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Generation Next

Nicole Bercume

Nicole Bercume stands outside one of her current projects in Hadley.

 

When Ron Bercume passed away in 2021, his daughter, Nicole Bercume, said there was never a doubt that she would pick up the mantle of leadership in Bercume Builders, the company he started almost 40 years ago.

But it was a winding road that brought Nicole to that point, along which she settled in Florida, got married, built a law career with her husband, Andrew Bass, had kids, and returned home to Hadley.

Before her father succumbed to pancreatic cancer in October 2021, Bercume was already helping him build the final seven homes in a 28-home development in North Hadley called Shattuck Estates and Sapphire Estates; when he passed away, she stepped in and worked with the company’s longtime subcontractors to finish the job. By that time, she had already decided to stay on and continue Ron’s work.

“My dad had created such a fantastic company,” she told BusinessWest. “It would be a shame if it didn’t continue.”

Today, those 28 large homes on Crystal Lane, Indian Pipe Drive, and Nikki’s Way stand as the last success story in Ron’s career and the first in Nicole’s new one. Beyond that development, she is currently building her third house on a lot on Colony Drive, right across Shattuck Road, with a goal of creating a constant flow of residential projects, and even expanding the business beyond her father’s traditional focus on Hadley and Amherst.

“My dad had created such a fantastic company. It would be a shame if it didn’t continue.”

“Forty years is a long time,” Bercume said as she and Bass took BusinessWest on a walking tour of the development. “My parents started it together right when I was born, and they just went from there. Once I got older, I realized how talented of a businessman and builder my dad was. It’s not just that he would build homes; this was all wooded land, so he would design the actual subdivision. He would design the roads, and that takes a lot of skill.”

When he died at age 81, “he was still plugging away,” she added. “He always loved to work. All his subs worked for him for a long time. All the guys have known me since I was little, and I was very lucky to have learned from my father.”

 

Winding Path

Bercume had interest in the family business, but in her early 20s, the timing wasn’t right. “He was still working aggressively, and at that point, he was doing everything himself, so there wouldn’t have been a substantial role for me.”

So she went to college and law school in Florida, met Bass, and moved back to Hadley in 2015 and passed the Massachusetts bar. She started working at a firm in Northampton, while Bass started his own firm; in 2019, they bought a building on Route 9 in Hadley, which today houses Bass/Bercume Law Offices. Bercume handled the firm’s real-estate practice, while Bass handled the litigation practice.

Bass started out in consumer-protection work, particularly around Massachusetts’ lemon law. “That was really strong, so I started doing those cases all over the state; they mostly went to litigation because the dealerships wouldn’t resolve the cases, so that’s how I got into litgation,” he recalled. “After I got rolling, I got into construction litigation because Nicole’s dad had a lot of cases, so litigation became my core focus.”

Nicole Bercume and Andrew Bass

Nicole Bercume and Andrew Bass live in the 28-home development in Hadley that Nicole’s father started and she completed after his death.

Cases in that realm include land-use issues, contracts, and purchases of land; at one point, Ron settled a notable case with Tofino Associates of Hadley over a roadway issue in the Amherst Hills development near the Belchertown line.

Bass was recently recognized by Lawyers of Distinction as one of the top 10% civil-litigation attorneys in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, over the past couple years, Nicole was transitioning away from the practice into her new role leading Bercume Builders. “My father did teach me everything; once we had our kids and moved back here, that’s when he taught me everything.”

Ron typically built large homes with “classy, simple interiors, not a lot of clutter,” Nicole said, noting that homes in the new development start at 3,000 square feet, and typically feature open floor plans, high-end appliances, and maple flooring — and each was built in just four months. After her third house on Colony, she said she’s on the cusp of buying more land to develop a subdivision like the Shattuck/Sapphire project.

Woman’s Work

At a time when it’s still uncommon for a woman to lead a building firm (see related story on page 25), Bercume doesn’t particularly care if people question her abilities, noting that the subs who worked with her father for, in some cases, decades know what she can do — and they know she’s committed to her father’s values.

“My father really had such a great process. Even if you didn’t like my dad, you definitely respected him because he was an astute businessman, and he was just on top of it.”

“My dad’s greatest skill was that he had good taste; he picked out all the plans himself. People always say you know when a home is a Bercume home because they’re attractive and clean and classy-looking,” she said. “Construction defects were never an issue for him because, the second there was a problem, my dad, who could never sit still, would take care of it.

“He always did higher-end homes for whatever the era was,” she continued. “He liked big homes; the bigger he could build, the more fun it was for him.”

And when she got her Massachusetts construction license and reaffirmed her working relationships with those longtime subs, she knew it would be fun for her, too.

“My father really had such a great process. Even if you didn’t like my dad, you definitely respected him because he was an astute businessman, and he was just on top of it. All his subs respected him, and that transferred to me nicely. He taught me a lot, so I know what to expect from everyone, and it was very fluid.”

It’s just another way Bercume Builders has been a generational success story — one that occupies Nicole’s earliest memories, when she’d visit Ron at job sites. “And now, our three kids are always on the job sites with us.”

Because it’s never too early to introduce them to the family business.

Building Trades Cover Story

Yes, They Can

 

Women Trade workers

From left, Charlene Metcalf, Kailee Grigas, Tracy Routhiee, Lia Oliveira, Jes Thayer, and Liz Wambui

 

The construction trades employed an estimated 1,241,000 women in 2021. While that may seem like a high number, it represents only 11% of all construction trade workers in the U.S. But that percentage includes those working in administrative and office positions; when it comes to tradeswomen working in the field, on job sites, the percentage falls to 4%.

But times are changing, to an extent. Since 2016, there has been a 32% increase in women working in the trades — and a decrease in folks who don’t think they can do the job.

“Every once in a while, I still get that, but for the most part, people are pretty receptive to it,” said Abby Sullivan, who has owned a waste-management business for 11 years. “The biggest part is, I get on the phone talking to people and assuring them that, yes, this girl in the office can talk trash, literally. I never thought that was something I could do. And it’s kind of empowering to be able to be in this industry and be respected for my knowledge and my ability.”

Sullivan started as a school bus driver, but later realized that she wanted to do something on her own. Her CDL license proved to be a natural entry point into starting Affordable Waste Solutions. She started as the main driver and got the same question every woman BusinessWest talked to has heard: ‘you know what you’re doing?’

And the answers are always the same: ‘yes, I do know what I’m doing.’

“It’s not something that most girls do or are into — and at the the beginning, it was a little harder to be taken seriously,” Sullivan said.

But in an industry — actually, a related collection of industries — that desperately need a pipeline of new talent, more women than ever are realizing they can have well-paying, satisfying work in the construction trades, often without taking on the debt of many four-year colleges.

“It’s not something that most girls do or are into — and at the the beginning, it was a little harder to be taken seriously.”

For this issue’s focus on building trades, we spoke to several women in the field — and the teachers and employers who have encouraged them — and heard one resounding message many times over: you have to start somewhere, and confidence is key.

 

Reaching Them Early

Over the past decade, it’s become more natural to see women on job sites, but all those careers started somewhere. In Chicopee, Carl Ingram is starting at the middle-school level to get girls interested in the vocational programs offered at Chicopee Comprehensive High School. Seventh-graders attend a Career and Technical Education (CTE) fair to gauge what the shops are like, and eighth-graders hear more detailed presentations from each shop teacher about what their shops offer.

“We talk a lot about certifications, we talk about credentialing, we also talk about the CTE areas and the exploratory process, because we feel like the exploratory process is something every kid in Chicopee should do,” Ingram said.

v

Pat Sweitzer says girls need confidence to work in the construction trades.

As the CTE director for the city, he went on to explain that freshmen go through a 12-week process where they explore each shop class for a week and later have to pick their top two to choose from later in the second semester. Students not only learn academically in the ‘theory rooms,’ as they’re called, but they also gain hands-on experience in whatever shop they want to participate in: carpentry, metal fabrication, welding, electrical, automotive, advanced manufacturing, and more.

Lia Oliveira, a pipefitter for Adam’s Plumbing and Heating, told BusinessWest a similar story. “I went to Smith Voc in Northampton for high school. I didn’t want plumbing, but we tried every shop for a day, and then you pick your top four for a week, and plumbing was the one. I was like, ‘I can actually learn something new.’ That’s how I got into it. And then, in my junior year of high school, Adams hired me.”

However, not all the women we spoke with knew that early that they would end up in the construction trades. Jes Thayer started out with an art degree and traveled as an artist before the pandemic dried up opportunities. She decided to fall back on the fact that she was once a mechanic and liked to work with her hands.

“Whenever I have issues, my boss says, ‘whenever you have an issue, you come straight to me,’ and she handles it from the top all the way down.”

“I kind of knew that I wanted to be an electrician just because of dealing with cars and the electrical stuff in that, but it was great to get a foundation in all of the building trades through Community Works,” she explained. “They are the ones that helped me find Wayne J. Griffin Electrical, who’s been wonderful to me ever since.”

As a current apprentice, Thayer has gained the ability to feel more confident in her role, explaining that she feels more comfortable in the electrical trade than she did in many automotive shops.

“People tried to take tools right out of my hands, which is a big pet peeve. But here, I think being on the team that I have, they’re giving me the tools, and they’re asking me to show people that are younger than me. It’s about experience and taking leadership opportunities,” she said. “It’s really great to have my company do that, and since I’ve been on the site, we have great morale and have really got each others’ backs.”

Girls from Chicopee Comp

Girls from Chicopee Comp were able to attend a trades event to learn more and network.

Women face many challenges when it comes to working in a male-dominated industry — particularly women of color, who say they have faced discrimination in hiring and employment and experience sexual harassment and gender or racial bias on the job.

But with the increasing number of women on job sites, there’s a stronger sense of community when it comes to these issues, especially sexual harassment.

“Whenever I have issues, my boss says, ‘whenever you have an issue, you come straight to me,’ and she handles it from the top all the way down,” Oliveira said. “It’s a lot easier to deal with that stuff. I know a lot of women get scared coming into construction, thinking that they’re going to have to deal with it, but we don’t have to deal with it. They take care of it.”

Tracy Routhiee, a senior project manager for Fontaine Brothers, added that it’s important to have a support system that has everyone’s back and strengthens the entire team by cultivating camaraderie and standing up for what’s right.

However, it’s also important to begin with a measure of a confidence, said Pat Sweitzer, operations manager for Sweitzer Construction, who told BusinessWest that as long as women carry themselves with confidence and respect the work, men will respect them in turn.

“It’s cool to be wiring up the auditorium and realizing that those lights are going to be shining down on those kids someday that are going to be playing in their first concert or basketball game. It’s kind of neat to know that.”

“I did have one case where that did not occur,” she recalled. “I found that, as long as I stood up for myself, the dynamic changed, and the respect was then forthcoming to me on that particular project. It was an interesting experience for me to have that happen and then realize, ‘wait a minute, I know what I’m doing, and I know how to do this.’”

 

Building a Future

Liz Wambui, director of Diversity and Community Impact for Fontaine Brothers, added that stepping into a new environment, especially one where people may not take a woman seriously, can cause something like imposter syndrome. She said women in construction may have moments where they question if they’re good enough or doing the right thing, but the solution begins with reframing one’s mind and not taking no for an answer.

Most of the women we spoke with explained that, once they get out of their own way, the doors and opportunities are endless, and the feeling of success after completing a project is one of the most satisfying experiences in this industry.

Charlene Metcalf, accountant for Fontaine Brothers, said that, even though she’s not directly on the sites, she is proud to drive by different places that Fontaine Brothers has built and can’t help but share with others that she was a part of that.

A Chicopee Comp student

A Chicopee Comp student said the recent trades event helped her step out of her comfort zone.

Kailee Grigas, a laborer at the firm, agreed. “That’s exactly what happened when I was at MGM. I said, ‘oh, I was there working on that building.’”

Currently, Fontaine Brothers and subcontractors are rebuilding and joining DeBerry and Homer elementary schools in Springfield. The new DeBerry Homer Elementary School will be a state-of-the-art, three-story, 155,000-square-foot school that will serve approximately 920 students from pre-K to grade 6. Both elementary schools will be consolidated into this one building, but each school will maintain its individual identity. Shared spaces and resources include the gym, library, and cafeteria, but the schools will have separate academic and support spaces required to maintain independent schools.

Thayer couldn’t help but share her excitement about the new school with BusinessWest. “To build a school, a lot of things have to come together, but it’s also really exciting. I came from building an Amazon building before this, and it’s kind of like, eh, we’re being pushed to do this really fast, and everyone’s kind of got their own agenda. But here, it’s where kids are going to be learning. It’s cool to be wiring up the auditorium and realizing that those lights are going to be shining down on those kids someday that are going to be playing in their first concert or basketball game. It’s kind of neat to know that.”

Routhiee agreed, adding that, when she’s worked as a project manager for other schools that Fontaine has built, the teachers and principals are always full of gratitude.

And that sense of gratification at finished projects is a real, tangible benefit of being in this field, along with others the women who spoke with BusinessWest mentioned, including good wages and benefits, networking, travel, and more.

Speaking of networking and travel, one of the biggest conferences for women in the trades — Tradeswomen Build Nations — is held in Las Vegas. Closer to home, Girls in Trade is a state-sponsored event that was held at Dean Tech High School in Holyoke this year. Girls in the CTE programs at Chicopee Comp were able to attend with Amber Patruno, the CTE Inclusion teacher. Patruno explained that the girls listened to a lecture on the benefits of being in a trade, but also tested their soft skills with a scavenger hunt throughout the networking portion.

“Within the scavenger hunt, there were certain questions to ask the representatives and certain things to look for within their display, which I thought was phenomenal because it really intrigued the girls to not just walk past the booth,” she added. “It’s like, ‘hey, I want to ask you this question,’ which got them information, but also got them more interested in what each trade had to offer at that point.”

One student who went on the field trip said it was more useful than a college fair because the tradeswomen were able to answer whatever questions she and her peers had about the building trades.

“When you’re in an atmosphere like that with a lot of people, especially for me, it was like, ‘woah, OK,’ she said. “I had to take a step back and tell myself, ‘OK, let’s do this; calm down, one step at a time,’ and I got through it. And I realized, maybe this isn’t all that bad. It might look scary at first, but once you slowly test the waters, you’re good.”

 

Show Them Who’s Boss

That’s how all girls interested in the trades should approach the situation at hand, the student added.

“We’re all equal. I don’t really care who you are; we’re all human beings,” she said. “With that being said, if a man can do something, who says that a woman can’t do the same job? I believe that if you put your head to it, you put your heart to it, you put your mind to it, you can do it.”

Women have always been able to get their hands dirty, but in the construction trades, there’s certainly evidence they’re doing so at a higher rate, although the gender gap remains wide.

To further close that gap will take more education about what these careers offer — and the confidence to say, ‘yes, we can.’

Building Trades

Building Trade

Chicopee Mayor John Vieau joins, from left, Revitalize CDC Executive Director Colleen Loveless; Director of Programs Ethel Griffin; and Moyah Smith, board clerk.

 

On Sept. 29, Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC) brought its #GreenNFit Neighborhood Rebuild to Chicopee. About 100 volunteers worked on four homes on one block, all in one day. Two of the four homes are owned by U.S. Air Force military veteran families.

“We are so grateful to the city of Chicopee for welcoming us with open arms and supporting our initiative to help make homes safe and healthy for those in need,” said Colleen Loveless, president and CEO of Revitalize CDC, noting that the work the volunteers and building contractors tackled included replacing rotted porches and steps; repairing accessible ramps, roofs, and decks; installing a new shed, windows, storm doors, and gutters; power washing; painting; and yardwork.

Contractors and volunteers get to work.

Contractors and volunteers get to work.

The work was supported financially and with volunteers from American Red Cross and the Chicopee Fire Department, the city of Chicopee, Baystate Health, Berkshire Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the Center for Human Development, Country Bank, Go Graphix, the MassMutual Foundation, M&T Bank, Ondrick Natural Earth, PeoplesBank, Rocky’s Ace Hardware, TD Bank, and Westfield Bank.

“Our #GreenNFit Neighborhood Rebuild goal is to work on hundreds of homes in targeted neighborhoods, clean up vacant lots, improve playgrounds, and create community gardens,” Loveless said. “Revitalize CDC focuses on making meaningful improvements on homes to help reduce energy use, save money, and create a safe, healthy, and sustainable living environment for our residents and the community.”

Improvements have included installing or retrofitting HVAC systems to allow for oil-to-natural-gas heat and solar conversions; new roofs; energy-efficient windows, doors, and appliances; water-saving plumbing fixtures; electrical upgrades; mold remediation, lead abatement, and pest control; interior and exterior painting; and modifying homes for aging or disabled homeowners, such as building exterior access ramps.

Since Revitalize CDC’s inception in 1992, the organization has repaired and rehabilitated more than 1,100 homes with the help of 10,000 volunteers, investing $42 million into Western Mass. In the past year, Revitalize CDC completed 72 home-repair projects on the homes of low-income families with children, elderly citizens, military veterans, and people with disabilities.

The organiation’s JoinedForces, in partnership with businesses, civic organizations, and other nonprofit agencies, provides veterans and their families with critical repairs and modifications on their homes.

Building Trades Special Coverage

Making the Circuit

 

High-school students train at Elm Electrical as part of its summer First Step Futures program.

High-school students train at Elm Electrical as part of its summer First Step Futures program.

 

 

Over the summer, three cohorts of high-school students attended four-day training seminars, two in June and one in August, at Elm Electrical in Westfield.

Monday through Wednesday, the students received instruction and training in the state-of-the-art Elm University multi-media classrooms and hands-on lab. Thursday, the final day, was Challenge Day, when students applied what they learned and completed a project board challenge. Elm project managers evaluated their work, offered feedback, and got to know the students.

It was, no doubt, an enriching experience for many. But First Steps Futures, as Elm calls it, is more than a summer camp. It’s a program, to be repeated each summer, with an eye firmly on the future of the electrical industry.

“This is a great opportunity to showcase and utilize our training facility, expose kids to the electrical field, as well as instruct our current and future workforce,” instructor Paul Asselin said. “At the same time, we can get them excited about the field and see what the kids can do. Do they follow our strict safety protocols? Do they ask questions? Do they work well with others? Is their work accurate? Do they have a positive attitude? This gives us a snapshot of what they’d look like as potential co-op students on the job.”

The students, in grades 10-12, were recommended by their teachers or Elm employees to attend the free training seminar. Some were, indeed, invited back as co-op students, to get a better look at the field, and give Elm a better look at what they can do.

“This program also gives kids who don’t attend a technical school the chance to see if the electrical field is something they may be interested in pursuing,” Asselin added. “Oftentimes, students who go to a traditional high school think it’s too late to go into a trade. We make sure they know there is still an opportunity to pursue a career in the field.”

“Oftentimes, students who go to a traditional high school think it’s too late to go into a trade. We make sure they know there is still an opportunity to pursue a career in the field.”

The Elm University classrooms and lab weren’t created with young people in mind, however; they’re used year-round as Elm’s in-house training facility. Employees who want to become licensed electricians can opt into the company’s four-year apprentice program, working their jobs Monday through Thursday and then, every other Friday, attending school at Elm University for free, as an alternative to night school.

“We started our own training because we weren’t happy with the training we were getting, the conventional way of going two nights a week, three hours a night; most of these night classes are in a classroom setting and don’t have a hands-on component. They get what they need to pass the test, of course, but the hands-on component makes a big difference because that’s what their supervisors see out in the field. That’s what they need out in the field.”

In short, Elm has created a way to cultivate a pipeline of young talent at a time when older electrical workers are leaving the trade faster than they can be replaced. It’s a trend being observed in all construction trades, in fact, and it sometimes requires innovative solutions.

“We can complain like everyone else or do something about it, and we’ve chosen to do something about it,” Asselin said, noting that the effort and financial investment are paying back in the quality of workers the company is putting into the field. “It’s apparent it’s working.”

Jean Pierre Crevier, co-owner of M.L. Schmitt Inc., a 99-year-old electrical contractor based in Springfield, agrees that companies need to stay connected to the potential pipeline of young talent. He does so by participating in the interviewing process of the Joint Apprentice Training Committee of the Local 7 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, bringing new students into apprenticeship programs. “I was pleased with this year’s turnout — we had a lot of great candidates to choose from this year.”

Putnam Vocational Technical Academy teachers

Putnam Vocational Technical Academy teachers Michael Poole (far left) and Charley Jackson (far right) and senior students are joined in the electrical shop by M.L. Schmitt’s Bobby Williams (back left) and Pete Coppez (back right).

But he also does so with efforts like a recent partnership between M.L. Schmitt, Exposure, and two local electrical manufacturers, Legrand and Fidelux Lighting, to provide donations to the Putnam Electrical Shop at Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield.

The Putnam Electrical Shop works on a fixed budget, and donations like this give them additional supplies and equipment for student lessons, said teacher and master electrician Charley Jackson. “I share my work experience and testimony with my students, and it really helps them with their desire to learn. Our recent visit from M.L. Schmitt and donation of supplies really encouraged our students to keep pushing.”

The materials that the school received include low-voltage and line-voltage training kits, a variety of light fixtures, blueprints, surface raceways, disconnect switches and more. More donations are expected to take place this fall, and M.L. Schmitt has hired many Putnam graduates over the years.

“We’ve been conditioned to think you have to have a college degree to have a successful career after high school,” Crevier said. “But a lot of people struggling with college and looking at alternate solutions can make really good money in the trades. I know borderline geniuses who don’t have a really strong formal education behind them, but they can use their hands, and they’re virtual artists, interpreting visual drawings to see what the designer’s intent is. It’s a great career path.”

 

Mind the Gap

The workforce issue isn’t unique to electricians. A recent survey by Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA) found that, overall, construction firms are still struggling to recruit employees. Ninety-three percent of respondents say they have open positions that they’re trying to fill, and 91% indicate they are struggling to fill at least some of these roles. This issue is particularly pronounced among craft positions, which make up the bulk of construction work on job sites.

At the same time, AGCA reported, more companies are waking up to the fact that the future of the construction industry lies in youth, which is why firms are increasingly taking steps to engage younger generations. Fifty-one percent of survey respondents say they’ve gotten involved in career-building programs at the high school, college, and technical-school level in order to encourage students to consider a career in construction.

Jean Pierre Crevier

Jean Pierre Crevier

“But a lot of people struggling with college and looking at alternate solutions can make really good money in the trades. I know borderline geniuses who don’t have a really strong formal education behind them.”

It’s a task facing serious headwinds. Tallo, an employment and scholarship platform geared toward younger workers, issued a report in the spring analyzing survey responses from more than 29,000 high-school and college students about the brands, industries, and career paths they desire. In a ranking of 22 industries, construction attracted the interest of just 16.7% of respondents; only forestry ranked lower. In contrast, 76.5% want to work in technology.

What those who are looking at the trades are finding, however, is opportunity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, electrician jobs are expected to grow by 9.1% from 2020 to 2030, higher than the 7.7% growth rate projected for all occupations. The increase in demand is largely driven by an increase in devices, buildings, and vehicles that rely on electricity; from 2021 to 2022 alone, total electricity consumption in the U.S. is expected to grow by 1.4%. Meanwhile, as noted earlier, Baby Boomers are retiring at a faster rate than members of Gen Z are choosing careers in the trades.

“I was one of those people who went to a private high school, four-year college, got a bachelor’s degree in marketing, sat behind a desk every day, and decided it wasn’t for me and turned to the trades,” Crevier told BusinessWest. “I decided I was one of those visual people; I like to work with my hands, see my accomplishments at the end of the day, and be proud of what I did.”

One of his pitches to young people is that, particularly for those who enter a union apprentice program, they’ll get paid to learn a career path, rather than go into debt. “Instead of investing tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, into an education, you’re actually getting paid to learn, paid in the field, as you go to night school, at least on the union side.”

Bobby Williams, a purchasing officer at M.L. Schmitt, graduated from Putnam and is gratified to see more of its students become the future of his field. “Without our young, upcoming electricians, we won’t have a future workforce of skilled tradesmen and women.”

Which is why Jackson is gratified by the continued connection betweeen Putnam and area businesses. “These donations and visits from M.L. Schmitt let our students know they’re included,” he said. “It certainly motivates and keeps them encouraged about entering the trade.”

Michael Poole, who chairs the Electrical Department at Putnam, added that the donation gives students an opportunity to see and work with specialty items that they would otherwise not be able to afford. “It also shows them that the community cares about their future success in the electrical trade. I am grateful, and I know that our students are as well.”

 

First Steps on a Rewarding Path

Still, Asselin noted, with the manpower shortage, vocational schools can only put out so many students, which is why programs like Elm’s First Steps Futures, is so important, as the company brings in young talent who might otherwise have never thought electrical work was something for them.

“I’ve got them for four days, so I get a pretty good idea what kind of student and what kind of employee they may be. It was really eye-opening for us to see the quality of some of the students out there,” he said. “Some kids who go to a traditional high school or some other alternative school think they can’t go into a trade because they didn’t go to trade school. That’s not the case. Companies like ours will train them both in the classroom and hands-on. We have that ability to get them up to the same level as, say, a vocational student that went through a three-year vocational program.”

Moving forward, Asselin said Elm might open the week-long program to veterans looking to get into a trade. “It’s a different way to approach the problem.”

But Elm University itself, where current employees skill up for better career opportunities, has been a crucial element, he added. “This is what we should have done a long time ago. We kind of had our hand forced because certain jobs require traveling, guys are out of town for a week, and it’s hard to be in school during the week and also be at work. Now, they can travel during the week and get back for class.

“This is a great option for those who don’t want to have to go to night school,” he added. “In four years, students will be ready to sit for their exam to be licensed electricians. Adding our First Steps Futures program to our Elm U program really allows us to groom our future workforce from the very beginning.”

Offering young people pathways into a career is important, but so is showing them how much satisfaction can be found in the work.

“Really, it’s a tangible thing. I tell students, there is a tangible output from what you do,” Crevier said, adding that he tells students about area jobs his company has worked on, from Union Station to the light and visual displays at Thunderbirds games to hospitals, which rely on electrical networks to save lives. “These things might last decades or hundreds of years, and people will always see the product of what you did. Kids today have never thought about that aspect before.

“We can all find people,” he added. “It’s a matter of finding qualified candidates who have the initiative, the drive, and the desire to differentiate themselves and be leaders. Too many people in the workforce today are complacent to show up and participate and don’t want to do more.”

But Schmitt, a company that’s been around for 99 years and doesn’t plan on going anywhere, won’t always have Crevier and his team at the helm, so a job there, as at many companies, is a chance to grow into higher roles.

“We’re not going to be here for 30 years, but we’re looking at the next 30, 40, 50 years, and even beyond that,” he said. “There’s always an opportunity for the right individual.”

At a time when electrical and all other building trades are scrambling to find talent and restock an aging workforce, it’s just one more factor that might draw a Gen-Z student to a career he or she might never have considered before.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Building Trades Sections

Flush with New Ideas

Craig O’Connor says bathroom makeovers by Affordable Bath

Craig O’Connor says bathroom makeovers by Affordable Bath can include deep soaking tubs, which are growing in popularity.

It’s one of the most important rooms in the house — resale-wise, and otherwise. And yet, many people live with something that’s been outdated for 20 years or more. New materials, products, and techniques provide an array of creative and often-affordable options for giving the bathroom a new life.

 

A bathroom makeover can be functional and involve a simple update, or turn the space into a spa-like retreat with recessed lighting, a heated floor, a spacious tiled shower with multiple shower heads and built-in benches, or a deep soaking tub where the water vibrates in response to soft music.

The choices are almost limitless, and thanks to new materials and technology, there are solutions for every budget that result in a fresh, clean, updated look.

“The two rooms that affect resale value the most are the kitchen and the bathroom; they tend to be most expensive to remodel, but are also the most important,” said Jason Cusimano, owner of Bathfitter of Western Mass. in Greenfield, which specializes in customized acrylic tub liners, wall systems, and shower-to-bath conversions.

Jim Belle-Isle agrees. “The bathroom is the first thing people see in the morning and the last room they see before they go to bed,” said the owner of BathCrafters in Chicopee, which also specializes in custom acrylic tub liners, wall systems, and conversions.

 

The two rooms that affect resale value the most are the kitchen and the bathroom; they tend to be most expensive to remodel, but are also the most important.”

 

Affordable Baths Inc. in Springfield, meanwhile, does complete makeovers that begin with gutting the entire room. The existing footprint can be replicated, or the room may get an entirely new design, which allows a homeowner to be as creative as their budget and imagination allow.

“Many people are suffering with bathrooms that have been outdated for 10 or 15 years; they wait to remodel until they are ready to put their house on the market, but if you are going to spend the money, you should do it at least a few years before you sell so you can enjoy it,” said Craig O’Connor, owner of Affordable Baths, adding that a remodeled bathroom adds instant equity to a home.

Local bath remodelers say the majority of their clients are 35 and older, and are remodeling or making changes because the room is outdated or has problems due to mold and mildew. Baby Boomers also make up a large part of their business, and those who plan to stay in their homes often want the bathtub converted into a spacious shower stall with grab bars, a seat, and recessed soap holders.

“Twenty years ago, we did one shower conversion for every tub makeover. Now the ratio is one-to-one,” Cusimano said as he spoke about the growing trend. “The bathroom usually has a small footprint, but eliminating a tub can make the space seem amazingly larger.”

Trends and styles come and go, but white fixtures are the most popular, followed by neutrals that include beige and gray. Although many remodeling shows on TV feature bathrooms with intricate tiles and daring designs in shower stalls, grouted seams require maintenance, and most New Englanders want surfaces that are easy to clean and prefer wall surrounds or large, block-style tiles.

For this edition and its focus on home improvement, BusinessWest explores options offered by local remodelers that range from complete makeovers to less-costly renovations that include relining and resurfacing tubs, sinks, wall tiles, and bath surrounds, extending their life and giving them a clean, updated look.

Changing Trends

O’Connor’s Springfield showroom contains tiles, vanities, showerheads, shower stalls, faucets, lighting, countertop samples, flooring, and everything else needed for a complete bathroom remodel. The typical cost of a job in New England is $14,000, but Affordable Bath can usually do a complete remodel for $10,000, as long as the footprint isn’t changed. However, the price rises if people choose costly options such as heated floors, custom tile bath surrounds, or vanities larger than 36 inches.

The room is gutted down to the studs, and the remodeling takes a week or two to complete. It can be inconvenient for homeowners who have only one bathroom, but the new bath or shower is ready for use by the end of the first week, and clients are offered Porta Potty units.

Gunmetal-gray-colored vanities are growing in popularity, but most people choose shades of brown, and quartz countertops are replacing granite; the material is slightly more expensive, but doesn’t require maintenance and resists stains.

O’Connor told BusinessWest that many people whose master bathrooms have Jacuzzi tubs are eliminating them or replacing them with deep-soaking or claw-foot models.

Jim Belle-Isle

Jim Belle-Isle says BathCrafters can install a new bathtub liner and wall system in one or two days to give the room an updated look.

Claw-foot tubs come in cast iron, which retains the temperature of the water for long periods of time, or acrylic, which weighs less and is a good choice for second floors.

Some Baby Boomers and seniors are also looking toward the future and choosing walk-in tubs.

“The surfaces are heated, and the jets can be positioned to hit the knees, hips, or lower back,” O’Connor said, adding that roll-in showers with fold-down seats and grab bars are another option that eliminate the need to step over a wall to bathe.

“We’ve created bathrooms that range from a basic remodel that meets practical needs to spaces that provide the comfort of a private, spa-like retreat,” he continued, noting that the company recently remodeled a master bathroom and installed an oversized Jacuzzi tub and separate shower with multiple showerheads, custom tiles, a built-in bench, and a frameless glass exterior.

Although a complete makeover is the ultimate choice, there are many options for people who don’t need or want that option or can’t afford it. They include having a custom-made acrylic tub and liner installed over the existing one. The liners usually have lifetime warranties, and the entire job can be done in about two days and enhanced with a new sink with fancy faucets and a new toilet.

“We have more than 1,000 acrylic molds that fit every cast-iron or steel tub, along with multiple designs and colors,” Cusimano said, adding that bronze or brushed nickel drains or overflows are popular and an average job costs $3,000 to $4,000, although prices for tub-to-shower conversions range from $1,000 to $7,000, depending on factors that include how much plumbing is required and whether the homeowner wants built-in seats and other high-end features.

He told BusinessWest that acrylic is a very high-end plastic and far more durable than old bath surrounds that tend to be made of fiberglass. The material is easy to clean, and the finish never wears off, as acrylic is not a coating.

Many bathrooms remodelers are called upon to change have baby-blue or pink tubs and fixtures, and tiles that were also used as wainscoting and were popular in the ’40s and ’50s.

The tiles are often removed before a new wall system is put in place, and water damage caused by small cracks in the tiles or grouting behind them is repaired.

“There can be hundreds of seams in a tiled bathroom where water can get in,” Cusimano said, adding that some people have no idea that this has been happening.

Most tub liners and wall systems need beading where the edges meet, but new barrier materials are infused with mildicides and antimicrobial additives.

The wall systems Bathfitter uses don’t come in pieces, but are custom-made after taking measurements with a laser. They extend from the edge of the tub or shower to the ceiling, and the corners are bent so there are no seams inside the tub.

Soap dishes and corner caddies can be added, along with acrylic on the ceiling, and bowed rods are gaining popularity as they make the area seem more spacious.

BathCrafters also makes custom tub liners that are formed to fit perfectly over existing tubs, and if tile walls are in excellent shape, Belle-Isle said, they can be covered with acrylic liners, which reduces the cost of removing them. In addition, tile wainscoting in dated colors can be covered with tile-shaped acrylic.

“The biggest decision they have to make is whether they want a shower door. It does pose a maintenance issue, but some people want glass doors without metal frames,” he noted.

Although tub surrounds come in many colors and designs, neutral palettes allow people to change the look of the bathroom in the future without having to spend a lot of money. “People can get creative with floor tile, vanity tops, and paint colors,” Belle-Isle said, adding that he often reminds customers that it is much easier to redo a floor than a tub and surround.

“Remodeling can cost a lot, but the main issue in a bathroom is usually the tub or shower. Many don’t want to completely gut the room, but they do want a look that is modern and doesn’t require much maintenance, and we can provide that,” he continued, adding that everything he installs is customized to fit.

Miracle Method of Ludlow offers another option that is the least expensive choice but completely updates the look of a bathroom, tub, or shower area and extends the life of existing tubs and showers that are scratched, chipped, or contain outdated colors. After the tub or wall surround is professionally cleaned, a high-end coating is applied, which contains a bonding agent that fuses with the old surface.

Owner Jim Kenney says the entire process takes five to six hours and cures overnight. Prices start at $585 for a standard bathtub, and sinks, countertops, and tiled walls can also be sprayed.

“We can change the entire color scheme and use the same acrylic on tile walls, which will give the room a fresh new look and bring it up to date,” he explained.

In addition, Miracle Method does step-through cutaways in bathtubs that turn them into shower stalls and are popular with seniors. “We cut a 24-inch wide step into the side rail so it is easier to get into,” Kenney explained, adding that he leaves five inches on either end of the cutaway and can install grab bars and apply a non-slip surface to the floor before the coating is sprayed onto it. The cost of this makeover with grab bars is about $1,450, and it is a growing part of his business.

Modern Look

Bathrooms are used on a daily basis by homeowners as well as their guests, and can reflect a person’s decorating style or simply serve as a functional room that meets basic needs.

But the look and age of the tub, sink, toilet, and walls can make it a place to avoid or one that is enjoyable to visit, Belle-Isle said. “When the environment in a bathroom is pleasant, it makes a big difference in a person’s overall mood.”

Building Trades Sections

Scaling New Heights

Fran Beaulieu

Fran Beaulieu says it’s a challenge to attract young workers, but those with a passion for the home-improvement trades can build gratifying careers there.

From the time his father first hung out a shingle — and then installed a whole lot more of them — Fran Beaulieu says the secret to this 50-year-old company’s success is almost too simple to be true.

“The key here is we outwork everyone,” he said. “We’re here at 7, we’re open on Saturdays, we’re always on top of it, always focused on every job. We outwork everyone. It sounds corny, but it’s true.”

That legacy of hard work began in the mid-’60s, when Fran’s father, Phil Beaulieu, a French-Canadian immigrant, arrived in Western Mass. looking for a job, and found one at Fisk Rubber in Chicopee, which later became Uniroyal.

At one point, Fisk’s unionized workers went on strike, and while on strike, the elder Beaulieu met a couple fellow French-Canadians who hung siding, and went to work for them.

Decks are among the many home-exterior projects tackled by Phil Beaulieu & Sons.

Decks are among the many home-exterior projects tackled by Phil Beaulieu & Sons.

“They would go out on Saturdays and on Sundays after church and knock on doors to generate work,” Fran said. “The first time he did that, he got three jobs, and he never had to look back.”

Beaulieu officially launched his home-improvement business in 1967, gradually adding other skills beyond siding, from roofing to window and door installation. His son Al came on board in 1984, and Fran followed in 1988, eventually taking Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement to new heights.

“My brother and I have been operating the business since 2008,” Fran Beaulieu said, noting that the company recorded $1.8 million in gross sales that year, but $7 million last year. “We are, from what our supply houses tell us, by far the largest exterior remodeler in the area, but we’ve done it quietly — 90% comes from past customers and referrals.”

That testifies to high levels of customer satisfaction, he went on.

“As soon as you call here, we don’t drop the ball; we make an appointment and show up on time. Unlike a lot of home-improvement companies in the area, we aren’t about marketing; we’re about the trade. My brother and I, and the key guys here, are all about the trade and the craft. If that’s where our focus is, we don’t have to worry about what the competition is doing.”

Today, Phil Beaulieu & Sons specializes in all manner of exterior home improvement — tackling about 600 projects a year — including roofing, siding, windows, doors, decks, and masonry, with occasional light interior work related to an exterior project, like repairing ceiling damage caused by a leaky roof or installing interior trim on window jobs.

Products have evolved over time; for example, Beaulieu said new energy codes have put many window makers out of business and consolidated business among fewer manufacturers. He said he chooses product lines with a long track record for quality, and for good reason.

“We choose manufacturers that stand behind their products,” he told BusinessWest, rattling off names like Mastic siding, Harvey windows, Therma-Tru doors, and Trex decking. “We get every salesman in here, wanting us to sell their product, but we’re cautious about what we sell. If we select an inferior window to save a few bucks, we might put in a couple thousand windows in a year, and if they have a problem, it could destroy our reputation. So we have to be very careful. We use products that are time-tested and generally leaders in their industry.”

For that reason, Beaulieu said, his company tries to be up-front about pricing, but customers appreciate the candor. After all, while a generic product might cost 10% less, “if something goes awry, people don’t remember what kind of window is in their house; they remember who put the window in. So we don’t want callbacks — unless, of course, you want more work.”

Weathering Change

At peak times, Phil Beaulieu & Sons may have 60 people working, including eight office staff, three on the sales team, and professionals scattered at job sites throughout the region.

“It’s a struggle to find labor,” Fran Beaulieu said. “We have a young crop of guys coming through the system, along with reaching out to other guys in the industry. They might have been a small-time contractor, and we say, ‘listen, come work here. You won’t have to chase leads and make calls; here’s your next job.’ We’ve been able to bring in some guys that way. We’re always looking.”

That said, some Beaulieu employees have been there 30 years or more, crafting the sort of long-term, successful, and satisfying careers that many young people mulling career choices may not consider.

“The trades are great, and they’re not what they were 25 years ago,” he said. “If you take it as professionally as, say, a banker does, you can do really well.”

But it’s also hard work, he added. “You have cold days, hot days, rainy days, but also beautiful bluebird days. Working in the fall is amazing. Working in February and March … not so fun. But you become accustomed to working outside in the elements. You learn how to dress in layers, how to eat properly, and how your body reacts.”

While job volume remains strong, he told BusinessWest, large projects tend to be fewer than in the past.

“People tend to nickel and dime on their house, but if they’re comfortable with our work, we’ll get more projects from them,” he explained, noting, for example, that it was common 20 years ago for homeowners to order 32 windows at once, where now they’ll order a few at a time as they can afford it. Tax season is a healthy time for orders, not only because people like sprucing up their properties with the warm weather, but they see a hefty tax refund as an opportunity to reinvest in their homes.

“That’s when we get a lot of repeat business — ‘you did our roof last year; this year we need a rear sliding door, and take care of that hatchway.’”

Over the years, the company has become increasingly involved in the communities it serves, lending energy and resources to organizations such as Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen, D.A.R.E., the Ludlow Hockey Assoc., and many local schools and youth sports groups.

Fran Beaulieu also sits on the executive board for Revitalize CDC, which is dedicated to performing home repairs and modifications for low-income families, the elderly, military veterans, and people with special needs. “We do a number of projects with them each year. We did a big Veterans Day project. When they came to Holyoke, we closed an entire block at Beech Street and worked on about 15 homes, all in one day. That was a great day.”

This year, Phil Beaulieu & Sons struck an affiliation with the Valley Blue Sox, with a billboard in left field reading ‘hammer it here,’ and making a donation to Revitalize CDC with each home run.

Beaulieu also sits on the board of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass., which, among other roles, helps members comply with new building-industry codes in the Bay State.

“All that regulation has eliminated a lot of the little pickup-truck guys; they’re harder to find,” he said. “We used to bid projects against the small-time guys who were uninsured, unlicensed, and, if there was a problem, the homeowner probably couldn’t find that guy again. That’s changed in Massachusetts, which has become increasingly progressive about regulating our industry. A lot of it has to do with consumer protection.”

Next Generation

Fran and Al Beaulieu are already looking down the road to the third generation of this family business, as Al’s son will soon graduate from American International College and has decided to make home improvement his career.

“He’ll wear a tool pouch for a while,” Fran said. “You can’t manage it if you can’t do it. You’ve got to appreciate your employees.”

That said, he added, “we’re always looking for young talent. Any time someone wants to be a carpenter, sider, or roofer, we’re always willing to listen. We try to find guys who are into the trade and have the same passion we have for it. I’ve talked to young guys after their first cold day and said, ‘this trade isn’t for you. Not to make you feel bad, but you’re only 21, and you should know it now.’ If you don’t have the passion, this isn’t for you.”

For those who embrace the challenge, however, there are plenty more ladders to climb, on days both cold and gray, and when the bluebirds are happily singing.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Building Trades Sections

Floor Plans

The team at Best Tile in Springfield

The team at Best Tile in Springfield includes, from left, Sarah Rietberg, showroom manager; Chad Hart and Beverly Gomes, design consulants; and Karen Belezarian-Tesini, store manager.

Harry Marcus started installing tile way back in 1955, so Karen Belezarian-Tesini considers herself lucky to have known him.

“Harry would say, ‘why are you here? Why do you like the business?’” said Belezarian-Tesini, manager of Best Tile in Springfield — one of some 30 locations that have sprung from Marcus’ original business 60 years ago. “I said, ‘I have a passion for it.’ Harry said, ‘that’s why you’re going to last. You have to have a passion for what you do.’”

Marcus Tile was born in the City of Homes, but there were no tile distributors in Springfield, meaning he had to travel to Hartford almost every day to pick up tile for his four-man team of installers. So he and his wife, Mollie, decided to start their own tile-distribution business. They sold their installation business and partnered with the Wenczel Tile Co. to open up Standard Tile Distributors in August 1956.

“It was a true rags-to-riches story,” Belezarian-Tesini said. “He was selling so much and so well, Wenczel asked him, ‘if we got you a bricks-and-mortar shop, would you open a store?’ He said yes and opened up his store.”

That’s where the story began — a story that has since expanded well past the Springfield-Hartford corridor, across the Northeast and down the Atlantic Coast. The Marcuses’ oldest son, Steve, eventually entered the family business and, after managing the Hartford branch, opened a new location in Albany, N.Y., naming it Best Tile — the word ‘Best’ representing the first two letters of his first name and that of his wife, Beverly.

By the early 1970s Best Tile was importing tile from around the world, and Steve Marcus and his business partner, Bob Rose, had expanded well into Central and Western New York. Meanwhile, Steve’s brother, Brad, expanded the company into the Boston area, and Steve Marcus and Rose later expanded into Pennsylvania with another partner, Chet Whittam. Following that, the company set up shop in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and more recently Vermont and North Carolina.

Karen Belezarian-Tesini

Karen Belezarian-Tesini says a slowing of the building boom over the past 20 years has coincided with an uptick in remodeling, which certainly benefits Best Tile.

“They’ve done very well managing and growing the business. It’s a great company to work for,” Belezarian-Tesini said. “They’re smart investors, and they direct-import everything, buying direct from factories. They’ve kept a great relationship with these factories over the years, which gives them great buying power.”

Those factories are based in countries as far-flung as Spain, Italy, Brazil, England, Turkey, Mexico, and the U.S., she added. “We pride ourselves on quality. In all the years I’ve worked here, no one’s ever come back and complained about quality of the tile, which is huge.”

Hitting the Wall

From her position managing the bustling shop on Belmont Avenue — where customers come looking to inject new life into their kitchen and bathroom floors and walls, among other areas — Belezarian-Tesini has seen a number of changes in the tile business.

“Twenty years ago, it was a contractor-driven industry, big time. It’s now more of a remodeling industry, with maybe 50% of the business retail — years ago, there was not as much retail,” she explained. “The building boom isn’t there like it used to be; you don’t see big tracts of homes going up. There’s a lot more remodeling going on.

“It’s still the City of Homes; I do believe that,” she went on. “You can tell by the remodeling going on in our neighborhoods. People are retiring to over-55 communities, and the younger generation is moving in and remodeling the home. That’s where a lot of our business is coming from nowadays.”

She noted that the contractors working in this field are an aging lot. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I wish trade schools would introduce more tile-related careers, because it’s an industry that should continue to grow.”

It’s growing in part through social media, websites, and especially home-improvement networks like HGTV and DIY, which showcase transitions that inspire viewers to tackle tile jobs themselves or hire someone to bring their vision to life.

“That’s what’s driving people, opening their eyes to what’s current, what’s hot,” she said. And that means Best Tile needs to stay on the cutting edge of what shoppers are looking for.

“Flooring has gone from a marble look to a wooded look,” she noted as one example. And large-format floor tiles are extremely popular, like 8-by-48-inch floor sections and 12-by-24-inch wall tiles; 12-by-12 pieces have become a bit passé. Meanwhile, “mosaic is hot, hot, hot — glass mosaic, glass and stone mixed, all stone, stone and ceramic. It can be for a floor, wall, backsplash, bathroom, kitchen, you name it. It’s everywhere, and it’s beautiful.

“The industry has come a long way,” she added. “The digital imaging, the handcrafted tile, so superior to what we had years ago. It’s beautiful.”

Happy Wife, Happy Life

Since the 2000s, the third generation of Roses and Marcuses have led the company through continued growth, showroom upgrades, and product expansion, under the umbrella of the East Coast Tile Group of companies.

But that’s the big picture; Belezarian-Tesini is more invested in the individuals — and, more often than not, couples — that show up at Best Tile looking to realize their vision of a beautiful bathroom or kitchen.

“You do this with your spouse; it’s not usually something you do alone. Husbands and wives make decisions together. And when they shop, they’re generally shopping together,” she said, adding, however, that some husbands embody man-shopping clichés. “Most of the time, we offer the husbands coffee or water, or ask if they want to sit down somewhere. Some spouses are very involved, and some are just here for the ride.”

It’s a ride that began with Harry Marcus’ vision, and passion, for building a business from the ground — well, the tile floor, anyway — up.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]