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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 80: Sept. 20, 2021

George Interviews Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT and the presenter for a recent BusinessWest Webinar

Delcie Bean

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT and the presenter for a recent BusinessWest Webinar, sponsored by Comcast Business, called ‘Automation: The Time is Now.’ The two talk about the many ways businesses can benefit from automation of processes, everyday tasks, and more — especially during the ongoing workforce crisis — and how to get started. It’s must listening so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Features Special Coverage

Hire Ground?

 

For months now, business owners and elected officials have pinned the region’s mounting labor woes and all those ‘help wanted’ signs on too-generous federal unemployment assistance. Now that those benefits have expired for more than 3 million Americans, we’ll soon find out just how much of a factor those benefits were. Many involved in economic development and workforce matters say the problem has much deeper roots and that it might be some time before there is a return to anything approaching normal — whatever that is.

 

Dave Gadaire says considerable thought went into the timing of the massive, statewide job fair he helped coordinate last month.

Indeed, he said the week-long virtual gathering, said to be the largest such event ever staged, was scheduled for a time when employers across every sector of the economy were struggling to fill vacancies, often to the point where it was impacting productivity, if not profits — and when large numbers of individuals would be staring down the loss of federal unemployment benefits (specifically those weekly $300 bonus checks) in less than a month.

The thinking was that the convergence of these factors would create a sense of urgency and that the foundation would be laid for some good matches between employers and job seekers at this job fair.

And while that happened, and all those involved with the job fair, from the governor on down, have declared it a success, there are certainly question marks as to just how many matches will be made and whether this event will put a dent in a labor shortage that is, by all accounts, without precedent.

In many ways, the job fair, and the uncertainty concerning the bottom-line results from it, are a microcosm of what’s happening with the job market here and elsewhere, said Gadaire, president and CEO of MassHire Holyoke Career Center. The ongoing plight of employers seeking help and the end of those federal benefits would, logically, seem to indicate that jobs are going to be filled — probably sooner than later.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“States that ceased the incentive on their unemployment earlier have not seen huge upticks in labor participation. But we’ll see what happens; we certainly think some people will enter the workforce when the benefit goes away.”

But more evidence is indicating this is not going to be the easy fix that some employers and many elected officials — people who have been pinning the ‘workforce crisis,’ as it’s called, on an over-generous federal government — thought it would be.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), told BusinessWest that data and anecdotal evidence from states that did away with the federal bonus checks months ago indicate this has not been the cure most thought it would be.

“States that ceased the incentive on their unemployment earlier have not seen huge upticks in labor participation,” he noted. “But we’ll see what happens; we certainly think some people will enter the workforce when the benefit goes away.”

He was quick to note, however, that he has heard from some of his members that, through smaller, more-targeted job fairs and other recruiting efforts, they are seeing an uptick in the numbers of applications and hirings. Still, he said far more evidence is needed to get a real grasp of what’s happening with the labor market, let alone project what will happen over the next few quarters and beyond.

Kevin Lynn, president and CEO of MassHire Springfield Career Center, agreed. “Murky” was the word he used repeatedly to describe the future of the jobs market in this region.

“This whole thing is not new. We’ve been hanging this lack of applicants on COVID and the unemployment situation. But if you go back to, let’s say July through December of 2019, all you heard from companies was that they had no applicants, and when they did have an applicant, they were being ghosted — ghosting became the new term.”

“It’s an incredibly murky time, because it’s all unprecedented,” he explained. “And there are so any variables. This is not a recession, it’s a healthcare crisis, and it’s been like a rollercoaster; we seem to be on a rollercoaster going down again, and that does not play well psychologically.”

Lynn went further and said that, while the problems and frustrations currently being experienced by area employers may be heightened by the pandemic and factors related to it — childcare shortages, fear of returning to the office, mass retirements, and an unwillingness to work for low wages (he and others would get into all those) — in many ways, it’s all simply a continuation of what was happening before the pandemic.

“This whole thing is not new,” he said. “We’ve been hanging this lack of applicants on COVID and the unemployment situation. But if you go back to, let’s say July through December of 2019, all you heard from companies was that they had no applicants, and when they did have an applicant, they were being ghosted — ghosting became the new term.

“Companies were having major recruiting problems prior to COVID,” he went on. “What we’re seeing is nothing new.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several area economic-development leaders about the workforce crisis and the murkiness that surrounds just what will come next.

 

Food for Thought

Lynn told BusinessWest he was in Boston over Labor Day weekend. During his time there, he had an experience at a restaurant that was eye-opening if not frightening — a hard look at how things are for employers, especially in hospitality, and how they might — that’s might — continue to be.

“There were 15 tables there, and one woman was waiting on all 15 tables — I couldn’t believe it,” he said, using exasperation in his voice to add an exclamation point. “She was hustling, and I mean hustling. They had one woman on the tables, they had one person busing, and they had a bartender — I don’t know how many they had in the kitchen. The food was coming out, and she was hustling.”

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“It’s such a competitive market, and it’s so hard to find talent that … you may hire some great talent, and two weeks later another company scoops them from you. And there is no employee loyalty.”

While that situation represents an extreme, it encapsulates what many employers are facing these days — an inability to staff up in the manner they want and need, often in ways that impact service, the customer experience, and, in many cases, the bottom line.

In Western Mass. and many other regions, print shops have been working overtime filling orders for ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘We’re Hiring,’ and ‘Join Our Team’ signs. Meanwhile, other signs get far more specific, listing benefits as well as as wage scales and sign-on bonuses. Meanwhile, most restaurants in the region have cut back days of operation and closed portions of their establishments, school systems struggle to hire bus drivers, and healthcare providers tussle with one another to find nurses and other professionals.

And the fight certainly doesn’t end when the person is hired, said Nancy Creed, executive director the Springfield Regional Chamber, adding that loyalty among employees is a thing of the past, and retention is every bit as challenging as hiring.

“It’s such a competitive market, and it’s so hard to find talent that … you may hire some great talent, and two weeks later another company scoops them from you,” she noted. “And there is no employee loyalty.”

The questions on the minds of everyone in business and economic development concern just when, and to what extent, the pendulum will swing back in the direction of an employers’ labor market.

And the answer is a universal ‘I don’t know … we’ll have to wait and see,’ or words to that effect.

While the massive virtual job fair didn’t provide any hard answers to what’s ahead, neither did the most recent jobs report, which was a headscratcher to most analysts; only 235,000 jobs were added in August, the lowest number since January, following expectations for three times that number.

Getting back to the job fair, it was large in every respect, said Gadaire, who broke down the numbers. The event drew more than 1,700 employers from across the state and across all sectors of the economy, and 17,264 job seekers. Over the course of week, 21,046 résumés were exchanged, and there were nearly 1.4 million virtual visits to the companies’ booths.

While those totals are all impressive, they will not ultimately define how successful this event was, he went on, because the numbers that really count concern the number of jobs to be added in the weeks and months to come.

“We felt we at least got some mass when it comes to what we were trying to do,” said Gadaire. “What we’re doing now is doing all the follow-up to find out how much of that turned into job offers and hires; we’re getting that information back from the companies now as we speak, and it looks like a pretty successful event.”

Time will tell, obviously, and there are a number of factors that will ultimately determine how much of a dent will be put in the state’s labor crisis.

Indeed, those we spoke with said the federal unemployment benefits were certainly a contributor to the deepening of the labor shortage that’s been witnessed over the past year and especially the past nine months. But it appears it’s not as big a factor as many thought, and in the meantime, there are many other factors.

Childcare, or a lack thereof, is a huge issue, said Creed, noting that many working parents — or parents who were working, especially single mothers — cannot return to the workplace without childcare, which is suffering from its own workforce crisis and other issues. Fear of COVID is another factor, she added, noting that the recent surge in cases spawned by the Delta variant will, in all likelihood, slow any kind of return to something approaching normalcy when it comes to the labor market.

“There are three large contributors — the federal stimulus, childcare, and the virus itself,” Creed said. “They all play a role to some degree within specific demographics and populations, and we just need to give it some time to play out and see what happens.”

 

Money Talks

Which leads to another question: just what constitutes normal these days?

Is normal what was seen in 2019, as described by Lynn and others? Is normal what existed a decade or more ago when unemployment was low, yet candidates were far more plentiful?

More to the point, what will be … wait for it … the new normal? And what do employers have to be thinking about as they try to navigate that new normal?

That’s a lot of questions, many of them without easy answers.

Indeed, as a result of the labor shortage of the past several months, wage inflation has become a matter to contend with, and it is one of many factors keeping matches from being made.

“Job seekers have realized that they’re in a bit of a buyer’s market right now,” Gadaire said. “They are in high demand, so they’re asking for higher wages than what most companies are offering or can offer, and that’s certainly a problem.”

Creed agreed. “Not every business can afford to pay $40 an hour,” she noted. “So when you hire someone, and they get pennies more at another company, they’re going to switch; it creates a wage competition that small businesses just can’t afford.

“A lot of these businesses already have very thin margins — so there’s not a lot of wiggle room,” she went on, adding that budget concerns are further compounded by unemployment-insurance issues, paid family leave, hiring incentives and bonuses, and more.

Also, the surge in the pandemic has brought a whole new level of concern, as some people are afraid to enter the workforce, Gadaire noted. “A few months ago, I thought that problem was going away, but now, here we are again.

“And that has the ripple effects attached to it, like childcare and transportation,” he went on. “And then there’s the very real onset of people realizing, and businesses realizing, that remote work is now not just a luxury, it’s a reality, and people are redefining how they do work.”

For some companies, he explained, especially those in hospitality or the broad service sector where workers are face to face with customers, remote work is simply not an option. But for those where it is an option … those companies should look long and hard at creating such remote-work opportunities because doing so will greatly increase the amount of talent available to them.

Creed said the companies may also need to rethink how they hire and whom they hire moving forward.

“Does that position really need a four-year degree? Can it be a two-year degree, or a certificate, or just a GED?” she asked rhetorically, while noting just one way companies may be able to widen the pool of applicants for a job. “We need to rethink our recruitment practices, which is something we’ve always talked about, but now, I think you have to start digging deep into your workforce and saying, ‘how can I adjust?’”

While companies have to be creative and innovative, so too does the region, said Sullivan, adding that a new ‘job trail,’ created by the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and supported by the EDC, is one such example.

On Sept. 8 and 15, participating businesses throughout this region put out signage and orange and blue balloons to identify the ‘trail.’ Interested applicants could visit those businesses, fill out an application, and perhaps schedule an interview (participating companies were required to have people on site to handle inquiries during designated hours).

“There’s a focus on restaurant and hospitality jobs, but we have Yankee Candle, United Personnel, Big Y, Monson Savings Bank … we’ve had a really good response,” he said. “It’s a good cross-section of jobs, and the timing of it is not incidental — we appreciate the fact that the unemployment benefits are running out.”

 

The Job at Hand

As with so much else with this evolving story, time will tell regarding how effective outreaches like the job trail have been when it comes to easing what has become a historically challenging labor market for employers.

For months, experts have speculated about why so many jobs have gone unfilled when so many people are out of work and supposedly looking for work. The federal unemployment benefits were presumed to be the main culprit, but as the weeks and months go by, it’s becoming clear that there is far more to this story. And, as Lynn and others noted, what’s going on is really a continuation, and perhaps an escalation, of what was already happening before the pandemic.

Answers to this crisis have been slow to emerge, and the hope is that, in the weeks and months to come, matters will become more clear and the pendulum will finally begin to swing back.

 

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

Insurance Special Coverage

Rising Tide

After a summer of heavy rains in Massachusetts — and across the Northeast, for that matter — plenty of homeowners discovered their insurance policies don’t cover flood damage, and many are no doubt considering whether they should add such coverage. And it’s a question that may be raised even more often in the future, as climate change produces stronger and more frequent storms.

Last week, President Biden sat with state government officials to talk about the growing dangers of hurricanes and floods.

“For decades, scientists have warned that extreme weather would be more extreme and climate change was here. And we’re living through it now,” he said. “We don’t have any more time.”

But it wasn’t Florida he was visiting, or Louisiana or Mississippi. It was New Jersey, which had just experienced, according to one county commissioner, its fourth 100-year storm in the past two decades. The event turned tragic, with close to 40 people dead in New Jersey and New York, many trapped in basements and cars.

In other words, the effects of climate change on storms is no longer a problem for other regions. It’s a problem for the Northeast, too.

And it’s on the minds of those in the insurance industry.

“What was once a 100-year flood is now a 10-year flood,” said Trish Vassallo, director of Operations at Encharter Insurance in Amherst. “We’re seeing things now that we never anticipated.”

Trish Vassallo

Trish Vassallo

“What was once a 100-year flood is now a 10-year flood. We’re seeing things now that we never anticipated.”

Western Mass. residents know this well after a summer of often-incessant rain, punctuated by a few big storms that left a trail of flooded basements in their wake — most of which were not covered by insurance. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“A homeowners’ policy is going to provide coverage for a hurricane or tornado — which is on everyone’s mind this time of year,” Vassallo said. “We’re covering for wind damage and hail. If the whole house blows away, we’re covering for that as well.

“But flooding is always going to be excluded,” she went on. “You need to purchase a specific flood policy. The basic policy is from the ground up — not the flood coming in from the surface.”

There are two types of coverage homeowners can add to their policy to cover floods, Vassallo noted. Flood insurance covers water damage that results from water that has already hit the ground, pouring in from oversaturated yards, flooded streets, or overflowing rivers, streams, or ponds. Meanwhile, water backup coverage reimburses the homeowner for water that backs into the home through an outside sewer or drain.

“The key phrase is surface and/or groundwater coming into the building,” said David Griffin Jr. senior vice president at the Dowd Agencies in Holyoke. “If a pipe bursts, causing water damage, or water gets in through the roof, or a tree falls through the house and water comes in behind it, that’s all covered [by a basic policy]. But if water from outside the home comes in — if the yard floods and starts to spill into the basement — you’ll need a flood policy to respond to that.”

David Griffin Jr.

David Griffin Jr.

“We’ve had so much water this summer — it’s unprecedented, and it’s becoming an issue for everybody.”

While add-ons like earthquake insurance don’t sell big in New England for a reason, flood insurance is becoming an “absolute necessity,” Vassallo said, noting that it’s required in Massachusetts for mortgages in designated flood zones. “A person no longer has the option; mortgages require it. You can’t close on a loan without it.”

Griffin said his team recently ran some numbers and found that only 3.5% of all homeowners in Massachusetts have a flooding policy. Considering that flood-zone requirement, the percentage of people who aren’t forced to buy the coverage but opt for it anyway is strikingly low.

Will a summer of heavy rain — or talk of more intense storms in the future — change that? Insurance professionals are watching closely.

 

A Disconnect?

While flooding from rushing water and rain is generally not covered by regular homeowners’ insurance policies, floods remain the most common and most destructive natural disaster in the U.S., according to the National Assoc. of Insurance Commissioners.

From 1988 through 2017, flood damage in the U.S. cost almost $200 billion, according to the Natural Academy of Sciences, and the increase in precipitation due partly to climate change was responsible for $73 billion, or more than a third of that, Investopedia reported this month. These figures include all property damage, not just homes.

Nonetheless, only about 15% of homes in the U.S. are insured against floods, according to both a report from the reinsurance company Swiss Re and a survey by the Insurance Information Institute.

Dowd said homeowners should take a five- to 10-year perspective on what potential flood damage would actually cost. “Do I want to spend 800 bucks a year on a flood-insurance policy? Over 10 years, that’s $8,000. What’s the likelihood of having a loss beyond that if I have to self-insure? You can look at insurance as a long-term budget item.”

Consumers can access a cost estimator, where they can input data about their home, including its age, location, construction style, square footage, and contents, and get back replacement-cost numbers that can help guide policy decisions, Dowd said.

And current events may affect that formula; these days, in the case of major, widespread damage, homeowners may run into supply-chain issues and shortages of wood and other materials, which can significantly jack up costs.

“If you haven’t looked at your limits in a while and they’re $325,000 and it actually costs $425,000 to replace it, you don’t want that kind of gap in case of a total loss,” he noted. “It’s important to be on top of that.”

But protecting a home from water damage — or any other disaster — extends beyond the policy itself, Vassallo said.

“We talk about preparedness — making sure people do the right thing to limit their losses,” she noted, which includes everything from securing movable items to cutting back tree branches that threaten windows and roofs. “This is something we deal with on a day-to-day basis here in New England. You want to limit your damage as a homeowner.

Griffin agreed. “There’s always a level of preparedness you need to have in order to limit damages in a storm. That’s something you want to think about — it can sometimes eliminate bad things.”

Meanwhile, after an incident occurs, the homeowner can take steps to minimize further damage while documenting their losses.

“Always take photos of loss of everything, and make immediate emergency repairs — put that blue tarp on the roof to prevent rain damage,” Vassallo said. “If you do need to make emergency repairs, most insurance companies will honor the photographs. I would recommend you retain damaged materials, which can prevent questions from arising. If you rip out the rug in the house, you don’t want the adjuster to pay you for builder’s grade, when you had a high-grade rug. That’s stuff we deal with all the time.”

The homeowner is expected to not just respond quickly to minimize damage, but to help prevent it as well, she noted. That means regularly cleaning gutters so they’re not backed up with leaves during heavy summer rains, which can lead to water pouring into the foundation and leaking into the basement — or contributing to ice dams in the winter.

In other words, “if you have gutters, clean them — but be careful on that ladder,” Vassallo said. “If you can do your preventive work ahead of time, you’re ahead of the game.”

 

Warning Signs

As he noted earlier, flooding has been on Griffin’s mind lately.

“Typically, this is the time of year when we see the biggest uptick in those types of claims, especially in New England,” he said. “We also see it in March, when the ground is frozen, and we may get two or three inches of rain, which slides across the frozen ground and into your home. But we’ve had so much water this summer — it’s unprecedented, and it’s becoming an issue for everybody.”

He said carriers have been sounding the alarm about this topic. “Storms are getting a lot stronger. It’s definitely something that’s been noted on the carriers’ end.”

They’re not alone, of course.

“Every part of the country is getting hit by extreme weather. And we’re now living in real time what the country’s going to look like,” Biden said in New Jersey last week. “We can’t turn it back very much, but we can prevent it from getting worse.”

And make sure we’re properly insured against the next big storm.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Berkshire County Special Coverage

Walking the Walk

Mindy Miraglia was inspired to launch Berkshire Camino by her treks in Northern Spain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided many individuals with the motivation, opportunity, and time to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. That’s certainly been the case in the Berkshires, where new ventures launched, or set to be launched, include a new brewery, a guided-hikes venture, and a treasure-hunt concept that introduces consumers to area businesses.

Like most of those people who find themselves walking the Camino de Santiago — the pilgrim trail (actually, several different trails) that end at the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela — Mindy Miraglia was at a crossroads in her life.

Indeed, after many years in advertising and market research, subsequent burnout, and some time working at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health that didn’t end well, she was trying to figure out what could — and should — come next for her.

So, like hundreds of thousands of people each year, she decided to walk the Camino, also known as the Way of St. James, to pause, reflect, and maybe, just maybe, find an answer to her question. And as she tells the story, the Camino — and, specifically, her experiences on the 250-mile trek across Northern Spain — became the answer.

Sort of. Let’s just say it’s a work or progress. Or a business in progress.

It’s called Berkshire Camino LLC, which specializes in guided hikes through the Berkshires, many of which take people from community to community and are thus patterned after what Miraglia experienced in Spain on her two treks on the Camino.

“If you want to get romantic about it … we felt that there was never going to be a better sign from God that it was time to make a change.”

But that was not the original plan. Instead, she wanted to create hostels — the lower-cost, dorm-like hotels that are an important part of the Camino experience — in the Berkshires and thus bring a different type of accommodation for tourists to that market. But reality, in the form of skyrocketing real-estate prices, as well as a lack of capital and few options for obtaining it, has kept that dream in check — at least for now.

But Miraglia, at the advice of mentors assigned to her by the nonprofit EforAll Berkshires, has pivoted and now leads a number of guided hikes within the Berkshires through a venture that is not yet profitable but showing some forms of promise.

Overall, she can find countless ways, and phrases, to compare the rugged challenge that is the Camino to that of starting and growing a business.

Mike Dell’Aquila and Sara Real

Mike Dell’Aquila and Sara Real found the inspiration, and the time, to launch Hot Plate Brewing during the first year of the pandemic.

“It’s a hero’s journey,” she said of the trek in Spain, but also entrepreneurship. “You put yourself onto that path, and you have to overcome challenges and see who you are.”

Miraglia is part of what many are calling a surge in entrepreneurship in the Berkshires, one fueled in part by the pandemic, which left many out of work and looking to start their own business. It left others wanting to leave the city and head for far more rural areas — and, again, start their own business. For still others, the pandemic triggered imaginative ideas for ways to get people out and about, and generate revenue while doing so.

Mike Dell’Aquila and his wife, Sara Real, don’t fit neatly into any of those categories, but in some ways, they encompass all three. They left their condo in Brooklyn for a home in Lenox in July, and are advancing plans to launch Hot Plate Brewing Co. in Pittsfield.

As with all breweries, there’s a story behind the name; in this case, the couple lost gas service in their condo for a period of time just as they were getting serious about transforming this from a hobby to a business. So they famously bought a hotplate so they could continue honing their craft.

There’s more to this story than the name, though, said Dell’Aquila, adding that the pandemic certainly helped provide the motivation — and the time — to take their dream, which has been, well, brewing since 2018, off the drawing board.

“If you want to get romantic about it … we felt that there was never going to be a better sign from God that it was time to make a change,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he and Real were both working day jobs, from home, during the pandemic. Motivated by this ‘sign’ from above, they used the extra hour and half they gained each day from not commuting, as well as Zoom technology, to advance their concept.

They are closing in on a location for their venture and plan to start brewing beer by early next year.

As for Liam Gorman, the pandemic certainly helped inspire his venture, CozQuest, which he bills as “the new way to explore the Berkshires.” It’s a local treasure hunt, as he called it, one that connects consumers and businesses “through their love of community and adventure.”

“The overall demand for services in the tourism and hospitality sector hasn’t changed a lot, and because of that, it’s created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make a run at whatever they wanted to do. We have seen a lot of that kind of activity.”

Using their phones, players solve a puzzle, follow a map, and find and scan a QR code to win a prize from a local business. If a player finds all the prizes, he or she can win some cash. German has created a number of these hunts, in cities and attractions such as Hancock Shaker Village and MASS MoCA, and says the business has developed a loyal following among both players and sponsoring businesses. His plan is to expand the concept and perhaps take it to other markets.

These entrepreneurs and many others are part of an emerging story in the Berkshires. It’s about people finding entrepreneurial energy during the pandemic — and finding ways to harness it.

 

It’s No Walk in the Park

As she goes about trying to grow her venture, Miraglia says there are times when she will actually tell herself that she’s “on the Camino.”

By that, she meant she’s on an arduous journey, one where you’re just trying to get to the next day and really don’t know what’s around the next bend.

“It’s hard,” she said, using that phrase to describe both the Camino and entrepreneurship, which has tested her in every way imaginable.

Indeed, while her concept has drawn interest from adventure seekers across the country and even other countries — not to mention a significant amount of press locally — there have been countless challenges to overcome. These include everything from the weather, which has canceled many hikes, to lingering anxiety about gathering in, or even walking in, large groups, to lingering anxiety about how to generate revenue in the winter months.

Liam Gorman, seen here with his children

Liam Gorman, seen here with his children, believes he’s found a scalable venture in CozQuest.

“I’ve had to refund 15% of my deposits so far because of the weather,” said Miraglia as she referenced a spring and summer of almost incessant rain, adding that these seasons have been challenging enough; winter is a matter that will be decided another day.

Meanwhile, Dell’Aquila, while obviously confident and enthusiastic about his venture, was quite candid about his leap from a steady paycheck to the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

“It’s definitely terrifying,” he noted. “I vacillate from being super-excited to being super-scared.”

By all accounts, there are more people experiencing these mood swings in the Berkshires these days.

Deb Gallant, executive director of EforAll Berkshire, told BusinessWest that the agency, part of a larger, statewide network that also includes an office in Holyoke, staged its first accelerator program just before COVID-19 arrived in the winter of 2020; it had eight participating businesses. The agency then saw a considerable uptick in applications for the next few cohorts, at the height of COVID, and for all the reasons mentioned above.

“We were really able to spend the quality time needed to put together a business plan, to work on the financial forecast, and do all of that upfront work, so that you’re not just a home brewer with a dream.”

“A lot of people were unemployed, especially those in hospitality,” she explained, noting that many large employers in that sector, such as Canyon Ranch, Kripalu, and others, shut down or curtailed operations. “We had a huge uptick in applications for the next two cohorts.”

The number of applications declined somewhat for the upcoming fall cohort, which she attributes to improved stability at many of those businesses that had shut down partially or completely during the pandemic. But the agency will still have a large cohort, said Gallant, adding there is still a good amount of entrepreneurial activity in this region, which has been reinventing itself for the past 30 years from an economy dominated by manufacturing, and especially General Electric’s massive transformer complex in Pittsfield, to one that is far more diverse and driven in many ways by tourism, hospitality, and the arts.

Jonathan Butler, executive director of 1Berkshire, a multi-faceted economic-development agency, agreed.

From the early days of the pandemic, he noted, he could sense that, while COVID would bring a wide range of challenges to the region, it would also provide some opportunities for the Berkshires as well.

They have come in all forms, he went on, from professionals relocating to the area from urban centers, a migration certainly helped by the growing success of remote working and one that is prompting population growth in cities and towns that have needed such a surge, to an unparalleled explosion in the real-estate market, which has created opportunities and challenges of its own.

And, as noted, COVID has prompted a surge in entrepreneurship, said Butler, adding that it involves both new owners of businesses that failed during the pandemic — there were many, especially in the broad hospitality realm — and a wide range of new businesses as well, many of them fueled by an even greater interest in visiting the area and taking in many types of attractions.

“The overall demand for services in the tourism and hospitality sector hasn’t changed a lot, and because of that, it’s created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make a run at whatever they wanted to do,” he explained. “We have seen a lot of that kind of activity.”

 

Something’s Brewing

For Dell’Aquila, it wasn’t really a matter of whether he and Real would launch their brewery operation. The questions were when and where they would launch.

And COVID helped answer both, but especially the former, he said, adding that it provided the time and impetus to move ahead with their plans. “We were really able to spend the quality time needed to put together a business plan, to work on the financial forecast, and do all of that upfront work, so that you’re not just a home brewer with a dream.”

Now, he and Real are home brewers with firm plans and, hopefully, a location. They are finalizing commitments for investing in their venture from friends and family, exploring possible incentives from local and state sources, and meeting with architects to finalize blueprints for their operation. They also have a slot in the next accelerator cohort for EforAll Berkshire, during which they hope to gain both a better understanding of the local business landscape and garner more feedback and mentoring on their plans and their brand, which they believe will be a solid addition to the local craft-beer landscape.

He said he and Real will bring what he called a “culinary approach” to brewing, with such as offerings as a chamomile-infused blonde ale and a Jalapeno pale ale, in addition to more traditional stalwarts such as Belgian-style farmhouse beers, some classic American pale ales, and an IPA.

Dell’Aquila acknowledged that the Berkshires were already home to a number of solid craft-beer labels, but there is room for more — and more, in his view, creates opportunities for both himself and others.

Indeed, with Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington, Bright Ideas Brewing in North Adams, Shire Breu-Hous in Dalton, and others, the addition of Hot Plate in Pittsfield boosts the potential for what Dell’Aquila called a “beer trail” from the southern part of the county to the northern region.

“One of the things we found when we were really digging in is that there is a lot of excitement and desire for craft beer,” he explained. “And adding more options will only help; to me, density is a good thing.”

While Hot Plate is preparing to launch, CozQuest is looking to build on a solid first year and explore a number of possible growth opportunities, said Gorman, who brings a varied background to his venture. Originally in journalism, he moved to Los Angeles and ventured into television.

After relocating to the Berkshires five years ago in a search for a more stable environment in which to raise children, he became part-owner of the bar Thistle and Mirth and helped reverse its sagging fortunes. He sold his share just prior to COVID’s arrival in the region, and used some of that windfall to start CozQuest, which is in many ways inspired by geocaching, a type of global treasure hunt where seekers use GPS devices to find hidden caches.

“The engagement level has been pretty high; I like to call CozQuest a foot-traffic-building machine,” he told BusinessWest. “It brings people to places they might otherwise not have known about to discover and explore.”

German was a participant in the spring cohort of 2020, and said the experience of working with mentors and other local business owners gave him the confidence to move ahead with the concept, which is currently in what he calls phase 1, where he’s honing the concept and gauging its revenue potential.

The plan is to scale up in all ways, starting with the website, which he built himself. “It looks like someone’s first website, but … it works,” he said, adding that his ultimate goal is to take the concept to other markets.

As for Miraglia, her first 14 months in business have been a learning experience on many levels.

As noted earlier, she did a hard pivot, from hostels to guided hikes, thanks to input from mentors and what she called a “reckoning with reality” when it came to the costs and other challenges or making those hostels reality.

After pivoting and focusing on hikes, she did some proof-of-concept testing in the late summer of 2020, often giving away her product away as she did so. She found that there is promise, but likely more refinement of the business model as she gains more evidence concerning what will sell and generate profits.

Indeed, she’s learned there is considerable interest in private hikes — small groups and even one person going where they want to go and not necessarily on a pre-set course.

As she noted, there have been many challenges and hurdles for this venture. She started it too late to qualify for any PPP money, and has wound up bootstrapping the operation herself, drawing down a retirement fund to do so.

“As a for-profit venture, grant opportunities are scarce,” she said. “I joke that Joe Biden has invested in Berkshire Camino since I’ve invested the pandemic aid that I received as a citizen into the business. He’s welcome to come on a hike with us at no charge.

“My aim is to establish a solid baseline in 2021 that I can use to demonstrate to a lender or investor that this has viability,” she went on, adding that the business is not yet profitable and she is not drawing a salary. “I learned from walking the Camino de Santiago that the journey is long and you take one step at a time, stay present and flexible. Just like in business.”

 

The Finish Line

Miraglia didn’t finish the Camino on her second trek in 2019. She had completed roughly 250 of the 500 miles before she injured herself and was forced to eventually call a halt, pack up, and head home.

She remembers exactly where she had to call it quits, and has plans to go back to back there — 2024, when she turns 60, is the current goal — and finish the walk the Santiago de Compostela.

Between now and then? She has more immediate goals and dreams, especially to take the venture she started to stability and profitability. She is not at all sure she will get there — the road ahead is paved with question marks and uncertainty.

As it is for all entrepreneurs. There are more of them in the Berkshires these days, by many accounts. They’ve launched ventures that have been inspired by, accelerated by, or facilitated by the pandemic — which has provided the time and opportunity to reflect and, and in these cases, move a dream to reality.

 

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

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 79: Sept. 13, 2021

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien interviews David Godaire, president and CEO of HassHire Holyoke

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with David Godaire, president and CEO of HassHire Holyoke. The two discuss the ongoing labor shortage impacting virtually all businesses in the region, the many different forces behind it, and the outlook for the short term as federal unemployment benefits, specifically the $300 weekly bonuses expire.  It’s must listening so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 78: September 6, 2021

George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

Eugene Cassidy

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E. As the start of the fair approaches, there is both anticipation and apprehension about the 17-day gathering in the wake of COVID and the Delta variant.  The two discuss what the expectations are for the 2021 fair, the steps being taken in the wake of COVID, and the importance of the fair to the region and especially its business community. It’s must listening so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Class of 2021 Special Coverage

In early May, BusinessWest, in keeping with a spring tradition, introduced its 40 Under Forty class of 2021.
Another tradition is to stage the gala to celebrate that class in late June. This year, due to COVID-19 and pending changes to the restrictions regarding large events, the gala was moved to Sept. 23. As that sold-out event nears, we thought it appropriate to reintroduce this stellar class of young leaders in the community.
They were the top scorers from a strong field of more than 200 unique nominations — a near-record number that made for a stern challenge for a panel of five judges.
As for the class of 2021, the honorees — 26 women and 14 men — hail from a host of different industries, from law to engineering; from education to healthcare; from energy to media, just to name a few. But there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on what else they do in each of those realms.View this year’s 40 Under Forty digital flipbook here!


The class of 2021 will be celebrated on Thursday, Sept. 23 at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. That gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the seventh annual Alumni Achievement Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges.

Presenting Sponsor

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Alumni Achievement Award

When BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty program in 2007, it did so to identify rising stars across our region – individuals who were excelling in business and through involvement within the community –and celebrate their accomplishments. In 2015, BusinessWest announced a new award, one that builds on the foundation upon which 40 Under Forty was created. It’s called the Alumni Achievement Award (formerly the Continued Excellence Award). as the name suggests, will be presented to the 40 Under Forty honoree who, in the eyes of an independent panel of judges, has most impressively continued and built upon their track record of accomplishment.

This year’s nominations are CLOSED. Nominate next year’s Alumni Achievement Award recipient HERE.

2021 Alumni Achievement Award Presenting Sponsor

Special Coverage Wealth Management

Dollars and Sense

 

There are many myths concerning money, with many of them transcending generations of people in the same family. The truth is that many of these myths — including the one about how money will make you happy and solve all your problems — are false. Worse, these myths tend to limit one’s thinking and limit their financial success.

By Charlie Epstein

 

Most people do not realize they have myths about their money.

And even more people don’t take the time to analyze where these myths come from and why people hold them to be true.

I have worked with thousands of people over the past 41 years as a financial advisor. In the process, I have identified 15 myths people have about their money, which limit their financial and personal success.

A myth is defined as “an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify something.” The biggest myth we have about money is that “it will make me happy and solve all my problems.”

Do you think money makes you happy?

Are you sure? Want to bet?

Did you know that 90% of all lottery winners go bankrupt within three to five years of winning the lottery? I’m talking millionaires. And the majority have stated they wish they never won the money. They’re miserable, depressed, and suicidal. How can this be?

“I am convinced that your money myths limit your thinking and impact how you approach your life and your finances.”

This happens because the most important thing in their life has been to get money, and now that they have it, they have no idea what to do with it. They often go on a massive shopping spree and buy all sorts of material items that don’t bring any lasting joy or fulfillment. And, more importantly, they stop working or doing anything productive to give their life purpose, meaning, and real value. What they fail to do is stop and ask themselves, “beyond money, what makes me happy?”

I am convinced that your money myths limit your thinking and impact how you approach your life and your finances. The three biggest financial myths most people have are:

1. My home mortgage needs to be paid off when I retire so I don’t have a payment;

2. I’ll be in a lower tax bracket when I retire; and

3. My home is an investment.

My father believed all three of these myths. When he retired, he and my mother moved to Florida to build the house of their dreams, on the golf course of his dreams. He was going to pay cash for that house — $500,000. He was 68 at the time. I said, “Dad, I want you to take out a mortgage instead.”

My dad was shocked. “A mortgage! For how long?”

I said, “for 30 years.”

“Thirty years!” my Dad bellowed. “I’ll be dead before it’s paid off!”

“So what do you care?” I smiled. “You’ll be dead!”

To which my father asked, “what will your mother do?”

I said, “she doesn’t play golf, and she doesn’t play mahjong, so if you die before her, I will sell that house and move her back north!”

I convinced my Dad to put $100,000 down and finance the other $400,000 with a 30-year mortgage at 5%. This was 1992. Bill Clinton had come into the White House and raised the marginal tax rate from 36% to 39.6%. There went money myth #2 — the belief he would be in a lower tax bracket when he retired (a belief I am sure many of you reading this article share).

That didn’t happen. The good news was, he could write off and deduct 40% of his mortgage payments in the first 15 years because it was all mostly interest. My dad was now ‘leveraging’ other people’s money (OPM) by using the bank’s money to take out a mortgage, and Uncle Sam’s money (USM) by deducting 40% of his mortgage payments.

The net cost for my dad to borrow the bank’s money was 3% (5% x 40% = 2%, which he could deduct, so his net cost to borrow that money was 3%). I said to my parents, “If I can’t make you net more than 3% on your $400,000, fire me as your financial advisor.” We averaged 7% to 8% on their money for the next 13 years of his life.

When my dad passed away, I sold my mother’s home in Florida, at a $100,000 loss. This was 2005, and the real-estate market in Florida was overbuilt, and no one wanted to be on a golf course. So much for the third money myth about your home being an investment. I than moved my mother back north and built her a home in an over-55 community. She was 79 at the time, and she said to me, with a twinkle in her eye, “son, do I get to take out a mortgage?” My mother is now 94, and she still has a mortgage — at 2.5%.

What does my mother care about? She only cares that she has enough money to pay for everything she desires to do. What do I care about? That I’m not tying up her money in a ‘dead asset’ — her home. She can’t eat it or drink it, and it doesn’t generate any income for her. And it is not an investment. I know I can make more than 2.5% on her money by using OPM to generate her even more income.

The key to being financially successful with your money is to understand how to maximize OPM and USM to make money on ‘the spread.’ The spread is the difference between what it costs to use other people’s money and what you can make investing your money somewhere else.

Let me add one big caveat to this discussion. If, psychologically, you must have your mortgage paid off so you can sleep at night … then pay it off. I always say psychology trumps economics. Just remember, you may feel good having it paid off, but economically, you won’t make as much of a return on your money and your assets.

 

Charlie Epstein is an author, entertainer, advisor, entrepreneur, and principal with Epstein Financial. He also presents a podcast, Yield of Dreams; yieldofdreams.live; (413) 478-8580.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Open for Business

Romika Odedra says the branch’s layout emphasizes the customer experience.

Holyoke-based PeoplesBank recently expanded its presence in Connecticut with a branch in West Hartford. The new location is projected to help the bank grow its already considerable portfolio of consumer and commercial business from south of the border, especially in an ongoing climate of mergers and acquisitions.

 

When PeoplesBank opened its newest branch in West Hartford on August 30, it wasn’t exactly its first foray into Connecticut’s capital region. Far from it.

“This is a retail opening in West Hartford, but half of our commercial business is in Connecticut already — actually, about 60%,” said Matt Bannister, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing & Corporate Responsibility.

“Some is up in the Granby-Windsor-Suffield area,” he went on, alluding to PeoplesBank’s first three Connecticut locations, in East Granby, Suffield, and West Suffield. “Some is down here in the Hartford region, and it actually goes all the way down to the shore. We’re kind of catching up with this retail storefront because the commercial customers want a presence here. They’ve been saying to us, ‘come down to Connecticut.’ And West Hartford just makes sense; it’s a great community, and a good place to be.”

Aleda De Maria, executive vice president of Consumer Banking and Operations, said a growing commercial presence in Hartford County cried out for a full-service physical branch.

“The banking centers are there for when they need a little more contact, when they have a little more complexity, or they just want to expand their relationship. We need to make sure we have everything.”

“We absolutely need it. The majority of our new accounts are still opened at brick-and-mortar locations. For more complex conversations, customers want to talk to a person, and they want to have that live interaction. There still is a need for that face-to-face contact.

“I think what the industry is trying to do with the self-service channels — with online, with mobile, with video bankers — is give people the ability to do the quick, day-to-day transactions when they want to, without having to park and go in and talk to somebody, and get it done quickly,” she went on. “The banking centers are there for when they need a little more contact, when they have a little more complexity, or they just want to expand their relationship. We need to make sure we have everything.”

Michael Oleksak, executive vice president and chief lending and credit officer, said all those Connecticut dollars in the bank’s commercial portfolio have not come mainly from the Granby-Suffield area, but predated those physical locations.

Matt Bannister with one of the West Hartford branch’s two interactive video teller machines.

Matt Bannister with one of the West Hartford branch’s two interactive video teller machines.

“We have a significant amount of business in the Greater Hartford area, specifically in the Farmington, Glastonbury, West Hartford communities and downtown Hartford, but we also go as far as New Haven and Greenwich. So our tentacles are fairly long when it comes to our Connecticut presence.

“Most of that is in commercial real estate, which tends to be more transactional,” he went on. “We are able to do a lot of full-service banking for these commercial real-estate customers because of our cash-management expertise and the different products we have, but without a branch presence, it’s really difficult to do business banking.”

The branch presence in West Hartford allows the team to do more commercial and industrial (C&I) lending, and complements a recent expansion of the bank’s C&I team with former TD Bank veterans, Oleksak noted.

“We have a very strong following now, and I think by having a physical presence there, we’ll become a more visible part of the community,” he went on. “We do support our current borrowers, including with a lot of their philanthropic initiatives, but it’s kind of behind the scenes because we don’t have a presence there. But with a physical presence, and with the disruption in the market with the M&T acquisition of People’s United, it will really open the door for us to be a bigger part of the community.”

De Maria agreed. “We’ve already created such a solid foundation with our name and then with the physical presence from the acquisition we did in Suffield in 2018,” she told BusinessWest. “And now, with our West Hartford presence, I think we have a solid opportunity to bring the service we provide for our commercial customers to our retail-customer world, and really marry those two sides together and make an impact.”

 

Making Contact

Many visitors to the new branch will first notice the interactive video tellers, one in the entry and one in the drive-thru lanes, bringing the bank’s total number of such machines to 22 at 17 locations. Users can call up a live teller in Holyoke who manages four or five machines at once.

“That way, we can be open seven days a week and have extended hours and not have to have people physically in the branch. And the video banker can do almost any transaction,” Bannister said, noting that Peoples is the only bank in the Hartford to offer the service. “Part of our technology story is good, consumer-facing technology.”

Romika Odedra, vice president and regional manager, said customers appreciate face time with a live person rather than interacting with a machine and the more limited options available at an ATM. And Bannister added that, with the pandemic still raging, many customers appreciate being able to conduct complex transactions in a contactless way.

“We are able to do a lot of full-service banking for these commercial real-estate customers because of our cash-management expertise and the different products we have, but without a branch presence, it’s really difficult to do business banking.”

“Video tellers are something we’re proud to bring to the market,” De Maria said. “It brings seven-day-a-week banking to West Hartford and our surrounding areas.”

Once inside the branch, customers will see pods instead of traditional customer lines — a model Peoples and other banks have been implementing for years. Customers can stand beside the teller and even see what he or she is looking at on the computer screen, if necessary. “In the beginning, people were like, ‘where do I go?’” Odedra said. “But it’s so easy — it’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s not ‘there’s the line.’ It’s nice to have that one-on-one experience.”

The branch also employs a ‘universal banker’ model, Bannister said. “Any bank employee you see out here can do all the transactions. You can go to a teller pod or pop into an office if it’s more convenient or you just want privacy to have a conversation.” In other, more specialized offices down the hallway from the main area, he added, the bank will offer a mortgage expert, a wealth adviser, and other ancillary services.

And in front, at the main entrance, is a high table, couch, and coffee bar. “We’re trying to say to people, ‘come on in and hang out; get to know us a little bit,” Bannister said. “The thought is, we want to have sort of an open storefront.”

That’s partly to reflect the neighborhood the branch is in, with restaurants and small shops lining the streets and the shopping and dining mecca Blue Back Square just down the road.

“This area really is hopping with foot traffic,” he said. “And if you’re a bank with a retail storefront, you want foot traffic.”

Those who drive to PeoplesBank will appreciate the free parking lot the bank shares with the town’s Post Office.

“I used to work at a different bank, and that was the biggest issue we had, the parking,” Odedra said. “I’m so glad we have the parking we have. We don’t have to rush the customer out; we have time to have that one-on-one with them and invite them to have a cup of coffee.”

Bannister said West Hartford has been an enthusiastic town to work with, from its Chamber of Commerce to local economic-development leaders.

“Right from the start, when we were saying we wanted to come down, they were like, ‘how can we help?’ We’re in a lot of communities, and some of them are very welcoming, and some are maybe not so much. This one has been great to work with.”

 

Opportunity Knocks

The branch is fully staffed as well, with a mix of on-site and hybrid workers, reflecting the current makeup of the entire PeoplesBank organization. Some are West Hartford natives who know the market, Bannisher said, while some were attracted by working near all the nearby restaurants and other neighborhood amenities.

Aleda De Maria

Even in an age of mobile banking, Aleda De Maria says, people still want face-to-face interaction at branches for many services.

There’s room to expand in Hartford County, he added, with plans to open at least two more branches in the next couple of years.

“We’re coming in with a message of ‘we’re here, and we’re here to stay, and we can do everything the big banks do, but with a local feel and local decisions,’” De Maria said. “And I think that’s what’s missing in banking in general nowadays — being able to bank how you want to bank but also at a community bank where you don’t have to worry about who’s going to buy them.”

That presence means civic involvement and philanthropy as well, Bannister said, noting that PeoplesBank plans to give close to $60,000 in the first month alone to local organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Hands on Hartford (which assists with food pantries and the homeless population), the United Way, Foodshare, and even two West Hartford community events the bank will sponsor this fall and next summer.

“Right from the start, when we were saying we wanted to come down, they were like, ‘how can we help?’ We’re in a lot of communities, and some of them are very welcoming, and some are maybe not so much. This one has been great to work with.”

“We feel like we’re leading with the values we want to be known by in the community, which are innovation, technology, customer service, and the community support.”

De Maria agreed with Bannister than broadening the bank’s footprint in Connecticut is a must. “We will continue to actively look for physical locations, primarily in Hartford County,” she said. “We’re not opposed to outside Hartford County should it make sense, but in Hartford County, we feel we have an opportunity for our brand to really make an impact in the community.”

And that means expanded business, including commercial lending, Oleksak said. “I think there’s tremendous opportunity in this market for us, given our size and the experience of our lending staff. We’re very diverse, and between small business, large commercial real-estate loans, and now C&I expertise, I think we bring a lot to the table. It’s a great opportunity for us.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Russell Fox (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick benefits from its recreational amenities

Russell Fox (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick benefits from its recreational amenities, but needs commercial and industrial development as well.

When they talk about managing their town into the future, officials in Southwick emphasize the word “balance.”

In order for the town to remain a desirable place to live, said Karl Stinehart, chief administrative officer, there needs to be a combination of housing and recreation areas as well as commercial and industrial development.

“We like to point out that Southwick is a recreational community,” he noted. “We also want to make sure our zoning allows for commercial and industrial developments because the taxes they contribute will keep our town an affordable place to live.”

Russell Fox, vice chair of the Southwick Select Board, reinforced the recreational community description by pointing to the Congamond Lakes, which make up nearly 500 acres of recreational space in town. “Also, the Southwick Rail Trail has become a gem in our community, running 6.5 miles through town.”

Another big recreation activity happens at the Wick 338, the popular motocross track that hosted a national event in July and drew more than 30,000 people to Southwick.

In recent years, living at the lakes has become more desirable, and, as a result, prices for houses and lots are skyrocketing. As lake property increases in value, it also drives up the tax bill for residents there.

“I’m concerned about the retirees who have lived on the lake for years who may now have trouble staying in their homes because of the tax increases,” Fox said. “If we can attract more business to Southwick, we can help offset that tax burden.”

One company, Carvana, proposed to build a 200,000-square-foot facility off Route 10 and 202 in Southwick. Carvana is a website that allows consumers to buy used cars completely online and have them delivered to their home. The $100 million facility would have stored, repaired, and cleaned cars for delivery across the Northeast. Carvana projected the Southwick site would have employed 400 people and paid $900,000 each year in property taxes to the town.

The project was initially approved by the town’s Planning Board and Select Board, but hit a snag when a local group called Save Southwick strongly opposed the facility. In a series of public meetings, the group cited concerns about safety, traffic, and burdens on the town’s infrastructure. As the project became more controversial, Carvana withdrew its proposal this summer.

To kill the project that late in the process was frustrating for some, but Fox looks at the Carvana situation as a learning experience for everyone involved.

“It became clear from a vocal group that if a project is too big, they won’t support it,” Fox said. “Even those opposed to Carvana learned how government works, so if that encourages more civic engagement, then we’re all for it.”

Stinehart said the town is currently developing a new master plan that includes a process to allow earlier citizen input on zoning decisions to avoid episodes like Carvana in the future.

“The idea is to have these discussions sooner rather than later when we are considering a project,” he explained. “This also gives citizens an opportunity to learn more about the laws and the process of getting things done.”

 

Responding to a Crisis

When the pandemic struck last year, Southwick was still able to keep the town’s services running.

“All our departments in town continued to provide services and got us through the height of the pandemic by being flexible and adaptive,” Stinehart said.

The Town Hall building where many municipal functions are located remained open for most of the pandemic. Like towns everywhere, Southwick relied on remote online platforms like Zoom for meetings when necessary.

In March 2020, Southwick was one of the first communities to hold a town meeting outside. Because Southwick has an open-meeting form of government, Fox explained, a town meeting was held in the Southwick High School parking lot.

The west side of the Greens of Southwick

The west side of the Greens of Southwick is almost full, while homes on the east side have yet to be constructed.

“It was a special meeting with one agenda item, the decision to treat the lakes with alum,” he noted. Alum — or aluminum sulfate — is commonly used to keep algae blooms down and improve water quality. “The timing was important because we had to treat the lakes by the first week of April, otherwise the alum would not be effective.”

In 2020, Stinehart noted, it was especially important to make the lakes usable. “People couldn’t wait to get outside and do something recreational, so we made sure the lakes were ready for the summer.”

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.59
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.59
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Select Board
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

People also spent more time in their yards, which benefited Southwick farmers. Fox said area farms sold more plants for flower beds than ever before in 2020. “Most plants sold out early because people were stuck at home and wanted to get outside to do things in their yard.”

The pandemic also delayed the full celebration of Southwick’s 250th anniversary from happening in 2020. After a kickoff event on New Year’s Eve in 2019 that brought out hundreds of residents and featured fireworks, an outdoor event in February 2020 followed, featuring ice sculptures. Then the pandemic kicked in and put further events on hold.

On Nov. 7, the actual 250th anniversary of the town’s founding, officials in Southwick arranged a call with officials in Southwick, England. That was followed by a parade that traveled through all the neighborhoods in town.

“It was a rolling parade that was well-received because people could go out their door or to the end of their street to see it,” Stinehart said. “The people in town really appreciated it.”

The 250th celebration still has one event remaining, a full parade for people to attend on Oct. 16 with fireworks later that evening at Whalley Park. Fox called the October events a “belated birthday celebration.”

Both Stinehart and Fox have been impressed with the interest in the anniversary, as more than 50 residents joined the organizing committee for the 250th celebration.

“We had a good mix of people on the committee, some who had just moved to town and others who have lived here their entire lives,” Fox said.

Stinehart quickly added, “no other committee in town has that kind of turnout.”

As the town gradually makes its way out of the pandemic, Stinehart mentioned a regional grant program undertaken with the town of Agawam to provide microlending for small businesses.

The town treated the Congamond Lakes in the spring of 2020

The town treated the Congamond Lakes in the spring of 2020 to improve water quality for people clamoring to enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic.

“We are encouraging small businesses that need help to apply for these grants,” he said, adding that Agawam is the lead community on the grant.

Looking forward, Stinehart hopes to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to address water and sewer projects in Southwick. Fox spoke in particular about a water-pressure situation town leaders are hoping to address with the ARPA funds. He said projects like this sound like mundane details but can have real and lasting impacts on the town.

“If we address the water-pressure problem, it improves our fire-protection ability and ultimately affects homeowners’ insurance rates for residents,” Fox added.

 

Places to Call Home

The town has more new homes in the works, most notably the Greens of Southwick, where new, homes are being custom-built on each side of College Highway on the property of the former Southwick Country Club. The west side of the Greens development is nearly full, while construction on the east side has not yet begun.

Stinehart said he would like to leverage ARPA funding to increase broadband infrastructure in Southwick. In a separate effort, the town has met with Westfield Gas + Electric’s Whip City Fiber division to explore the feasibility of fiber-optic internet service for Southwick.

To address future energy savings for the town, Southwick has applied for a Massachusetts Green Community designation which would make it eligible for grant funding on a number of energy-efficient projects.

The tax rate for Southwick is scheduled to be released in the fall, and Stinehart said the goal is for a single uniform rate that will be competitive with other communities “because that’s good for business.”

Despite the issues around Carvana, Fox added, Southwick has welcomed plenty of new businesses and has seen expansion for some already there.

“By letting everyone know Southwick is open for business, we can keep this beautiful place where people want to live,” he said. “It’s all about that balance.”

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 77: August 30, 2021

George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer for Mercy Medical Center

Dr. Robert Roose

On the next installment of BusinessTalk, BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer for Mercy Medical Center. The two discuss the changing scene with COVID-19, the emergence of the Delta variant, the outlook for the fall — and beyond, and the many factors that will determine the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 76: August 23, 2021

George O’Brien interviews Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and other hospitality-related businesses. The two talk about the changing numbers when it comes to the pandemic, the emergence of the Delta variant, and what all this could mean for businesses already facing a number of challenges as they seek a return to something approaching normal. It’s must listening so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Guide to Senior Planning Special Coverage Special Publications

 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000, the number of adults age 65 and older was 35 million, or 12% of the total population. In 2020, the number of seniors had risen to 56.1 million or 17% of the population. By 2030, the bureau estimates, more than 21% of U.S. residents, about 73.1 million, will have passed their 65th birthdays.

What does all this mean?

It means it’s time to prepare — the sooner, the better.

Americans are living longer than ever. But what that life will entail, post-65, can wildly vary depending on lifestyle preferences, health status, finances, and more. Achieving your goals — and your desires for your loved ones — requires careful thought, and that’s where our annual Senior Planning Guide comes in, offering advice on everything from choosing a care facility to living safely at home; from estate planning to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The questions are myriad, and no single guide can answer all the questions. But hopefully, this special section will sort through some of the confusion and get those conversations started.

Home Improvement Special Coverage

Summer Special

Andrew Crane says the Home Show helps contractors fill their pipeline with future work.

Even though they’re busy now, Andrew Crane says the Home Show helps contractors fill their pipeline with future work.

By Mark Morris

In the old days — prior to the pandemic — when homeowners wanted to make improvements to their property, they called several contractors for competitive bids. Once a contractor was selected, the job would start shortly after that.

Since the pandemic, those days are long gone. Contractors are busier than ever, and building materials have been affected by worldwide supply shortages and price hikes. Now, homeowners seeking a contractor can leave a phone message, but may not receive a call back.

For those reasons and many more, the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts is staging a “special summer edition” of the Western Mass Home & Garden Show, usually held each March.

Andrew Crane, executive director of the association, told BusinessWest that, even though contractors are busy, the event (scheduled for Aug. 20-22) fills an important need.

“Many people will research their home project online, but at some point they need to see and touch the products they want and speak to professionals who can get the job done,” Crane said. “The Home Show allows them to move the project forward and not wait for a callback.”

The Home Show also works for contractors because it allows them to fill their project pipeline with future work.

“While most contractors are straight out right now, many don’t know what their business will be like in the coming fall and winter months,” Crane said.

By labeling it a “special summer edition,” Crane made it clear this is intended to be a one-time event. Plans are full speed ahead for the 2022 Home Show in its traditional late-March timing. The summer show is a way to fill the void left when COVID-19 forced cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Home Show.

The special edition will be a scaled-down version of the full show, running only three days instead of four and setting up in only one building at the Eastern States Exposition grounds. The smaller event will still look similar to past shows, with booths set up in the Better Living Center and several outdoor displays.

Chris Grenier, owner of Grenier Painting & Finishing, said he appreciates having any version of the Home Show this year.

“I’m very busy right now, but it’s well worth it for me to be at the show because I still need a steady stream of work that I can plan for in the months ahead,” he explained.

Chris Grenier says even a scaled-back show brings value to vendors.

Chris Grenier says even a scaled-back show brings value to vendors.

BusinessWest spoke with a few contractors who have found both short-term and long-term benefits from participating in the show.

Frank Webb Home in Springfield sells a wide range of kitchen and bath fixtures, as well as lighting. Manager Lori Loughlin said taking a booth at the Home Show is well worth the investment.

“We often see a 40% increase in business right after the Home Show,” Loughlin said. “Even though we’re in a busy time right now, that can change, so we want people to keep us in the loop when they plan their kitchen and bath projects in the future.”

For the last five years, Gisele Gilpatrick, project manager for Pro-Tech Waterproofing Solutions in Chicopee, has chaired the Home Show organizing committee. Her company has always done well at the event.

“It’s a chance to meet people one on one and for them to collect business cards,” she said. “People will often call us six months to a year after the show to say they are ready to fix their wet basement.” She also said it’s not unusual to hear from people up to five or six years later.

When Gilpatrick meets people at the Pro-Tech booth, they often share photos with her, but they are not of children and pets. “They bring us pictures of their basements and say, ‘this is what my nightmare looks like,’” she said, adding that an interesting dynamic happens when someone describes the specifics of their wet-basement problem.

Gisele Gilpatrick says the lingering pandemic has forced show organizers to constantly reassess safety protocols.

Gisele Gilpatrick says the lingering pandemic has forced show organizers to constantly reassess safety protocols.

“One person might be telling us their story, and others who overhear become interested in the conversation because they have similar problems in their basements,” she said. “The next thing you know, a group of people are gathered around our booth.”

 

Safety First

While gathering at a booth can be good for business, this year, people will need to take social distancing into consideration when they congregate. The emergence of the Delta variant of COVID has show organizers making constant adjustments to their safety protocols.

“In planning the show, we’ve gone back and forth from wearing masks to not wearing masks as mandates keep changing, so it won’t be a surprise if they change again,” Gilpatrick said.

The maintenance staff at the Exposition grounds have boosted their protocols with more frequent surface cleaning during the show. They have also strongly encouraged people to wear masks. Crane advised, “if you are at all uncomfortable, wear your mask.”

Despite all that, Gilpatrick believes it’s worth attending the show, and for some, the scaled-down version might be easier to navigate.

“The crowds at the March Home Show can be overwhelming for some people,” she said. “This edition of the show will be easier to get around, and we will still have lots of quality exhibitors.”

Lori Loughlin says finding a contractor can be difficult right now

Lori Loughlin says finding a contractor can be difficult right now, and the Home Show can help make those connections.

As people have stayed closer to home for the last 18 months, many have set aside the money they would normally have spent on vacations and going out, and are using those funds instead to make improvements to the inside and outside of their homes, a trend Loughlin said is far from over. “People who are planning home projects now have been looking at their houses for a year and a half, and they are ready to make some changes.”

Crane emphasized the importance of planning and noted that the combination of busy contractors, shortages of certain building materials, and difficulty finding enough laborers all contribute to projects taking more time than in the past.

“Plan as far ahead as you possibly can,” he said. “I don’t want to scare anyone from doing a project, but planning is more important than it’s ever been.”

Grenier said good planning starts with recognizing that everyone is busy right now. “If folks go to the Home Show looking to make an interior improvement, they should plan it as a winter project. If it’s an exterior project, plan for next spring.”

Crane agreed. “The days of getting prices from four or five contractors are going away. If you talk with a contractor who gives you a reasonable price and you have a comfort level with them, sign them up.”

Loughlin said just finding a contractor to start a project is now more challenging. “The Home Show gives people an opportunity to meet contractors they might not have known about who can help them. It’s a chance to meet contractors in person and establish a point person to contact.”

The real opportunity is moving past thinking about a project, to making it happen, she added. “I believe people will come to the Home Show because many are at the point where they’ve done all they can online, and now it’s time to broaden what’s actually possible.”

Crane also emphasized how the Home Show has become a social event. For a $10 admission, it gives people an inexpensive time outside the house. It also allows people to see and touch new products.

“For the low cost of getting into the Home Show,” he said, “you might see that one thing that completes the puzzle of putting together your project.”

Autos Special Coverage

A Different World

Ben Sullivan says an ongoing inventory crisis

Ben Sullivan says an ongoing inventory crisis has forced dealers to place late-model vehicles under the showroom lights.

Auto dealers are used to adjusting to changing economic conditions and fluctuations with the laws of supply and demand. But in recent months, they’ve had to contend with an almost unprecedented mix of challenges — from dwindling inventory to an historic shortage of used cars. There is no real consensus on just when ‘normal’ will return, but all indications are that it won’t arrive until at least the first quarter of 2022.

As they talked about the past 18 months and what they project for the next few quarters, area auto dealers sounded similar tones and eventually came back to the same word. They are all adjusting.

To be more specific, they’re adjusting to some conditions they’ve rarely, if ever, seen before, and all at once. Things like:

• Used cars populating the showrooms. Yes, there have at times been some higher-end used models or a 1930 Model A in the showroom for effect, but now, area dealerships are showcasing cars with ‘2019’ and ‘2018’ stickers on the windshield, out of necessity — because that’s all they have.

• Lots that are half, or more than half, empty. Inventories of new cars are at levels never seen before as factories, confronting an ongoing microchip shortage, struggle, unsuccessfully, to keep up with what has been steady or even better-than-steady demand because many consumers still have money to spend, and it’s burning a hole in their collective pockets. Meanwhile, used cars are also in short supply. Most dealers report total inventory (new and used cars) to be one-quarter to one-third of what would be considered normal, with many being able to count new-car inventory using just two hands — with a few fingers left.

• Factory ordering becoming the new way of doing business.

• A complicated used-car market that is finally starting to level off in some respects. Still, cars are hard to find, dealers are going to great lengths to find them, and they must be careful not to pay too much and risk watching the market change quickly and profoundly.

• Even some workforce issues. Indeed, dealerships are not immune to the challenges facing businesses in seemingly every sector when it comes to hiring and retaining workers.

Add it all up, and it’s been a year described, alternately and by different people, as ‘interesting,’ ‘challenging,’ and ‘frustrating.’

“We went from trying to jump-start the auto industry after COVID happened — we had these great incentives and offers for customers who maybe weren’t in the market to incentivize them to buy a car — to now not even having the inventory levels to support that. It’s been a wild ride.”

“It’s an interesting world out there, that’s for sure,” said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer for Balise Motor Sales, noting that, over the past 18 months, dealers have had all sorts of challenges thrown at them, from the sudden standstill after COVID-19 hit to the current situation where they simply don’t have enough cars to sell.

Carla Cosenzi, president of the TommyCar Auto Group, which includes Northampton Volkswagen, Country Nissan, Country Huyndai, Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley, and Genesis of Northampton, agreed.

“We went from trying to jump-start the auto industry after COVID happened — we had these great incentives and offers for customers who maybe weren’t in the market to incentivize them to buy a car — to now not even having the inventory levels to support that,” she said. “It’s been a wild ride.”

Moving forward, the $64,000 questions concern how long this period of extreme adjustment will continue, and what things will look like when it does.

There is no real consensus on the answers, but most believe it will be well into 2022, and perhaps a year or more from now, before the dust fully settles and the lots at area dealerships start to look like they did back in early 2020, when the challenges were much different and there were … too many cars.

Mike Kuzdzal says his lot in Chicopee has historically boasted more than 400 total vehicles, new and used. Now, there are often fewer than 100 of each.

Mike Kuzdzal says his lot in Chicopee has historically boasted more than 400 total vehicles, new and used. Now, there are often fewer than 100 of each.

“I think we’re at the bottom of the curve when it comes to availability,” said Sullivan. “From now through the fourth quarter, it will start to improve, but it won’t be back up to what we would call normal historical levels until June of next year.”

Cosenzi agreed. “They’re saying that October is when we’re going to see the inventory slowly start to trickle back in,” she said, noting that ‘they’ means the manufacturers. “We’re not going to get back to the same levels by then, and the expectation is that, by mid-2022, we’ll be back to something approaching normal.”

Mike Kuzdzal, general manager of Metro Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Chicopee, concurred.

“The manufacturers are optimistic month over month that they’ll hopefully be able to ramp up production, but they just can’t keep up with current demand,” he noted. “As they make these cars and put them in an in-transit mode to us, we’re selling them before they even hit the ground.

“My hope is that, by the end of quarter one next year or the beginning of quarter two, we can get back to what we used to be,” he went on. “But the manufacturers are going to have to go double or triple time to get us there.”

 

A Different Gear

Kuzdzal told BusinessWest his dealership is one of many in the area that have placed signs on the property saying ‘we buy used cars’ — or words to that effect.

And, by and large, these signs are working, he said, noting that, just before he spoke with us, he bought a car off the street.

Such transactions, once quite rare, have become somewhat commonplace, said Kuzdzal and others we spoke with, noting, first, that COVID has yielded conditions whereby many families can do with at least one fewer car in the driveway, and, second, that prices for such vehicles have never been higher — and no one knows how long they’ll stay this high.

“Because of the pandemic and people working from home, a second or third car is not required,” Kuzdzal explained. “They’re sharing one car and saying, ‘I’m going sell my car at an all-time high and save that monthly payment, the excise tax, and insurance — and if I do go back to work, I’ll get back in the market.’”

Transactions like one he described are more than welcome, because traditional sources of used cars — everything from new-car trade-ins to rental cars — have dried up in dramatic fashion. So dealers have had to get creative.

“We’ve been acquiring a lot of vehicles from our service customers and past customers,” said Cosenzi, adding that her dealerships are now also buying essentially any car that comes off lease, where before they would cherry-pick. “We came up with a really easy five-minute trade process that has helped us generate quite a bit of used vehicle inventory.”

Overall, those signs offering to buy used cars or print, TV, and radio ads stating that ‘no one will pay more for a used car than we will’ are just part of the changed landscape in auto sales.

Carla Cosenzi (with her kids, Nico and Talia) is among many dealers expecting a return to something approaching normal by next spring.

Carla Cosenzi (with her kids, Nico and Talia) is among many dealers expecting a return to something approaching normal by next spring.

The dramatically lower volumes of inventory, used cars in the showroom, factory ordering, and essentially selling cars long before they reach the showroom, or even leave the factory, are other components of this altered state, one in which dealers say business is still solid in many respects, but altogether different.

Inventory is perhaps the biggest issue, and it has changed the landscape in all kinds of ways, the most noticeable being the lonesome lots at area car stores. The dealers aren’t used to it, and neither are local residents.

Indeed, Sullivan noted that more than a few people have asked if Balise has divested itself of the massive Chevrolet dealership on West Columbus Avenue. That Chevy store is quite visible from I-91, especially the ramp leading to the South End Bridge, which means people can see — or, in this case, not see — the rows of vans and trucks that have historically populated the south end of the property.

“Every single car that comes in is sold the day it lands there,” he said, adding that this phenomenon helps explain the bare pavement and put the inventory problem in perspective.

But not as well as some of the numbers offered by the dealers we spoke with.

“Where we normally run with 350 to 450 new cars and maybe 150 used cars, now we’re down to south of 100 of both, so we’re at a quarter of our running inventory,” Kuzdzal said.

Sullivan noted that the Balise family of dealerships includes more than a dozen makes, foreign and domestic, each one having inventory issues that have fluctuated over the past several months, with some doing better now than they were in the spring and others still struggling. He noted that, at the huge Honda store on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, there are normally 250 new cars on the lot. One day a few weeks ago, there were seven.

“It’s a situation we certainly haven’t seen, and each manufacturer will hit that low point at a different time. When Honda was out, Toyota had cars; when Toyota was out, Honda had cars. Each month, it kind of moves around, but at this point, heading into the fourth quarter, things will start to get back to what we call a more normal state.”

“It’s a situation we certainly haven’t seen, and each manufacturer will hit that low point at a different time,” he explained. “When Honda was out, Toyota had cars; when Toyota was out, Honda had cars. Each month, it kind of moves around, but at this point, heading into the fourth quarter, things will start to get back to what we call a more normal state.”

Cosenzi, who concurred with that assessment, noted that the TommyCar stable was helped initially by the fact that it traditionally keeps large volumes of inventory on its lots to offer consumers a wide selection.

“Our dealerships are usually crammed with cars,” she noted. “And that really helped us when this happened; we had a larger supply available to us when the chip shortage hit. Some dealers that only carry a one- or two-month supply ended up in trouble, while we carried a three and a half or four-month supply.”

 

Shifting Expectations

Given the shortages of microchips and other parts they’re facing, Sullivan said manufacturers, for the most part, are now only churning out the most popular, and sellable, variations of given models, and customers are adapting to this altered state.

“We’re used to carrying hundreds and hundreds of vehicles at every dealership, and customers are used to looking at 30,000 buildable combinations of a Honda Accord,” he explained. “They’ll say, ‘I want a blue one with a beige interior and this sunroof; I want this, but I don’t want that.’ The way the manufacturers have adapted through this is they’re only building the most commonly sold and fastest-churning vehicles that they have — they’re only doing certain trim levels.

“You’d think that customers would be mad,” he went on. “But they actually seem relieved. They’re saying, ‘OK, that’s the way they’re going to come in; I’ll take that one.’ Customers have been unbelievably accommodating, saying, ‘I really wanted a red one, but I guess a black one is OK.’”

Kuzdzal concurred, and noted that, in most ways, it’s easier to sell the few cars that the dealers do have on their lots.

“The consumer is coming in with his or her defenses down,” he explained. “They know it’s a tough time to get cars, and if we have it, they should buy it. If they don’t, we’ll sell it to the next person, so that makes the negotiations much easier.

“It’s never been like this,” he went on. “It’s a very comparable time to when we had the gas issue, when we spiked over $5 a gallon. But it has not slowed business down like it did then; it’s a different time, and we have to react to what’s coming our way. Inventory is at an all-time low, used cars are at an all-time high as far as value is concerned, and people are taking advantage of that.”

In addition to using that word ‘adjusting,’ all those we spoke with inevitably came back to that other word you hear and read so often these days — normal.

Some spoke of what is obviously a new normal, while others speculated on when and even if things would return to what used to be the norm.

But Sullivan spoke for everyone, and put things in their proper perspective, when he said, “I can’t wait to return to the old normal.”

Just when that will happen is anyone’s guess, but it seems certain that it can’t be a short drive from here.

 

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

Cannabis Special Coverage

Growing Concerns

Meg Sanders says the state’s onerous regulatory hurdles have made the cannabis space an unfair playing field

Meg Sanders says the state’s onerous regulatory hurdles have made the cannabis space an unfair playing field, especially for smaller shops and social-equity applicants.

Everyone has seen the dispensaries and other cannabis businesses sprouting up in communities across Massachusetts — and the long lines of customers often stretching out the door. And they might think this business is easy money. But that’s far from the truth, thanks to an onerous tax situation, the illegal nature of the product on the federal level making it tough to enlist financial and other partners, and the slow march from stigma to acceptance of this still-new industry. All of that, however, could be changing, although it will take federal action to loosen some of those shackles.

Meg Sanders is a cannabis-industry veteran, most notably in Colorado, the nation’s first regulated market for legal cannabis. So she’s no stranger to the growing pains the industry is now dealing with in Massachusetts.

But as a local business owner — as CEO of Canna Provisions in Holyoke and Lee — she’s frustrated by them, too.

“We’re limited on what we can do with advertising, and the amount of product we can sell to a customer at a time,” she said, citing just two examples of regulations set forth by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC).

“The whole idea was to regulate cannabis like we regulate alcohol, and we’re not doing that. Actually, they’re going way above and way over the top, and I don’t think that’s helpful to the industry. I don’t think it’s helpful to individual businesses, and it’s definitely, in my opinion, not in the spirit of the CCC, which is supposed to promote social-equity and economic-empowerment applicants. But the bar for entry is really high, and the bar to stay out of trouble with the CCC is really high.”

“The whole idea was to regulate cannabis like we regulate alcohol, and we’re not doing that. Actually, they’re going way above and way over the top, and I don’t think that’s helpful to the industry.”

In other words, despite the number of cannabis businesses currently operating across Massachusetts — 267 and rising every week — this is a tough field to enter and a tougher one to succeed at, Sanders told BusinessWest.

“I think of people who are bootstrapping, mom-and-pop stores, teams that are working with a limited amount of cash, and it’s not a level playing field,” she went on. “And a lot of things we worry about in this industry are things that really do not matter. The amount of money this industry spends on packaging alone, that just goes in a landfill, is awful, and it’s driven by these rules and regs — it has to be childproof, it’s got to have 57 warning labels on it. I feel ethically horrible about the mounds of packaging in landfills. And the burden it puts on mom-and-pop manufacturers who are trying to make a really cool chocolate bar and the expense that’s going into that packaging … it’s really tricky.”

It doesn’t help, she added, that many state regulations can be challenging to interpret, mainly because the CCC is going through the same growing pains businesses are.

Scott Foster says federal decriminalization of cannabis has gained momentum

Scott Foster says federal decriminalization of cannabis has gained momentum, but the timeline is still uncertain.

“I’ve seen this in other states — the agency tasked with regulating and monitoring the industry has a very steep learning curve,” Sanders said. “One investigator will tell you one thing, and another investigator will tell you another thing. So they’re not always on the same page for specific rules.”

Many of those regulations address diversion of product, she noted. “We’ve spent millions of dollars building this business. The last thing we’re going to do is flush it down the toilet trying to sneak a pound out the back door. It’s just absurd.”

So are onerous background checks to get into the industry, keeping out some of the individuals — from communities that have been inordinately affected by the Drug War — who should be able to enter and prosper, she added. “Regulators and business owners should be partners to build a better business and correct things that need correcting, understanding everyone is doing their best.”

Those challenges are strictly state-level, but others on the federal level are just as burdensome, and boil down to the fact that the U.S. government still classifies cannabis as an illegal controlled substance. That means most banks and credit unions have avoided doing business with cannabis operators, though that’s slowly changing.

“In the early days, there weren’t a lot of professionals willing to take the career risk to enter the industry, so it was hard to find talent to come in and help grow the business. But, again, you’re starting to see that shift as more states legalize and you see the social proofs play out.”

“The federal illegality is a big challenge, and it doesn’t stop with the banking issue,” said Patrick Gottschlicht, chief operating officer of Insa. “That’s been extremely detrimental to us, but that carries across to other companies that we can work with — payroll processors, ERP [enterprise resource planning] companies, any big national or international software companies, accounting firms, security vendors … they can’t work with us because of that federal illegality.”

That has started to shift as more professional services and banks are opening up to this industry, though many still won’t, and many that do are startups themselves, with less at stake, said Peter Gallagher, Insa’s CEO.

“There’s no playbook for this industry,” he added. “There’s been a lot of trial and error to get to where we are. In the early days, there weren’t a lot of professionals willing to take the career risk to enter the industry, so it was hard to find talent to come in and help grow the business. But, again, you’re starting to see that shift as more states legalize and you see the social proofs play out. People’s friends are getting into it, talking positively about it, and they see the success of the industry, and you’re seeing more willingness to work with cannabis.”

Some bills have been introduced in Washington to, if not legalize cannabis, at least decriminalize it.

“Those bills would make it easier for us, and also de-risk the industry around the margins for a lot of partners,” Gallagher said. “The trend is definitely there, but in what time frame will that happen? From our perspective, it’s been happening a lot faster than we ever expected. When we got into this, we thought the legal conversation would take 20 or 30 years to play out.”

 

Taking No Credit

Sanders is hopeful, too. “At the federal level, we have big challenges. We can’t even take credit cards. That’s so silly. We can take a debit card and cash, and that’s it. That alone would be a really big help.”

Scott Foster, a partner at Bulkley Richardson and one of the attorneys in that firm’s cannabis practice group, believes sentiment is growing that Congress will act sooner rather than later on some degree of allowing banks into the cannabis space or remove the threat of federal enforcement against entities that partner with cannabis operators.

“That will help create some stability. And the biggest thing it’ll do is allow people to use credit cards at the facilities; it’s largely cash right now. If Congress changes that law, boom — you can use your Visa card, you can use your Mastercard. And the reason that you can’t now is not because Visa and Mastercard have a particular ethical or moral problem with it — they’ve just got a legal problem.”

Patrick Gottschlicht (left) and Peter Gallagher say cannabis is a much more challenging business than it seems — but it’s a rewarding one.

Patrick Gottschlicht (left) and Peter Gallagher say cannabis is a much more challenging business than it seems — but it’s a rewarding one.

Some federal bills have bipartisan support, he added, “but Congress has a lot of other things going on.” Still, with almost 40 states and territories having legalized medical cannabis and more than 20 giving the OK to adult-use cannabis, “I think the tide is definitely turning on this; it’s just a matter of how far it goes, and how quickly.”

Even without a change in the law, Foster explained, “the banking situation is getting better. We’re seeing some banks and some credit unions more willing to lend into the cannabis space now — much more than a couple years ago. They’re becoming more comfortable with lending for real-estate purposes — not for buying things, necessarily, but for buildout and for creating a space, including cultivation spaces. So that’s a change. A very small change, but the fact that it’s happening at all is a big deal.”

The other federal law cannabis operators want to see changed is Internal Revenue Code Section 280E, which severely limits tax deductions for business that deal in controlled substances prohibited by federal law. In short, businesses can deduct the cost of goods sold, but are not allowed any other deductions or credits on their return, including for wages.

“The taxes are crushing — you can’t deduct wages, rent, or other ordinary deductions. Most of these companies are looking at an effective tax rate of 70% to 90% in that, of their profit at the end of the day, 70% of it goes to pay federal taxes.”

“The taxes are crushing — you can’t deduct wages, rent, or other ordinary deductions,” Foster said. “Most of these companies are looking at an effective tax rate of 70% to 90% in that, of their profit at the end of the day, 70% of it goes to pay federal taxes. And this is after they pay state and local taxes. So the federal government is making a lot of tax money off of cannabis companies across the U.S.

“It’s been challenged multiple times in multiple states,” he went on, “and every tax court and every appellate court has said, ‘Congress can change it, but they were unequivocal in what they said.’ It’s a completely constitutionally valid statute.”

Decriminalizing cannabis federally would neuter the impact of 280E on the industry, which would be massive news for cannabis businesses that are already paying higher-than-average state taxes, while their host communities get a cut of between 3% and 6% as well.

But decriminalization would open many other doors as well, like broadening the market for insuring these businesses.

“There’s a risk that your insurance company could, almost at any point, say, ‘well, what you’re doing is a violation of federal law; therefore, we’re not going to insure you,’” Foster said. “The companies are getting insurance — they’re required to get insurance by the CCC — but they’re not the traditional companies; they’re not the Allstates or the companies you see advertising. They’re smaller, specialty, boutique insurance companies that have figured out it’s worth the risk to them to get into that space because the premiums are appreciably higher than they would be for a comparable business.”

So, again, the lack of federal legislation to decriminalize cannabis is increasing the cost of doing business, he went on. “If that happened, I think the cost of insurance would go down because you’d have more competition overnight in the space.”

Another barrier to continued growth that is slowly coming down is stigma surrounding the products themselves.

“For decades, it was drilled into people’s heads that this was a bad thing,” Gallagher said. “It’s going to take time to change that, and the most powerful tool is social proof and people seeing their friends and relatives using it to either treat various ailments or enhance their lifestyle; they see they’re successful, healthy individuals, and this is just a way to improve their lives. But I think it’s going to take time.”

For example, Gottschlicht added, “we have a bedtime edible to help you sleep, and we’ve seen people who were non-cannabis users start using that and come into the space because of that. It’s incredible how many people have gotten off standard pharmaceuticals and gone to half a gummy every night. The feedback has been, ‘it doesn’t make me groggy; it doesn’t give me the melatonin hangover I’ve gotten in the past. I feel normal in the morning, and it helps me sleep through the night.’”

Hearing those testimonies from friends and family is often how the stigma barrier falls for people who have been nervous about stopping by, he noted. “They think, ‘hey, there’s some good benefit to this.’ Or as an alternative to opioids after surgery — we’ve had a lot of people come in who just don’t want to take opioids for pain after surgery; they want to try cannabis because it’s not as addictive as some of the opioids out there.”

Sanders agreed. “I personally think the biggest move you can make to convert non-cannabis users to cannabis is this one-on-one experience, people telling people, or people coming in and finding relief from something — maybe sleep issues or aches and pains. And when you convert one person, they tell someone, and then they tell someone.”

 

Business Is Blooming

It’s been fulfilling to see the industry grow, Foster said — not to mention a boost to his own professional practice.

“The big uncertainty now is what consolidation in this industry is going to look like, and when is it going to happen. Everyone knows big players are going to come in and buy up companies and create brands that stretch across the nation; it’s already occurring, though not a lot … yet.”

But as more investors become comfortable with industry — there’s that idea of breaking through stigma again — that consolidation will happen, he went on. Drawing on the beer industry, he noted there’s no Anheuser-Busch in cannabis yet — it’s all microbreweries, so to speak. But even when large, national companies spread across the space, there will always be room for the boutique experience, for small companies that continue to research and promote the effects of new and different strains.

Research that is not currently happening to the degree it could because much research, especially clinical research at universities, is dependent on … wait for it … federal funding.

But once that research takes off and the cannabis industry escapes the shackles of federal illegality — a development that industry players generally agree will happen at some point — the products will continue to become more legitimized in the public eye, and the potential customer base will expand.

“People are asking, is the industry tapped out? No, I’m not seeing that,” Foster said. “Every business that opens up has a line out the door, and every facility that opens up can sell everything it makes. So, we have not reached a point of saturation by any means.”

That ever-expanding competition is another challenge, Sanders said, but one that should benefit all players because it further legitimizes the products in more people’s minds. But it also means individual businesses need to work harder to stand out. Canna does that with a strong focus on the individual experience and locally sourced products — including its own brand, Smash — with interesting, local stories behind them.

“There’s more good people than not in this space, and we owe it to consumers who are cannabis-curious to put our best foot forward and make sure they have as much information about our products as possible, so they don’t have any unexpected reactions,” she said. “Our commitment is to great products we can tell a story about, that we understand and respect and can get behind and provide the best experience we can possibly provide, and educate our customers.”

Insa, which has a production facility in Easthampton and four dispensaries across the region, including a flagship store in Springfield, has also expanded nationally, with a production facility in Pennsylvania selling to about 100 dispensaries and a Florida license to build a production site and medical dispensaries. And Gallagher embraces the growing competition in all those regions.

“The way we look at it, this is a much bigger industry than exists today,” he said. “If we all do a good job and operate responsibly and create good quality products, it will encourage more people to enter the industry and experiment and try it, and this will get much, much bigger. A rising tide lifts all boats, and as long as you have good, responsible players in the market, it’s going to be a benefit to everyone.”

Still, he added, “it’s a tough business. One of the common misperceptions is, people think it’s going to be easy. But it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do. You have to be on it every day. And when you’re dealing with any biological product, the number of variables to control are immense. So it’s extremely challenging.

“But it’s been great,” he added. “The relationships we’ve built along the way have been fantastic. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Except, of course, for some pesky federal laws.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 75: August 16, 2021

George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Mary Flahive Dickson

Mary Flahive-Dixon

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Mary Flahive Dickson, chief development officer and chief medical officer for Golden Years Homecare Services. The two talk about what has become a very serious workforce crisis in healthcare, the reasons behind it, the impact on area healthcare providers, and the outlook for the future. It’s must listening so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 74: August 9, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Tara Brewster, Vice President of Business Development for Greenfield Savings Bank

Tara Brewster

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Tara Brewster, Vice President of Business Development for Greenfield Savings Bank and one of five finalists for BusinessWest’s coveted 40 Under Forty Alumni Achievement Award. The two talk about her work, but especially her involvement in the community, her latest assignment as radio talk host, and her life as a self-described “recovering entrepreneur.” It’s must listening so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Doing the Math

 

Joe Bova compared the past 18 months in the accounting profession

Joe Bova compared the past 18 months in the accounting profession to “trying to sail a ship while you’re building that ship.”

For accountants, the past 18 months have been a time of change, challenge, and adapting to everything from new ways of doing business to new responsibilities with clients to ever-changing tax laws. Looking forward, they note that many of these changes are permanent in nature.

It’s been called the ‘never-ending tax season.’

That’s just one of the many colorful ways those in the accounting sector have chosen to describe the past 18 months or so, a time of change, challenge, learning, and adapting — for them and for their clients.

Indeed, this time of COVID-19 has been marked by everything from changing tax laws to fluid filing deadlines; from new responsibilities, such as helping clients handle PPP and SBA loan paperwork, to changes when it comes to where and how work gets done; from a greater reliance on technology to the acceleration of a shift in accounting toward a more advisory role as opposed to merely adding up numbers.

Summing it all up, Joseph Bova, CPA, CVA, CGMA, a partner with Northampton-based Bova Harrington & Associates, said navigating all this has been “like trying to sail a ship while you’re building the ship.”

Nick Lapier, CPA, a partner with West Springfield-based LaPier Dillon, used phraseology from sports (sort of), but more from politics.

“It’s very hard for us to focus on our work when the government kept moving the goalposts.”

“It’s very hard for us to focus on our work when the government kept moving the goalposts,” he said, referring to the many changes in tax laws — some coming in the middle of tax season — and moving of filing deadlines. “For some people who filed their tax returns early, we then found ourselves amending those returns because they changed some of the rules. And some we didn’t file because we hoped they would change the rules.

“The end zone kept moving,” he went on. “We’d be on the 10-yard line, work really hard, and still be on the 10-yard line. There are 50 sovereign states that have the right to tax, so if you have clients filing tax returns in multiple states, each state was also possibly changing their laws and moving the goalposts.”

As the calendar turns to August, those we spoke with said this has been a time for many at area firms to catch their breath and take some of the vacation days they didn’t take last year or earlier this year. It’s also a time to reflect on what has transpired and what likely lies ahead in terms of the lessons learned and which of the changes seen over the past year and half are more permanent than temporary in nature.

Nick Lapier

Nick Lapier says a taxing period for all accountants was exacerbated by the federal and state governments constantly “moving the goalposts.”

Julie Quink, CPA, CFE, managing partner of West Springfield-based Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., said her firm, like most others, is not simply turning back the clock to late 2019 when it comes to returning to something approaching normal, especially when it comes to how and where business is conducted. She said most employees have returned to the office, but moving forward, there will be even more flexibility when it comes to schedules and working remotely because of what’s been learned over the past 18 months.

“We’re not going to dial back to everyone needing to be here those static hours of 8:30 to 5,” she noted. “I’m a glass-half-full person, and if there is a positive from the past 16 or 17 months that we’ve been dealing with, it’s taught us that we need to be more flexible, more mobile, and more adaptable — and understand that people don’t have to be actually sitting in their offices to get their job done.”

Meanwhile, Lapier told BusinessWest that many accountants, himself included, spent far less time meeting face-to-face with clients in 2020 and early 2021, and he expects that trend to continue.

“This current generation lives in the digital world; they don’t need to see people — they transact their personal and their business life electronically,” he explained. “What has changed because of COVID is that all the prior generations have adopted that same mentality — not 100%, but a heck of a lot more than before the pandemic.”

Howard Cheney, CPA, MST, a partner at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. and director of the firm’s Audit and Accounting Services, agreed, while noting, as others did, that the pandemic in many ways accelerated a trend within the industry toward accountants shifting to roles that are more advisory in nature, with a greater focus on the future than the numbers from the past quarter or two.

“I’m a glass-half-full person, and if there is a positive from the past 16 or 17 months that we’ve been dealing with, it’s taught us that we need to be more flexible, more mobile, and more adaptable — and understand that people don’t have to be actually sitting in their offices to get their job done.”

“Accounting has for many years been an historical-look-back kind of thing,” said Cheney, part of an executive committee now managing the firm. “With the speed that people can now get data, they don’t need us to tell them about what happened six months ago; they need us to tell them what’s going to happen six months from now and help them interpret that.”

For this issue and its focus on accounting and tax planning, BusinessWest talked with several CPAs about the never-ending tax season, which still hasn’t ended — many are still dealing with a large number of extensions, many of them resulting from changing tax laws — and what will come next in a sector that has been taxed (yes, that’s an industry term) by this pandemic, and in all kinds of ways.

 

A Taxing Time

Chris Nadeau, CMA, CPA, CVA said he spent most of the past April — the height of tax season — in Florida. And hardly any of his clients knew he was working and handling their needs from more than 1,000 miles away.

Julie Quink

Among the many lessons learned from COVID, Julie Quink says, is the need for more flexibility in when and where people work.

“No one would have known unless I told them,” said Nadeau, a director with Hartford-based Whittlesey, which has offices locally in Holyoke, adding that he would never have considered such a working arrangement prior to the pandemic, but COVID provided ample proof that a CPA doesn’t have to share an area with a client to get the work done.

This anecdote speaks volumes about just how profoundly the landscape has changed in the accounting and tax-planning world over the past year and a half. There have been a number of seismic shifts, and where people work is just one of them, said Nadeau, who has come to his office on Bobala Road in Holyoke only a few times since St. Patrick’s Day of 2020 and was in on this day only to meet with BusinessWest.

Others we spoke with told of similar learning experiences during what has been a year and a half of acting and reacting to everything that has been thrown at them since those days in mid-March of last year when everyone — well, almost everyone — packed up and went home for what they thought would be a few weeks.

As everyone knows, that certainly wasn’t the case, and thus accountants, like all those in business, had to adjust to a new playing field, finding new and sometimes better ways to do things and communicate with clients and fellow team members alike.

“We had to reinvent our processes — how we communicated with the team and how we shared information back and forth, especially when working remotely,” said Lapier of those early days, noting that a three-month extension of the traditional April 15 filing deadline helped spread the work out and was a saving grace.

Bova agreed, noting that his firm of nine employees adjusted to the new landscape out of necessity, with investments in technology, a move to a paperless work process, Zoom meetings between employees and with clients, visits by appointment only, and other steps.

Moving forward, many of these new ways of doing things will continue, with perhaps the biggest being where people work. Indeed, most of the firms we spoke with said some variation of hybrid schedules will become the norm for at least some employees .

“In the future, there will be more hybrid work models, where people work in the office, but they do some work at home — I can see some real potential for that,” said Bova, adding that not all workers have returned to the office, and he’s not sure when they will. “We’re going to explore our options with this; there’s no need to deal with it in the summer — it will be more of a fall issue.”

Howard Cheney says the pandemic

Howard Cheney says the pandemic may have accelerated, or amplified, a shift within accounting to an advisory role, with more emphasis on the future than the past.

Cheney agreed. “We’ve been really flexible as a business with not requiring people to come back just yet,” he said, adding that most at the company have returned to their offices in the PeoplesBank building, but some are still working remotely. “The likelihood is that some kind of hybrid work schedule will be the future for our business.”

Whittlesey recently adopted a hybrid work policy, one that enables people to work “from wherever they will be most efficient,” said Nadeau, adding that most are finding it more efficient to work remotely, and they will continue to do so in the future.

“Some people are not coming in at all, and some are coming in a day or two a week,” he explained. “It’s ‘work where you need to for that day.’ Some employees have actually moved away to another state during COVID, so you could definitely call them ‘remote.’ And it’s been pretty seamless — and flawless.”

And this shift brings a number of benefits for the company, including a possible reduction of its physical footprint, he said, adding that it is likely that the firm will be able to downsize in Holyoke. “At some point down the road, we’ll see what kind of space we’ll need.”

It also means more and better opportunities to recruit top talent to the company because such employees will be able to work from anywhere, including another state, as Nadeau did earlier this year.

“It’s incredibly challenging to recruit people — I think there are fewer accounting students graduating now, and a lot of the people who do graduate end up going to Boston or New York to work for the Big Four firms,” he explained. “So having a remote-work or hybrid-work policy is an added benefit that we can offer, and one that firms are probably going to have to offer if they want to attract top talent.”

As for interaction and communication with clients, while all those we spoke with said face-to-face is still the preferred option, COVID has shown that Zoom and even the telephone work well — and, as with working arrangements, when it comes to interacting with clients, flexibility is the new watchword.

“As we’re talking with our clients, we’re seeing a combination of the two, in-person meetings and those by Zoom and phone — some want meetings in person, and other times, a Zoom meeting or phone call is sufficient,” said Nadeau, noting, as others did, a significant time savings from not physically traveling to see clients, so those at the firm are able to do more with the hours in the day.

Cheney agreed, to some extent, but noted there will always be plenty of room for, and need for, in-person service to clients.

“You don’t want to lose sight of that personal-touch aspect,” he told BusinessWest. “You don’t want to do everything remotely — I don’t think clients want to do everything remotely. But they’re OK with some level [of remote interaction] because we’ve gotten used to it, and they see the efficiency, too.”

 

Crunching the Numbers

As he tried to put all the changes to tax laws — and changes to the changes — into perspective, Joe Bova recalled the communication he received from the U.S. Small Business Administration concerning PPP loans that came with the header “Interim Final Rules.”

This oxymoron was just one of many challenging measures and changes that CPAs had to make sense of over the past 18 months, a time that Bova described as “a shooting gallery.”

“What’s been different during these past two seasons is that tax-law changes have been happening during tax season,” he told BusinessWest. “And when the PPP loans first came out … the SBA and the Treasury were updating their websites almost daily, and there was a lot of ambiguity in the definitions. We [accountants] were kind of on the front lines because people were calling us, even the banks.

“We all had the same information, which wasn’t clear, so people were calling us to help them interpret these changes,” he went on. “You were in the water on the boat, but you were still building the boat.”

In addition to coping with new legislation and changing rules, there was simply more work to do, said those we spoke with.

“Our workload has gone up probably a good 20% without adding a single client,” said Lapier, listing PPP applications, forgiveness, and audit work, as well as helping companies with SBA loans and the unemployment-tax credit as just some of the additional assignments.

Indeed, on top of all that, there was simply more consulting work to do as companies, especially smaller ones, leaned on their accountants as perhaps never before to help them make what were often very difficult decisions during truly unprecedented times.

Now, with the pandemic easing in some respects, the nature of some of this advisory work is changing, said Quink, noting that many business owners are now able to focus more on the future instead of being consumed by the present.

“We’re seeing a lot of clients that are buying and selling businesses, which is a good sign,” she noted. “And overall, people are starting to think forward now; they were in survival mode for a period of time, and now they’re starting to think forward from a business perspective.”

And there is a lot to think about, she went on, noting that what she and others at her firm are advising clients on is how to adapt to change and navigate challenge — such as a global pandemic.

“We’re talking to our clients that we see as potentially at risk because they don’t have the ability to adapt or they’re not identifying how to adapt,” she explained. “We know that things can change in the blink of an eye; we’ve seen a client, a third-generation business, close because it wasn’t able to look forward and move in a way that still made them competitive. You can’t rest on what you have — you have to be always looking forward, and that’s a hard thing for some of our more mature clients and businesses who have done things they’ve always done, and it’s worked.”

This additional advisory work, as Cheney noted earlier, is merely an acceleration of a trend that has been ongoing for many years now when it comes to clients and what they want and need from their accounting firm, with the accent on the future and how to be prepared for it.

Quink agreed that this shift, if that’s the proper term, has been ongoing for some time now as technology has enabled clients of all kinds to access data more quickly and more easily than ever before.

“We see robots in all aspects of life, and our profession is going to go that way as well,” she explained. “We’re using technology to do the things we’ve always done by hand; we’re now going to have programs that run that data for us. What we’re seeing and what we’re preparing people in our profession for is a shift to more of an advisory-slash-consulting role.”

 

Bottom Line

For several years now, Quink told BusinessWest, Burkhart Pizzanelli has closed its doors on Fridays. Historically, those Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day have served as comp time for those who logged considerable overtime during tax time, and it’s been a time to recharge the batteries.

This year, staff members have needed those Fridays off more than ever, she said, adding that, for many reasons — from all the additional work detailed above to the vacations that haven’t been taken over the past 18 months — there have been many signs of fatigue.

It’s certainly understandable. Indeed, while every business sector has been impacted by COVID, those in accounting were affected in different ways, with more work to do, different work to take on, and learning curves when it came to new and different ways of doing business.

They don’t call it the ‘never-ending tax season’ for nothing. It’s far from over, but in many ways, things are … well, less taxing.

 

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

Modern Office Special Coverage

Getting Up Off the Floor

For those in the office furniture and design sector, the past 18 months have been a long and extremely challenging stretch. Looking ahead, while the pandemic has eased to some extent, new challenges and question marks loom. The questions concern everything from how many people will return to the office to whether they will have their own space if and when they return. And the challenges involve everything from long wait times for ordered products to the specter of skyrocketing prices and the impact they will have on business.

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors makes it difficult to project what will come next for this industry.

Mark Proshan says the e-mail found its way into his inbox earlier that morning. It was short and to the point, but it clearly articulated one of the many challenges still facing those in the office furniture and design business.

“‘I’m in the process of closing my office and moving employees to fully remote work,’” wrote the business owner and client that Proshan, president of the West Springfield-based Lexington Group, opted not to name. “‘I have a lot of office furniture I’m looking to sell.”

As he commented on what he was reading, Proshan started with that last bit of news. He said there are a number of business owners and managers looking to unload unneeded office furniture these days. They should know first that there is already a glut, and, second, that the price they have in the back of their mind is not likely to be the price they’re going to get for what they’re looking to sell. “With the massive amounts of furniture now on the market, selling furniture isn’t something that’s going to realize an amazing return on the investment.”

But that’s just a small part of the story now unfolding, said Proshan, noting that, while this particular business owner knows just what he’s doing with his office, many do not.

Indeed, a full 18 months after the term ‘COVID’ entered the lexicon, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding what will happen at many offices, colleges, hospitals, and other kinds of businesses moving forward. Proshan has his theories, and we’ll get to some of them later, but he and others believe there will certainly be some downsizing, some hybrid work schedules for many employees, and more of the outright closures and conversion to remote working described in that e-mail.

But at the same time, some businesses and institutions that are waking up (for lack of a better phrase) from COVID are ready to advance plans for new furniture and accommodations.

And they are running into strong headwinds in the form of supply shortages, long wait times for desired items, and, almost certainly, higher prices in a nod to the laws of supply and demand — and the skyrocketing cost of shipping items from abroad.

“We can’t get the products out of where we need to get them from,” said Fran Arnold, owner of Holyoke-based Conklin Office Furniture, which, in addition to selling new and used furniture, manufactures its own lines of products overseas and remanufactures used furniture here. “Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold, new challenges include supply-chain issues, soaring shipping costs, and long wait times for ordered products.

“On the import side, we’re running with massive delays in shipping and huge increases in the cost of shipping,” he went on, with some noticeable exasperation in his voice. “Our shipping costs have gone from $3,500 to $5,000 per container all the way to $23,500 per container. That’s a massive increase for freight; it’s now costing us more money to get the stuff here than to manufacture it over there.”

Proshan agreed.

“Because most of the manufacturers have employee shortages and raw-goods shortages, everyone’s lead times have been drastically pushed out,” he noted. “You try to stock up on what you think might make the most sense for when the floodgates open, but you just don’t know, and it’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

Overall, while the worst of the storm might be past for those in this sector — that’s might — there is still considerable cloudiness and general uncertainty about the forecast, and challenges ranging from those inventory issues to simply finding people to drive delivery trucks, to a huge merger in the industry between manufacturers Herman Miller and Knoll, which only leads to more question marks.

Indeed, what happens next is anyone’s guess, as BusinessWest learned as it talked with Proshan and Arnold about has transpired and what is likely on the horizon.

 

Measures on the Table

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest in his huge showroom, Proshan noted that he’s selling a number of items to be used by people working at home, especially chairs — “they want good seating, but they don’t want to spend a lot for it” — and sit/stand desks, because they’re smaller and also because many people want the option of sitting or standing.

Meanwhile, he said he’s also been selling more large conference-room tables — those for 12 to 20 people — than would be considered normal.

When asked why, he gave a quick and definitive “I don’t know, exactly, but we are,” before joking that companies might need bigger tables for all those meetings that will decide what they’re going to do next.

Overall, this interest in large conference-room tables and the possible reasons behind it comprise just one of the many unknowns for this industry. What is known is that the past 18 months have been an extremely difficult time, and the challenges are far from over.

They may just be different challenges.

“Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.”

Looking back, Arnold said Conklin, like all businesses in this sector, saw business evaporate early on during the pandemic as businesses shut down and then hunkered down, with buying new or used office furniture, or redesigning their space, the last thing on their minds.

“We were flying just before COVID, and then we just hit a wall,” he explained, adding that, through a number of efficiency and austerity measures — including a four-day work week for all employees — the company managed to slash expenses to an extent that it was nearly as profitable in 2020 as it was in 2019.

Elaborating, he said that, in hindsight, the timing could not have been better for the company to consolidate operations and move into new facilities on Appleton Street in Holyoke in late 2019.

“We’re able to do more with fewer people,” he explained. “We’re much better organized, and we’re not so spread out. We’re much more efficient.”

Now, as it emerges from those very difficult times, there are new and different challenges to face, including supply-chain issues and a lack of inventory, just as some larger corporations are in a “panic mode,” a phrase he used a few times, to move on from the pandemic themselves.

“These corporations are working our sales teams to the limit,” he explained. “They want numbers, they want to know when things can be delivered … and a lot of the news we have to give them is not good; prices are going up, and deliveries are being postponed.”

Overall, Arnold said, inflation and the skyrocketing cost of shipping product are just starting to impact prices within the industry.

“We’ve just had our first price increase on our imported products; we just couldn’t hold it where it was any longer,” he explained, adding that, as the cost of shipping continues to escalate, more price hikes are likely. “It’s been quite an experience, and I don’t know how it will all play out; it’s a perfect storm that’s developing, and where it will go, I don’t know.”

 

Looking ahead and projecting what might come next, Proshan said this assignment is difficult because many companies are still very much trying to decide what they’re going to do.

“At the moment, business leaders are trying to figure out what their employees want, and employees are trying to figure out what their employers are going to be expecting,” he explained. “With all of that taking place, not a whole lot has happened yet. People have been talking about business getting back up to speed in the spring, and then the fall, which is not here yet, and then, the first of the year. We still have those mileage markers out there in front of us, so there’s a whole lot more that’s unknown than known.”

Proshan theorizes that many companies will create more space for each employee in efforts to create safer environments, and that, in all likelihood, there will be fewer people working in the office and more in remote settings.

“Every time you have a space that was occupied by three people, that had three work environments, they might cut that back to two to create a bigger gap between people,” he explained. “So now you have a work environment that’s going to be for sale or is going to become surplus; that’s one of the things we’re seeing.

“It’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

“And I think that when it gets sorted out as to who’s going back and who’s not, and how often they’re going back,” he went on, “I think a lot of personal space is going to disappear. If you work at home, you’re going to have your own workspace; when you go to the office, you may or may not have your own workspace. It may be a space that’s occupied by someone else on the days you’re not there.”

 

Bottom Line

Proshan, who does a good bit of sailing when he’s not working, made a number of comparisons between what’s happening in his industry and what transpires on the water.

Specifically, he talked about wind.

“You can’t see wind,” he told BusinessWest. “What people experience as wind is what they see as the result of wind and its impact on objects. When you see wind blowing through the trees, you don’t see the wind, you see the result of the wind. When you’re on a boat and there’s no wind, if you look at the water and see it start to ripple, you know that wind is approaching you, and it can either knock you over or make you go faster, or help you determine which direction to go in.

“It’s almost as if we’re sailing,” he said of the current conditions in his business, “and not able to see the wind in the trees.”

That was Proshan’s way of saying that an industry that has been blown about for the past 18 months, and not in a good way, is still very much in the dark about what will happen next.

The mission, he said, is to be as prepared as possible, even with all those unknowns.

“If you don’t pay attention to the possibilities,” he said in conclusion, “you’re going to be too late.”

 

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

Law Special Coverage

Firm Commitment

Peter Shrair

Peter Shrair says the two firms saw “some real synergies” when they started talking.

Springfield-based Cooley Shrair and Hartford-based Halloran Sage have a lot in common, including histories that span more than 75 years and a focus on the broad needs of business clients. But their philosophies and cultures also have a lot in common, as their leaders discovered during discussions that led to Cooley Shrair joining the Halloran Sage family last month. The result, they hope, will be more inclusive service to clients, as well as a more attractive landing spot for the young talent all law firms need to grow.

When asked what Halloran Sage and Cooley Shrair bring to each other’s table, David Shrair had to think back only 15 minutes.

“We’ve got a new, West Hartford-based client who called me and said, ‘I tried to trademark a logo myself, and I got lost. Can you help us?’” said Shrair, a partner at his namesake Springfield firm, which recently joined the much larger, Hartford-based Halloran Sage law group.

“We normally would have referred him to a firm we did business with in Hartford, who did all our intellectual-property work,” Shrair continued. “But I got on the computer and sent out a blast e-mail to partners and counsel at Halloran Sage. Within three minutes, I got one name from five different partners. I’ve connected that partner, he’s got the logo, and we’re working on it.”

In other words, by joining forces with 86-year-old Halloran Sage, an 80-attorney practice whose law expertise in the realm known as transactional business runs deeper in some areas than Cooley Shrair’s, the firm can keep its clients in house for a much wider range of matters, instead of farming them out, he noted.

“We can keep an eye on the case and make sure it’s being handled properly, which is very difficult to do when you’re sending it out to somebody else, and you have no idea whether your client is being taken care of,” said Peter Shrair, another partner with the firm. “If we’re looking at the client’s interest first, then the client gets a much better product.”

That’s one of the ideas behind what both firms aren’t calling a merger or an acquisition, but a joining together of the two entities under the Halloran Sage umbrella.

“We started talking, and we saw some synergies between what we do and what they do. And I had a thought that one plus one could equal three, with a really good group of smart people working together.”

Peter said he started talking informally to Bill McGrath, a partner at Halloran Sage, about such a relationship last year.

“Another lawyer in their office, Sue Scibilia, and I were talking about something else. She said to me, ‘you really should meet Bill McGrath. He’s a good business person and one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever known.’ And I consider Sue to be one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever known. So, we started talking, and we saw some synergies between what we do and what they do. And I had a thought that one plus one could equal three, with a really good group of smart people working together.”

Casey O’Connell, another partner at Halloran Sage, agreed.

“This has always been a Connecticut-based firm with a regional focus,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re always looking to find ways to better serve our clients and to provide the best possible legal services that we as a legal firm can provide. So we’re always on the lookout to have talented attorneys with complementary practices and similar philosophies to join our firm.”

David Shrair says the combined firm will be able to keep more clients completely in-house.

David Shrair says the combined firm will be able to keep more clients completely in-house.

After informal discussions turned more specific over several months, he went on, “there were some meetings among people with the firms, and it was determined it would really be a great fit and a way for us to collectively be bigger than we both were separately and, most importantly, to provide additional resources to our client base and Cooley Shrair’s client base to better serve our clients.”

For this issue’s focus on law, BusinessWest sat down with O’Connell and the two Shrairs to talk about why this relationship makes sense, and why both firms feel they — and their business clients — are better off because of it.

 

One-stop Shop

Business clients, after all, are at the heart of both firms’ work. Besides a shared focus on transactional law, which incorporates activities like contracts, finance, construction and real estate, risk management, restructuring and bankruptcies, board governance, intellectual property, and a host of others, Halloran Sage also boasts broad expertise in business litigation.

“That’s a service that we had not been offering for a number of years,” Peter Shrair said. “Even when we offered it, it clearly wasn’t with that depth of people. We had one or two, maybe at one point three people doing litigation, but they might have 30. And depending on the size and complexity of the matter, they have the skill, knowledge base, and depth of people to handle it.”

The firms are similar in other ways — for instance, both have a large banking practice, representing different banks, “so there’s a synergy right there,” David added.

“We collaborate very well across practices,” O’Connell said, “and that is one way where the firms can mutually help each other, with the Cooley Shrair folks bringing a wealth of transactional and business banking knowledge that really strengthens our practice areas. But we also have a very robust litigation practice.

“I would say Halloran is a full-service firm, and our litigation portion of the firm is very large and robust — we’re one of the biggest firms that focuses on litigation in Connecticut,” he went on. “And one of the reasons we have such a long history in Connecticut is our ability to provide clients with essentially one-stop shopping.”

Joining a Connecticut-based firm — Halloran Sage has five offices in the Nutmeg State — also makes sense in that three of Cooley Shrair’s attorneys were already admitted to the Connecticut bar, and the firm has worked with many clients from across the border.

This isn’t the first time Halloran Sage has taken on an established group of attorneys all at once, but most of its growth over the years has been organic, O’Connell said. For instance, it launched a New Haven office with two attorneys in 2012, and has since grown that site to 12 attorneys.

“It was a big success story to build and maintain a presence in that part of the state,” he noted. “We have an office Washington, D.C., but [Springfield] is our first office outside Connecticut with a large presence. This really broadens our reach to become not just a Connecticut firm, but a Southern New England firm.”

Client relationships won’t be disrupted, Peter Shrair said, but may shift over time.

Casey O’Connell

Casey O’Connell

“We collaborate very well across practices, and that is one way where the firms can mutually help each other, with the Cooley Shrair folks bringing a wealth of transactional and business banking knowledge that really strengthens our practice areas.”

“If it’s a more natural fit for someone from Hartford to handle something, they’ll handle it,” he explained, noting, as an example, a litigation case that came in just that morning and was referred to attorneys in Hartford. “We’re looking for whatever is best for the client — if a client can be handled better out of New Haven, we want to handle that out of New Haven. If it can be handled better in Springfield, presumably we’ll handle it in Springfield. “Really, it deals with whose practice area it fits best in.”

 

Business as Usual, Sort Of

For two firms that deal heavily with business clients — at a time when the business world has been rocked by COVID-19 — the past 18 months have gone surprisingly well, Peter noted.

“At least as far as my practice goes, there was very little change,” he said. “In fact, with the advent of Zoom and Microsoft Teams and everything else, it was probably easier because you could get different people online together quickly and have a discussion.”

David Shrair was stranded in Florida in March 2020 when the economy first began to shut down — so his firm shipped him a computer and double-screen monitor.

“I closed one of my largest transactions in years from Florida; I did Planning Board meetings from Florida, just like I was sitting in Springfield or wherever; it mattered not,” he recalled. “It’s interesting — with the shutdown and all the issues that went with it, most of our business clients continued very much along the same vein. They had their own internal problems, but the sales and acquisitions and all that still continued to go on. We have been extremely busy.”

After an initial slowing of work in the pipeline last spring, Halloran Sage’s team adjusted quickly to the pandemic as well, O’Connell said, and business has been strong from the second half of 2020 to the present. The transactional work has been more robust than litigation because court activity slowed to a crawl last year, but overall, business has been brisk, and the firm is on a growth trajectory.

“We’re always looking for new opportunities and ways to serve our clients. That includes having new attorneys come in with different specialties or outlooks or just to grow our bench and have more resources to grow our client base,” he went on. “We’re always looking to figure out how we can modify our firm or business to better serve our clients. That’s what the current combination of Cooley Shrair and Halloran Sage is all about, and certainly where Halloran wants to continue to go, to make sure we’re staying ahead of the curve and in the best position to serve our clients.”

The broader geographic reach will also benefit the combined firm in attracting talent, as attorneys will be able to access opportunities across Connecticut as well as into Massachusetts, and move around as their life circumstances change, Peter Shrair said. And David noted that being part of a much larger organization broadens the partnership track, which can also be a draw for young attorneys to settle in this region.

But in the end, O’Connell said, what the discussions really came down to was a perceived alignment in the firms’ client-first philosophies.

“We went through some internal discussions, not really to create a new philosophy, but to figure out a way to better articulate our firm’s philosophy, and we have determined that our firm’s philosophy is ‘client, firm, self,’ in that order,” he said. “In talking to the Cooley Shrair folks, we found there was a great alignment with how they deliver service, and our philosophies really align, so seemed like a natural fit when we pursued it.”

Peter Shrair agreed. “For 75-plus years, that has always been our mantra — our response time and our response to clients’ needs.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

 

Special Coverage Technology

Strong Signals

By Mark Morris

When the pandemic arrived early last year and many companies adjusted to remote work for their staff, it was IT professionals who got everyone up and running from their homes.

Now, as the world begins to move away from the pandemic and companies begin bringing employees back to the office, the demand to hire IT pros is even higher than it was before COVID-19 emerged. And that poses challenges for employers.

In a normal year, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, the company sees about 10% turnover of people leaving and new staff being hired. During the pandemic, there was no turnover, as every one of the 50 Paragus employees stayed in their job.

In the last four months, however, as the economy has improved and COVID restrictions have eased, Bean has seen a “tremendous transition” among the IT labor force.

“Many of those who are leaving are pursuing remote-work opportunities that didn’t exist before the pandemic,” he said. “Most of these companies are not local and would never have interviewed or offered jobs to these workers in the past.”

Bean cited a number of reasons for the high demand for IT talent. During the pandemic, nearly every company increased their use and dependence on technology, which requires more people to keep systems up and running. As the economy improves, companies are pursuing more projects and thus increasing their need for IT talent. The pandemic also made it acceptable to hire people who work only remotely, creating even more opportunities for IT pros.

“With the increased dependence on technology, an improved economy, and the ability to work remotely, we’re seeing employers do things they would not have done before,” he said.

Joel Mollison, president of Northeast IT Systems, noted that, unlike others in IT support, his 18-person company does not have high worker turnover. He credits that to attracting IT staff who enjoy working with Northeast’s varied client list, which covers sectors from insurance and healthcare to manufacturing, municipalities, and even cannabis.

“Many of those who are leaving are pursuing remote-work opportunities that didn’t exist before the pandemic. Most of these companies are not local and would never have interviewed or offered jobs to these workers in the past.”

One notable challenge to retaining his workforce involves companies such as banks, manufacturers, and other industries that are looking to bring their IT support in-house, he said. “As a service provider in Western Mass., we’re competing against much larger institutions in the region who can pay IT professionals more.”

As security issues receive prominent news coverage, companies worry more about ransomware attacks and similar threats. Mollison believes this is part of the reason firms are increasingly looking for in-house IT staff.

“The larger the business, the more complex their systems are, and the more they need IT professionals to manage them,” he explained.

Bean agreed that IT security issues have increased the pressure for companies to be proactive in preventing major disruptions, pointing out that much of the job growth is the result of companies expanding their internal IT staff both regionally and on a national level.

Delcie Bean says an IT workforce that was remarkably stable in 2020 has entered a time of “tremendous transition.”

Delcie Bean says an IT workforce that was remarkably stable in 2020 has entered a time of “tremendous transition.”

“All these companies are doing this because the growing economy gives them a little more money and it can be a luxury to have your IT support in-house.”

Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, agrees, but believes that, after companies build up their internal IT staffing, they usually return to outsourcing with an external service provider once they realize that internal IT is less cost-effective.

“Instead of paying full-time employees to show up every day, companies can hire an IT firm that knows all the technical details and address specific problems when they arise,” Beaudry said. “It would be similar to bringing a plumber on staff. Why would you do that?”

In fact, he predicts that the hiring surge for internal IT will shake out to one or two positions to oversee the main systems augmented by an outside IT service provider.

Bean said it’s common for companies to have an internal person handling technology issues as well as an outside IT service company. “Our biggest source of new business right now involves partnering with internal IT departments to round out what they are doing and give them supplemental assistance.”

 

Here and There

Like many industries right now, technology is grappling with a job market that significantly favors job seekers. Bean told the story of an employee who had previously worked in the defense-contracting industry 10 years ago.

“Because this employee’s name was still in the defense system, a contractor called him to make a job offer, sight unseen and without an interview,” he said. “They literally e-mailed him an electronic salary offer without meeting him, and it was for $35,000 more than he was making here.”

A company located in a large metro area interested in hiring remote workers will offer salaries that are competitive in their market. This can often lead to small-market workers getting big-city paydays.

“If you’re at home and take five minutes between tasks to turn around to pet your dog or do the dishes real quick, that time becomes meaningful and helpful in your life.”

“Usually, when someone makes a salary that’s attractive in Boston, it comes with the high cost of living in the metro Boston area,” Bean said. “When someone with a Western Mass. cost of living makes that same amount, they can see a 30% net increase in their salary.”

Indeed, more companies than ever are embracing remote or hybrid workforces (see related story on page 25). That means IT service providers face the same dilemma confronting many of their clients: continue to work from home or go back to the office.

Mollison tells a slightly different story. Before COVID, he said, Northeast IT was outgrowing its space in Westfield, so he suggested that staff work remotely as a short-term solution. He was surprised when almost no one wanted to work from home.

“Nearly everyone wanted to work in the office,” he recalled. “We have a kind of think-tank environment where our staff enjoy working on problems together.”

However, the pandemic forced nearly everyone to work from home for the last 16 months, a situation Mollison called stressful because many felt less connected to their co-workers. He added that a change in venue is coming. “We purchased a building in West Springfield and will be moving in at the end of August. We’ll have plenty of space to bring everyone back with social distancing; our people are really looking forward to returning.”

At Paragus, employees have been ramping up their return to the office by coming in one day a week in June, two days a week in July, and three days a week starting in August. Bean said he won’t require more than three days a week in the office, but felt that some time in the office was important.

“We have intentionally designed our office to promote collaboration,” he said. “We don’t have walls or offices, so people can listen to each other and overhear what’s going on. You can replicate some of that online, but it’s not the same as hearing what’s going on around you.”

At Bloo Solutions, Beaudry has allowed his four full-time and several part-time employees to stay remote except for occasional trips to the office or when visiting a client’s location. Collaborative messaging tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams allow him and his staff to stay in touch with each other and stay on top of client concerns.

Jeremiah Beaudry says even companies that have built up internal IT

Jeremiah Beaudry says even companies that have built up internal IT staffing often come to see the value in outsourcing that work.

“We have channels dedicated to each client so any one of us can jump in and take care of any concerns,” he said. “Because we all have access to these messages, the same information is available to all of us without being next to each other.”

Whenever possible, Beaudry makes working from home an option for his staff.

“If you’re at home and take five minutes between tasks to turn around to pet your dog or do the dishes real quick, that time becomes meaningful and helpful in your life,” he said. “When you are in the office and not near anything you need to do, that same five minutes is wasted.”

Therefore, as long as his staff are productive, he doesn’t care if they work from home or at the office.

Another reason Bean cited for having people in the office at least some of the time is to help with their professional development and to identify when a staff member might need help. He worries that IT professionals who have chosen full-time remote work won’t have the same chance to grow or develop their careers.

“They will probably be fine doing the job they were hired for, but they will be relatively unengaged and potentially stagnant,” he said. “I don’t see how they can grow or develop much in an environment where they never see their co-workers or be around other people.”

Mollison credits his low staff turnover to seeking out people who like variety in their work and have an interest in personal and professional growth.

“Because IT folks tend to be introverts, we try to help them grow personally so they can become more comfortable working with clients and developing relationships with them,” he said.

While finding people in Western Mass. with technical skills isn’t so tough, Beaudry makes his hiring decisions based on a candidate’s emotional intelligence.

“I’ve learned over time that clients would rather feel good about a conversation they had rather than having an expert solve the problem who makes them feel bad about themselves,” he said.

 

Change Can Be Good

Another reason the demand for IT professionals is increasing has to do with the growing economy. Bean said the sales pipeline for new projects has never been fuller. “In terms of new business, we’re booking clients out to October because we only book so much at a time.”

In addition to hiring temporary contract workers, he has found another way to make up worker shortages: acquisitions. Paragus recently acquired one IT-support company in Worcester and is looking at two other acquisitions.

“In the past, the goal of an acquisition was to acquire clients and market,” he said. “Now it’s about acquiring talent.”

Would Bean like to see less disruption in the labor force? Sure. He also understands that this time of transition is part of the bigger picture.

“Everybody is moving around, so we’re on the receiving end of this as well,” he told BusinessWest. “The good news is we haven’t seen a shortage of any new résumés coming in.”

While it’s tempting to dwell on the employees leaving, however, Bean has gained some perspective.

“After some reflection,” he said, “we realized that a lot of the innovation and fresh approaches we get are driven by new people coming in with new ideas.”

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 73: August 2, 2021

George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Meghan Rothschild, president and owner of Chikmedia and one of five finalists for BusinessWest’s coveted 40 Under Forty Alumni Achievement Award

Meghan Rothschild

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Meghan Rothschild, president and owner of Chikmedia and one of five finalists for BusinessWest’s coveted 40 Under Forty Alumni Achievement Award. The two talk about her business, but especially her efforts to mentor and coach women in business and also her work within the community and to support many of the region’s nonprofits. It’s must listening so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 72: July 26, 2021

George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni, another of the finalists for BusinessWest’s coveted Alumni Achievement Award

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni, another of the finalists for BusinessWest’s coveted Alumni Achievement Award. The two talk about a number of the D.A.’s recent programs and initiatives, from work on cold cases, to the Emerging Adult Court of Hope, to efforts to curb everything from drug addiction to human trafficking to elder abuse. It’s must listening so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

Also Available On

Employment Special Coverage

Questions, Questions

 

At a time when most companies and nonprofit institutions in the region are hiring, or trying to, many area business owners, managers, and HR directors are sitting across the table from job candidates trying to determine if that individual is the proverbial ‘right one.’

Given this climate, BusinessWest asked a number of area business leaders to identify one of their favorite, most effective interview questions. We asked them to explain why they ask that question and what it reveals to them about the candidate.

Suffice it to say, their responses provide some food for thought on a very important part of business.

 

 

Sara Rose Stack

Sara Rose Stack

Sara Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruiting Manager, Meyers Brothers Kalicka

The question: “Tell me something that you would do differently than your current boss at your current job.”

I ask this question to learn more about candidate’s awareness of people around them, their creative problem-solving skills, their desire to improve and grow, and their level of tact. A candidate’s answer to this question will reveal a lot about his/her ability to solve problems, but what I am most interested in is how they communicate their proposed solution. The question itself has a somewhat negative connotation because it is asking for the candidate to share something that their boss could do better or differently. My experience has shown that, if someone will bash a supervisor or competitor to you, then they will repeat the behavior to others. Further, anyone that can share suggestions for improvement in a positive way is a great addition to the team. Tact and diplomacy are powerful tools for making improvements, contributing ideas, and working in a team.

 

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran, President, Bay Path University

The question: A two-parter: “How will this position help you grow your career?” “Tell me about an experience or work project where you had to work across departments to accomplish the goal(s).”

 

In the first part of the question, I am looking for authenticity of the candidate and the ability to be introspective and share their current strengths as well as their vulnerabilities. As their experience grows, their value as contributors to Bay Path will also increase. The second question provides insights to their capacity to be a team player and team leader within our organization. Today, 40% of Bay Path students are students of color, and we are striving to increase the diversity of our employees. As a result, as the candidate explains the project, I am looking for how they respect and handle other opinions and perspectives, value diversity of thought, and exhibit multi-cultural competencies. Above all, the candidate must be both mission- and student-centered.

 

Brenda Olesuk

Brenda Olesuk

Brenda Olesuk, President, Graduate Pest Solutions Inc.

The question: “What do you consider to be your professional and personal strengths, and, conversely, what areas do you struggle with or are not interested in doing professionally?”

 

This is a mainstay question in all of my interviews since it encourages the applicant to be introspective and reflective about themselves — and this tells me a lot about them. Learning what they consider to be their professional strengths and how they’ve applied those strengths often creates context for what they can and will bring to the table in the position they are applying for. Perhaps more important to me is the level of candor with which they communicate areas of struggle or lack of interest and how they have managed this in their career. This question often leads to an additional discussion that unveils the applicant’s openness to coaching and development, which is a trait that is important to me as a leader, manager, and employer.

 

 

Ellen Freyman

Ellen Freyman

Ellen Freyman, Esq., Partner, Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C.

The question: “What would make you satisfied in this job?”

 

This question lets the applicant know that we care whether our employees are happy working for us, and at the same time, it helps us determine if this applicant will be a good fit. It is also another way of finding out the applicant’s strengths without asking directly, and discloses what part of the job they may not care to do. The answer to this question can reveal why the applicant hasn’t stayed in previous jobs and potentially lead us to rethink some of the things we are doing in our office. The question helps us determine if the applicant understands the position they have applied for and if they have the right skill set. Getting an honest answer to this question helps both the applicant and us know whether hiring this person will be satisfying to both of us.

 

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi, President, TommyCar Auto Group

The question: “How do you delegate responsibilities to team members?”

 

I ask this question to potential hiring candidates because most managers fail at delegation. As a good leader, it is their responsibility to be clear about what they are delegating and their expectations. In our company, it is our manager’s responsibility to offer their team the tools they need to succeed by encouraging and supporting the decision-making environment. The effective delegation and empowerment of their employees is essential for their success as a manager. By asking this question, I am able to learn if a potential candidate is able to release control and effectively delegate, empower, and hold accountable their future team members.

 

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar, Chief Strategy Officer, Universal Plastics

The question: “Why did you leave your last job?” Or, if they are still employed, “Why are you looking to leave this job?”

 

As an employer, I value continuity and longevity in job history. However, the résumé is just a piece of paper. The interview is the opportunity to either rise above what the piece of paper says or minimize it. How someone discusses a job change tells me whether they are a team player, whether they are growth-mindset-oriented, and what kinds of cultures, people, and attributes they either enjoy or don’t. In short, it is the ‘heart’ (as opposed to the ‘head’) part of the interview, which answers the most important question of all for me — do I want this person on my team?

It is never easy to leave a job, whether you do it on your own terms or have been asked to do so. So, how you answer this question brings up your response to a difficult situation, which may even involve conflict or confrontation. As an employer, I want to know how you handle difficult situations. At Universal Plastics, we believe in giving people chances, lots of them, but it has to start from a place of candor and commitment to our culture and the values we espouse, and this question aims to ascertain exactly that.

 

Michael Matty

Michael Matty

Michael Matty, President, St. Germain Investments

The question: “What did your parents do?”

 

I like to ask this because we are all a product of our background, and it is a great opportunity to gain some insight into the person. If, for example, the parents ran their own business, the candidate probably has a good understanding of the needs of a small business and what it takes to make it work. It is also a good opportunity to ask why the candidate doesn’t want to work there. Conversely, the mom may have been stay-at-home, and dad worked in a factory job in a blue-collar role. The candidate may be first-generation college and first-generation in a professional role — sometimes a bit less polished in presentation, but likely with good reason. And if they are smart, energetic, and willing to learn, I’d potentially think they were a good hire. Overall, it’s a good, open-ended question that can lead to some good conversation.

 

Jane Albert

Jane Albert

Jane Albert, Senior Vice President and Chief Consumer Officer, Baystate Health

The question: “What impact has the pandemic had on you?

 

This is a newer question I ask because it opens the door to conversation about a current topic of significance with many pathways to get to know the candidate. Asking a broad, open-ended question provides the candidate with a choice to respond with an orientation toward their personal life or their work experiences. like to provide that option to make it most comfortable for the candidate during the interview. This question enables conversation about how they handled changes and challenges related to the pandemic and offers glimpses into how they may handle and adjust to changes within our healthcare environment and their potential new work responsibilities. It also opens the door to learning about the candidate’s priorities, relationships, engagements, and abilities to adapt to change, along with how they handled this in their daily life as well as throughout their work experiences.

 

 

Kate Campiti

Kate Campiti

Kate Campiti, Associate Publisher and Sales Manager, BusinessWest

The question: “Have you had experience in the service industry?”

 

When I interview for sales, I look for — and ask about — experience in the service industry. If the candidate has it, I ask how they’ve handled a tough customer or table and how they turned it around or were able to shake it off to continue successfully serving the rest of the shift. If candidates can wait tables or bartend successfully, it shows they have what it takes to think on their feet, appeal to customers, and provide high-level service to earn tips. It also shows they are driven by both money and customer service, which bodes well for a sales position with BusinessWest. For other positions, I typically ask what motivates them, what they do to unwind, if they have tactics for stress relief inside and outside the office, and what they think their best assets and weaknesses are and what they think their current or previous employers would say.

Business of Aging Special Coverage

House Calls

While the pandemic may have challenged the home-care industry, it certainly didn’t suppress the need for such services. In fact, demographic trends in the U.S. — where about 10,000 Baby Boomers reach age 65 every day — speak to continued, and growing, demand for care services delivered in the home. That means opportunities both for agencies who specialize in this field and job seekers looking for a rewarding role and steady work.

Michele Anstett says business was like “falling off a cliff” when COVID hit, but client volume has returned to normal.

Michele Anstett says business was like “falling off a cliff” when COVID hit, but client volume has returned to normal.

By Mark Morris

In early 2020, Michele Anstett, president and owner of Visiting Angels in West Springfield, was pleased because her business was doing well. As a provider of senior home care, she managed 80 caregivers for 50 clients.

“We were going along just fine,” she said. “And when COVID hit, it was like falling off a cliff.”

The business model for companies like Visiting Angels involves interacting with people in their homes, so when early mandates encouraged people to keep away from anyone outside their immediate ‘bubble,’ it hit the industry hard.

Even though caregivers were designated as essential workers, Anstett saw her numbers shrink to 39 caregivers who were now responsible for only 19 clients. In order for her business to survive, she continued to provide services for her clients who needed personal-care services around the clock and for those who had no family members in the area.

“Where possible, we asked family members to step in to help out,” she told BusinessWest. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there was less risk to everyone when a family member could be involved with their loved one’s care.”

Anstett also incorporated a detailed checklist of risk factors for each caregiver to review to prevent COVID-19 from spreading to them or their clients.

“I thought patients weren’t following up because of a language barrier. As it turns out, they weren’t responding because they didn’t understand the severity of the situation.”

“We talked with caregivers about the people in their circle,” Anstett said. “It was similar to contact tracing, but we did it beforehand, so people would understand what they had to consider to protect themselves, their families, and their clients.”

A Better Life Homecare in Springfield runs two home-care programs. In one, it provides personal-care services such as helping seniors with grooming, cooking, laundry, and more. The other program provides low-income patients with medical care in the home, such as skilled nursing services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.

On the medical side of the business, licensed practical nurses (LPNs) handle many of the home visits, while certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and patient care assistants (PCAs) are the main frontline workers on the personal-care side. A Better Life also employs case workers to supervise PCAs and CNAs and to set up other resources a patient may need, such as Meals on Wheels and support groups.

When COVID hit, said Claudia Lora, community outreach director for A Better Life, she and her staff made patient communication a top priority.

Claudia Lora

Claudia Lora says communication with clients was key to navigating the pandemic.

“We implemented daily phone calls to our patients that also served as wellness check-ins,” she recalled. Because a majority of the company’s clients are Spanish speakers, A Better Life employs many bilingual staff. At the beginning of their outreach efforts, Lora became concerned when some patients didn’t seem to follow up and respond to communications.

“I thought patients weren’t following up because of a language barrier,” she said. “As it turns out, they weren’t responding because they didn’t understand the severity of the situation.”

On the other hand, she said some patients temporarily stopped their home-care service out of concern about interacting with anyone in person. The system of daily phone calls helped address patient concerns and keep them current on their treatments. In addition, patients received whimsical postcards to lift their spirits and care packages of hygiene products and food staples.

“The pandemic opened our eyes in different ways,” Lora said. “It made us aware that we needed a system of daily phone calls in both programs, which we will continue even after the pandemic is no longer a concern.”

 

Growing Need

The lessons home-care agencies learned from the pandemic — some of which, as noted, will lead to changes in how care is provided — come at a time when the need for home-based services is only increasing.

That growing need is due in part to people living longer, of course. According to government data, once a couple with average health reaches age 65, there is a 50% chance one of them will live to age 93, and a 25% chance one of them will see age 97. With the increased longevity, there is also a greater chance these seniors will need some type of assistance with daily chores or treating a malady.

Receiving care at home, with an average cost nationally of $3,800 per month, is less expensive than moving into a nursing home (approximately $7,000 per month), and nearly everyone would rather stay in their home. When seniors need assistance, Anstett said, they often rely on family members out of fear of having an outside person come into their home.

Now that concerns about COVID are easing, she reports that people are increasingly more willing to have someone come in to their home to help, but there are still some who resist. “I wish they could understand we are not there to take away their independence, but to give them more independence.”

Lora said some of her patients were reluctant to allow people to come into their homes until they considered the alternatives.

“The only other option for people receiving medical care would have been checking into a skilled-nursing facility or a nursing home,” she noted. “I knew that was the last place they wanted to go.”

She added that the extensive news coverage of high rates of COVID in nursing homes and the high case rate locally at the Holyoke Soldiers Home convinced most people that care at home was a wise choice.

Anstett and Lora both pointed out that their companies always make sure anyone providing home care wears appropriate personal protective equipment and follows the latest guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID. Anstett said she encourages her caregivers to get vaccinated, but doesn’t force the issue because she recognizes some people have health issues.

“However,” she added, “I make it clear to the unvaccinated folks that the pool of clients willing to see a caregiver who is not vaccinated is fairly small.”

While the pandemic may have slowed down business in the short term, demographic trends still remain strong for the years ahead. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, about 10,000 people reach age 65 every day. This trend is expected to continue until 2030, when all living Baby Boomers will be at least 65 years old.

 

Looking Ahead

Fifteen months after the chaotic early days of the pandemic and with many people now vaccinated, Lora said A Better Life is busier today than before the pandemic.

“In the last six months, admissions have increased by around 50%,” she noted. “That’s more than I have seen in the past three years; it’s been insane.”

She added that her company is now short-staffed because of the rapid growth it is seeing and has been offering incentives to try to bring more CNAs and PCAs on board.

Anstett said her client numbers and caregiver numbers are back to where they were before the pandemic and noted that she has not had any problem filling open positions.

“I just cut 80 paychecks, and we are anticipating even more growth,” she said, adding that her secret to hiring is treating caregivers with respect and encouraging them to grow in their careers. “I stay in touch with every one of our caregivers. They’re the reason I’m working, so I treat them with the utmost respect.”

While many professions look to push out older workers, Anstett said she appreciates more seasoned workers and looks forward to hiring them. “Caregiving is an opportunity to keep working for those who want to, and we welcome their experience.”

Pointing out that she hired another case manager last week, Lora added that, while her organization is expanding, it has not forgotten its mission.

“Even with our growth,” she said, “we see our patients as part of a family and a community, not just a number.”

Franklin County Special Coverage

All Aboard

The Greenfield Amtrak stop

The Greenfield Amtrak stop will be busier this month with the restoration of Vermonter service and a second Valley Flyer train. Photo courtesy of Trains In The Valley

While a proposed east-west rail line between Pittsfield and Boston has gotten most of the train-related press recently, another proposal, to incorporate passenger rail service on existing freight lines between North Adams and Boston, has gained considerable momentum, with a comprehensive, 18-month study on the issue set to launch. Not only would it return a service that thrived decades ago, proponents say, but expanded rail in the so-called Northern Tier Corridor could prove to be a huge economic boost to Franklin County — and the families who live there.

 

State Sen. Jo Comerford has spoken with plenty of people who remember taking a train from Greenfield to North Station in Boston to catch Bill Russell’s Celtics.

They stepped on at 2:55 p.m. — one of as many as 12 boardings on any given weekday — and the train was already half-full after stops in Troy, N.Y., North Adams, and Shelburne Falls. Then they’d arrive at North Station at 5:15, “and you’d still have time for dinner before the game started,” Comerford said. “That was our reality in Franklin County in the 1950s.”

She shared those words last week at a virtual community meeting to discuss a comprehensive study, soon to get underway, of passenger rail service along the Northern Tier Corridor, a route from North Adams to Boston via Greenfield, Fitchburg, and other stops.

Ben Heckscher would love to see expanded train service in Western Mass.; as the co-creator of the advocacy organization Trains In The Valley, he’s a strong proponent of existing lines like Amtrak’s Vermonter and Valley Flyer, north-south lines that stop in Greenfield, as well as more ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north.

Like Comerford, he drew on the sports world as he spoke to BusinessWest, noting that travelers at Union Station in Springfield can order up a ticket that takes them, with a couple of transfers, right to the gates of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. “But there’s no button to push for the Red Sox,” Heckscher said. “It seems funny — we’re in Western Mass., and you can take a train to see the Yankees, but you can’t get to Fenway.”

But sporting events aren’t highest on his list of rail benefits. Those spots are dedicated to the positive environmental impact of keeping cars off the road, mobility for people who don’t own cars or can’t drive, and the overall economic impact of trains on communities and the people who live and work in them.

People want to access rail for all kinds of reasons, Heckscher said, from commuting to work to enjoying leisure time in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington without having to deal with navigating an unfamiliar city and paying for parking. Then there are medical appointments — many families living in Western Mass. have to get to Boston hospitals regularly, and don’t want to deal with the Mass Pike or Route 2 to get there.

“People are just really tired of driving Route 2 to Boston, especially at night or in the winter, and they want another way back and forth,” he said. “So they’re going to do a really robust study, and we’ll see what comes of that.”

In addition, as the average age of the population ticks upward, many older people might want to travel but be loath to drive long distances. In fact, that kind of travel is increasingly appealing to all age groups, Heckscher added. “You can ride the train, open your computer, take a nap. You can’t do that operating a car — at least not yet. So, rail definitely has the potential to become even more important.”

State Rep. Natalie Blais agrees. “We know the residents of Central and Western Mass. are hungry for expanded rail service. That is clear,” she said at last week’s virtual meeting. “We are hungry for rail because we know these connections can positively impact our communities with the possibilities for jobs, expansion of tourism, and the real revitalization of local economies.”

Ben Heckscher

Ben Heckscher

“People are just really tired of driving Route 2 to Boston, especially at night or in the winter, and they want another way back and forth.”

Makaela Niles, project manager for the Northern Tier study at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the 18-month study will evaluate the viability and potential benefits of rail service between North Adams, Greenfield, and Boston.

The process will document past efforts, incorporate market analysis (of demographics, land use, and current and future predicted travel needs), explore costs and alternatives, and recommend next steps. Public participation will be critical, through roughly seven public meetings, most of them with a yet-to-be-established working group and a few focused on input from the public. A website will also be created to track the study’s progress.

“We know it’s critical that we have stakeholders buying in,” said Maureen Mullaney, a program manager with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “We look forward to having a very robust, inclusive participation process.”

 

Making Connections

Comerford has proposed rail service along Route 2 as a means for people living in the western counties along the corridor to more easily travel to the Greater Boston region, and a means for people living in the Boston area to more easily access destinations in Berkshire, Franklin, and Worcester counties. In addition to direct service along the Northern Tier, the service could provide connecting service via Greenfield to southern New Hampshire and Vermont.

The service would operate over two segments of an existing rail corridor. The first segment, between North Adams and Fitchburg, is owned by Pan Am Southern LLC. The second segment, between Fitchburg and Boston North Station, is owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). Any new service would be designed so that it does not negatively impact the existing MBTA Fitchburg Line commuter rail service or the existing freight rail service along the entire corridor.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge asked Niles at last week’s meeting about potential tension between freight and passenger interests and whether commuter times will be thrown off by the needs of freight carriers.

“We’ll be looking at how those two intersect and make sure any additional service that could occur along the corridor doesn’t impact with freight or current commuter operations along the corridor,” Niles responded. “We’ll look at how all the services communicate and work together.”

Other potential study topics range from development of multi-modal connections with local bus routes and other services to an extension of passenger rail service past North Adams into Adams and even as far as Albany, although that would take coordination with officials in New York.

“My hope is that these communities would suddenly become destination spots for a whole new market of people looking to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Boston.”

Comerford first introduced the bill creating the study back in January 2019, and an amendment funding it was included in the state’s 2020 budget, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the study until now.

And it’s not a moment too soon, she recently said on the Train Time podcast presented by Barrington Institute, noting that rail service brings benefits ranging from climate effects to economic development to impact on individual families who want to live in Franklin County but work in Boston (see related story on page 39).

With average salaries lower than those available in Boston often making it difficult to settle in Franklin County, availability of rail affects people’s job prospects and quality of life, she noted.

“My hope is that these communities would suddenly become destination spots for a whole new market of people looking to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Boston,” Comerford said, noting that, longer-term, she hopes to see greater business development in Western Mass. due to expanded rail, as businesses that need access to Boston, Hartford, and New York could set up shop here and access those cities without having to deal with traffic.

The bottom line, she said, is that it’s environmentally important to get cars off the road, but there are currently too many gaps in public transportation to make that a reality.

“There was a time when you could work in Boston and live in Franklin County,” she said. “I’ve heard story after story about what life was like up until about the late ’60s. It changed abruptly for them.

“When I was elected, one of the first things I researched was passenger rail along Route 2,” she went on. “I thought, ‘we have to explore starting this again. This is really important.’”

 

Chugging Along

Of course, east-west rail is only part of the story right now in Western Mass. Running north-south between New Haven and Greenfield are Amtrak’s Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines.

On July 26, Amtrak will restore a second train to its daily Valley Flyer service 16 months after cutting a train due to COVID-19. Southbound trains will depart Greenfield at 5:45 a.m. and 7:35 a.m., and northbound trains will return to the station at 10:23 p.m. and 12:38 a.m.

The Vermonter will return to service in Massachusetts on July 19. A long-distance train originating in Washington, D.C., it has gone no further north than New Haven since March 2020, also due to the pandemic. Amtrak is also reopening three other trains which offer service between New Haven and Springfield.

According to Amtrak, ridership on the Valley Flyer fell by more than half at the Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield stations in 2020, but the company is optimistic it will return to past numbers. That’s critical, since the Flyer is part of a DOT and Amtrak pilot program, which means its funding depends on its ridership. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) will launch an advertising campaign this fall in an effort to boost interest in the service.

“The pandemic really tanked ridership — all forms of public transportation, actually,” said Heckscher, noting that most travelers felt much safer in their cars last year than among groups of people. “But since the vaccine came out, there’s been a comeback in ridership in the Valley Flyer service.”

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community and Economic Development, said the city has been waiting a long time for the Valley Flyer, “and we don’t want to be just a pilot.”

She feels the city, and the region, will benefit from a perception that people can get anywhere from the Greenfield area, and they may be more willing to move there while continuing to work in the city. Many of those are people who grew up in Franklin County and have a connection to it but still want to feel like they can easily get to work far away or enjoy a day trip without the hassle of traffic or parking.

There’s an economic-development factor related to tourism as well, Adams said. “People in New York City, Hartford, or New Haven can spend the day up here in the country — it’s not just us going down to New York, but people from New York who get on a train, enjoy a nice stay in rural Massachusetts, have a blast, and get back on the train to go home. It’s a two-way street.”

A recent report commissioned by Connecticut’s Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), in consultation with the PVPC, reinforced the idea of rail as an economic driver, finding a nearly 10-to-1 return on investments in passenger rail between New Haven and Worcester via the Hartford-Springfield metro area.

“In so many ways, the findings of this study confirm what we have seen with our own eyes for decades here in the Valley — regions connected by rail to the major economic hubs of Boston and New York City are thriving, while underserved communities like ours have lagged behind,” PVPC Executive Director Kimberly Robinson said. “We now know what the lack of rail has cost us economically, and this trend cannot continue further into the 21st century.”

Though she was speaking mainly of proposed routes along the state’s southern corridor, Heckscher believes in the economic benefits — and other benefits — of numerous projects being discussed across Massachusetts, including along Route 2.

“With rail, everyone has the ability to travel long distances,” he said — and the impact, while still uncertain in the details, could prove too promising to ignore.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 71: July 19, 2021

George Interviews Massachusetts State Sen. Eric Lesser

Eric Lesser

George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Massachusetts State Sen. Eric Lesser, one of five finalists for BusinessWest’s coveted 40 Under Forty Alumni Achievement Award. The two tackle a wide range of topics, including high-speed rail, the new Future of Work Commission Lesser now sits on, and redistricting and what it might mean for Springfield and the rest of Western Mass. It’s must listening so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 70: July 12, 2021

George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Ray Berry, founder and owner of White Lion Brewing

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Ray Berry, founder and owner of White Lion Brewing, author of one of the region’s more intriguing, and thirst-quenching, stories of entrepreneurship. The two talk about everything from the recent opening of the company’s tap room and restaurant in Tower Square, to the many challenges this business has overcome over the years, to the immense, and still growing, level of competition within the craft beer world. It’s must listening so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Stating Its Case

Tony Liberopoulos

Tony Liberopoulos says Liberty Bank might be new to Western Mass., but its lenders are anything but.

Dave Glidden is no stranger to the Western Mass. banking community, and neither is the lending team he’s assembled to grow Liberty Bank — the Connecticut-based institution he currently serves as president and CEO — within this region. Liberty’s leaders believe those community ties — some of the Western Mass. team’s lenders have worked in this market for three decades — will prove fruitful at a time when customers are looking for experience and stability.

Liberty Bank is the oldest currently operating bank in Connecticut. But Dave Glidden prefers not to think in terms of state lines.

“We’ve been in Connecticut a long time, and very recently we’ve crossed the border into Western Mass.,” said Glidden, the bank’s president and CEO and a familiar figure to the Pioneer Valley’s banking community from his years as regional president at TD Bank.

The reasons for the northward push, he said, seemed obvious.

“When I looked at this opportunity and took the job, one of the things I talked about with the board and my teammates was that, when you think about it, there are so many similarities between Connecticut and the Greater Springfield market, economically and culturally; people work back and forth across the border.

“So, really, if you stop looking at state boundaries for a second, we really lend in that I-91 corridor, New Haven on up through Middletown, through Hartford, and now into Greater Springfield,” he went on. “There are many similarities in industries and types of businesses, and we know a lot of the borrowers, the centers of influence, the CPA firms, the legal firms … and we know many of the businesses.”

“Liberty Bank is new to Western Mass., but our team is not new to Western Mass.”

That’s because Glidden and Liberty’s Western Mass. team — Chief Credit Officer Dan Flynn; lenders Tony Liberopoulos, Jeff Sattler, Rick Rabideau, and Gene Rondeau; and Sue Fearn, who specializes in cash management — have roughly 160 years of combined experience working in banking in Western Mass.

“Liberty Bank is new to Western Mass., but our team is not new to Western Mass.,” Liberopoulos said. “We’ve got one of the most experienced teams in Western Mass., even though we’re the rookie bank in this area.”

With the ability to assemble a team with that depth of experience in the market, Glidden said, expansion into this region — lending activity began last year, and a commercial loan-production office is opening this month in East Longmeadow — just made sense.

“Obviously, this commercial loan production under Tony’s leadership is the first foray over the border,” Glidden said, “and we’re continually evaluating and looking at retail branch sites and how we’ll build out the franchise over the course of the next couple of years in support of the commercial-lending activities that really started about a year or so ago.”

With more than $7 billion in assets but strong ties to its local communities, Glidden said Liberty is the kind of stable institution that appeals to customers in Western Mass., especially at a time when mergers and acquisitions (M&A) continue to shake up the landscape.

“With everything that’s going on in all the banking markets, there’s a lot of disruption with M&A, and it’s projected there will be a lot more M&A industry-wide,” he noted. “So, as a bank with our size and history, and the teams we have, we’re in a unique position where we can kind of out-local national banks and out-national local banks and be that entity in the middle that can deliver services and make decisions in a very local fashion, but has the scale and the size to grow with borrowers, usually past where a lot of the other community banks are restricted due to their size.”

Dave Glidden with a map of Liberty’s locations

Dave Glidden with a map of Liberty’s locations, most of which are concentrated along, or not far from, the I-91 corridor.

While commercial lending is the main focus right now, Glidden said, he sees Liberty eventually expanding its presence to offer that type of appeal to retail customers as well. “When a bank gets acquired, customers often say, ‘my bank’s changing, my banking relationship is changing — maybe now is the time I should have the conversation with someone else.”

It’s a sense that was only supercharged by the pandemic, a time when online retailers thrived and changed people’s expectations about service delivery.

“We have to continue to deliver the right type of distribution system for our customers if we expect to gain market share and capture those who get disrupted due to M&A activity, or whatever other market event might happen,” Glidden told BusinessWest.

“There are great banks in Western Mass., super people, experienced bankers, but there’s going to continue to be disruption — everywhere, not just in Western Mass.,” he went on. “And we think, with our balance sheet and existing franchise and the investments we’ve been making, which have been significant over the past few years, to really up our digital offerings across the board, we’re in a great position to enter a great market that means a lot to the executive leadership here at Liberty Bank.”

 

Lending Support

Since launching activity in Greater Springfield, Liberopoulos and the rest of the lending team have assembled a broad variety of clients. “It’s across the board,” he said. “We’ll do loans up to $50 million for the right client, or even higher than that. We’re primarily looking at small to medium-sized businesses. We’ll look at investment real-estate deals, and we’ll look at any privately held business, if it’s the right size for us.”

Like the Greater Hartford market in which Liberty has recently expanded its presence, Glidden doesn’t see loans in a vacuum, but rather takes a big-picture look at how each loan-funded project or expansion impacts economic development in an entire region.

“It’s important, when you’re a community bank and you go into a market, that you have a strategy to align with and understand what’s going on in those markets. Who are the key economic-development companies, the drivers? Who are the key not-for-profits that we can align ourselves with and support? Because when we invest in the communities we do business in, it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s smart business.”

As it eyes growth across its footprint, including expansion of retail, investment, and other services in Western Mass., Liberty is making another kind of investment, Glidden said: in its digital channels.

“Banking customers’ habits are changing rapidly. They were changing rapidly before the pandemic,” he said. “But, obviously, the pandemic forced people to adopt online channels that, before, they wouldn’t have felt comfortable with, or didn’t think they needed — but it became a need during the pandemic.”

Part of the bank’s strategy for this region includes what shape the physical footprint will take to support the services Liberty wants to provide, he noted — but that strategy must roll out in tandem with the digital one.

Tony Liberopoulos (left) and Dave Glidden

Tony Liberopoulos (left) and Dave Glidden say there’s a space in Western Mass. for a bank of Liberty’s size and local focus.

“Branches are changing, and customers’ habits are changing — they’re using them less, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still important,” Glidden said, noting that part of what he called his “aspirational three-year plan” has involved bolstering digital assets, so customers can choose how to interact with the bank.

“It’s not up to us to choose how customers do business with us. It’s for them to choose, and it’s incumbent on us to make sure we have all those channels there. Branches are one of them, as are online, digital, and live chat.”

As he noted earlier, Amazon and other online entities, particularly during the pandemic, have altered people’s expectations when it comes to retail, and banks are, indeed, a retail business — so a bank’s digital channels need to live up to those heightened expectations.

The pandemic impacted Liberty’s Western Mass. plans in another way, Liberopoulos said: by giving it an opportunity to stay aggressive when not every bank did.

“It was an interesting time. We came to work every day, took our precautions, properly distanced, wore our masks,” he said, noting that clients still wanted to meet, some in person, some by phone or Zoom, whatever made them most comfortable. And those meetings were often productive.

“We were firm believers that COVID was going to end, so we’d look at their financial performance prior to COVID,” Liberopoulos said. “We knew 2020 and 2021 were going to be difficult, but if they were strong in ’17, ’18, and ’19 — and if their interim results look good in ’21 now that we’re getting past vaccinations — we were very eager to win that business.

“When some other banks were uncomfortable lending because of the numbers they saw for 2020, we were not,” he went on. “We understood it’s about the owners of the business, the history of the business, and we were all convinced, here at Liberty Bank, that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel and we would find the right clients to work with.”

Glidden said he was “never prouder to be a banker” than he was in 2020.

“I never want to go through it again, of course, but what the banking industry did with the Paycheck Protection Program and the SBA lending as part of the CARES Act, that was a huge challenge for the banking industry.”

He praised not only his own team, but his colleagues at other banks for working non-stop in those chaotic early days of PPP last spring, and kept working to get customers the help they needed.

“I could see it was a very unique, maybe the most unique, time in my career,” he said. “I really felt an obligation as a banker, that we’re the only way this money is getting out there in this once-in-a-lifetime — knock on wood — pandemic.”

 

Community Ties

Getting back to the consolidation landscape, Liberopoulos said acquisitions can often distance a bank’s philanthropic arm from the communities in which is does business, but Liberty continues to be focused on those activities.

“The bank is very sensitive to the fact that we’re seeing consolidations, so we’re seeing less money being given to non-for-profits in the community, and one of our chief slogans now is ‘be community kind.’ We want to give back to the community where we work, where we lend, and where we live. And we’ve done that already,” he said, citing donations to Ronald McDonald House, and the Boys & Girls Club as recent examples.

“It’s certainly been part of Liberty Bank’s DNA and corporate culture,” Glidden agreed, noting that the bank’s foundation, which he also serves as president and CEO, gives away around $1.5 million per year, and the bank itself contributes in the seven-figure range as well.

“And our commitments are growing,” he added. “As a community bank, you have a responsibility and obligation to give back; all of us truly believe that. That’s why we’re here. We walk the talk. We give back to our communities. It’s what community banks should do. We’re mutual, we’re private, we’re owned by our customers, so you have to give back to those communities.”

Which is even more important in an era of M&A activity.

“I just think, given the disruption and consolidation in the market, that we’re a bank that’s still local and makes decisions locally. We give back to our communities; we put our money where our mouth is.”

As one of the largest PPP lenders in Connecticut, Liberty also felt a responsibility to support community members who weren’t customers, which is why it serviced PPP loans for such individuals. In some cases, that opened the door to a new relationship opportunity.

In the end, Liberty grew during the pandemic — by about $1.2 billion during 2020, in fact. Some of that was PPP activity, Glidden noted, but about two-thirds sprung from new market share and new customers.

“We continue to feel optimistic — 196 years is pretty old, but I feel more optimistic about the next 196 years than I was pre-pandemic, and I was pretty optimistic pre-pandemic.”

Liberopoulos is optimistic, too. “We’re new to the market, but we’re not new to banking. We’ve got an experienced, well-known team, and we make local decisions with quick turnaround time. We’ll make loan decisions on the spot, in front of a client, when we meet with them. That’s the kind of bank I’m happy to say I work for.”

And it’s the sort of bank that shouldn’t be constrained by state lines, Glidden added.

“Liberty Bank is coming to Western Mass. to be a business partner with the community. We’re not coming there just to make loans and take deposits. This is the first stake in the ground, so to speak, but I think everyone will see and feel our commitment to Western Mass. as we build out our franchise there.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Special Coverage

Challenge Accepted

Linda Thompson, the 21st president of Westfield State University.

Linda Thompson had never applied for a college presidency position before a recruiter called and invited her to pursue that post at Westfield State University. She listened, and agreed it was time to take a 40-year-career in healthcare, public policy, and healthcare education to a new and much higher plane. She becomes WSU’s 21st president at a challenging time, especially as schools large and small return to something approaching normal after 16 months of life in a pandemic. But with her diverse background, she believes she’s ready for that challenge.

 

Linda Thompson remembers not only the call from the headhunter, made to gauge her interest in applying for the president’s position at Westfield State University, but the words of encouragement that accompanied it.

“She said, ‘Linda, I think you’re ready to think about being a president,’” said Thompson, who at the time was dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UMass Boston and hadn’t pursued a president’s position before. “She said, ‘you’re a dean now … look at the work deans do; they raise money, they create new programs, they create partnerships, they work with the board. The things you do as a dean are the things you’ll do as a president.”

More important than the recruiter thinking she was ready for the post at WSU, Thompson knew she was ready, even if she needed a little convincing.

“I thought I had the right background at this point in time to make a difference at this specific university,” she said, adding that it’s much more than the 35 years in higher education in various positions within nursing and health-sciences programs that gave her the confidence to enter and then prevail in the nationwide search for the school’s 21st president. It was also experience in public policy, working with a host of elected leaders to address a wide range of health and public-safety issues and, essentially, problem-solve.

“Education, to me, is a ticket out of poverty; it’s a ticket for creating wonderful solutions for society and for people.”

“Most of my career, I’ve worked with children and youth, trying to develop programs and policies to promote healthy outcomes for children, youth, and families,” she explained. “I started out, like most people in nursing, in a hospital and moved to community and public-health work. I really became interested in high-risk children just based on my work in public health, seeing how children who grew up in poverty, children who grew up in less-than-fortunate environments, were impacted by those circumstances.”

She points to her own family as an example, and noted that her two older sisters both died young, one from a gunshot wound at age 21 and the other from complications from diabetes during her second pregnancy as a teen.

“I always thought that the reason I thrived was education,” she told BusinessWest. “Education, to me, is a ticket out of poverty; it’s a ticket for creating wonderful solutions for society and for people. I’ve been blessed; I’ve not only had the opportunity to work as a nurse, I’ve also had the opportunity to work to develop programs for children who were in the justice system, people who were in state custody. I did work all over the country looking at ways we can promote good outcomes for people who had the misfortune to be engaged in the criminal-justice system.

Linda Thompson says Westfield State University learned a number of lessons during the pandemic

Linda Thompson says Westfield State University learned a number of lessons during the pandemic, and it will apply them as the school, its students, faculty, and staff return to something approaching normal this fall.

“I worked for the governor of Maryland for five years and developed programs and policies for children and youth statewide,” she went on. “We looked at how we could develop inter-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary programs, starting with education, all the way to how we need to work with housing and economic development to create good outcomes for families and for children.”

Thompson arrives at the rural WSU campus at an intriguing time for all those in higher education. Smaller high-school graduating classes have contributed to enrollment challenges at many institutions, and even some closures of smaller schools, and the soaring cost of a college education has brought ever-more attention to the value of such an education and how schools provide it.

Meanwhile, institutions will be returning to something approaching normal this fall after enduring two and a half semesters of life in a global pandemic, an experience that tested all schools in every way imaginable and also provided learning experiences and opportunities to do things in a different, and sometimes better, way.

Thompson acknowledged these developments and said they will be among the challenges and opportunities awaiting her as she takes the helm at the 182-year-old institution, founded by Horace Mann, whose pioneering efforts in education — and inclusion — are certainly a source of inspiration for her.

“He wanted to look at how education is important to a new society — a society that was going to be self-governed and where people needed to understand how to engage in civil society. I was very intrigued with this history, the inclusive nature of his approach to higher education, and how he looked back at some of the historical development of what I will call democracies in ancient Greece and the importance of an educated community to support democracies and health societies.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Thompson about Horace Mann, the challenges facing those in higher education, and why she believes WSU is well-positioned to meet them head-on.

 

Grade Expectations

As noted earlier, Thompson brings a diverse portfolio of experience to her latest challenge.

Our story begins in 1979, when she began her career as a clinical nurse specialist in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Soon thereafter, she would begin interspersing jobs in education with those in the public sector.

Linda Thompson says the timing was right for her to pursue a college presidency, and Westfield State University was the ideal fit.

Linda Thompson says the timing was right for her to pursue a college presidency, and Westfield State University was the ideal fit.

In 1987, she became assistant dean at the School of Nursing at Coppin State College in Baltimore, and two years later took a job as director of the Office of Occupational Medicine and Safety in Baltimore. In 1993, she joined the school of Nursing at the University of Maryland, where she would hold a variety of positions between 1993 and 2003, with a four-year diversion in the middle to serve as special secretary for Children, Youth & Families in the Maryland Governor’s Office.

In 2003, she became dean of Nursing at Oakland University in Troy, Mich., and later returned to the East Coast, where she would join the staff at North Carolina A&T State University, first as provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, then as associate vice chancellor for Outreach, Professional Development & Distance Education.

“I see myself as a servant leader, a person who tries to see how I can help another person maximize their opportunity to dig deep inside themselves, and identify their strengths and bring those strengths out.”

In 2013, she became dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and a professor of Nursing at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and in 2017, she came to UMass Boston, serving as dean of the College of Nursing and Health Services.

Slicing through all that, she said she’s had decades of experience working collaboratively with others to achieve progress in areas ranging from student success to diversity with staff and faculty; from forging partnerships with private-sector institutions to creating strategic plans; from creating new academic programs to securing new philanthropic revenue streams for faculty research.

And she intends to tap into all that experience as she leads WSU out of the pandemic and into the next chapter in its history.

As she does so, she intends to lean heavily on Horace Mann, considered by many to be the father of public education, for both inspiration and direction. In many respects, they share common viewpoints about the importance of education and inclusion.

“This whole idea of looking at healthy communities and using education to strengthen communities resonated with me,” Thompson explained. “And it resonated with me given some of the things we’re starting to see with our divided country; how do we get people educated so that they’re able to know how to be critical thinkers, how to separate fact from fiction, and how to begin looking at the importance of creating communities where everyone is healthy? To me, healthy is more than physical health — it’s emotional and social and environmental, this whole way that we look at values that really enable people to thrive and survive in society.”

Looking forward, she said she has many goals and ambitions for the school, with greater diversity and inclusion at the top of the list. She pointed to UMass Boston, which she described as one of the most diverse schools in the country, as both a model and a true reflection of the demographic changes that have taken place in the U.S.

“Those diverse populations are the future of higher education in this country,” she told BusinessWest. “We are becoming a majority minority population, and there are opportunities to reach out to communities of color and stress the importance of education to be part of a lifestyle where we’re constantly looking at ways to engage with people and give them tools to thrive.”

 

Course of Action

Thompson arrived at the WSU campus at the start of this month. She will use the two months before the fall semester begins to make connections — both on campus and within the community.

She said the calendar was quickly filling up with appointments with area civic, business, and education leaders, at which she will gauge needs, come to fully understand how the university partners with others to meet those needs, and discuss ways to broaden WSU’s impact and become even more of a difference maker in the community.
The discussions with business leaders will focus on the needs of the workforce and how to make graduates more workforce-ready, she said, adding that the school has been a reliable supplier of qualified workers to sectors ranging from education to healthcare to criminal justice.

Meanwhile, the meetings with those in education focus on widening and strengthening a pipeline of students through K-12 and into higher education, and also on finding paths for those who can’t, for various reasons, take such a direct path.

“For those who are not able to go to college right after high school, how do make it easy for these adults to come back to school?” she asked, adding that she will work with others to answer that question.

And some of the answers may have been found during the pandemic, she went on, noting that, out of necessity, educators used technology to find new and different ways to teach and engage students. And this imagination and persistence — not to mention the direct lessons learned about how to do things, especially with regard to remote learning — will carry on into this fall, when the campus returns to ‘normal’ and well beyond.

“For us, moving forward, I’ll think we’ll never go back to the way we educated people before,” she told BusinessWest, “because people have learned to do this work in a different kind of way, and the public has learned that this is an option moving forward to give people an opportunity to return to college.”

When asked about what she brings to her latest challenge, Thompson reiterated that it’s more than her work in higher education, as significant as that is. It’s also her work in public policy, and, more specifically, working in partnership with others to address global issues.

She counts among her mentors David Mathews, former president of the University of Alabama and secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Ford. She worked with him when he was leading the Kettering Foundation.

“I spent time with him learning about the way he approached leadership and the way he approached democracy,” she noted. “I’ve been a dean, and I’ve had experience as a provost; overall, I believe I have the right set of skills to use the lessons I’ve learned to help develop the next set of community leaders in all fields.

“We need to look at a way that we can create curriculum and graduate people who are innovative, who are critical thinkers, who know how to research on their own, who know to look at problems and how to work in teams with other people in order to create solutions,” she went on. “These are things I’ve learned in my life, and those are things I want to impart to the students who come to this campus.”

As for her leadership style, Thompson described it this way: “I look at creating a vision and an idea and working with and through people — people who are above me, people who work alongside me, people who are younger — and learning from people at all levels and ages and stages of their development.

“I tend to see myself as someone who is transformational,” she went on. “I see myself as a servant leader, a person who tries to see how I can help another person maximize their opportunity to dig deep inside themselves, and identify their strengths and bring those strengths out.”

 

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

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Crafting Connections

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for the Mill District and manager of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery.

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for the Mill District and manager of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery.

When Hannah Rechtschaffen set about to open an art gallery in Amherst’s Mill District, she didn’t envision a static space; instead, her goal was to develop a vibrant, eclectic, multi-media gallery that not only focused on local artists, but forged connections between them and the public through workshops, classes, events, and even the everyday conversations that bring to life the stories and history behind each artist and each piece. A couple weeks after the gallery’s opening, she’s optimistic those creative collisions are already happening.

 

Anika Lopes’ roots in Amherst go back six generations, so the town is special to her. But as a milliner — an artist who designs and creates hats — she has made her name in galleries and boutiques in much larger cities, especially New York.

Now, as the highlighted artist for the recent grand opening of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery in Amherst’s Mill District, she feels like she’s come full circle.

“This is the first time I’ve shown in Amherst,” she told BusinessWest. “I never thought I would be showing here, and it’s been wonderful how it’s been received — and it’s a way to give back to the community and encourage artists, especially local artists, that there is a scene and a space for everything.”

“I never thought I would be showing here, and it’s been wonderful how it’s been received — and it’s a way to give back to the community and encourage artists, especially local artists, that there is a scene and a space for everything.”

The Hannah in the gallery name is Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking at the Mill District, who launched a gallery after Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation owner of the property, asked her to. But Rechtschaffen infused that task with her own vision for an eclectic, multi-media collection of rotating artists (21 are on display now, hailing from 13 different towns, with some being replaced every quarter), but also a space-rental model that continually reinvests in bringing more exposure to the artists (more on that in a bit).

“Every three months, some of the artists will turn over, so there will always be something fresh, and there will also be some carryover,” she said. “I want people to feel good knowing they’ll come back in here and see new stuff. That’s a really crucial part.”

Also rotating will be the front window space, with which the gallery will highlight a certain artist. For the opening weeks, that’s Lopes, who was on hand to celebrate the gallery’s opening on June 19.

Anika Lopes with the front-window display of her millinery art.

Anika Lopes with the front-window display of her millinery art.

“In conjunction with Juneteenth, we wanted to make sure we were highlighting a local artist of color, and Anika’s work with the hats … gives us an opportunity to kind of push the boundary a little bit on what art is,” Rechtschaffen said of the front window space. “We can also have historic installations there, or we can do installations of artists who aren’t local, but maybe they’re doing work you can’t find locally, and we want to highlight it.”

History is important to Lopes, whose display at the gallery includes not only her hats, but original hat blocks created by one of first black men to have a millinery factory in the garment district of New York City — which she uses to hand-block her hat designs, which she then hand-sews.

“There’s a lot of history here, and it’s been amazing to merge this [artwork] with Amherst history as part of the Juneteenth celebration,” Lopes said. “It was just a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Amherst and what’s going on here at the Mill District, which was, in itself, such a pleasant surprise to see and experience. It’s an inspiration for where Amherst can go.”

As for the rental model, Rechtschaffen charges $20 per linear foot per month for wall space, which gives the artist use of the entire wall, floor to ceiling. She also takes a 20% commission on any art sales, all of which cycles back into the gallery for marketing, events, classes, and anything that brings more people in to see the work.

“Right from the start, they felt they were buying into something that was bigger than just their small space. It’s the connection, it’s the lifeline, it’s learning new things that are going to enhance their business.”

“That’s the idea — the commission isn’t just flying out of the artist’s pocket; it’s going right back into running the engine of the business side,” she said, noting that she modeled it after Woolworth Walk, a much larger gallery in Asheville, N.C., which features 230 booths in a former Woolworth’s store.

“In charging a little bit of rent, you create this ownership that artists have of the space. I want to overhear an artist say, ‘oh, I want to show you my gallery.’ I know that I’m doing it right when they have that connection to it,” she explained.

“I wasn’t sure it would translate, and especially coming out of COVID, I felt so self-conscious about putting the model out there, to charge them money up front, even if it was a low rent,” she went on. “I’m an artist; I know how hard it is. But no one batted a eye. Right from the start, they felt they were buying into something that was bigger than just their small space. It’s the connection, it’s the lifeline, it’s learning new things that are going to enhance their business.”

 

Art of the Matter

One of Rechtschaffen’s goals was to highlight a wide variety of art, and she’s done that, with the first 21 exhibitors — all but a couple of them women — working in media ranging from paint to felt to polymer clay. True to its name, the gallery aims to draw from local artists, meaning those living within a one-hour radius.

“We want to connect anyone coming to the Mill District with the wealth of art and artists in the area because it’s crazy how many artists are living right around here,” she said.

In addition, “it was really important to me to have both emerging and established artists sharing the space. For some of these people, it’s their full-time job, they’re artists, it’s what they do. And for some people, it’s very much on the side of what they do; maybe they want to make it a larger part of their livelihood, or maybe they’re retired and they’re just doing it because it’s a passion.”

Showing those works side by side forges connections between artists and their various media — and so does a large gathering table toward the front of the gallery, which will host classes, workshops, and “conversations” between artists and the public.

Ruth Levine says Hannah’s Local Art Gallery gave her a chance to move her jewelry from her garage into public view.

Ruth Levine says Hannah’s Local Art Gallery gave her a chance to move her jewelry from her garage into public view.

Rechtschaffen related a conversation with one of the exhibitors, Maxine Oland, a well-known local artist who operates an Etsy page.

“I was like, ‘oh, would you be open to teaching a class called Should I Bother Having an Etsy Page?’” she recalled. “Because it’s a lot of work, and you’ve got to keep it up, and there’s a cost involved. I get artists all the time saying, ‘should I bother? Is it worth it?’ What better way to have that conversation than with an artist who’s going to be honest and say, ‘well, for me it’s been worth it, and I sell X amount a month, and here’s the process.’

“So those kinds of classes and pop-up conversations can happen with emerging and established artists, and those who don’t consider themselves artists, coming and listening and learning from each other,” she went on.

Lopes sees great value in the gallery’s focus on connection, calling it a “lifeline for artists.”

“As I’ve been able to see the space and the artists coming in here, especially at this time, where people are coming out of COVID, where everyone in the arts has been affected, it’s really a place that has inspired artists,” she said. “I think it’s building confidence within artists and giving people hope.”

Rechtschaffen said the Mill District itself is intended to be a place that tells a story and builds community, which is why Jones felt an art gallery would be a strong component to begin with.

“Every artist in here has a story behind why they make the art they make, why it’s important to them,” Rechtschaffen told BusinessWest. “I can point to any one of them and tell you the backstory, and it just adds to why someone would connect with a piece and then decide to take it home.”

Stories like Susan Roylance, a longtime woodworker who, one day, carved a face and wasn’t sure what to do with it. She put it aside, but then got inspired by it, and started working in both wood and felt to sculpt whimsical characters. “I feel like every one of those sculptures is a children’s book waiting to happen,” Rechtschaffen said.

Or Dana Volungis, who worked for 24 years for Yankee Candle, got laid off during the pandemic, and started painting … only 10 months ago; her oceanside landscapes and other work belie that short gestation period. “Ten months!” Rechtschaffen said. “I didn’t even realize that when she submitted her application.”

Or Ruth Levine, who makes metal clay jewelry, but set it aside for a time to focus on being a parent and grandparent. “Now here she is,” Rechtschaffen said. “She was so empowered when she was setting her space up, saying, ‘I remember how this feels; this is great.’ She said to me, ‘if you hadn’t opened this gallery, this stuff would still be in my garage.’ I said, ‘you just validated everything for me, because I’m so glad this is not in your garage.’”

Visitors to the gallery, then, aren’t just seeing art, Lopes said. They’re connecting with history — the history of the area and the people who create art here — and maybe take a piece of that history home.

 

Animal Attraction

To add a bit of childlike fun to the gallery, Rechtschaffen commissioned Ivy Mabius, a close friend of Jones and a mural artist, to create a jungle-themed bathroom, complete with large, colorfully painted sculptures of an elephant and a giraffe. “Already, kids who see it don’t want to leave. It’s such an attraction. Kids — and adults — are going to want to come and use the bathroom.”

The general store that adjoins the gallery also features a unique bathroom — this one with one-sided glass, so users have a full view of the sidewalk and parking lot outside. But eclectic bathrooms aren’t the only connection between the two spaces. Rechtschaffen can see a time when artists who have displayed in the gallery find a space in the store to sell their crafts.

Ivy Mabius designed a whimsical, jungle-themed bathroom at the gallery.

Ivy Mabius designed a whimsical, jungle-themed bathroom at the gallery.

Again, it comes back to making connections and offering a wide range of exposure to local art. The front table can also be used as a co-working space, or just a spot to hang out, she added.

“This is really meant to be something people can access all the time, however they need to. The goal is for people to see great art and great work,” she went on, noting that a master cabinet maker from Cowls Building Supply built all the gallery’s walls, shelving, and fixtures on wheels, so the configuration of the gallery can be changed. Artists who want to apply to rent space may do so at bit.ly/HannahsGalleryApplication.

Rechtschaffen also envisions sharing art outside the gallery at pop-up displays, art fairs, holiday events, and other gatherings — again, with the goal of connecting local art to as many people as possible. And they’re hungry for it, she added, like one woman who came to the gallery opening and said it was her first social event in a long time.

“She was like, ‘I’m good, I’m good; this is helping.’ It’s not just about getting people back out there; for business owners and people creating these events, we have a responsibility — if we’re inviting someone into a space, we need to be mindful of what that space feels like, that it feels comfortable. I take that very seriously, creating a space like this where people can come enjoy themselves.”

As people emerge from COVID isolation, Lopes said, one positive is that many have learned a lot about themselves, and that’s especially true for artists, who can now move forward with new understanding and new vulnerability — and a new audience at the Mill District.

“We are into telling stories and making sure people get to see art,” Rechtschaffen said, “but also learn something about their community.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Play Time

Sarah Blais says it’s good to hear activity again at Spare Time Bowling.

Sarah Blais says it’s good to hear activity again at Spare Time Bowling.

Among the industries battered by the pandemic and the ensuing economic shutdown, indoor recreation centers — from bowling alleys to trampoline rooms to roller rinks — took a massive hit last year, forced to close for longer than most other businesses and then tasked with navigating a very gradual ramp-up to normal operations. Now, a month after the final restrictions were lifted, the owners and managers of these businesses are grateful to be fully open, with a renewed understanding of the value of play in people’s lives.

By Mark Morris

After a successful 2019, Jeff Bujak looked forward to 2020 as a chance to further grow Prodigy Mini Golf and Game Room in Easthampton. Then the pandemic hit.

“In the beginning, we were told to shut down for 15 days, and I said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Bujak recalled. When two weeks stretched to four months, however, he became worried about his business surviving.

He wasn’t alone. Every business that offers indoor entertainment was affected by the lengthier-than-expected, state-mandated shutdown to control the spread of coronavirus. Rob Doty, managing partner at Bounce! Trampoline Sports in Springfield, said his doors remained closed just two weeks short of a full year.

“At that time, there was huge fear about going near anyone and staying away from enclosed environments. I was concerned that people might stay afraid forever and not come back.”

“We had just installed a laser-tag arena,” Doty said. “We were getting it up and running for the season when we had to shut down.”

Like Bounce!, Interskate 91 North closed the roller-skating rink at Hampshire Mall in March 2020 but was allowed to reopen in October. Management held off opening until after Thanksgiving, but then had to shut down again when COVID-19 infection rates began to climb.

“To follow the guidelines, we stayed closed for a few more months and opened again in late March,” said Sarah O’Brien, sessions manager.

Meanwhile, Sarah Blais, general manager of Spare Time Bowling in Northampton, said her facility remained closed until late July 2020, and then, by mandate, could only operate at 25% capacity.

Jeff Bujack

Jeff Bujack is happy that customers can once again access his collection of vintage video games at Prodigy.

“We spaced everyone out by using every other lane,” she said. “It was slow in the beginning, and we didn’t even hit our 25% capacity numbers.”

Once the calendar turned to 2021, Blais said business began to pick up, and Spare Time began to reach its limited capacity. As more employees returned, she held an orientation for them on how to operate during a pandemic that’s not yet over.

“In short, it involved much more work than usual, and my team was all in for it,” she said. Much of the extra work concerned lots of sanitizing, including every bowling ball in the place.”

While extra cleaning was part of the mandate to reopen, all the managers BusinessWest spoke with agreed that the emphasis on cleaning went a long way toward helping customers feel safe.

“For the most part, we were doing our normal cleaning, but we did it more often,” O’Brien said. “People loved seeing us constantly cleaning.”

Doty concurred. “Now that hyper-cleaning has become second nature, I don’t see us changing things,” he said, adding that his crews use a fogger/mister to clean the trampoline courts as well as additional handheld sprayers to clean other areas.

“It was awesome when we reopened because my bosses and co-workers are like a second family to me.”

It’s yet another step in emerging from what has been a challenging 16 months, to say the least. But with the state lifting all pandemic restrictions on gathering sizes and mask wearing at the end of May, this is also an optimistic time for these facilities that are eagerly welcoming back families grateful for something to do.

 

Leveling Down

Prodigy doesn’t easily fit into a business category because it offers its customers the chance to play mini-golf, vintage video games, and even board games. Located in the Eastworks mill complex, Prodigy occupies 8,000 square feet, with 14-foot high ceilings, industrial fans, and windows that open to the outside.

While disappointed that his business was considered an arcade by state standards, Bujak was able to open last summer because indoor mini-golf courses were allowed to operate. He could not offer play on the video games, however, due to limits on arcades.

Rob Doty is expecting a big rebound at Bounce! Trampoline Sports.

Rob Doty is expecting a big rebound at Bounce! Trampoline Sports.

While nearly breaking even during the during the warm months, by November, the losses began to pile up, and Bujak was desperate.

“At that time, there was huge fear about going near anyone and staying away from enclosed environments,” he recalled. “I was concerned that people might stay afraid forever and not come back.”

With plenty of spacing and cleaning protocols in place, he reached out to his social-media followers to at least try the new layout and give their feedback. He said his spacious location eased concerns about social distancing and air flow.

“There was a community of people who said, ‘you can’t close, I need this place. The pandemic proved that it’s not just about me, it’s about hundreds of people who use Prodigy as a place to get away and play the games they can’t play anywhere else.”

“Gradually, friends, family, and our regular customers came in,” Bujak said. By January, business had returned, and February was the most successful month in Prodigy’s history.

“I don’t know if all these efforts with masks, distancing, and cleaning actually made people more safe,” he said. “It was more important that people felt safe in the environment and felt good about their choice to come in.”

As to why February was a banner month for Prodigy, Bujak said people had begun to figure out they could go out as long as they wore masks and distanced. People were also becoming more hopeful as access to vaccines received news coverage. “Most people were not ready for a concert or bar atmosphere, so this was a good middle ground of being social but still low-key.”

The disco lights are on again at Interskate 91, and Sarah O’Brien is expecting the crowds to return.

The disco lights are on again at Interskate 91, and Sarah O’Brien is expecting the crowds to return.

Blais credits a simpler rationale. “I think everybody just met their quota of staying at home,” she said with a laugh.

For the better part of a year during which Interskate 91 opened and closed a couple times, O’Brien found herself sidelined, without work, for the first time since she was 14 years old.

“I was home for nearly a year, and I missed not being here,” she said. “It was awesome when we reopened because my bosses and co-workers are like a second family to me.”

At the height of the pandemic when nearly everyone was advised to stay home, many used their time to clean out garages and basements to get rid of things that were no longer useful. Bujak benefited greatly from the COVID cleanout as many people donated old video-game consoles, video games, and board games to him.

“I might have doubled my amount of games just from people cleaning out their basements,” he said.

While most managers said they used the closed time to deep-clean their locations, O’Brien said Interskate 91 installed a new carpet and created a dedicated area where food is sold and eaten. “In the past, we let people eat anywhere. By keeping it all in one area, we can offer more food choices than we did before.”

As of May 29, people who had been vaccinated no longer had to wear masks in retail settings, and bounce houses, roller rinks, bowling alleys, and similar businesses could once again operate at full capacity.

“On the first weekend where people didn’t have to wear masks, we had lots of families and kids come in,” O’Brien recalled. “ Our regulars were so excited that we were open again.”

Blais admits seeing the return of people bowling was an emotional experience. “It’s very nice to hear bowling balls hitting the pins again.”

Doty is looking forward to finally getting use out of the laser-tag room. “Now that we’re fully open, we’re getting the word out about our laser tag and our expanded arcade,” he said, adding that he’s also looking forward to booking birthday parties and other group events.

To recognize the challenging 16 months everyone has gone through, Spare Time has begun offering weekly Service Industry Nights to workers in the restaurant industry.

“I’ve been talking with the restaurants in town, and we offer them free bowling from 9 to 11 p.m., and they have the place to themselves,” Blais said. “We are extending our service nights to our police and fire departments as well.”

 

Replay Value

Bujak said the experience of the past 15 months has made him a different person. At the start of the pandemic, he saw himself as an individual business owner who worried about losing his dream. He didn’t realize that Prodigy was bigger than just him.

“There was a community of people who said, ‘you can’t close, I need this place,’” he told BusinessWest. “The pandemic proved that it’s not just about me, it’s about hundreds of people who use Prodigy as a place to get away and play the games they can’t play anywhere else.”

Now that he can operate at full capacity, Bujak is grateful his business has survived and he can once again take care of his regular customers and introduce Prodigy to new ones.

“Here we are,” he said, “back to normal-ish.”

Insurance Special Coverage

Give and Take

With five generations in today’s workforce, employee benefits are no one-size-fits-all proposition — yet, they remain a key issue for employers looking to attract and retain a skilled workforce. Striking a balance between what employees want and what the business can afford is certainly a challenge — but the flexibility and options available to employers these days makes the task a little easier to navigate.

By Mark Morris

Between demographic changes in the workforce and the impact of the pandemic, employers face multiple challenges these days in offering health insurance and other benefits to their workers.

In the U.S., 49% of people receive health-insurance coverage through their employer. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, that percentage represents approximately 156 million Americans. Many of those workers also receive coverage for dental care and disability, as well as access to a retirement plan as part of a complete benefits package.

And, despite the increasing costs of health insurance, employers are not cutting back on this essential coverage, said Peter Miller, partner with Millbrook Benefits and Insurance Services in Springfield.

“They are trying to strike a balance between offering a benefits package that is attractive to new hires, while also trying to control costs and keep the business running,” he noted.

Traditional benefits, such as healthcare coverage and retirement plans, have always been important to employees. According to Patrick Leary, vice president of Work Benefits Research at LIMRA in Windsor, Conn., traditional benefits make up the core of an employer’s value proposition to employees.

In putting together a benefits package, an employer decides whether a particular offering will be paid 100% by the employer, or use a cost-sharing approach in which employees contribute as well. A third option, known as a voluntary benefit, is completely paid for by the employee.

LIMRA provides research for the insurance and financial-services industry. One significant trend Leary has studied is the expanding demographics of the workplace.

“There are now five generations in the labor force,” he said. “The oldest workers are staying longer, while Gen Z is just beginning to enter the workforce.”

Each generation has different benefit needs, and they are all looking to their employer to address them. Voluntary benefits are one way for an employer to accommodate different needs among a diverse employee population.

Peter Miller

Peter Miller

“They are trying to strike a balance between offering a benefits package that is attractive to new hires, while also trying to control costs and keep the business running.”

“A company can offer a broad-based plan where some benefits appeal to younger workers and some to older,” Leary said. “Because they are voluntary benefits, the employer can address the various needs of their employees without increasing their costs.”

He emphasized the importance of employers working with a benefits consultant to find the right mix. “Part of the process involves the employer understanding their current employees and the types of workers they plan to recruit for the future.”

Employers typically add benefits to make their companies more attractive to the specific types of workers they seek. For example, Miller has been discussing benefit packages with a tech company looking to attract engineering graduates from prominent colleges. While traditional benefits are important, flexible work arrangements and college debt-repayment programs also have a strong appeal to this group.

“It’s important for employers to think outside the box to make themselves more attractive to the people they’re trying to hire,” he said.

College debt repayment offered as a formal benefit is relatively new, but it’s quickly becoming a popular benefit as more graduates enter the workforce saddled with large debt obligations.

Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, said employers are using different tactics to help new employees manage their student-loan debt. Some employers offer a hiring bonus so new employees can pay off a chunk of their student loan.

Another approach allows employees to pay down their debt and contribute to their retirement savings at the same time. Based on his conversations with employers, Leary said the 401(k)/student-loan payment approach strongly resonates with young employees.

“The amount the employee pays each month toward their debt is matched up to 5% by the employer in a 401(k) plan,” Wise said. “This is helpful to young workers who would not normally be thinking about their retirement savings because they are saddled with debt.”

 

What COVID Wrought

There’s nothing quite like a worldwide pandemic to remind everyone of the importance of having healthcare coverage. After 14 months of operating during the pandemic, the benefits professionals BusinessWest spoke with cited two notable trends: an increase in telehealth offerings and usage, as well as an increased demand for mental-health services.

“There’s definitely been an increase in utilization for traditional medicine and mental health,” Miller said.

Wise agreed. “Employers are looking at the mental-health benefits covered under their policies and, in many cases, are augmenting those benefits with employee-assistance programs,” she noted.

A survey released in March by America’s Health Insurance Plans reported that 56% of employees said their telehealth and mental-health services are more valuable now than they were a year ago, before COVID-19.”

Offering wellness programs as a benefit is another trend that has gained popularity in the last several years. “Employers are adding or increasing benefits around wellness, nutrition, stress management, and other areas,” Wise said.

In addition to health wellness, Leary said employers are increasingly offering financial wellness programs as a benefit.

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary

“Some older employees might be sandwiched between taking care of their children and their parents at the same time, while others are looking at their planning needs for retirement.”

“If an employee is stressed out about their personal finances, it affects their productivity at work,” he said, pointing out that financial wellness is a benefit that can help employees at every stage of their careers by providing guidance tailored to their individual needs.

“It’s a chance to help younger employees get off to a good start and to check in with older Millennials, now approaching their 40s, about retirement planning and the telehealth benefit they can access,” Leary explained. “Some older employees might be sandwiched between taking care of their children and their parents at the same time, while others are looking at their planning needs for retirement.”

Because employees have so many different needs, communication around benefit offerings becomes essential. As COVID disrupted so many other norms, it also caused significant changes in benefit communications. But in this particular case, Miller said, the change was an improvement.

For years, the model for enrolling employees into a company’s benefit plan involved on-site meetings and speaking directly with as many employees as possible to make sure all their questions and concerns were addressed. Miller said the strong in-person presence continued even after the actual enrollments were done online.

“We’re doing many of our open-enrollment meetings now on Zoom,” he said. “One advantage is that you can gather employees no matter where they are for the live presentation, and they can ask questions, either by shouting them out or using the chat box.”

For employees who may be on vacation or traveling, the Zoom meeting is recorded and uploaded to a video-sharing platform like YouTube.

“Lots of people want to discuss their benefit options with their spouse,” Miller said. “Now they can, because everyone can access the presentation whenever they want.”

Miller said the video gives employers a tool they can use for the entire plan year. “When a new hire comes in, they can be directed to the link and listen in on the entire employee-benefit presentation. The video approach was one of the few positive developments that resulted from adjusting to COVID concerns.”

Sometimes, a new employee benefit can emerge from a catastrophe. At the onset of COVID, Leary said, employers were frantically setting people up at home just to keep their businesses in operation.

“Several months later, they began seeing the benefits of having people work from home,” Leary said. “While many are discussing a hybrid approach, where employees split their time between the office and home, working from home to some degree is now undeniable.”

Because his business lends itself to working remotely, Miller said his employees definitely perceive it as a benefit.

“If you asked me last February if working from home would be feasible, I would have said ‘no way,’” he noted. “But it not only works, it works very well.”

 

Help Wanted

These days, employers need every benefit they can offer when recruiting new employees. Despite businesses itching to expand, Miller said, employers face new challenges in doing so. “I’ve been doing this nearly 30 years, and I don’t ever remember so many different employers saying they can’t get good people.”

Local employers he’s speaking with are increasingly hiring workers from other states to meet their needs.

“My clients are looking for health plans that are more robust and have a national presence,” Miller said. “I’m hearing that from employers right here in Western Mass.”

For many, traditional benefits remain important, but they make up only a part of the employment experience. Leary said the move to remote work means employers and benefit consultants need to think in new ways to communicate benefits and enroll employees in a new hybrid environment.

“You can make the argument that flexible work schedules and the ability to work autonomously without having a manager look over your shoulder are also benefits that go beyond traditional health, dental, and disability plans,” Miller said.

It’s a trend to keep an eye on — one of many employers need to consider as they determine which benefits will attract and retain employees in a changing economy — while making sense for the company’s bottom line.

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Selling Online?

In the early days of e-commerce, states attempted to get out-of-state companies to collect sales tax on transactions into the state — without success. Enter the Supreme Court, which issued a landmark decision that physical presence is no longer needed, and if a company’s activity has substantial ‘economic nexus’ with a state, it can be required to collect sales tax. That means online businesses of all kinds may have tax exposure they’re not even aware of.

By Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST

 

The shutdown of stores and malls during COVID-19 fueled the already-prospering world of internet shopping. Many businesses were forced into direct-to-consumer marketing on their own webpages or using e-commerce online marketplace companies such as Wayfair, Amazon, and Etsy, just to name a few.

So, why is this important to you? Well, if you are one of those businesses who started selling direct to consumers on your website or if you turned a previous hobby into a business venture that markets using an online marketplace that does not collect sales tax for you, you might have a significant tax exposure you’re not even aware of.

In the 1980s and 1990s, states attempted to get companies to collect sales tax on transactions into the state. These companies were predominantly located out of state and were making sales via mail or telephone calls. The companies were not collecting sales tax on the transactions.

The states were less than pleased. One state, North Dakota, passed a law requiring any company engaging in ‘regular or systematic’ solicitation in the state to become registered for and collect sales tax. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a company needed to have a physical presence (employees, property, or offices) in a state before the state could require the company to collect sales tax. This landmark case was Quill Corp. v. North Dakota.

Quill made sales-tax compliance easy for companies: if a company was physically present in a state, it had to collect sales tax for that state. If the company was not physically present in a state, it did not have to collect sales tax, although it was inevitable that there would be some controversy about when companies were ‘present.’

Seeing revenues were on the decline, states began adjusting their tax laws or regulations. One by one, states devised new requirements to make companies collect sales tax. States enacted various laws or promulgated regulations to creatively find nexus, such as Massachusetts, which taxed sales based on an electronic ‘cookie’ on a computer, and New York, which developed so-called click-through nexus, taxing internet sales that were derived from clicking through advertisements on websites.

South Dakota was one state that enacted an economic nexus law. The South Dakota law says that if a seller makes $100,000 of sales into the state or has 200 or more sales transactions into the state in a calendar year, the seller must collect sales tax. The law did not impose sales taxes retroactively; it law was designed to provoke litigation and for the issue it raised to reach the U.S. Supreme Court as quickly as possible. South Dakota pursued four large companies it knew would meet its threshold. Three of those companies sued: Newegg, Overstock.com, and Wayfair.

The case became known as South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc. After rocketing the case through state courts and losing, South Dakota took its arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Now, physical presence is no longer needed; if a company’s activity has substantial nexus with a state, the state can require the company to collect sales tax on sales into the state.

“If you are one of those businesses who started selling direct to consumers on your website or if you turned a previous hobby into a business venture that markets using an online marketplace that does not collect sales tax for you, you might have a significant tax exposure you’re not even aware of.”

Almost all states with economic nexus allow an exception for small remote sellers, which is determined by a remote seller’s sales and/or transactions in the state (the economic-nexus threshold).

Any remote seller whose sales into the state meet or exceed a state’s economic-nexus threshold must register with that state’s tax authority, collect and remit sales tax, validate exempt transactions, and file sales-tax returns as required by law. Remote sellers whose sales and/or transactions in a state are under the state’s threshold don’t need to register; however, they do need to monitor their sales into the state, so they know if they develop economic nexus.

Unfortunately, state economic-nexus thresholds vary widely. This seriously complicates nexus determinations.

In a post-Wayfair sales-tax world, how are states enforcing the new economic-nexus rules and identifying companies that fall within them? Given the budget shortfalls due to COVID-19, states are identifying new ways to increase their revenue, and what better way than enforcing the Wayfair economic-nexus rules as they relate to sales-tax obligations?

Accordingly, states have taken a broader perspective on enforcing economic-nexus rules on various sellers (including internet retailers) by creating new registration and collection tools for all registered sellers. Under this new nexus standard, it is important to note that, if states find that the taxpayer purposefully did not comply with state law, then the departments of revenue (DORs) can not only require that the taxpayer pay back sales tax, but also assert that it is liable for penalties as well as interest.

 

Since the Decision

In the nearly three years since the Supreme Court in Wayfair upheld South Dakota’s economic-nexus law, overruling the court’s physical-presence precedents, states have faced challenges enforcing this new nexus standard on remote internet sellers, given that traditional audit approaches leverage information that is geared toward identifying sellers with some physical identity or connection within the state.

For example, if employees work in the state, the entity is required to file payroll taxes, or if the entity owns real property, then DORs can obtain real property and tax records to help validate sales tax compliance or identify potential audit targets. Economic nexus, however, provides fewer avenues for states to prove that an entity should collect sales tax in comparison to traditional physical-presence standards, where data is more readily available.

On the other hand, some states are taking an aggressive approach in seeking out taxpayers for compliance with the new nexus rules. For example, DORs are sending out more nexus questionnaires to various companies to, for all intents and purposes, scare them into compliance. Companies should take great care in responding to these questionnaires because states can use this information to force reporting for sales tax and other areas of taxation. To find targets, state auditors have been known to visit an e-commerce site and place an order to see if the seller charges sales tax. If no tax is charged, a questionnaire is then mailed to the seller.

Auditors can also check on companies that advertise heavily in their state or have achieved some level of public notoriety. States will also continue to look for sellers that may have established facilities in their state to make sales or store inventory. A facility or in-state inventory constitutes old-school physical presence and can be the basis of an audit stretching back to well before economic-nexus standards came into existence.

Some states are now ostensibly working to make sales-tax compliance and collection easier for taxpayers. Some examples include websites that allow users to manually calculate sales tax based on address, or an application programming interface (such as California’s) that can be integrated into retailers’ online order forms to determine the appropriate rate and taxing location in real time.

A majority of states now have such a lookup tool in one form or another. Arkansas has a tool for searching by ZIP code or address. The state of Washington’s lookup tool incorporates a state map, allows searching by geographical coordinates, and calculates the tax for any given taxable amount of sale. Colorado’s site incorporates a clickable map and provides a breakdown of tax-rate components.

Companies should be aware of and monitor their physical and economic presence nexus on a quarterly basis. Also, companies should defend against and challenge state assertions concerning sales-tax nexus rules, as well as petition Congress for clearer and more equitable nexus guidelines, especially during these times of financial upheaval caused by COVID-19. If organizations decide to register to collect sales tax in a state, they should take advantage of any benefits and tools the state is providing.

A company will be in a better position to manage its sales-tax collection responsibilities for a state if it determines whether it has physical or economic nexus before it receives a notice, letter, or nexus questionnaire from the state DOR.

 

Kris Houghton is a partner and executive committee member at Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Blurred Lines

During the pandemic, work arrangements were, in some ways, clearer than they are now — in short, remote work was the norm. Now, however, businesses and their employees are grappling with balancing company needs and culture with workers’ desire to maintain flexibility regarding when and where they get their jobs done. At the center of all of this is the amorphous, yet critically important, concept of work-life balance — and how, in some ways, remote work has made it even more challenging to achieve.

The employees at Paragus IT

The employees at Paragus IT have been returning to the office — but will be allowed to keep working at home some days.

 

Getting work done during the pandemic was … messy, Delcie Bean said. But it got done.

“In the heat of the pandemic, we had to have maximum flexibility and understood that everyone was doing their absolute best to get done what needed to get done and make sure the clients were taken care of,” the CEO of Paragus IT told BusinessWest. “It was going to be messy, but we had to get through it.”

Emerging from COVID-19, then, has been a time for employers to assess what happened and what they learned about the many different ways people can get their work done — and still have time for themselves.

“What did we lose having everyone remote, and what did we gain?” Bean said. “We realized it was some of both columns A and B — there were certainly some benefits and some risks.

“Really, we found it’s very employee-specific,” he went on. “Some employees really need the structure of the office — they get up, commute, work in the office, commute, relax at home. That’s what helps them separate work from life. Others were really flourishing with a blend, doing work from home; they were good at setting up boundaries and not having their work bleed into their life.”

Despite the evidence showing that many workers flourish at home — achieving work-life balance by establishing firm boundaries — that blurring of lines between work time and family time is a concern, according to area company leaders we spoke with. The result, oddly enough, can be even less balance than before.

“With more people working from home and having increased autonomy over their work schedule, it becomes more challenging to differentiate between work time and personal time,” said Patricia Coughlin, Human Resources director at Wellfleet in Springfield.

In Bean’s case, the post-pandemic strategy that developed was to require employees to work in the Hadley office at least three days — a gradual shift, actually, beginning with one day in June, two days in July, and three days starting in August. Anyone who wants to be on site every day is welcome to do so.

Patricia Coughlin

Patricia Coughlin

“With more people working from home and having increased autonomy over their work schedule, it becomes more challenging to differentiate between work time and personal time.”

“There are certain things that are lost when you’re 100% remote,” he said, giving examples like mentoring new employees and collaborative projects. “But if remote is working for you, we don’t want to stop you.”

He understands that some people need to be in the office to function because they have too many distractions at home.

“It depends on their personality. My home is not a distraction at all — once the kids are in school, my home is quiet, with nothing to distract me,” he said, adding, however, that there’s also nothing there to energize him.

“I need energy from other people to function at my best. We all work a little differently, process things a little differently. A lot of flexibility is good, as long as that flexibility works for both the employees and the company — but working at home can lead to issues with work-life balance if the work never goes away.”

Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank in Holyoke, said the bank’s leaders learned the organization can be effective while incorporating different types of work arrangements.

“When the pandemic hit and we had to move to a remote workforce for much of our corporate team, there was no question that our associates were dedicated and would get the job done,” she noted. “We had concerns about remote work as it relates to data security, customer impact, and overall engagement of our workforce. But we saw pretty quickly that we were able to operate, meet the needs of our customers, and keep our team engaged.”

For that reason, the bank is now working to establish a hybrid model for many roles and will continue to evaluate increased flexibility for team members. “We may also consider fully remote roles, but at this time those will be very limited.”

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank wants to develop strategies with its employees to avoid overly blurring the lines between work and family time, especially when working at home.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank wants to develop strategies with its employees to avoid overly blurring the lines between work and family time, especially when working at home.

Like Bean, she noted that collaboration can suffer when people are not physically working together. “It’s such a big part of our day to day that we have to ensure people can easily get things done and make decisions as a team from anywhere. We feel this is an important aspect of any sustainable hybrid work model.”

Coughlin agreed that the pandemic made Wellfleet’s leaders more aware of the different ways people not only work well, but collaborate with their peers and find satisfaction in their work. As a result, the company plans to offer hybrid work arrangements and telework options as part of its model going forward.

“We learned from our employees that there is no one-size-fits-all methodology in creating an effective work environment,” she noted. “Throughout the pandemic, it became apparent that the ‘typical’ work arrangement may not be effective for all people.”

She added that this flexible approach is an attractive model that will allow Wellfleet to expand its talent pool while improving overall job satisfaction and increasing opportunities for growth and effectiveness. Again, however, the key is communication and setting boundaries.

“Supervisors and employees should set clear expectations of work schedules, availability, and when responses to e-mails are expected,” she said. “Maintaining this communication reduces the likelihood that employees feel the need to be available while on their personal time.”

 

Unhealthy Relationship

That latter concern is one employment experts across the country have been pondering. Constance Grady, a staff writer for Vox, recently penned an article titled “How Capitalism and the Pandemic Destroyed our Work-life Balance,” arguing that, in a precarious, COVID-disrupted economy, workers became even more attached to their work, in often-unhealthy ways.

“Those of us who were lucky enough to have jobs we could do from home brought our work into our living rooms, our kitchens, our bedrooms,” she wrote. “We pivoted. We shared strategies for how to be productive and overcome the stress of trying to work during a global health emergency. We challenged ourselves to meet and even exceed our pre-pandemic goals, against unfavorable odds. Despite everything, we prioritized work.”

But treating work as a sacred object has consequences, Grady argues. “We have treated work as something to be taken home and cherished. Work is our lover. And this year, we took it to bed.”

Bean understands that risk. “We’ve always strongly encouraged employees to have work-life balance as much as possible and encouraged people to unplug at the end of the day and not resume work until they’re back in the office again,” he said. “That worked much better in the pre-pandemic world, where there were cleaner lines between work and home.”

Paragus has long offered employees ‘discretionary time’ for personal obligations and appointments, which they can make up later. “We try to give employees freedom to schedule their work around what works for both them and the company.”

But over the past year, those lines blurred, with more people shifting their schedules or even working sporadically, a couple hours on and a couple off — especially when they were helping their homebound kids navigate the world of remote learning.

Hopefully, a return to something approaching normal, even if it does include some remote work, will sharpen those lines a bit. What helps, Bean said, is making firm decisions on what the home is actually for, especially at night.

“I’m very strict. When I get home, the phone goes on the counter and stays there until I go to bed. It’s rare for me to check e-mail at home, and it’s rare for me to work weekends. I try my best to model that you don’t need to work all night and on weekends to keep up; you can do your job during your work hours, then be with your family. You need that balance, and your family needs you there.”

Beyond that, he added, employees need to decompress from work in order to be productive the next day. “You need that separation time to process. You’re never able to let it sink in and reflect when you’re just going, going, going.”

Roberts agreed. “We are concerned about the blurring of lines with people who are working at home,” she said. “We are looking at this issue to determine if there are other ways we can ensure this balance with our plan for long-term workplace flexibility.”

Ideas include encouraging employees to work in a dedicated space, and at the end of the work day, leaving that room behind and closing the door — in other words, stick to the set work schedule.

“Obviously, if a customer issue occurs at the end of our day, we aren’t walking away, but in most cases we have seen that people have done a good job maintaining their normal work hours from any location — home or office.”

Understanding employee needs helps them to create balance while meeting the company’s needs, Coughlin added.

“When people have the flexibility to manage their schedule — for example, to attend a personal appointment and make up time later in the day — that can have a really positive impact on productivity. And everyone’s different; some people are more productive early in the morning, some are more productive in the evening, and others work best within a very set schedule.”

From a company perspective, she went on, it’s important to establish general standards that allow all employees the opportunity to achieve a healthy work-life balance — and it’s important to engage with employees to better identify what is meaningful to them.

“Work-life balance, and what that means, can really vary from person to person,” she noted. “One employee might be driven by the satisfaction in completing a task, while another takes satisfaction from counting hours ‘clocked in.’”

 

Creating a Culture

The bottom line, Coughlin said, is that Wellfleet’s people are fundamental in creating its culture, so it’s important to engage with them, through various platforms, to identify and implement ways to support a healthy work-life balance.

To that end, it offers education and trainings to improve work efficiencies, as well as communication regarding company benefits workers can utilize for personal purposes. Supervisors also work closely with employees to coach skills like prioritizing tasks, setting realistic goals, and time management.

“Wellfleet believes a healthy work-life balance fosters a culture in which employees are able to perform their job duties in a productive manner,” she added. “Good balance and increased flexibility in the workplace can help prevent burnout, reduce stress, and promote overall wellness.”

The company also offers employees the flexibility to adjust their work schedules to attend appointments and encourages them to use paid time off for their personal well-being, Coughlin said. “We saw the need to internally emphasize this message throughout the pandemic, although the ways we promoted this adapted to the circumstances.”

Wellfleet isn’t the only company re-emphasizing the need for workers to take time off, even if they’re not taking as many week-long vacations as before. HR Daily Advisor recently published a story on work-life balance that included input from several employers across the U.S. noting that employees have been de-emphasizing long vacations in favor of three-day weekends, staycations, and mental-health days off — as well as taking less time off overall.

“We have always focused on promoting a healthy work-life balance, and I don’t think remote work will change the way that we encourage our team to pay attention to this balance,” Roberts said. “Some of the ways that we promote this balance is our official work week being 38 hours, generous time-off plans, and fun team events and activities throughout the year. Our managers also do a good job of making sure they balance their expectations to ensure that a healthy work-life balance is a real thing.”

At the same time, Bean said, workers at any number of companies may have begun seeing those remote and flexible work models of the past 16 months as a permanent aspect of work-life balance — or, at least, they hope so. That could cause tension down the line, as employers, already struggling to retain talent in many industries, may have to negotiate such arrangements moving forward.

“However, another part of me knows behaviors and habits don’t change easily,” he added. “We, as a country, have 200 years of working 8 to 5 and going home. I don’t know if the pandemic was long enough to permanently break this muscle memory.”

If he’s right, companies adopting hybrid models now may eventually shift back to the typical, on-site work schedule of the past.

“Maybe people will work from home more than before,” he said. “But I don’t think this was that disruptive that we’ll fundamentally change the way we do work. It comes down to a lot of factors.”

Those factors range from employee desires to company needs and what type of culture an employer wants to promote. And the day might come when the current job surplus lessens and employers feel they have more leverage.

“How comfortable are you with making a decision, if an employer tells you to come back to the office or find new employment?” Bean said. “We’ll see how those things play out, and we’ll find out if the changes are temporary or long-term — and, if they’re long-term, how impactful they’ll be.”

Until then, employees will continue to get their work done in whatever way their company allows — and, hopefully, not take it to bed.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

For Donald Humason, the phones ringing at Westfield City Hall is a sure sign the pandemic is nearing its end.

While recognizing that some people suffered devastating personal and economic loss, Humason remains grateful that, on the whole, Westfield came through the last 14 months better than expected. He credits the team at City Hall for working tirelessly with state officials to secure grants for Westfield agencies and businesses.

“At our weekly department meetings, I would always ask if we were prepared for the eventual end of the pandemic, so we would be ready when the phones start ringing again,” the mayor said. “Thanks to everyone’s efforts, I feel we are ready.”

Because construction crews continued working through the pandemic, Westfield saw progress on several infrastructure projects. In April, the main structure was installed for the Greenway Rail Trail bridge that crosses Main Street. As the trail continues through Westfield, it will be an elevated path with exit ramps that drop down to local neighborhoods and businesses. Humason expects the final phase of the trail to be complete this fall.

“This last section of the trail is taking longer because there are several overpass bridges which are more complicated to build than the pathway itself,” he said.

Meanwhile, Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport recently broke ground for a $4.7 million taxiway project that will benefit both military and civilian air traffic. Another improvement at Barnes involves a private company looking to build three new aircraft hangars, Humason noted.

“These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Massachusetts state and federal legislators are currently on a campaign to bring the next generation F-35 fighter jets to the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes.

Humason said he appreciates having a fleet of F-15 fighter jets based at Barnes, but it’s worth pursuing the newer jets, too. “We are competing with several states in the Northeast to get the F-35s. We’ve modernized the base, and we’re ready to accommodate them if we are chosen.”

On the other side of the city, work has begun to replace Cowles Bridge on Route 202 that connects Westfield to Southwick. This state project marks one of the last bridges in Westfield that hasn’t yet been updated. Because the city is situated between several rivers, Humason said, Westfield is like an island in some ways because many entries into town involve crossing a bridge. He predicts Cowles Bridge will be completed in about two years.

“While it’s not a big bridge, it carries every important infrastructure in the city, so that makes it a more complex project because several utilities have to be involved in moving the structures under the bridge,” he explained.

Other projects, such as pump stations and sewer replacements, are also in the works. While these projects are not as high-profile as bridges and bike paths, they are essential, the mayor said. “These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Meanwhile, infrastructure work of a different kind — expansion of Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric — continues to build momentum and become an increasingly powerful force in efforts to attract and retain businesses (and residents) in Westfield and several surrounding communities.

Tom Flaherty, general manager of the G&E, told BusinessWest there are now just under 11,000 subscribers in Westfield and 19 surrounding hilltowns, with the goal, one he considers very attainable, of reaching 15,000 within the next three years.

The high-speed internet, as well as low-cost, reliable electric service from the municipal utility, have become strong selling points for the city, said Flaherty, noting that businesses looking to relocate or expand put such services at or near the top of their list of considerations for such initiatives.

“The reliability of our electric and natural-gas infrastructures and the lower cost in comparison with other utilities — we’re more than 40% cheaper — are a huge consideration when people are coming out this way looking for houses,” he explained. “Whip City Fiber is a significant selling point when people are relocating and when businesses are relocating.”

As an example, he cited Myers Infosystems, which recently relocated from Northampton into the site of the former Piccolo’s restaurant on Elm Street, and cited energy costs and high-speed internet as key considerations in that decision.

 

Survive and Thrive

Eric Oulette, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said many of the businesses in Westfield were able to stay open last year because they quickly adapted once the pandemic hit. In particular, he pointed to the adjustment restaurants made last June when they were able to offer outdoor dining.

“They figured it out and made outdoor dining another feature they could offer,” Oulette said. “It was successful and allowed them to keep their doors open.”

With only a few chain restaurants in the city, Oulette said local restaurants are able to promote their individual personalities and offer many different experiences. That environment also encourages other types of small businesses to locate in Westfield.

Mayor Donald Humason

Mayor Donald Humason said the city was successful meeting the needs of residents, students, and seniors during the pandemic, and will now put more focus on business needs.

Humason told the story of three new businesses that opened in April on School Street. Hilltown Chic (small gifts, candles, etc.), Be Bella Boutique (clothing), and Boho Hair Studio are all women-owned businesses. The owners got together and decided to hold their grand openings on the same day.

“We went right down the street and cut the ribbon in front of each shop,” Humason said. “It felt like a street carnival, and the businesses all received extra publicity for it.”

Speaking of new businesses, Westfield has granted four licenses for cannabis dispensaries. Only one, Cannabis Connection, is currently open, with the others at various stages of getting ready to open.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket,” Humason said.

As businesses pick up their activity, he added, they will need more workers — and, like everywhere else, Westfield has far more job openings than candidates.

In May, Mestek joined with the chamber and about a dozen other businesses and held a job fair in the field across from Mestek, with each exhibitor setting up a tent to speak with interested job seekers.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket.”

The idea for the job fair started with Peter Letendre, plant manager at Mestek, which manufactures HVAC equipment and performs metal fabrication for other industries. The company had recently acquired its main competitor and was relocating the operation from Long Island to Westfield, bringing 60 to 70 new manufacturing positions along with the move. Traditional recruiting wasn’t working to fill those jobs, so Letendre had to look at other ways to find people.

“I’m on the board at the chamber and began talking with other members about holding a job fair,” he said. “That way, we could all help each other by attracting candidates for our respective companies.”

In addition to Mestek, exhibitors included Six Flags of New England, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Northwestern Mutual, and several others. A few weeks after the job fair, Letendre reported that Mestek had hired about 15 employees, with another 10 in the process of coming on board.

Many of the positions offered by the job-fair exhibitors offered starting pay that was higher than minimum wage. For instance, Letendre said, the entry-level starting rate at Mestek is $15.50 an hour, and after 90 days, if the employee performs well and demonstrates good attendance, the pay increases to $16. As they acquire more skills, their wage can rapidly increase from there.

From working with sheet metal to assembling HVAC units and warehouse work, Letendre said Mestek offers lots of opportunity for growth. “You can start off in manufacturing, then keep improving your skills and build a solid career here.”

Plans are underway for a second job fair at the end of the summer. While many would-be job seekers are currently receiving supplemental unemployment benefits, that program ends in September, Oulette noted. “Right now, there are lots of companies looking to hire above minimum wage, so my one message to job seekers is, don’t wait until the fall when the unemployment benefits end, because there will be much more competition.”

While he is the new executive director of the chamber, Oulette is no stranger to Westfield. He worked with the Boy Scouts of America Western Massachusetts Council for five years and was president of the Rotary Club of Westfield in 2019 and 2020. He accepted a director of Development position for the Boy Scouts in 2020 that had him spending several days a week in New Hampshire. When the pandemic kept him at home, he wanted to stay in Western Mass. and accepted the chamber position in April.

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette is no stranger to civic life in Westfield, including service with the Boy Scouts and the Rotary.

Oulette is the first to admit he had to “fill some big shoes” following Kate Phelon, who retired in September after 12 years leading the chamber. He appreciates how welcoming everyone has been as he transitions into the new post.

“It’s just like starting any new job where information is coming at you like you’re drinking from a firehose,” he said with a laugh.

 

Back to Business

Flaherty, like Oulette, is optimistic about the city’s prospects for continued residential and commercial growth, noting that it has a number of strong selling points, including location, strong schools and neighborhoods, and, as mentioned earlier, lower-cost energy and an expanding fiber-optic network.

And this expansion may soon take Whip City Fiber well beyond the city’s borders, he said, adding that the utility is in discussions with West Springfield about a pilot program to bring high-speed internet service to areas of that city as it advances plans to build a town-owned internet utility in partnership with Westfield G&E.

“We’re looking at four potential pilot areas that would be installed over the next year while the city goes through the process for the community to become a municipal light plant, or MLP,” he explained, adding that expansion into the neighboring city could eventually bring another 13,000 subscribers to the service.

Meanwhile, there are preliminary talks about taking the service to other communities as well, Flaherty said.

“There’s a good level of trust concerning our product and our capabilities — we have all the infrastructure, we have the billing system, we have the customer in place, we have the utility capabilities, the bucket trucks, and the line personnel,” he noted, adding that the company is well-positioned for continued growth.

As is Westfield itself. Oulette and Humason are grateful the city was not forced to confront big job losses or high numbers of business closings. Despite the pandemic, the mayor noted, Westfield kept moving forward.

“While our schools faced issues of whether they were going to hold classes remotely or in-person, we still continued with education,” he said. “We were still able to serve our senior citizens even though we couldn’t meet at the Council on Aging. We were also able to keep our infrastructure projects moving despite the pandemic.”

Humason added that, because Westfield has taken care of residents, schools, and seniors, he now looks forward to giving more attention to expanding businesses in the city. “I’ve said this since the day I was sworn into office: Westfield is open for business.”

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Tim Netkovick calls it the “kicker” in the law — and it’s a kick that could bruise an unsuspecting employer.

The law in question is the state’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law, portions of which went into effect on Jan. 1, with others to follow on July 1. The law essentially makes Massachusetts the most generous state in the country when it comes to allowing workers to take leave for medical and family-care reasons.

And employers need to be careful how they respond to claims, said Netkovick, an attorney with the Royal Law Firm in Springfield.

“If somebody has utilized PFML, there is what I call a kicker in that statute that says, if there’s any adverse action taken against the employee within a certain period of time, then it’s presumed to be in retaliation,” he told BusinessWest.

Indeed, if an employee challenges an employer’s actions following leave taken under the PFML law, the burden is on the company to prove there was some justifiable reason for taking the adverse action that had nothing to do with the leave request.

“The law does have a very strong anti-retaliation provision baked in. Often, these types of laws do have an anti-retaliation provision, but this one is a little unique,” said John Gannon, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser in Springfield.

“If an employer does take some kind of negative action against the employee — termination, suspension, demotion, even a negative performance review — within six months of the last day they took leave, there is a presumption that the employer retaliated,” he explained. “The employer can rebut that presumption, showing the motive for the decision is not linked in any way to paid family or medical leave use, but it does open the door to more potential litigation in this area.”

It’s a challenge to prove the action was justifiable, though not impossible, Netkovick said. Still, it’s not a headache employers really want to deal with.

“That’s a challenge we’ve seen come up a few times, where there were issues with the employment relationship before that, and then, all of a sudden, someone goes out on PFML leave,” he said. “There’s not really a lot of guidance on that yet. It might be assumed to be in retaliation, but if you can show something concrete that has happened, hopefully you can get someone to agree with you in the court system. You have to make sure you have your documents in order.”

The PFML law runs concurrently with other applicable state and federal leave laws, such as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act. Similar to the federal FMLA, a Massachusetts employee who returns to work after taking leave under PFML law must be returned to same or similar position as he or she had prior to their leave.

The new law requires employers to provide eligible employees up to 26 total weeks of leave in a benefit year. Currently, employees may be entitled to up to 20 weeks of paid leave to manage their own serious health condition, and may also receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a child who is newly born, adopted, or placed in foster care, and up to 26 weeks to care for a family member in the Armed Forces.

On July 1, employees will also be able to receive up to 12 weeks to care for a family member — the employee’s spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, parent of a spouse, or parent of a domestic partner — with a serious health condition.

“There’s a department called the Department of Family and Medical Leave that oversees this whole program, and approves and denies claims,” Gannon said. “They’ve done a pretty effective job of getting the word out there about this program, particularly back in 2020 and early 2021 when it was going live. I remember seeing radio ads, print advertising, a lot of online ads as well.”

As a result, employees tended to know about it, and many held off on, say, elective surgery or put off parental leave for a newborn until after Jan. 1, so they could access the full benefits of the new law, he noted. “We did see a spike [in taking leave] in January and February, and we anticipate we’ll see another spike in July or August of this year when the family-leave components go live, and employees can take leave to care for family members with serious health conditions.”

 

A Rising Need

Patrick Leary, vice president of Work Benefits Research at LIMRA in Windsor, Conn., noted that interest in PFML started to rise several years ago, but has accelerated in recent years, especialy last year.

“More people became caregivers for their parents or other family members affected by COVID,” Leary said. “On top of that, parents took leave to care for their children when remote learning kept them at home.”

Peter Miller, a partner with Millbrook Benefits and Insurance Services in Springfield, added that Massachusetts’ PFML law offers benefits similar to a short-term disability benefit, but won’t replace the need for employers to provide short-term disability insurance.

Leave under the PFML program applies to most W-2 employees in Massachusetts, regardless of whether they are full-time, part-time, or seasonal. Unlike the federal FMLA, the Massachusetts PFML law says an employee is not required to work for a minimum length of time in order to be eligible for leave. However, an employee must meet minimum-threshold earning requirements in order to be eligible for leave under the law.

Notice requirements for the new law work both ways; employers must provide written notice of the PFML program to all employees within 30 days of the employee’s start date, while employees must inform their employers of their need to take leave under the law at least 30 days before the start of the leave, and before filing an application for leave with the state. Where reasons beyond an employee’s control prevent them from giving such advance notice, they must inform their employer as soon as is practical.

Employers don’t have to offer their workers the state benefit; they can opt out of it and apply for an exemption from paying PFML contributions, but only if they purchase a private plan with benefits that are as generous as the state’s plan, and which provide the same job protections, including the anti-retaliation provisions.

“You have two options — you can deal with the state Department of Family Leave they set up, or you can have your own third-party administrator,” Netkovick said. “The private plan has to be set up to match the state plan. There’s no requirement it has to be better, but it has to at least match with the state plan.”

One reason a company might do so is because a third-policy benefits administrator offered that service, and the employer may prefer communicating with that entity over dealing with the state.

Gannon agreed. “One of the perceived advantages to going with private plans is that you do have a little more control over the administration of the plan,” he said, noting that it can be frustrating when the state gets it wrong — for instance, if an employee has been granted 22 weeks of leave rather than 20 because of an administrative error, to cite a hypothetical example.

“There’s nothing you can do to reverse that, which is frustrating for employers,” he told BusinessWest. “With private plans, at least in theory, you can reach out to the plan administrator and ask, ‘why did you approve this for 22 weeks as opposed to 20?’ With the state, it’s more challenging to do that.”

One thing is clear — in allowing employees to take amounts of leave not typical across the country, the state is layering on an additional staffing challenge at a time when companies in myriad industries are already challenged by worker shortages.

“If the state department or your third-party administrator makes the determination this person qualifies under PFML, then there’s really not much you can do,” Netkovick said. “I know that’s created staffing issues for a couple of our clients, but they’ve been able to work that out. If there’s some kind of mandated ratio, I could see that becoming an issue — you might have to hire people on a temporary basis.”

Gannon agreed it can be a hurdle, particularly since employees are eligible for leave starting from day one on the job.

“It has been a challenge from a staffing perspective, especially these days,” he said. “Staffing would be a challenge without all these job-protected forms of leave, and now we have PFML, too.”

 

Know the Facts

One key requirement of the PFML law is that employers need to put it in writing for their workforce.

“It doesn’t have to be in the handbook, but it has to be in writing, advising people of their rights under PFML and the qualifications,” Netkovick said, adding that some companies have made it a part of the handbook because they were revising that manual anyway. “But others have made it as a standalone policy that everyone has to sign off on.”

Gannon has also seen employers approach the communication question in different ways. “We’ve had clients doing a complete update of their handbook, not just to make sure they’re compliant with this law, but to determine whether other policies need to be changed,” he said, such as call-out procedures that give an employer enough time to manage absences from a staffing perspective.

Of course, those written policies need to make clear the anti-retaliation elements of the law, too. If an employee files a lawsuit against an employer for violation of the PFML law and the employer is found to be in violation, numerous remedies are available to the employee, including reinstatement to the same or similar position, three times the lost wages and benefits, and even the employee’s attorney’s fees.

That’s why training managers and supervisors on all aspects of the law is especially important, Gannon said. “They’re the ones who may not realize how strong the anti-retaliation provisions are. Depending on the size of the business, an employer may rely on managers and supervisors, and if they unknowingly retaliate against someone, it could be a problem for the entire organization. It’s important for those in supervisory or managerial roles to understand the law and how strong those anti-retaliation provisions are.”

Netkovick agreed, adding that yearly trainings on all aspects of workplace law, including Paid Family and Medical Leave, is a good idea.

“Companies need to be aware of that retaliation provision — I think that’s the key,” he said. “It’s worthwhile to keep that in mind at the beginning, so you know what the lay of the land is in case something comes up after the fact.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 69: June 21, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Charlie Christianson, president of East Longmeadow-based CMD Technology Group

BusinessWest editor George O’Brien talks with Charlie Christianson, president of East Longmeadow-based CMD Technology Group. The two discuss the recent spate of high-profile cyber attacks and how they have served to drive home the point that small businesses — and large businesses as well — need to do all they can to be prevent such breaches and properly respond when and if they do happen. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 68: June 14, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce

BusinessWest editor George O’Brien talks with Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. The two discuss the broad impact of the pandemic on a region heavily dependent on  college students and tourism, and how the same region is bracing for the ‘new normal’ and the many challenges and opportunities that will come will with it. It’s must listening,  so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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