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BusinessWest Anniversary

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.

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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.