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Class of 2024 Special Coverage

MEET THE 2024 DIFFERENCE MAKERS!

BusinessWest Editor Joseph Bednar interviews with 2024 Difference Makers: Rock 102, Paul Lambert from Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Beth Welty from the Springfield Chamber Players and Shannon Rudder from MLK Family Services.
BusinessWest Editor Joseph Bednar interviews with 2024 Difference Makers: Scott Keiter of Keiter, Linda Dunlavy of Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Matt Bannister of PeoplesBank and Delcie Bean of Paragus Strategic I.T. Special Thanks to GCAI

Thank You to our Partner Sponsors

Thank You to our Supporting Sponsors

Construction Special Coverage

Building on Momentum

Wonderlyn Murphy (standing, center) with her leadership team at City Enterprise.

Wonderlyn Murphy (standing, center) with her leadership team at City Enterprise.

 

 

To Wonderlyn Murphy, a successful construction project can be defined in different ways. And one of those is how gratifying it is.

Take the new digital marquee sign at the MassMutual Center, which displays upcoming events, weather, and other information. Springfield-based City Enterprise built the structure that holds the digital display in place and ran the electrical work. The stone exterior in that area of the building had to be removed, reconfigured, and reinstalled after significant steel reinforcement was added to the wall structure to support the 40-by-25-foot display.

“That’s a brand-new sign, and it’s a big deal for Springfield and a big deal for us. We wanted that contract because of everything that Springfield is doing,” said Murphy, City Enterprise president, noting other developments happening in the downtown area, like the transformation of the former Court Square Hotel into housing. “To be part of what’s happening in Springfield, for me, is important.”

Another gratifying project is City Enterprise’s work on Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyerian Church, which was set ablaze by an arsonist in December 2021.

“We’re currently working on rebuilding that, to make sure that they have services again,” Murphy told BusinessWest. “It’s a very significant project for us, being a local contractor, and that being an African-American church with all its history. It’s an important project for us, very close to home.”

In terms of sheer volume of work, Murphy said, “it’s been challenging finding the right opportunities for us to bid. We have found them — we have an excellent estimating department that fishes out all these opportunities to bid. But it’s slim pickings out there.”

That said, she added, “it’s cyclical. As the summer comes along, we’ll find more opportunities that fit within our wheelhouse.”

City Enterprise has been involved in an array of intriguing projects, though, from laboratory renovations at UMass Lowell and two projects at UMass Amherst’s Mullins Center — an HVAC system overhaul and chiller replacement — to work at the Moakley federal courthouse in Boston and a complete rebuild of a security entryway for the Air National Guard at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport.

J.L. Raymaakers & Sons has been busy on a project at Gardner Municipal Airport.

J.L. Raymaakers & Sons has been busy on a project at Gardner Municipal Airport.

“That’s a very significant project,” Murphy said of the latter. “We’ll take on any type of challenge.”

Dan Jodice has a similar take on being involved in a variety of projects. As a co-owner of PDS Engineering & Construction in Bloomfield, Conn., he’s seen the 60-year-old firm specialize in a widening list of sectors, including automotive, aviation, education, healthcare, retail, public safety, and more.

“Self-storage facilities are popular now, and car washes and car dealerships have been very popular with our clients over the past three years,” he said. “We can also do schools; we’re renovating a $40 million school in Hartford right now. Usually we do one school at a time, so we’ll do a school job, and when that ends, we’ll start on another one. We’ve also done a handful of churches over the years, and aerospace and aviation are pretty popular.

“We probably could be busier, but we’re happier with what we have now,” Jodice went on. “I’d say 60% of our work is repeat clients, and the other 40% is just getting out there and finding every lead possible.”

 

Challenge and Opportunity

John Raymaakers Jr. and Josh Raymaakers, directors at J.L. Raymaakers & Sons in Westfield, are plenty optimistic about how business is going, noting that all this year’s projects had been booked by last June.

The firm specializes in excavation, site work, and construction projects of all kinds, including airport runways and taxiways, pump stations, and, most recently, the foundation technique known as sheet shoring. Recent jobs include multiple bridge projects, Gardner Municipal Airport, a pump station in Great Barrington, and a Dunkin’ Donuts in Easthampton. “I’d say it’s a good mix right now,” Josh said.

“These are jobs funded through federal money and have been trickling into our local economy, which is helping us out and giving work for our employees.”

That said, they’ve dealt — like every other firm — with the key challenges of the past several years in construction: higher costs, supply-chain delays, and workforce shortages.

“They’ve been challenges, every one of them,” Josh said. “The pump stations require a lot of electrical components, and those have been an issue.”

Jodice agreed. “The biggest supply-chain issue is for electrical switchgear. If you order that now, it seems like it’s a year out, for some reason. Since COVID, that has not rebounded at all. Everything else is back to normal. Prices aren’t the same — I wish the prices were lower — but the supply chain is better. Ordering a metal building during COVID took six months. Today, it’s three months or faster.”

As for workforce, “we do pretty well,” Josh Raymaakers Jr. said. “Obviously, we would like more, but it’s a difficult challenge to find good people who have experience in our field.”

John recognizes the challenges across the industry as retirees are outpacing new blood, but as someone who grew up around the family business, he said construction is a stable and satisfying career — for those willing to put in the work.

entryway for the Air National Guard in Westfield

One current job at City Enterprise is rebuilding a security entryway for the Air National Guard in Westfield.

“You can’t be scared to get your hands dirty at first. The problem is, everyone wants to start at the top. But you have to work in the field and get your hands dirty. You have to learn. That’s what our parents made us do,” he explained. “That knowledge from being in the field is crucial, and that’s the hardest thing we’ve got to teach people. We have a project manager and bidder who started as a laborer, then became an operator, then a foreman, and now he’s a project manager. And his experience has been crucial for us.”

Challenges aside, “we’re very busy, and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down, even with the private-sector work,” John continued, noting that about 75% of Raymaakers jobs are public, and 25% private.”

A great deal of the public work is being driven by a recognition that much infrastructure in Massachusetts is in need of repair, and federal money has been flowing in to help address those needs.

“Those are good opportunities,” he told BusinessWest. “These are jobs funded through federal money and have been trickling into our local economy, which is helping us out and giving work for our employees.”

Jodice said PDS doesn’t do as much public bidding as it does private, bidding maybe six public-sector jobs a year. “We try to stay busy in the private market. Public, you’re bidding against 10 to 15 GCs, and private, it’s maybe five, so there’s a better chance you get the project. And if it’s private, you can land a job more by building on a relationship with the owner and having them select you rather than the low number getting the bid.”

PDS got started six decades ago erecting pre-engineered steel buildings, and still does that work today, along with a much wider variety of projects ranging from commercial and industrial buildings to small fit-outs and large college projects — typically about $60 million worth of work each year across Connecticut, Western Mass., and Rhode Island. It also touts its expertise in the design-build realm.

“The convenient thing is we do our own design in-house; we can design and build rather than have the client go to an architect and have several different parties involved. The process is quicker because we’re doing everything here.”

 

From the Ground Up

Several years ago, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons launched a second business called ROAR (Raymaakers Onsite Aggregate Recycling), through which it collected and resold the dirt it dug up from construction jobs. That enterprise, which then expanded into bark mulch, processed gravel, and all kinds of rock, now employs four people full-time.

Because both businesses have been growing, the family bought land on Progress Avenue in Westfield and is building a new, 4,000-square-foot office space, which will be followed next year by a 7,000-square-foot maintenance garage. That property will be the new home of J.L. Raymaakers & Sons, while the current headquarters on East Mountain Road will exclusively house the ROAR operation.

“ROAR started strong, and it complements our other company,” John Raymaakers Jr. said. “We’re able to take the topsoil materials off of our jobs and then recycle them and sell them. That’s been a huge aspect of our business.”

City Enterprise has seen growth over the years as well, and now touts “the best team in the industry,” Murphy said.

“I have core values here, and I have people working with me that are really aligned with those,” she added. “Each department has their expertise, and we have a vision, and we’re working to get things done.”

Class of 2024 Cover Story

Introducing This Year’s Class

For 16 years now, BusinessWest has been recognizing and celebrating the work of individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions through its Difference Makers program, with one goal in mind: to show the many ways one can, in fact, make a difference within their community.

The stories of the class of 2024, like the 15 cohorts before it, are all different, but the common thread is the passion and commitment exhibited by each honoree to improve quality of life for those in this region and make it a better place to live, work, and conduct business.

The stories are inspiring in many different ways, whether it’s Matt Bannister’s deep commitment to area nonprofits or Shannon Rudder’s lifelong pursuit of equity and access for all; whether it’s the work of Fred and Mary Kay Kadushin and the staff of Rock 102 to fight hunger or the ways Delcie Bean and Scott Keiter use their business success to impact others; whether it’s Linda Dunlavy’s hard work on tough regional issues or the significant impact of Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Springfield Chamber Players on the economic and cultural health of Western Mass.

We invite you to read these stories below. All of the 2024 Difference Makers have made an impact — real, tangible, often life-changing impact — in this region that we call home.

You can also help us celebrate the honorees in person on Thursday, April 10 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. Tickets cost $95 each, with reserved tables of 10-12 available. For more event details and to reserve tickets, go HERE

Thank you to our sponsors — Burkhart, Pizzanelli, P.C., Keiter, Mercy Medical Center/Trinity Health, the Royal Law Firm, and TommyCar Auto Group — for making this program possible.

Please Join Us for the 2024 Difference Makers Celebration!

Wednesday, April 10 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Tickets are $95 and can be purchased HERE

Thank you to our partner sponsors: Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., Keiter, Mercy Medical Center/Trinity Health, the Royal Law Firm, TommyCar Auto Group, and our supporting sponsors: Springfield Thunderbirds and Westfield bank.

Partner Sponsors:

Supporting Sponsors:

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Potential Tax Relief

By Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA

This article, written on Feb. 2, highlights the U.S. House of Representatives’ Jan. 31 passage of the Tax Relief for American Families and Workers Act of 2024 (H.R. 7024). However, it’s important to note that the details are subject to change pending the Senate’s vote and the ultimate signing into law by the president.

Despite concerted efforts to get the bill to the Senate in time for the current tax-filing season, this deadline has unfortunately lapsed, causing some concern over timing and efficacy. However, lawmakers remain optimistic about swift passage in the subsequent stages, aiming to minimize the impact on the IRS and enable prompt relief for taxpayers.

 

INDIVIDUAL TAX RELIEF

One of the core components of this legislation includes an increase in the child tax credit, a move set to benefit families with children across the nation. This concept is further strengthened by the introduction of a refundable portion determined per child, a clear advantage for growing families.

The proposed bill introduces a single change regarding the child tax credit. Currently, the credit is $2,000 per child for taxpayers who do not exceed certain income thresholds. A portion of this credit can be refunded up to $1,600 in 2023. The refundable portion is limited based on the number of qualifying children and the taxpayer’s earned income.

Under the proposed law, the refundable amount will be calculated per child, resulting in a total refundable amount. This change applies to the 2023-25 tax years. Additionally, the maximum amount of the refundable credit will be increased to $1,800 for 2023, $1,900 for 2024, and $2,000 for 2025. The overall child tax credit will also be adjusted for inflation from 2024 onward.

Kristina Drzal Houghton“One of the core components of this legislation includes an increase in the child tax credit, a move set to benefit families with children across the nation. This concept is further strengthened by the introduction of a refundable portion determined per child, a clear advantage for growing families.”

Notably missing from this legislation was a provision that addresses an aspect of the state and local tax deduction, which was capped at $10,000 by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017. The $10,000 cap applies to taxpayers filing either single or married filing jointly. Advocates were hoping for a provision to increase the married filing joint cap to be twice the single cap and eliminate that marriage penaly.

 

BUSINESS TAX RELIEF

In a bid to support the innovative spirit of America, the Tax Relief for American Families and Workers Act also includes provisions to delay the requirement to capitalize and amortize research and experimentation expenditures. This is further bolstered by an extension of the 100% bonus depreciation for properties in service prior to Jan. 1, 2026.

For the hardworking business sector, the Act provides an increase in the Code Sec. 179 deduction limitation and expense limitation for property put into service post-2023.

 

Research and Experimental Expenses

Under current law, domestic research and experimental expenditures incurred in tax years starting after Dec. 31, 2021 must be amortized over five years. Previously, these expenses could be immediately deducted in the year they were paid or incurred. Research or experiment costs outside the U.S. are deductible over a 15-year period. The proposed law would postpone the application of this rule for research and experimental costs related to domestic activities until tax years starting after Dec. 31, 2025. There will be no change for activities outside the U.S. The bill includes transitional rules for research credits and accounting changes.

Observation: H.R. 7024 provides that a taxpayer can reflect the retroactive application of Section 174 expensing via a change in method of accounting with either a one-year Section 481(a) adjustment or an elective two-year Section 481(a) adjustment. Alternatively, eligible taxpayers generally would be permitted to amend their first tax year beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2022, to reflect current expensing of eligible Section 174 expenditures. Due to the late passage of this bill, businesses may want to consider applying for an extension of time to file their returns so they can analyze which of the three options is most beneficial for them.

 

Business Interest Limitation

Under current tax law, prior to 2022, the calculation of adjusted taxable income for the business interest expense limitation (Code Sec. 163(j)) excluded deductions for interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization, or depletion (IBITDA). However, starting from 2022, only deductions for interest and taxes were considered, excluding depreciation, amortization, and depletion. The new law would reintroduce depreciation, amortization, and depletion for tax years starting after Dec. 31, 2023, and before Jan. 1, 2026. Additionally, taxpayers can choose to include depreciation, amortization, and depletion for tax years beginning after 2021 and before 2024.

Observation: H.R. 7024 provides that a taxpayer can reflect the retroactive application of using IBITDA to calculate the interest limitation. The bill does not provide as much information on how to effect the retroactive elction as it does with Section 174. Taxpayers with large limitation in 2022 may find it advantageous to amend their returns for this retroactive adoption. It is also unclear if you can elect to provide the provision for 2023 without amending 2022.

For the hardworking business sector, the Act provides an increase in the Code Sec. 179 deduction limitation and expense limitation for property put into service post-2023.

 

Bonus Depreciation

The most recent change, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, allowed for immediate expensing of qualified property placed in service between Sept. 17, 2017 and Jan. 1, 2023 (100% bonus depreciation). Starting in 2023, the first-year depreciation gradually reduces (80% in 2023, 60% in 2024, 40% in 2025, 20% in 2026) until it is eliminated for property placed in service in 2027. The proposed bill extends 100% bonus depreciation for property placed in service before Jan. 1, 2026 (Jan. 1, 2027 for longer production period property and certain aircraft). In 2026 and 2027, the 20% and 0% bonus depreciation rates would continue to apply.

 

Increased 179 Deduction

Under current law, businesses can choose to expense certain qualifying property instead of depreciating it. This includes tangible personal property, off-the-shelf computer software, and qualified real property used in the active conduct of a trade or business. The deduction is limited to an inflation-adjusted amount. In 2024, the deduction is capped at $1.22 million, reduced dollar-for-dollar by expenses exceeding $3.05 million.

 

Employee Retention Credit

The Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERTC) was established in March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The purpose of the credit was to provide businesses with a credit against certain payroll taxes if they retained employees during lockdowns that may have impacted their income. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 extended the credit and expanded its scope to include Medicare taxes and dropped the precentage threshold for revenue decrease establishing eligibility for the credit. Taxpayers were able to make ERTC claims until April 15, 2025, despite the expiration of the period for which the credit can be claimed.

The IRS has identified fraudulent claims made by taxpayers, often unknowingly, facilitated by third-party processors (COVID-ERTC promoters) who boldly advertised on television and plagued businesses with calls implying that almost any business qualified due to facts and circumstances. To address this issue, the IRS temporarily suspended the acceptance of new claims in late 2023 while investigating potential instances of fraud in its backlog. Additionally, an amnesty program was established for taxpayers to voluntarily withdraw unqualified claims or repay the credit without penalty.

The proposed bill aims to combat fraudulent claims by increasing penalties for COVID-ERTC promoters, extending the limitations period on assessments of ERTC claims to six years, and imposing reporting requirements on COVID-ERTC promoters similar to promoters of listed transactions. Notably, the bill sets Jan. 31, 2024 as the deadline for making ERTC claims.

 

In Addition

In an effort to reduce compliance burdens on businesses, the Act raises the filing threshold for Form 1099-NEC and 1099-MISC from $600 to $1,000 for payments post-Dec. 31, 2023. The $1,000 will be adjusted for inflation.

 

IN SUMMARY

In essence, the Tax Relief for American Families and Workers Act of 2024 is a comprehensive package addressing varied aspects of the American economic landscape with a keen eye on relief and progression. These changes aim to promote economic growth, support independent contractors and businesses, and address housing affordability concerns.

While the House’s passage of the Act marks a significant milestone, it’s important to keep a vigilant eye on the upcoming Senate proceedings, as the Act still requires approval there before becoming law.

 

Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA is a partner at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

 

Class of 2024

They’re Keeping Music Alive in New Ways for Future Generations

SSO

Springfield Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Paul Lambert and Springfield Chamber Players Chair Beth Welty.

 

Beth Welty said the musicians just wanted to play.

With the Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s leadership and musicians locked in a labor dispute in 2021 and 2022, the players were willing to perform under the old contract until a new one was settled, but the SSO wouldn’t agree.

“At this point, the pandemic had subsided enough that all the other orchestras in the Northeast had come back to work, audiences were showing up, and we decided we needed to do something,” Welty said. “We were very worried if there was no symphonic music in Springfield — out of sight, out of mind — people would forget about us. We had to keep this going.”

So the musicians started staging shows on their own — both at Symphony Hall and at smaller venues around the region — churches, the Westfield Atheneum, anywhere they could draw an audience.

“We were playing at all these little places, constantly expanding to new communities and venues, and bringing live chamber music to as many people as we possibly could in Western Mass.,” said Welty, an SSO violinist who headed up the effort known as MOSSO, or Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

“So many people, including members of my board, have told me, ‘the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra was in school.”

Well, you might know the story after that — the SSO and the musicians’ union struck a two-year deal last spring to bring full symphony concerts back to downtown Springfield, which proved gratifying to SSO President and CEO Paul Lambert, who never considered the musicians his enemies as they worked out their labor differences.

“I grew up in the Actors’ Equity Association. I’m a union member. And I believe in organized labor, especially in the performing arts. You want to make sure that everyone is well taken care of,” he said. “At the same time, I’ve been a businessman for a long time, so I’m very well aware of the economic realities and challenges that the performing-arts business is going through, especially in these eccentric times we’re still living through.”

The relief on both sides, in fact, was palpable. But the return of concerts to Symphony Hall was only part of the story. The other part was the continued existence of MOSSO under a new name — Springfield Chamber Players — and its continuing mission to bring smaller chamber concerts to venues around the region, including schools.

“We’re interested in promoting the voices that don’t get heard as much but are great composers — music by Black composers, composers of color, women composers,” Welty said. “We’re mixing in composers people have some familiarity with, but also bringing them composers they haven’t heard of, even living composers.”

So as the music reverberates around the region once again, BusinessWest has chosen to honor both the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Springfield Chamber Players as Difference Makers for 2024 — not because they settled a labor agreement last year, but because of how important the performing arts are to the region, and how important both entities are to filling that role, hopefully for generations to come.

The Springfield Chamber Players

The Springfield Chamber Players string quartet includes Miho Matsuno, Robert Lawrence, Martha McAdams, and Patricia Edens.
(Photo by Gregory Jones)

“When people come to the concerts, and I may open with remarks, I ask people, ‘just for a couple of hours, turn off your cell phones and let it go,’” Lambert said. “It’s like therapy — go listen to some beautiful music. For a few hours, just relax and drink it in. We just need that so badly right now.”

Welty agreed. “Music is a big part of life, and I want that for everyone. It doesn’t have to be classical — we did a combo jazz-classical concert,” she noted, before citing Duke Ellington’s famous line about how genre doesn’t matter, and that “there are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.”

And good music — good live music — truly makes a difference in a community.

 

Generation Next

Lambert recalled being in the fourth grade and attending a symphony concert; in fact, it’s an especially vivid, formative memory. So he’s grateful for a two-year, $280,000 grant from the city last spring to help the SSO create educational programming for youth.

“We are deeply involved in finding creative solutions, ways to reach out. This is a giant opportunity to reach all kinds of members of our community who might like to learn more about music — classical music, symphonic music, all the various forms of music that we can touch,” he said.

Meanwhile, through a program called Beethoven’s Buddies, people can donate money toward free tickets for those who might not be able to afford one. “Whatever your situation is, we want you to come to these concerts to hear this music and have a wonderful time,” he explained. “We’re excited about that. It’s also another way that we can reach into our community to pull in people as donors and sponsors.”

“You come together, and the concert happens, and it’s magic. It’s that one-time experience of being together in a space where this beautiful thing happens. It’s special.”

A long-time program called the Springfield Symphony Youth Orchestra is going strong as well, Lambert said, and the SSO just hired an education director, Caitlin Meyer, who has been engaging with public schools and colleges on everything from internships to educational programming and performances.

“That’s a critical piece in the equation,” Lambert added. “So many people, including members of my board, have told me, ‘the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra was in school.’”

Meanwhile, Springfield Chamber Players recently presented educational outreach concerts at the Berkshire School in Sheffield and the Community Music School of Springfield.

Meeting young people where they are is simply a matter of survival for performing-arts organizations, said Mark Auerbach, Marketing and Public Relations director for Springfield Chamber Players.

“A lot of people who go to symphonies and come to our concerts are on the older side. And it’s partly because the music programs in schools are not what they were 30 or 40 years ago,” he noted. “If we can get family concerts going, educational concerts going, and interest kids and young adults to come to concerts, hopefully they will stay and grow with us.”

Welty is glad the SSO is doing grant-funded youth outreach because the budget for Springfield Chamber Players is limited, so it needs to be a group effort.

“I’ve been with the symphony 40 years, and we used to have a really robust school presence. We’d send a trio or a quartet to play for kids, talk to them, and answer questions. And they later came to Symphony Hall to hear the whole orchestra,” she recalled. “I think they want to bring that back. We have to be developing the next generation of audience members.”

Symphony Hall

Leaders of both Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Springfield Chamber Players are gratified to be bringing music back to both Symphony Hall (pictured) and smaller venues around the region.

Part of the growth and outreach is simply broadening the definition of what an SSO concert is, Lambert told BusinessWest.

“A lot of folks think of a certain type of music from Western Europe, from the 18th and 19th century. And I love that music. I love Mozart. I love Brahms. I love Beethoven. I love Schubert. I’m thrilled to hear that music, personally,” he said. “But I’ve become increasingly aware of the streams of music traditions that exist all around the world in different cultures and different backgrounds that might appeal to all kinds of folks. So we are trying to pull those various streams together in our programming opportunities.”

To that end, the SSO has begun assembling some hybrid concerts that offer a mixture of traditions, like the classical-jazz fusion explored at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration concert in January, and a Havana Nights show earlier this month that featured Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban rythms.

“The MLK concert had a marvelously diverse audience. We are thrilled when we see new people coming in,” Lambert said. “At our Juneteenth concert that we did last year, we had so many people telling us, ‘I’ve never been to one of your concerts before; I’ve never even been to Symphony Hall before.’ It’s thrilling to us to get those folks coming in to hear this beautiful music.

“Our pops concerts do really well, and we’re going to see what we can explore with those, with different genres of music,” he added. “At the same time, we’re never going to lose track of that beautiful, traditional repertoire that people, including me, love so much. That’s the core of who we are.”

 

A Resource of Note

Welty noted that Springfield Chamber Players has brought an eclectic spirit to its offerings as well, such as “Johnny Appleseed,” a composition by local composer Clifton Noble Jr. based on Janet Yolen’s book of the same name. That concert will take place outdoors in Longmeadow — the legendary character’s hometown — on May 12.

Whatever the venue, she is passionate about exposing more people to good music — whatever that means to Duke Ellington or anyone else — and to get them into music at younger ages.

“I wish every kid could take lessons on an instrument for a few years. You really learn so much. Problem-solving, analyzing, listening, observing. Music is very mathematical, too. Music education would boost everybody,” she said.

“I really think of arts organizations — music, a ballet company, whatever it is — as a resource for everyone,” she added. “You can’t just go to work every day and then go home and watch TV. That’s a boring life. You want something more. And kids that see live music get interested. They want to try it themselves.”

A thriving performance culture is also an economic driver, Auerbach noted.

“It’s essential that Springfield Symphony Orchestra survives because it’s the only live, nonprofit performing-arts organization in Springfield,” he said. “Without the arts, we’d have trouble attracting new residents and new businesses. And there’s a lot of economic spinoff — you go out, first you pay to eat, you pay to park, you may go out to drink afterwards. The musicians, if they are local, spend money here. If they’re not local, they have to stay in hotels and eat here.”

Lambert agrees, even though the demographics for this art form are challenging right now — not just in Springfield, but everywhere.

“For a couple of years during the pandemic, folks stayed at home, and they got used to not coming out at night so much. You got used to staying home and being cozy in your armchair and watching Netflix. Coming back from that was always going to be a substantial challenge.”

But the rewards are great, he added.

“I used to think about how people make wine — you grow the grapes, and you tend the vineyards, and you design the bottle, and you do all of this work. And then you get to dinner and someone opens the cork and you drink it, and it’s gone. But it’s a beautiful thing for that moment.

“I often think about our experience the same way,” he went on. “All the work and the rehearsals and the planning and the tickets and this and that. But you come together, and the concert happens, and it’s magic. It’s that one-time experience of being together in a space where this beautiful thing happens. It’s special.”

Class of 2024

President and CEO, Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services

She Wants to Galvanize a Community to Effect Positive Change

Shannon Rudder

For her 12th birthday, Shannon Rudder didn’t want a present from her mother; instead, she wanted to redecorate her bedroom.

So she did, and she remembers some of the things she hung on the walls, like the Indigenous Ten Commandments and a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, along with the quotation, “live, think, and act. Be inspired by humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony.”

She remembers that message because she internalized it at a young age, and it has informed every stop along her career journey — and the difference she has been able to make at each one.

“It’s embedded in me,” Rudder said as she sat with BusinessWest in her office at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield. “I feel like I can be a part of creating humanity in my immediate area. I might not be able to change the whole world or the whole city that I’m in, but I’ve always felt compelled to make an impact in a positive way with compassion and love. And I’m responsible for my thoughts because those become actions. Very early on, that idea led me to be a person of integrity, of deep compassion, and of advocacy.”

Perhaps that’s why, after considering a corporate career in college, she eventually embarked on a series of roles at organizations with a social mission, from MotherWoman and Teach Western Mass to Providence Ministries and, now, MLK Family Services, where she stepped a year ago into the very big shoes of the late Ronn Johnson, who steered the ship there for more than a decade (and was also honored by BusinessWest as a Difference Maker in 2020).

Simply put, Rudder said, “I just think I have been called to contribute to important causes, and I go after that.”

Her first nonprofit job was in Buffalo, N.Y., where she grew up, for an organization called Women for Human Rights & Dignity. “It just like cracked me open, like, ‘oh, the skills that I have and the compassion that I have … they can be aligned, and I get paid to do awesome, impactful work?’

“I might not be able to change the whole world or the whole city that I’m in, but I’ve always felt compelled to make an impact in a positive way with compassion and love.”

“That was all about women’s empowerment,” she added. “We did alternatives-to-incarceration programs and domestic-violence support and non-traditional education and housing. I was really young, and I had a little baby, and I was doing this good work, but also learning how to run a business.”

Since then, Rudder has taken care to align with causes that are important to her, moving into work with fair housing and civil rights in the Buffalo region before moving to Western Mass., where her first pathway to organizational leadership was at MotherWoman, a nonprofit focused on maternal health and well-being, where she served as executive director.

Later, she was executive director for Providence Ministries Inc., a nonprofit advocating for and supporting marginalized populations across programs dedicated to food security, addiction recovery, housing, clothing, and workforce development. That role opened her eyes to many types of need and further honed her sharp sense of empathy.

“I remember my grandmother saying, ‘but for God’s grace, there go I’ — meaning, in a blink of an eye, your situation could change, and you could be on the other side of needing services like that,” she said. “We’re all part of the same journey.”

Shannon Rudder

Shannon Rudder with the two youth emcees from last month’s MLK Day celebration.

She also served as deputy director of Teach Western Mass, a nonprofit startup working toward educational equity in partnership with more than 30 schools. Her duties included fiscal and operational oversight, knowledge-management systems, data and impact, communications, equity and belonging, human-resource management, overall team culture, and supervision of cross-functional teams.

“I’ve been really intentional about the causes that make a difference to me, approaching it from the perspective of, ‘OK, this agency’s mission is really clear, the heart and the compassion are here, and I get to make sure it lasts for a long time by building the infrastructure, the operations systems, the fundraising and return on investment, and all the important scaffolding that needs to be in place so that the business aspect of it can thrive.”

The clear thread woven through all these roles has been a focus on equity and making sure everyone has access to the resources they need to live healthy, meaningful lives, she explained. “I picked causes that are doing the important work of amplifying the voices of those that have often been silenced or marginalized.”

By using her own voice, compassion, and business acumen to do so, Rudder has become a true Difference Maker.

 

Lifetime Support

At MLK Family Services, she shares with Johnson, her late predecessor, an approach to the work from a public-health standpoint, considering how the social determinants of health affect all areas of life.

“Sure, we can triage and put Band-Aids on stuff — people are hungry now, so let’s make sure they have food — but let’s dig a little deeper: how do we actually get a grocery store in an area that is in need?” she said.

“I remember my grandmother saying, ‘but for God’s grace, there go I’ — meaning, in a blink of an eye, your situation could change, and you could be on the other side of needing services like that. We’re all part of the same journey.”

“I also want to make sure that MLKFS as a whole, operations and programs, is operating from a trauma-informed place,” she went on, citing a philosophy that takes into account the unique, often traumatic experiences of an individual’s life and how that informs what they need.

“How do we approach our programs and ensure that the people working with our kids are helping to break that, or making sure that those kids have resources like mental-health counseling? How do we make sure we’re helping to embolden and empower them, and then actually building the bridge to get them access to the things that they need?”

The current programs offered by MLK Family Services are many and diverse, and include:

• The Family Stabilization Program, funded through the Department of Child and Family, offers support to families to keep their children safely at home and in the community by advocating for the well-being and rights of all children and ensuring parenting support.

Shannon Rudder’s work at MLK Family Services lifts up children in many ways.

Shannon Rudder’s work at MLK Family Services lifts up children in many ways.

• The MLK Food Pantry provides emergency food services to community members in Hampden County. The program relies on donations from grocery vendors and is a member of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. The pantry operates at the MLK Community Center weekly and also hosts the Food Bank’s mobile market twice monthly.

• The Clemente Course in Humanities is a transformative educational experience for adults — an opportunity to further their education and careers, advocate for themselves and their families, and engage actively in the cultural and political lives of their communities.

• The Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Tour helps young people explore their academic journey by visiting multiple college campuses in a single trip. These tours equip participants with a solid understanding of the history, culture, and traditions that have shaped the schools’ collective legacy. In addition, students, parents, and counselors are engaged in a year-long series of workshops.

• The King’s Kids afterschool programs serve up to 130 children at two locations. Programming is aimed at helping students become academically successful by nurturing their character building, critical-thinking skills, and creativity. Students are offered homework help, STEAM enrichment, literacy support, cultural experiences, and recreational and holistic well-being.

• Youth between ages 13 and 22 are invited to participate in the weekly Night Spot program, which empowers them to be critical thinkers and community builders while preparing them for life in high school, college, and beyond. Night Spot offers advocacy services for a variety of needs, including handling life’s complications, navigating the court system, and ensuring safety in a safe, drug-free environment.

• Beat the Odds is a Springfield-based youth mental-health coalition led in partnership with the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts. Hosted at MLK Family Services, the program focuses on breaking the cycle of stigma and barriers to youth mental healthcare. In 2023, this program launched a public-awareness campaign called “I Am Not My Mood.”

“How do we make sure we’re helping to embolden and empower them, and then actually building the bridge to get them access to the things that they need?”

• King’s Kids Summer Camp is a full-day camp for children ages 5-12. Meanwhile, a new partnership with Springfield Empowerment Zone schools provides summer enrichment programs to Springfield middle- and high-school students in partnership with agencies across Massachusetts.

• DCR Summer Nights Program is a transformative, statewide initiative that enriches the lives of urban youth ages 13 to 21. MLK Family Services is one of the sites providing safe, inclusive, and fun activities (both recreational and educational) during evening hours. Participants enjoy gaming competitions and tournaments in a variety of sports, enriching arts activities, health and wellness workshops, career explorations through guest speakers, and off-site excursions.

“I can’t wait to jump in with the community and do a strategic plan where they begin to inform us what they need, so we’re not sitting here thinking, ‘oh, I think it would be cool if we created this experience,’” Rudder said. “Does the community need that? We know that the community is ever-shifting and changing. So to really meet the needs of the community, we need to hear from them, and I’m excited about doing that.”

The MLK King’s Kids dance troupe performed at MLK Day this year.

The MLK King’s Kids dance troupe performed at MLK Day this year.

It’s a way to go beyond Johnson’s ‘teach a man to fish’ credo and make sure people are fishing in the right ponds.

“If we say we’re going to listen to the community, then we have to go into the community and say, ‘OK, we heard you. How are we going to work at this together?’” Rudder said. “It’s our job to provide the resources and the tools, but I want them to be a part of that solution, whatever that looks like.”

 

Thinking Ahead

Rudder has plenty of goals for the center, from broading the trauma-informed piece to launching a full capital-needs assessment.

“I want to make sure our center is there for decades to come, so that means a lot of capital improvement. Our food pantry needs a new home; we’re just bursting at the seams.

“I also want to do economic-development training,” she added. “We do a really good job with HBCUs and also college readiness locally, and I want our kids to dream big — but college might not be for them. So how do we equip them to realize their dreams and potential? I want to do some vocational training, some entrepreneurial things, all STEAM-based approaches to things.”

One idea from Providence Ministries she’d like to being to MLK Family Services is ServSafe training. “We can get them certified in management and actually have hands-on teaching of kitchen skills and culinary skills. And then, how do they make money off of that? So, we’ll teach them business acumen and then link them to opportunities for jobs,” she explained. “I’m just excited to hear what our community’s needs are and finding a way — again, through the public-health lens — of making sure that we meet those needs.”

To accomplish all that, Rudder relies not only on the center’s staff, but also about 120 volunteers. And she finds it gratifying that she’s following King’s philosophy of not working solo, but galvanizing an entire community to accomplish positive change.

“One adage I grew up with is, ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ And I’m really blessed; I’m really fortunate in my life,” Rudder told BusinessWest. “So that’s my responsibility — to leverage those things that I’ve been blessed with into doing good, into impact. This is fun, and it is fulfilling to me.”

Class of 2024

They’ve Made the Mayflower Marathon a Community Tradition

The Staff of Rock 102

 

Mike Baxendale, the on-air personality known to all simply as Bax, says it started as a radio promotion. But it quickly became a community event.

And now, it’s a huge community event, involving individuals, families, businesses, institutions, area schools and colleges, and more.

He was referring, of course, to the Mayflower Marathon, staged each year in the days just before Thanksgiving to benefit Open Pantry. For 30 years now, the event, organized by and staged by the staff at Rock 102, has collected food and monetary donations to help those in need.

It started with one Mayflower trailer — hence the name — and each year, with a few rare exceptions, such as the height of the Great Recession in 2009 and the height of COVID in 2020, it has grown bigger and collected more to combat food insecurity.

And in 2023, the marathon, in its relatively new home at MGM Springfield, shattered all previous records, collecting more than $234,000 in food and monetary donations and filling nearly six trucks.

That number, and the level of support needed to reach it, speak to both the growing amount of need in the region amid higher inflation and growing financial issues facing many in the 413 and the manner in which the staff at Rock 102 have collaborated with others in recent years to take the marathon to new levels, with a comedy night at MGM Springfield and a Mayflower Marathon Night on the Springfield Thunderbirds schedule.

“They’re incredible; they truly have such huge hearts to make sure our neighbors get fed. The Open Pantry would never be able to serve that many people without the Mayflower Marathon.”

“Ultimately, the goal is to raise more and more and more to help those in need,” said David Oldread, vice president and general manager of the Springfield Rocks Radio Group and Northampton Radio Group, which includes Rock 102. He noted that the marathon involves difference makers on many levels, including those who donate everything from the trucks to the portable toilets to the tents; those corporate supporters, many of which have been part of this since the beginning; and the volunteers who help collect the donations and load the trucks.

But it is the staff at Rock 102 that is being honored the Difference Makers award this year, and deservedly so. The station conceived the idea back in 1993, and it has been the driving force in continuing the program and orchestrating its strong growth pattern.

The Mayflower Marathon

The Mayflower Marathon, now staged at MGM Springfield, fills several trucks with donations of food for Open Pantry in Springfield.

And it’s a company-wide initiative, a true team effort, said Oldread, noting that it is “all hands on deck,” especially in the weeks and days leading up to the event, with each staff member making important contributions to the effort, with work starting months before the marathon begins.

Bax and Steve Nagle, morning show hosts, entertain the audience — and inspire it — for 52 hours during the marathon; Erin Buehler, promotions director at Rock 102, plans, organizes, sets up, and executes the event; Alex Byrne, program director, coordinates the entire broadcast; Joshua Smith, engineer, sets up the technical side of the broadcast and keeps the show on the air; Dan Williams and Pat Kelly, on-air hosts, produce the broadcast at the station in East Longmeadow; the sales staff members rally their clients to get donations and volunteer their time at the event … and on it goes.

Overall, the marathon has become a powerful collaboration between Rock 102 staff members and the community to come together for a great cause, said Buehler, adding that this collaboration grows stronger each year.

Nicole Lussier, executive director of Open Pantry, agreed. She’s been with the Springfield-based agency for nearly 30 years, and thus has been involved with the marathon since the beginning. She’s watched it grow and become an increasingly larger force in the agency’s ability to carry out its mission. And she noted that the staff at Rock 102 brings passion to its work of making the marathon happen each year.

“To be able to tell Nicole Lussier what we had just done — and she had been there every minute of the event — to be able to tell her that we had raised at least $217,000, with more on the way … to see her reaction, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got choked up on the air.”

“They’re incredible; they truly have such huge hearts to make sure our neighbors get fed,” Lussier said. “The Open Pantry would never be able to serve that many people without the Mayflower Marathon; there’s no way we would be able to distribute that much food.”

Such sentiments help explain why the team at Rock 102 is being honored not for putting on the marathon, necessarily, but for rallying a region, a community, around a cause — and, in the process of doing so, becoming a true Difference Maker.

 

Making Waves

He called it the “chicken wing.”

This was the very effective submission hold developed by former pro wrestler Bob Backlund, who administered it to Bax during one of the marathons a few years ago.

“It’s very painful,” he said with a look that conveyed as much, adding that Backlund is one of many colorful guests who have made appearances during the marathon over the years, and his application of the chicken wing is one of the more intriguing ways that the airtime has been filled.

Others in the guest category include mayors, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (a regular each year), comedians, New England Patriots wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (who stopped by last year), and many others. As for memorable moments, there have been plenty of those as well, as the marathon has persevered through all kinds of weather, power outages, equipment glitches … you name it.

Rock 102 morning show hosts Bax (right) and Nagle talk with Springfield Thunderbirds President Nate Costa (a Difference Maker himself in 2023) at last year’s Mayflower Marathon.

Rock 102 morning show hosts Bax (right) and Nagle talk with Springfield Thunderbirds President Nate Costa (a Difference Maker himself in 2023) at last year’s Mayflower Marathon.

But what is remembered far more are other moments in time — the ones that reflect the generosity, caring, and spirit of collaboration that have come to define the marathon and explain why it was conceived all those years ago.

Moments like the announcement of how much was raised last November.

“At the end of the broadcast, we give an unofficial total, with this year [2023] far exceeding anyone’s expectations — I don’t think anyone expected anything close to this,” Bax recalled. “To be able to tell Nicole Lussier what we had just done — and she had been there every minute of the event — to be able to tell her that we had raised at least $217,000, with more on the way … to see her reaction, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got choked up on the air, and so did Steve. When you realize where this is going and how many people it helps…”

He didn’t finish that sentence, but didn’t really have to. And this sentiment speaks to how and why the marathon was launched three decades ago.

The idea, said all those we spoke with, was to raise some money for Open Pantry, which today operates several different programs, including am emergency food pantry, holiday meals, the Loaves & Fishes Kitchen, a teen-parent program, and many others.

It’s unlikely that anyone at the time could have imagined that it would grow, evolve, and become, as Bax noted, a community event, said Byrne, adding that the marathon has continually broken through new barriers — be it with trucks filled or the total dollar amount raised — that were previously thought impossible.

And every employee at the station, roughly 25 at last count, is involved on some level in making it happen, said Oldread, noting there are many moving parts with this production.

“There’s an awful lot that goes into this,” he said, “from making sure you have power and internet access to getting trucks and RVs and security, and feeding volunteers, and signage and traffic plans. You have to start around Labor Day in order to get things where they need to be in the days before Thanksgiving.”

“We’ve developed our own little tradition with this game, and we want to continue it and expand it. It’s a testament to the work they’re doing at Rock 102 — they’re driving a huge amount of food to the Open Pantry, which lasts almost an entire year.”

The staff, and the marathon, has persevered through recessions, a pandemic, rough weather, and, most recently, the need to find a new home when the Basketball Hall of Fame informed those at the station in 2022 that it could no longer host the marathon in its parking lot.

In many ways, that search for a home crystalized just how much the community had embraced the marathon and wanted to help it live on, said Oldread, noting that, as the station’s on-air personalities went public with the need to find a new home, there was an outpouring of support and commitments to help take the program to a new, much higher level.

 

Food for Thought

Indeed, Beth Ward, director of Public Affairs for MGM Springfield, said the station received several offers to host the marathon, so many that there was almost a competition for the right to become its new home.

MGM Springfield prevailed, she said, and it has been a privilege to stage the marathon, an event that has become part of the philanthropic culture at the resort casino.

“When we got the call, it was like Christmas morning; we were so excited that we were chosen,” she recalled. “There are so many of us here at MGM that live in Western Mass. and are familiar with this event and have taken part in it and donated to it. Immediately, there were so many people who were thrilled and excited to be there and support it.”

She said MGM Springfield set a record when it comes to volunteer hours donated by employees, and a big reason is the Mayflower Marathon, with many of the casino’s workers on site early (as in 5 a.m. in some cases) to help collect donations and load them into trucks.

“Our employees want to be part of this; they want to help make it successful,” she said, effectively summing up the sentiments of many others we spoke with.

That includes Nate Costa, president of the Springfield Thunderbirds, a Difference Maker himself last year. He told BusinessWest that the team has long had a solid relationship with Rock 102, knowing that its listenership boasts many hockey fans. That relationship was taken to a new level when the event lost its home and then found one with another of the T-Birds’ partners, MGM Springfield.

The team soon dedicated the Wednesday night game before Thanksgiving to the cause, branding it Rock 102 Mayflower Marathon Night. That Wednesday is traditionally a time for family gatherings and “bar gatherings,” as Costa called them, but the pull of the marathon and Open Pantry has brought more than 5,000 fans to the arena the past two years for “one last push” for donations.

“We’ve developed our own little tradition with this game, and we want to continue it and expand it,” he said. “It’s a testament to the work they’re doing at Rock 102 — they’re driving a huge amount of food to the Open Pantry, which lasts almost an entire year.”

Costa, Ward, Lussier, and others credit the staff at Rock 102 — the on-air personalities especially, but everyone that gets involved (and that is everyone) — with bringing a region together behind a cause as few other events in this region have.

“Over the course of the past 30 years, it’s become a full-blown community event, where it almost has nothing to do with Rock 102 or any of us,” Bax said. “It has everything to do with different segments of the community getting involved in something special — collecting food.”

Well … it has something to do with the team at Rock 102. Indeed, they have made this happen, not just when it comes to logistics, but from the standpoint of shaping an event that not only serves a community, but creates a stronger community, Oldread said.

And that’s why the team can collectively share the title of Difference Maker.

Class of 2024

CEO, Keiter

He’s Building on a Tradition of Giving Back to the Community

Scott Keiter

Scott Keiter has made the construction company that bears his name one of the fastest-growing ventures in this sector regionally.

And to position his company to achieve that kind of growth, Keiter (pronounced ‘Kiter’) knew early on that he would have to focus most of his time and energy on business, making connections, developing talent, putting the right team in place, and fashioning a blueprint (yes, that’s an industry term) for success.

“As we built the business, the most precious resource was time,” he said. “Anyone who creates a business knows what it takes — it’s every waking hour, so there’s not much time left behind. And then you introduce a child or two, and there’s even less time.”

But he also knew that, once he had the foundation of his business down and was building on top of it, he would eventually shift some of that time and energy toward the community and start to get involved on a number of levels.

And he has followed that blueprint as well, devoting time and talent to everything from an advisory role at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School’s carpentry program to becoming a trustee at Look Park, to involvement with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce (GNCC) on many levels, including something called the ‘Keiter Card.’

“He said, ‘I’d like to do something, because we have, fortunately, gained business throughout this horrible period. So I’d like to do something to support the community.’”

This is an initiative to match the value of gift cards sold by the chamber and accepted in more than 100 businesses — one that has put thousands of dollars back into the Greater Northampton economy in late summer, during back-to-school sales and tax-free-weekend time.

In the beginning, it was called the ‘Double Your Money Northampton Gift Card Promotion,’ but eventually it took the name of the company and the philanthropist behind it, making this both an economic driver and an effective branding initiative.

The program, started in 2021 and expanded each year, allows consumers to purchase a $25 Northampton gift card and receive $50 in actual spending power, said Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber, adding that it has provided a real boost for that region’s many small businesses and become somewhat of phenomenon in Paradise City.

The Keiter Card

The Keiter Card has been described as a ‘win-win-win,’ benefiting the Keiter company, the local economy, and small businesses that accept the cards.

Indeed, as he talked about the card, Jackson referenced everything from how quickly they sold out each of their first three years, to how mothers would bring in their children collectively (it’s one Keiter Card per customer) so they could spend part of their allowance on a card, and then talk about where they would go and what they would spend it on.

But while heaping praise on the card and its impact, Jackson saved some for the company and the person behind it, especially as he recalled the circumstances of how it came about.

Flashing back to late summer 2021, when the economy was really starting to open up again after the pandemic, Jackson recalled a conversation he had with Keiter.

“He said, ‘I’d like to do something, because we have, fortunately, gained business throughout this horrible period. So I’d like to do something to support the community,’” Jackson recalled. “So he came up with the idea of donating $10,000 to the chamber, and for everyone who bought a $25 gift card, he would match that amount, up to $10,000.”

For year two, Keiter doubled the amount to $20,000, and in year three, he increased it to $25,000, with the chamber donating another $5,000 to make it a $30,000 matching program. For year four … Keiter leaked to BusinessWest that he will again be donating $25,000 to build on the momentum that’s been generated.

Meanwhile, Keiter, working in tandem with his wife, Jill, continue to expand their involvement in the Greater Northampton area while at the same taking their business to the proverbial next level.

Success in both realms helps explain why Keiter will soon have his name on something else: a Difference Makers plaque.

 

What’s in a Name?

Returning to the subject of the Keiter Card, Jackson said it’s an example not only of Scott Keiter’s genrosity and commitment to the community and its small businesses, but also of how he’s developed into a successful business person, refining several talents, including, in this case, branding and marketing.

Indeed, to purchase a Keiter Card, one first has to say that name, said Jackson, adding that, when needed, those at the chamber will help the buyer along.

“Sometimes they need help with the pronounciation — some will say ‘Keeter,’” he explained, adding that, with each transaction and each card, the Keiter business gets some additional exposure.

Scott Keiter with, from left, Evan Latour, Zak Martinez, and Sean Houlihan

Scott Keiter with, from left, Evan Latour, Zak Martinez, and Sean Houlihan, Smith Vocational Agricultural High School graduates now working for the company.

And it has already been making a name for itself in the region as a growing company, now with 85 employees, focused on both residential and commercial construction. With the former, the company tackles new construction, but mostly renovations. And with the latter, it has developed a deep portolio of clients, including many higher-education institutions, including Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, Elms College, and Western New England University. It also counts many businesses and municipalities on its client list.

The business recently spun off Hatfield Construction, which focuses on earth work and site work, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Keiter, and last month, it announced that it had appointed Jim Young, a business consultant and former president of Paragus Strategic IT, as president of Keiter, leaving its founder more time to focus on the proverbial big picture instead of day-to-day operations.

“We’re excited to open a new chapter for the company and focus on growth and development and building on the successes that we’ve already had,” said Keiter, who will assume the title of CEO. “Jim will help me leverage my time so I can remain focused on looking forward, being in the role of a visionary, and guiding the direction of this organization.”

The business plan calls for continued, sustainable growth and further expansion into Hampden and Berkshire counties, he went on, adding that the company has established itself in those markets and wants to build on that presence.

As noted earlier, for the first several years he was in business, Keiter had a singular focus, to get that venture on solid footing and put an aggressive growth plan in place.

As the company’s name, reputation, and portfolio of clients and projects grew, he began to shift some of his time to the community, although the main focus has still been his business.

 

Concrete Examples

Keiter has chosen to get involved in realms where he can lend expertise, and also where he can make a difference.

That includes Smith Vocational, where he has served as an advisor to the carpentry department while also bringing a number of its students into the company through its co-op program, with several of them eventually being hired by the firm.

“We try to get them out to do everything that we do,” he explained. “We try our best to get them out on our projects, where they can work side-by-side with our staff. In fact, we’ve hired a number of them; they’re some of our best employees.”

Keiter’s involvement also extends to Look Park, which he described as a “treasure,” one of the city’s best assets.

But it’s with the Keiter Card that he is making a greater name for himself in the community, literally and figuratively.

And he said it came about through twin desires — to help small businesses in the community and build his brand.

“I had an epiphany one day,” he recalled. “We were comtemplating how to allocate some marketing money, and I wanted to find a way to create a win-win, or what Vince [Jackson] calls a ‘win-win-win.’

“What this card does is give Keiter some good exposure, but it’s also supporting our community, and it’s also supporting the local economy and retailers,” he said, adding that the idea was to build on the chamber’s existing gift-card program, which was “keeping the money local.”

Douglas Gilbert, vice president of Commercial Lending at Florence Bank, another of those who nominated Keiter for the Difference Makers award, put the initiative in perspective, noting that “Scott’s generous support of the Northampton gift-card program has been vital to the program’s success and provides purchasers with a significant financial incentive to support participating area merchants.”

Jackson agreed, adding that the program’s impact has grown each year.

“In 2023, the GNCC experienced year-over year growth of 10% in Northampton gift-card sales, 13% growth in gift-card units, and 22% growth in redemptions — all driven primarily by the excitement and impact of the Keiter Card promotion,” he said, noting that the cards have sold out in a matter of days each year. “That growth in redemptions in significant and signals immediate spending, giving an exceptional boost to small businesses during a traditionally slow sales period.”

Summing up Kieter’s involvement in the community, as well as his success in business, Jackson started by saying the chamber no longer refers to those who join its ranks as members. Instead, it calls them ‘investors.’

And some businesses have earned the designation ‘prestige investors,’ he went on, adding that these are the ones creating jobs, getting involved — in the chamber and in the community — and making an impact.

Keiter — both the company and its owner — have certainly earned that designation, said Jackson, adding that his involvement in the region prompted the chamber’s leadership to present him with a Community Service Award in 2023.

“They’re doing all the right things, practicing good citizenship and promoting economic development along the way,” he noted. “They’re sharing the wealth and rewards that they’ve been blessed to have, and that’s admirable.”

 

Playing His Card

Jackson told BusinessWest that Keiter cycled off the chamber’s board of directors recently, and that it’s a tradition to give departing board menbers a gift, usually something of the ‘gag’ variety.

In this case, those at the chamber wrapped up a Keiter Card and presented it to him, imploring him to spend it wisely and spread the wealth around.

While that card was a gift to him, the Keiter Card program has been a gift to the community —both its residents and its businesses. It is a gift that has become, as Jackson said, a true win-win-win.

Class of 2024

Co-founders, Feed the Kids

They Decided to Do Something … and Not Just Write a Check

Dr. Fred and Mary Kay Kadushin

It all started with a story on National Public Radio in 2017, one with some alarming statistics about how many children in this country go to bed hungry — some 6 million of them, according to estimates at that time.

Dr. Fred and Mary Kay Kadushin were in different places when the NPR story aired, but they both had their radios on. And they were both surprised and alarmed by what they heard — enough to want to try to do something about it.

“Both of us were just so blown away by what we heard,” said Mary Kay, a retired graphic artist. “When you think about childhood nutrition, and the lack thereof … you think of other countries, but it’s right here in the United States; it’s right under your nose.”

Fred, a semi-retired neuropsychologist who specializes in toxic disorders, agreed. “We decided we needed to do something, and that we needed to do more than just a write a check.”

They talked at length about possible courses of action and eventually settled on creating a new nonprofit venture that would be called Feed the Kids, a name that says it all. And they would eventually settle on a golf tournament (something they had some experience with from their years helping to fundraise for the Boy Scouts) and accompanying online auction as the way to carry out a simple yet vitally important mission — to help existing local programs that have undertaken initiatives to combat childhood food insecurity.

Specifically, they now support Square One, the Springfield-based early-education and family-support provider that offers breakfast, lunch, and snacks to its preschoolers; Pioneer Valley Power Packs, an all-volunteer program that provides school-aged children with non-perishable food each weekend in Easthampton and Northampton; the HPS (Holyoke Public Schools) Weekend Backpack program; and No Kid Hungry, a national organization that battles food insecurity.

“Both of us were just so blown away by what we heard. When you think about childhood nutrition, and the lack thereof … you think of other countries, but it’s right here in the United States; it’s right under your nose.”

Since the first players teed it up in 2018, the program has raised more than $350,000 to fight childhood food insecurity, and along the way it has garnered the support of several area businesses, including PeoplesBank, Westfield Bank, the accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, the law firm Shatz Schwartz and Fentin, Freedom Credit Union, Monson Savings Bank, Elm Electric, and many others.

We talked with the Kadushins about their work, but we also talked with those at the agencies they support. They describe a couple that is modest, caring, generous, and committed to doing what they can to help others in this region. In other words, Difference Makers.

Dr. Fred Kadushin gets to know some of the young students at Square One in Springfield

Dr. Fred Kadushin gets to know some of the young students at Square One in Springfield, one of the nonprofits supported by Feed the Kids.

“Fred and Mary Kay are selfless in their efforts,” said Mary Bianca, a board member with Pioneer Valley Power Packs, who nominated the Kadushins for the Difference Makers award. “They work tirelessly, and their help and dedication have, and continue to make, a huge difference in the lives of thousands of children in our community.”

Kris Allard, vice president of Development and Communication at Square One, who also nominated them, agreed.

“If there’s a poster recipient for the Difference Makers award, it would be Fred and Mary Kay,” she told BusinessWest. “They are the kindest, most generous family … and there’s a pureness to what they do. They’re just individuals doing this work; there’s no expectation for recognition. They’re just good people.”

 

Impact Statements

As she talked about the Kadushins, Allard started not with Feed the Kids and what it does for Square One, but with a different initiative at the agency — one that collects winter coats for children in need.

“They would donate beautiful coats to the program, and I would always get a note from them that said, ‘make sure they check the pockets,’” she said. “There was always a toy zipped into the pocket — a little Matchbox car or any other kind of small toy that would fit in there — and Fred would always say, ‘have the kids check the pockets; there’s a little something extra there.’”

Doing something extra has been the MO for the Kadushins, she went on, adding that, during COVID, when coat drop-offs were not possible, the couple still wanted to donate. Allard, who lives in Wilbraham, arranged to go to the Kadushins’ home on Lake Paradise in Monson and pick up some coats, and while there, Fred initiated a conversation about what else Square One did.

“If there’s a poster recipient for the Difference Makers award, it would be Fred and Mary Kay. They are the kindest, most generous family … and there’s a pureness to what they do. They’re just individuals doing this work; there’s no expectation for recognition. They’re just good people.”

Upon being told the agency provided breakfast and lunch for children, but that this was ‘deficit operation,’ because funds from the state didn’t fully cover the costs, Fred told her about the golf tournament that he and Mary Kay had started a few years earlier.

So began a partnership that embodies the mission of both agencies, and one that certainly helps explain why the Kadushins are being honored as Difference Makers.

For a more in-depth explanation, we need to go back to that report on NPR.

The Kadushins, as noted, came away determined to help, and not by writing a check. They did considerable research on how best to address the larger problem and started a golf tournament to support No Kid Hungry. Soon, though, they wanted to expand their reach and directly support local organizations with programs to feed children.

There are many of them because the need is great, said Mary Kay, adding that they eventually created partnerships with Square One, Pioneer Valley Power Packs (PVPP), and the HPS Weekend Backpack program, which provides 250 to 500 Holyoke children with a backpack of nutritious food to tide them over until they return to school on Monday.

But some of these programs, and especially No Kid Hungry, provide more than food, said Fred, adding that education is also critically important.

“They have programs that educate parents about making smart food choices because sometimes, kids are just getting the wrong foods,” he explained. “It’s not just that they’re not getting enough; they’re getting the wrong kinds.”

And the need is only growing within the region, said both the Kadushins and those operating the nonprofits they support.

The Feed the Kids golf tournament

The Feed the Kids golf tournament has drawn the support of dozens of local businesses and become a summer tradition in Western Mass.

Indeed, Bianca said Pioneer Valley Power Packs saw a 65% increase in need in 2023, a surge she attributes to inflation, rising rents, an overall softening of the economy that saw more people out of work, and an end to some COVID-related relief programs.

There is a waiting list for students to receive the power packs, which consist of two breakfasts, two lunches, and some snacks, she said, adding that, thanks to the donation from the Feed the Kids tournament and auction, the agency was able to take some young people off that waiting list.

“They’re our largest supporter,” she said. “If not for them, we wouldn’t have a program.”

 

Investment Plan

The golf tournament created to support PVPP and other organizations fighting childhood food insecurity, staged annually at Springfield Country Club, has become a labor of love for the Kadushins and a small army of volunteers that lend support and handle assignments from securing items for the auction to working at the course on tournament day.

Planning for next year’s tournament begins almost immediately after the current year’s edition ends, said Fred, adding that the goal is to keep overhead as low as possible (in this case, almost zero) to funnel as much of the money raised to nonprofits as possible.

The event has grown over the years, at least in terms of the auction and the number of supporting corporate sponsors. (As veteran golf-tournament organizers, they understand the importance of limiting the number of golfers on the course, thus helping to ensure that a good time is had and foursomes come back the next year.)

And its importance has grown as well, said the Kadushins, agreeing with Bianca that, regrettably, the need has only increased in the years since that NPR report.

They view their efforts as an investment in young people and an investment in the future of this region, and the country.

“The payoffs are so high,” Fred said. “Proper nutrition affects physical, cognitive, and emotional development. If you think about it, nutrition affects everything. If you improve concentration, you can improve school performance, and when kids eat properly, they’re more likely to graduate, and the downstream implications of that are huge in terms of improving lives and ensuring that people become productive members of society.

“You decrease things like obesity and improve immunity,” he went on. “So downstream, you’re improving kids’ health, so there will be less drag on the healthcare system.”

Mary Kay agreed. “Our passion is with kids because it’s hard to imagine a child going to bed hungry, and that’s generally through no fault of their own,” she said. “Our heart goes out to that.”

While they’re proud of what they do, the Kadushins, as might be expected given the testimonials above, say the real work being done to combat food insecurity among young people is at the nonprofits addressing the problem and by those on the front lines, many of them volunteers.

“These volunteers are amazing; they pack the food, they get it distributed, and they identify who needs the food,” Mary Kay said, adding that she, Fred, and other members of the golf-tournament team will be joining those in Holyoke to stuff backpacks later this month. “It’s pretty amazing, these people who actually do this work.”

Equally amazing is the devotion that Fred and Mary Kay bring to the efforts to help these agencies and volunteers carry out their missions.

Their work is done mostly behind the scenes, organizing the golf outing, signing up sponsors, and attending to the smallest of details. Their stated goal is to press on, grow their venture, hopefully add a title sponsor, and, ultimately, help local agencies help more people in need.

What else would you expect from a couple that puts small surprises in the pockets of winter coats earmarked for children in need? What else would you expect from a couple that didn’t just listen to a news story on childhood hunger, but committed themselves to doing something about those alarming statistics?

What else would you expect from two genuine Difference Makers?

Class of 2024

Executive Director, Franklin Regional Council of Governments

In Small Towns, She Makes a Big Difference

Linda Dunlavy

When asked what she likes about her work — and she must like it because she’s been doing it for more than 30 years now — Linda Dunlavy paused for a moment before giving an answer that was as succinct as it was powerful.

“If you’re patient … you can create positive change,” she said, putting additional emphasis on that word patient. And for good reason. When you’re dealing in complex issues such as transportation, broadband access, a housing shortage, climate change, and poulation loss, the solutions don’t come quickly or easily, she said.

To get her point across, Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG, or simply the COG, as it’s called), recalled the countless meetings she would attend with Tim Brennan, the former director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission who passed away in 2020 (and a Difference Makers honoree himself in 2011), as they led efforts to bring north-south rail service back to Greenfield and other communities in Western Mass.

It was a long, hard fight, she recalled, shaking her head as the reflected on the heavy amounts of early skeptism, miles put on the odometer traveling to and from more meetings than she could possibly count, and endless discussions with policymakers and power brokers in an effort to turn back the clock on rail service.

“There were people saying, ‘you’ll never get this,’ and ‘you can never justify this,’” she recalled, flashing back almost a quarter-century and the start of her work on this issue.

“Tim and I would drive to Boston all the time, and I would drive to Springfield all the time; I was meeting with MassDOT, meeting with legislators, meeting with Amtrak, meeting with the Federal Highway Administration, meeting again with MasssDOT, meeting again with legislators. And it was a lot of ‘let’s try this’ … and we’d hit a dead end and then back up, and then we’d say, ‘let’s try this option’ and hit a dead end. That was a lot of the strategic work I did with Tim: ‘what can we try next? What’s the next obstacle that needs to be overcome to prove that this is a good idea?’”

Overall, it took 15 years to get north-south passenger rail returned, Dunlavy noted, adding that passenger volumes post-COVID, high enough to convince the state to take the service from trial status to permanent in nature, validate all that hard work.

This is just one example of how her patience, and a number of other qualities, have yielded that positive change she spoke of. Others include her work to bring reliable broadband to rural communities, a project to realign Route 2 around the Erving Industries paper mill, and even the building the COG is now housed in — the John Olver Transit Center in Greenfield.

“Linda has a preternatural ability to see what needs to be done and, with transparency underpinned by a willingness to accept risk and accountability for choices, forge ahead.”

Dunlavy’s tenacity and ability to get things done were summed up effectively by Jay Dipucchio, president of Turners Falls-based Nutri-Systems Corp. and also a member of the COG advisory board, who nominated her for the Difference Makers award.

“Linda has a preternatural ability to see what needs to be done and, with transparency underpinned by a willingness to accept risk and accountability for choices, forge ahead,” he wrote. “It helps as well that the energies applied and chances taken are informed by hard-earned experience and a great depth of knowledge.

communities in Franklin County, including Greenfield, seen here.

During her lengthy career with the FRCOG, Linda Dunlavy has brought services to, and been a tireless advocate for, communities in Franklin County, including Greenfield, seen here.

“She is an incomprably vigorous advocate and collaboration builder for Greater Franklin County and the Pioneer Valley,” he went on. “By cultivating collaboration and fostering innovative public-sector responses to regional service issues, her leadership of the FRCOG has created arguably one of the most unique and recognized public-service organizations in the Commonwealth, truly making a difference for the people who live here.”

In keeping with that assessment of her talents and value to the region, Dunlavy said she is focused not on what she’s been able to accomplish for the people of Franklin County — and all the state’s 170 rural communities, for that matter — but on the work still to be done.

And there is plenty of it, in realms ranging from housing to climate issues and readiness for disasters like the mirobursts and heavy rains of last July, to what has become the most crucial issue facing this region: population loss.

Dunlavy is addressing these issues and others with the requisite patience, but also large amounts of tenacity and that ability to get things done — attributes that speak to her impact as a Difference Maker.

 

Staying on Track

As she wrapped up her conversation with BusinessWest, Dunlavy gestured out one of the windows of her corner office to the incoming Amtrak train, the Vermonter, stopping at the depot just a few hundred feet away. She took the opportunity to count the number of people getting off and on, something she does often, and for obvious reasons.

“She is an incomprably vigorous advocate and collaboration builder for Greater Franklin County and the Pioneer Valley.”

While only a few were getting on this particular train, heading north on a Tuesday afternoon, the numbers for the trains heading south — to Northampton, Springfield, Hartford, then New York and eventually Washington — have been solid, as has overall volume for the service, she said, adding that the numbers help validate all those meetings and all that time spent convincing officials to bring the trains back to the region.

And while the return of train service may be the crowning achievement of Dunlavy’s career, there have been many others, as noted earlier.

Bringing rail service back to Greenfield and other Western Mass.

Bringing rail service back to Greenfield and other Western Mass. communities is one of many long-term projects in Linda Dunlavy’s record of service to the region.

Beyond the larger projects, there is the day-to-day work of advocating for, and providing services to, the towns of Franklin County, but also all the rural communities of the Bay State — those with fewer than 500 people per square mile.

That’s every community in Franklin County other than Greenfield, she said, adding that these towns are small — or, in the cases of Monroe and Rowe, with populations of 120 and 394, respectively, very small.

Serving these communities is the mission of the COG, created in the wake of the abolition of county government in 1997. Today, it operates 12 programs and boasts more than 50 staff members and an annual budget of more than $5 million, funded in part by assessments to the 26 municipalities in Franklin County, but mostly through state and federal grants.

Dunlavy started with the county commission in 1993 and transitioned to the COG when it was created in 1998, and took at the helm of the organization in 1999.

Summing up its mission, she said it is similar in many ways to the Springfield-based Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. It serves the communities of Franklin County, the most rural county in the state, providing planning services as well as regionalized municipal services to those communities, as well as some outside the county. Those services include building, wiring, and inspection services, as well as the purchasing of municipal products and services for 59 towns, items such as guardrail, asphalt, salt, sand, and fuel.

“Our focus is Franklin County, but we go outside Franklin County with projects and partnerships to serve the county better,” she explained. “So we work with cooperatively with the Pioneer Planning Commission on many projects, such as rail.

“Our towns are very rural, and that’s why we provide so many municipal services,” she went on. “A small town like Buckland would have a hard time finding a qualified accountant, a qualified health agent, a qualified business inspector. So, by combining those services together, we can hire professional staff and provide those services to our rural communities.”

 

The State of Things

Beyond providing these services, the COG, like Dunlavy herself, serves as an advocate for the region, on issues ranging from rail to broadband to housing.

The week she spoke with BusinessWest, she was also in Boston testifiying at an 11-hour hearing on the housing bond bill and advocating for housing solutions that recognize the difficulties and contraints of developing housing in rural areas.

She was testifying in her role as part of the Massachusetts Assoc. of Regional Planning Agencies, but also as chair of the Rural Policy Advisory Commission, she said, adding that, in both capacities, she advocated for recognition that housing development in rural areas comes at a smaller scale than in Hampden County or Eastern Mass., for example, meaning there are fewer economies of scale and far fewer developers interested in building in such areas. Also, most of these rural communities have limited water and sewer infrasructure, so the cost to develop housing is much higher.

With a better understanding of these issues, she said, legislators can craft a bond bill that creates greater equity when it comes to a housing shortage that impacts virtually every community in the Commonwealth.

Meanwhile, she and others at the COG are also working to make the region more prepared for disruptions like COVID and climate-related disasters such as the torrential rains and accompanying flooding last summer, which ruined crops and damaged infrastructure.

“We need to focus on what we can learn from the devastation of the July storms, on how we make our region more resilient, and how we can get our communities to work together to set climate-resiliency priorities and choose projects togther,” she said. “If you look at all of that as emergency response … that’s a big part of what we’re doing right now.”

But the biggest challenge, though, is population loss, and it’s an issue that now commands a large amount of Dunlavy’s time and energy.

“It’s a huge issue for us; we always have it in the back of our minds in all of the work that we do — what can we do to stem population loss and attract young families to our region. Because an aging and declining population is not great for our economy.”

Elaborating, she said population growth has been stagnant since 2000, but there are projections, contained in a report prepared by the UMass Donahue Institute, for a precipitious decline, perhaps 20%, in the years to come.

That model does not take into account a resolution to the broadband issue in many Franklin County communties, she went on, nor does it factor in the rising popularity in remote work and the boost it has provided for many rural areas. So, while the projections are stark, there is reason for optimism.

“There are a lot of factors we can use to make sure those population projections don’t come true,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s a big focus of our work.”

 

Progress Report

As she offered a quick tour of the transit center, Dunlavy recalled the time a gentleman visited not long after it opened.

“He said, ‘I’d like something like this; how long did this take?’” she recalled, adding that the answer — more than 20 years — startled him somewhat.

That’s about the average for most of the major projects she has undertaken, she went on, stressing, again, that none of her landmark projects — be it broadband, rail, or the Route 2 realignment — came quickly or easily. Such projects require patience, and a whole lot more.

Dunlavy has those attributes, just as her friend, colleague, and mentor Tim Brennan did. And now she shares something else in common with him.

She’s a Difference Maker.

Class of 2024

CEO, Paragus Strategic I.T.

His Big Goals Promise a Big Impact for Employees, the Region, and Beyond

Delcie Bean

 

Delcie Bean had been repairing computers as a side gig from schoolwork from his early teens, and he was a high-school junior when he started taking his enterprise seriously, with business cards and a company name: Vertical Horizons.

The name would change twice over the next two decades, first to Valley Computer Works, then to Paragus Strategic I.T. The technology would change quite a bit, too, as would his business model (more on that later).

What hasn’t changed is Bean’s initial goal: to know more than his clients.

“When I started, it was residential computer support. A lot of it was just helping senior citizens,” he recalled. “I was just helping people who were less sophisticated than I was set up a computer and learn how to use it.

“I didn’t actually know all that much. I just had to know more than the person I was helping,” he continued. “I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have a license. So people had to come pick me up, bring me to their home, and I’d help them fix their computer. I got paid $10 an hour and fed very, very well; it was a lot of grandmas, so I got a lot of cookies and cakes and got invited to a lot of dinners.”

The company grew steadily over the next few years, first in a storefront in Amherst, then in a converted house on Route 9 in Hadley. By 2008 — still only 21 — Bean had accomplished enough to be named to BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty, one of the youngest-ever honorees. He also earned the publication’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2014 and its first-ever Alumni Achievement Award, given to high-performing 40 Under Forty alumni, in 2015 — both of those recognizing the impressive growth of what was now called Paragus Strategic I.T. and located in a larger building a half-mile east on Russell Street.

“How can we be the sherpas, the guides, for those small businesses and tell them what’s coming around the corner, what they should be thinking about, and what they should be preparing for?”

And now, Bean is a Difference Maker — not necessarily for the company’s still-upward trajectory when it comes to growth and expansion. No, it’s for the impact he’s had on IT workforce development in the region, and also for implementing an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) model that may create dozens of employee-owner millionaires over time.

“We think we can be a $250 million company in 15 years,” he told BusinessWest. “But in order to do that, we’re going to need to grow a lot, and we’re going to need capital. A lot of businesses in our position bring in a private equity group and leverage their dollars, but that means you work for them, and they make a lot of the big decisions, and it isn’t the same company anymore. And we decidedly did not want to do that.”

He also had no interest in selling the company, feeling he has more to give. “So the third option was to do what we did the first time we wanted to grow, and double down on the ESOP. In this case, we’re becoming 100% employee-owned.”

 

Keys to Success

Looking back, one of the biggest decisions in Bean’s career took place after he and a partner (whom he eventually bought out) settled on the name Valley Computer Works and bought the house in Hadley.

By 2011, the client base was about 60% residential (with about 4,000 customers) and 40% commercial.

“We got it running like a well-oiled machine. There was a touchscreen kiosk when you dropped it off — you checked off what services you wanted to get. We had it running like a car wash: ‘do you want this package or this package?’ And the whole thing was really efficient, but we weren’t enjoying it. It wasn’t giving me a lot of excitement,” he recalled. “But I loved the commercial stuff. I loved helping companies and working with businesses.”

Besides its Hadley headquarters (pictured), Paragus has a location in Worcester

Besides its Hadley headquarters (pictured), Paragus has a location in Worcester and ambitions to expand its footprint steadily from there.

So, one day, he woke up and decided his future would be in commercial support — and he made the bold decision to shut down 60% of his revenue at the time and build on the 40%.

These days, Paragus exclusively provides IT support to small businesses in an ongoing contract model, he explained. “We are their outsourced IT department, and we become an extension of their company, managing and taking care of whatever they need.”

Bean describes Paragus’ traditional services in terms of three pillars. The first is the help desk. “Your employees have a problem — they can’t turn their computer on, they can’t get into their email, their phone’s not working — and we’re the help desk. We’re the people you call to get those issues taken care of.”

The second pillar is the proactive part of IT: the backups, monitoring, and security. “Obviously, that has evolved and changed so much in the past 10 years, but the core principle is that you need somebody looking after your network and being proactive and taking care of it.”

The third pillar is strategy, helping businesses figure out what technology they should be using, and how to use it more efficiently.

But about four years ago, a fourth pillar emerged at Paragus, which is AI and automation. “That’s all about using technology to make the business more efficient, more intelligent. How do we access more information to run a better business?”

As technology continues to evolve, especially on that fourth front, it’s critical that businesses have a strategic partner well-versed in IT and current trends, he added.

“AI and automation are changing everything. They’re going to have a huge disruption in the labor force in terms of who’s doing what jobs and how those jobs get done. And we’re going to be able to do things that, right now, we can’t do, either because we’re too busy doing the mundane, repetitive work, or because we just didn’t have the tools to be able to work on those things.

“So, how do we stay one or two steps ahead of our customer base,” Bean asked, “but in a way that we can figure out not only how this is impacting our industry, but how it’s impacting small business in general? Then, how can we be the sherpas, the guides, for those small businesses and tell them what’s coming around the corner, what they should be thinking about, and what they should be preparing for?”

Sensing a need for a stronger pipeline of talent into the IT field, in 2014, Bean created Tech Foundry, an educational nonprofit that provides in-depth training for promising individuals, particularly from marginalized or underrepresented backgrounds.

“We wanted to create a program that would take people who are having a hard time finding work, give them a career path, and then we can employ them,” he explained. “It helps us, it helps them, it helps everybody. It seemed very sustainable.”

“About 500 students have graduated from Tech Foundry. And many of them are earning significant salaries, way more than they ever could have imagined.”

Employer partners agreed, and a fundraising campaign brought in $400,000 to launch the program, which continues today — and recently expanded into Tech Hub, a facility in Holyoke where people can learn technology skills to help them advance in an increasingly digital job market.

“About 500 students have graduated from Tech Foundry. And many of them are earning significant salaries, way more than they ever could have imagined,” Bean said. “So it not only impacts that person, it impacts their entire family, because now you’ve just changed this person’s entire trajectory.”

 

Wealth of Information

In the early years of Vertical Horizon and Valley Computer Works, Bean said, it didn’t matter who owned the company because it wasn’t making any money.

“But there came a time when that changed, and the company was suddenly worth more. And that was the moment where it started to feel a little bit inequitable. We had the same culture; we were all working just as hard. Everybody was the first one in and last one out, and there was no hierarchy; we were all just doing what we could to make this company successful and serve our customers.

“But at the end of the day, as the company actually started to gain value, all that value was coming to me,” he said. “So, around 2013, I had this idea that I wanted to spread that value across the employees. We tried a couple of different models and finally settled on ESOP as the way we wanted to do that.”

The plan was to transfer 40% of the stock to the employees, a transaction that was finalized in June 2016.

“That was the first moment where I actually planned on running the business for many years into the future,” Bean said. “Up until that point, it was still kind of a side project; I was still a kid with no responsibilities. But when I made that decision to become an ESOP, I was like, ‘OK, this is actually a business, and I want this business to grow and thrive and succeed.’”

To do that, he needed to attract top talent who would want to stay, and that meant creating a desirable employee culture — with employee ownership as a key part of that. Which is why Paragus is now expanding its ESOP to become 100% employee-owned.

“I will no longer own any more stock than any of the other employees,” he told BusinessWest. “I’ll just be another employee owner. But we will have created the capital that we need to be able to execute on our acquisition strategy.”

That’s the heart of the plan: to continue to acquire companies in new geographic footprints, a strategy that Paragus piloted in Worcester with its acquisition of Comportz Technologies during the summer of 2021.

“The plan is to try to do an acquisition a year for the next five years or so and continue to learn and grow and figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and then continue to execute that strategy for as long as it provides value to the community, to the customers, and to the employees,” he explained. “Each year, we want to look for a new geographic market that we think has the right conditions for us to succeed and thrive.”

Meanwhile, Paragus continues to give back to the community, supporting many local businesses by donating goods and sponsoring nonprofit events and educational initiatives.

“We’re a company that believes companies can be a force for good in the community and in the world,” Bean said. “For us, the world is too big a target, but the community feels really approachable. We serve businesses in the community, and we’re dependent on the community.”

And now it’s serving those businesses as a 100% employee-owned firm, which promises to change a lot of lives.

“I’d encourage businesses that are looking to grow, looking to transition ownership, looking to make a change, to keep that option on the table without just defaulting to selling out to private equity,” he added. “Oftentimes, the impact of that is losing jobs, losing revenue, and dollars leave the area.”

The opposite is happening at Paragus, which continues to benefit clients, employees, aspiring IT talent, and the community in myriad ways.

That’s the story — with many chapters in his young life still unwritten — of a Difference Maker.

Class of 2024

Senior Vice President, Marketing and Corporate Responsibility, PeoplesBank

He Goes Well Beyond the Job of ‘Playing Santa Claus’

Matt Bannister

Matt Bannister likes to say that he has “one of the best jobs at the bank,” although some might consider it the worst.

His title is senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility, a position that comes with many responsibilities, including a rather large role in determining and then implementing PeoplesBank’s philanthropic strategy, duties he described this way: “I get to play Santa Claus.”

Indeed, he’s part of the team that essentially determined how the bank apportioned $2.3 million in giving in 2022 and another $1.6 million in 2023, with donations averaging roughly $3,000 presented to more than 500 nonprofits and causes meeting some of the region’s most critical needs, such as food insecurity, housing, economic development, and literacy.

 

 

More on all this later, because this work is not why Bannister has been named a Difference Maker for 2024. OK, it’s a small part of the reason why.

The much bigger reason is the manner in which he has gone well beyond playing Santa Claus and well beyond helping decide to whom the bank will write checks — rather, he’s become closely involved with helping to meet some of those needs listed above.

Since joining the bank in 2015, he has served as a board member for agencies including Link to Libraries, EforAll Pioneer Valley, the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, the Springfield 9/11 Memorial fundraising committee, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, Hilltown Community Health Center; the American Red Cross, and Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC), where he is current co-chair.

“You can say that he manages the pocketbook and he helps us disperse funds in the right ways, but when you see that expense report and you see that mileage — that’s not giving out money as much as it is participating and being part of the community.”

Involvement with the health-related agencies on that list continues a pattern to focus his time, energy, and talent on matters related to health and well-being (and he puts Revitalize CDC squarely in that category, as we’ll see).

Before coming to PeoplesBank, Bannister was executive vice president of Corporate Communications and Brand Content for the American Heart Assoc./American Stroke Assoc., and before that, he was vice president and group account director at Arnold Worldwide, working on integrated marketing campaigns with a focus on anti-tobacco efforts for clients including the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the FDA, and the American Legacy Foundation.

PeoplesBank President Tom Senecal, who nominated Bannister as a Difference Maker, says he can quantify and qualify how much of an impact his colleague has made. For both, he turns to statistics the company keeps on just how many hours each employee devotes to volunteer work — with Bannister logging at least twice as many on bank-sponsored activities, in his estimate — and especially the expense reports Bannister turns in.

“I see the expense reports; they’re three pages long with his volunteer mileage — three pages per month,” he said, adding a verbal exclamation mark. “You can say that he manages the pocketbook and he helps us disperse funds in the right ways, but when you see that expense report and you see that mileage — that’s not giving out money as much as it is participating and being part of the community.

Matt Bannister, seen here at the PeoplesBank booth

Matt Bannister, seen here at the PeoplesBank booth at Junior Achievement’s Teen Reality Fair last year in Chicopee, has become actively involved in the community.

“He goes well above and beyond what we ask him to do to represent PeoplesBank,” Senecal went on, adding that this involvement, this commitment to backing up the checks the bank writes with his work on boards and mowing lawns for Revitalize CDC, explains why he’s been chosen as a Difference Maker for 2024.

 

By All Accounts

Bannister loves to tell the story about his participation in career day at his then-9-year-old daughter’s elementary school. It conveys a little about what he was doing at the time — this was when he was with Arnold Worldwide working on ad programs to help curb smoking among young people — and a lot about why he has been chosen as a Difference Maker.

“Kids at that age don’t really have a strong sense for what their father does for a living,” he said, recalling that his daughter introduced him by saying simply, ‘this is my dad … he saves lives for a living.’

“I thought that was really cool,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this description of what he did certainly helped inspire some of his next career steps. “I said, ‘I want more of that,’ and it helped me go from doing the anti-tobacco work at the agency to the American Heart Association.”

“Our philosophy is to give a little to a lot of groups, and not a lot to a few groups. That’s because almost every nonprofit is worthwhile and doing good work.”

Tracing his work history, Bannister said he worked for the ad agency Hill Holiday in Boston and later with Arnold Worldwide, working on accounts ranging from Volkswagen to Puma to Ocean Spray. In the late ‘90s, he was promoted and told he’d be working on the Department of Public Health account.

“I initially said, ‘that doesn’t sound like a promotion,’” he went on, adding that this was at the time when a 25-cent tax was put on every pack of cigarettes sold, with the money going toward smoking-cessation programs and preventing youth uptake.

“Every ad agency had a beer, a car, a fast-food chain … now, a brand-new category was created — a $100 million category because of all the revenue that was being created,” he went on. “And it was untilled, fertile soil.”

In his role, Matt Bannister is often the face of PeoplesBank

In his role, Matt Bannister is often the face of PeoplesBank, such as at this occasion marking the bank’s donation — $250,000 over five years — to the building of a new facility for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

Overall, it was more rewarding work than selling cars or cranberry juice, he said, adding that he changed course, career-wise, and joined the American Heart Assoc., serving eventually as executive vice president of Communications at its national headquarters in Dallas.

“At the ad agency, you’re selling pizza, sneakers, and sugar water — you’re selling a product,” he explained. “In public health, you’re selling behavior change; you’re selling ‘eat right, don’t smoke, exercise more.’ It’s not something you buy, it’s behaviors, and it’s marketing that’s a lot more challenging and rewarding.”

Desiring a return to the Northeast — he was born in Dedham and attended UMass Amherst — Bannister accepted the role of senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility at PeoplesBank, a position with a broad job description that includes corporate responsibility but now also includes marketing, media relations, and social-media management.

And when it comes to charitable giving, he said the bank’s goal is to “say yes as often as you can,” he noted.

“Our philosophy is to give a little to a lot of groups, and not a lot to a few groups,” he explained. “That’s because almost every nonprofit is worthwhile and doing good work.”

Elaborating, he said that, while he supports a wide array of nonprofits and causes, within the giving strategy is an emphasis on certain areas, such as economic development, literacy, food insecurity, and public health, which translates into larger donations to some groups, such as the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Girls Inc. of the Valley, and Revitalize CDC.

 

An Involved Process

These have, in fact, become Bannister’s personal points of emphasis as he chooses the organizations and causes to get personally involved with — and there are many invitations to weigh.

As noted earlier, this involvement is the primary reason why he is part of the Difference Makers class of 2024. He said it’s a part of his job, and also a way to see first-hand the work being done in some of the areas listed above, and be a part of that work.

“The more I can roll up my sleeves, the better I feel about who we’re giving to,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he is certainly selective about the groups and causes he gets involved with.

“In the beginning, it was because they asked me,” he said with a laugh. “Now, it’s more the groups that are working boards that have a vibrant cross-section of the community involved, and that I think we can benefit by being involved.”

Since joining PeoplesBank, Matt Bannister has donated his time

Since joining PeoplesBank, Matt Bannister has donated his time, energy, and talents to several nonprofits and causes, including Revitalize CDC.

That includes Revitalize CDC, which undertakes a number of projects that fall into broad category of public health, including critical repairs on homes of low-income families with children, the elderly, military veterans, and those with special needs, but also initiatives involving interventions for adults and children with asthma, nutrition programs, and making home improvements that allow seniors to remain in their homes.

He is active with all those intiatives, but has carved out his own niche.

“My favorite thing is mowing the lawn — no one thinks to do that. It’s the curb appeal,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not a skilled laborer, and mowing the lawn is hard to screw up.”

Turning serious, he said the organization’s work is critical to improving health and quality of life in the region.

“Their work involves prevention more than treating the symptoms, which is what a good public-health person cares about,” he said. “It’s not as glamorous, and it’s harder to quantify, but it’s much more important work.”

As he talked about what he does for a living and within the community, Bannister made sure to thank the bank for giving him the opportunity to be part of a winning team, and to thank his wife, Sharon, for … well, being understanding and tolerant of a schedule that has him on the road a lot, maybe three or four days a week and sometimes for several events on the same day during the busy season.

It’s a big part of the job, he said, adding quickly that the job, the travel, and the events involve two states and a much larger radius now that the bank has made a push into Connecticut, one that promises to involve more zip codes in the years to come.

What’s not necessarily part of the job — and this becomes clear in Bannister’s expense sheets and Senecal’s reaction to them — is his commitment to getting very involved with several of the organizations that the bank ultimately writes checks to.

He admits to gradually learning how to say ‘no’ to those who ask him to serve on boards, but often, the answer is still ‘yes.’

 

Bottom Line

If Matt Bannister had to introduce himself at a third-grade career day, he might start by saying what he often tells people about his role: “I work at a bank, but I’m not a banker. And I absolutely love my job at the bank.”

Others who really know, people like Senecal and Colleen Loveless, president and CEO of Revitalize CDC, might be tempted to borrow the line used by his daughter and say that he saves lives.

Or … they could keep it very simple, yet powerful — and introduce him as a Difference Maker.

That says it all.

Health Care Healthcare News

Off on the Right Foot

 

Did you include better health in your New Year’s resolutions?

Health experts at Baystate Health suggest setting realistic goals and prioritizing what is most important to you, taking small steps, and remembering not to beat yourself up if you encounter a setback in your health goals for 2024. Here are three goals to consider as you continue on your journey:

 

Improve Your Blood Sugars

From Dr. Cecilia Lozier, chief of the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes, Baystate Health:

There are three important approaches to improve your blood-sugar numbers as we start the new year. First, moderate your carbohydrate intake. No dramatic approach is needed. If before you would take two scoops of potatoes, now consistently take one and fill the empty space with non-starchy vegetables.

Dr. Cecilia Lozier

Dr. Cecilia Lozier

“Moderate your carbohydrate intake. No dramatic approach is needed. If before you would take two scoops of potatoes, now consistently take one and fill the empty space with non-starchy vegetables.”

Second, increase your physical activity. Using your muscles will push sugar into your cells and out of your bloodstream. The more you move and are physically active, the better your numbers will look. Third, modest weight loss. Losing between 5% and 10% of your body weight will have a dramatic impact on how you metabolize sugar. Speak with your healthcare provider to personalize this approach for you.

 

Address Sleep Problems

From Dr. Karin Johnson, medical director, Baystate Health Regional Sleep Program and Baystate Medical Center Sleep Laboratory, Baystate Health:

Stress levels are higher today in the world we live in. While stress can make sleeping well more challenging, it is important to prioritize sleep, which is necessary for health and well-being. Most adults function best with seven to eight hours of sleep, and teenagers need around nine hours.

Good-quality sleep is important for preventing infections and keeping your immune system working well. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived people don’t mount the same immune response after vaccinations as good sleepers, so it is important to make sure you get a good night’s sleep prior to getting a flu or COVID vaccine, for example.

Keeping a regular sleep schedule will allow your body’s internal clock to help you get the best night’s sleep. If you are having difficulty sleeping or show signs of poor-quality sleep with loud snoring, difficulty staying asleep, urinating frequently at night, or daytime sleepiness or tiredness, you may benefit from a sleep-medicine evaluation.

 

Control Your Weight

From Eliana Terry, registered dietitian, Baystate Noble Hospital:

Is your New Year’s resolution to eat healthier, exercise more, or achieve another health-related goal? The new year brings with it the opportunity to start on a path toward wellness or, if you’ve already done so, to maintain healthy habits. However, it can be difficult to make these goals stick with all the challenges the year throws our way. What is the best way to be successful in achieving your health resolutions? Consider the following.

• Be specific with your goals. Instead of ‘I will eat healthier,’ consider something like ‘I will replace four sodas per week with water.’ Setting a more specific goal can help you actually check whether you have completed the goal each day and, thus, be successful long-term.

• Make sure your goals are measurable. If your goal is weight loss, for example, set a measurable amount with a time frame to reach your goal by. For example, ‘I want to lose 10 pounds by April 2024’ and ‘exercise for 30 minutes, three times per week’ are more measurable goals than ‘lose weight this year.’

• Make your goals realistic for you. For example, if you travel daily for work, ‘no longer eat on the go’ as a resolution may be unrealistic for your lifestyle. You may find yourself giving up by February if you have purchased any meals out. This hinders any progress you could have made in a longer period. Instead, try a more realistic and flexible goal such as ‘pack a healthy lunch to keep in a cooler four times per week.’

Set yourself up for success this year with specific, measurable, realistic resolutions. Otherwise, you may find yourself quickly frustrated by your inability to stick to and achieve your goals.

Opinion

Opinion

By Sandra Mauro

 

As human-resource professionals partner with their organization’s senior leaders to set priorities for 2024, we at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE) can’t help but reflect on the 2023 workplace predictions and ask, how effective were we at deciding where to focus our efforts, and, more importantly, did we move the needle on the critical issues we faced?

In 2023, seven key challenges were forecasted. Number one was quiet hiring, challenging us to look internally and determine if our workforce strengths would meet future organizational needs. Number two was equitable flexibility for frontline workers, an inspirational idea to open up the dialogue for frontline workers to freely express their preferences on how, when, and with whom they work.

Three through six were manager support, pursuing non-traditional talent, coping with stress, and workplace civility. Number seven? Technology and the entrance of AI.

Focusing forward on 2024, two through seven are green workplaces, civil culture, defining the new workplace, psychological safety, learning and upskilling, and career advancement. What a difference a year makes. AI has catapulted to number one.

When we think about AI and ask what will my organization do (or not do) with this new technology, we first need to acknowledge that Gen Z now makes up 23% of our 2024 workforce. This generation literally grew up with technology at their fingertips from the time they could touch it, and will expect nothing less in their workplace. Gen Z is not only tech-savvy, they are highly motivated for change thinking and will quickly move into key positions with great influence over our workplaces.

Yes, the demand for faster information, revolutionary thinking, and finding how and where AI can enhance — or threaten — our workplace will dominate our organizations. And equally important on every generation’s mind are the other six priorities.

There is no question 2023 was filled with turning our organization’s energy from day-to-day survival to blazing our future path. We tiptoed through return to the workplace, fought through scarce candidate pools, and contemplated solutions to quiet quitting and disengagement.

With our sights on what to implement to stay relevant in 2024, we need to collaboratively decide where we are going to focus our resources. Now more than ever, we need to keep our doors open and ask for employee ideas, buy-in, and commitment. Fight not only to align your operational objectives, but to nurture your organizational values, welcome authenticity, and embrace a culture where collaboration across every department is encouraged and celebrated.

And when 2025 is around the corner, let’s reflect back together and ask again, how did we do? After all, what gets measured gets done.

 

Sandra Mauro is a human resource business partner at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Architecture

Architecture Firms

Ranked by the Number of Registered Architects

 

Company

Registered Architects

Total Employees

Year Formed

Top Local Executive

Type of work performed

             

1

Dietz & Company architects Inc.

55 Frank B. Murray St., Suite 201, Springfield, MA 01103

(413) 733-6798; www.dietzarch.com

8

32

1985

Kerry Dietz

Commercial; institutional; housing; education; healthcare; government offices; historic preservation; LEED design services; high-performance buildings; senior centers; senior housing

2

Kuhn Riddle Architects inc.

28 Amity St., Suite 2B, Amherst, MA 01002

(413) 259-1630; www.kuhnriddle.com

8

18

1988

Aelan Tierney

Jonathan Salvon

Charles Roberts

Commercial; educational; historical; institutional; interior design; religious; residential (single-family, multi-family, affordable, market-rate, high-end); retail; sustainable design

3

Hill-Engineers Architects Planners Inc.

50 Depot St., Dalton, MA 01226; (413) 684-0925

44 Spring St., Adams, MA 01220; (413) 0743-0013

www.hillengineers.com

6

40

1949

Jeffrey Noble

New construction and renovation projects for institutional, industrial, commercial, educational, civic, recreational, and residential markets

4

Caolo & Bieniek Associates Inc.

521 East St., Chicopee, MA 01020

(413) 594-2800; www.cbaarchitects.net

5

11

1955

Curtis Edgin

James Hanifan

Bertram Gardner

Educational; commercial; public facilities (police and fire facilities, libraries, senior centers); historic preservation; sustainable design; interior design; healthcare; housing

4

Jones Whitsett Architects Inc.

308 Main St., Greenfield, MA 01301

(413) 773-5551; www.joneswhitsett.com

5

11

1984

Dorie Brooks

Kristian Whitsett

Educational; commercial; public municipal buildings (town halls, libraries, senior centers); historic preservation; religious facilities; energy-efficient buildings; residential

6

Burr and McCallum Architects

720 Main St., Williamstown, MA 01267

(413) 458-2121; www.burrandmccallum.com

4

5

1982

Franklin Andrus Burr

Ann Kidston McCallum

Residential; institutional; commercial

6

C&H Architects

49 South Pleasant St., 301, Amherst, MA 01002

(413) 549-3616; www.candharchitects.com

4

9

1989

Tom Hartman

Serves residential and institutional clients with architecture designed for resilience and renewability

6

Juster Pope Frazier Architects

82 North St., Northampton, MA 01060

(413) 586-1600; www.justerpopefrazier.com

4

5

1968

Kevin Chrobak

Residential; corporate; educational; retail; healthcare; religious; cultural

6

Timothy Murphy Architects

380 High St., Holyoke, MA 01040

(413) 532-7464; www.murphyarch.com

4

5

1981

Timothy Murphy

Commercial; educational; public/municipal buildings; residential; historical

10

Architectural Insights

3 Converse St., Suite 201, Palmer, MA 01069

(413) 283-2553; www.architectural-insights.com

3

5

1988

Lawrence Tuttle

Robert Haveles

Public- and private-sector work; continued and repeat client work in professional office design, medical-office, hospital, and laboratory work; multi-family housing and private residential; light industrial and warehouse construction; retail and hospitality development

10

Clark & Green Inc.

113 Bridge St., Great Barrington, MA 01230

(413) 528-5180; www.clarkandgreen.com

3

6

1988

Stephan Green

Residential; cultural; commercial; retail; educational

10

Gillen Collaborative Architects

409 Main St., Amherst, MA 01002

(413) 253-2529; www.gillencollaborativearchitects.com

3

2

1974

John Krifka

Carol Vincze

Commercial; residential; institutional; planning; studies

10

HAI Architecture

64 Gothic St., Suite 1, Northampton, MA 01060

(413) 585-1512; www.haiarchitecture.com

3

10

1976

Richard Katsanos

Don Hafner

Healthcare; educational; commercial; planning; interior design; residential

10

Studio One Inc.

38 Elm St., Westfield, MA 01085

(413) 733-7332; www.studioonearchitects.com

3

5

1974

Peter Zorzi

Greg Zorzi

Educational; healthcare; multi-family housing; assisted-living facilities; renovations; historic preservation; senior housing

15

Architecture EL Inc.

264 North Main St., Suite 2

East Longmeadow, MA 01028

(413) 525-9700; www.architectureel.com

2

7

2008

Kevin

Rothschild-Shea

ADA standards for accessible design; commercial; industrial; historic; multi-family residential; single-family residential; religious; child care; historic preservation and renovations; interior design

15

Jablonski DeVriese Architects

22 Green Lane, Springfield, MA 01107

(413) 747-5285; www.jdarchitects.com

2

2

1995

Stephen Jablonski

Brian DeVriese

Historical renovations and additions; colleges; museums; libraries; interior design

17

Fitch Architecture & Community Design Inc.

110 Pulpit Hill Road, Amherst, MA 01002

(413) 549-5799; www.facdarchitects.com

1

3

2000

Laura Fitch

Sustainable and socially responsible design, including zero-net-energy homes; educational facilities; commercial buildings; institutional; deep-energy retrofits; co-housing communities

17

Mount Vernon Group Architects

35 Center St., Suite 210, Chicopee, MA 01013

(413) 592-9700; www.mvgarchitects.com

1

4

1954

Chris LeBlanc

Wide range of public and private work, including commercial and education; three offices statewide with 15 total architects and 35 total employees

17

Tessier Associates Inc.

48 Ridgecrest Dr., Westfield, MA 01085

(413) 736-5857; www.tessierarchitects.com

1

1

1923

Robert Stevens

Colleges; banks; churches; schools; industrial buildings; assisted-living facilities; medical facilities

Cover Story Economic Outlook

There’s Uncertainty, but Also General Optimism About the Year Ahead

Brooke Thomson says the Business Confidence Index issued each month by Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), does a fairly effective job of conveying what business owners are thinking.

When the index is consistently below 50, it indicates general pessimism about the economy in general. Conversly, when it’s above 50 and trending north of that mark, it conveys overall optimism and, as the name on the index indicates, confidence about what is to come.

And … when the index is right around 50 and hovering there, as it has been for the past several months, well, that generallly communicates the sentiment that business owners aren’t exactly sure what to think, and are, by and large, neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic, said Thomson, who took the reins as CEO of AIM on Jan. 1.

“What this tells me is that there’s a moderating that’s happening,” she told BusinessWest. “The good thing that you can draw from the index is that when you see it around 50 for several months in a row, there’s some consistency, which is critical for business to be successful; uncertainty is the worst thing that you can see in business. But it also indicates to me that businesses aren’t quite sure if we’re headed to a good place or a bad place. Businesses need to have a sense of being able to forecast wh at’s coming in order to adjust.”

This general state of not knowing what to think extends to economists and economic-development leaders as well, meaning that uncertainty is perhaps the prevailing sentiment heading into a year that promises to be an intriguing one in many ways and on many levels, including a presidential race that will likely consume the nation and its business community.

Bob Nakosteen

“I think growth will slow down in 2024, and there’s less than a 50-50 chance of going into a mild recession, with the emphasis on mild.”

But despite this uncertainty, there is strong sentiment that many of the positive forces seen in a better-than-expected 2023 — from job growth to still-robust consumer spending to falling inflation — will continue into next year.

“I think growth will slow down in 2024, and there’s less than a 50-50 chance of going into a mild recession, with the emphasis on mild,” said Bob Nakosteen, a semi-retired professor of Economics at UMass Amherst. “I don’t expect anything seriously negative to happen; I personally think the economy will be relatively healthy all through 2024.”

Beyond the presidential race, there will be many other things to watch in the year ahead, eveything from interest rates and inflation (and the broad impact of both) to the ongoing workforce crisis and efforts to stem that tide; from global turmoil and the impact it may have on various sectors of the economy to initiatives to address an ongoing housing shortage in this region and beyond; from continual changes in where and how people (and the impact of all this on commercial real estate and individual cities and towns) to those two letters that convey both enormous promise and great concern: AI.

For its 2024 Economic Outlook, BusinessWest talked with several business and economic leaders about these and other topics. Their comments add exclamation points to what we generally knew already — that 2024 will be an important year, one of both challenge and opportunity.

 

 

The Indicators Are Indicating…

Historically, Nakosteen told BusinessWest, the Fed tries — that’s tries — to keep a low profile in presidential-election years, and especially after the primaries are over. Elaborating, he said the Fed generally tries to keep from influencing a race with monetary policy, including sharp increases or decreases in interest rates.

And he expects that pattern to continue in 2024 while acknowledging that “anything could happen.”

And while that broad sentiment applies to the general economy as well, the prevailing opinion, if there is such a thing, is that the mostly tepid growth in GDP — roughly 2% in quarters 1 and 2, but then nearly 6% in Q3 — will continue into 2024, with only a modest chance of the country slipping into a recession, especially if interest rates start coming down, as the Fed has hinted. Sort of.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“All indications are that inflation is coming under control, which has caused the Federal Reserve to pause on interest-rate increases.”

Overall, 2023 was, in many ways, better than some economists projected, with the country able to skirt a recession despite aggressive efforts to tame inflation through interest-rate hikes. Nakosteen said the overriding reason for this was that, with the notable exception of housing, consumers were still willing to spend, and with supply chains righting themselves, there was plenty for them to spend on.

“In effect, supply created demand and kept things moving,” he said, adding that there are plenty of other positive notes in 2023. Indeed, Wall Street recorded a solid year, with the S&P 500 up a robust 23% over the past year, heading into the final week. Meanwhile, the country continues to add jobs — roughly 240,000 per month, on average, over the past year — and unemployment remains low at 3.8%.

On the downside, the housing market cratered, and banks started to suffer from a combination of a depressed housing market, a slower commercial-lending environment, and having to pay more than 5% interest on deposits when they had been paying close to zero. However, housing starts surged nearly 15% in November, providing still more evidence that the Fed is engineering a soft landing, with another 2% growth projected for the fourth quarter.

The $64,000 question, obviously, is whether the momentum seen on these various fronts can continue into 2024.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“Overall, I’m optimistic that the pieces are coming together, and that we’ll see more progress in 2024.”

Nakosteen, as always, said he is not equipped with a crystal ball, and forecasting is difficult given the many unknowns. But he offered this:

“It takes interest rates many, many months, if not years, to work their way through the channels to affect the economy. And some of that is still happening, and that’s causing a slowdown,” he said, noting the decline from Q3 to what is projected for Q4. “But there is nothing approaching recession; the job market is still very healthy, and that’s the key signal that will tell us if we’re heading into a recession.”

 

Points of Interest

As he looks ahead to 2024, Tom Senecal, president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, said he believes the momentum generated on inflation and interest rates — meaning the pause orchestrated by the Federal Reserve as inflation started to ease throughout the year — will likely continue into 2024, although there are no certainties.

“All indications are that inflation is coming under control, which has caused the Federal Reserve to pause on interest-rate increases,” he said. “At worst, we are hoping for no further increases, which should help the housing and commercial real-estate markets. At best, some predict lower rates, and, quite frankly, many consider equity markets to be overreacting to this potentially good news. We’re not out of the woods yet, but hopefully we are in for a soft landing as recessionary fears seem to be easing.”

Elaborating, Senecal said that much hinges on inflation and the needle continuing to move in the right direction.

Brooke Thomson

Brooke Thomson

“It’s imperative that policymakers send the right signals through their actions that we’re going to continue on this course of enhancing our competitiveness and promoting economic stability.”

“Everything points to price stability, and as long as price stability continues, we should see a stabilization of interest rates,” he explained. “As long as interest rates stay high on mortgages, the housing market will continue to have a ripple effect throughout our economy. Not only are housing sales down, but all economic activity related to homebuying and construction has been severely impacted.

“Several national economists and the Federal Reserve are expressing caution and a non-commitment about the direction of interest rates,” he went on. “Equity markets seemed to react extremely quickly to the interest-rate pause as good news. I am not so sure that we will see any change in interest rates. I think rates will remain stable throughout the year because the Federal Reserve is extremely cautious in any move, up or down, until they have clear signs that the economy, inflation, and employment are back to pre-pandemic levels.”

Overall, Senecal sees improvement on the residential real-estate market, but some lingering challenges, many of them pandemic-related.

“With the recent Federal Reserve pause, and the market’s reaction to that, it has started to impact long-term interest rates on mortgages coming down almost three-quarters of a percentage point,” he noted. “I would expect and hope the impact on the residential real-estate market come spring will have a positive effect on inventory and therefore increase residential RE purchases and inventory.”

Meanwhile, he added, “commercial office-space markets will continue to see a continuing decline as the effects of the pandemic on lease maturities will continue to impact commercial real-estate values. Because Western Mass is heavily concentrated in the medical and educational markets, neither of which are severely impacted by these interest-rate economic changes, I fully expect Western Mass. to remain economically stable throughout 2024.”

 

Progress Report

It’s called the CHIPS and Science Act. This is a federal statute signed into law by President Biden in August 2022 that authorizes roughly $280 billion in new funding to boost domestic research and manufacturing of semiconductors in the U.S., and also includes $39 billion in subsidies for chip manufacturing on U.S. soil, along with 25% investment-tax credits for costs of manufacturing equipment and $13 billion for semiconductor research and workforce training.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, said provisions of the CHIPS Act require that companies in the supply chain be U.S.-based. And this has translated into some intriguing early-stage talks between the EDC and some international companies.

Sam Hanmer

“Insurance isn’t sexy. It isn’t high-tech, it isn’t Wall Street, it’s just … not sexy, so young people aren’t interested in it, and the ones who are interested are aging out.”

“Not only is there onshoring being discussed, but there’s also some foreign investment from different companies, European mostly, that are looking to get a foothold; they’re at least looking,” he said, adding that, between developable land on which to build and precision manufacturers that could be acquired, there is plenty within the 413 to show them. “It’s an opportunity I haven’t seen in the past seven or eight years.”

And this fairly recent development is one reason why Sullivan is rather optimistic about 2024 and what it holds for the region.

Other reasons include everything from progress on the workforce front (see related item below), with area colleges and universities seeing a boost in enrollment as well as new programs and initiatives to put workers in the pipeline for various sectors, to headway in the preparation of a new growth strategy for the region, to some new businesses in different, and promising, sectors.

Businesses like CleanCrop Technologies in Holyoke, which boasts technology that “redefines food and agriculture efficiency.”

“This is a company that came out of UMass, it’s growing significantly, and it’s getting the attention of some multi-national companies in terms of potential investment,” said Sullivan, adding that there are other companies in what he called the “clean-tech realm” that are emerging and offering great promise for that sector. “Overall, I’m optimistic that the pieces are coming together, and that we’ll see more progress in 2024.”

 

The State We’re In

Thomson told BusinessWest that the tax cut orchestrated by the Healey administration in 2023 was a welcome signal that the state might actually get it when it comes to the high cost of living and doing business in the Commonwealth and the need to take steps to make it more competitive.

She hopes there will be more of these to come in 2024 because the state still has a long way to go when it comes to being competitive with North Carolina’s Research Triangle and other regions like it.

“It’s imperative that policymakers send the right signals through their actions that we’re going to continue on this course of enhancing our competitiveness and promoting economic stability,” she said. “We’re really at an inflection point.”

George Timmons

George Timmons

“It’s about how you respond to the populations that you have on your campus and ensuring that they have the resources and the support they need to be successful.”

There continues to be an outmigration from Massachusetts, said Thomson, noting that the so-called ‘millionaire’s tax’ certainly has something to do with this. But the larger issue is simple affordability, she went on, adding that many young professionals feel priced out by the Bay State, and especially the broad area east of Worcester.

Housing is a huge issue, she said, adding that the state needs to prioritize efforts to create housing on many different levels, from affordable to what would be considered starter homes for young professionals. But it’s not the only issue, she noted, adding that overall affordability also includes transportation and childcare, which are also very high in this state.

“The outmigration numbers worry me because they indicate that the biggest population group that we’re losing are these 25- to 36-year-olds,” she said. “These are the people who maybe came here for college and then concluded that it’s too expensive to stay here.”

Finding ways to keep them here, Thomson added, will go a long way toward easing the workforce issues that are impacting every business sector and in some ways stunting their growth.

 

‘Workforce, Workforce, Workforce’

As he talked with BusinessWest about his sector and efforts to attract and retain talent, Sam Hanmer hit upon an uncomfortable truth.

“Insurance isn’t sexy,” said Hanmer, president of the Chicopee-based Rush Insurance Group, with Rush being his mother’s maiden name. “It isn’t high-tech, it isn’t Wall Street, it’s just … not sexy, so young people aren’t interested in it, and the ones who are interested are aging out. Let’s be honest, insurance has been an ugly word forever — you have to have thick skin to be in this game because no one wants to talk to you.”

With that, he summed up the ongoing challenge of attracting and maintaining a workforce today, hitting on two of the key points: Baby Boomers are retiring, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hire their successors, especially in insurance.

“If you have that skillset, you’re in an environment where you can change jobs and get a pretty significant pay increase,” he said, referring to seasoned insurance professionals. “In order to get that skillset — and the number of people who possess it is diminishing — employers have to pay up for it, and that squeezes everyone.”

But even those business sectors that would be considered sexy continue to struggle on this front, with many of those we spoke with summing up 2023, and the overriding issue for 2024, with three simple words: “workforce, workforce, workforce.”

Susan Kasa

Susan Kasa

“Commercial aerospace had come to a virtual standstill for many suppliers, and they had to reinvent the wheel for themselves. But we’re starting to see a comeback to pre-pandemic levels.”

Hanmer was one of them, noting that, in his sector and many others, ‘virtual assistants,’ technology, and especially AI hold the promise of removing the human element, meaning hired help, from some backroom functions, the broad realm of customer service, and “helping customers understand what they’re buying.”

In the meantime, though, Hanmer and those in many other sectors are focusing their efforts on educating young people about what could be promising careers, including those in that non-sexy realm known as insurance, and grooming them for this work.

“We’re going to start looking at young, inexperienced people who have a desire to potentially have a good-paying job in insurance, because these are good-paying jobs, and you just can’t get people to fill them,” he explained. “So we’re going to have to start growing them from a younger age, and, hopefully, they’ll stick around.”

With that, again, he spoke for business owners across virtually every sector.

 

School of Thought

It will be called the Adult Learner Success Center.

This is a new initiative at Holyoke Community College (HCC), that, as the name suggests, has been created to help adult learners — non-traditional students generally in the their mid-20s and older — achieve success, however they choose to define it.

“It will help address the specific needs of the adult leader, and we’re really excited about it,” said George Timmons, who took the helm as HCC’s president this past summer. “It’s about how you respond to the populations that you have on your campus and ensuring that they have the resources and the support they need to be successful.”

And the program says a lot about the state of higher education as the caldendar turns to 2024.

Indeed, with the passage of the MassReconnect program, which provides free community college to eligible individuals 25 and older, these institutions have seen a much-needed boost in enrollment (4% at HCC, for example) that is also changing the demographic on their campuses.

While enrollment has edged higher at community-colleges and other institutions in 2023, overall enrollment and financial challenges persist, said Timmons, citing the announced closing of the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., after more than a century of operation, providing more evidence — not that any was needed — that these are difficult and somewhat perilous times in higher education.

“It’s still real when you think about the challenges facing colleges and universities, especially in the Northeast, where the birth rates are signficantly less than they were years ago, putting fewer students in the pipeline,” he said, noting that, on a different spectrum, there are an estimated 700,000 people in the Bay State who have attended college but not finished what they started.

This represents a tremendous opportunity for community colleges, he said, adding that this focus on the adult learner and helping them achieve success will be among the many key issues to watch in 2024.

 

Making Things Happen

Susan Kasa, president of Boulevard Machine & Gear in Westfield, said that, a year ago, her shop was able to shut down the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, a non-traditional break that was enjoyed by employees and managers alike.

So much so that the plan was to do it again, she said, adding that it just wasn’t possible to do so this year.

“Right now, we have so much demand that we will be open that week and plugging along,” she said in an interview prior to the holidays, adding that this demand comes in the form of a high volume of orders, a number of them in the expedited category, that cover most all of the customer groups served by this precision manufacturer.

That includes what Kasa calls ‘outer space,’ meaning everything from satellites to the rockets taking billionaires and their clients to the edge of space; from defense to aerospace.

This surge in orders reflects many of the issues that will define 2024, from turmoil in the Middle East, Ukraine, and other hotspots to a resurgence in airline travel — all of which is positively impacting precision manufacturers, and there are many of them in the 413, who serve original equipment manufacturers in those markets.

Indeed, on the space and defense sides of the ledger, Boulevard is currently handing orders for parts for everything from the satellites that track incoming missiles to the Apache helicopter, and all indications are that the pace of activity will only increase in 2024 and probably beyond.

“We’ve been delivering parts in this last quarter of the year, and the numbers are very strong right through 2032,” she said, ading that L3Harris, the Florida-based defense contractor that specializes in microwave weaponry, surveillance solutions, and electronic warfare, has become one of Boulevard’s larger customers for outer space, satellite, and aerospace work.

This upward trajectory in orders, which led to the hiring of three new machinists in 2023, also includes aerospace, she said, adding that a pronounced lull in that sector, resulting from the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max, a sharp decrease in air travel during the pandemic, and other factors, is now to be discussed with the past tense.

“Commercial aerospace had come to a virtual standstill for many suppliers, and they had to reinvent the wheel for themselves,” Kasa said. “But we’re starting to see a comeback to pre-pandemic levels. We’re finally getting back to normal; orders are resuming, and they’re taking all this inventory that may have been sitting for a while. With both Boeing and Airbus, they’re seeing orders come in, and they’re large orders.”

 

Opinion

Editorial

In the 40 years BusinessWest has been delivering key business news, trends, profiles, and much more to our readers, the economy has swung back and forth many times, from the downturns of the early ’90s and ’00s to the Great Recession of roughly 15 years ago to the recent, hyper-challenging pandemic years — and, of course, the brighter, more robust stretches in between those downturns.

In most cases over those years, business owners could read the signs and pinpoint what kind of economy they were dealing with — good or bad, promising or worrisome.

The current landscape, though, is mixed in an unusual way, with low unemployment and a soaring stock market on one hand and persistent inflation and too-high home prices on the other, just to name a few competing trends. As the Economic Outlook shows, there’s plenty of concern out there, but optimism, too, as we enter a year of global uncertainty, from what promises to be a wild presidential election in the U.S. to serious geopolitical conflicts overseas.

What is more certain is that BusinessWest will continue to reflect these times, these trends, and these stories from a local perspective — that is, through the eyes, minds, and stories of business owners and economic experts throughout the 413.

In our very next issue, we’ll reveal our 28th annual Top Entrepreneur — an intriguing, outside-the-box choice you’ll be excited to read about. One issue after that, we’ll unveil our 16th annual class of Difference Makers, the first of four very popular recognition programs throughout 2024, along with 40 Under Forty in April, Healthcare Heroes in September, and Women of Impact in October. Please note that BusinessWest accepts nominations for all four programs all year long.

We’re also introducing a few regular features to accompany our town-hopping Community Spotlight and the monthly Professional Development story, which focuses on how area colleges and universities are connecting with the business world to help people access better career opportunities.

The new, quarterly offerings in 2024 will include Where Are They Now? — a visit with a past winner of one of the four awards mentioned earlier, detailing how their life and career have evolved since — as well as Nonprofit Spotlight, a quick look at one of the region’s nonprofit organizations and the important work they do, and our Faces of… series, which will offer thoughtful perspectives from leaders in the worlds of construction (in February), education (May), finance (August), and healthcare (November). That’s, of course, on top of our regular coverage of dozens of sectors.

Oh, and did we mention 40 years? We’ll be celebrating that milestone in a big way in our May 13 issue, with a comprehensive look at how several key industries and sectors have evolved since BusinessWest (then known as the Western Mass. Business Journal) first appeared in 1984, and a celebration of the people who made it all happen.

So, as another uncertain year takes shape (and, really, aren’t they all?) we’re excited to bring it all to you — on the page, at our recognition events, and at businesswest.com. Happy New Year.

Autos

The Road Ahead

 

high-speed EV chargers

Gary Rome has made a major investment in high-speed EV chargers, with capacity for more when demand increases.

The car-shopping experts at Edmunds say opposing market forces are expected to keep new vehicle sales relatively steady in 2024, forecasting that 15.7 million new cars will be sold. That forecast represents a 1% increase from its estimate of 15.5 million new vehicle sales in 2023. Meanwhile, electric-vehicle (EV) market share is expected to tick slightly higher to 8% of total new vehicle sales in 2024, up from 6.9% in 2023 to date through November.

Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds’ head of Insights, noted that “2023 experienced improved inventory levels from pandemic-era lows combined with pent-up demand to deliver strong sales, estimated up 12.7% year over year. While the year ahead holds the promise of further increased inventory and enticing deals that consumers have eagerly awaited, 2023’s high interest rates are expected to linger, provoking conflicting market dynamics. Automakers specifically will weigh one other key consideration in 2024: are they satisfied with this newly established supply-demand equilibrium, or are they willing and able to push sales volumes closer to pre-pandemic norms?”

Gary Rome, president and CEO of Gary Rome Auto Group, told BusinessWest that carmakers are responding to high interest rates by pushing 0% financing promotions, or close to it. At his two dealerships, he noted that Hyundai is offering 0%, and Kia is offering 0.9%.

“People have been buying the same car, and their payment is $80 to $100 more because of the higher interest rates,” he explained. “So manufacturers are starting to do something about it with low-rate financing.”

Edmunds put together a list of the three biggest industry trends it predicts will shape the road ahead in 2024.

 

New-vehicle Prices Will Plateau

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a series of significant vehicle price hikes, first from consumers leveraging low interest rates to buy larger, well-equipped vehicles, and later from out-of-whack demand due to supply shortages. But Edmunds data reveals pricing has peaked, as improved inventory has driven incentives back into the market.

Shoppers seeking options on the affordable side of the new-vehicle market, however, will have a tougher time as those vehicles are selling quicker than their more expensive counterparts, the reversal of a trend witnessed from the fall of 2020 through the fall of 2021.

 

EVs Will Continue to Disrupt Brand Loyalty

A lack of consumer brand loyalty creates opportunities for electric-vehicle makers to win over buyers in the still-early stages of EV adoption, considered even more impactful given today’s lower overall sales rates relative to pre-2020 levels.

With brands jockeying for pole position in the EV adoption race, Edmunds’ experts note that shoppers ready to make the switch to electric should see plenty of incentives in 2024, even before tax credits kick in. As of November, EVs saw the largest discounts by powertrain at $2,326 below MSRP on average, compared to an industry average of $1,006 discounted.

Locally, Rome said he carries a lot of electric vehicles, but consumers are still wary about availability of charging stations. Still, he recently installed six high-speed ‘superchargers’ at Gary Rome Hyundai and has capacity for 10 more when the need develops.

“Our percentage of EV sales is only around 10%, so it’s a lot of investment for only 10% of sales,” he added. “When we see a trend toward more EV sales, we’ll certainly invest in more chargers.”

 

Hybrid Sales Share Will Grow Further

Edmunds experts say the transition to full EVs has slowed, and hybrids are the more comfortable choice for the majority of Americans seeking electrified options right now.

According to Edmunds data, hybrid market share increased to 9.7% in November from 4.9% the year prior, representing 99% growth. Over that same time period, EVs increased just 25% in share.

Hybrids are transacting more quickly and at less of a discount than both EVs and pure gas competitors, the report notes. “If you’re on the hybrid versus EV fence and prefer leasing, Edmunds experts suggest EVs could be the way to go due to available inventory, discounts, and rebates. But if you’re a drive-it-until-the-wheels-fall-off shopper and are set on a hybrid purchase, you might be best off placing an order rather than scouring local lots in search of a strong deal.”

Accounting and Tax Planning

Setting the Course

By Barbara Trombley, CPA, MBA

 

As we usher in the new year, it is an opportune time to make financial resolutions that will secure your financial future. Whether you are new to investing and personal financial planning or you are approaching retirement and contemplating estate planning, here are some tips for making the most of your financial life in 2024.

“Peace of mind comes with knowing you can cover unexpected expenses in the case of emergency or job loss.”

Build or Enhance Your Emergency Fund

In an era marked by economic uncertainty, we all need a robust emergency fund. This means having three to six months of living expenses in a money market or high-yield savings account. Peace of mind comes with knowing you can cover unexpected expenses in the case of emergency or job loss.

 

Pay Down Debt

In today’s world of high interest rates, it is imperative to not carry ‘bad debt.’ What is bad debt? Credit cards, personal loans, and some car loans are all examples. The interest on some of these debt instruments can be financially crippling. Come up with a plan to tackle the debt sooner rather than later.

 

Review Your Credit Report and Credit Score

Federal law gives you the right to get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from the three nationwide credit bureaus. To get the free credit report, go to annualcreditreport.com. Review for any inaccuracies and report them right away. Make a plan to increase your score, if needed, by making timely payments and attacking outstanding debt. A strong credit score is the key to favorable interest rates when financing a house, car, or other business opportunities.

 

Meet Your Match

Many companies offer a match in contributions to retirement plans. There is a reason this is called ‘free money.’ You do not have to earn the money. You need to contribute enough to get the match that the company provides. Most companies match 50% or 100% of your contribution, up to a certain percentage.

 

Increase Your Retirement Contributions

Beyond just getting a match, you should increase your retirement-plan contributions each year and certainly when receiving any type of raise or bonus. The 2024 contribution limit for 401(k), 403(b), and most 457 plans is increased to $23,000, up from $22,500. The catch-up contribution for those turning 55 or older in 2024 is $7,500. The limit on annual contributions to an IRA plan will increase to $7,000, up from $6,500. If you are over 55, the limit is $8,000.

Also consider whether a Roth 401(k) or IRA is a good option for you. You need to weigh whether it is more advantageous to pay taxes now or later on to the contributions to your retirement accounts. Having both a traditional retirement account and a Roth retirement account may give you the tax flexibility that you need in retirement.

 

Review Social Security

Social Security makes up the bulk of many Americans’ retirement income. Do you know how much you will get at full retirement age? Do you know that you receive about 30% less if you take your social security payment at age 62? Do you know that you can wait until age 70 to begin your payments and realize a significant pay increase of 8% for each year that you wait? Be cognizant of how much you can anticipate receiving in retirement and how much your spouse will receive. Work with a financial planner to strategize the possibility of staggering claiming ages to reach your retirement goals.

 

Do a Pension Calculation

About 20% of Americans receive a pension. This is a stream of payments that come each month in retirement. Do the research now to calculate at what age your pension will be maximized. Also, find out what options you may have in retirement to provide for a spouse. There also may be the ability to consider a lump-sum payment in lieu of monthly payments. Knowing all your options will allow you to calculate how much additional money you may need to save to have an enjoyable retirement.

 

Consult a Financial Planner

It is never too early or too late to see if you are on track for retirement. A good financial planner is a trained professional in the field and can assist you in setting and achieving your financial goals. A financial planner can also evaluate your investment options and suggest suitable investments for your risk profile. Many planners will also help optimize your tax strategy and possibly save you money in the long run.

 

Barbara Trombley is a financial planner with Wilbraham-based Trombley Associates Investment and Retirement Planning. Securities offered through LPL Financial. Member FINRA/SIPC. Advisory services offered through Trombley Associates, a registered investment advisor and separate entity from LPL Financial. This material was created for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as ERISA tax, legal, or investment advice. If you are seeking investment advice specific to your needs, such advice services must be obtained on your own separate from this educational material.

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage Wealth Management

Planning Is Key

By Kristina D. Houghton, CPA

 

Surprisingly, 2023 was a year with no tax-law changes. Congressional members of both parties introduced major tax policy legislation, but so far, most of those bills were partisan. For Congress to pass tax legislation, it will need to be the product of bipartisan compromise. Any tax-policy legislation should also adhere to core values of fostering domestic economic growth, providing support for workers and their families, and prioritizing fiscal responsibility.

Despite the lack of legislation, year-end is still the optimal time for tax planning. But you must be careful to avoid potential pitfalls along the way.

We have prepared the following 2023 year-end tax article divided into three sections:

• Individual Tax Planning;

• Business Tax Planning; and

• Financial Tax Planning.

Be aware that the concepts discussed in this article are intended to provide only a general overview of year-end tax planning. It is recommended that you review your personal situation with a tax professional.

“If you come out ahead by itemizing, you may want to accelerate certain deductible expenses into 2023.”

INDIVIDUAL TAX PLANNING

Itemized Deductions

When you file your personal 2023 tax return, you must choose between the standard deduction and itemized deductions. The standard deduction for 2023 is $13,850 for single filers and $27,700 for joint filers. (An additional $1,850 standard deduction is allowed for a taxpayer age 65 or older.)

YEAR-END MOVE: If you come out ahead by itemizing, you may want to accelerate certain deductible expenses into 2023. For example, consider the following possibilities:

• Donate cash or property to a qualified charitable organization.

• Pay deductible mortgage interest if it otherwise makes sense for your situation. Currently, this includes interest on acquisition debt of up to $750,000 for your principal residence and one other home, combined.

• Make state and local tax (SALT) payments up to the annual SALT deduction limit of $10,000.

 

Charitable Donations

The tax law allows you to deduct charitable donations within generous limits if you meet certain record-keeping requirements.

YEAR-END MOVE: Step up charitable gift giving before Jan. 1. As long as you make a donation in 2023, it is deductible in 2023, even if you charge it in 2023 and pay it in 2024.

• If you make monetary contributions, your deduction is limited to 60% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Any excess above the 60%-of-AGI limit may be carried over for up to five years.

• If you donate appreciated property held longer than one year (i.e., it would qualify for long-term capital-gain treatment if sold), you can generally deduct an amount equal to the property’s fair market value (FMV) on the donation date, up to 30% of your AGI. But the deduction for short-term capital-gain property is limited to your initial cost.

 

Higher-education Credits

The tax law provides tax breaks to parents of children in college, subject to certain limits. This often includes a choice between one of two higher-education credits.

YEAR-END MOVE: When appropriate, pay qualified expenses for next semester by the end of this year. Generally, the costs will be eligible for a credit in 2023, even if the semester does not begin until 2024.

Typically, you can claim either the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) or the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC), but not both. The maximum AOTC of $2,500 is available for qualified expenses for four years of study for each student, while the maximum $2,000 LLC is claimed on a per-family basis for all years of study. Thus, the AOTC is usually preferable to the LLC.

Both credits are phased out based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). The phase-out for each credit occurs between $80,000 and $90,000 of MAGI for single filers and between $160,000 and $180,000 of MAGI for joint filers.

TIP: The list of qualified expenses includes tuition, books, fees, equipment, computers, etc., but not room and board.

 

Miscellaneous

• Install energy-saving devices at home that result in either of two residential credits. For example, you may be able to claim a credit for installing solar panels. Generally, each credit equals 30% of the cost of qualified expenses, subject to certain limits.

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

• Empty out flexible spending accounts for healthcare or dependent-care expenses if you will forfeit unused funds under the ‘use it or lose it’ rule. However, your employer’s plan may provide a carry-over to 2024 of up to $610 of unused funds or a two-and-a-half-month grace period.

 

BUSINESS TAX PLANNING

Depreciation-based Deductions

As the year draws to a close, a business may benefit from one or more of three depreciation-based tax breaks: the Section 179 deduction, first-year ‘bonus’ depreciation, and regular depreciation.

YEAR-END MOVE: Place qualified property in service before the end of the year. If your business does not start using the property before 2024, it is not eligible for these tax breaks.

Section 179 deduction: Under Section 179 of the tax code, a business may currently deduct the cost of qualified property placed in service during the year. The maximum annual deduction for 2023 is $1.16 million, provided your total purchases of property do not exceed $2.89 million.

Be aware that the Section 179 deduction cannot exceed the taxable income from all your business activities this year. This rule could limit your deduction for 2023.

First-year bonus depreciation: The first-year bonus depreciation applicable percentage for 2023 is 80% and is scheduled to drop to 60% in 2024.

 

Qualified Retirement Plans

The new SECURE 2.0 law includes a number of provisions affecting employers with qualified retirement plans.

YEAR-END MOVE: Position your business to maximize available tax benefits and avoid potential problems. Consider the following key changes of particular interest:

• For 401(k) plans adopted after 2024, an employer must provide automatic enrollment to employees. Certain small companies and startups are exempt.

• Beginning in 2023, employers with 50 or fewer employees can qualify for a credit equal to 100% of their contributions to a new retirement plan, up to $1,000 per employee, phased out over five years. The 100% credit is reduced for a business with 51 to 100 employees. This tax break is in addition to an enhanced credit for plan startup costs.

• Beginning in 2024, employers may automatically provide employees with emergency access to accounts of up to 3% of their salary, capped at $2,500.

• Beginning in 2024, an employer may elect to make matching contributions to an employee’s retirement-plan account based on student-loan obligations.

• The new law shortens the eligibility requirement for part-time workers from three years to two years, beginning in 2023, among other modifications.

• Any catch-up contributions to 401(k) plans must be made to Roth-type accounts for employees earning more than $145,000 a year (indexed for inflation).

TIP: This last provision was initially scheduled to take effect in 2024, but a new IRS ruling just delayed it for two years to 2026.

 

Employee Bonuses

Generally, employee bonuses are deductible in the year that they are paid. For instance, you must dole out bonuses before Jan. 1, 2024 to deduct those bonuses on your company’s 2023 return. However, there’s a special rule for accrual-basis companies. In this case, the bonuses are currently deductible if they are paid within two and a half months of the close of the tax year.

YEAR-END MOVE: If your company qualifies, determine bonus amounts before year-end. As a result, the bonuses can be deducted on the company’s 2023 return as long as they are paid by March 15, 2024. Keep detailed corporate minutes to support the deductions.

This special deduction rule does not apply to bonuses paid to majority shareholders of a C-corporation or certain owners of an S-corporation or a personal-service corporation.

TIP: Note that the bonuses are taxable to employees in the year in which they receive them — 2024. Thus, the employees benefit from tax deferral for a year even if the company claims a current deduction.

 

Miscellaneous

• Stock the shelves with routine supplies (especially if they are in high demand). If you buy the supplies in 2023, they are deductible this year even if they are not used until 2024.

• Maximize the qualified business interest deduction for pass-through entities and self-employed individuals. Note that special rules apply if you are in a ‘specified service trade or business.’ See your professional tax advisor for more details.

• If you buy a heavy-duty SUV or van for business, you may claim a first-year Section 179 deduction of up to $28,900. The luxury-car limits do not apply to certain heavy-duty vehicles.

 

FINANCIAL TAX PLANNING

Securities Sales

Traditionally, investors time sales of assets like securities at year-end to maximize tax advantages. For starters, capital gains and losses offset each other. If you show an excess loss for the year, you can then offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income before any remainder is carried over to the next year. Long-term capital gains from sales of securities owned longer than one year are taxed at a maximum rate of 15%, or 20% for high-income investors. Conversely, short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary income rates reaching as high as 37% in 2023.

YEAR-END MOVE: Review your portfolio. Depending on your situation, you may want to harvest capital losses to offset gains, especially high-taxed short-term gains, or realize capital gains that will be partially or wholly absorbed by losses.

Be aware of even more favorable tax treatment for certain long-term capital gains. Notably, a 0% rate applies to taxpayers below certain income levels, such as young children. Furthermore, some taxpayers who ultimately pay ordinary income tax at higher rates due to their investments may qualify for the 0% tax rate on a portion of their long-term capital gains.

However, watch out for the ‘wash sale rule.’ If you sell securities at a loss and reacquire substantially identical securities within 30 days of the sale, the tax loss is disallowed. A simple way to avoid this adverse result is to wait at least 31 days to reacquire substantially identical securities.

Note that a disallowed loss increases your basis for the securities you acquire and could reduce taxable gain on a future sale.

 

Net Investment Income Tax

When you review your portfolio, do not forget to account for the 3.8% net investment income tax, which applies to the lesser of net investment income (NII) or the amount by which MAGI for the year exceeds $200,000 for single filers or $250,000 for joint filers. (These thresholds are not indexed for inflation.)

The definition of NII includes interest, dividends, capital gains, and income from passive activities, but not Social Security benefits, tax-exempt interest, and distributions from qualified retirement plans and IRAs.

You may consider investing in municipal bonds (‘munis’). The interest income generated by munis does not count as NII, nor is it included in the MAGI calculation. Similarly, if you turn a passive activity into an active business, the resulting income may be exempt from the NII tax.

TIP: When you add the NII tax to your regular tax, you could be paying an effective 40.8% tax rate at the federal level alone. Factor this into your investment decisions.

 

Required Minimum Distributions

For starters, you must begin ‘required minimum distributions’ (RMDs) from qualified retirement plans and IRAs after reaching a specified age. After the SECURE Act raised the age threshold from 70½ to 72, SECURE 2.0 bumped it up again to 73 beginning in 2023 (scheduled to increase to 75 in 2033). The amount of the RMD is based on IRS life-expectancy tables and your account balance at the end of last year.

YEAR-END MOVE: Assess your obligations. If you can postpone RMDs still longer, you can continue to benefit from tax-deferred growth. Otherwise, make arrangements to receive RMDs before Jan. 1, 2024 to avoid any penalties.

Conversely, if you are still working and do not own 5% or more of a business with a qualified plan, you can postpone RMDs from that plan until your retirement. This ‘still-working exception’ does not apply to RMDs from IRAs or qualified plans of other employers.

Previously, the penalty for failing to take timely RMDs was equal to 50% of the shortfall. SECURE 2.0 reduces it to 25% beginning in 2023 (10% if corrected in a timely fashion).

TIP: Under the initial SECURE Act, you are generally required to take RMDs from recently inherited accounts over a 10-year period (although previous inheritances are exempted). These rules are complex, so consult with your tax advisor regarding your situation.

 

Estate and Gift Taxes

During the last decade, the unified estate- and gift-tax exclusion has gradually increased, while the top estate rate has not budged. For example, the exclusion for 2023 is $12.92 million, the highest it has ever been. (It is scheduled to revert to $5 million, plus inflation indexing, after 2025.)

YEAR-END MOVE: Reflect this generous tax-law provision in your overall estate plan. For instance, your plan may involve various techniques, including bypass trusts, that maximize the benefits of the estate- and gift-tax exemption.

In addition, you can give gifts to family members that qualify for the annual gift-tax exclusion. For 2023, there is no gift-tax liability on gifts of up to $17,000 per recipient (up from $16,000 in 2022). You do not even have to file a gift-tax return. Moreover, the limit is doubled to $34,000 for joint gifts by a married couple, but a gift-tax return is required in that case.

TIP: You may ‘double up’ again by giving gifts in both December and January that qualify for the annual gift-tax exclusion for 2023 and 2024, respectively.

 

Miscellaneous

• Contribute up to $22,500 to a 401(k) in 2023 ($30,000 if you are age 50 or older). If you clear the 2023 Social Security wage base of $160,200 and promptly allocate the payroll tax savings to a 401(k), you can increase your deferral without any further reduction in your take-home pay. Note that SECURE 2.0 further enhances catch-up contributions for older employees after 2023.

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

• Consider a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). If you are age 70½ or older, you can transfer up to $100,000 of IRA funds directly to charity, free of tax (but not deductible). SECURE 2.0 authorizes a one-time transfer of up to $50,000 to a charitable remainder trust or charitable gift annuity as part of a QCD.

 

CONCLUSION

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

Finally, remember that this article is intended to serve only as a general guideline. Your personal circumstances will likely require careful examination.

 

Kristina D. Houghton, CPA is a partner at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

“Honestly, this was one of our busiest years I can remember.”

“It’s been a very challenging year.”

Those are two quotes from this issue of BusinessWest, one from the world of construction, the other from hospital administration.

And if you asked leaders of other sectors — from education to auto sales; from real estate to insurance — how things are going, you’d probably encounter the same range of answers.

Because these are unusual times. In some ways, the economy is strong, with historically low unemployment, real wages rising, and energy prices falling. But in other ways — indeed, the ways in which people feel it most immediately — things are not getting better: inflation is still too high, housing is increasingly unattainable, and employers are struggling to find talent.

But even by those negative measures, the U.S. has seen improvement over the past year, and in many industries, business is steady. We hope for even more improvement in 2024, of course, and while we do, here are four other developments we wouldn’t mind seeing, both locally and nationally.

• Lower interest rates. Not only has it been a terrible year for banks on that front, but consumers have been struggling with the dual issues of housing availability and higher mortage rates. Now that inflation is easing, mortgage rates are expected to make a slow decline throughout 2024. Realtor.com forecasts that rates will be 6.8% on average for 2024 and 6.5% by the year’s end, following a high of 7.79% earlier this year.

• Movement on east-west rail in Massachusetts. Obviously, any movement here will be painfully slow, but there has been some progress toward connecting Springfield (and even Pittsfield) with Boston. This fall, the federal government awarded a grant of $108 million to Massachusetts for infrastructure upgrades, and Gov. Maura Healey signed off on $12.5 million in DOT funding in the state’s FY 2024 budget toward the effort.

• Federal cannabis decriminalization. Well over half of U.S. citizens live where cannabis is legal in some way statewide, that number is rising every year, and about 60% of Americans want the drug legal for recreational use. But the federal government’s continued categorization of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug — and the related Section 280E issues in the Internal Revenue Code — continue to hamper the industry in many ways, from banking and taxes to security and transportation. Descheduling marijuana seems to have bipartisan support in Congress, but there has been little movement.

• More momentum in downtown Springfield. The good news is plentiful: MGM posted some of its best-ever months this year. The Thunderbirds generate a $126 million effect on the local economy, according to a UMass Donahue Institute study. The market-rate housing development at the former Court Square Hotel has been taking applications, with the promise of bringing more foot traffic to the area. All the downtown office towers report new tenants or progress toward that goal. Downtown may never attain the energy of its mid-20th-century heyday, but the progress has been encouraging.