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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 147: January 30, 2023

George Interviews Amy Jamrog, Holyoke-based financial advisor, coach, and consultant

Amy Jamrog

Amy Jamrog is a Holyoke-based financial advisor, coach, and consultant. And experiences in all of those roles have also inspired her to write. Her book is called Confetti Moments: 52 Vignettes to Spark Conversation, Connect Deeply and Celebrate the Ordinary, a title that pretty much says it all. Jamrog talks with BusinessWest editor George O’Brien about her book, what inspired it, why we all have confetti moments, and why we should celebrate them on the next episode of BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 146: January 23, 2023

George Interviews Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College

Christina Royal

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College, is the guest on the next installment of BusinessTalk. In a wide-ranging discussion  with BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien, she talks about what might come next for her — she announced last fall that she will moving on to the next stage of her career later this year — and what will likely come next for the area’s community colleges, a key cog in regional economic development efforts. It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

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Features Special Coverage

Going the Extra Mile

AST

AST President Billy Kingston, center, with his sons, Chris, left, vice president of International Services, and Tim, vice president of Domestic Services.

Billy Kingston says the global shipping business has historically been an ultra-challenging, often-misunderstood sector of the economy, one defined by heavy competition, demanding customers, unseen twists and turns, and a landscape that can, and does, change quickly and often.

And that was before COVID and the manner in which it eventually turned the supply chain on its ear, inflation, the war in Ukraine, higher tariffs on many goods, a workforce crisis, soaring fuel prices, remote work, and everything else that has happened over the past few years.

Summing it all up, Kingston, president of All States Transport, better known as AST, said this has certainly been a tumultuous and very difficult time for this industry, one that AST has withstood because of all it can bring to the table, especially (in his case) a half-century of experience, but also a deep, talented core of employees, connections around the globe, and, most importantly, a commitment to delivering for customers and going the extra mile.

Those are both industry terms, sort of, but they help explain why AST, a domestic freight broker and international freight forwarder, terms that are self-explanatory, is able to stand out in a sea of competitors, both domestically and globally, in a business where firms are tasked with getting things from here to there — or there to here — in a timely fashion.

Elaborating, he said the keys to success for any company in this business are flexibility, the ability to move quickly and effectively, establishing trust with customers, and amassing a track record for success in delivering for clients, in every sense of that phrase.

“We arrange for transportation of goods to and from our customers anywhere in the world,” said Kingston, offering a simple explanation for work that is anything but simple. “The domestic side of the business is how we started way back, and that side of it is very active. The international side has been growing over the years and doing well; we move freight internationally by land and water.”

“We have so many great customers … if you’re upfront with them, they’re going to be upfront with you. That way, you can work through things, because transportation is nothing if not problems that have to be worked through.”

“It’s a rugged business with real issues, and we live them,” continued Kingston, who leads a staff of 20 along with his sons, Chris, vice president of International Services, and Tim, vice president of Domestic Services. “Through all of the ups and downs of the economy, fuel issues, and supply-chain woes over the past few years, it has just been very challenging.

“For us as a company, it has been our best period of time, business-wise,” he went on. “But it’s also been the most difficult to operate in.”

In a wide-ranging interview, the Kingstons pulled back the curtain on an industry that few outside really know, one that is settling back into something approaching what was happening before the pandemic, although no one came close to using the word ‘normal.’

To put things in perspective, Billy Kingston said that, before the pandemic, the cost for a shipping container coming in from China was $4,000 to $5,000. At the height of the pandemic, that cost had soared to $25,000 to $30,000.

“The spike was just amazing, and at that price, you were bidding, and hoping, to be able to get a container, and then hoping to get a spot on a ship to come this way,” he said, adding that the impact of the many issues within the shipping industry on inflation and the general economy cannot be understated.

 

Train of Thought

As he talked about the global shipping business, Chris noted that, like other sectors of the economy, this one has a language all its own, with an alphabet soup of acronyms.

These include TL (truckload), LTL (less than truckload), DAP (delivered at place), DPU (delivered at place unloaded), and myriad others.

Learning this language and helping clients understand it is just one of the many nuances of the global shipping business, said Billy, who got his start in it back in the mid-’70s, working in sales for several different national trucking companies as well as an international freight forwarder.

After working in the business for many years, he decided he knew it well enough, and had enough solid connections, to strike out on his own. He started All States Transport in the basement of his home in the Forest Park section of Springfield in 1985.

The global shipping industry is highly competitive and ever-changing, and the pandemic only added several additional layers of challenge.

For the first year or so, it was a one-person operation that eventually moved into a small office in Market Square in downtown Springfield, adding employees as it continued to grow and expand its portfolio of clients, many of which have stayed with the company through its history.

The company had a few different homes — as well as its own small trucking company, which it operated out of property on Avocado Street in Springfield for several years — before settling into its current location on East Columbus Avenue, the former home to the Leonard Gallery and Sam’s Glass.

For the past 15 years, AST has also operated a small office in Miami. At one time, it also housed a trucking operation there, but that, like the one in Springfield, became difficult to manage. So, in both locations, the company has returned to its roots — and its routes — as a freight broker and forwarder.

“When the pandemic hit, because there was so much uncertainty in the general economy, you saw companies all over the world closing down and canceling orders that had been in place for a long time.”

As he explained the operation, Billy said that, in a nutshell, AST goes about finding global shipping solutions for its many kinds of clients, most of them manufacturers. About 80% of the company customers are based in Western and Central Mass., Northern Connecticut, and Rhode Island, he said, with the rest spread out over the country.

As a broker, AST will work with a client to secure the shipping of goods to or from their business. To do so, it works with trucking outfits across the region and around the country, as well as rail-service providers and sea and air carriers. What separates the many (as in thousands) of competitors in this field is their ability to make and maintain connections with carriers, know and understand the market, move quickly (many clients want same-day service), and deliver on both price and quality of service.

And all this requires an experienced, talented workforce. “You need a staff that is familiar with the marketplace and has all the tools and technology they need to succeed,” Billy explained. “It’s a fast-moving, time-sensitive, rate-conscious industry — that’s what it’s about.

“We have other customers that we’ve done business with for years and years … they don’t ask us for rate on every load,” he went on. “In many cases, we have the ability with those customers to move up or down as we need to, to service their needs and ours. And that only comes from years of good faith and years of trust, built up between us and our customers because they know that if we need to add extra dollars to a rate, there’s a good reason for that. They also know that if we can reduce that rate, we’re going to do that, and we do this as often as we can.”

Beyond rates, successful freight brokers and forwarders need to have a thorough understanding of the players in the shipping field, where they operate, and how, said Tim Kingston, adding that AST works with trucking companies across the country.

“And we need to, because trucking companies, by their nature, and by their history, generally service certain sections of the country,” he explained. “Some will go anywhere, but a lot of them carve out a part of the country that they want to service for their business needs. You learn those, and when you have freight moving to South Carolina, you know where to start.”

Chris agreed, and said one constant for the company through the years has been to apply an established set of values and principles and to effectively partner with clients and communicate with them — another must in this business.

“It’s a super-competitive, time-sensitive, money-sensitive industry that changes on a dime in many cases. You need to have a staff that’s dedicated; you need to have a staff that’s used to hearing the word ‘no,’ because they hear it a lot.”

“If you have good news for a customer, give them good news; if you have bad news, something’s gone wrong, let them know early, communicate that, and try to work through problems,” he said. “We have so many great customers … if you’re upfront with them, they’re going to be upfront with you. That way, you can work through things, because transportation is nothing if not problems that have to be worked through.

“Sure, 60% of your loads are going to go without a hitch,” he went on. “The other 40% … that’s where the real work is, so we try to apply the same values across all our different sectors.”

 

Plane Speaking

This combination of experience, built-up trust, and ability to adjust to rapidly — and often profoundly — changing conditions, has enabled AST to not only thrive for the past four decades, but also persevere through this recent, and ongoing, period of heavy turbulence.

Indeed, as noted earlier, this challenging business has become more so — make that even more so — over the past several years with the profound changes to the landscape brought on by the pandemic.

At the top of this list were supply-chain issues that could only be described as historic, said all three Kingstons, noting that the industry was seeing explosive surges in prices for shipping containers and backups at ports around the globe. It didn’t happen overnight, but almost.

Billy explained how it all happened. “When the pandemic hit, because there was so much uncertainty in the general economy, you saw companies all over the world closing down and canceling orders that had been in place for a long time,” he said. “Manufacturers then began cutting back, as well as transportation companies — steamship lines parked vessels all over the world because the demand wasn’t there. No one had an idea when it was going to come back, and that really kicked off the fluctuation in the supply chain.”

Chris agreed, and noted that, three or four months into the pandemic, an array of colliding forces made the situation much worse.

“A lot of people were at home, and they weren’t doing the things they always did in terms of discretionary income,” he explained. “People were at home, and they bought many more things than they normally buy. And then, you had the stimulus programs, which gave people more spending money. Then … you had a lot less international shipping capacity, but a giant surge in demand. Meanwhile, you had empty containers in the wrong places that took forever to get repositioned.

All this created a messed-up supply-and-demand curve, which would have resulted in a container coming in from China for $25,000, just for the cost of the container, never mind the tariff,” he went on. “It created a lopsided supply-and-demand curve, which pushed prices out of sight.”

This phenomenon, which has eased considerably in recent months but is still an issue, is just one of many that has contributed to this being what is considered the most volatile period ever for an industry known for volatility.

On top of everything else, the global shipping industry, like virtually every other sector, has been impacted by an ongoing workforce crisis, Billy said, adding, again, that success in this business is directly related to the quality and consistency of the people doing the work.

“It’s a super-competitive, time-sensitive, money-sensitive industry that changes on a dime in many cases,” he told BusinessWest. “You need to have a staff that’s dedicated; you need to have a staff that’s used to hearing the word ‘no,’ because they hear it a lot; you need to have a staff that understands customer needs and understands which customers can be a little more flexible and more reasonable at times, and which customers can’t be because of the nature of their business. They need to be thick-skinned because it’s not always pretty.”

Indeed, many in this business, including AST, are looking for help right now, he went on, adding that, over the past several years, and essentially from the beginning, AST has made itself into what he considers a good place to work — and grow.

“In this environment, especially, we take care of our staff in every possible way,” he said. “We have some benefits that are quite outstanding, especially for a company our size, and we’re proud of that. As a result, generally, our people are with us for a very long time; very few people leave, and we’re proud of that, too.”

Elaborating, he said that, because of tight deadlines and the need to deliver, there is pressure on employees, something the company’s managers work to alleviate as best they can.

“We have some fun every day — at different times, you never know when it’s going to happen,” he went on. “And there are days when the fun doesn’t come very quickly or very often because you’re right to the wall, morning ’til night. But we try to lighten things up when we can and in whatever way we can.”

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Cloudy Forecast

Paul Scully

Paul Scully says loan demand was strong in 2022 despite the interest-rate hikes.

A constant flow of interest-rate increases didn’t exactly make borrowers happy in 2022, Paul Scully said, but it didn’t keep them from participating in the economy.

“I think, coming out of the pandemic, there was a pent-up desire to reconnect, within business circles and in communities. We had a terrific year for lending,” said Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank, which opened a new business production office in Tower Square in downtown Springfield last year. “That’s worked out beautifully for us. Our loan production in 2022 was the greatest level ever — we originated over $400 million in loans, almost $170 million in net growth.”

A broadening of the focus made a difference, Scully said. “Country Bank has been known as a commercial real-estate lender; that was our niche. We’ve gotten more deliberately into C&I lending from 2021 going into 2022, and have done some significant C&I deals: $10 million, $20 million, $30 million deals. We have the expertise in house to be able to do that. And based on our capitalization — we’re one of the highest-capitalized banks in the Commonwealth — it gives us the opportunity to be able to grow along with businesses and customers.”

bankESB’s holding company, Hometown Financial Group, continued to grow in 2022 as well, with the acquisition of Randolph Bancorp and its subsidiary, Envision Bank, which was merged into Abingdon Bank, another Hometown holding, more than doubling its presence on the South Shore.

“The most interest-sensitive customers are residential borrowers, and as residential mortgage rates rose throughout 2022, we saw the volume of residential lending, especially refinances, drop dramatically. Commercial lending is definitely impacted as well, though not to the same extent.”

“We’re in a very low-margin industry,” said bankESB and Hometown President and CEO Matt Sosik, explaining why growing geographically to create scale is an important part of the company’s strategy. “Any business person will tell you costs are rising, whether it’s insurance, utilities, fuel oil, you name it — and, of course, wages. It’s the same for us, and if we’re not growing, we’re going backward.”

That said, “we had our best earnings year ever in 2022, and it wasn’t even anywhere near second place,” Sosik noted.

Part of that was the fact that interest rates for borrowers rose so quickly that the lag between those rates and the rates paid to depositors generated income for banks. But heading into 2023, margins are again shrinking as deposit costs rise, and a slowing economy has some people worried about a possible recession, which would further soften the loan market.

“The most interest-sensitive customers are residential borrowers, and as residential mortgage rates rose throughout 2022, we saw the volume of residential lending, especially refinances, drop dramatically,” Sosik said. “Commercial lending is definitely impacted as well, though not to the same extent.”

Tony Worden, president and CEO of Greenfield Cooperative Bank, agreed.

“Obviously, the residential market became soft because of what’s going on with rates as the year progressed,” he told BusinessWest. “And frankly, the commercial lending market became softer because people don’t know what the economy is going to do going forward; they’re keeping their powder dry, as they say. They don’t want to make big decisions if they don’t know how the economy will turn out.

Matt Sosik

Matt Sosik says fundamentals like low inventory have kept housing prices high.

“This year, everyone is holding their breath to see what the outcome will be,” he went on. “Will the Federal Reserve be able to engineer a soft landing? Last year, we thought we were in for a couple of rate increases, but the rates went much higher than everyone thought they would. When you do strategic planning, you make assumptions about what the rate environment will be, and we were all wrong last year.”

This year, economic projections include not only the rate issue, but whether unemployment will rise, what the impact of energy costs will be, and much more. On the topic of energy, Worden said the region has seen a mild winter so far, so that could help people weather the still-high costs.

“I guess if people knew what was going to happen, they could make a lot of money. From a banking standpoint, a lot of loan customers don’t want to make decisions until they know where we’re all situated.”

 

Saving and Spending

Worden lend some recent historical perspective to what banks are seeing when it comes to consumer and business behavior, starting in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For a few months, Americans were saving at a rate that hadn’t been seen in 80, 90 years. They were saving money, they weren’t going anywhere, there was a lot of stimulus, both federal and state, and banks saw their deposits increase tremendously because people were sitting on a lot of cash.”

While that’s generally not a bad thing for banks, he said, cooperative banks not only pay for FDIC insurance, but also pay premiums on the private Depositors Insurance Fund, which covers deposits beyond the $250,000 the FDIC covers. “All the deposits coming in but no loan demand cost us money in a way; we were paying insurance on all the deposits, but couldn’t put the deposits to work.”

In the second year of the pandemic, people were starting to spend again, take vacations, and work on their homes, while most stimulus had ended, so deposit levels crept toward a more typical environment, and loans picked up as well. And while the current interest-rate environment has made some potential borrowers skittish, Worden said it’s important to note that those rates are still historically low — yes, a fixed 30-year mortgage rate is north of 5% right now, but a generation ago, it was 17% or higher.

“I think it’s a mental thing with borrowers,” he went on. “Rates were so low for an extended time, you get used to that mentally, and it’s hard to readjust when they start going up again.”

“Last year, we thought we were in for a couple of rate increases, but the rates went much higher than everyone thought they would. When you do strategic planning, you make assumptions about what the rate environment will be, and we were all wrong last year.”

Still, Sosik said, the housing market remains strong due to the fundamentals of low inventory levels and those still relatively low interest rates. But especially with remote work taking hold, “people who may be inclined to think about moving may not want to give up their 3% mortgage.’

“And there’s not a flow of new inventory, so we have this interesting dynamic where rates are rising, but it’s not impacting home prices materially,” he added — especially for a class of higher-income cash buyers who aren’t interest-sensitive.

“There’s a lot of liquidity in the economy, a lot of it funneled toward the residential market,” he said. “Volume is still good, but inventory is still low. Everything is still working; it’s just more expensive to borrow.”

Scully said Country continues to see significant loan demand early in 2023 — “not at the level of 2022, but we are seeing good pockets of business on the commercial side.” Meanwhile, to help customers purchase homes, the bank kicked off a homebuyers’ program in the fall featuring no money down and no private mortgage insurance in select areas.

“We’re still seeing a decent residential market, not as robust as it had been, but still decent,” he said. “On the commercial side, we’re still looking at some interesting deals. But everyone is holding their breath when it comes to construction lending for large projects.”

That said, investors are seeing positive signs, he added, including a comeback for retail and hospitality. “The restaurant industry is starting to have workers come back.”

Meanwhile, Scully added, “unemployment is still pretty low, and we’re not hearing much of layoffs, so hopefully we’ll see the Fed reach its level, see that interest-rate changes have impacted inflation, and we may be starting to see the other side of this sometime in 2023.”

Tony Worden

Tony Worden says everyone is hoping the Fed helps the economy to a “soft landing” with its rate policy aimed at reversing inflation.

Worden said no one really knows where the economy will turn, though there are hopeful signs. “As we see inflation numbers coming down, we’ll start to get an idea whether what the Fed is doing is starting to work. And maybe they’ll start pulling back on rate increases. If they can pull off that soft landing, we might see people reinvesting in business, buying equipment, buying new properties. But I think everyone is waiting a little bit.

“When you have a good economy, banks do well; people are out investing, buying, selling, doing things,” he added. “When the economy is bad, banks struggle because no one’s out doing anything.”

 

Community Counts

The higher-than-usual heating costs that impact every homeowner affect bank employees as well, Scully said, which is why Country recently gave a $750 stipend to all its employees to mitigate those impacts, and other inflationary pressures.

But Country isn’t taking its focus off the community at large, recently adopting the tagline “made to make a difference,” which applies not only to customers and business clients, but to the community as well, where the bank has focused much philanthropic energy over the years to needs like healthcare and food security. In 2022, the bank donated close to $1.3 million, a year after donating a total of $1 million to two major food banks on top of its other giving.

Scully said the pandemic shed a spotlight on basic human needs, not only for banks, but their employees, who, at least in Country’s case, have been more engaged in recent years.

“We’re still seeing a decent residential market, not as robust as it had been, but still decent. On the commercial side, we’re still looking at some interesting deals. But everyone is holding their breath when it comes to construction lending for large projects.”

“We learned a lot about ourselves and humanity during the pandemic, and we have a lot of staff members who really flourished in the sense of being able to volunteer and give time to the community,” he explained. “This what our brand us all about.”

Worden said Western Mass. is fortunate to be home to numerous locally owned banks that are active in their communities by supporting nonprofits through direct donations and volunteer efforts.

“In other parts of the country, this isn’t a thing,” he said. “But up and down 91 are all these good, local, community banks, and we’re all doing what we can do for the community. Obviously, we want to make money; that’s how we stay in business and give raises to our employees and hire new employees. But when Western Mass. does well, we all do well.”

bankESB recently announced that a fundraising drive raised $35,000 for local food pantries, part of its robust charitable giving program known as the Giving Tree, which reflects the bank’s commitment to making a difference in the neighborhoods it serves.

“We try to give back to all the communities we’re in, and we pointedly give back to those in need, things like food insecurity, for both children and older folks,” Sosik said. “The objective of the Giving Tree campaign is around $1 million a year — giving that back to the communities we serve and trying to make a difference for those who truly need it.

“Food insecurity is a year-round problem,” he went on, “but we turn our focus on it a little more at the end of the year and make that the key part of our campaign.”

Looking out his window, Scully noted a $35 million project the bank financed. “That makes a difference for the property owner, but we want to make a difference for everyone in our community,” he told BusinessWest. “All community banks do a tremendous job with community giving, and we’re not cutting back on our giving. Our earnings may change, but we’re committed to our level of philanthropy.”

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Building the Portfolio

 

Vid Mitta acknowledged that the emergence of remote work and its impact — still to be determined in many respects — on the region’s inventory of office space was certainly a consideration when he and business partner Dinesh Patel were deciding whether to submit a proposal for the purchase of the 1550 Main building in downtown Springfield.

But ultimately, this was just one of many considerations, he told BusinessWest, adding that the others — as well as his firm belief that business owners and managers will always see value in having people working together in one place — convinced the two serial entrepreneurs to move forward and answer the request for proposals sent by the property’s now-former owner, MassDevelopment, early last year.

Mitta and Patel eventually prevailed in the bidding to acquire the property — formerly occupied by the U.S. Federal Court and currently home to tenants ranging from Baystate Health to the Springfield School Department — for $6 million.

As he talked about its prospects for the future, Mitta focused on those other considerations that played into this decision, especially that age-old axiom when it comes to commercial real estate — location, location, location. Beyond that, though, the current tenant mix, the timeline on current leases, and the good overall condition of the building also played a factor in generating a green light.

“These properties are connected, and they are the two best buildings in Springfield’s downtown for class-A space.”

“Remote work is the main thing that comes to anyone’s mind when we talk about office spaces today,” he acknowledged. “But look at the location — this is what we were looking at, as well as the maintenance and good condition of the property. These factors led us to see this as a good investment. When vacancies arise, people have choices, and they’re going to move into the best building possible.”

Thus, another chapter has begun in what would have to be called a developing story, in every sense of that phrase. That would be the expanding portfolio of properties now owned by Mitta and Patel, either individually or collectively.

That list includes Tower Square and its recently renovated hotel, which has re-earned the Marriot flag, as well as several other hotels, 99 Restaurant & Pub locations, a Walgreens, three McDonald’s franchises, adult day-care facilities, early-education facilities, and more. These collective investments and entrepreneurial gambits earned Patel and Mitta BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award just a year ago.

Mitta told BusinessWest that 1550 Main St. was a common-sense addition to the portfolio, one that gives the partners a property that is essentially full (97% occupancy), with a stable tenant base that also includes the Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, regional offices for U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, the law firm Alekman DiTusa, and an attractive, well-maintained property in the heart of the central business district.

“These properties are connected, and they are the two best buildings in Springfield’s downtown for class-A space,” he said of 1550 Main and Tower Square. “With these properties, we’ll be well-positioned to attract new tenants looking for quality space.”

The property that has come to be known as 1550 Main was acquired by MassDevelopment from the federal government in 2009. At that time, it was roughly 70% occupied, said a spokesperson for MassDevelopment, adding that, after achieving all its stated goals for the property, the agency decided to put the property up for sale through a disposition process to allow it to refocus its efforts on other projects.

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta, who together orchestrated a stunning turnaround at Tower Square, believe 1550 Main St. is a logical addition to their growing portfolio of commercial real-estate properties.

That includes an initiative in Greenfield, where MassDevelopment is partnering with the city and the Community Builders in the acquisition and redevelopment of the former Wilson’s Department Store property in the heart of the community’s downtown. The redevelopment will create roughly 65 mixed-income rental units and reactivate prominent first-floor and basement retail spaces through the relocation and expansion of Franklin Community Co-ops’s Greenfield store, Green Fields Market.

Referencing 1550 Main, MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera said, “working with tenants, partners, and the city of Springfield over the years allowed us to cultivate this property to its best and highest use. This type of focused teamwork is how long-lasting redevelopment takes root. It is what makes converting an old federal courthouse into a stunning multi-tenant office building possible.”

The property went on the market in the spring of 2022, and the request for proposals issued by MassDevelopment attracted a number of bids.

Moving forward, Mitta said several of the leases of current tenants will be expiring over the next several years. He expressed optimism for renewals, but also for new tenants looking to take advantage of the property’s location and other amenities.

“Tenancy is not a permanent thing — tenants come and go; we know that,” he said. “Some leases are going to expire over the next few years, but we know how to market, and we have a very strong team here.”

“Even those working at home still go to the office — businesses prefer the hybrid model. They need a place where people can collaborate, meet, greet, that kind of thing. That need is still there, and I don’t know if it will ever go.”

Elaborating, he said this team is hoping to attract some current occupants of class-B space to properties that are not much more expensive but bring a number of amenities that class-B properties do not, including parking garages, lighting safety, and that aforementioned location in the heart of downtown.

The property at 1550 Main differs from its neighbor, Tower Square, to which it is connected by a skybridge, in many respects, said Mitta. He noted that Tower Square required significant investment and “re-imagining,” a word he and Patel use often, such as with new tenants that include the YMCA of Greater Springfield. The newer 1550 Main will not require much of either, he said, which is another of those considerations that prompted interest in the building.

As for the trend toward remote work and hybrid work schedules, Mitta acknowledged that there is likely permanence attached to these trends, but, ultimately, he anticipates that there will still be strong demand for office space, especially in the class-A category.

“Even those working at home still go to the office — businesses prefer the hybrid model,” he explained. “They need a place where people can collaborate, meet, greet, that kind of thing. That need is still there, and I don’t know if it will ever go.”

For evidence of this, Mitta points to Tower Square, where he acknowledged that the number of people in the office tower on any given day may be lower than it was prior to the pandemic. But overall, space needs have not changed to a great degree, and new leases continue to be signed.

“Overall, rent is a comparatively small item on the P&L statement,” he said, adding that, for this reason, he has seen few if any tenants at Tower Square downsizing.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

The Deerfield Inn

The Deerfield Inn was built in 1884 and is still in use.

This year, the town of Deerfield, though incorporated in 1677, will mark its 350th anniversary since the first English settlers called the upper Pioneer Valley their home in 1673. Since the beginning, a lot has changed, but the town has tried to keep some aspects the same.

“It was a farming community,” Town Administrator Kayce Warren said. “If you’re going to Historic Deerfield, you’re going to see a lot of agricultural land. Most of it is preserved; most of it is still used for agricultural purposes. That was an element for many, many years that probably goes back to incorporating the town because of where we are; we had a great ability to grow things.”

Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said the town, while maintaining that agricultural focus, has also become a true tourist destination. In fact, tourism contributes about $79 million to Franklin County’s economy, and Deerfield is one of the driving forces behind those numbers.

“We’re seeing just about 27,000 visitors to Yankee Candle each year, and Historic Deerfield has just under 14,000,” Deane told BusinessWest. “These are people that are driving more than 50 miles to reach these destinations. In a lot of cases, these people are staying over at Champney’s and the Deerfield Inn. They’re taking in the sights, and they’re hopefully enjoying all of what Franklin County has to offer.”

 

Celebrating the Old

Historic Deerfield — an open-air destination that boasts a history museum, an art museum, and several historic house museums, as well as the Deerfield Inn and its historic restaurant, Champney’s — certainly reflects those roots. As one of the best-preserved collections of original historic houses in New England, Old Main Street, or simply “the Street,” as Historic Deerfield President John Davis called it, is lined with 40 houses that predate the Civil War.

As a frontier settlement, Deerfield regularly suffered from attack. The village was abandoned during King Philip’s War after the 1675 attack at Bloody Brook and resettled in 1682, only to face several more raids in the 1690s and into the early 1700s.

Today, the 18th- and 19th-century houses of the village center, many on their original sites and filled with antique furnishings, reveal the lifestyles of Deerfielders from the time of the first English settlement to the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century. The village has been on the National Register of Historic Landmarks since 1962.

“You get an amazing look at how the Puritans designed their towns and those houses along the street; 12 of them are museum houses that our visitors can go into,” Davis said.

Over the past year, Historic Deerfield has “really emerged from the pandemic” and is close to being back to where it used to be, recording its second-best month in its existing 75 years this past October, he added.

Because it was already engaged in virtual programming, he explained, the museums were able to hit the ground running faster than some of the larger museums when it came to using Zoom for digital content — and they’re continuing to do so. And when restrictions were lifted, the houses reopened for people to come see the 32,000-piece collection and the 12 homes open to tour.

“Being able to bring all of those back has really encouraged folks to visit us again in person, and there are a number of seasonal educational programs that are also big drivers for us,” Davis said. “One of the most popular of those is our open-hearth cooking program where you can actually see a meal being prepared in the old-fashioned way, over an open fire, and it’s not an experience that you can get in many other places.”

“You get an amazing look at how the Puritans designed their towns and those houses along the street; 12 of them are museum houses that our visitors can go into.”

John Davis

John Davis

Another program that brings locals and visitors as far as Boston and New York City to ‘the Street’ is the Sheep on the Street program in May, which attracts hundreds of people to look at the historic trades associated with wool. Flocks of heritage-breed sheep walk the streets like they would have in the 18th and 19th centuries, and visitors enjoy sheepdog and shearing demonstrations as well.

Davis said that the town and Historic Deerfield have a close relationship and like to function as “the town’s museum,” with Deerfield residents getting into the sites for free. But he wants to rekindle the museum’s relationships with schools, not only in the surrounding areas, but as far south as Springfield and Holyoke. Schools stopped having field trips because of COVID, and now that they’ve returned, he wants to make welcoming students a bigger priority in 2023.

Historic Deerfield

Historic Deerfield features 12 historic homes that visitors are able to tour.

“Western Massachusetts is a fascinating region, both for its history and its contemporary beauty,” he noted. “And this is one of the most magical places — this mile street that you can turn off of Route 5, and it’s like you’re going into a different century. I think that that is a part of the story of our region here in Western Mass. that is really interesting to folks who may not otherwise think of this as a destination area.”

 

Embracing the New

One of the more recent and frequently visited attractions is Tree House Brewing Company. Originally established in Brimfield, the brewing company now occupies the old Channing Bete headquarters on Route 5 and is celebrating its one-year anniversary in town.

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,090
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $14.97
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.97
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

The craft-beverage scene in Franklin County was “alive and well” before Tree House Brewing Company joined the long list of local breweries, Deane said, but Tree House certainly helped introduce Deerfield and Franklin County to a larger craft fanbase.

Warren added that the taproom at Tree House Brewing Company is “really fun,” and several of her colleagues meet there to socialize and catch up after work.

“Tree House has really good beer, and they have really good pizza. You can bring your own food in, but once again, it’s nice to have options, so it’s not just Yankee Candle,” said Denise Mason, chair of the town’s Connecting Community Initiative. “We have Tree House, which is an anchor, and we have everything else — we want to connect all of it to give people choices.”

She went on to say that Yankee Candle offers pizza, but if someone wants another food option, they don’t always know what’s available in Deerfield. To create opportunities for diners and restaurant owners alike means making the town more accessible.

Warren added that the piece that really leads to economic development is getting people off the highway into the town center so they can shop, eat, get their hair done, and engage with the many wellness-focused enterprises. “We want to be able to get people back and get people into the center of town.”

Moving forward, Deerfield officials hope to improve the municipal parking lot, known as the Leary Lot, to create a more direct pathway to the main streets in the center of town. Berkshire Brewing Company wants to expand, “and that’s a good place for them to do it because there is parking and accessibility right next to the lot,” Warren noted. “But there’s also this concept of creating small spaces for people to eat, to gather, that are pretty and accessible and inviting.”

Fixing up the Leary Lot helps businesses around the center because it gives them some parking access and resources to other parts of town. With four other restaurants on Elm Street and another restaurant, Wolfie’s, on South Main Street, parking in the center of town is a massive need.

“If there’s no parking, people won’t shop or stop, especially older individuals,” Mason said. “If they don’t have easy parking, they just go somewhere else.”

The goal, of course, is to keep them in Deerfield, a town that has seen plenty of change over the course of 350 years and is looking toward a positive future while celebrating its rich past.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 145: January 16, 2023

George Interviews Susan Kasa, president of Boulevard Machine in Westfield

Susan Kasa, president of Boulevard Machine in Westfield, is the guest on the next installment of BusinessTalk, and she does a great job of drilling down and assessing the state of the manufacturing sector in Western Mass. and ongoing efforts to ensure that there are talented workers in the pipeline for years — and decades — to come. It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 144: January 9, 2023

George talks to  Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass Economic Development Council

Rick Sullivan

As 2023 begins, there are many question marks —as well as an abundance of cautious optimism — concerning the region and it’s economy. On the next installment of BusinessTalk, BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien and his guest, Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass Economic Development Council, sort through it all, touching on everything from workforce issues to the prospects for needed growth and new jobs. It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

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Features Special Coverage

Udderly Innovative

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David Barstow and Denise Barstow Manz

David Barstow and Denise Barstow Manz are part of the sixth and seventh generations now carrying on traditions — and creating new ones — at the family farm in Hadley.
Staff Photo

While she grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Hadley and enjoyed that lifestyle, Denise Barstow Manz had no intention of making the 200-year-old operation a career.

“The farm was a place that was fun, and I had a really good time playing with my cousins, being around large animals, and being around nature — it was an amazing way to grow up,” she recalled. “And then, as I got older and I started to see the numbers and realized that the farm was a lot of hard work and not an easy path to wealth, I thought that maybe I should go and do something else.”

She attended the University of New Hampshire — in part because of its renowned dairy program, although she chose a different major — and would later move west and work for the National Park Service, with stints at Yellowstone and Glacier National Park in Montana. And it was while on these assignments that she began to rethink what she would do with her life — and why.

“It finally hit me when I was in Glacier,” she said. “I was a trail guide, and I saw these people donating money to preserve these places. And I thought, ‘if everyone’s giving to places like this, who’s taking care of the places we come from?’ I thought about who was taking care of the place I came from that has been in my family for more than 200 years — and I wanted to be part of that story.”

And with that decision, Barstow Manz would also become part — and she stressed that word part early and quite often, because this is truly a family affair — of one the region’s more intriguing business stories: Barstow’s Longview Farm.

“This is a good place to raise a family in a multi-generational business — everyone can see how life works; the goal has always been to leave something for the next generation.”

It’s a story that includes most of the elements shaping the growth, evolution, and resilience of the local economy today. That list includes entrepreneurship, innovation, technology, clean energy, tourism and hospitality, and sustainable agriculture.

They all come together in an impossibly beautiful, picture-postcard setting, the historic Hockanum Village, framed by the Connecticut River and the Holyoke Range, scenery that belies the myriad and ever-more severe challenges facing dairy farmers — and all those in agriculture — today.

It was these challenges — and especially very trying times roughly two decades ago that prompted the sixth and seventh generations of the Barstow family to take the motto that has defined this business — ‘looking forward since 1806’ — to new dimensions.

Barstow’s Longview Farm since 1806.

Evolution and diversification have been hallmarks of Barstow’s Longview Farm since 1806.

Indeed, a family that has always embraced change and diversification (much more on that later) has taken some dramatic new turns in recent years, first with Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery, and later, through a partnership with Vanguard Renewables to build one of the first farm-powered anaerobic digesters in New England. Meanwhile, the 450-acre dairy farm produces 19,000 pounds of milk daily and is a member of the Cabot Creamery/Agri-Mark Cooperative; almost all of the farm’s milk is supplied to the Cabot/Agri-Mark facility in West Springfield and is made into Cabot butter and other products.

The anaerobic digester (AD), installed in 2013 and expanded in 2016, converts cow manure — the herd at the farm produces some 9,000 tons of it annually — and food waste into electricity, heat, and fertilizer.

It has become an important revenue source for the farm, but it also makes a statement about what the sixth and seventh generations of this family — and those that came before them — stand for.

“The AD speaks to what we believe in as a family — that we need to lower our carbon footprint and play a role in mitigating climate change,” Barstow Manz said, adding that, for this family, sustainability comes in many forms and means many things, including work to ensure that this business will be there for the next generations.

Her father, David Barstow, director of special projects at the farm, agreed. He said that, while many things have changed at this location — in general, but especially during his lifetime — what hasn’t changed is that concept of preserving, and persevering, for those who will continue the tradition.

“My father and grandfather used to talk about working with horses,” he said, adding that change and advancement are constants on the farm; the key is to embrace that change and be at the forefront of it. “This is a good place to raise a family in a multi-generational business — everyone can see how life works; the goal has always been to leave something for the next generation.”

“We got together as a family and decided that we needed to either diversify or get out of farming completely.”

All of the various components of Barstow’s Longview Farm make for an intriguing tour — one that usually includes lunch on site — and Denise and other family members offer many of them, all year long. More than that, these elements collaborate to create an inspiring new chapter to a story that began when Thomas Jefferson was patrolling the White House — and even a century before that, as we’ll see.

 

Herd It Through the Grapevine

They call it Pasture Day, and it is celebrated the first Saturday in May.

As that name suggests, this is the day when the cows, which have spent the winter in barns, get to head back into the pasture. It’s the unofficial start of spring, and a community event — many visitors, including several families living in the area, will come out, watch the heifers celebrate their first taste of fresh grass, enjoy live music, and have some ice cream.

An aerial view of Barstow’s Longview Farm

An aerial view of Barstow’s Longview Farm in the historic Hockanum Village.

“People kick up their heels and have a good time; they sit on the hill and watch,” said Barstow Manz, who doesn’t have a formal title, but serves as the farm’s marketing director. She also handles the farm tours, manages the dairy store and bakery, handles outreach, and acts as the main grant writer. She used to feed the calves, but the farm now has an automated calf feeder, one of many examples of innovation at this institution.

She said Pasture Day is just one of the many traditions that have lived on at this property since Septimus Barstow, originally from Wethersfield, Conn., acquired the property on the bank of the Connecticut River that was first farmed at least 100 years earlier by the Lyman family.

Originally a crop farm that focused on asparagus, as many farms in Hadley did, as well as squash, corn, tobacco, and other staples, the Barstow’s operation eventually evolved into a dairy farm after the advent of refrigeration, which provided an avenue for selling milk wholesale.

By the 1930s, dairy was the primary focus at the farm, she went on, adding that, with a herd of 300 cows, this is small to mid-sized operation, one that is dwarfed by huge operations in this country and overseas.

It’s one of a dwindling number of dairy farms both in Massachusetts and across the U.S., she said, citing statistics showing that this country loses five dairy farms every day.

“And when you lose those farms, you’re losing a lot,” she went on. “You’re obviously losing food and food security for that community. But you’re also losing open space, which is good for wildlife habitat, groundwater, climate resilience, and food security. And you’re losing that heritage and that connection to your past.”

The reason for such attrition is simple. This is a very difficult business to be in, she said, adding that the federal government controls milk prices, and margins have historically been paper-thin.

“Even though it’s very perishable, milk is marketed on a global scale, so we’re competing against New Zealand, we’re competing against California … and it’s kind of a broken system,” Barstow Manz explained. “The only real way for dairy farmers to make more money is to make more milk, which doesn’t always line up with demand. And we have no control over the price of the product we produce.”

There are only 115 dairy farms left in the Bay State, and there probably wouldn’t be any were it not for the Massachusetts Dairy Tax Credit, which enables them to remain competitive, she said, adding that there are six operations in Hadley alone, a concentration that testifies to the quality of the soil in that region.

In the early years of this century, the milk market essentially collapsed, primarily because of oversupply, she said, calling this a scary time for the Barstow farm and all the others in this market.

David Barstow

David Barstow says his family lives by the farm’s motto, ‘looking forward since 1806.’

“The milk market crashed like no one had ever seen or felt before in this country; we were getting $12 per hundred pounds of milk, when our break-even was $22,” she explained, adding that it was a critical time in the history of the farm, or another critical time, to be more precise.

“We got together as a family and decided that we needed to either diversify or get out of farming completely,” she recalled. “And that’s when we started talking about how we wanted to diversify and who we wanted to include. And we knew that we wanted to be thoughtful of what the next generation was interested in doing and what our strengths are.”

 

A Process of Evolution

Over the next several years, diversification would come in several forms, starting with the dairy store and bakery in 2008, an operation inspired in many ways by Denise’s cousin, Shannon Barstow, who does most of the baking. It’s an operation that would transform the farm into a true destination.

“We’re always trying to be mindful and committed to what’s going to be best for our herd, and also for our land, our workforce, our community, and our food system.”

“We understood that people were going to have to drive here if we were going to get the support and the revenue we needed,” she recalled. “So we did lunch, and we started probably too big for our britches. But we’ve definitely settled into who were are, and we have a really supportive community.”

The dairy-store operation and bakery offers both breakfast and lunch as well as a number of prepared foods — and ice cream. The bakery serves up pies, cupcakes, brownies, turnovers, croissants, scones, muffins, breads, and much more. The facility handles private functions, porch parties, and catering. Meanwhile, visitors can buy Barstow’s beef — everything from tenderloin steaks to ground beef — on site. There’s even a drive-thru for those who want or need to grab and go.

The facility draws visitors from around the corner, but also from across the state and beyond, said Barstow Manz, adding that it has become a real destination and a way to take the Barstow name and products well beyond Hadley.

“Most of our regulars are from Hadley and South Hadley,” she explained. “But we have people who come to us from Eastern Mass. because they love our beef, and from the Berkshires because they love our pies; we draw from all over.

Shannon Barstow

Shannon Barstow does most of the baking at the dairy store and bakery, which opened in 2008.

“We opened this place to save the family farm, and it’s had so many other amazing qualities to it that we didn’t really expect,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s become this time capsule for all these family recipes — most of the stuff that’s in the dairy case is Grandma [Marjorie] Barstow’s recipes. And it’s also a neighborhood gathering space — it’s a space where people can work close to home and also be part of a family farm and a local economy on a small scale.”

Indeed, the dairy story and bakery now employs 15 people and has provided many area young people with their first jobs.

The anaerobic-digestion system, launched at a cost of roughly $6 million, is not a supplier of jobs, but it is, as noted earlier, a supplier of electricity, heat, fertilizer — and also pride for a family that has, through its long history, been innovative.

The conversations about installing such a facility began around the same time the family was opening the dairy store and bakery, she said, adding that the system is another important step toward diversification.

Explaining how it works, she said the system takes the energy potential (methane) out of cow manure and food waste and converts it into enough electricity to power 1,600 homes. The food waste comes from local food producers, including Cabot/Agri-Mark, Whole Foods, the Coca-Cola plant in Northampton, and local restaurants.

The food waste and cow manure, both treated and in liquid form, are put into the digester, which Barstow Manz equated to a large stomach, with the gas from the ‘digestion’ process rising to the top of the nine-story facility. That collected gas combusts in an engine and turns a generator, thus creating electricity.

Heat, one of the byproducts of this process, is used to heat that system, provide hot water in the barns, and heat the eight homes on the property, she went on.

“It’s pretty cool that the system has lessened our reliance on fossil fuels as a business, but also on a personal level in our own homes — we don’t have to pay for oil anymore,” she noted. “We’re also getting a chemical-free fertilizer; that’s because most of what we put in we get back; we just need the gas.”

Like the dairy store and bakery, the AD, the second such system in the state and one of the first in the nation, is a reliable revenue stream at a time when such sources of income are needed in the wake of those razor-thin margins in dairy farming, she said, adding that it became reality through partnerships, such as the one with Vanguard Renewables, and grants from several entities, including the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the Center for EcoTechnology, and other entities.

 

A Butter Alternative

Looking ahead, Barstow Manz said she and others working at the farm have a simple mission — to live up to their motto and continue looking forward.

“We’re always trying to be mindful and committed to what’s going to be best for our herd, and also for our land, our workforce, our community, and our food system,” she said. “Among the dairy farms I’m aware of, we’re been pretty open to accepting new technology and trying new things. We’re always reading and learning and talking to our vets and to our soil agronomists about what we can be doing better.

“I also think it’s cool that the sixth generation has always been focused on the seventh,” she went on, “and the four of us that work here are constantly thinking about what we’re going to leave our kids — what’s in it for the eighth generation.”

If history is any guide, it will be something that can grow and thrive and be sustainable — in every way imaginable.

Law Special Coverage

Processes, Procedures, Practices, and Protocols Are Kings

By Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle, Esq.

In this new, enlightened era of increased employee rights and employee shortages, many employers are scared to terminate employees in fear of litigation — or of not having enough staff to enable the company to produce at the desired level.

The second question we can save for later, but I will mention now that additional widgets will most likely never justify the havoc that a toxic employee will create.

In my opinion, the answer to the first question is simple: do not fear what you cannot control. You cannot control who goes down to the courthouse to file a complaint. Just be prepared for the battle. So, yes, you can fire that guy (or girl, or them). The question is, should you?

 

Don’t Shoot Before Aiming — Consider Your Goal First

Don’t respond emotionally or consider someone else’s emotional response. Stop and think. Ask, why is this employee on the chopping block (i.e., what did they allegedly do)? How did they get there (was the proper process followed)? Who placed them there (who is bringing this up? Does the person have the authority to raise this issue? Anything nefarious here)?

Notice that I did not ask ‘who’ this employee is. We don’t assess the ‘who’ on the chopping block. It doesn’t matter who did it. It matters what was done, why it was done, whether it was actually done, and whether it rises to the level of termination.

Essentially, assess the conduct. What do you hope to attain by terminating this employee? A safer workplace? Good. To stop disruptions in operations or the beginnings of a hostile work environment? Good. Now prove it.

 

Prove It (in Preparation for the Battle)

If you can’t prove it, abort the mission. Go back to the drawing board. Go to plan B. Joking aside, preparing for appropriate employee terminations is a long game. It starts with consistent application of procedures, processes, policies, and practices. Probably the most important thing is documentation.

Consistent application of the ‘four Ps’ over time may take an investment of time and money into creating them if you don’t already have them, and training managers and supervisors in the art of holding employees accountable.

“Preparing for appropriate employee terminations is a long game. It starts with consistent application of procedures, processes, policies, and practices. Probably the most important thing is documentation.”

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

Among other things, there should be consistent application of all conduct and performance-related policies. There should be consistent application of all of the policies, procedures, and practices associated with managing human-resources functions such as leaves of absence and request for accommodations, as well as employee complaints made and investigated.

All of these should contain a component that enables tracking the underlying data and providing the ability to obtain and distribute the underlying information that supports assertions made. So you want to terminate an employee because he has been to work only seven out of 19 days, and on the seventh day he violated a safety policy and then stole your candy bar? You should be able to show documentation of these occurrences that were created in real time — including, of course, when the company had the initial conversation with him for being absent the first few times, checking to make sure it wasn’t actually a protected leave of absence.

Once you have the documentation, sit him down and tell him that he is being terminated from the job because of his inability to perform and because of his violation of the attendance policy. Have a witness. If you don’t have the documentation, sit him down, put him on notice that he is in the line of fire, and start documenting. Provide him with expectations, and then document it thereafter. Most likely, this will just delay the inevitable, but you never know. Regardless, at least you will have something to take with you into battle.

Make the Business Decision Informed by the Data, and Document It

Please know, you can terminate an employee for any reason at any time so long as it is not an illegal reason. That means you cannot terminate because of an employee’s protected status or activity or in a manner inconsistent with a collective bargaining agreement or other employment agreement.

As such, if you want to terminate a person for business reasons that have nothing to do with the person and everything to do with your business needs, that is OK too. But you should prove it. Do you have the data to back up your decision? You don’t have to have it, but if that person files a complaint, you will want it, and you will want to be able to attest that the business analysis was done prior to the termination. Otherwise, they will scream ‘pretext,’ meaning you just made that up. Plus, doing the analysis first may help you assess the risks of terminating an employee for business reasons.

There are always risks. Is it cheaper to keep him after assessing those risks, or not? That is a legitimate fiscal business concern. There are risks associated with not terminating employees as well. Be sure to document those, too — not just in the business case (e.g., budget concerns), but also in the ‘do I have enough to terminate this employee for conduct?’ case. Some examples: if I don’t terminate, there will be allegations that I did not maintain a harassment-free workplace; or, I terminated another employee for this same behavior last year, and there is no legitimate reason distinguishing this employee from being terminated for the same; or, he keeps violating safety procedures, and someone may get hurt.

 

Terminate with Grace and Pay What You Owe

Be respectful to all employees, including those who are coming and going. He knows what he did to get terminated (if you have done it right). There is no legitimate reason to be rude about it.

Terminating with dignity or grace does not mean that you should not terminate an employee. Once an employee gets to termination, he should have already had an opportunity to cure the conduct or behavior for which he is getting terminated. As such, by the time the writing is on the wall, he should not be surprised. If he is, that might partly explain why he is getting terminated.

Next, make sure you reach out to your employment counsel for assistance with properly preparing a termination package (necessary correspondence, pay requirements, and timing considerations). A misstep here can get you in hot water — triple hot water. Failure to pay an employee what is due at termination has no defense, and the remedy to the employee includes three times the wages due. Call your counsel before terminating.

I know this article is not going to make me popular among some folks. I am not trying to be cold. I am just being practical. Your employees are your life force. I get it. I am one. But they are also human capital. If you manage your human capital like you manage your non-human capital, then you should be able to terminate employees without fear.

Processes, procedures, practices, and protocols are kings. Remember, keeping a toxic employee is more costly, in a variety of ways, than the cost of defending a claim — that is, if you have your ducks in a row. So get your ducks in a row. Plus, the remainder of your staff will appreciate the decision. Heck, the terminated employee may appreciate it in time; sometimes it just isn’t a good fit. Cut them free to find their better role. In the case of the business decision, your shareholders or business partners will appreciate your fiscal responsibility.

 

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle, Esq. is chief legal and administrative officer for the Royal Law Firm; (413) 586-2281.

Health Care Special Coverage

Riding Out a ‘Tripledemic’

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Two years ago, flu took a vacation.

Dr. Mark Kenton remembers those days — but they were no vacation for emergency doctors, who had dealt with almost a year of COVID-19 and the hospitalizations and deaths that it caused, with vaccines just beginning to emerge.

But influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV? There was almost none to be found, mainly because masking and isolating had become the norm, cutting off the potential for spreading these common viruses.

“With COVID, we had people masking, home from school, and we had no flu; there was no RSV,” said Kenton, chief of Emergency Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield. “In fact, Mercy didn’t have one ICU case of flu. Then, when we started to normalize, these viruses made their way back.”

So much that the prevalence of flu and RSV this year, combined with a still-lingering COVID threat — albeit one that has been muted by vaccinations — has combined for what has been called a ‘tripledemic’ this winter.

“It seems like the RSV population this year is much larger than in the past, which complicates things,” Kenton said. “We’re definitely seeing a lot of influenza, even in patients who have been vaccinated, and we’ve actually been seeing a lot of pneumonia. There are a lot of respiratory complaints this time of year, because it spreads through schools with kids at the end of the term, and parents may not want to keep the kids home.”

Because COVID still has a presence, he explained, when somebody comes in with a respiratory complaint, they’re tested for that as well as for influenza and RSV, a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, but can be more severe in certain patients.

“With COVID, we had people masking, home from school, and we had no flu; there was no RSV. Then, when we started to normalize, these viruses made their way back.”

Dr. Mark Kenton

Dr. Mark Kenton

“We were seeing a lot of RSV a few weeks ago, but it seems that may be tapering off now,” Kenton added, noting that Mercy has seen both children and adults with RSV, a condition that can be especially precarious for infants. “We worry about them getting RSV; a lot of local hospitals have been inundated with pediatric RSV.”

Indeed, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and viral pneumonia in children under age 1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that approximately 58,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized each year with the infection. Most infants are infected before age 1, and virtually all children have had an RSV infection by age 2. RSV can also affect older children, teenagers and adults.

Spiros Hatiras says he’s not sure who came up with that phrase ‘tripledemic.’ He’s quite sure, though, it wasn’t someone in healthcare.

“It had to be someone in the media — they’re the ones who like to attach names to things like this,” said Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center.

But it’s as good a term as any to describe a convergence of COVID, flu, and RSV. In some parts of the country, this convergence is filling hospitals and putting additional strain on staffs already taxed by shortages of nurses and other healthcare professionals. But Hatiras told BusinessWest he hasn’t really seen much of any of the above at his hospital — from the individual ailments to the additional strain on people and resources.

Indeed, he reported very few, if any, COVID cases, noting that there isn’t anyone in his hospital solely because of COVID, though some are there for another reason and test positive for COVID. Meanwhile, he reports few cases of RSV, and flu numbers that are similar to previous years and nothing out of the ordinary.

The Emergency Department is crowded, he acknowledged, but not because of this tripledemic; rather, it’s because fewer staff members — a result of the ongoing workforce crisis, especially in healthcare — are tending to what would be considered a normal amount of patients.

“Because there were so few cases of RSV in the first two years of the pandemic, most infants and toddlers did not get the natural immunity that their body would have produced if they had natural illness. That left a larger number of children more vulnerable to getting RSV illness, which is what we are seeing now in the community.”

Dr. John O’Reilly

Dr. John O’Reilly

Kenton has observed the same phenomenon in the workforce. “So many nurses in this profession are either retired or gone on to something else,” he said. “This is everywhere, across the board. Every hospital is dealing with staffing issues. Even with [patient] volumes overall being down, when you get the tripledemic, it’s become a significant strain on resources within the hospital.”

 

What Is RSV?

Flu is a common term, and most people are now well-versed in COVID, but not everyone knows what RSV is, and how it deviates from other respiratory ailments.

While RSV results in mild, cold-like symptoms for most — a runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, and fever — for some, especially infants and older adults, it can lead to serious illness, though only a small percentage of young patients develop severe disease and require hospitalization, said Dr. John O’Reilly, chief of General Pediatrics at Baystate Children’s Hospital.

“Those hospitalized often have severe breathing problems or are seriously dehydrated and need IV fluids. In most cases, hospitalization only lasts a few days, and complete recovery usually occurs in about one to two weeks,” he explained.

Those who have a higher risk for severe illness caused by RSV include premature babies, very young infants, children younger than age 2 with chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease, children with weakened immune systems, and children who have neuromuscular disorders. Other at-risk groups include adults age 65 and older, 177,000 of whom are hospitalized and 14,000 of whom die from RSV each year in the U.S.; people with chronic lung disease or certain heart problems; and people with weakened immune systems, such as from HIV infection, organ transplants, or certain medical treatments, like chemotherapy.

The COVID pandemic has had a big impact on the normal pediatric respiratory illness cycles, O’Reilly noted. “Early in the pandemic, masking and social distancing helped to limit the spread of respiratory viruses such as RSV. Because there were so few cases of RSV in the first two years of the pandemic, most infants and toddlers did not get the natural immunity that their body would have produced if they had natural illness. That left a larger number of children more vulnerable to getting RSV illness, which is what we are seeing now in the community.”

There is no vaccine yet to prevent RSV infection, but there is a medication, called palivzumab, that can help protect some babies at high risk for severe RSV disease, O’Reilly noted. Healthcare providers usually administer it to premature infants and young children with certain heart and lung conditions as a series of monthly shots during RSV season.

“Don’t go out or attend gatherings if you are sick. Take COVID-19 tests if you think you have COVID-19 symptoms. Frequent hand washing can also help prevent the spread of respiratory infections. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 15 seconds and consider carrying a hand sanitizer with you at all times. Open windows for ventilation. Practice proper cough etiquette. And, because there is more sickness at this time of year, refrain from sharing utensils or drinking cups.”

The severity of symptoms can vary depending on the age of the child and whether he or she has any chronic medical problems, such as asthma or premature birth. Bacterial infections such as ear infections and pneumonia may develop in children with RSV infection.

At first, it’s all about symptom management for young children with RSV, O’Reilly said, including keeping the child hydrated and the fever under control. “If a child is having high fevers without relief for multiple days, or increased difficulty with breathing, such as wheezing, grunting, or ongoing flaring of the nostrils is observed along with a child’s runny nose and cough, then a call to your pediatrician is warranted.”

Part of the reason why RSV is a common virus in children is the fact that it can be easily transmitted. It can spread directly from person to person — when an infected person coughs or sneezes, sending virus-containing droplets into the air, where they can infect a person who inhales them, as well as by hand-to-nose, hand-to-mouth, and hand-to-eye contact. The virus can be spread indirectly when someone touches any object infected with the virus, such as toys, countertops, doorknobs, or pens, and can live on environmental surfaces for several hours.

The CDC’s advice on limiting the spread is the same as any virus-prevention measure: covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or sleeve, washing hands often with soap and water, avoiding touching one’s face, disinfecting surfaces, staying home when sick, and avoiding close contact with sick people, as well as kissing, shaking hands, and sharing cups and utensils with others.

“The good news,” O’Reilly said, “is that most infants and children overcome RSV infections without any long-term complications, as RSV infections can often be relatively asymptomatic and even go unnoticed.”

 

Safety First

After almost three years of COVID, it’s easy to push those common-sense cautions aside, but that would be a mistake, said Dr. Vincent Meoli, Massachusetts regional medical director at American Family Care, which operates urgent-care clinics in Springfield and West Springfield.

“We know there is a significant amount of COVID fatigue as we enter our third year of the pandemic, but vigilance is still important, both to protect those most at risk of developing complications and to minimize the impact on our healthcare system,” he said, noting that area hospitals saw high rates of RSV admissions early in the season.

“We saw a tremendous reduction in flu cases during the height of the pandemic because people were wearing masks and isolating,” Meoli said. “Now that society has opened up again and masks are no longer required in most places, we anticipate the number of flu cases to increase.”

Kenton emphasized that, while flu and RSV might be more prevalent now, COVID hasn’t gone away. According to the CDC, about 350 people in the U.S. still die every day from COVID, and about six out of every seven of those are unvaccinated.

“I always say, vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate. It’s been proven that, with vaccination from COVID, you’re still able to get COVID, but you’re less likely to die,” he told BusinessWest. “Are you going to feel sick? Yes, absolutely. But you’re less likely to be hospitalized and die from it. It’s still present, unfortunately. I think it’s always going to remain present for us in combination with the flu and RSV. So definitely get the flu vaccine every year, too.”

Dr. Armando Paez, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Health, said vaccination is a must, but it’s important to maintain other precautions as well during the tripledemic.

“Don’t go out or attend gatherings if you are sick. Take COVID-19 tests if you think you have COVID-19 symptoms,” Paez said, adding that, during the holiday season and after, people are traveling and potentially spreading viruses. “Frequent hand washing can also help prevent the spread of respiratory infections. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 15 seconds and consider carrying a hand sanitizer with you at all times. Open windows for ventilation. Practice proper cough etiquette. And, because there is more sickness at this time of year, refrain from sharing utensils or drinking cups.”

Kenton said there’s nothing wrong with turning down an invitation to a gathering where people are sick — or if there’s a possibility of introducing sickness into that house. “If someone in your house is sick, don’t go to someone else’s house, especially if they have co-morbidity conditions; getting RSV on top of that can cause them to end up hospitalized or potentially die.”

He also reminds people that COVID has an asymptomatic period between infection and symptoms, so if someone in a household tests positive, not only should the infected individual isolate, but it’s a good idea for others in the house to avoid gatherings for a few days until they know they’re negative, to avoid spreading the virus to someone else.

Meoli noted that, for those who do plan to attend gatherings — especially with people at high risk for COVID, like the elderly, children, or people who are immunocompromised — testing for COVID the day before or the day of the gathering can provide some extra reassurance.

“Talk to a healthcare provider if you have any concerns about vaccines, symptoms, or testing,” he added. “COVID-19, flu, and RSV all have the potential for complications, hospitalization, or death.”

It’s certainly a triple threat, area doctors say, but taking simple precautions can help keep families safe and patients out of the hospital — or worse.

Special Coverage Technology

Securing a Workforce

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Tech Foundry helps people find jobs in the IT workforce.

Tech Foundry helps people find jobs in the IT workforce.

 

The information technology (IT) field in the U.S. is crying out for new talent, with hundreds of thousands of job openings and average salaries ranging from $86,000 to over $163,000. So why aren’t more people entering the field? A look at the local landscape sheds some light.

“Even prior to the pandemic, employers were having trouble filling their open positions, and that certainly has been exacerbated since,” Tricia Canavan said. “We saw from the early days, and continuing to the present, that available workers are not filling the numbers of the jobs that are available.”

For every two job openings, one person is applying to be part of this rapidly growing workforce, said Canavan, CEO of Tech Foundry in Springfield, an IT-focused workforce and economic-development organization that connects people to training support and career opportunities in the IT field, while also working with employers around the region, from nonprofits and higher education to medical organizations and corporations.

She explained that a lot of workforce-development organizations are not seeing quite as many people engaged in training as they’d hoped for.

Tech Foundry offers about 50 open slots with everything included: a laptop, one-on-one mentoring, internships, and more. Canavan thinks people don’t necessarily see themselves in the IT field, with the exception of those who have a love for video games and technology. But her organization’s mission is to connect people to living-wage jobs in IT; increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the IT sector for underrepresented and underserved people; while also helping companies thrive by being part of their talent solutions.

“Everybody in the world is completely and totally integrated with computers, and everybody’s work is supported by technology. So, regardless of the organization, you have a need for IT support staff or IT support functions specifically.”

Tricia Canavan

Tricia Canavan

“Everybody in the world is completely and totally integrated with computers, and everybody’s work is supported by technology,” she told BusinessWest. “So, regardless of the organization, you have a need for IT support staff or IT support functions specifically.”

Matthew Smith, director of Cybersecurity Graduate Studies at Bay Path University, agreed, noting that IT is one of those unique arenas that touches every industry: technology, financial services, healthcare, education, law enforcement, and more. And he stressed that cybersecurity is one of the most important sectors of IT at the moment.

“There’s not one industry that’s not touched by technology or cybersecurity,” Smith said. “And if you think you’re not, you’re fooling yourself because you’re just one intrusion of your company away from going down. Everybody is getting attacked.”

IT still grapples with a significant gender gap, with girls tending to lose interest, compared to boys, around middle school, though Bay Path, as a women-only college on the undergraduate level, is working to change that trend locally.

In Bay Path’s graduate studies, men and women are able to learn from both teachers and IT professionals about the technical world around them.

Smith explained that, in technology, especially in cybersecurity, the information changes rapidly, so before running each course, and even during the semester, he and his colleagues look at the content and tweak or change it to what’s currently relevant.

Just like Tech Foundry, Bay Path is preparing students for the workforce, providing internship opportunities for real-world experience. And any experience is important, as many corporations are requiring a bachelor’s or master’s degree to even get an interview, or requiring two to five years of experience for those who don’t have a degree. So a degree alongside actual workplace experience is a definite leg up.

For the past 25 to 30 years, there has been an ongoing debate over whether certifications or a degree is better for the IT industry. But certifications only cover certain niches. Smith explained that someone who secures a Microsoft certification and works for someone that uses Microsoft is in good shape. But if they apply for a job that uses strictly Apple sources, they may be out of luck.

“It’s kind of like you’re hanging all of your hats on one cert, but if you get your degree, it’s more broad, more spectrum … and then you can jump into that specific corporation, and they train you internally on what they’re using and what they can embed in,” he said.

Smith went on to tell BusinessWest that knowledge and experience outweigh everything. For example, in 30 years, an expert with only a high-school education is still an expert, but times have changed; people changing careers to secure opportunities in the IT workforce have to know more than people did 30 years ago.

And times certainly are changing in other ways. After the pandemic, more companies are relying on hybrid work models, allowing their employees to work more from home. But this creates a whole new set of issues.

 

Serve and Protect

The emergence of COVID-19 early in 2020 brought sudden demand for remote access. Fortunately, advancing technology made it easier to access a corporation’s network from any device at home or even on the go.

“Prior to that, I think people were a lot more resistant to remote workers. And it seems to be hanging on,” said Charlie Christianson, president of CMD Technology Group in East Longmeadow. “I think that, for a lot of our clients, the concept of a hybrid environment is where it’s going to settle out.”

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology in Westfield, agreed. He told BusinessWest that he allowed remote work “before it was cool,” and that working for a smaller IT-support business in Western Mass. allows flexibility for his employees because of how often they are on the computer. As long as they have good security and bandwidth, they can work from anywhere.

“I’m a firm believer that, as a small business, we can grow in a down economy. In fact, over the years, every time we’ve seen a major downturn in the economy, we’ve come out of it very well.”

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

“On the flip side, though, with clientele, now we’re expected to support everybody’s house and laptops, so that’s a little bit more challenging because it’s a non-controlled environment, quite often, where folks are working,” he said.

Christianson added that he has to help clients understand the implications of letting someone use a home computer to access a corporate network as opposed to providing them a computer, or, in many cases, using a personal cell phone on a corporate network.

Over the past several years, CMD has spent a lot more time working with clients on the importance of cybersecurity. Recently, the company has observed a drive to adopt better practices, especially in the insurance sector. Many clients approach Christianson and his team with questionnaires provided by insurance agents to create better security measures in case of a data breach or hack.

Smith said a lot of companies have outdated security plans, some being 10 to 20 years old without any updates on the current technology available. Other businesses don’t have security plans in place at all.

Cybersecurity can be expensive, he noted, and a lot of companies feel like they can’t afford it. For small to medium-sized businesses, it’s tough to allocate money they need to direct to sales and marketing to drive their product, so cybersecurity often falls by the wayside — until a hack or attack happens. Then they recognize the importance of a proactive investment.

“If an incident were to occur, that can bankrupt your organization. You can be offline for 48 hours,” Smith said. “And by the time you pay that ransom — or you don’t, and you don’t have the specific backups to recover from — then you’re out of luck.”

Bay Path graduate students are trained to understand what to look for and how to rebuild that specific security incident plan to today’s standards, so they can incorporate that knowledge and bring it into a profession where they help protect individuals and businesses.

But companies, like CMD and Hogan, that help those businesses succeed are also focused on a threat of another kind: talent recruitment and retention.

“I think IT as a whole has a challenge for retention because you get a certain talent and a certain personality, and they’re always looking for bigger, better, smarter, faster,” Hogan said. “What happens is a lot of the folks that you bring in are looking to work in corporate America, and they want an enterprise-level job, and they want a big budget. They want to work at a big business. So you lose some folks to that.”

Even at a time when many IT professionals can work remotely, he noted, the key to retaining employees is hiring the right personality, and among the key traits is accountability to oneself. He also said new employees should pass the “beer test,” especially if they’re spending more time at work than with family at times.

“We’re looking for the person that wants to work in a flexible environment that has the right culture. In an interview, I really try to understand if they’re going to fit into our culture or not,” Hogan said. “Are they going to play well with the team? Are they a good fit? Do I want to go out on Thursday afternoon and have a beer with that guy or gal? That’s important to us because we work a lot.”

 

Progress Report

Among those hundreds of thousands of IT job openings in the U.S., employers are trying to fill about 675 vacancies in Springfield alone.

But despite that national challenge of hiring and retaining staff, both Christianson and Hogan reported a successful year.

In the past couple of years, Hogan told BusinessWest, one could hear a pin drop in his office in the last two weeks of December. This year, however, he’s been busy onboarding clients, closing deals, and seeing lead generations popping up left and right.

Christianson added that he had increased staff considerably this past year and plans to continue to do so in 2023.

“I’m a firm believer that, as a small business, we can grow in a down economy,” he explained. In fact, over the years, every time we’ve seen a major downturn in the economy, we’ve come out of it very well.

“I think, as small business owners, we just have to put our blinders on and not listen to the news and not get caught up in the hysteria around the economy and go out and do what we do every day. If you do that, you’ll be just fine,” Christianson added. “And the same applies to our industry. If you go out and work hard and treat your customers right and do the right things, you’ll grow.”

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 143: January 3, 2023

George Interviews Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. The two talk about everything from Amherst’s strong comeback from the pandemic, which hit its hospitality, college-town economy very hard, to the prospects for chambers of commerce in the post-COVID world. It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

Sponsored by:

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 142: December 26, 2022

George Interviews Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor

Holyoke, the Paper City, is in the midst of a renaissance of sorts, a dramatic comeback fueled by entrepreneurship, technology, the arts, cannabis, and much more. On the next installment of BusinessTalk, Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, talks with BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien about the progress made and the work still be done in his community. It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

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Features Special Coverage

Here Are the Stories That Impacted Western Mass. in 2022

By George O’Brien and Joseph Bednar

 

Cannabis Sector Continues to Grow

How many dispensaries is too many? Cities like Northampton, Holyoke, and Easthampton that have embraced the cannabis industry are demonstrating that many such businesses can thrive together, while generating healthy tax revenues for the municipality itself. However, the recent closure of the Source — the state’s first adult-use dispensary to close since shops began opening in 2018 — poses new questions on the competition front.

There’s no doubt cannabis has been a success in Massachusetts, with recreational sales approaching $4 billion since legalization. But one big question is what form the industry will eventually take — with some predicting eventual consolidation by bigger entities alongside a robust population of boutique sellers — and how the state will continue to protect opportunities for smaller players, especially minorities.

The latter prospect was strengthened by a law passed in August aimed at giving minority cannabis entrepreneurs easier access into the industry, and also paving the way for municipalities to allow marijuana cafés. The bill also better regulates host community agreements, creates a state-run loan fund for minority entrepreneurs, lowers taxes for marijuana businesses, and makes it easier to expunge records for old marijuana offenses.

In short, this story is still evolving in intriguing ways.

 

Companies Grapple with Workforce Challenges

The pandemic temporarily dislodged millions of people from their jobs, and when companies started rehiring again, they found it was much more difficult to recruit and retain employees, particularly in lower-paying industries like hospitality, but it was a trend that stretched across all fields, from healthcare to construction to … well, you name it.

At issue has been three intersecting trends: the Great Resignation of older workers, many of whom moved up their retirement timeline in the wake of the pandemic’s economic upheaval; a movement among Gen-Zers and younger Millennials, particularly in service industries, to re-evaluate their worth and push for higher wages and more flexibility; and ‘quiet quitting,’ defined as doing the bare minimum to fulfill one’s job, which, of course, cuts into a company’s productivity.

There are no easy answers to combat these trends, and companies struggling with workforce shortages must grapple with what they mean in the longer term. Workers no doubt have leverage right now like they haven’t had in recent memory, and they’re wielding it, to significant — and, in many cases, still-undetermined — effect.

 

An architect’s rendering of a renovated Victory Theatre

An architect’s rendering of a renovated Victory Theatre

Victory Theatre Project Gains Momentum

Holyoke officials and groups involved with the arts have been engaged in efforts to try to revitalize the historic Victory Theatre for more than 40 years now. And while this initiative still has a ways to go before it can cross the goal line, some significant progress was seen this past year.

It came in several forms, but especially the earmarking of ARPA funding to renovate the theater, which opened in the 1920s and last showed a movie in 1979. The ARPA funding is expected to help close the gap between the funds that have been raised for the initiative and the total needed — roughly $60 million.

Momentum can also be seen in a firm commitment on the part of Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, who sees the project as an important catalyst for bringing new businesses to downtown Holyoke and another key ingredient in the larger formula for revitalizing the Paper City.

 

The Marriott Flag Returns to Downtown Springfield

It took more than three years, and there were a number of challenges to overcome along the way, but the Marriott flag is now flying again over the hotel in the Tower Square complex. The massive renovation — or “re-imagining” — of the space, as it’s been called, earned Tower Square owners Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur honor for 2022.

But the undertaking has done more than that. It has helped transform the property into one of the best hotels west of Boston, and it has become a stunning addition to a Tower Square complex that has been reinvented as well, with intriguing additions ranging from the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Springfield to White Lion Brewery to a scaled-down version of a Big Y supermarket soon to emerge in space formerly occupied by CVS.

The new Marriott staged a truly grand opening in November, an event that was a big day not just for Patel and Mitta, but for the entire city.

 

Remote Work Is Here to Stay

This past year was one in which the region’s business community was to return to normal in most all respects after two painful years of COVID. But there was one realm where it didn’t — and that was by choice.

Indeed, remote work continued to be part of the landscape in 2022, but this time there was an air of permanence to the concept, not merely a temporary response to COVID. In interviews for stories written over the course of the year, owners of businesses large and small said remote work and hybrid work schedules have become the new norm. They have become a benefit of sorts for valued workers and have become an effective means for attracting and recruiting talent, as well as for as widening the net for job applicants well beyond the 413 area.

The full impact of remote work on the commercial real-estate market and small businesses that rely on workers being in their offices — restaurants and bars, for example — has yet to be fully and accurately measured, but it appears that this fundamental change in how people work is here to stay.

 

East-west Rail Chugs Forward

East-west rail service between Pittsfield and Boston is still far from reality, and plenty can still happen to derail the decades-long dream of so many legislators, businesses, municipalities, and other rail advocates. But 2022 marked the strongest progress toward that goal yet, with $275 million allocated toward the project in August as part of the state’s $11 billion infrastructure bill — a good start, but only a start.

A high-speed rail connection between the Hub and Western Mass. is about more than convenience; it’s about expanded opportunity — both for workers who can earn Boston wages while enjoying a decidedly non-Boston cost of living, and also for employers who can cast a wider net for talent — not to mention easier access to recreational and regional resources, as well as reduced traffic and emissions.

“We have the money, the support, and I have secured the commitment from both the outgoing Baker-Polito administration and the incoming Healey-Driscoll administration to keep this train literally and metaphorically moving forward,” U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said earlier this month. “This is an opportunity that will not avail itself again, and now is the time to move on an east-west rail project that will be transformative for all of Massachusetts.”

 

The T-Birds came up a few wins shy of an AHL championship

The T-Birds came up a few wins shy of an AHL championship, but their playoff run was a huge win for the team and the region.

Springfield Thunderbirds Reach AHL Finals

The Springfield Thunderbirds eventually wound up a few wins shy of a Calder Cup this past spring. But their dramatic run to the finals was a huge win for the team, the city, and the region.

Indeed, the race for the cup captured the attention of the entire area, with fans old and new turning out at the MassMutual Center, tuning in on social media, and talking about the team at the water cooler — or the weekly Zoom meeting.

The team, which eventually lost in the finals to the Chicago Wolves, created a great deal of momentum with its playoff run, as well as a surge in season-ticket sales. While not all deep playoff runs are financial success stories, this was one, said the team’s president, Nate Costa. It was also validation for him and for the ownership group that stepped up and brought hockey back to Springfield when the Falcons departed for Arizona.

There’s now an Eastern Conference Championship banner hanging in the MassMutual Center, and even more of a connection between the region and its pro hockey team.

 

Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade Returns

After a long, as in very long, two-year absence, the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade and road race returned in full force in March. The twin events have always been part of the fabric of the region and a huge contributor to the Greater Holyoke economy, and that became clear in interviews with parade organizers, city officials, and individual business owners in the weeks leading up to the parade for a story in BusinessWest that carried the headline: “The Return of a Tradition: For Holyoke, the Parade Brings Business — and a Sense of Normalcy.”

Business owners told BusinessWest that the parade and race account for large amounts of annual revenues, and that losing the events for two years due to COVID was devastating. But beyond business and vibrancy, something else went missing for those two years. Marc Joyce, president of the parade for the past three years, put it all in perspective.

“It’s in the mindset and emotions of people who have grown up here,” he said. “It’s a homecoming; people come back to the city, and you see people you haven’t seen since perhaps last year. It’s a wonderful, family-oriented event.”

 

The LEDC has a unique model

The LEDC has a unique model featuring coaches on matters ranging from accounting to mental health.

Latino EDC Opens Its Doors

The Latino Economic Development Corp. opened its doors to considerable fanfare in September, and with good reason. The agency, called the Latino EDC, or LEDC, has a broad mission and a unique business model, one aimed at helping businesses, especially Latino-owned businesses, open their doors and keep them open.

The LEDC, located on Fort Street in Springfield, is a place where more than two dozen coaches, experts in many aspects of business, will make themselves available to business owners and share what they know. Executive Director Andrew Meledez says the agency will focus on what he calls the three ‘Cs’ of helping business owners get where they want to go — coaching, capital, and connections. Overall, its goal is to turn employees into employers, and the agency is already capturing the attention of economic-development leaders in this region — and well beyond.

 

New College Presidents Take the Reins

College and university presidents are in many ways key regional voices, shaping public perspectives on issues through programs and initiatives they spearhead. And in 2022, that exclusive pool of influencers saw some significant ripples.

In April, Hubert Benitez, vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation and acting chief Inclusion officer at Rockhurst University, took the reins at American International College, replacing Vince Maniaci, who had been president there for 17 years.

Then Michelle Schutt, previously vice president of Community and Learner Services at the College of Southern Idaho, began her tenure as president of Greenfield Community College in July, replacing Richard Hopper, who had been interim president since the summer of 2021.

Also in July, Smith College announced that Sarah Willie-LeBreton, provost and dean of faculty at Swarthmore College, will replace Kathleen McCartney, who has served as president since 2013, starting in July 2023.

Finally, in June, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy announced he will retire in June 2023 after serving in that role since 2012, and the following month, Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College since 2017, announced she will retire in July 2023; searches are on to replace both.

 

new parking-garage facility at the MassMutual Center.

An architect’s rendering of the new parking-garage facility at the MassMutual Center.

Civic Center Parking Garage Comes Down — Finally

After years of talking about and working with state leaders to assemble the financing to build a replacement, the city tore down the crumbling Civic Center Parking Garage this fall. As the demolition crews began their work, workers in downtown office buildings paused to watch.

It wasn’t a landmark that was coming down, but rather a decaying structure that had become a symbol of all that Springfield was trying to put behind it — the hard economic times, aging infrastructure, and a downtown of another era.

While the long-awaited demise of the parking garage was news, the more exciting news is what’s going up in its place — a new, state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly, 1,000-space facility, and activation of abutting property, acquired by the city, that will enable Springfield to create an atmosphere that officials say will be similar to the scene at Fenway Park on game nights.

 

transformation of the old Court Square Hotel

The transformation of the old Court Square Hotel is a long time coming.

Court Square Transformation Project Proceeds

When Dave Fontaine Jr. talks about work to renovate the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate apartments being a “generational project,’” he means it. Indeed, when he talked with BusinessWest about the initiative this past summer, he said he believes his father and grandfather were both involved in bids on projects to transform the property going back more than 30 years.

It’s taken decades of effort, but the transformation of the property is now well under way. The project is expected to not only bring new life to that historic property — in the form of 71 units of housing as well as retail on the ground floor — but also create more vibrancy in the city’s downtown and possibly be a catalyst for new hospitality and service-sector businesses.

The Court Square project is a true public-partnership, with funding support from several parties, including Winn Development, Opal Development, the state, the city, and MGM Springfield. And it will make sure that an important part of the city’s past is now a vital cog in its future.

 

Navigating Challenges in Auto Sales

This past year was another wild ride, if that’s the right term, for the region’s auto dealers. Indeed, the trends that emerged in 2020 and 2021 — from historically low levels of inventory to sky-high prices and low inventory of used cars — continued in 2022.

Matters improved to some degree for area dealers, but there were still many challenges to face — and still a number of used cars taking up space on the showroom floors.

But perhaps the biggest news in 2002 involved electric vehicles, with many dealers reporting huge increases in the sales of such models. There are several reasons why, but simple math is perhaps the biggest, with drivers of electric vehicles — after the initial investment, anyway — spending far less to get from here to there than those with gas-powered cars, trucks, and SUVs.

That trend is expected to continue into next year, say area dealers, as more makers introduce electric-vehicle lines.

 

Live Music Scene Expands

When the Drake opened in downtown Amherst in April, it became the town’s first-ever dedicated music venue, hosting everything from jazz and rock to funk and world music. And it opened at a time when demand for live music in the region is on the rise, and an increasing number of spaces are meeting the need.

With Eric Suher’s Iron Horse Music Hall, Pearl Street Nightclub, and Mountain Park shuttered to concerts these days and the Calvin Theatre hosting a bare trickle of tribute bands, others have picked up the slack.

They include not just the Drake, but Race Street Live, which hosts national touring acts in the Gateway City Arts complex in Holyoke; Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in downtown Greenfield, which schedules a robust slate of events across four spaces; MASS MoCA, which hosts concerts inside the museum and festivals outside it; Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, which opened in October 2021 in a converted 1861 church; and many more.

It’s clear that people are enjoying live music again, and a new generation of venues — and some venerable ones as well — are stepping up to meet that need.

 

Moving On from COVID

President Biden declared COVID over in September. With a winter setting in in which doctors are warning of a ‘tripledemic’ of flu, RSV, and COVID, that’s … well, not quite the truth, not with about 350 people still dying from COVID each day in the U.S., about 85% of them unvaccinated.

What is true is that, even as some people are still overcoming COVID, just about everyone is over it — and especially over the disruptions the pandemic caused to the global economy.

Still, moving on is easier said than done, as is shifting back to something resembling business as usual pre-2020. Construction firms still face challenges with scheduling and cost, knowing that the supply chain can be wildly inconsistent. Families still struggle with inflation, and are getting hit hard by the tonic being poured on it: higher interest rates for loans. As noted earlier, real-estate owners wonder whether a slowed market will remain so as tenants decide they need less space for a workforce that has gone largely remote and may remain so.

In short, moving on from COVID is a slow process, and its effects will continue to reverberate, no matter how much anyone — even the president — wishes it would just go away.

 

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Special Coverage Travel and Tourism

Serving Up Success

The new indoor pickleball courts

The new indoor pickleball courts at HCC’s Bartley Center have seen plenty of use.

Christina Royal was once a competitive amateur tennis player. But not long after taking the job of Holyoke Community College (HCC) president back in 2017, she discovered a new outlet for those skills — and a new passion.

It was pickleball, which she tried at the suggestion of former HCC trustee Julie Pokela. At the time, Royal was looking for a way to get some exercise and relieve some stress from her busy new job. She found pickleball to be the perfect outlet — and a lot easier on her knees than tennis.

“I love competitive sports, and I’ve played them all my life, so to be able to get back into that was really thrilling,” she said. “When I’m interested in something, I go full immersion, so I got my own equipment and started playing regularly.”

Three years ago, Royal was playing in a pickleball league in Easthampton and invited Tom Stewart, director of HCC’s Bartley Center for Athletics & Recreation, to watch.

“She said, ‘I’d love to get pickleball courts at HCC,’” Stewart said. “The floor was scheduled to be redone anyway. I said, ‘when we redo the floor, we’ll put them in.’”

Indeed, when the floor in the Bartley Center gym was redone over this past summer, inserts for existing indoor tennis nets were removed, and inserts for pickleball nets were installed, along with permanent pickleball court lines.

“People are into it big time. Players range from novices to advanced, so it’s not like it’s just advanced folks taking over. All abilities come in and play, and they gravitate to each other based on ability level.”

Now, for a $5 per visit fee, any member of the general public can come to HCC to play what has been touted as the fastest-growing sport in America.

“We’re offering the courts and all the equipment — nets, balls, and paddles,” Royal said. “We have everything here you need to play, and it’s all new.”

The seven pickleball courts at the Bartley Center are available weekdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Courts cannot be reserved in advance, but instead are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no pickleball fee for HCC students and Bartley Center members, while others are charged $5.

“It’s going quite well; we’re getting anywhere from 35 to 40 players a day,” Stewart told BusinessWest. “We get a lot of positive responses; people are glad we did it and wish it was open even more to them.

“If you need a paddle and ball, we provide that, but most folks bring their own,” he added. “People are into it big time. Players range from novices to advanced, so it’s not like it’s just advanced folks taking over. All abilities come in and play, and they gravitate to each other based on ability level.”

Andrew Rogers sees that same phenomenon on the four new pickleball courts the town of South Hadley installed over the summer at Buttery Brook Park.

South Hadley’s new pickleball courts

While cold weather has put a damper on things, South Hadley’s new pickleball courts have been wildly popular since opening in August.

“We have open-play nights on Tuesdays and Thursdays and play mixed doubles; everyone swaps around the court,” said Rogers, the town’s Recreation director. “We have a 10-year-old boy who plays, and a friendly couple in their 70s. Everyone plays together, and people are supportive of each other. It continues to blossom and grow.”

Pickleball had been on the town’s radar for five years and went through several budget cycles before it was approved, along with some fundraising and assistance from the DPW and Parks Department, among others. Alongside the courts are a picnic area where players can stretch and wait for a game, and the South Hadley Electric Light Department donated labor for lighting and electrical work.

The courts opened for play on Aug. 1, and about 100 people showed up for games and a learn-to-play clinic. While winter weather has put a seasonal damper on things, during the warmer months, it wasn’t uncommon to see the courts packed well into the evening, as they are in other communities that have installed similar facilities, like Westfield, Agawam, Belchertown, Easthampton, Southampton, and more.

“One family has three kids under 13, and they’re there all the time, mixing in with people a couple generations older.”

“People mingle and jump between towns and meet new people,” Stewart said, adding that a group in South Hadley promotes games through an app called TeamReach. “They can say, ‘hey, I’m showing up to play, anyone want to come?’ I know over 330 people on that app, which speaks to its popularity. In fact, it’s the fastest-growing sport in the country, and it’s starting to get even more popularity. You can find it all over TV. It’s definitely something anyone can play, all ages mixing together, male, female … it’s really wonderful.”

 

How do You Play?

According to Wikipedia, the appearance of a pickleball court, and the manner of play, resemble tennis, but the court is the size of a doubles badminton court, less than a third the size of a tennis court. Court lines include two seven-foot areas on either side of the net known as the non-volley zones (or, colloquially, the ‘kitchen’), where the ball cannot be hit with the paddle unless the ball bounces first. Only the serving team can score a point, and continues serving until they fault. All serves are made with an underhand stroke.

The hard polymer ball used in pickleball produces significantly less bounce than softer flexible balls, such as a tennis ball. To minimize any advantage the serving or receiving side might have at the beginning of the game, the ball must bounce once on each side of the net before either team may ‘volley’ the ball, or hit it in the air before it bounces.

HCC’s Christina Royal and Tom Stewart

HCC’s Christina Royal and Tom Stewart check out the action in the Bartley Center.

It’s not actually a new sport, but has been around since 1965, for most of those years steadily gaining popularity in the Pacific Northwest, then elsewhere. In 2021 and 2022, pickleball was named the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. by the Sports and Fitness Industry Assoc., with more than 4.8 million players. A growing interest in the sport is attributed to several factors, including a short learning curve, appeal to a wide range of demographics, and low startup costs.

“It’s beyond what we expected. We knew it was going to be popular, but had no idea how popular,” said Rogers, adding that there has been discussion of further fundraising to expand the courts.

While pickleball has been compared to tennis without as much running — one of the reasons it’s so attractive to people of all ages and fitness levels — Stewart has often described it to people as a giant ping-pong table. But he’s also adept at explaining the connection to tennis, and how it’s subtly different.

“Tennis players are used to the racket doing the work, because the string so stuff, but with pickleball, you do more work with the paddle; it’s not wound as tight. But they pick it up fairly quickly.”

Players often attack lob shots on the fly — as noted earlier, the serve and the return both have to bounce, but after that, lobs are fine, just not in the kitchen — making it a game of hand-eye coordination, he added. “You’re not going to get the groundstroke game you get with tennis. Advanced players may groundstroke for a while, but mostly what I see is serve and volley.”

Royal said the courts have created more access to, and interest in, the Bartley Center. “We already have a lot of people that utilize the facilities for basketball or for working out in our fitness room. Here’s another way we can open up our campus to the community.”

Stewart, who serves on the board of regents for the National Junior College Athletic Assoc., noted that tennis is a dying sport at the junior-college level. “There are no junior colleges in New England that have tennis anymore. Tennis used to be so popular, you couldn’t get on a court. Now people are having a harder time getting courts for pickleball, particularly indoors.”

 

If You Build It, They Will Come

Stewart and Royal both envision HCC hosting pickleball leagues and tournaments.

“In addition to my own passion for the sport, there’s a real opportunity here from an economic-development perspective for our region to draw more visitors to the area for pickleball,” Royal said. “That creates all sorts of business opportunities.”

When the Bartley Center went up at HCC 22 years ago, Stewart recalled, then-President David Bartley told him, “make sure this place is open and being used.” That mission has been accomplished, he added. “We’ve been pretty successful for 22 years, and this just adds to it.”

Municipalities like South Hadley are having the same experience.

“We had the lights on until 10 during Daylight Savings,” Rogers told BusinessWest. “We still have people out there if it’s above 32 degrees and the balls aren’t cracking. One family has three kids under 13, and they’re there all the time, mixing in with people a couple generations older. You can play for a long time because it’s not that taxing. It’s great exercise, but it’s not running you ragged, so you can come back and do it again tomorrow.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Wait of the World

Mark Auerbach says he’s ‘going public’ with his quest for a new kidney

Mark Auerbach says he’s ‘going public’ with his quest for a new kidney to help raise awareness about the importance of organ donations and perhaps shorten the time on the waiting list for some of those in need.

Mark Auerbach says he had started down the stairs in his home in Longmeadow that night in 2019 when he tripped over an untied shoelace and started falling. He recalls knocking a bannister out of the railing and slamming through his front door.

As a result of the fall, he broke his femur and his hand, eventually spending more than three months in inpatient rehabilitation. But the fall did something else. It “fatally injured” one of his kidneys, as he put it, accelerating a process of deterioration that had begun years earlier when he was diagnosed with diabetes.

“In 2019, my kidney doctor said, ‘you are heading for the need for a transplant, and you’re in stage 4; eventually, you’ll be in stage 5, and you’ll need one,” he recalled, adding that stage 5 essentially arrived in the spring of 2021.

Soon thereafter, Auerbach, a veteran arts reporter, owner of a public-relations firm that bears his name, and current ArtsBeat reporter for Pioneer Valley Radio, joined the lengthy list of people in this country on a waiting list for a donated kidney.

How lengthy? Well, he was accepted into a donor program at Massachusetts General Hospital and is now one of roughly 1,400 patients in a queue waiting for the proverbial ‘right donor.’ Nationwide, there are approximately 100,000 people on such lists.

“I didn’t really want to go public — you sacrifice your personal privacy when you put it out there. So I was really hesitant. But from a public-relations standpoint, I realized that if I didn’t tell my story, I couldn’t expect someone else to do it.”

While waiting for a kidney, many on those lists choose to be proactive and not simply wait. Some buy billboards stating their case, while others take out ads in newspapers and use social-media channels to encourage people to come forward and donate — not just for them, but for the myriad others waiting for a truly life-changing gift.

Auerbach is one of them. He said he has “gone public” — but in a quiet way, with personal appeals; regular postings on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter; and interviews like this one and another on his ArtsBeat show with guest (and longtime friend) Patrick Berry, host of WWLP’s Mass Appeal — in his quest to find a donor for himself, but also to raise awareness about the urgent need for organs and to spur action.

“I didn’t really want to go public — you sacrifice your personal privacy when you put it out there,” he told BusinesWest. “So I was really hesitant. But from a public-relations standpoint, I realized that if I didn’t tell my story, I couldn’t expect someone else to do it.”

He started with letters to family members, close friends, and clients alerting them to his situation and framing it in the larger context mentioned earlier — that he is one of 100,000 people waiting for a kidney and ‘here are the things you can do to help me.’ That list included everything from becoming an organ donor on one’s driver’s license to learning how to donate, to perhaps giving specifically to him.

Dr. Ken McPartland

Dr. Ken McPartland says there is a huge need for living donations of kidneys.

Such proactive steps are becoming increasingly necessary, said Dr. Ken McPartland, medical director of the Transplant Division at Baystate Medical Center, who told BusinesWest that the number of people on waiting lists is growing, the waits are often becoming longer, and the situation has been made worse, at least temporarily, by the pandemic, which prompted many potential living donors to remain on the sidelines out of caution.

“If someone has a living donor, they can get a transplant pretty much right away, which is usually within a few months,” said McPartland, part of a team that handles 50 kidney transplants a year at Baystate on average. “But if they don’t, they sometimes have to wait five to seven years to get a transplant.”

Of the 41,000 kidney transplants performed last year in this country, he noted, only 6,500 involved living donors — the rest of the organs were from those who were deceased, and the waits for those can be very long.

“There’s a huge need for more living donations,” he explained. “We know that people can donate a kidney and do very well and live a normal life. There is a risk, but the risks are is really low, and this is the biggest opportunity for improving not just the number of transplants, but the quality of transplants; we’d be able to help more people earlier in the process.”

“If someone has a living donor, they can get a transplant pretty much right away, which is usually within a few months. But if they don’t, they sometimes have to wait five to seven years to get a transplant.”

Dr. Leo Riella, medical director of Kidney Transplantation at Mass General Brigham, agreed. He said the numbers — specifically those related to the number of transplants performed each year at his hospital and the number of people on the waiting list (170 and 1,400, respectively) — help tell the story of the importance of encouraging donations.

“That number of those waiting is growing by roughly 10% a year,” he noted, adding that there is a huge backlog of cases. And as people wait longer, their odds for achieving quality of life grow longer.

 

Organ Players

Auerbach quipped that it was easier for him to get into Mass General’s kidney-donation program than it was to get into the drama program at Yale.

He was exaggerating, obviously, but only to a degree. And the logistics of getting into a program constitute only one of the many challenges facing those who need a kidney — or any other organ.

For many, including Auerbach, there is the emotional trauma that comes with the news that they are essentially on a clock — they have so much time (in his case, 18 months to three years) to secure a donor before they will have to go on dialysis, or worse.

“That was a punch to the gut,” he told Berry on his radio program. “And I felt very alone at the time. My family, my partner, everybody was like, ‘that’s too bad — we’re here for you.’ But that’s not necessarily what I needed at the time. The only way for me to move forward was to take charge of my own life and to do my own planning.

“I thought, ‘worst-case scenario, if 18 months to three years is reality, you better have a will, you better have a way to transition out of your business, the people who work for you and depend on you — you better plan for that,’” he went on. “The other things is, do you want to be hooked up to a machine, or do you want quality of life? And I chose the good quality of life. But … my life will be expanded, knock on wood, if a donor comes through.”

And then, there is just the waiting, and not knowing if the phone is going to eventually ring with a caller delivering the news that a kidney has been found.

Unfortunately, as the population ages and with the numbers of donated kidneys — both from living donors and those who have died — being relatively stagnant, the number of people living in limbo (that’s the kindest word to use) is only increasing, said McPartland, noting that there are generally between 150 and 175 on the waiting list at Baystate Health at any given time.

Dr. Leo Riella

Dr. Leo Riella

“That number of those waiting is growing by roughly 10% a year.”

As noted earlier, those without living donors may stay on the list five years or longer waiting for a kidney to be donated, he went on, adding that, for some, especially older patients, their condition may deteriorate while they are waiting — to the point where they become too sick to qualify for a transplant.

For quality-of-life reasons, someone needing a kidney will certainly fare much better if they can receive that organ before they need dialysis, McPartland added. “The way to really help patients is to get a transplant before they ever start dialysis. The patients do better, they live longer, and the kidneys work better and for longer.”

Riella agreed, noting that, in many cases, kidney disease, which he called a “silent disease” because those suffering from it generally do not experience pain or discomfort, isn’t detected until late in life — in many cases, too late, as their disease has progressed to the point where they cannot move up a waiting list in sufficient time to ultimately improve their quality of life through a transplant.

This is why early detection is important, he said, adding that blood tests can reveal if and to what degree the kidneys are in decline.

Overall, the average wait time for a kidney is six years, said Riella, adding that this number has only increased in recent years, and for several reasons, especially the aging of the population. “The gap in the number of kidneys available and the number that is needed is huge.”

Like other hospitals that perform kidney-transplant surgery, Baystate and Mass General are very active in efforts to help encourage people to donate organs, and also in helping those on lists to get kidneys through various means, including matching programs.

For example, if someone on a list finds a willing donor, but that kidney is not compatible, that kidney can be exchanged for one that is compatible through a voucher program, enabling people to move up on a waiting list.

It is for these reasons that Auerbach chose to go public despite his many reservations about doing so.

“I thought, ‘I’ll become the poster child for organ donations. Hopefully, I’ll get one, or at least the list will get whittled down, and I’ll move up the list faster. I’ll be the spokesperson for those 100,000 people.’ That was my motivation.”

While many fully understand the urgent need for kidneys and other organs, he explained, his story and that of others in similar situations must be told to reinforce the message and add a very needed personal touch.

Both McPartland and Riella agreed. They noted that, while much of the discussion about organ donations is focused on numbers — everything from how many individuals are on lists to how long their waits are — behind the statistics are real people, like Auerbach, facing quality-of-life, if not life-and-death, issues.

 

Bottom Line

Auerbach told BusinessWest that he tries not to think about the informal ‘clock’ he’s on — one doctor told him 18 months to three years, while another told him five years before he would need dialysis — and often wishes he was not given such estimates.

And he’s not alone in that sentiment. Such clocks, while helpful in the planning process, only increase the anxiety and make the waiting all the more tortuous, he noted.

“I’m trying to take it day-by-day and be optimistic,” he said. “To have a clock ticking as I’m watching and waiting would drive me crazy.”

The only thing that can shorten such waits is for more donors to come forward, said all those we spoke with, adding that this why stories like Auerbach’s need to be told. And why people need to listen — and respond.

 

It takes only five minutes to sign up to be an organ donor at www.organdonor.gov/sign-up. To learn more about becoming a living kidney donor, call Baystate Medical Center’s Transplant Program at (413) 794-2321, option 2, and speak with the living donor coordinator, or visit the Baystate Transplant website at baystatehealth.org/transplant for a confidential screening process.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Furnishing the Future

 

Lambson Building

Lambson Building

Gene Borowski has a keen sense of history.

So he was especially intrigued by an old hydraulic elevator in the former Lambson Furniture building in downtown Westfield, which was manufactured at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the late 1800s and installed in the furniture business around 1896.

It was still operable, he said, but its cable shutoff system no longer meets modern building codes. So now, on the first floor of the building sits an array of 21st-century elevator parts, ready to be assembled — though Borowski still plans to use the original carriage in the new, modern shaft.

“It was one of the first hydraulic-powered elevators of its time,” said Phil Peake, one of Borowski’s co-investors on a project to rehabilitate the building. “And it actually worked.”

The development project known as Lambson Square includes both the four-story Lambson building at 89 Elm St. and the connected two-story building at 81-83 Elm St., which most recently housed Bentley Billiards, as well as a 15-space parking area in the rear.

“It’s quite a project. The goal is to take this business and turn it into some kind of resource for the town.”

Borowski bought the building in 2019 for $275,000, and has accessed $350,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to painstakingly restore — as in brick by brick — the building’s Italianite exterior. Another award of $585,000 targeting underutilized properties in the downtown district will finish bringing the building up to code, including restrooms, handicapped access, and more.

“It’s quite a project,” said Peake, who is also a psychology professor at Smith College. “The goal is to take this business and turn it into some kind of resource for the town.”

Borowski plans to use the first floor of both buildings for restaurants, bars, and music and entertainment space. Among the items he’s secured are a chandelier from the old Union Station in Northampton and all the kitchen and furniture from the Sierra Grill restaurant in Northampton, which closed a few years ago. He also plans to turn a small roof off the second floor of 81-83 Elm into a courtyard and perhaps café space.

The second floor of 89 Elm will house small businesses and vendors and perhaps co-working space, while the third and fourth floors will feature a mix of residential units: two-bedroom, one-bedroom, and studio. Tenants will enjoy touches like the original, restored window trim and the original glass panes, all given a modern insulation seal — just one example of how “we’re trying to take this old building and bring it into this century,” Peake said.

Gene Borowski (left) and Phil Peake

Gene Borowski (left) and Phil Peake stand in one of the future living units in the Lambson building.

Borowski wants to rent the residential units for less than a typical rent in the district, as low as $900 a month, compared to a nearby building that was renting for $1,600 recently. The idea is to make the property as attractive as possible to residents, businesses, and hospitality entities alike as part of a revitalization of that stretch of Elm Street, across from the Olver Transit Pavilion and a plot of land the city plans to turn into an outdoor performance space.

“It is the intention of Lambson Square Properties to develop the shell of a building that was formerly the Lambson Furniture building into a vibrant, multi-use hub in a manner that we believe will catalyze the entire Elm Street business district,” Borowski and his partners wrote in their initial funding request from the city’s Community Preservation Commission.

“At present, there is limited foot traffic at Elm and Thomas streets in part due to the lack of compelling retail (and housing) options in the area,” they went on. “We believe the development Lambson Square will inspire redevelopment and spur occupancy rates throughout the Elm Street business district by re-establishing the Lambson Furniture building as a focal point for both attractive retail options and community housing.”

 

Historical Undertaking

Peake prepared a lengthy history of the Lambson property, which we’ll condense as much as possible.

The Lambson Furniture building was built at the corner of Elm and Thomas streets on a parcel of land that Clinton Lambson acquired from Reuben Noble, one of Westfield’s prominent early landowners and benefactor of what is now the Baystate Noble Hospital. Lambson had established the furniture company in 1860, began construction of the building in 1868, and occupied it for business in 1869.

In its early years, the building was the site of furniture manufacturing, and many would-be furniture makers traveled to Westfield to apprentice with Lambson and his partner, William Whitney. Over the years, the furnishings side of the business focused on the manufacture and sale of home-related items like baby carriages, bedding, and desk and parlor sets, all displayed on the expansive first-floor showroom of the building.

Also manufactured in the building were caskets, as Lambson also ran an undertaking business in the building. Historical records suggest that both the furniture and undertaking businesses were flourishing and highly competitive enterprises as industry — especially the whip industry — infiltrated Westfield in the late 1800s. The Lambson Furniture building continued to house the undertaking business until 1944.

second floor of the property

The second floor of the property is being envisioned as spaces for small businesses and/or co-working space.

“Back in those days, the furniture makers were also the undertakers. He also owned a piece of the cemetery,” Peake told BusinessWest. “He was a real entrepreneur.”

Around 1896, Lambson installed the hydraulic elevator, likely one of the first in operation in Massachusetts, and the first and only hydraulic elevator designed and manufactured at the Washburn Shops at WPI. The elevator was in continuous use until 1998.

Around 1910, a two-and-a-half-story warehouse was added to the rear of the building, probably serving as a shipping and storage facility for furniture that was shipped to the company. Finally, in 1924, a fourth story was added to the building.

After the furniture company closed in 2002, the building was purchased in 2004 by Brian Whitely, who operated Bentley Billiards on the first floor of the Lambson Building and the first and second floors of the adjoining building until it closed in 2007. During the 12 years that the property was unoccupied, Whitely upgraded many of the mechanical components of the main building.

In 2011, the city of Westfield purchased the rear warehouse, which had by then gone into disrepair, in an effort to develop increased public parking to support business in the Elm Street business district. Unfortunately, the demolition of the warehouse left the back wall of the main building physically scarred, while former egress points for the two buildings were eliminated, rendering the upper floors of the main building in code violation for occupancy. The access doorways were covered with plywood, and much of the brickwork on the rear of the building was damaged. In addition, both corners of the building suffered considerable damage. Finally, demolition of the rear warehouse removed the only directly accessible restroom facilities for the Lambson building.

“We are excited and already exploring design options that would allow us to use the space to support live music and arts events that are currently being initiated by other businesses in the Elm Street district.”

That exterior damage was repaired — and the aesthetics improved — with the help of that initial $350,000 grant, as well as investments by the Lambson Square Properties team. Besides Borowski, principal owner of Beyond Building Inc., and Peake, that team includes Eugene Borowski Sr., principal owner of Borowski Accounting Inc., and Tristram Metcalfe III, principal owner of Metcalfe Associates Architecture. Joining the Lambson Square Properties team for this project is Sidney Hubbell, construction manager with Jacobs Engineering Group.

Beyond the interior work, Borowski and the team see potential in developing the open space behind the building into a small public-park-like area that might be covered and provide public access to bench seating and perhaps some fixed-in-place board games.

One of the current tasks is modernizing the original, 126-year-old hydraulic elevator.

One of the current tasks is modernizing the original, 126-year-old hydraulic elevator.

“We see the back wall of the building as the least historically significant portion of the building, yet the part of the building that cries out most for creative planning and use,” the CPA funding application notes. “We are excited and already exploring design options that would allow us to use the space to support live music and arts events that are currently being initiated by other businesses in the Elm Street district.”

 

Spring Ahead

Before the pandemic, Borowski said, he had two restaurants lined up as first-floor tenants, but those plans later fell apart. He’s confident others will emerge, but at first, he might hire a general manager and open up a restaurant himself. “I know we would do well, and the city’s dying for some entertainment and good food.”

Meanwhile, professors from Westfield State University have visited, and ideas kicked around include a science museum or another educational project.

At any rate, if completion of the interior goes as planned, Borowski is looking at tenants moving in by the spring. “The sprinkler, electrical, water, sewer, all the infrastructure is done, and I can tell you, that’s the hardest thing.”

Borowski paused for a moment late in his tour of the buildings with BusinessWest and tried to capture what initially drew him to this investment.

“My father and I looked at this as a righteous project,” he said. “This is a Westfield jewel here. This is part of the community. I feel like we’re not the owners of this property; we’re simply the caretakers. And I am privileged to take care of it, to be able to do a project that means something, you know? There’s just something here.”

And soon, there will be much more.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 141: December 19, 2022

George Interviews Mike Fenton, Springfield city councilor and chairman of the city’s Casino Oversight Committee

Michael A. Fenton, Esq.

BusinessWest editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Mike Fenton, Springfield city councilor and chairman of the city’s Casino Oversight Committee. The two talk about recently voiced concerns about MGM Springfield not delivering what was promised when it was granted a gaming license, and what actions are expected from the parent company in the weeks and months ahead to improve the picture on Main Street. It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 140: December 12, 2022

George Interviews Meg Sanders, CEO of Canna Provisions in Holyoke and Lee

Meg Sanders

Meg Sanders, CEO of Canna Provisions in Holyoke and Lee, is the guest on the latest installment of BusinessTalk, and she gives an candid, eye-opening appraisal of the state of the cannabis business in Western Mass. and where this intriguing industry can, and probably will, go moving forward. In her talk with BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien, she touches on everything from competition to profit margins to “women selling weed.” It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

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Features Special Coverage

Dressing Down

Ken Albano says businesses need to balance

Ken Albano says businesses need to balance what works for employees with a certain level of professionalism.

If it wasn’t clear before, you know office-attire norms are shifting when the rules for dress-down Friday have to change.

That’s exactly what happened at MP CPAs in Springfield, one of many companies with a rule that, with a donation to a charitable cause (in this case, a $5 donation that the company matches), employees may wear jeans and other attire typically deemed too casual for the office.

“But we changed it slightly because of what ended up happening,” said Melissa English, senior tax manager. Specifically, “COVID came, and our dress-code policy went out the window.”

With jeans and other casual attire now acceptable all week, she explained, “for an incentive for people who want to contribute to charity, Fridays are now our ‘wear what you want’ day. Anything goes. There’s no dress-code policy on Fridays if you pay in.”

Flip flops on Friday? Sure, go for it.

“I started 21 years ago with the firm, and no matter what, whether you were in the office, with a client, whatever, you made sure you were professionally dressed,” English told BusinessWest. “Then, over time, it gradually did loosen up a little bit. It became a little more … business casual. When you went to a client, you still had to dress up. But in the office, you were allowed to have professional pants on but maybe not necessarily a suit and tie, just a button-down shirt, stuff like that.”

“I want to be comfortable when I’m working, and I think a lot of people feel that way. I think you’re more productive if you’re comfortable throughout the day. So I do think it was already moving toward business casual, but COVID definitely pushed it.”

If anything, the pandemic, and especially the summer of 2020, only accelerated that trend, she went on. As one of the first businesses back in Monarch Place, at a time when the downtown towers seemed nearly empty, it was easy to relax the dress code.

“At that point, it was wear whatever you wanted. You could show up in your pajamas; it didn’t matter,” she joked. “It was very casual. We had no dress-code policy whatsoever; we were wearing shorts all summer.”

What happened next — and this was something BusinessWest heard multiple times for this story — was that employees liked dressing down. And employers listened.

“Even after COVID, to try to get back to professional dress, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” English said. “For me personally, I want to be comfortable when I’m working, and I think a lot of people feel that way. I think you’re more productive if you’re comfortable throughout the day. So I do think it was already moving toward business casual, but COVID definitely pushed it.

Melissa English

Melissa English says workers have shown they can be both comfortable and productive at work.

“I do know a lot of businesses feel the same way,” she added. “A lot of the businesses we go to now are casual to business casual. You don’t see many people wearing suits and ties anymore. I think it’s more acceptable now, especially after COVID.”

As a law firm with five offices, Bacon Wilson’s workplace policies are generally driven by the main office in Springfield, Managing Shareholder Ken Albano said.

“We have a policy that’s been tweaked over the years. Now, business casual is acceptable throughout the firm. You don’t have to wear a sport coat. Corduroys, a gray sweater, and a button-down shirt — that’s my dress today. That’s deemed acceptable; I’d call that country casual or business casual. Wearing a sport coat every day is no longer required.

“That said, we’ve got old-school people here who just can’t change,” he went on. “They come to work in a suit every day. Even given the opportunity to loosen up their attire, they stick to it, especially some of the older guys in the Estate Planning department who meet clients daily and like to wear a suit and tie when they sit down with clients.”

He agreed that employees returning from long stretches of remote work, where they could get their job done in pajamas some days, grew to enjoy the comfort of casual dress, and the firm’s policy preserves elements of that while stressing appropriate wear.

“For a law firm of this size,” Albano said, “we try to be as flexible as we can without taking it too far away from the professional setting we’re trying to establish for our clients.”

 

Loosening Up

Casual dress has long been the norm in technology workplaces, and that revolution eventually spread to other, more traditionally formal workplaces in fields like law, accounting, and insurance. The shift toward a more casual dress code reflects, in one sense, a desire by employees to embrace comfort and individuality — and, over the past couple of years, a recognition by employers that comfortable employees are happier and, in many cases, just as productive as before, if not moreso.

Sue Cicco

Sue Cicco

“As we have instituted our new hybrid workplace approach, which balances in-person collaboration with personal flexibility to best meet the needs of our employees and customers, we’ve seen this level of comfort continue, and I believe it’s here to stay.”

Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources & Employee Experience at MassMutual in Springfield, told BusinessWest that the firm has continually evolved its culture to reflect the changing world, prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion; offering a flexible workplace; and, yes, moving away from exhaustive dress codes.

“In 2015, we instituted a two-word dress code: ‘dress appropriately,’” she explained. “This simplified guidance was rolled out as the company sought to reflect the more innovative and open workplace that was building, and was aimed at trusting and empowering employees while enabling them to be comfortable and express themselves.”

Those we spoke with, however, kept coming back to the importance of dressing for one’s audience and setting. For example, Albano said, a litigator would never appear in court in anything but formal attire. “The dress code is normally what you expect to see in front of a judge. You don’t show up in jeans and sneakers in a court of law; that never changes.”

Tanzi Cannon-Eckerle, chief legal and administrative officer at the Royal Law Firm in Springfield, agreed.

“In the courtroom, the attire has not changed since we stopped wearing the wigs,” she said, adding that law schools across the country instill in students the importance of formal attire. “Courtroom decorum won’t change, nor, in my opinion, should it change.”

In the office, however, she has seen some movement toward more casual dress. “But what might be considered lax for one person might be different for someone else. When meeting clients, you’re still wearing blazer and slacks or a cardigan and slacks. Or you have on a suit. In that setting, I believe you’re supposed to dress toward a more professional level.”

Before returning to Royal, Cannon-Eckerle worked as director of Human Resources for Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass Amherst, a tenure that spanned much of the pandemic.

“They decided to bridge the gap between frontline workers and C-suite folks and make business casual mandatory,” she recalled. “I was still wearing suits every day; they actually pulled me aside and said, ‘you need to relax a little bit and try for a more approachable persona in the workplace.’”

Tanzi Cannon-Eckerle

Tanzi Cannon-Eckerle says being overdressed and underdressed in certain settings are equally problematic.

She recognizes that a college campus during a pandemic is a different situation than a law firm, but stressed that all professional settings should strive for certain minimum standards.

“At the end of the day, there’s a baseline: you’ve got to be clean, your clothes can’t be wrinkled, and it has to make sense for the room,” she told BusinessWest. “I love to dress up; if I could, I’d wear a wedding dress once a week. But I’m pretty sure I’d be reprimanded by the judge. So, you don’t dress to stand out, but to fit in and make people at ease with you. You don’t want people looking at your clothes instead of you, ogling what you’re wearing and not listening to what you’re saying.”

English said it’s important to know one’s audience in choosing what to wear.

“People can be comfortable and productive, so does it really matter how somebody looks if they’re getting the job done even better than they did before? So I think employers are now more accepting,” she noted. “In the employers we talk to, so many now are going to casual to business casual, and everybody seems to be accepting of it.

“But, again, no matter what, it’s still knowing your audience. You might have that one client that you know dresses up all the time. Well, maybe you need to dress up a little bit more for that client because you want them to take you seriously, and sometimes you have to look the part.”

Albano said job seekers need to be careful with accessories like tattoos and piercings; both are fine at Bacon Wilson, as long as visible tattoos aren’t offensive and piercings aren’t too numerous.

Sneakers and flip flops are a hard no, but jeans are fine on occasional charity days, when, like at MP CPAs, employees can pay $5 to dress down a bit. “That’s always a positive thing,” he said.

 

Lessons Learned

Looking forward, Cicco said employers and employees both learned something about each other during the pandemic, and those lessons will inform dress codes at countless companies in the future.

“As much as we were apart while working remotely during the pandemic, we also became more personally acquainted with one another,” she said. “We were welcomed into each other’s homes as we took Zoom calls from our living rooms with family members and even pets debuting in the background, and with that came a different level of familiarity that further empowered people to dress how they felt most comfortable.”

Therefore, “as we have instituted our new hybrid workplace approach, which balances in-person collaboration with personal flexibility to best meet the needs of our employees and customers, we’ve seen this level of comfort continue, and I believe it’s here to stay.”

English said the managers at her firm have had meetings and talked to consultants about what’s happening throughout the industry and how it informs the dress code moving forward.

“Because we are so casual now, should we go back to a more business casual? What we came up with is the term ‘smart casual.’ You can come in the office in jeans and a polo, whatever, but if you know you are going to go out to a client, then you need to dress in more of a smart casual. You need to be able to dress up and be presentable and make a good impression.”

Having been a business owner and manager as well as a lawyer, Cannon-Eckerle’s take is that, “if you walk in the door and the first thing people think about is what you’re wearing, you might have to rethink it. But if you’re clean and pressed and not wearing a T-shirt that’s flipping the bird, most likely you’re OK.”

In short, read the room.

“Because of COVID, things have changed, and I think people have been more open to someone’s style, open to the fact that dress is part of their personality,” she added. “But that doesn’t mean you can be disruptive in the workplace.

“And, as attorneys, they pay you a hefty hourly rate. If you roll in with sweatpants and flip flops, that isn’t professional. What we see as professional may be changing, but not in all industries, I think.”

As Albano put it, “you don’t want someone to turn their head and say, ‘oh my God, what are you wearing?’ We’re trying to be flexible and make it a healthy work environment, but also a professional setting.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Points of Interest

Rich Kump, president and CEO of UMassFive Federal Credit Union.

Rich Kump, president and CEO of UMassFive Federal Credit Union.

Richard Kump says he’s disappointed by — but quite philosophical about — recent statistics showing that credit unions are not faring as well as they have historically when it comes to customer satisfaction.

“For just about our entire existence, credit unions have always outperformed banks, particularly the big banks, but just a few years ago, credit unions dipped in our satisfaction rating compared to particularly the national and multi-regional banks,” he said, adding that there’s an obvious reason why.

“It used to be that satisfaction was coming into the branch, being met with a smiling face that was empathetic and there to help — that in-face, smiling employee,” he explained. “Now, satisfaction is defined a little differently; it’s defined by speed: ‘how quickly can I accomplish this?’ The Bank of Americas, the Wells Fargos … their ease of use has surpassed that of credit unions and small community banks.”

Getting up to speed — figuratively but also quite literally — is one of the broad strategic objectives identified by Kump, president and CEO of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, and other members of the leadership team at this 55-year-old institution.

Others include everything from territorial expansion — Springfield and Westfield are among the areas at or near the top of a list of potential landing spots — to continued growth of an already dynamic niche in lending for solar-energy installations; from the building of a new and more highly visible branch in Hadley and consolidation of other facilities into the headquarters building in that town to the possible creation of an insurance agency to be operated by the credit union.

“Most of our members have Amazon — with one click, you can purchase something. And that’s what they expect from us, being able to accomplish whatever their need is quickly and without friction.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Kump, a 20-year veteran at UMassFive who took the helm in 2019, touched on these and many other points. Overall, he said the institution, which now boasts more than $625 million in assets, is in what he called a controlled growth mode, anxious to take advantage of opportunities that have arisen in recent years, including ongoing consolidation in the banking industry, advancing digital technology, and changing needs among customers — on both the consumer and commercial sides of the ledger.

Such opportunities enabled UMassFive to essentially triple the projected profits for what was expected to be a lackluster 2022, he explained, and these same forces, in addition to those aforementioned goals for expansion, are providing reasons for optimism as the calendar turns to 2023.

 

Developing a Game Plan

Kump, who grew up in New York, has been a lifelong, and extremely avid, Yankees fan.

The wall across from the desk in his office tells the story.

There, one will find a framed picture of Bucky Dent’s famous (infamous to Red Sox fans) home run in that one-game playoff back in 1978. It’s signed by both Dent and the Red Sox pitcher who threw the pitch, Mike Torrez, and Kump notes with regret that the signatures are fading.

As is the autograph of Don Larsen on a framed photo from his historic perfect game in the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers that sits just below the Dent picture. There’s other Yankee memorabilia on his wall, including a group of perhaps the four greatest players from that franchise — Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle.

While the Yankees have always been a passion for Kump, or a “great failing,” as he called it, credit unions have essentially been his career. Prior to arriving at UMassFive, he worked at St. Mary’s Bank in Manchester, N.H. — founded in 1909, before such institutions were called credit unions — and, later, Cathedral Credit Union in Manchester.

UMassFive has developed a strong niche in the financing of solar-installation projects.

UMassFive has developed a strong niche in the financing of solar-installation projects.

With that background, he’s well-versed in what credit unions have been historically, and what has long differentiated them from banks, especially the larger ones — a high-touch operating philosophy and a strong focus on customer service.

These days, though, Kump is more focused on what credit unions can be — and must be — to continue to thrive and grow in a changing financial-services landscape.

And here, as noted, speed is an important part of the equation.

“While overall satisfaction with any local institution is high, this is a world of digital transformation and how quickly you can get your organization to deliver what the consumer is expecting,” he explained. “Most of our members have Amazon — with one click, you can purchase something. And that’s what they expect from us, being able to accomplish whatever their need is quickly and without friction.

“And that has been our focus on improving the member relationship,” he went on, adding that UMassFive is responding with online appointments, online loan applications that are simpler and what he described as ‘frictionless,’ the ability to join the credit union digitally — “that’s our primary branch; that’s how we serve” — fraud-prevention efforts, and other measures.

“We want to make the processes as simple and easy as they can be because that’s what the consumer is demanding today,” he explained, adding that this mindset will be applied to every aspect of the business, from credit cards to those loan applications.

And while improving its speed and ability to serve customers in the manner they are now demanding, UMassFive is moving forward aggressively on a number of other fronts, said Kump, including territorial expansion, new branches, and better, more effective use of its facilities.

Several of these goals are coming together in the planned move of the flagship branch inside the headquarters building off Route 9 in Hadley to a new building to be constructed just down the road at the border between Hadley and Amherst on the site of an auto-parts store.

The move will give UMassFive much greater visibility, said Kump — the current headquarters building is a few hundred yards from the street and behind other buildings — and it will also enable the credit union to consolidate spaces and ultimately save money.

“Branches are now less a transaction center and more of an advisory center. The things people want to come in for are lending — we do a ton digitally, but for loans, people still like to come in, especially on the commercial side — as well as investments and wealth management. Those are things people like to do in person.”

Elaborating, he noted that the credit union outgrew its headquarters building, which opened in 2001, several years ago, and has been leasing additional space in Hadley for its operations center, an expensive undertaking that ultimately led to the development of plans to build a new and much larger headquarters.

By moving the flagship branch to another location on Route 9, the credit union can now scrap those plans in favor of a far-less-expensive option: a new branch building. He added quickly that this new plan wouldn’t be possible if not the arrival of remote work forced by the pandemic.

“What we learned during COVID is that we don’t need to have everyone on-site,” he explained. “Other than our retail staff, we probably have 80% of employees on some type of telecommuting status, either hybrid or fully remote. With that, coupled with the move of our flagship branch and opening up that space, we’ll be able to bring the employees from our operations center over here and not have to lease space. And we’ll have the staff on site all under one roof and not have to worry about building a new headquarters building.”

 

Branching Out

Beyond Hadley, UMassFive is looking to add some new branches in the coming years and expand its footprint across this region, said Kump, adding that the leadership team has identified several different potential target areas.

At the top of the list is Springfield. UMassFive has one location in the city, in the rehabilitation facility at Mercy Medical Center, a branch that counts both medical-center employees and area residents as members. To attract more members, additional sites are being eyed, he said, adding that the Sixteen Acres neighborhood is a preferred landing spot.

Meanwhile, credit-union leaders are also taking a hard look at Westfield, a large community that boasts a state university and thus resembles, to some extent, the Five College area that UMassFive has long called home.

“Many of the demographics are similar to who we serve best,” he said of the Whip City and the surrounding area. “So that is a logical place for us to go.”

While expansion and additional branches are in the business plan, UMassFive will look for measured, controlled growth, Kump said. “At $625 million in assets, we’re not at a size where we can put up a branch every year. Break-evens on branches seem to be running seven or eight years now, so we need to careful with our expansion.”

Meanwhile, any new branches will be smaller in size than what has been built historically, simply because fewer customers come to such facilities and technology, such as ITMs, has changed how service is provided, and thus they require smaller staffs, said Kump, adding that the nature of the business conducted inside is changing as well.

“Branches are now less a transaction center and more of an advisory center,” he explained. “The things people want to come in for are lending — we do a ton digitally, but for loans, people still like to come in, especially on the commercial side — as well as investments and wealth management. Those are things people like to do in person.”

Another strategic objective at UMassFive is growing the commercial side of the ledger, said Kump, adding that, over the past decade or so, the credit union has built what he called a “commercial infrastructure” of products and services. With that infrastructure now in place, the credit union will work to build its portfolio of clients, he said, adding that there are new products planned as well, as well as a commercial credit card.

“For the first 50 years of our existence, it was consumers only — individuals and their families,” he told BusinessWest. “And what we found is that some of those consumers also own businesses, and in the past, we had to turn that business away. A number of years ago, we committed to the local business community, and we want to grow that side of the business.”

One segment of the commercial market that UMassFive is dominating — basically because few other institutions have considered it worthy — is solar energy.

Indeed, since 2017, the credit union has written more than $100 million in loans for residential solar projects, said Kump, adding that it has partnered with the Clean Energy Center to connect low-income households with solar air-source heat pumps.

“It’s a huge niche, and it’s mostly ignored by other financial institutions — when it comes to the true residential solar loan, I know of just one other institution in Western Mass. that offers it,” Kump explained, adding that the biggest reason why is that such offerings amount to unsecured loans, and few banks and credit unions have an appetite for such lending.

UMassFive has the expertise — its chief commercial officer is certified in commercial solar lending — and a track record of success in this realm that it’s looking to build upon.

“We find that they perform as well as equity loans,” he said, adding that, while the market for such loans has softened recently because the tax credits for such installations have diminished, their eligibility requirements have expanded to include nonprofit institutions such as churches, as well as municipalities.

“We were an early adopter, we understand the industry, we know how it works, we support that industry, and it’s a big piece of who we are,” he said, adding that the clean-energy portfolio extends beyond solar and into energy-efficiency projects, both residential and commercial, such as those administered by Mass Save.

 

Bottom Line

As he surveys the banking and financial-services landscape, Kump sees plenty of challenges ahead — from projections of a further slowing of the economy to rising interest rates in the housing market and growing competition for customers in this sector.

But he also sees opportunities for institutions that have the ability to adapt and respond to changing customer needs in a proactive, forward-thinking manner.

That has been the MO at UMassFive for more than a half-century now, and it is the pattern that will continue into the future.

 

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

Education Special Coverage

What’s Cooking?

 

Warren Leigh, co-chair of the HCC Culinary Arts program.

Warren Leigh, co-chair of the HCC Culinary Arts program.

 

Restaurant work is not easy.

Maureen Hindle knows that, having graduated from Holyoke Community College’s (HCC) Culinary Arts program in 2013 and working as a sous chef before returning to work in the HCC program about seven years ago as a lab technician.

“It’s a challenging industry, but it’s all passion-based, and I think that’s a huge thing,” she said. “Our students come here because they have a passion for cooking, and they want to grow that, and this is a good place to do that. And we wouldn’t continue to work in the industry in some capacity if we didn’t love it as well.”

By ‘we,’ she meant the team at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, which occupies the first two floors of the Cubit building in downtown Holyoke. The $7.5 million, 20,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility opened in January 2018, so it will soon mark five years of growth and innovation, which included weathering the pandemic.

Chef and Professor Warren Leigh, who co-chairs the Culinary Arts program, said he’s surprised enrollment isn’t even higher, given the opportunities available in a restaurant industry that’s crying out for workforce help.

“Our students come here because they have a passion for cooking, and they want to grow that, and this is a good place to do that. And we wouldn’t continue to work in the industry in some capacity if we didn’t love it as well.”

“They can’t find employees,” he told BusinessWest. “Nobody knows why we’re not packed to the gills; we should be turning students away, but it’s not happening. Every industry is looking for employees, and especially hospitality. Most all the restaurants are hiring for some position.”

The fall enrollment numbers were encouraging, however, and spring looks strong as well, perhaps because more students are hearing about the needs in a field where pay typically starts in the high teens per hour and can move quickly into the twenties as they move into higher responsibilities. “There is that ability to grow, so you’d think they’d be busting down the doors here.”

Degree programs at the center have been described as ‘stackable.’ Students can choose a one-year certificate program in culinary arts, and if they want to go further, they can enter the associate-degree program and essentially build on what they started.

With that associate degree, a student could transfer to, say, Johnson & Wales, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), or any college that offers a four-year program in the culinary field. But most of the time, they don’t pursue more education, because of the career opportunities already open to them.

Briana Marizan

Briana Marizan says instructors consider the unique qualities each aspiring chef brings to the program.

“Most of the time, they want to get their degree and go to work. That’s what we see,” Leigh explained. “The question is always, are you getting your money’s worth for this? Compared to other four-year schools and culinary schools, community colleges are inexpensive — a great value. And what we’re seeing is the students who have the associate’s degree tend to wind up in supervisory positions.

“The students who do the two-semester certificate and stick with it also end up moving fairly quickly, but most of the supervisors out there who are alums have associate degrees,” he went on. “That doesn’t mean if you don’t have an associate degree, you won’t get a supervisor’s job. Some of those have made it to some level of supervision, absolutely.”

At a time when career stability is important to so many, enrolling in the Culinary Arts Institute is certainly an attractive option.

 

Heating Up

The institute represents a big step forward in the realm of workforce development within the culinary-arts field, both locally and regionally, a segment of the economy that was already growing and now faces even greater pressure to retain workforce in the post-pandemic era, beset by the Great Resignation at the same time when most people have returned to their old dining-out habits.

“Every industry is looking for employees, and especially hospitality. Most all the restaurants are hiring for some position.”

There has a been a culinary-arts program, in one form or another, at HCC for about 35 years, though the program was more hospitality-related than culinary-focused years ago. It has had several homes over the years, none of them large or particularly well-equipped.

The facility at the Cubit, however, features a fully equipped demonstration kitchen; a production kitchen set up European-style, with the student chefs facing each other and communicating with each other as they work together to prepare a meal; two teaching kitchens; a bake shop; classrooms; a student lounge; and an 80-seat dining facility to host events. As a broad hospitality program, it also maintains a hotel lab with a mock front desk and bedroom.

Hindle, whose role includes food ordering, making sure classes run smoothly, supporting the students and instructors, and more, has seen the program and its physical home evolve since she graduated more than a decade ago, and she’s beyond impressed.

Chef Warren Leigh speaks with students at the start of a class.

Chef Warren Leigh speaks with students at the start of a class.

“It’s incredible. We went from one and a half kitchens to five. So that in itself is huge growth for us,” she said. “But seeing the students able to use this equipment, versus what we had when I was a student, it’s just incredibly beneficial to them because this is what they’re using in the industry. We’re not shoving six students around a range. In fact, this is better than they would see in most industry kitchens; they can learn on the best equipment possible.”

Briana Marizan is one of those current students, working toward her associate degree.

“I came here because I want to be a chef. I want to perfect my craft and then move up,” she said, adding that instructors are sensitive to the learning and work styles of each student. “Each chef brings something unique to the table, and they teach us not only what works best for them, but also what might work best for us.”

As part of its mission to support the region’s hospitality industry, the institute also regularly runs free, eight-week line-cook training and certification courses. Participants learn all the essential competencies they need to become successful line cooks: knife skills; how to prepare stocks, soups, sauces, desserts, poultry, fish, and meat; culinary math and measurements; moist- and dry-heat cooking methods; as well as workplace soft skills, such as building a résumé and presenting themselves at job interviews.

Maria Moreno Contreras, a culinary instructor who was administering a midterm test to one of those classes the day BusinessWest visited, said some participants are already in the industry and want to upgrade their skills, while others are exploring a possible new career in a high-demand field.

“With the non-credit training, many of them getting ready to get a very entry-level job, or it’s exploratory to see if they even want to go there,” Leigh said. “Their endgame is to get a job — but that’s everyone’s endgame here.”

 

Rolling Along

Five years since opening its new headquarters, HCC’s Culinary Arts program is evolving in some intriguing ways. For instance, it was awarded a $147,000 Skills Capital Grant by the state to purchase a truck that will be used as a mobile kitchen for community outreach and education.

“The mobile kitchen has nothing to do with raising income,” Leigh said, noting that it’s not going to set up on the corner and sell tacos. The main purpose is to engage the community while giving students experience in food-truck operations.

According to the award letter, HCC will use the $147,000 to purchase and outfit a mobile food lab that will support both credit and non-credit culinary-arts programs and also incorporate other areas of study, including nutrition, health, business, and entrepreneurship. HCC’s grant application notes that residents of Holyoke face a high level of food insecurity and that downtown Holyoke has been identified as a ‘food desert.’

Maureen Hindle

Maureen Hindle says the state-of-the-art facilities are a far cry from what she used as a student more than a decade ago.

“HCC will deploy the truck to bring food to neighborhoods of downtown Holyoke,” HCC wrote in its application. In addition, the college plans to connect this project to its downtown Freight Farms initiative with a focus on basic nutrition, local produce, and healthy eating.

Leigh envisions using the mobile food lab to engage community partners such as the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club and area food pantries. Students will meet with representatives from area organizations to create menus based on ingredients of their choice or what might be seasonally available.

Food trucks are one way to enter the industry more inexpensively than opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, he added, citing the example of HCC culinary arts alumna Nicole Ortiz, who wrote a letter in support of the grant and started her own culinary career with her Crave food-truck business. She now also runs Crave restaurant on High Street in Holyoke.

Leigh also said the institute is working with Holyoke Medical Center on putting together some professional development for nurses and nutritionists, planning to package it as a non-credit course with possible grant support.

The facility also recently partnered with the Boys & Girls Club by helping lay out its new kitchen and hosting the club’s eighth-graders at the Cubit.

“We’re trying to be a community partner,” Leigh said, adding that the school started preparing Thanksgiving to-go packages — everything but the turkey for a family of four — to raise money for the President’s Student Emergency Fund at HCC, which assists thousands of students with basic needs.

The program is reaching out to the community in other ways as well, such as a plan to offer professional-development opportunities for culinary-arts teachers in several vocational and technical schools in the region. “It would clearly cost less than at Johnson & Wales or CIA,” he noted. “But maybe we can get grant funding for it.”

At the same time, Leigh and his team are trying to be more purposeful in recruitment, an ongoing effort, as he said, to get the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Center “packed to the gills.”

“We’re trying to tag-team a faculty member and an admissions person and go to those six or eight voke-tech schools, and we’ll try to do the same with the non-culinary students at the other high schools,” he said. “They might only hear about Johnson & Wales and CIA, where the price starts at $50,000 or $60,000.”

With the need for culinary talent more critical than ever before, and the cost of a community-college education within reach for most, he hopes HCC has a winning message for those young people.

As Hindle said, the work isn’t easy, but it’s a field where those with a passion can thrive.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Year-end Tax Planning

By Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST

tax planning 2022

As another tumultuous year draws to a close, both individuals and small-business owners are advised to assess their current tax situation, with an eye on maximizing available tax breaks and avoiding potential tax pitfalls. Planning should be based on the latest laws of the land.

Just look at the significant legislation enacted in recent years. Following the massive Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act addressed various pandemic-related issues in 2020. In quick succession, the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) extended certain CARES Act provisions and modified others, while the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) created even more tax-saving opportunities in 2021.

This series of new laws culminated in the Inflation Reduction Act (the IRA), passed in August 2022. The IRA, which is generally effective next year, includes several provisions that could have a big tax impact on individuals and business entities.

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Kristina Drzal Houghton

“We still might not be done. More proposed legislation has been introduced in Congress. If another new law featuring tax provisions is enacted before 2023, it may require you to revise your year-end tax-planning strategies.”

And we still might not be done. More proposed legislation has been introduced in Congress. If another new law featuring tax provisions is enacted before 2023, it may require you to revise your year-end tax-planning strategies.

 

BUSINESS TAX PLANNING

 

Depreciation-based Deductions

As we head into year-end, a business may benefit from one or more of three depreciation-based tax breaks: the Section 179 deduction; first-year ‘bonus’ depreciation; and regular depreciation. In consideration of this, consider the following:

Place qualified property in service before the end of the year. If your business does not start using the property before 2023, it is not eligible for these tax breaks.

Section 179 deduction: under Section 179 of the tax code, a business may ‘expense’ (i.e., currently deduct) the cost of qualified property placed in service any time during the year. The maximum annual deduction for 2022 is $1.08 million and is phased out on a dollar-for-dollar basis when total additions exceed $2.7 million. Be aware that the Section 179 deduction cannot exceed the taxable income. This could limit your deduction for 2022.

First-year bonus depreciation: the TCJA authorized a 100% first-year bonus depreciation deduction through 2022. This includes used, as well as new, property. Be aware that most states do not allow this special bonus depreciation.

Regular depreciation: if any remaining acquisition cost remains, the balance may be deducted over time under the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS).

If you buy a heavy-duty SUV or van for business, you may claim a first-year Section 179 deduction of up to $25,000. The ‘luxury car’ limits do not apply to certain heavy-duty vehicles.

The first-year bonus depreciation deduction is scheduled to phase out over five years, beginning in 2023. Take full advantage while you can.

 

Business Meals

Previously, a business could deduct 50% of the cost of its qualified business entertainment expenses. However, the deduction for entertainment costs, including strictly social meals, was eliminated by the TCJA beginning in 2018.

The ARPA doubles the usual 50% deduction for allowable meals to 100% for food and beverages provided by restaurants in 2021 and 2022. This tax break is not expected to be extended.

 

Business Repairs

As more remote workers return to your regular workplace, the business may need to fix up the place. While expenses spent on making repairs are currently deductible, the cost of improvements to business property must be capitalized.

When appropriate, complete minor repairs before the end of the year. The deductions can offset taxable income in 2022.

As a rule of thumb, a repair keeps property in efficient operating condition, while an improvement prolongs the life of the property, enhances its value, or adapts it to a different use. For example, fixing a broken window is a repair, but the addition of a new wing to a business building is treated as an improvement.

 

State Income Taxes

Many states, including Massachusetts, have enacted so-called ‘work-arounds’ whereby flow-through entities such as Subchapter S corporations and partnerships can elect to pay the state tax at the entity level on behalf of the shareholders. The benefit comes from reduced federal taxable income flowing to the shareholder, which serves to circumvent the $10,000 cap for state and local taxes when calculating itemized deduction, which is discussed later. Most states do not give a dollar-for-dollar credit for the tax paid by the entity, but the federal tax benefit is typically larger than the reduced state credit.

The actual benefit will vary for each shareholder or parter and should be reviewed to determine the actual savings. If deemed to be beneficial, don’t miss any deadlines for electing to pay these taxes.

 

Miscellaneous

Stock up on routine supplies (especially if they are in high demand). If you buy the supplies in 2022, they are deductible in 2022 — even if they are not used until 2023.

If you accrue in 2022 but pay year-end bonuses to employees in 2023, the amounts are generally deductible by an accrual-basis company in 2022 and taxable to the employees in 2023. A calendar-year company operating on the accrual basis may be able to deduct bonuses paid as late as March 15, 2023 on its 2022 return.

Keep records of collection efforts (e.g., phone calls, emails, and dunning letters) to prove debts are worthless. This may allow you to claim a bad-debt deduction.

 

INDIVIDUAL TAX PLANNING

Itemized Deductions

Due to several related provisions in the TCJA, generally effective for 2018 through 2025, more individuals are claiming the standard deduction in lieu of itemizing deductions.

Make a quick analysis of your situation. Depending on the results, you may decide to accelerate certain expenses into 2022 or postpone them to 2023.

For instance, you may want to ‘bunch’ charitable donations in a year you expect to itemize deductions. (There is more on charitable deductions below.) Similarly, you might reschedule physician or dentist visits to provide the maximum medical deduction. The deduction for those expenses is limited to the excess above 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). If you do not have a reasonable shot at deducting medical and dental expenses in 2022, you might as well postpone non-emergency expenses to 2023.

Note that the TCJA made other significant changes to itemized deductions. This includes a $10,000 annual cap on deductions for state and local tax (SALT) payments and suspension of the deduction for casualty and theft losses (except for qualified disaster-area losses). Since a repeal or modification of this cap is unlikely for 2022, wait to pay state estimates or real-estate taxes until January 2023 if they are not due in December.

The standard deduction for 2022 is generally $12,950 for single filers and $25,900 for joint filers.

 

Charitable Donations

If you still expect to itemize deductions in 2022, you may benefit from contributions to qualified charitable organizations made within generous tax-law limits.

Consider stepping up your charitable gift giving at year-end. As long as you make a donation in 2022, it is deductible on your 2022 return, even if you charge the donation by credit card as late as Dec. 31.

Note that the deduction limit for monetary contributions was increased to 100% of AGI for 2021, but the limit reverted to 60% of AGI for 2022. Nevertheless, this still provides plenty of flexibility for most taxpayers. Any excess may be carried over for up to five years.

Furthermore, if you donate appreciated property held longer than one year (i.e., it would qualify for long-term capital-gain treatment if sold), you can generally deduct an amount equal to the property’s fair market value (FMV). But the deduction for short-term capital-gain property is limited to your initial cost. Your annual deduction for property donations generally cannot exceed 30% of your AGI. As with monetary contributions, any excess may be carried over for up to five years.

The CARES Act established a maximum deduction of $300 for charitable donations by non-itemizers in 2020. The special deduction was then extended to 2021 and doubled to $600 for joint filers. As of this writing, this tax break is not available in 2022.

 

Electric Vehicle Credits

The IRA greenlights tax credits for purchasing electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids over the next few years. But certain taxpayers will not qualify. Map out your plans accordingly.

Notably, the IRA includes the following changes:

The credit cannot be claimed by a single filer with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) above $150,000 or an MAGI of $300,000 for joint filers.

The credit is not available for most passenger vehicles that cost more than $55,000, or $80,000 for vans, sports utility vehicles, and pickup trucks.

The vehicle must be powered by batteries whose materials are sourced from the U.S. or its free-trade partners and must be assembled in North America.

The current threshold of 200,000 vehicles sold by a manufacturer is eliminated.

In addition, the IRA authorizes a credit of up to $4,000 for used vehicles if you are a single filer with an MAGI of no more than $75,000, or $150,000 for joint filers.

 

Residential Energy Credits

The IRA generally enhances the residential energy credits that are currently available to homeowners. Under the new law, you may benefit from two types of residential energy credits:

1. The 30% ‘residential clean-energy credit’ can generally be claimed for installing solar panels or other equipment to harness renewable energy like wind, geothermal energy, and biomass fuel. This credit, which was scheduled to phase out and end after 2023, is preserved at 30% from 2022 through 2032 before phasing out.

2. The 30% ‘non-business energy property credit’ can generally be claimed for up to $1,200 of the cost of installing energy-efficient exterior windows, skylights, exterior doors, water heaters, and other qualified items through 2032 before phasing out. For 2022, the credit remains at 10% with a maximum of $500.

 

Miscellaneous

Pay a child’s college tuition for the upcoming semester. The amount paid in 2022 may qualify for one of two higher education credits, subject to phaseouts based on your MAGI.

Avoid an estimated tax penalty by qualifying for a safe-harbor exception. Generally, a penalty will not be imposed if you pay 90% of your current year’s tax liability or 100% of your prior year’s tax liability (110% if your AGI exceeded $150,000).

Minimize the kiddie-tax problem by having your child invest in tax-deferred or tax-exempt securities. For 2022, unearned income above $2,300 that is received by a dependent child under age 19 (or under age 24 if a full-time student) is taxed at the top tax rate of the parents.

Empty out flexible spending accounts (FSAs) for healthcare or dependent-care expenses if you will forfeit unused funds under the ‘use-it-or-lose it’ rule. However, your employer’s plan may provide a carryover to 2023 or a two-and-a-half-month grace period.

Make home improvements that qualify for mortgage-interest deductions as acquisition debt. This includes loans made to substantially improve your principal residence or one other home. Note that the TCJA suspended deductions for home-equity debt for 2018 through 2025.

If you own property damaged in a federal disaster area in 2022, you may qualify for quick casualty loss relief by filing an amended 2021 return. The TCJA suspended the deduction for casualty losses for 2018 through 2025, but retained a current deduction for disaster-area losses.

 

FINANCIAL TAX PLANNING

Capital Gains and Losses

Frequently, investors ‘time’ sales of assets like securities at year-end to produce optimal tax results. It is important to understand the basic tax rules.

For starters, capital gains and losses offset each other. If you show an excess loss for the year, it offsets up to $3,000 of ordinary income before being carried over to the next year. Long-term capital gains from sales of securities owned longer than one year are taxed at a maximum rate of 15% or 20% for certain high-income investors. Conversely, short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary income rates reaching as high as 37% in 2022.

Review your investment portfolio. If it makes sense, you may harvest capital losses to offset gains realized earlier in the year or cherry-pick capital gains that will be partially or wholly absorbed by prior losses.

 

Net Investment Income Tax

Investors should account for the 3.8% tax that applies to the lesser of net investment income (NII) or the amount by which MAGI for the year exceeds $200,000 for single filers or $250,000 for joint filers. The definition of NII includes interest, dividends, capital gains, and income from passive activities, but not Social Security benefits, tax-exempt interest, and distributions from qualified retirement plans and IRAs.

Make an estimate of your potential liability for 2022. Depending on the results, you may be able to reduce the tax on NII or avoid it altogether.

 

Required Minimum Distributions

As a general rule, you must receive required minimum distributions (RMDs) from qualified retirement plans and IRAs after reaching age 72 (recently raised from age 70½). The amount of the distribution is based on IRS life-expectancy tables and your account balance at the end of last year.

Arrange to receive RMDs before Dec. 31. Otherwise, you will have to pay a stiff tax penalty equal to 50% of the required amount (less any amount you have received) in addition to your regular tax liability.

Do not procrastinate if you have not arranged RMDs for 2022 yet. It may take some time for your financial institution to accommodate these transactions.

Conversely, if you are still working and do not own 5% or more of the business employing you, you can postpone RMDs from an employer’s qualified plan until your retirement. This ‘still working exception’ does not apply to RMDs from IRAs or qualified plans of employers for whom you no longer work.

 

Installment Sales

Normally, when you sell real estate at a gain, you must pay tax on the full amount of the capital gain in the year of the sale.

If you sell it under an arrangement qualifying as an installment sale, the taxable portion of each payment is based on the gross profit ratio, which is determined by dividing the gross profit from the real-estate sale by the price.

Not only does the installment sale technique defer some of the tax due on a real estate deal, it will often reduce your overall tax liability if you are a high-income taxpayer. That is because, by spreading out the taxable gain over several years, you may pay tax on a greater portion of the gain at the 15% capital-gain rate as opposed to the 20% rate.

If it suits your purposes (e.g., you have a low tax year), you may ‘elect out’ of installment sale treatment when you file your return.

 

Estate and Gift Taxes

During the last decade, the unified estate- and gift-tax exclusion has gradually increased, while the top estate rate has not budged. For example, the exclusion for 2022 is $12.06 million, the highest it has ever been. (It is scheduled to revert to $5 million, plus inflation indexing, in 2026.)

In addition, you can give gifts to family members that qualify for the annual gift-tax exclusion. For 2022, there is no gift-tax liability on gifts of up to $16,000 per recipient (up from $15,000 in 2021). The limit is $32,000 for a joint gift by a married couple.

You may ‘double up’ by giving gifts in both December and January that qualify for the annual gift-tax exclusion for 2022 and 2023, respectively. The IRS recently announced that the limit for 2023 is $17,000 per recipient.

 

Miscellaneous

Watch out for the ‘wash sale’ rule that disallows losses from a securities sale if you reacquire substantially identical securities within 30 days. Wait at least 31 days to buy them back.

Contribute up to $20,500 to a 401(k) in 2022 ($27,000 if you are age 50 or older). If you clear the 2022 Social Security wage base of $147,000 and promptly allocate the payroll-tax savings to a 401(k), you can increase your deferral without any further reduction in your take-home pay.

Weigh the benefits of a Roth IRA conversion, especially if this will be a low-tax year. Although the conversion is subject to current tax, you generally can receive tax-free distributions in retirement, unlike taxable distributions from a traditional IRA.

Skip this year’s RMD if you recently inherited an IRA and are required to empty out the account within 10 years. Under new IRS guidance, there is no penalty if you fail to take RMDs for 2021 or 2022. The IRS will issue final regulations soon.

If you rent out your vacation home, keep your personal use within the tax-law boundaries. No loss is allowed if personal use exceeds 14 days or 10% of the rental period.

Consider a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). If you are age 70½ or older, you can transfer up to $100,000 of IRA funds directly to a charity. Although the contribution is not deductible, the QCD is exempt from tax. This may improve your overall tax picture.

 

Conclusion

This year-end tax-planning article is based on the prevailing federal tax laws, rules, and regulations. Of course, it is subject to change, especially if additional tax legislation is enacted by Congress before the end of the year.

Finally, remember that these ideas are intended to serve only as a general guideline. Your personal circumstances will likely require careful examination. Consult with your tax adviser.

 

Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST is a partner at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 139: December 5, 2022

George Interviews Tom Senecal, PeoplesBank President and CEO

Tom Senecal

The economy. Inflation. Interest rates. Quiet quitting. The housing market. The outlook for 2023. These are just a few of the subjects that BusinessWest Editor and PeoplesBank President and CEO Tom Senecal touch on in a wide-ranging installment of BusinessTalk. It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 138: November 28, 2022

George Interviews Bob Bolduc, founder of Pride Stations and Stores

It’s called the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation. That’s the next chapter in the life and career of entrepreneur and philanthropist Bob Bolduc, founder of Pride Stations and Stores. On the next installment of BusinessTalk, BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Bolduc about his new foundation and its broad goal of helping individuals and families achieve sustainability. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Giving Guide Special Coverage

Regional Philanthropic Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

View the 2021 Giving Guide PDF Flipbook HERE

 

A Better Life Homecare, LLC

Children’s Advocacy Center
of Hampshire County Inc.

Holyoke Chicopee Springfield
Head Start Inc.

Home City Development, Inc. 24

Link to Libraries

Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services

Mental Health Association Inc.

Pathlight

Tom Cosenzi Driving For The Cure
Charity Golf Tournament

United Way of Pioneer Valley

Downtown Springfield YMCA/
Scantic Valley YMCA

YWCA of Western Massachusetts

Baystate Health Foundation

Glenmeadow

JGS LIFECARE

 

Presented by:

 

 

Law Special Coverage

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

By Justin Goldberg, Esq.

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

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

Here is a look back — and ahead:

 

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

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

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

Justin Goldberg

Justin Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Increases in the Minimum Wage and Service Rate

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

 

Changes to Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave

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

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

 

The CROWN Act

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

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

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

 

Bottom Line

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

 

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

Special Coverage Technology

Defense Mechanism

future site of the SOC and cyber range

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STCC President John Cook

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

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

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

 

Dollars and Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Statewide Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Special Coverage

Leading the Charge

The dates seem … well, close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rob Pion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Rome

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

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

 

Rolling In, Rolling Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carla Cosenzi

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

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

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

 

Final Plug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 137: November 21, 2022

Jim Young, the ‘Centered Coach’ an expert on this subject, and author of a new book —  ‘Expanding Intimacy: How Tough Guys Defeat Burnout.’

‘Burnout.’ It’s a term we hear often and in many contexts. But it has a specific meaning and tell-tale symptoms. That’s just a few things we learn in an intriguing, eye-opening conversation with Jim Young, the ‘Centered Coach’ an expert on this subject, and author of a new book —  ‘Expanding Intimacy: How Tough Guys Defeat Burnout.’ It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 136: November 14, 2022

George Interviews Donald Sanders, executive artistic director of MIFA Victory Theatre

“Is Victory at hand?’ That’s the question Donald Sanders, executive artistic director of MIFA Victory Theatre attempts to answer on the next installment of BusinessTalk. The downtown Holyoke landmark has been dark for more than 40 years, but Sanders explains that the requisite momentum — and funding — exists to turn the lights back on soon. It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local 413 and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Shop Local Special Coverage

Local Call

Michelle Wirth, left, with Lexi Walters Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

show off some of the many items at the store.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Going Rate

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Peavay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bottom Line

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

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

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

 

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

Architecture Special Coverage

Food for Thought

Dennis Group project

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Up from the Attic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Damiano and Chris Siart

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No Slowdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Special Coverage

Match Makers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lighting a Spark

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

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

Paulette Piñero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From Mentee to Mentor

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Shop Local Special Coverage

Gifts Close to Home

 

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

 

Agawam Axe House

396 Main St., Suite A, Agawam

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

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

 

Berkshire East Mountain Resort

66 Thunder Mountain Road, Charlemont

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

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

 

Bohdii Boutique

34 Center Square, East Longmeadow

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

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

 

Champagne Apothecary

38 School St., Westfield

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

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

 

Common Grounds Cafe

2341 Boston Road, Wilbraham

(413) 279-1700

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

 

Connecticut Valley Brewing Co.

765 Sullivan Ave.,
South Windsor, Conn.

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

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

 

CyclePottery

CyclePottery

CyclePottery

42 Maple St., Florence

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

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

 

Echo Hill Orchards & Winery

Echo Hill Orchards & Winery

Echo Hill Orchards & Winery

101 Wilbraham Road, Monson

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

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

 

Elements Hot Tub Spa

373 Main St., Amherst

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

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

 

Elements Massage

379 Russell St., Hadley

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

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

 

Enjoy Boutique

4 Deerfield Ave., Shelburne Falls

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

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

 

Feel Good Shop Local

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

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

 

Flora! the Shop

61 Bridge St., Shelburne Falls

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

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

 

Fun Hub Action Park

367 Russell St., Hadley

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

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

 

Glendale Ridge Vineyard

155 Glendale Road, Southampton

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

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

 

The Grati Shop

The Grati Shop

The Grati Shop

2440 Boston Road, Wilbraham

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

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

 

Hallie’s Comet Fine Jewelry

www.halliescomet.com

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

 

High Five Books

High Five Books

High Five Books

141 North Main St., Florence

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

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

 

Jackalope Restaurant

254 Worthington St., Springfield

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

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

 

Kestrel

22 Masonic St., Northampton

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

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

 

The Mill District

91 Cowls Road, Amherst

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

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

 

Monsoon Roastery & Espresso Bar

250 Albany St., Springfield

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

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

 

Nosh Restaurant & Café

1341 Main St., Springfield

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

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

 

Plum Boutique

281 Main St., Greenfield

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

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

 

p.m. reed Carry Goods

p.m. reed Carry Goods

p.m. reed Carry Goods

www.pmreedcarrygoods.com

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

 

Puffer’s Salon & Day Spa

56 Southwick Road, Westfield

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

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

 

Ten Thousand Villages

82 Main St., Northampton

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

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

 

Thornes Marketplace

150 Main St., Northampton

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

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

 

White Lion Brewing Co.

White Lion Brewing Co.

White Lion Brewing Co.

1500 Main St., Springfield

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

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

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 135: November 7, 2022

George Interviews Mark Paglia, COO of Mira Vista Behavioral Health Center

Mark Paglia, COO of Mira Vista Behavioral Health Center — and a Healthcare Hero for 2022 — is the guest on BusinessTalk this week, and there was a lot to discuss with BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien. Topics include the opening of Mira Vista in the middle of a pandemic, the behavioral health crisis that accompanied COVID, the ongoing, and  now often overlooked, opioid addiction problem in this country, and much more. It’s all must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 134: October 31, 2022

George Interviews serial entrepreneur Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen

Serial entrepreneur Peter Rosskothen has seen just about everything there is to see in business over the past four decades. But he admits that the past few years have been something altogether different. They have changed the way business is done, and these changes are likely permanent. These are just some of his observations in a hard-hitting discussion with BusinessWest editor George O’Brien on the next installment of BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

Sponsored by:

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Event Galleries Healthcare Heroes Special Coverage

View the Gallery from the Oct. 27 Event

Watch the Oct. 27 Event Here

Show starts at 1:1:38

Healthcare Heroes Class of 2022

Overall, everyone who was nominated this year is a hero, but in the minds of our judges — the editors and management at BusinessWest — eight of these stories stood out among the others. The Healthcare Heroes for 2022 are (click on the names to read their stories):

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Special Coverage Super 60

A Tradition Returns

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

The Super 60 Luncheon

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

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

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

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

TOTAL REVENUE

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

REVENUE GROWTH

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

Total REVENUE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVENUE GROWTH

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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