Mary Ellen Scott, president of United Personnel Services, has forged a successful career in the challenging staffing industry, a field she joined somewhat reluctantly nearly 20 years ago. She’s also made her mark in the community, taking a lead role with several business and economic development groups.
Like many women, Mary Ellen Scott said her early career path was defined largely by her husband’s professional travels. Manhattan; Teaneck, N.J.; Boston; and Springfield. Those were some of the places where her first husband, Jay Canavan, found management positions at non-profits ranging from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to the Quadrangle. As she followed her husband from city to city, Scott managed to find jobs, she told BusinessWest, but not a career.

But the last time she followed him, however, she did.

That was when Jay, then 51 and in search of work after a five-year stint at the Quadrangle, decided to start his own company, an employment agency, in Hartford. He asked her to join him in that venture, but she told him she already had a job — director of human services at Gemini Corp. in Springfield. She eventually acquiesced, however, and, after the company survived a rocky start, she took the lead role in making it one of the most successful staffing services in the region.

Jay Canavan passed away in 1999, several years after officially retiring from the business. Mary Ellen, who remarried in 2001, continues to grow the company now known as United Personnel Services. The company has three offices — Springfield, Hartford, and Easthampton — and recorded 20% growth last year, in the midst of sluggish economic times that usually pose stern challenges for this industry.

Meanwhile, Scott has taken an increasingly larger role in the community. She is currently president of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, and board member

at the Economic Development Council (EDC), the Springfield Enterprise Center, and Springfield Symphony. She enjoys being active, and is upbeat about the region and its prospects for further development.

In a wide-ranging interview, Scott talked about the process of making the transition from employee to entrepreneur, and the risks and rewards that are part and parcel to that change. She also weighed in on the economy, and the prospects for the Pioneer Valley and the city of Springfield, which has been her home for 25 years.

"We’ve seen some good things happen in this city, but there are lot of challenges ahead," she said, referring to both the economy and the controversies that have damaged the city’s reputation. "There’s lots to do and no money for anything. But Springfield is resilient, and it has a lot going for it."

Work in Progress

Scott says she is asked often about the state of the local economy, especially during trying times like these.

She theorizes that her vocation might have something to do with that; those in the staffing business will often know what’s happening before those in other sectors. Also, her involvement with various business and civic groups helps keep her ear to the ground, and people want to know what she hears.

But she told BusinessWest that, despite all that, her crystal ball doesn’t work better than anyone else’s, and she admits to being puzzled by the current economic slump, which follows some, but not all, of the patterns of traditional downturns.

"Some sectors have really been hit hard, while others don’t seem to be impacted nearly as much," she said. "The economy is down — a look at the skinny help-wanted section in the paper will tell you that — but we’re having a very good year at this company; how do you explain that?"

Canavan has seen a number of economic cycles since she segued into the staffing industry two decades ago. She and her husband started in the booming mid-’80s and rode the wave that defined the end of that decade — expanding the operation into Springfield as they did so. They then toughed out the prolonged recession of the early ’90s, when many companies in that sector did not, and positioned itself to capitalize on a surge in the use of temporary and temp-to-hire workers in the mid- to late ’90s.

"It’s been a bit of a roller coaster," she acknowledged. "But that’s what this business is like. For the most part, I’ve really enjoyed the ride."

How she got on the roller coaster is an intriguing story. As she told BusinessWest, Scott initially rejected her husband’s requests to join his entrepreneurial venture. However, new management at Gemini — which saw things differently than Scott did on many personnel matters — and Jay Canavan’s difficulties with finding the right idividual to help him get the company off the ground eventually led them to team up.

"He couldn’t pay a ton of money, and joining a start-up operation was a risk that many people weren’t willing to take, so he really had a hard time finding the right person," she said. "Eventually, we decided that if we were going to do this, we should do it together, so I gave my notice."

The venture, known then as United Industrial Temporaries, struggled to get off the ground. "We didn’t have an order for three months," she said. "I got a paycheck, but Jay didn’t get one for nine months."

The economy was booming then, with unemployment at 2.3%, and companies were desperate for good help. The problem was establishing a reputation and breaking into the market. "Those were scary times," she recalled. "The phone didn’t ring."

Eventually, it did, however, as some of the larger insurance companies, like Aetna and Travelers, placed some orders. United opened a Springfield office soon thereafter, and that facility provided some cushion for the company when the Hartford financial services sector went through a period of downsizing in the early ’90s.

Scott said she quickly assumed many of the managerial responsibilities from her husband, who eventually retired in 1995. She presided over strong, steady growth and watched the company crack the Inc. 500 list of the country’s fastest-growing companies in 1993 and 1995. Current revenues are approaching $6 million.

Today, a staff of 18 works in the company’s Main Street offices in the former Springfield Five Cents Savings Bank building, where Scott says she acts largely as the company’s public relations person. "I’m the face in the community," she said. "I still do some sales, but mostly I try to promote the company and keep our name visible."

She described the staffing industry as one that is relatively easy to get into — despite her own personal experiences — but one that is much harder to stay in because of the heavy competition and the economy’s wild mood swings.

She said United has done well because of its diversity and also its ability to "go the extra mile," as she put it. "When one side of this business is down, the other seems to pick up."

Canavan described herself as a good delegator who doesn’t micromanage, but does like to challenge employees.

"I like to give people responsibilities — and then I expect them to handle those responsibilities," she said. "I try not to step on anyone’s toes, and I essentially just let people do what they were hired to do. We have a very collegial atmosphere here. I want people to say they enjoy working here; that’s important."

She said she has no real pearls of wisdom for women, other than advice to give their entrepreneurial talents a chance to flourish.

"It’s scary to go from getting a paycheck every week to the situation we faced when we started — when we didn’t know if we’d get a paycheck," she said. "But what makes it scary also makes it fun."

Getting Down to Business

As Scott’s status in the local business community has grown, she has become involved with a growing list of business and civic groups, including the EDC, the symphony, and the Enterprise Center at STCC. She told BusinessWest that she understands that some of the requests for her participation are made with the goal of achieving gender diversity on those boards, but she acknowledged that the pool of women business leaders is not particularly deep, and thus her phone rings often.

Two groups she has become very involved with is the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, and, more recently, the Springfield Chamber — she’s the first woman to be named president of that group — which was created in 1996 and now boasts nearly 900 members.

Scott told BusinessWest she’s been involved for years with the thorny subject of tax classification — she’s one of the few business owners who also lives in the city and thus sees the issue from both sides — and the ongoing effort to bring the commercial rate down, thus making it more attractive to current and prospective businesses.

"That’s just a part of the larger issue of making the city more business-friendly," she said, adding that the Chamber and the Albano administration have made it a priority to not only attract new businesses, but work to retain those already here. "Retention is a very big part of that equation, and it often goes overlooked. Everyone’s focused on bringing new businesses here, but you also have to create an environment that makes companies want to stay."

Meanwhile, she says that perhaps a bigger challenge will be enticing people to live in the city.

"Young people are not opting to move to Springfield, and that’s a big problem," she said, noting that, while a long list of attractive suburbs certainly contributes to the dilemma, the city’s struggling schools and other quality-of-life issues don’t help, either. "Springfield is just not an attractive option for many people.

"I’m not sure how we go about changing that situation," she continued. "But it’s something we all have to work on."

She told BusinessWest that a confluence of recent issues — everything from the economy and the state budget to the controversy enveloping City Hall, to the pending departure of UNICARE and its 800 employees from 1350 Main St. — has created a number of challenges for Springfield that will certainly test its mettle.

"UNICARE’s leaving will have an effect on a lot of businesses downtown, especially the restaurants, bars, and clubs, and even the parking authority," she said. "It’s going to take some time to replace that many workers and fill that much office space, and that’s why we have to keep working to make the city business-friendly."

She said the controversy that continues to swirl around Albano and many current and former members of his administration, won’t help in the regard, but she’s not sure just how much damage the prolonged FBI investigation and the Feds’ almost weekly raids of downtown bars and city agencies will have on the city’s psyche and its economic development efforts.

"There’s a bit of a dark cloud over the city right now," she said, "and that’s too bad in a way, because Mayor Albano has done a lot to revitalize downtown and give it some life."

The Bottom Line

When pressed to comment on the prospects for the local economy, Scott said the region is in what she called a holding pattern.

"People are hesitant to make moves," she said, "because they don’t know what’s around the corner. They’re looking for some sign that things are better, and they’re just not seeing one they can believe in.

"Business owners are waiting for something positive to happen," she continued.

Plenty of positive things have happened to Scott since she arrived in Springfield. Some of her success can be attributed to the whims of the economy and some good fortune, but mostly, she’s made her own luck.

She believes Springfield and the Pioneer Valley can do the same.

"We have a lot to build on here," she said. "But we can’t wait for it to happen — we have to make it happen."