researchers as they work to move their discoveries to the marketplace.

The result? Since its founding, GRA estimates it has produced a return on investment approaching $12 billion.

“We didn’t invent that model. That’s what’s happened in biotech, and that’s what’s happened in Upstate New York and in Georgia,” Sullivan said. “We’re looking to be the catalyst to get this thing to move, to show that it can work. Somebody has to tell the story of why this makes sense for Western Mass., and that’s an important part of this report. That, and we had to pick sectors that made sense.”

Ben Forman, MassINC research director and co-author of the study, is eager to see the state act with urgency.

“We have overlooked the Pioneer Valley for decades, jeopardizing its economic base,” he said. “It’s time to recognize and build on the region’s considerable economic assets.”

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Golden Opportunity

OT programs at Bay Path

While the OT programs at Bay Path involve plenty of classroom time (as pictured here), students are doing innovative work in the community as well.
Photo by Leah Martin Photography

 

When Dr. Julie Watson arrived at Bay Path University, she recognized a rapidly growing population in need of occupational therapy: senior citizens.

So Watson — who directs Bay Path’s health science doctorate, master of public health, and post-professional occupational therapy doctorate programs — had an idea to enrich the post-professional OT doctorate program, which is for working occupational therapists seeking their clinical doctorate while they practice.

“Given my experience with older adults and caregivers, I saw a need to have something that focuses on the aging U.S. population. Almost a quarter of the population is going to be older than age 65 by 2030.”

So she developed a concentration for the OTD program called productive aging. “It focuses on the idea that older adults can remain active and productive even as they’re aging — that we can maximize the independence of older adults so they can stay in their homes and continue to engage in activities that are important to them, whether that’s working part-time or volunteering or spending time with their grandkids or even leisure activities like gardening.”

As noted, the track started as a concentration for the post-professional OTD program. “Then we launched a doctor of health science degree, and I wanted to incorporate the concentration into that as well. Then we had a re-evaluation of our master of public health program. And what’s more public health than a population-based approach for older adults?

“So it became an interdisciplinary concentration,” she explained, “where students from a variety of backgrounds can come together and take four courses that prepare them to address these needs of a lot of older adults in our communities.”

“It focuses on the idea that older adults can remain active and productive even as they’re aging — that we can maximize the independence of older adults so they can stay in their homes and continue to engage in activities that are important to them, whether that’s working part-time or volunteering or spending time with their grandkids or even leisure activities like gardening.”

Those four course descriptions go a long way toward explaining how the concentration puts the ideas behind productive aging to use in the community, to help older people maximize their independence and quality of life:

• “Aging in Place” examines supports to keep people in their homes, maintaining their independence in the community — and also barriers that prevent them from doing so.

• “Chronic Disease Management for Older Adults” acknowledges that older adults are faced with many chronic diseases, from congestive heart failure to cancer, and discusses strategies to help them with their chronic conditions, to improve their outcomes and their quality of life.

• “Specialized Assessment” takes a public-health approach to evaluating communities — and the services available in those communities — to make sure they’re meeting older adults’ needs when it comes to infrastructure and programs in place to support older adults.

• Finally, “Neuroscience of Aging and Impact on Mental Health” examines the neurological changes that can happen with older adults, including cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

“I love working with older adults so much. When I was a clinical OT, I enjoyed that specific aspect of my practice,” Watson said, noting that most Baby Boomers coming from hospital care or simply dealing with normal aging want to stay in their homes, which has led to a boom in home care.

Dr. Julie Watson

Dr. Julie Watson

“It’s a win-win because students are getting the experience working with older adults, and the older adults are getting much-needed services that allow them to remain independent and have a higher quality of life.”

“I think we’re poised for a shift in how we meet the needs of older adults; we want to be educating the practitioners, the healthcare professionals, about these needs in advance.”

 

Changing Times

In a widely read article last fall, the the New York Times editorial board addressed these growing needs.

“Thanks to falling birth rates, longer life expectancy, and the graying of the Baby Boomer cohort, our society is being transformed,” the editorial board wrote. “This is a demographic change that will affect every part of society. Already, in about half the country, there are more people dying than being born, even as more Americans are living into their 80s, 90s, and beyond. In 2020, the share of people 65 or older reached 17%, according to the Census Bureau. By 2034, there will be more Americans past retirement age than there are children.”

The purpose of the article was partly to call attention to the economic impact of the shift. In Japan, for instance, declining births combined with a surging senior population has caused a wave of school closings, labor shortages, and a steep drop in revenue for retirement programs, causing Japanese people to increasingly work into their 60s and 70s. But the writers also noted opportunities when it comes to the business of aging.

“A cottage industry of products and services has emerged to help people adjust their homes and their lives for aging. A demographic shift this significant calls for a broad-based response, and the longer the challenges go unaddressed, the more formidable they become,” they wrote. “There are many pieces to this puzzle, including who will care for older people, where they will live, how our cities are designed, and how businesses will adapt.”

One barrier, of course, is funding, Watson noted.

“You’re dealing with federal, state, city, and county budgets, and this isn’t a high priority in a lot of places,” she told BusinessWest. “So, the ideas are well-received, and public-health and healthcare professionals know they’re needed, but — aside from councils on aging in all our local communities — there hasn’t been a huge shift in funding for the types of services that are needed. But we need to make these things happen, and it would be great if we could see federal, state, and local investment money into this sort of thing.”

The students at Bay Path are already applying their education to the community in ways that are mutually beneficial. The master of occupational therapy students work with faculty at Ruth’s House, an assisted-living community in Longmeadow, and also participate in a monthly stroke support group at the Enfield Senior Center.

Nora Moreno Cargie

Nora Moreno Cargie

“We are inclusive and center the work in community. These initiatives originated with older people, including people of color, people from the LGBTQ+ community, and others facing systemic barriers, demonstrating the power of proximity and the creativity of community.”

The OT department has also held an event that helps older drivers adjust their cars for optimum safety, and OTD students do projects educating healthcare practitioners and families about services available in the community for older adults.

“When we have the students out in the community with practitioners,” Watson said, “it’s a win-win because students are getting the experience working with older adults, and the older adults are getting much-needed services that allow them to remain independent and have a higher quality of life.”

 

Age-friendly Developments

Bay Path’s heightened attention on aging reflects a national demographic shift that began a couple decades ago and continues today: a U.S. population whose average age is on the rise.

That reality inspired a podcast launched by the Healey-Driscoll administration last fall called ReiMAgine Aging, which aims to tell the story of the age- and dementia-friendly movement taking place in Massachusetts.

The podcast highlights efforts to make Massachusetts a better place to grow older, including updating infrastructure, promoting volunteer and employment opportunities, expanding affordable supportive housing, increasing transportation options, supporting caregivers, and improving digital access.

“Equity, access, and justice are foundational to the age- and dementia-friendly movement,” Secretary of Elder Affairs Elizabeth Chen said when the podcast was unveiled. “We are grateful to the older adults, caregivers, communities, and organizations who shape and lead this work and who have helped us reframe aging to be an asset.”

The podcast, accessible at mahealthyagingcollaborative.org/reimagine-aging, highlights voices from statewide and community leaders, older adults, and nonprofits through six episodes: “Aging with Purpose and Meaning,” “Buildings That Bring People Together,” “Enhancing Digital Equity for All,” “Moving Forward,” “Savoring Food That Matters,” and “Shaping Compassionate Communities.”

The podcast was produced in partnership with the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative with funding from Point32Health Foundation.

“The country is looking to Massachusetts as a leader in the age-friendly movement,” said Nora Moreno Cargie, Point32Health Foundation president. “We are inclusive and center the work in community. These initiatives originated with older people, including people of color, people from the LGBTQ+ community, and others facing systemic barriers, demonstrating the power of proximity and the creativity of community.”

At Bay Path, Watson is gratified to see faculty and students to do their part in creating that paradigm.

“The productive-aging concentration is very unique in higher education, and the fact that we have students at different levels who have the opportunity to develop programs and interact with people in the community while they’re learning … it’s just a special thing.”

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Going by the Book

Development Associates President Ken Vincunas

Development Associates President Ken Vincunas

 

Ken Vincunas says he’s long kicked around the idea of writing a book, one that would call on nearly 40 years of experience in the broad realms of development and commercial real estate.

He even has a working title: What’s the Rent?

That’s a simple question, one that property owners and leasing agents probably get asked every day, and hopefully several times a day, said Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates, which has a broad portfolio of office, retail, and industrial properties across Western Mass. and into Connecticut. But coming up with an answer is usually anything but simple.

“There have to be 20 subjective factors and no objective factors that go into this, and every time one of them comes up, you have to hope that you have the experience to know your market, know your tenant, know your building, know your rates, and try to make a deal that’s fair to everyone and keep the place leased,” he said, adding that COVID and its aftereffects, including the strong movement toward remote work and hybrid schedules, have only further complicated this equation, as we’ll see.

While addressing the rent question, Vincunas said his book — if and when he ever gets around to writing it — would also include some case studies, and there are many he can piece together involving the myriad scenarios he and others in this business face regularly.

“There are things that can’t possibly happen, but they do,” he explained. “Like this … you get no one for a space for six months, and then, you have two people. The one you want is slow and can’t quite figure out, but they’re a better prospect; the one you don’t really want is champing at the bit — ‘let’s go, we’re ready.’ What do you do? That’s probably happened 15 times to me; it’s really something.”

“There have to be 20 subjective factors and no objective factors that go into this, and every time one of them comes up, you have to hope that you have the experience to know your market, know your tenant, know your building, know your rates, and try to make a deal that’s fair to everyone and keep the place leased.”

As he talked about this book waiting to be written, Vincunas said he’s always calling on the years of experience that would go into it, especially at this time of challenge in commercial real estate and development, one he summed up quickly and effectively by saying, “we would look to acquire things if prices were fine or if we had a tenant lined up, but we’re in no hurry, and we’re going to hope for better times in the next seven to eight months.”

Elaborating, he noted that, on the development side, this is mostly a time to hit pause, noting that several colliding factors — from higher interest rates to the still-climbing costs of materials; from supply-chain issues to mandates for electric heat — are making this a difficult time to build.

And on the leasing side of the equation, it’s a time to tough out those aforementioned challenges, try to keep buildings full, and take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. He’s doing all that at the Greenfield Corporate Center, where a large (as in 55,000-square-foot) vacancy, left by the Greenfield District Court when it moved back to downtown Greenfield and a new facility there, has been mostly backfilled.

The StubHub Building in East Granby

The StubHub Building in East Granby, acquired by Development Associates in early 2020, is still vacant, but the company is optimistic this will soon change.

“We had counted on them staying — government contracts never come in on time,” he said with a laugh, referring to the construction of a new courthouse, which did come in on time, adding that the vacant space has been largely filled by an allergist, a CPA, the Sheriff’s Department, and other tenants, and the two buildings on the property are mostly occupied.

And Vincunas and his team are doing it at other properties as well, which are seeing those colliding forces from COVID, including businesses eyeing less space, in many cases, with fewer people coming to the office to work, but also different space as it comes on the market and deals can be made.

Meanwhile, DA, as his firm is called, is pushing ahead with some new projects, including a 55,000-square-foot office building in East Granby, Conn., known as the StubHub Building, which it acquired just prior to the pandemic in 2020, and nearby property — a five-acre parcel and a larger 19-acre parcel — that awaits development.

“The industrial market is exceedingly tight — purchase prices have doubled, at least. No one can afford to build with the high interest rates and the high cost of construction. Those who had industrial space in place could rent it for much more than they could have years ago.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Vincunas about everything from the state of the market, and the many factors that go into the current picture, to the manner in which he’s calling on all of his experience in these different — and challenging — times.

 

The Next Chapters

As he talked with BusinessWest about the Development Associates portfolio of existing properties and what might come next, Vincunas got up from his chair and retrieved a piece of paper thumbtacked to a board hanging next to his desk.

It was a timetable of sorts for the project in Northampton that has come to be called the Atwood campus. And he marveled that it has been 13 years since the former Clarion Hotel & Conference Center was demolished to make way for the office complex that sits there now.

The Atwood campus in Northampton

The Atwood campus in Northampton is one of the many success stories scripted by Development Associates.

The Atwood campus is one of many success stories in the DA portfolio. The three buildings on the property are full, with tenants ranging from Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Clinical & Support Options to several professionals. And while the success of the complex would seem to welcome development of another office building on the remaining space within the footprint, current conditions, including ongoing questions about the long-term strength and resiliency of the office market, but also the soaring costs of building, dictate caution, Vincunas said.

“We’d love to do it, but you have to have some pre-leasing,” he told BusinessWest. “And how much is the rent a year and a half from now? When you commit to someone today, you say, ‘you’re going to take 30% to 40% of the building.’ Sure, we’ll start building it, hope we get some others, and carry on with you until we get them. But what’s the rent a year and a half from now? It’s not easy to know.”

These sentiments reflect the high levels of challenge and uncertainty, but also opportunity, that define the commercial real-estate market at present, he said, adding that some segments of this market are doing very well, especially industrial — again, because building new is not an attractive option, and also because the work done at these facilities, be it manufacturing or warehousing, can’t be done remotely.

“So the industrial market is exceedingly tight — purchase prices have doubled, at least,” he said, noting that the same is true of lease rates. “No one can afford to build with the high interest rates and the high cost of construction. Those who had industrial space in place could rent it for much more than they could have years ago.”

Meanwhile, the office market is certainly slower, but there is movement as leases expire and business owners mull options, which bode well for properties like the StubHub Building, which remains vacant but may soon be landing a federal agency, said Vincunas, adding that DA acquired the property knowing it would take some time to lease it out, and COVID only exacerbated that challenge.

Greenfield Corporate Center

Development Associates has been successful in backfilling space at the Greenfield Corporate Center.

“It’s a very solid, very attractive building, and we know it’s going to work based on the price that we paid,” he said, adding that those same sentiments apply to the five-acre parcel just down busy Route 20, where DA is envisioning a a retail complex at that location, as well as the larger, 19-acre parcel. In both cases, the company can afford to be patient.

“I’m bullish on that whole area,” he said. “There are 400-plus apartments being built within three miles, so that whole area, in our estimation, is going to take off.”

 

The Plot Thickens

As he assessed the current office market, Vincunas said that, despite the convictions of many in this business that workers will eventually return to the office because companies function more efficiently if people are all in one place, the reality is that remote work and hybrid schedules are very likely here to stay.

That means most of those same businesses have decisions to make as leases expire, about how much space they need and where they want to be. And for those trying to keep buildings full, or as full as possible, it means working hard with both existing tenants, to keep them in some capacity, while also trying to attract those using their own expiring leases to explore the many other opportunities presenting themselves.

He’s seeing that at several of the DA properties, including Greenfield, where that successful backfilling is ongoing, and also 200 Silver St. in Agawam, where the company is trying to fill a vacancy left by a departing fitness center.

“Overall, you have to know your market and try to strike a balance. People don’t want to move, and people have options. And each situation is different. If you know the people love the location and the building, they might feel more strongly about staying where they are, and you work with them to make that happen.”

“We’re entertaining two companies in the insurance business; one wants to get out of Springfield, and one wants to consolidate its offices,” he said, adding that these are some of the forces impacting the market at present, ones that create uncertainly and volatility, but also opportunities, especially in smaller communities and smaller office facilities.

But there are risks everywhere, he added quickly, noting that, across the broad office market, the trends toward consolidation and putting fewer people in smaller spaces cast long shadows over the market.

To manage these sea changes, real-estate firms must call on their experience and handle each case individually.

“Overall, you have to know your market and try to strike a balance,” Vincunas said. “People don’t want to move, and people have options. And each situation is different. If you know the people love the location and the building, they might feel more strongly about staying where they are, and you work with them to make that happen.”

Returning to that aforementioned book he’s looking to write and its unofficial title, he reiterated that each case is different and each time is different, and companies like Development Associates must adjust to the conditions at that moment in time.

“When it comes to office space, you’re either in a strong position or a weak position, and you have to respond accordingly,” he said. “It’s the same as ever.”

Sales and Marketing Special Coverage

Getting the Message Across

 

Marketing and communications in 2024 are evolving further, with no signs of slowing down. The year ahead promises groundbreaking shifts, from artificial intelligence revolutionizing marketing and user engagement to big brands capitalizing on social media’s bite-sized content for enhanced product exposure. Add to this the rise of immersive digital experiences, and you have a transformative landscape. Here’s what the experts at the integrated marketing agency 9Rooftops have to say:

 

Creative Shifts: Renewed Nostalgia and Inspiration

By Scott Seymour

Adaptable Personalization: With advancements in customization and AI workflows, new opportunities arise to resonate in ways we never thought possible. People will have the freedom to consume content tailored specifically for them. The ability to create adaptable creative to match someone’s current mood or their desired need state is worth exploring. Then, having the design expressed in a way that is completely in sync with their personal aesthetic preferences will be incredibly valuable.

Minimalism and Decluttering: Now more than ever, with massive amounts of information coming at us at any given moment, a movement toward simplification is welcomed. Reducing clutter throughout all aspects of our lives, including incoming communications, allows people to truly focus on what matters most without unnecessary distractions. Carefully curated content and purposeful design choices will genuinely deliver on the principle that less is more.

“With advancements in customization and AI workflows, new opportunities arise to resonate in ways we never thought possible.”

Fantastical Inspiration: Sparked by AI image generation and fueled by possibility, we anticipate an acceleration of surreal, fantastical styles that provoke a sense of wonder and escapism. A hyper-real utopian aesthetic blurs the lines between reality and imagination. With this extraordinary style of captivating imagery, surreal illumination, and dreamlike color palettes, they will continue to delight and defy reality.

Rise of Kindness: Acts of kindness uplift people when they need it most. Brands that tap into this concept will deepen connections with their consumers in new ways. This will promote empathy, fostering a sense of gratitude that can be contagious.

Nostalgia Reimagined: Fueled by a need for authenticity, optimism, and a desire for what’s next, a foundation of shared nostalgic cultural connections, themes, and designs will create stronger social bonds. Blending this charm with a modern twist will keep things fresh and interesting.

 

Social Media Shifts: Connecting Through Social-first Tactics

By Julia Repisky

TikTok: It’s no surprise that this social-media platform will continue to reign; in fact, TikTok is anticipated to increase its user base to 900 million, an 8% increase, so being active is more paramount than ever in 2024, especially as the audience continues to diversify beyond just kids.

Bite-sized Content: Short, easily digestible content led TikTok and Instagram reels to their huge success, especially as attention spans continue to shrink. People want content they can consume in seconds, and your brand should be able to deliver that in an authentic way.

SEO on Social: Gen Z and Millennials rely on social for more than entertainment. About 40% of young adults between 18 and 24 use social media like a search engine, meaning you’ll need to go beyond just hashtags to hit the right keywords to make your social presence known.

Hybrid, AI Content: The AI buzz won’t calm down anytime soon and will become an integral part of social-media content creation, whether to help with inspiration, optimize content, or create something completely new. Don’t be afraid to play around with what AI can help you do.

Raw, Authentic Content: Social media isn’t the place for polished product placement anymore. Users don’t want perfection, but a feed full of relatable, highly (or even completely) unedited content that feels natural. In 2024, aim for less overanalyzing and creating more content in the moment.

 

Customer Relationship Management: Emerging Patterns and Insights

By Jenny Brenner

Decisioning and Personalization Relevancy: This has always been a key driver in connecting effectively with prospects and customers, and with new AI tools aiming to decrease technical barriers, automate, and ease integration, anticipate an even higher baseline for personalized product offerings, content, and communications in the marketplace. Revisit your personalization capabilities to ensure you’re scoring and maximizing output across transactional, behavioral, and situational data.

Zero-Party Data Campaigns: They’re not going anywhere, gaining popularity in 2023 as an initial outcome of cookie-deprecation announcements. Expect brands to continue to take advantage of these for turnkey data collection and application, which are well-suited for on-the-fly personalization, situational and environmental touchpoints, and driving conversion-rate optimization results.

Interactivity: In an increasingly digital environment, it’s even more challenging for brands to break through the clutter in inboxes and experiences. Increasing the interactivity of your digital touchpoints, from email to MMS/SMS, can help significantly boost engagement and results. Make interactive features and formats, like GIFs, quizzes, and countdown clocks a regular part of your digital brand experience to engage customers and deliver offers and content in a unique and memorable way.

Experiential Rewards: Engaging loyalty-program members requires a blend of transactional and emotional benefits. While transactional benefits — discounts, offers, points — can drive direct replenishment and purchase retention, incorporating experiences, whether gamified or as exclusive rewards, can drive brand differentiation, preference, and loyalty. Pilot a gamified or exclusive experiential element in your loyalty program to spark member interest and engagement.

“In an increasingly digital environment, it’s even more challenging for brands to break through the clutter in inboxes and experiences.”

Prioritizing Customer Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): Increases in consumer privacy policy will continue into 2024, and as key platforms and providers decrease the amount of data shared back to marketers, brands need to find alternative measurement solutions across digital ecosystems. Prioritize defining, regularly calculating, and placing weight on customer-centric metrics alongside campaign KPIs in 2024 to provide a bigger picture of your campaign’s impact on ultimate goals: changing key behaviors and growing customer lifetime value.

 

Experience Marketing: Transformational Engagement

By Kate Bradbury

Immersive Digital Experiences: The introduction of the Sphere in Las Vegas has sparked a ton of excitement around the power of immersive artistic experiences where visual, sound, and physical form all come together in awe-inspiring ways. Advances in technology have made production more flexible and affordable for smaller-scale events. Moreover, discussing experiential marketing ROI through data science remains a way forward to measure results for a diversity of experience marketing strategies.

Scalable and Reusable: Efficient execution and long-term thinking around event assets will be critical as larger economic trends put pressure on marketing budgets. Creating event platforms that can scale up and down and reusable assets can help stretch marketing dollars. Plus, reusable assets help make events more sustainable.

Tech-powered Personalization and Customization: AI has seen a rapid technological increase and adoption rates. We think AI will enhance targeting and customization exponentially, allowing marketers to build dynamic experiences precisely tailored to their consumers from beginning to end. AI will also allow for consumer-driven, personalized experiences.

Exclusivity: FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, and post-COVID consumers are again placing an emphasis on gathering once-in-a-lifetime-style memories and experiences. Highly curated events with a level of exclusivity are a perfect fit for the right brand and can be magnified via an influencer approach.

“Online shopping is more convenient than ever, so if people are going to spend time going to a store, they want something special.”

Experiential Retail and Pop-ups: Online shopping is more convenient than ever, so if people are going to spend time going to a store, they want something special. Creating unique experiences with the full transformation of spaces or launching memorable pop-up shops are ways for brands to stand out. These dynamic and bespoke experiences help drive social sharing, additional brand impressions, and customer loyalty.

 

Digital Experience: Advancements in Personalization and AI

By Patti Mulligan

Hyper-personalization: As the practice of being treated as a unique individual increases loyalty, the demand for personalized experiences will continue to grow. AI will be increasingly reliant on analyzing customer data to facilitate these experiences. In fact, AI will offer real-time personalization of user experiences, which may result in immediate data analysis. An AI algorithm will immediately analyze a user’s actions on platforms, including clicks, navigation, and internal search queries, and adjust the website page’s products.

Sustainability: Developers will focus on improving performance of digital solutions, requiring less from servers and networks. There is a general concern across the spectrum of designers, developers, users, and customers who are committed to social responsibility and the environmental impacts of their experiences and products.

AI Integration: This is an obvious trend that is only gaining traction from development tools for more efficient coding to image generation and behavior insights. In fact, by 2030, the global revenue forecast for AI is projected to reach a mind-numbing $1.3 billion. Every big brand is traversing the AI landscape, including Google’s generative AI search experience. In theory, this will result in more data-driven designs that revolve around user insights.

Immersive Experiences: AR and VR will grow in usage and popularity and will be used increasingly to enable product interactions that are key to encouraging customer loyalty. Future evolutions will allow for virtual stores, enhanced product visualizations and experiences, and interactive product demonstrations. AR already enables virtual try-ons, which allows users to see how products look on them with their smartphones, helping encourage more confidence in the purchase process. Moreover, AR personalization allows you to see if that sofa looks right in your living room, or if that hat you found online will match your sport coat. Expect all these examples to evolve and expand into more consumer use cases.

Accessibility: A timeless requirement rather than a trend, accessibility should never fall out of the limelight. With one in four Americans having a disability, it is imperative for all users to be able to access websites. By implementing ADA guidelines, the benefits to companies are great as accessibility fosters inclusivity and quality, expands audiences, builds brand image and reputation, and prevents costly litigation.

 

The Creator Economy: New Influences

By Pamela Pacheco

Brand and Influencer Collaborations: Influencer marketing has become an integral part of brand promotion. In a 2023 Influencer Marketing Hub survey, an overwhelming 83% of respondents said they believe influencer marketing continues to be effective. Now, brands are taking it a step further by collaborating with influencers to create new products. This approach enables brands to leverage the influencer’s creativity and knowledge of their audience, resulting in more authentic products for their target audience. It also generates greater engagement and loyalty among consumers. This mutually beneficial collaboration between brands and influencers has proven to be effective in enhancing the overall success of marketing campaigns and will continue to evolve during 2024.

Social Commerce: In 2024, the alliance between influencer marketing and social commerce is set to rewrite the rules of online shopping. As the annual average social commerce sales per buyer is projected to grow 21.3% (according to an eMarketer report) this year and social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube continue to incorporate shopping features, influencers will act as the center, providing first-hand product reviews, live demonstrations, and real-time purchasing guidance to their audiences. This trend will enhance the shopping experience and offer brands a dynamic way to reach and convert consumers directly within their favorite social platforms.

“In a fun twist, employees are stepping into the spotlight as new influencers, leveraging their connection to the brand’s values and culture to cultivate deeper trust and engagement with consumers.”

Brand Employees Become Influencers: As this industry continues to evolve, brands are recognizing the potential within their staff. In a fun twist, employees are stepping into the spotlight as new influencers, leveraging their connection to the brand’s values and culture to cultivate deeper trust and engagement with consumers. Employees turned influencers will be encouraged to share their experiences, opinions, and knowledge about the brand to create authentic content that fosters deeper connections with consumers. So how are brands selecting these employees? They look for employees who are active on social media, have a considerable following, and possess strong communication skills. Now, anyone from the CEO to a sales associate can become a brand ambassador.

Macro- and Micro-Influencers Combine: The combination of macro- and micro-influencers will become a popular strategy for brands looking to diversify their audience reach and engagement in the world of influencer marketing. Macro-influencers typically have a larger following and higher social-media reach, while micro-influencers are more relatable and have a more niche following, which can result in higher engagement rates. By combining both types of influencers, brands can create a marketing campaign that appeals to a wide range of consumers and generates a higher level of engagement and loyalty.

Community-centric Influence: Influencers will shift their focus from chasing follower counts to nurturing social communities. This trend emphasizes meaningful engagements, discussions, and immersive experiences within niche communities, reshaping the influencer landscape.

 

 

Scott Seymour is executive vice president and chief creative officer, Julia Repisky is senior content and social media strategist, Jenny Brenner is group director of digital strategy and CRM solutions, Kate Bradbury is managing director, Patti Mulligan is vice president and director of digital experience, and Pamela Pacheco is senior social media strategist at 9Rooftops.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

planned redevelopment of the former Wilson’s department store

An architect’s rendering of the planned redevelopment of the former Wilson’s department store into a mix of retail and housing.

Virginia “Ginny” Desorgher is a retired emergency-room nurse, mother of three, and grandmother of nine.

She had no real desire to add ‘mayor of Greenfield’ to that personal profile, but Desorgher, a transplant from the eastern part of the state and, by this time last year, a veteran city councilor and chair of the Ways and Means Committee, decided that change was needed in this city of almost 18,000.

So she ran for mayor. And she won — handily. And now that she’s been in the job for three months, she can see many similarities between being an ER nurse and being the CEO of a city.

In both settings, there is a need for triage, she explained, noting that, in the ER and with this city, there is a steady stream of cases, or issues, to be dealt with, and they must be prioritized.

“You just have to take care of the thing that’s the most important at the time and try to keep everyone happy,” she said while trying to sum up both jobs.

There is also a need for communication.

Indeed, in the ER, Desorgher said she made a habit of visiting the waiting room and talking with the patients here, explaining why their wait was so long and asking them if they needed something to eat or drink or maybe some ice for their broken ankle. As mayor, she sees a similar need to communicate, whether it’s with other city officials, residents, neighbors of the Franklin County Fairgrounds, or business owners — a constituency she heard from at a recent gathering she described as a “listening session,” during which she received input on many subjects, but especially parking.

“You just have to take care of the thing that’s the most important at the time and try to keep everyone happy.”

“I thought I kind of knew how much people cared about parking,” she said. “Now I really know that parking is quite an issue.”

But while that subject remains mostly a sore spot for this community, there is momentum on many different fronts, and what Desorgher and others described as ‘game changers’ — or potential game changers — in various stages of development.

That list includes the much-anticipated adaptive reuse of the former Wilson’s department store into a mix of retail (in the form of an expanded Green Fields Market) and housing, both of which are expected to breathe new life into the downtown.

“The initial impact on foot traffic downtown from 61 new units will be extraordinary,” said Amy Cahillane, the city’s Community and Economic Development director, adding that the project is being designed to bring these new residents into the downtown area.

It also includes the prospects for the city becoming a stop on what’s being called the ‘northern tier’ of proposed east-west rail service — one that will in many ways mirror Route 2 — as well as the pending arrival of both a Starbucks and an Aldi’s grocery story near the rotary off I-91 exit 43 and a massive redesign of Main Street, now likely to start in 2027.

Together, these game changers — coupled with some new businesses downtown; efforts to inspire and support entrepreneurship, including a new pitch contest called Take the Floor; collective efforts to bring more visitors to Greenfield and the surrounding area, especially at its oldest continuously operating fairgrounds in the country; and a greater sense of collaboration among business and economic-development agencies — have created an upbeat tone in this community, with great enthusiasm for what comes next.

Ginny Desorgher

Ginny Desorgher says she wasn’t keen on adding ‘mayor’ to her personal profile, but became convinced it was time for a change in Greenfield.

“What I’m most excited about is that we now have all these people who are thinking collectively about how we can make the most of this momentum,” said Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council.

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at the many developing stories in Greenfield.

 

Tale of the Tape

And we start with a somewhat unusual gathering downtown on the Saturday before Easter.

Indeed, Desorgher, Cahillane, Deane, and others spent several hours in the central business district cleaning the bases of streetlights, an undertaking organized by the Greenfield Business Assoc. (GBA).

All three had somewhat different takes on what they were expecting from this exercise, but the consensus is that it was more difficult, and time-consuming, to remove the remnants from countless posters for events — and the tape used to affix them to the structures — than they thought.

But while the work was a grind, they all said it was important, worthwhile, and much more than symbolism. And it even inspired a thought to create one or more community bulletin boards so individuals and groups would have a place to promote their events other than light poles.

Deane said the cleanup was an example of a greater sense of collaboration within the community and its many civic and business organizations, from officials in City Hall to the chamber; from the GBA to the Franklin County Community Development Corp. (FCCDC).

“What I’m most excited about is that we now have all these people who are thinking collectively about how we can make the most of this momentum.”

“There’s new energy taking place on a partnership level, and it was nice to see Greenfield leaders like the mayor come down and take action,” said Deane, adding that the cleanup was just one example of this energy. Another was the aforementioned listening session, which she said was likely the first of its kind.

“The business owners and community leaders really appreciated having the opportunity to have that kind of forum with the mayor — an open forum where they could say, ‘here’s what’s going really well, here’s what we think needs work, and how are we all going to work together to bring Greenfield forward?’ That was great.”

The streetlight cleanup project and listening session represent just two of many forms of progress, with some steps larger and more significant than others, said those we spoke with, but all critical to that sense of momentum and building toward something better.

And there are many reasons for optimism, especially what most refer to simply as the ‘Wilson’s project.’

For decades, the store represented something unique — an old-fashioned department store in an age of malls and online shopping. When it closed just prior to the pandemic, it left a huge hole in the downtown — not just real estate to be filled, but the loss of an institution.

There’s no bringing back Wilson’s, but the current plan, a proposal put forward by the Community Builders and Green Fields Market, a popular co-op currently located farther down Main Street, will bring retail and housing, specifically roughly 60 mixed-income units, to Main Street.

The housing units, as noted earlier, are expected to bring foot traffic and more vibrancy to the downtown, said Cahillane, noting that this will be foot traffic that doesn’t leave at 5 o’clock and should comprise a good mix of age groups, thus providing a boost for the growing number of restaurants and venues like the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center.

“The Community Builders is being thoughtful in the way they’re designing this space to encourage folks not to just exit out a rear door, get in their cars, and leave,” she explained. “Instead, they’re going to make it so it’s very easy to get from the apartments onto Main Street; this encourages them to come out into the community.”

Greenfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,768
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $20.39
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.39
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, Sandri
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, several other properties downtown are in various stages of bringing upper floors online for housing, Cahillane explained, adding that this movement will help ease a housing crunch — which she considers the most pressing issue in the community — and generate still more foot traffic, which should help bring more businesses to the downtown.

There are already some recent additions in that area, including a computer-repair store on Federal Street, and, on Main Street, Sweet Phoenix, an antiques and crafts store, and Posada’s, a family-owned Mexican restaurant that the mayor said is “always packed.”

Meanwhile, the plans for Aldi’s and Starbucks, both in the early stages, are generating some excitement, the mayor added, noting that the latter, especially, will provide motorists on I-91 with yet another reason to get off in Greenfield and perhaps stay a while.

 

Getting Down to Business

These additions bolster an already large and diverse mix of businesses in the city, which still boasts some manufacturing — though certainly not as much as was present decades ago — as well as a healthy mix of tourism and hospitality-related ventures, service businesses, nonprofits (Greenfield serves as the hub for the larger Franklin County area), and several startups and next-stage businesses in various sectors, from IT to food production.

One of those long-standing businesses is Adams Donuts on Federal Street, now owned by Sabra Billings and her twin sister, Sidra Baranoski.

Originally opened in the ’50s, Adams Donuts is an institution, well-known — and in many cases revered — by several generations of area families. There have been several owners not named Adams, Billings said, adding that the one before her closed the establishment during COVID with the intention of reopening, but never did.

The two sisters stepped forward to keep a tradition alive — and work for themselves instead of someone else.

“It was kind of crazy; we’d never owned a business before, but here we were buying a shuttered business in the middle of a pandemic,” Billings said. “But it’s been really special to be part of the community, and what we call the ‘Adams community’; there are generations from the same families that are customers.”

Thus, they’re part of what could be called a groundswell of entrepreneurship in Greenfield and across Franklin County, one that John Waite, executive director of the FCCDC, has witnessed firsthand over the past 24 years he’s spent in that role.

He said there is a large, and growing, amount of entrepreneurial energy in Greenfield and across the county, largely out of necessity.

Indeed, since the larger businesses, most of them manufacturers, closed or left, the region and its largest city are more dependent on smaller businesses and the people who have the imagination, determination, and ideas with which to start them.

And the FCCDC is supporting these business owners in many different ways. The agency has several divisions, if you will, including direct business assistance — everything from technical assistance to grant funds to support ventures of various sizes — to a venture center that now boasts six tenants, to the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, which boasts 66 active clients processing, canning, and jarring everything from salsa to applesauce to fudge sauce.

Overall, the FCCDC served more than 350 clients in FY 2023, loaned out nearly $3 million to 31 businesses, and carried out work that resulted in the creation of 70 jobs and the preservation of 114 jobs, said Waite, adding that one of its more impactful initiatives is its loan program.

The loans vary in size from a few thousand dollars to $300,000, and the agency can work with area banks if a venture needs more. They are offered to businesses across a wide spectrum, including hospitality, a sector where there is often need, Waite noted, citing the example of 10 Forward, a unique performing-arts venue and cocktail bar on Fiske Avenue in the downtown.

“A lot of musicians need a place to play, and they’ll sign them up, and they’ll do comedy once in a while,” he explained, adding that the venue is part of an evolving downtown, one that now has more things happening at night and more events and programs to attract the young people who provide needed energy.

Meanwhile, Take the Floor, a CDC initiative that involves the entire county, is another avenue of support. The Shark Tank-like pitch contest has attracted dreamers across the broad spectrum of business, and the top three performers at three different contests — the latest was in Orange — will compete for $10,000 in prizes in the finale at Hawks & Reed.

“Developing our entrepreneurial infrastructure is very important to this region,” Waite said. “We want to make sure people know where they can go for resources to help them succeed.”

Where Are They Now?

Where Are They Now?

Will Dávila

Will Dávila says he’s always sought out career opportunities where he can make an impact.

 

Will Dávila says he’s learned from experience — and some not-so-pleasant experiences, to be more precise — that, when a job isn’t working for you, you don’t stay in it.

And in his case, ‘not working’ translates directly to “you don’t feel fulfilled, you don’t feel like you’re having an impact or making a difference, and it just doesn’t look like that’s going to be happening.”

Such was the case with his short tenure serving as campus executive director of the UMass Center at Springfield a decade or so ago. He envisioned the role as one where he could “bring education to this community and really promote higher education as an opportunity for kids like me, who grew up in Springfield, in the projects, and had limited opportunities.”

The reality was different as the facility struggled to ramp up enrollment.

“Instead, I spent almost all my time giving tours,” he told BusinessWest, noting that the facility, created on the mezzanine level at Tower Square, had just opened, and many business and civic leaders, as well as the press, wanted to see it. “I said, ‘I’m a social worker. I’ve been in human services my whole career. This is not a good use of my time.’”

Coincidentally, one of those who eventually came in for a tour was Jim Goodwin, president and CEO of the Center for Human Development (CHD), and during that visit, the two started talking, a discussion that eventually led to Dávila becoming vice president of Clinical Services for the agency.

He would spend a few years in that role before becoming a nonprofit consultant and executive advisor, then leading two nonprofits, and then returning to CHD last October to assume the role of vice president of Diversion, Shelter & Housing, a role where he believes he’s making a deep impact.

Overall, it’s a been a winding journey with a few of those jobs that weren’t working, but, overall, it’s been a rewarding career in the broad realm of health and human services, one that serves as an appropriate and poignant starting point for a new series we’re launching at BusinessWest called, appropriately enough, ‘Where Are They Now?’

“Part of the unfortunate reality is that they move through a continuum of services. So I consider myself privileged to have worked in many parts of that continuum.”

As the magazine prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary of serving the region, and as some of its recognition programs — which have brought hundreds of individuals and groups into the spotlight — approach two decades of existence, there is a need to update many of the stories we have told over those years.

We begin with Dávila, who started his career with nonprofits focused on health and human services more than 20 years ago, when he became Metro Boston regional manager for Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health. Then came his first stint at the agency now known as Helix Human Services, then known as the Children’s Study Home.

But it was a few years later, when he was serving as director of Outpatient Services at the Gándara Center in Springfield, when he was first recognized by BusinessWest, as a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2013.

Soon thereafter came that short stint at the UMass Center at Springfield, his first stint at CHD, work as a consultant, a return to what is now Helix as executive director and CEO (when that agency was being rebranded and also being recognized by BusinessWest as a Difference Maker), and then a very short stint — a cautionary tale, as he calls it — as CEO of the Villa of Hope in Greece, N.Y., another of those jobs that just wasn’t working, this time for different reasons.

“The board was not really forthcoming about the real condition of the organization,” Dávila said, adding that what he found did not match what he was told in interviews, regarding everything from the budget — the $20 million agency was trending toward a $4 million deficit for the fiscal year soon to come to a close — to the workforce, to the vacancies within its programs.

He is now back at the agency he calls home (this is actually his third stint there), in a role where he oversees a staff of roughly 240, an annual budget of $34 million, and a division with dozens of family and individual units, several emergency shelter hotels, and other housing options.

This latest assignment enables him to add another line, another area of focus — in this case housing — to his résumé and, far more importantly, make an impact and a difference in people’s lives.

“It’s an amazing department and an amazing service,” Dávila said. “It’s something different, but, surprisingly, it’s not all that different. A lot of the folks we’re dealing with are the same people we’re assisting in residential, in children’s services, foster-care and outpatient services, and substance-abuse services.

“Part of the unfortunate reality is that they move through a continuum of services,” he went on. “So I consider myself privileged to have worked in many parts of that continuum and actually lead some of them, so this is a nice addition to my portfolio, if you will.”

That’s where Dávila is now — and where he plans to be for some time, because this job definitely does work for him.

 

—George O’Brien

Construction

Taking Flight

Falcon Landing will be located just north of Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport.

Falcon Landing will be located just north of Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport.

In a location that once thrived as part of a computer manufacturing facility for Digital Equipment Corp., a joint-venture development team of Winstanley Enterprises LLC and NorthPoint Development is moving forward with approved plans to build a general warehouse and distribution facility. The recently obtained state and local approvals for the sought-after location come as the warehouse and distribution sector continues to thrive.

Falcon Landing is an approved 524,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art general distribution facility that will be constructed for one or two tenants adjacent to Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport on Falcon Drive in Westfield. The 126-acre parcel will include 362 parking spaces to accommodate two employee shifts and 322 tractor-trailer spaces. The site boasts easy accessibility and is located about two and a half miles from Mass Pike exit 41.

Last August, the joint-venture development team focused its multi-disciplinary group of planners, engineers, and architects on developing a scaled-down distribution facility at this location. After they listened to neighborhood concerns, the site plan incorporated a meticulously designed robust stormwater-management plan and preservation of mature trees for buffering, and also eliminated any connections to North Road. The project received state approval in October and local approval in February.

“Our project team worked very hard to put forward a sensible plan that is rooted in community input, prioritizes protection of sensitive resources, and delivers economic-development benefits to Westfield,” said Adam Winstanley, principal of Winstanley Enterprises. “We are excited to move the project forward.”

Marketing efforts have ramped up to secure a suitable tenant; however, the warehouse will be built on spec if a tenant is not secured prior to construction. With the needed approvals in hand, the team will continue to coordinate closely on finalizing both building-design elements and traffic-mitigation improvements.

“Falcon Landing is an ideal location for companies looking to grow their business at a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility that offers easy accessibility from the Mass Pike,” said Andrew Villari, Development manager for NorthPoint Development. “We are proud to be a part of this project and excited about the future in Westfield.”

“Our project team worked very hard to put forward a sensible plan that is rooted in community input, prioritizes protection of sensitive resources, and delivers economic-development benefits to Westfield.”

Winstanley Enterprises, a family-owned and operated commercial development company, has been a property owner in Westfield since 2018, when it purchased 1111 Southampton Road.

Winstanley owns and operates 12.5 million square feet of commercial real estate and is one of the largest local landlords of commercial properties in New England. The company believes its local presence and commitment to listening to the community is bolstered by the national experience of NorthPoint Development.

Established in 2012, NorthPoint is a privately held real-estate operating company specializing in developing, acquiring, leasing, and managing class-A industrial and multi-family properties. It currently has a 150.2-million-square-foot industrial portfolio, about 5,400 multi-family units developed and managed, and $19.5 billion in assets under management.

The project team supporting NorthPoint Development and Winstanley Enterprises on Falcon Landing includes Epsilon Associates, VHB, Good Earth Advisors, and Watkins Strategies.

Wealth Management

Why the Assignment Is Best Left to a Professional

By Linda Dagilus, Steve Hamlin, and Janice Ward

 

Linda Dagilus

Linda Dagilus

Steve Hamlin

Steve Hamlin

Janice Ward

Janice Ward

Years ago, they might have been known as an executor or, in the case of a woman, an executrix. And you still hear those terms occasionally.

But today, the phrase commonly used in reference to an individual handling someone else’s estate is ‘personal representative.’ And while the title may have changed, the responsibilities haven’t. They are significant, and there may actually be more of them today — a list that includes everything from the administration of a will to the handling of funeral arrangements; from preparing a final accounting and tax return to selling an estate; from investigating all claims against an estate and handling them accordingly to, yes, finding a home, or homes, for the pets of the deceased.

This broad and imposing range of responsibilities explains why those with estates, and especially large estates or those with complex assets, should think carefully about whom they choose to be their personal representative to administer their estate after they pass.

While family members have historically handled these duties, increasingly individuals are leaving these matters to third-party professionals, specifically trust officers — and for very good reasons. The most basic is the often-uncomfortable reality that settling an estate can be an unsettling experience, one that can potentially damage and destroy personal family relationships and result in mistakes that a professional might otherwise avoid.

But there are many reasons why individuals are increasingly looking to professionals to be personal representatives. First, they may not have family to turn to, or family they would consider qualified. Indeed, this is a considerable amount of work, some of it complex in nature, to put on someone who is not an expert in this area and has never done it before.

“Those with estates, and especially large estates or those with complex assets, should think carefully about whom they choose to be their personal representative to administer their estate after they pass.”

Also, many people simply don’t want to saddle a loved one with all that responsibility, especially at what will likely be a difficult time for them emotionally and when they are also likely juggling many other aspects of life and work. Additionally, choosing one family member over another to be your personal representative can often lead to conflict with the family member(s) not chosen.

Many of those turning to professionals, such as the Estate Settlement team within Greenfield Savings Bank Wealth Management and Trust Services, are recently divorced or surviving spouses who have found themselves suddenly in charge of their household’s financial savings and investments that had previously been handled primarily by their spouse.

The full list of responsibilities handled by a personal representative helps explain why it is best left to a professional and not a family member. It starts with pets, especially when there is no one else living with the recently deceased individual, but also includes everything from getting mail stopped and forwarded to a new address to securing the property to changing the locks and shutting off the water.

But it quickly proceeds to other, more complex financial matters that include:

• Entering the will into probate and assuring that all legal requirements of the settlement process are completed;

• Accounting for all personal property and arranging for the support of the family;

• Collecting all life insurance, rents, and other amounts due;

• Obtaining appraisals of the property for required tax purposes;

• Preparing a final accounting of the estate; and

• Distributing the estate as directed by the will.

While choosing a family member may seem logical and respectful, and some family members may actually volunteer for this work, most individuals are not fully qualified to handle such duties, and even if they are, they would often be placed in a difficult situation where relationships can become strained and matters can be delayed.

There is often a perception of unfairness if one family member is making all the decisions that affect the personal finances and tax consequences of each beneficiary. For example, is this individual liquidating all the assets — which might cause significant capital gains to family members who pay high tax rates — and are those decisions equally fair and appropriate for all affected parties?

It is a fact: estate administration is complicated and time-consuming. Money can, and often does, complicate relationships. Money can make people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Money can breed distrust — and worse.

And that’s why the work of a personal representative is best left to a professional.

 

Linda M. Dagilus, vice president and trust officer, has more than 25 years of experience in the financial-services industry. Stephen B. Hamlin, CTFA, senior vice president and senior trust officer, is a certified trust and fiduciary advisor with more than 35 years of experience in trust banking and investment management. Janice E. Ward, Esq., CFP, first vice president and trust officer, is an attorney and certified financial planner with more than 20 years of experience in trust banking and wealth management.

 

Wealth Management

Securing the Future

By Patricia M. Matty, AIF

 

With the Secure Act 1.0 of 2019 and the updated Secure Act 2.0, which went into effect in 2023, there have been many important changes to the rules and regulations for retirement saving and investing over the past five years.

While the elimination of the ‘stretch IRA’ was a key feature of the first Secure Act, the update provides many enhancements for investors. (The so-called stretch IRA refers to leaving an IRA to a non-spouse beneficiary who could then ‘stretch’ distributions from the IRA over their lifetime, thus enhancing the tax-deferral feature of the IRA.)

As financial planners, one of our goals is to help clients save as much as possible for retirement in the most tax-efficient manner. This usually involves maxing out retirement-plan contributions (workplace plans like the 401(k) and 403(b), as well as IRAs), as well as deferring the income associated with retirement-plan withdrawals as long as possible.

“As planners, these changes often prompt investigating alternative ways to pass on wealth earlier to heirs, including layering in additional diversification with investments spread between retirement accounts, Roth IRA/401(k) plans, and non-retirement assets.”

Some key changes associated with these goals are summarized as follows:

• Starting in 2025, the workplace ‘catch-up’ contribution for individuals ages 60-63 will increase to $10,000 per year (from $7,500). The IRA catch-up contribution, which is now set at $1,000, will be indexed to inflation starting in 2024. For high-income earners, 2026 will see a change that restricts catch-up contributions in workplace plans to a Roth account in after-tax dollars.

• RMDs (required minimum distributions) from retirement accounts start at age 73, thanks to the Secure Act 2.0. Starting in 2033, this will increase to age 75. For retirees that have sufficient income and assets in non-retirement accounts, delaying RMDs as long as possible is generally preferred.

• The penalty for not taking your RMD decreased to 25% from 50% (of the RMD amount). This penalty will decrease to 10% if the IRA owner withdraws the RMD and files a corrected tax return in a timely manner. While these penalties are quite rare in our experience, the previous 50% rate was severe and too punitive.

Younger workers and their priorities also received some beneficial changes to the rules and regulations:

• Starting in 2025, businesses adopting new 401(k) and 403(b) plans must automatically enroll eligible employees at a contribution rate of at least 3%. We’ve found that inertia is the enemy when it comes to saving for retirement. Getting younger workers started on the habit of saving and investing is critical to reaping the benefits of tax-deferred growth over the long term.

• Student-loan debt and payments are often cited as a reason for not contributing to a workplace retirement plan. Starting in 2024, employers will be able to match employee student-loan payments with matching payments to a retirement account.

• For 529 college savings plans that have been open for at least 15 years, ‘unspent’ plan assets can be rolled over into a Roth IRA for the beneficiary (subject to a lifetime limit of $35,000).

These selected highlights represent a small sample of the changes brought about by Secure Act 2.0. On balance, we believe the changes provide enhancements to the ability of investors and savers to provide for a prosperous retirement.

As planners, these changes often prompt investigating alternative ways to pass on wealth earlier to heirs, including layering in additional diversification with investments spread between retirement accounts, Roth IRA/401(k) plans, and non-retirement assets.

Eliminating the stretch IRA is inducing non-spouse beneficiaries to take mandatory distributions out over a five- or 10-year period versus over their lifetimes. This can significantly increase the beneficiary’s tax bracket, which may not have been the intention of the financial/estate plan.

Here are just a few options your financial planner can help you look at to navigate these changes:

• Depending upon your own personal tax bracket, you may want to take larger IRA distributions and gift funds to your children before you pass.

• Convert pre-tax retirement assets to Roth IRAs.

• Diversify your savings between qualified and non-qualified accounts.

• If you give to charities, you can donate directly from your retirement accounts once you hit age 70. These gifts and distributions are tax-free to you and have zero tax implications on your income

• Take larger retirement-plan distributions (speak with your accountant and your financial advisor first to ensure this may be a good option, as taking larger distributions may also impact your Medicare premiums), and make annual gifts to your children while you are alive. If you are married, you have a higher AGI than if you are single in later years.

As is always the case, consult your financial professional or tax preparer to see how the changes in the Secure Act 2.0 affect your individual circumstances. This information is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as advice. St. Germain Investment Management does not offer any tax or legal advice.

 

Patricia M. Matty is senior vice president, financial advisor, and financial advisory director for St. Germain Investment Management.