Home Posts tagged BusinessWest
Alumni Achievement Award

President and Owner, Chikmedia

Meghan Rothschild today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2011.

Meghan Rothschild today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2011.

Meghan Rothschild started speaking in public when she was just 20 years old.

She had become a survivor of melanoma, a common and deadly form of skin cancer, and she began speaking out about her diagnosis as an advocate for sun safety and cancer prevention, turning a negative into a positive.

Over the ensuing two decades or so, she would become a natural behind the microphone, addressing subjects ranging from skin cancer to social media to leadership skills and how to build them. She would also become a sought-after presenter and media host, including red-carpet coverage on behalf of Explore Western Mass. (the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau) for Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement, as a panelist for the RISE Women’s Leadership Conference, and regular media-outlet contributions including The Rhode Show, Mass Appeal on WWLP, iHeart Radio, and more.

It wasn’t until recently, though, that she delivered what she called her first ‘keynote address.’ It came at the Pioneer Valley Women’s Conference staged last month at the Marriott in downtown Springfield. The conference’s theme was Unleashed, and the unofficial title of her address was “Living Authentically Unleashed.”

“These were my tips for how to live an authentically unleashed life,” she told BusinessWest. “Being authentic, unleashing your emotions, unleashing your power, bringing empathy back into the workplace and acknowledging that people are human beings and not machine — things like that.”

When asked if she lived her own life authentically unleashed, she said, “I would certainly say that, yes. It means being free of of concern over how others view you, finding your true authentic mission and purpose, not being afraid to speak your mind, using your voice to set boundaries, knowing your own self-worth, all of those things,” she added.

Building an impressive portfolio of public speaking engagements and living her own life authentically unleashed — in all those ways she described — are just two of the many ways Rothschild has grown and evolved, personally and professionally, since she became a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2011 while serving as Development and Marketing manager for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

The most obvious is the creation and continued growth of the marketing and public-relations business she founded called Chikmedia, a full-service, boutique firm that provides clients nationwide with graphic design, social-media management, public relations, expert positioning, event management, and more.

But there is more to this story, including involvement within the community that takes many forms, from a Girls & Racism town hall created in collaboration with Girls Inc. to a Campaign for Healthy Kids PSA designed to help raise funds for the children and families that rely on Square One and were severely impacted by COVID, to her creation of the Chik of the Future Scholarship, designated for a young woman of color pursuing a degree in a marketing-related field.

The sum of these accomplishments has made Rothschild a repeat finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award. In fact, this is the fourth time that panels of judges have made her one of the top scorers.

It’s easy to see why, starting with her success in business.

She told BusinessWest that, while she considers herself an entrepreneur at heart, she never anticipated growing an agency to where it would have several team members and more than 40 clients at any given point.

“I started this to really take a calmer approach to my career, and it’s been the exact opposite,” she said. “Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, but the business has just blossomed.”

Indeed, it now boasts clients ranging from TIZO, a national skin-care line, to local businesses and nonprofits ranging from the Log Cabin to Girls Inc. to the recently opened event venue 52 Sumner.

But she is perhaps more proud of the work that she and the agency are doing in the community. She is involved with the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts as a board member, for example; runs in several 5Ks, like the one staged recently to support Dakin Humane Society; and brings added value to the many nonprofits within the client portfolio as another way to give back.

“I do influencer marketing myself, so on social media, I’m constantly talking up my clients and sharing their events and throwing myself in the hat as a marketing tool for them — because I find that’s sort of a seamless way for me to give back,” she said.

And then, there are initiatives like the Chik of the Future Scholarship, which has grown in scope and monetary value over its five-year history thanks to the support of several local businesses, as well as the She Votes campaign spearheaded by the team at Chikmedia in collaboration with Girls Inc. The goal of the campaign was to pre-register as many teen girls to vote as possible and to raise $21,000 for the She Votes curriculum. Voting pre-registrations were outstanding, Rothschild said, and the fundraising campaign concluded 3% above goal.

“I started this to really take a calmer approach to my career, and it’s been the exact opposite. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, but the business has just blossomed.”

Maybe the best indication of how far she has come, and how her impact has grown, is her increasingly crowded schedule, filled with various speaking engagements that reflect her many areas of expertise.

Last year, for example, she was in Dallas to appear at a major beauty conference to share her personal experience with skin cancer and talk about TIZO. She also addressed the Bradley Chamber of Commerce this month and hosts a series of workshops for Head Start programs across New England.

Overall, she’s speaking four to six times a month on average, with the subject matter ranging from skin-cancer prevention to entreprenership; from social-media training to talks that would be considered motivational in nature.

She said it’s taken her the better part of a decade to “get into a really good groove,” as she called it, developing a style that makes heavy use of humor and that engages the audience in whatever it is she’s talking about.

“When the topic is something outside my comfort zone, like a motivational speech, that fuels me,” she said. “It makes me take a moment and really think about what I’m going to say. I can stand up and talk about social media for six hours and not even bat an eye, but motivational-style speaking is completely different.”

There are many things that fuel Rothschild today, everything from working with her team to grow Chikmedia to providing scholarships to girls of color looking to enter the marketing field, to … well, living life unleashed.

All that explains why she is an Alumni Achievement Award finalist. Again.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award Cover Story

2024 Finalists Continue to Lead by Example

Left to right: Andrew Melendez, Meghan Rothschild, Payton Shubrick, and Craig Swimm

In 2015, BusinessWest introduced a new award, an extension of its 40 Under Forty program. It’s called the Alumni Achievement Award (AAA), and as that name suggests, it recognizes previous 40 Under Forty honorees who continue to build on their résumés of outstanding achievement in their chosen field and in service to the community.

Along with honoring one winner (or, on a couple of occasions, two) each year, the program also gives us a chance to visit with, and write about, several finalists each year — which gives our readers an opportunity to read about the interesting and impactful things going on in their lives. After all, for most 40 Under Forty alums, that award recognizes only the beginning stages of where their paths will take them.

So read the links below for the subsequent, and often surprising, chapters in the lives of Andrew Melendez, Meghan Rothschild, Payton Shubrick, and Craig Swimm. These four were chosen by a panel of three independent judges among this year’s AAA nominees. The same judges were then tasked with agreeing on the ultimate winner, who will be revealed at the 18th annual 40 Under Forty Gala on Thursday, June 20 at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.

As the profiles that begin on page 5 reveal, these four finalists truly embody the spirit of this award. Their stories convey leadership, ongoing commitment to the region’s economic and civic life, and an ability to pivot and evolve as opportunities present themselves. They are, in a word, inspiring.

Special thanks to Health New England for its continued sponsorship of the Alumni Achievement Award.


Andrew Melendez

Founder, Latino Economic Development Corp


Meghan Rothschild

President and Owner, Chikmedia


Payton Shubrick

Founder and CEO, 6 Brick’s LLC


Craig Swimm

Senior Vice President, Audacy Springfield

Alumni Achievement Award
Ashley Bogle

Ashley Bogle

Ashley Bogle is assistant general counsel and director of Legal Services for Health New England, where she manages the day-to-day operations of HNE’s Legal Department, from reviewing contracts to providing regulatory guidance and maintaining licenses and accreditation. A 40 Under Forty honoree in 2021, Bogle is a founding member of HNE’s diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) committee, which strives to embed DEIB and health equity into HNE’s strategic plan, mission, operations, community outreach, and member community. She currently serves as president of Art for the Soul Gallery’s board of directors in addition to working on other community projects.

Corey Murphy

Corey Murphy

Recipient of the 40 Under Forty award in 2009, Corey Murphy is president of First American Insurance Agency and CMS Associates, second-generation businesses started in 1986 and 1994, respectively. First American has two locations, in Chicopee and Brimfield. A veteran of the U.S. Marines who served four years of active duty and 16 years in the Reserves, Murphy has served on the boards of the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce and Soldier On Inc., including stints as chair of both boards. He currently serves on the Holyoke Community College Foundation Board, recently completing three years as board chair.

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

Amy Royal is the founding owner and principal of the Royal Law Firm LLP, a boutique, woman-owned corporate law firm headquartered in Western Mass. with additional offices in Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Royal is a 2009 40 Under Forty recipient and the 2023 40 Under Forty Alumni Achievement Award winner. She is a trial attorney specializing in management-side labor and employment law and commercial litigation. Active in the community, she is a volunteer and board officer at several area nonprofits, including the Springfield Ballers and the Center for Human Development.


Alumni Achievement Award

Senior Vice President, Audacy Springfield

Craig Swimm today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2007.

Craig Swimm today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2007.

Craig Swimm was in the very first class of 40 Under Forty honorees.

That’s was 2007, for those who don’t know the history. And for Swimm, who would turn 40 just a few months later, he acknowledged that this would be his only shot at attaining that honor.

As he reflected on all that has changed since he received his plaque on the stage at the Log Cabin that spring, Craig paused a second, said “wow,” and then paused again as if deciding where and how to start.

Indeed, there have been momentous changes, in his own life and career obviously, and in radio and with his broadcast group, which now includes 94.7 WMAS, sports station 105.5 WEEI, and a new Spanish station, Nueva 98.1 WHLL. And in general, with the Great Recession, other economic ups and downs, a pandemic and its aftermath, the emergence of social media, and so much more.

As for radio and the changes that have come to the industry and his group in particular, Swimm had to do some counting.

“Let’s see — there’s been one, two, three mergers, two bankruptcies, and a lot of other changes,” he said while giving the Readers Digest version of the progression from Citadel Broadcasting, which he served as sales manager when named a Forty Under 40 honoree, to the entity known as Audacy, a huge group with a presence in more than 100 markets, including Greater Springfied.

But what he chose to focus on more is what hasn’t changed over all that time — the team at Audacy Springfield, which has remained largely intact over those years, even through mergers and downturns in the economy; the fact that station WMAS remains live and local, at a time when far fewer stations can make those claims; and especially the stations’ commitment to the community.

That commitment, through Swimm’s direction, now includes everything from book drives to job fairs to the hugely successful radiothon to benefit Baystate Children’s Hospital, which, in many ways, eptoimizes the station’s commitment to the community and Swimm’s own desire to use its impresssive reach to make an impact.

“Success to Craig is watching his team become better versions of themselves.”

“We’ve raised more than $4 million since we started this,” he said, adding quickly that the station’s efforts have also yielded books, winter coats, bike helmets, and much more.

Those who nominated Swimm for the Alumni Achievement Award — and there were several from Audacy Springfield that did so — described him as a caring and effective manager, but also a mentor.

Craig Swimm (center) with Dina McMahon and Chris Kellogg from the WMAS Kellogg Krew.

Craig Swimm (center) with Dina McMahon and Chris Kellogg from the WMAS Kellogg Krew.

“Success to Craig is watching his team become better versions of themselves,” wrote Chris Duggan, an account executive. “That can be said for current employees, but also past employees who have gone on to new careers. They all will say that they owe their success to Craig for the type of manager and mentor he was.”

Dina McMahon, an on-air personality and member of the Kellogg Krew, agreed, and talked about something she called Swimm’s ‘1% philosophy.’

“Craig has strongly supported many local organizations, but he is always looking to make something bigger, better, stronger,” she wrote. “His philosophy is always do 1% better today than the day before, and he lives by that motto.

“One of our biggest community efforts is the 94.7 WMAS Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) Radiothon for Baystate Children’s Hospital,” McMahon added. “Each year, Craig spearheads the station’s effort, encouraging more sponsors to support the cause, coming up with new and innovative ideas to encourage donations and volunteers. And he is the first to say after the event, ‘OK, let’s meet and come up with new ideas for next year.’”

Lucie Rubba, sales planner and administrator at Audacy Springfield, had this to say: “Craig possesses an exceptional resourcefulness, consistently navigating through challenges with adeptness and resilience. His ability to improvise effectively when faced with obstacles underscores his leadership prowess, demonstrating fairness and astuteness in all his endeavors. He embraces every challenge with open arms, whether it’s a 3K run/walk, a food drive, or particularly an event for children. He is invariably present, ready to lend his support in any capacity needed.”

For his part, Swimm said his job comes down to leading Audacy Springfield through the myriad challenges now facing all radio stations and groups — and all media outlets, for that matter — and also making sure that Greater Springfield, one of the smaller markets in the huge Audacy portfolio, is heard loud and clear. And while doing that, he’s always looking for new ways to make an impact within the community.

“Every day is a little different,” he acknowledged. “But I’m always focused on our two clients — the listeners and our advertisers. Every one of my decisions involves making sure we’re putting out a good product and that we’re connecting to the community.”

He points to numerous success stories, but especially the CMN radiothon and the job fairs, conducted in conjunction with MassHire Springfield, that are staged at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The job fairs have changed and evolved as the economy has, he told BusinessWest, noting that, most recently, they’ve become a way for employers struggling to fill openings to become visible and tell their stories to those looking to enter the job market or take their next career step.

“We started during the Great Recession, and I think we’ve found jobs for 10,000 people since we started this,” he explained. “Back then, we had three companies and 5,000 people show up; now we have 40 companies and 300 people show up. I’m super proud of it because we’ve found so many people jobs; people have walked out of these expos who were hired on the spot. They’re walking through the Hall of Fame, and they’re saying, ‘I got hired.’ They’re happy, there’s tears, and … you’re part of that.”

He’s been part of a great many things since he joined the 40 Under Forty club 17 years ago, and he’s continously looking for ways to add to that list, while continuing to be an effective manager and mentor. This is the very definition of the Alumni Achievement Award and the reason why Swimm is now a finalist for that honor.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Founder and CEO, 6 Brick’s LLC

Payton Shubrick today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2019.

Payton Shubrick today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2019.

Payton Shubrick joined the region’s 40 Under Forty club in 2019, when she was serving as ‘Innovation and Design Thinking manager’ for MassMutual.

That was one of the years when the honoree profiles consisted of answers to questions designed to provide some real insight into whom these individuals were and, well … what made them tick.

In Shubrick’s case, they certainly did.

Indeed, when asked how she defines success, she said, “living a life of intentionality — one that allows you to smile unwittingly with excitement because of what you do, understand that hard times are a necessary evil to get to good times, and live a life that the ones you love are proud of.”

When asked what three words best describe her, she replied, “innovative, tenacious, visionary.”

And when asked what she’s passionate about, she wrote, “I am passionate about challenging the status quo. It is not easy, nor it is ever comfortable, but one fearless choice at a time, one brave decison at a time, one courageous action at a time … you can change the world. In the end, some of life’s best moments are on the other side of fear.”

These answers explain the motivations for Shubrick’s subsequent career move — a bold entrepreneurial venture, a cannabis dispensary she would call Six Brick’s, a nod to the six people in her immediate family, many of whom are involved in this operation. And the words and phrases she used in those answers almost eerily portend what an extreme challenge this venture would become. Indeed, the cannabis industry has changed profoundly over the past few years as prices have fallen and the herd of players has been subsequently thinned; nearly 40 dispensaries in the Commonwealth have gone out of business over the past few years.

“The days of ‘if you build it, they will come’ are long gone,” Shubrick said simply when asked to describe the current state of the industry, casting new light and reflection on the answers to those questions five years ago and references to being innovative and visionary, and also hard times, brave decisions, courageous actions, and, yes, challenging the status quo.

“The business is definitely competitive, and prices continue to compress, but I’m extremely grateful for the team that I lead and the customer base we’ve been able to grow, and hopefully will continue to grow.”

In many ways, that’s what she was doing when she desired to take a leap, leave the relative comfort of corporate America and Mother Mutual, and not just start a business, but a cannabis dispensary — becoming a “legal drug dealer,” as she put it — at a time when many large multi-state operators, or MSOs, as they’re called, were eyeing Springfield, in a way that Shubrick, who had seen them come to the City Council first-hand while she was interning for that body, found more than a little disturbing.

“Hearing these multi-state operators talk about Springfield more as a profit center rather than as a place with people really became a catalyst for me wanting to get involved in this industry, especially acknowledging that I was a political science major and African studies major, so I understood and knew first-hand the horror that cannabis had done prior to its legalization in communities like Springfield,” she told BusinessWest. “And I really didn’t like the idea of having dispensaries owned and controlled only by wealthy white men who had no real community ties to Springfield or any real desire to see Springfield be able to leverage this industry and do better and provide not just jobs, but career paths for people.”

Inspired by this desire to challenge what could be considered the status quo, and further inspired by entrepreneurial family members — and especially her grandfather, Hercules Shubrick, who got into the recycling business long before that became meanstream and also owned two convenience stores — she launched Six Brick’s in some of the underused space in the Springfield Republican building nearly two years ago.

“Perhaps it was through complaints and the support of my family or a combination of the two, but I found myself in the process of starting up an adult-use dispensary,” she went on, “wanting to set the tone that those in the community could participate in the legal cannabis community and have authentic representation from the community, as opposed to some performative notion of hiring someone who is a person of color, but isn’t actually an owner/operator.”

Since opening, there has been success and recognition, for both Shubrick and her venture. She has been named to another 40 Under Forty list, this one compiled by Marijuana Venture, and was also named Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the New England Cannabis Assoc. Six Brick’s, meanwhile, was named Best Adult Use Dispensary in the state by that same agency.

But there have been challenges as well as the industry has retreated from its strong start of a few years ago.

“Ignorance is definitely bliss; I did not know nor fully understand all that I was getting myself into,” she said. “The business is definitely competitive, and prices continue to compress, but I’m extremely grateful for the team that I lead and the customer base we’ve been able to grow, and hopefully will continue to grow.”

In other words, and to recall those answers from her questionnaire five years ago, nothing is easy, nor is life in this industry anything approaching comfortable. But she is determined and, yes, tenacious, in her quest for both continued success in this business and opportunities to help people victimized by old cannabis laws and non-violent convictions — crimes that are no longer crimes under current state law. Indeed, she has helped many get professional legal guidance to expunge their records and clean their CORI records so they can move on in life.

To sum up her accomplishments to date and her outlook on the future, we return to that questionnaire one more time, and Shubrick’s answer to the question ‘what goal do you set for yourself at the start of each day?’

“I remind myself of the words of Maya Angelou,” she replied. “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

She has certainly done all that, and this helps explain why she is not only a success in an extremely challenging business, but why she is a finalist for another honor — the Alumni Achievement Award.

—George O’Brien

Cover Story

A Look Back — and Ahead

What’s Changed — and What Hasn’t — in 40 Years

1984. That’s the title of an epic George Orwell novel, written 36 years earlier, that takes a look into the future and describes a world ruled by a televised ‘Big Brother.’

The real 1984 was a thankfully cheerier year. Ronald Reagan won a second term in office, the Boston Celtics won an epic NBA Finals series over the Los Angeles Lakers, gymnasts including Mary Lou Retton and West Springfield’s own Tim Daggett dominated the Summer Olympics in LA, and the Basketball Hall of Fame was soon to open its doors on Springfield’s riverfront.

That May, a new publication first appeared in businesses across the region. It was called the Western Massachusetts Business Journal, and the monthly magazine was something new and completely different — a publication devoted entirely to the region’s business community.

A few years later, the name was shortened to BusinessWest, which was not the only change to have taken place over the past 40 years. The magazine has since added a second issue each month, a strong digital presence, a daily news blog, a podcast, and several annual recognition programs and accompanying events.

Yet, as BusinessWest turns 40, we’ve dedicated this commemorative issue not to the changes that have taken place here, as significant as they are, but on the sweeping changes that have taken place in the workplace and in our business community.

They have included advances in computer technology that have transformed virtually every sector; a few memorable recessions, including one so profound it was called Great; a pandemic that shut down much of the world for months and may have permanently altered the way people work; a slew of state-of-the-art healthcare projects; a dramatic wave of contraction and acquisition in fields ranging from banking to insurance; a continued focus on entrepreneurship; and even brand-new sectors, most notably cannabis, and still-murky developments like artificial intelligence.

These sweeping, profound changes have impacted just about every sector, from education to law to construction, and have altered how we work, where we work, when we work, and even what we wear to work. In short, it’s been an eventful four decades, which has more than justified Publisher John Gormally’s decision to chronicle all of it on the pages of this magazine.

There’s no way to sum all that up in one issue, but we hope the articles below, brought to life by interviews with some of this region’s most prominent business leaders, at least begins to paint the picture of an economy, and region, ever in flux.


In this special section, 40 years of:

Click on each story to read more

or go HERE to view the entire BusinessWest 40th Anniversary issue


Commercial Development


Financial Planning


Higher Education



Professional Services


The Workplace


BusinessWest Anniversary

The Pendulum Has Shifted — Maybe for Good

Allison Ebner recalls that, when she first entered the workplace just over 30 years ago, the overriding question still concerned what the employee could do for the employer.

Over the years, and especially over the past decade, the pendulum has certainly shifted to where it’s now more about what the employer can do for the employee.

Indeed, while there have been cycles with the economy and the job market — and, thus, times when the employer and employee have alternated when it comes to having the proverbial upper hand, if you will — the employee has been in control for a while, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.

“It’s been flipped on its head, and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to flip back that much moving ahead,” Ebner said. “As employers, we’re constantly trying to figure out ways to retain top talent, and I think that is something we’ll see continuing into the future.”

This is just one of many changes that have come to the workplace over the past four decades, and especially the past four years, as the pandemic created a new paradigm. Others involve everything from how people work and where to dress codes; from technology and the emergence of AI to how to maintain a company culture when people are all together maybe, as in maybe, a day or two a week.

Drew Andrews, managing partner and CEO of the accounting firm Whittlesey, touched on many of these trends and issues as he flashed back almost exactly 40 years to when he started with the firm in June 1984.

“There was one computer in the corner of the office; it was a desktop that no one knew how to use. I was the bright, young kid who came out of college and somehow took a course my senior year on how to use that software, Lotus 1-2-3,” he recalled. “I was the only one who knew how to use it, so they had me start to train people on how to do spreadsheets on it. It was so slow and so ineffective that I can remember partners saying, ‘we’ll never be using this … I can do in 10 minutes what you just did in an hour.’”

Meanwhile, he was doing this work in a three-piece suit. “My first day, it was about 85 degrees out, and I’ve got this suit and tie on, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘why am I doing this?’” he recalled. “I was thinking that I should have taken the summer off and worked at the beach.”

Flash ahead to late last month, and he was doing this interview with BusinessWest via Zoom, from his home, wearing an unbuttoned collared shirt, and marveling at just how much things have changed — not just since he was that kid fresh out of school, but since the start of this decade.

And he’s certainly not alone.

Indeed, one of the common threads running through the stories in this 40th-anniversary issue is the dramatic changes that have come to the workplace in recent years, what they mean, and what might come next.

Allison Ebner

Allison Ebner

“It’s been flipped on its head, and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to flip back that much moving ahead.”

Many of those we spoke with have been working for three or four decades and referred to themselves as ‘old timers’ or even, in one case, a ‘dinosaur.’

And while some admit to being a bit stubborn when it came to those changes that have come in realms from relaxed dress codes to remote work, in almost every case, reason — driven by many factors, but especially the need to attract and retain talent — has won out over stubbornness.

“I’m a suit kind of guy,” said Tom Senecal, chairman of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank. “And it’s taken me a while, but the pandemic changed things. People wanted to go to casual; I said ‘no,’ but finally acquiesced. Then they wanted jeans on Friday, and I acquiesced. And then they wanted jeans every day, and I acquiesced, and it hasn’t really changed.

“I acquiesced on all of them,” he went on, “because who wants to go work at a stodgy, old-perceived institution versus one that’s flexible? I’m competing against tech companies and insurance companies and financial-services companies. You want to wear jeans? You want to work at home? I have to compete, so I have to acquiesce to what the market is doing.”

Moving forward, Ebner and others are seeing some slight movement toward returning to the office, or at least strong efforts in that direction. What they don’t see is the pendulum (meaning that upper hand) swinging back to the employer any time soon.


Is This Work in Progress?

As he talked about all the changes that have come to the workplace, Andrews put things in poignant perspective when he said he would prefer to visit his firm’s three offices, scattered across Northern Conn. and Western Mass., on Monday or Friday, because there are noticeably fewer people on the road those days courtesy of hybrid work schedules and a desire to be home those days.

His own employees are among those who fall into these categories. “So, if I went on Monday or Friday, I’d be visiting myself,” he said with a laugh.

Drew Andrews

Drew Andrews

“I was the bright, young kid who came out of college and somehow took a course my senior year on how to use that software, Lotus 1-2-3. I was the only one who knew how to use it, so they had me start to train people on how to do spreadsheets on it.”

So he winds up visiting toward the middle of the week, when people are around — at Whittlesey and most other larger places of business across sectors and jobs in which hybrid schedules are feasible.

And that’s a large list, said Ebner, noting that, while profound changes have come to the workplace since the pandemic arrived in 2020, there were already shifts in those directions years before COVID. The pandemic simply accelerated the process, and on many levels.

Also, the period just after the height of COVID became one of the most competitive in recent memory when it came to talent, the shortage thereof, and the lengths that employers would go to attract talent and then retain it.

“Employers pulled out all the stops to keep their people and attract talent, in terms of raising wages, enhancing benefits, and working on ways to keep their people happy,” she said. “It’s settling down just a little bit; we’re seeing a little bit of a cooling on wages — increases for 2024 were not predicted to be as high as they were in 2023 — and benefits are scaling back, especially in terms of employers sharing the increased cost of healthcare. And some of the other benefits around wellness have gone away.

“We’re trying to find that next normal,” she went on, acknowledging a dislike of the phrase ‘new normal.’ “And we’re still settling into that; we’re trying to find the right balance of productivity expectations for employees versus what we’re offering — the employee value proposition. What does that look like?”

Meanwhile, the workplace has changed in other ways, again mimicking society in many respects.

Today, Ebner said, it’s a less tolerant place than it was years ago, with co-workers becoming seemingly less willing to accept points of view — on a wide of topics — other than their own.

“There’s a lack of respect in our workplaces today for ideas, thoughts, basically anything that someone has that differs from yours,” she explained. “There’s a very confrontational undertone in our workplaces today.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“You want to wear jeans? You want to work at home? I have to compete, so I have to acquiesce to what the market is doing.”

“The congenial tone of our workplaces where we were more accepting of people who don’t think and do things like us has really diminished, and it’s causing a lot of chaos for employers trying to manage a respectful workplace,” she went on, adding that this chaos has manifested in everything from microaggressions — stealing coworkers’ lunches and messing with their workstations — to sharp rises in requests at EANE for conflict-resolution training and coaching for people who can’t get along.


Remote Possibilities

Certainly, the biggest change to come to the workplace involves fewer people being in the workplace day in and day out.

We all know what happened. COVID forced most people to work remotely, and over the course of weeks that eventually turned into months, people found they liked it, and they were, by and large, just as productive. And when it came time to go back to the office, many weren’t ready to do so. At least not every day.

Over the past few years, remote work and hybrid schedules have ceased being a perk, if that’s even the right word. They became a demand, or an expectation.

As noted earlier, this was not the first preference for the old timers, who came into a world where everyone worked 9 to 5, or something close, and couldn’t work remotely even if they wanted to, because the technology wasn’t there.

It’s certainly there now, and in recent months, two camps have seemed to develop, at opposite extremes.

“There’s a camp on one side that says everyone has to be in the office, and there’s no remote work, and they don’t want to offer any flexibility. And then, you have the other group that says everyone should be virtual, and if you’re not virtual, you’re not a modern employer,” said Ebner, adding that there is room in the middle and one size (or two) does not fit all.

Meanwhile, many of those who recognize this middle ground still believe something important is missing when people are not in the office, even a few days a week.

Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Middletown, Conn.-based Liberty Bank, said his institution has largely solved the issues involving productivity when it comes to remote work. But he worries about culture and the overall development of younger team members.

“When I came up, I don’t know how many times I sat in the conference room and listened to grizzled veterans talk about problem commercial credits and about how you go to market,” he recalled. “That learning was invaluable to me as I came up, and there are now fewer opportunities for young people coming up to experience that.”

As a result, the bank puts great emphasis on ways to maintain culture when people are not in the office every day, because of its importance to the institution’s overall well-being. Initiatives include everything from professional-development programs to outings where teammates can come together, such as a recent ‘bring your kid to work day’; from food trucks and ice-cream trucks to an all-employee gathering at Mohegan Sun.

“I’ve always said that if a company has no culture, it has no soul, and it takes years to build a good culture,” Glidden told BusinessWest. “But you can lose a culture in minutes or 30 days, you really can.”

Andrews agreed.

“Going back to 1984, my seat was outside the boss’s office; just listening to how he talked to clients … I learned so much,” he recalled. “I was a 21-year-old kid; all I knew how to talk to was other 21-year-old kids. Listening to how that person was interacting with clients and handling situations … I just learned from that.

“I’ve been saying this for a while … we as leaders need to get people back into the office more, and for the right reasons — not just to sit there and talk with people who are remote,” Andrews went on. “We have more fulfilling days when we’re together.”


BusinessWest Anniversary

Welcome to an Exciting, Uncertain New World

On Jan. 22, 1984, a good deal of the U.S. watched — for the only time, because it never aired again — a commercial that was, in many ways, more interesting than the beatdown the Los Angeles Raiders were putting on the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.

Directed by Ridley Scott, the spot, titled “1984,” used dystopian imagery to introduce Apple’s Macintosh personal computer, which would hit stores two days later, with the promise of allowing the average person access to the kind of computing power formerly reserved for big corporations.

The world would never be the same. The home computer was already a thing — it was, in fact, Time magazine’s ‘Machine of the Year’ in 1982 — but the Macintosh introduced a wave of innovation and ease of use that eventually made computers ubiquitous in both homes and businesses — for better (productivity) and, arguably, worse (a pervasive blurring between work and home life).

The latter, of course, became possible with the rise of the internet, email, and, later, social media.

“The internet has completely changed how we work, how we communicate, how we conduct business, how we learn, how we consume entertainment, and a million other aspects of our daily lives that have become so normal, we have forgotten that, 30 years ago, they didn’t exist,” said Delcie Bean, CEO of Hadley-based Paragus Strategic I.T., adding that technology is still changing things, in ways that feel unstoppable.

“If we step back and truly think about just how much changed as a result of the internet and we look at how quickly it happened,” he went on, “AI is going to have a much bigger impact in a much shorter amount of time.”

And that will require the kind of nimbleness and ability to pivot that Sean Hogan has demonstrated through his entire career, since launching Hogan Associates (later Hogan Communications and now Hogan Technology, based in Easthampton), with an initial focus on cabling and infrastructure.

“We saw the ethernet becoming a thing, and everyone needed wiring; there was no networking back then,” he told BusinessWest. “For six or seven years, we did strictly cabling. We ran it up and down the East Coast; we had a ton of work.”

After surviving the recession of 1989-90, Hogan began to see telecommunications as a huge opportunity, and that became his first major pivot.

“Back then, very few companies had voicemail. People hate it nowadays, but they wanted it then. So we started selling phone systems that could integrate with computers and voicemail. We did very well selling phone systems, started getting attention from bigger companies, and ended up selling the Toshiba name. That brand gave us recognition. As a company, we built a great base of clients; we were thinking phones would never go away.”

Delcie Bean

“If we step back and truly think about just how much changed as a result of the internet and we look at how quickly it happened. AI is going to have a much bigger impact in a much shorter amount of time.”

About 16 years ago, Hogan began to move toward its current IT management model — which, these days, focuses on managed security as much as anything else, to respond to ever-growing cyberthreats. “The help desk is still critical, but if you’re not secure, that’s the biggest problem.”

And in the next few decades, companies like Hogan’s will have to keep adapting, because opportunities, challenges, and threats in the IT world certainly will.

“We’ve been able to keep educating ourselves enough to know that we have to be willing to change and accept change as an opportunity,” he said. “We totally believe that’s our culture here. We change when we have something new to learn. We consider ourselves security fiduciaries for clients. We protect our clients to the best of our ability; that’s our number-one job these days.

“Thirty years ago, we’d say we’d provide a solid ethernet foundation and a good network infrastructure,” Hogan added. “We’re still able to do that. But if you’ve got a bad network cable, that’s one thing; if you’ve got CryptoLocker or some other ransomware, that’s a huge threat to your business.”


Breaking the Mold

Joel Mollison, president of Northeast IT in West Springfield, shares a similar story of adaptation and evolution.

“When we started 21 years ago, the market was referred to as ‘break and fix’: if something breaks, we fix it,” he said, adding that he might do some network troubleshooting or provide very basic antivirus solutions, but in general, the work was sporadic.

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“We change when we have something new to learn. We consider ourselves security fiduciaries for clients. We protect our clients to the best of our ability; that’s our number-one job these days.”

Around 15 years ago, Northeast switched to the model of a managed service provider, providing ongoing services under contracts, doing more diligence for each client. “We created the ability to form long-term relationships with clients, understanding their networks and providing them with hardware and other services, and also networking equipment.”

The Great Recession impacted the IT world, and many businesses were just trying to stay afloat and weren’t necessarily investing in their systems, Mollison recalled, but as brighter economic times re-emerged, managed services and IT tools had become more sophisticated, with more integration across platforms, automated monitoring services, and more complex cybersecurity tools, and businesses of all kinds were increasingly recognizing the need for them.

“Things have escalated in terms of the veracity and tools used by the threat actors; they have better tools and techniques,” he explained, noting that businesses need to combat online threats not just by installing protective technology, but by training employees to recognize increasingly sophisticated phishing schemes, which promise to become more realistic and targeted in the AI era.

“A lot of this has been driven by insurance — cyberliability policies dictating that businesses must have certain elements,” Mollison noted. “We get handed policy affidavits to review what’s installed. But it’s a good conversation piece, a chance to talk about where they’re at and where they can make some progress.”

Bean, who launched a solo business fixing home computers in 2002 and now boasts a growing team of 65 employees, made his own important pivot around 2011, choosing to focus only on commercial clients at a time when residential work still represented 60% of his revenue.

It has proved to a successful decision, as more businesses have realized they need a partner like Paragus (or Hogan, Northeast, or other regional IT players) at a time when, as noted earlier, networks and cybersecurity are becoming more complicated.

“Even the large Fortune 100 companies rely on consultants and experts and advisors because this field is just so broad, and it’s touching businesses in so many ways,” Bean said. “It takes a team of experts with a lot of different experience. Even we are constantly leaning on experts and outside advisors and doing research because it is just such a broad field, and it’s changing so quickly.”

Joel Mollison

Joel Mollison

“Things have escalated in terms of the veracity and tools used by the threat actors; they have better tools and techniques.”

Mollison said there’s a reason his firm has become more security-centric than ever. “We’ve had customers come to us who have experienced a breach, dealt with ransomware, lost hundreds and hundreds of hours while the whole rebuilding process took place. They couldn’t produce anything, there were legal fees, information was compromised. A lot of those factors are at play.”

Indeed, 20 years ago, smaller businesses didn’t have much to worry about when it came to aggressive cyberattacks, but experts agree that everyone is a target now.

“The thing that’s going to cause some chaos for everyone is the introduction of AI,” Mollison said, citing Microsoft Copilot — an AI-powered tool that automates features for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Teams — as one example of opportunity married with concern.

“If you’re allowing a system to comb through documents, you know there might be some bad intentions,” he told BusinessWest. “In the wrong hands, somebody could gather a lot of information that could be detrimental to your organization or turn into a security vulnerability, with espionage potential. We’re going to see a lot more AI-generated attacks in the future.”

And AI isn’t going anywhere, Bean said — with all its benefits and potential worries.

“I hate really dire predictions like, ‘if you don’t do this, you’re going to be out of business,’ but in this case, I think it’s right,” he said, adding that AI could be as transformative as the internet started to become 30 years ago. “And I’d like you to name how many businesses you know that don’t use the internet in any way, shape, or form. I would imagine it’s going to be zero.”

Therefore, “if you’re not having those conversations yet, asking those questions, talking to partners, going to webinars, getting informed and educated, I think you’re starting to fall behind,” Bean added. “There’s still plenty of time, but there won’t be for that much longer. I think now is the time for CEOs and C-level staff to really get engaged, to ask questions, to get educated, and to start to figure out where this fits into their business’s strategy and life cycle before they get left behind.”


Future Shock

Hogan has long recognized the growing importance of cybersecurity and its continuing evolution.

“Fifteen years ago, small companies weren’t a target. You had viruses isolated to desktops, but now, everyone’s a target,” he said — and AI will only complicate matters. “You see the bad actors out there that use AI to do deepfakes, do all sorts of bad things. We’re already seeing AI with voice recognition, duplicating voices on the phone. I fear for seniors out there. I’m afraid that’s going to be an issue.”

But AI poses great opportunity as well, Bean said, especially with the emergence of predictive AI.

“It’s going to be based on your specific niche industry, where it’s going to be able to run models and simulations and solve problems within your business or give you hypothetical outcomes to new products or things that you’re thinking of developing,” he explained. “We haven’t quite seen that hit the masses yet, but it’s coming in the next 18 months. And that’s what we need to be prepared for.”

Bean cited Moore’s law, a long-standing observation in the IT world that the number of possible transistors in a computer chip doubles every two years or so.

“This is going to be exponentially faster,” he said. “We are going to see that apply to innovation, where what used to take a decade has already been cut in half a handful of times, and now happens in 12 to 18 months. Soon, that will become six months, and then three months, and then we are going to reach a point where things are changing so quickly that, for a while, it is going to be very difficult to manage until we find some kind of equilibrium and things stabilize — or we find a new normal.”

This brave new world will be a far cry from what we were seeing in 1984 (to cite the titles of two classic dystopian works), but businesses that specialize in IT will have to do what they’ve always done: keep pivoting, keep learning, keep adapting … and keep their client businesses from being overwhelmed by the next big thing.

BusinessWest Anniversary

In Law and Accounting, It’s a Different World

When Rudy D’Agostino entered the accounting profession back in 1985, there was what they called the ‘Big 8.’

These were the very large firms that dominated the industry at the time — Arthur Anderson, Arthur Young, Coopers & Lybrand, Deloitte Haskins and Sells, Ernst & Whinney, Peat Marwick Mitchell, Price Waterhouse, and Touche Ross.

“Everyone wanted to work for the Big 8 firms, and there was enormous competition for those jobs,” said D’Agostino, a partner with Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, who got his start at Coopers & Lybrand.

After a series of acquisitions, the Big 8 is now the Big 4 (Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler, and PricewaterhouseCoopers), fewer accounting graduates want to work for those giants, and … well, there are fewer accounting graduates in general, a challenge for firms of all sizes.

These are just some of the many changes that have come to the sector, and professional services in general, said D’Agostino and many others we spoke with, who highlighted everything from the way people work to the way people dress to the way firms market themselves — something they couldn’t do in the legal profession, other than the phone book, until 1977. And in accounting, getting Fridays off during the summer, or at least Friday afternoons, has become the norm as firms’ staffs look to recover after a long, seemingly never-ending tax season.

Overall, the biggest change is in how people communicate and a resulting faster pace to the work, said Amy Royal, founder and principal with the Springfield-based Royal Law Firm. She noted that, when she broke into the field in 2000, most correspondence was still by mail. Now, the postage machine sees less use seemingly every month, and very little is actually done by mail.

Instead, much more is being done by email and phone, specifically the cellphone.

Indeed, Royal remembers walking into the office once maybe 15 years ago, and noting, with alarm, how infrequently the office phone had been ringing of late.

“I said to my office manager, ‘do we have a problem? — our office phone isn’t ringing as much,’” she recalled, noting that, after some perspective, she was simply recognizing a trend — people were finding other ways to reach out. And they were doing so at seemingly all hours of the day and night.

Indeed, modern communications technology allows people to reach their accountant or lawyer at any hour, said Jeff Fialky, managing partner of the Springfield-based law firm Bacon Wilson, and, increasingly, they’re doing just that.

Meanwhile, there have been other changes in these fields, including consolidation, especially in accounting, said Patrick Leary, a principal with the Springfield-based firm MP CPAs, noting that many of the smaller firms doing business in the ’80s, ’90s, and earlier this century have been merged into larger firms, a reflection of a broader trend in business.

Jeff Fialky

Jeff Fialky

“We’ve seen substantial consolidation in the banking environments. We have larger and larger and fewer and fewer banks, and the same consolidation across the service industries.”

There are several reasons for this, including the rising costs of technology and retiring Baby Boomers, he noted, but one of the biggest is something that probably couldn’t have been imagined in 1984 — the deepening challenge of finding and retaining talent.

Accounting was never a ‘sexy’ profession, and modern technology has only made it slightly more so, said Leary, adding that this reality, coupled with the fact that a fifth year of college is now required to become a CPA, is leaving fewer people interested in entering the field, at the same when most Baby Boomers are on the doorstep of retirement, if not there already. This has led to firms boosting salaries and sending more work overseas.

Efforts to recruit more students into the field have become a topic of conversation and concern among CPAs and industry groups, said D’Agostino, and greater reliance on internship programs as feeder initiatives.

It’s the same with clerking programs in the legal profession, said Fialky, adding that, overall, law-school enrollment is down, and many firms face challenges with keeping talent in the pipeline.


Case in Point

It’s not exactly what you would call a pressing matter — not like some of those other challenges mentioned above — but one of the challenges facing law firms today is deciding what to with their libraries.

Once an important part of any firm’s operation, they are now all but obsolete, used by only the occasional old-timer now that every piece of information available in those books and journals can be found online, said Royal, adding that, at most firms, law books are decoration — and an enduring background for photos.

Fialky agreed, noting that the demise of libraries is just one of many changes to the profession. Others include the now-24/7 nature of the work, the desire among clients for information immediately — not the next day or even in a few hours, as was once the case — and even the work that lawyers are doing, work that reflects shifts in the market and also movement toward lawyers being more generalists than they are specialists.

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

“For a long time, I resisted putting my cell phone on my business card. Post-COVID, that became a necessity, and now people will just call me on my cell or text because they know they can get me.”

“I’m a transactional attorney; 25 years ago, transactional attorneys were not handling M&A transactions and purchases and sales and private equity,” he said. “That’s something we’ve seen become more prominent, especially in our market, over the past 15 years or so, as we’ve seen these maturing, multi-generational companies that have contemplated their outcome being that it’s a matured asset, and their contemplating sale to, in many circumstances, a private-equity-funded purchaser.

“And this has certainly changed the marketplace,” Fialky went on. “We’ve seen substantial consolidation in the banking environments. We have larger and larger and fewer and fewer banks, and the same consolidation across the service industries — not only in law, but in accounting, architecture, landscape architecture, and other sectors.”

But perhaps the biggest change to come to this sector involves technology and how it has changed the pace of work.

Royal noted that lawyers have never exactly been 9-to-5 professionals, and now, they are far less so, with calls, texts, and emails coming at all hours of the day, and with those on the other end expecting an immediate reply.

“For a long time, I resisted putting my cell phone on my business card,” she said. “Post-COVID, that became a necessity, and now people will just call me on my cell or text because they know they can get me.”

Fialky agreed. “The pace has increased precipitously; the volume of correspondence has increased exponentially. In the course of a day, it’s not uncommon, at least in my experience and in my practice, to receive hundreds of correspondences, and those are texts, calls to my cell phone, calls to my hard line, and more, and a lot of that is transferred direct to attorney.”


Adding Things Up

As he talked about his profession, Leary said it was never just about adding up numbers and being a proverbial ‘bean counter.’

There was always a consulting component to the work, he said, adding that now, there is much more of this kind of work, as software has taken over some of the tasks handled with the old calculator that still sits on his desk but is rarely used.

Patrick Leary

“It’s fascinating what you can get involved with in public accounting today, whether it’s forensic accounting or foreign taxation issues and so forth.”

“Today, most businesses, regardless of size, have some accounting software, so you’re getting information from them that’s already compiled and put together, so they’re relying on us for more strategic analysis of those numbers,” he explained. “You’re not questioning whether two plus two equals four; now it’s ‘let’s see what four means.’

“It’s a higher level of skill than what you needed before,” he went on, adding that this shift is one of many to come to the industry.

Another is how the work is done. Indeed, years ago, said D’Agostino, much more time was spent with the client, in person. Today, there is still some face-to-face interaction, obviously, but much more is done by Zoom or over the phone. And those face-to-face meetings are much different.

Leary agreed.

“If we were going to audit ABC Company, we’d back up last year’s paper files and head over there,” he said. “You would spend a couple of weeks with a client, meeting with them, going through their records, pulling invoices, and doing reports. You’d spend a few weeks there — which I really liked, being out of the office, meeting with clients — and building that relationship. And you got a workout because you’d be hauling loads of paper. Today, you’re going out with your laptop, and you’re not necessarily going out to see clients.”

Still another change to come to this field, as noted earlier, is the fact that fewer people are choosing to enter it.

“The accounting field has been experiencing a decline nationally because people who are driven by numbers are leaning more toward the software industry,” Leary said. “And the profession is certainly looking to change that; you can have an excellent career in accounting, because it goes well beyond simple bookkeeping. It’s fascinating what you can get involved with in public accounting today, whether it’s forensic accounting or foreign taxation issues and so forth.”

Rudy D’Agostino

Rudy D’Agostino

“It really hit home during COVID, and it has only continued since — there are just not enough professionals coming into the workforce.”

D’Agostino agreed. He noted that the required fifth year of college, compensation that is less competitive than some other fields, and a general interest among young people for something sexier than what they perceive accounting to be has led to what is becoming a critical problem for the industry.

“It really hit home during COVID, and it has only continued since — there are just not enough professionals coming into the workforce,” he told BusinessWest. “So accounting firms have to think outside the box to get things done — and also to keep professionals here, which has necessitated being creative, compensation increases, and, with some firms, outsourcing work to other countries.”

One initiative that has helped put young professionals in the pipeline at MBK is an internship program, D’Agostino went on, adding that the firm has four or five interns that come on board annually, and maybe one or two of these will join the firm when they graduate.

“That’s a way to introduce students to the work they will be doing and get them into our firm,” he said. “And we have a pretty good success rate.”

Despite this success, workforce issues will continue into the future, said those we spoke with, creating a greater reliance on technology, automation, and, increasingly, AI to get the work done, leaving accountants with more time to do analysis and consulting.

“There are routine tasks that will get taken over by AI, such as data entry, which can be automated to some extent,” Leary said. “And that provides the time and the tools to analyze data for clients much better. Rather than spending your time keying in data, you’re taking a hard look at it and understanding what those numbers are telling you.”


Bottom Line

When asked to look ahead and project what might happen next within the legal sector, Royal started by saying that, if she was asked that question 25 years ago, she could not possibly have predicted what her world would like today.

That’s a world where most meetings are conducted by Zoom, where lawyers and accountants work remotely in some cases and wear jeans to work when they’re not in court or visiting clients, where the office phone doesn’t ring nearly as much, and where clients’ names come up on cellphones at 10 p.m. — and even 3 a.m.

This is the new reality for those in professional services, she said, joking that maybe what will come next is a shift back to the way things were.

That is certainly not likely. What is likely is that law libraries and those old-fashioned adding machines will become more obsolete and more office decoration than anything else.


BusinessWest Anniversary

Increasingly, They Operate as an Ecosystem

The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts has been funding the work of charities and nonprofits across the region since 1991. And its overriding mission hasn’t changed.

What has changed, at least recently, is how CFWM accomplishes that mission — specifically, moving away from specifically targeted grants into a more trust-based model. Instead of seeking to put some dollars toward a specific goal, the foundation gives to organizations in a way that puts them at the center of it and allows them to dictate how they want to spend their money.

“It’s a recognition that funders don’t necessarily know what’s best for nonprofits,” said Megan Burke, the organization’s president and CEO. “It’s the people on the front lines who are dealing with constant change in the community who know the best places to use those funds.”

The Community Foundation was moving in that direction before the pandemic, but COVID, and the urgent needs it exposed, really accelerated the process, she explained.

“If we know you have a strong mission, a strong organization, we’ll put the money in your hands and say, ‘use it well.’ We’ll ask afterward how that went, but in the moment, you know what you need to achieve and how to get there.”

Meanwhile, the mission of Square One, which began life in 1883 as Springfield Day Nursery, has in many ways remained consistent for more than 140 years.

“We’re still doing the same type of work, although the world has changed enormously,” president and CEO Dawn DiStefano said. “Children still require care for their parents to go to work. And we’re a company that cares for children and instills confidence in our community that we are a safe, healthy, and high-quality place for young children to learn and be cared for.”

At the same time, she added, much has changed.

“Probably around the time BusinessWest started,” DiStefano said, “we realized something that today is quite obvious — that you can do a lot of work with children all day, but if you’re not in partnership with families and caretakers, you can hinder permanent growth and change. After all, learning happens 24/7.”

Specifically, Square One — it took that name in 2008 to reflect its role as more than just a day nursery, but as a key foundational element in the lives of preschoolers — has made a point over the past few decades to communicate more thoroughly with parents at the start and end of each day about the child’s lessons, experiences, and mood. That way, parents can continue the conversations at home — and, in many cases, start their own, which builds trust between the parents and Square One’s providers.

The organization has gone beyond that level of communication as well, opening a Family Support Services division about 15 years ago, which includes a home visitation program for parents who request it, including specific programs for young, first-time parents and parents in recovery.

Megan Burke

Megan Burke

“If we know you have a strong mission, a strong organization, we’ll put the money in your hands and say, ‘use it well.’ We’ll ask afterward how that went, but in the moment, you know what you need to achieve and how to get there.”

“We see ourselves as partners with families,” DiStefano said. “If we can bring out the best in the child and families, they become productive members of our community, and we all benefit from that. We all do better when folks are able to engage in our world.”

Megan Moynihan, CEO of the United Way of Pioneer Valley, said her organization’s goal since its founding 103 years ago as Springfield Community Chest has been to meet the greatest needs of the region, from early education to food insecurity to financial literacy.

“Post-COVID, we did a community assessment to really understand where the needs in the community are, if they had changed or not,” she said, noting that the greatest needs right now run the gamut from basic services, like food, to financial wellness, housing access, and mental-health support.

It meets those needs through its community service centers, where people can access emergency food supplies but also mental-health resources, including a suicide-prevention hotline. There’s also a financial-wellness program called Thrive, a partnership with Holyoke Community College on career training — in fields like culinary arts and medical assisting — and a host of other outreaches.

“Understanding the pulse of the community is the number-one issue that needs to be addressed,” Moynihan said. “It can be mental health tomorrow, but in 10 years, it might solar power and how to transition to that. We know what today’s needs are, but we have to be responsive to those needs, and when community needs change, we have to change, too.”


Come Together

One thing the United Way has done well over time, Moynihan noted, is connecting many resources in the community.

“If someone comes in and they are are housing-insecure, we’ll call one of the outreach workers at Health Care for the Homeless and see what kind of services are out there for them,” she said as one example. “We’ve always been a connector in the community, finding where the needs are and connecting individuals to the services they need. We can’t do the work alone.”

Megan Moynihan

Megan Moynihan

“We’ve always been a connector in the community, finding where the needs are and connecting individuals to the services they need. We can’t do the work alone.”

It’s a philosophy many nonprofits were already moving toward even before COVID — and the way it isolated people and organizations — really laid bare the need to connect and work together as a nonprofit ecosystem.

For example, Burke said, someone might seek job training, but they might also face other barriers to employment, from unreliable transportation to unaddressed health issues, and nonprofits can refer clients to each other to address multiple needs at once.

“A healthy nonprofit ecosystem, made up of nonprofits of all different sizes, is the best way to meet folks’ needs. No single nonprofit can do everything; there are so many different needs,” she told BusinessWest. “So coordination and collaboration with each other is really important.”

DiStefano used the example of connecting a parent of a child at Square One with Way Finders if they’re in need of housing support.

“We serve 1,200 families a year. Most are working one or two jobs, working eight to 12 hours a day, maybe even riding the bus, going to appointments,” she said. “I’m not in the housing business, but I’m not going to say to families, ‘I can’t talk to you about housing.’ That’s a big part of our evolution.

“Society 140 years ago was harsher in its opinion that your family was your business; it really wasn’t the business of social-service agencies or the government to help your family. But as a society, we noted over time that you can ignore problems, but that only costs more money down the line,” DiStefano went on. “The more you can invest in the child, especially between age zero and three, when the brain is doing the most developing, the better off they’ll be. Why not sink every resource we have into making sure the child has the healthiest opportunities in those years?”

The Center for EcoTechnology, which predates BusinessWest by eight years, has certainly been a connector of resources, in its case programs focused on energy efficiency, sustainability, and the environment.

In the years leading up to CET’s founding in 1976, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the establishment of Earth Day saw Americans more focused on environmental concerns, and CET began its work largely in the realm of energy efficiency and home-energy audits. Today, the initial vision is largely intact, but the work has expanded into commercial waste, decarbonization, and recycled building materials.

dawn DiStefano

Dawn DiStefano

“As a society, we noted over time that you can ignore problems, but that only costs more money down the line.”

“We’re still doing energy conservation and energy efficiency. In some ways, we’ve remained true to our origins,” said Ashley Muspratt, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. “But we’ve modernized some of the language and approaches to evolve with the times — for example, shifting the conversation to electrification, which is no longer about just saving energy, but shifting away from fossil fuels to electricity and renewable sources of electricity.”

CET got involved in waste reduction in the 1980s, and that remains a core area of its work today. In addition, it’s more focused now on the question of environmental justice, aiming to ensure that no communities or customer segments are left behind or harmed by the transition to a lower-carbon or no-carbon economy.

“We offer our services in dozens of languages and have made an effort to recruit multilingual staff. We also work with a translation company, so we can provide real-time interpretation on the phone or in the field,” Muspratt added. “We want to make sure we have a staff that reflects and looks like and understands the different communities that we’re trying to serve.”

That hits home for Burke, who noted that the Community Foundation adopted a new strategy a few years ago around diversity and increasing opportunity and equity in the community. To her, that means nonprofits should have staff members that share the lived experiences of clients — not just ethnic background, but, to cite one example, serving people in Franklin County who are living with limited means trying to address all the challenges rural families have.

“Having people on their staff and on their board who may have lived those experiences allows them to develop programs to be more successful,” she noted. “We’ve stressed the importance of organizations really thinking about what perspectives they need on their staff and board.

“And it’s not just so they can feel good or have a great photo that shows diversity; it’s to be more successful in delivering the services they were founded to provide,” Burke went on. “Nonprofits recognize there really is value in incorporating a lot of different perspectives in the work they do.”


Thoughtful Evolution

While focusing their work in a more connected way and dealing with, in many cases, greater levels of need, some the region’s most venerable nonprofits have expanded in other ways.

Square One, for instance, has grown its family childcare program, where children are cared for and learn in home settings instead of one of the organization’s centers.

“I predict, in the next 10 years, we’ll see an explosion of interest in family childcare,” DiStefano said. “Some people, post-COVID, found comfort working from home. It’s a great business opportunity; they can make money, and Square One can help coordinate these services, so we’re supporting businesses.”

At CET, Muspratt said the organization has launched a strategic plan to grow its impact by five times by 2030, because, she noted, that’s what the climate needs, and there is plenty of money at the state and federal level to do the work, as well as private funders.

“More and more philanthropic donors want to support climate work, so that pace of growth is possible,” she said. “This region has always had an environmental bent.”

The organization has grown by 20% each of the past two years, with a staff of 100 that could double if the 2030 goals are hit, she added. “We became a more remote organization during the pandemic, and that has helped us cast a wider net. It’s good to have been able to expand our pool of candidates outside the Western Mass. region, though the majority of our staff are still based in Massachusetts.”

Nonprofits also thrive off volunteers; the United Way’s Volunteer Connect program has been successful at, well, connecting area agencies that need help with people who have time and talent to offer. It’s just one more way, Moynihan said, that nonprofits are operating in tandem.

“Everyone is working hard and chasing the same dollars,” she added, “but if we do it together, do it as a community, the outcome is always better.”

BusinessWest Anniversary

Companies Still Find Ways to Make It Here

Rick Sullivan calls manufacturing the “invisible backbone” of the Western Mass. economy.

That’s not an adjective he would likely have used 40 years ago, not when the region and many of its communities were dominated by large individual manufacturers or clusters — like GE’s massive transformer complex in Pittsfield, American Bosch and other major players in Springfield, and a still-sizable paper-making sector in Holyoke.

But it works today.

Indeed, while there are still some large manufacturers employing hundreds of people (as opposed to thousands 40, 50, or 100 years ago), this sector is now dominated by smaller players employing maybe a few dozen people each.

And what they’re making has changed as well. While local manufacturing was dominated by firms making tires, matches, paper, and, before that, arms for the U.S. military (at the Springfield Armory) and even monkey wrenches and ice skates, today, they’re making parts for stealth fighters, infrared goggles, medical devices, and other sophisticated products. And soon, in Holyoke, one will be making what is billed as ‘green’ concrete.

“I say invisible backbone because the manufacturing sector in Western Mass., for the most part, is made up of small- to mid-sized manufacturers that are in the supply chains of the larger companies,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and formerly the long-time mayor of Westfield, one of the region’s manufacturing hubs. “And many of those companies are not situated in Western Mass. or Massachusetts, for that matter; they’re in Connecticut or worldwide.

“And they make important parts for the industry,” he went on. “Back when I was mayor of Westfield, there was $100,000 worth of parts of on every single commercial airplane that went through the city of Westfield, and that has only increased.”

These are some of the shifts that have come to this important sector over the past four decades. Others include a seismic shift in how such jobs are perceived, one that has contributed to a lingering workforce problem, and one that has led to a sea change in how hard companies must work to attract and retain talent — and some initiatives that probably couldn’t have been imagined 40 years ago.

Like ‘Barbecue Friday’ at Boulevard Machine in Westfield.

Susan Kasa, president of that company, which makes parts for the military, aerospace, and outer space, among other sectors, said Boulevard feeds its workers breakfast and lunch each day, and, as that name suggests, it devotes Fridays to barbecuing.

“People will take turns being the chef,” she explained. “We’ll do a lot of hot dogs and hamburgers, but sometimes we’ll go all out and do chicken and other meats; our people really enjoy it. You know it’s Friday because you can smell the barbecue.”

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“I say invisible backbone because the manufacturing sector in Western Mass., for the most part, is made up of small- to mid-sized manufacturers that are in the supply chains of the larger companies.”

This new tradition is one of many efforts that fall in the broad category of attracting and retaining talent, she said, with others including everything from advertising open positions in church bulletins to programs to introduce young students to manufacturing and the opportunities in this field — starting with middle school.

“We’re not your grandfather’s shop,” Kasa said, adding that the machinery is both more complex and cleaner, and one ongoing challenge is educating not only young people but their parents about this new reality.

Mark Borsari agreed.

He’s president of Sanderson MacLeod, a Palmer-based maker of twisted wire brushes. That’s not as sophisticated a product as infrared goggles or parts for artificial knees, but is an example of how traditional manufacturing is still making it in Western Mass., although it’s challenging — when it comes to everything from competition for orders to competition for people.

“It’s a different world, a different environment than it was 40 years ago and even 20 years ago,” Borsari said. “It gets down to the perception people have and the pride people have in making things and the importance of community; it’s just different.”

Susan Kasa

Susan Kasa

“Young people have such a bright future in manufacturing, and without incurring all that college debt.”

Like others we spoke with, he said technology, automation, and lights-out manufacturing, where machines run unattended at night, will play ever-larger roles in this sector. But it will always need people, and finding them will continue to be a challenge, especially as the Baby Boomers continue to retire in large numbers.


Tradition of Innovation

As he talked about this important sector, Sullivan stressed what hasn’t changed in 40 years or 250 years, and hopefully won’t change moving forward — that manufacturing is a source of what economic-development leaders have long called ‘good jobs at good wages.’

That is, the kind of jobs every region and every community wants and compete tooth and nail to get — and retain.

This region has always had a strong tradition of manufacturing and innovation — Sullivan said those words are essentially interchangeable — that goes back to the Springfield Armory and even before that. And it continued with the production of everything from firearms to toys; from automobiles and trolley cars to textiles; from home appliances to buggy whips, products that even gave some area communities their nicknames.

Many of these items are no longer made here (although trolley cars are again with the arrival of CRRC). In their place, manufacturers are making parts for jet liners, lunar landers, and the SpaceX rocket. But they also making timing chains for automobiles in the case of U.S. Tsubaki in Holyoke and Chicopee, and fasteners for the roofing industry in the case of OMG in Agawam.

“The manufacturing base in the region still runs the gamut,” said Sullivan, adding that this diversity is certainly a positive, with communities no longer dependent on one company or one sector (Westfield, for example, once home to several buggy-whip manufacturers, suffered greatly with the invention of the automobile).

Mark Borsari

Mark Borsari

“You can’t have culture when you have people transitioning every two or three years to chase the latest and greatest thing.”

Overall, the sector is smaller and much more invisible, a trait that emerged as many jobs in manufacturing went south or overseas — Bosch closed in 1986, for example — movements that prompted many to question the sector’s viability, contributing to today’s workforce challenges.

Those we spoke with said there has been some progress from efforts to introduce young people to the field, from initiatives like Barbecue Fridays to the rising cost of higher education and a willingness to look at fields that don’t require advanced degrees.

“Young people have such a bright future in manufacturing, and without incurring all that college debt,” Kasa said. “That debt is getting way out of hand, and rising interest rates aren’t helping. These kids going to vocational schools, and they can be an entrepreneur; they can make six figures and be an integral part of the community. So we’re really working to educate parents about this.

“Not every student is cut out for a college degree, and meanwhile, four years is getting them nowhere in this day and age,” she went on. “Having the vocational education does so much more for these kids, and there’s such a future in it.”

She said showing young people where the parts made at Boulevard are going — into the SpaceX rocket, for example — generates enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, valuing employees and cultivating a strong sense of team are also important, she said, not just with breakfast and barbecues, but by creating a culture, building camaraderie, and even grooming the next generation of leadership for the company.

Borsari agreed, noting that building a team and creating a winning culture are some of the things that haven’t changed over the years.

“Years ago, a good business realized they had to have talented people who could add value to their business feel well-compensated to stay with them,” he explained. “It’s the same today, but the difference is that, a lot of times, the high compensation and all those things need to be there before people can demonstrate that they have value.

“And you see that everywhere,” he went on. “You see that in companies with very little longevity; there’s no culture left. You can’t have culture when you have people transitioning every two or three years to chase the latest and greatest thing.”

Overall, Borsari said the culture he and his team have created — one where people enjoy working well together — is perhaps the company’s greatest competitive advantage because such a culture is less common than it was years ago.

“It’s pretty simple stuff, really,” he said. “It’s a refusal to take the cheap way out and at the end of the day, and it’s doing right by the people who count on us to treat them like we would want them to treat us.”


Bottom Line

Looking ahead, Sullivan repeated his oft-stated view that this region needs a growth strategy, one that will emphasize both the lower cost of living here and the strength and diversity of the local economy in an effort to convince more young people to stay — and more people from outside the region to find the 413.

And manufacturing is a big part of that story, he said, adding that the innovation that has defined the region for hundreds of years lives on in this sector.

You can’t look up a passing jet fighter out of Barnes and see the parts made here, said Sullivan, but they’re there. Just like this all-important component of the region’s economy.


BusinessWest Anniversary

Colleges Adapt to Non-traditional Realities

At the recent ceremony that officially installed him as chancellor of UMass Amherst, Javier Reyes noted that attitudes about higher education are changing, while rapid advancements in technology, with artificial intelligence at the center, are forcing colleges and universities to find new ways to meet their obligations.

“How does higher education respond to these challenges?” he asked. “How do we meet the needs of today’s students — students who are increasingly mobile and more agile? How do we meet the needs of a changing society? How do we remain nimble and adapt so that our students are prepared to be active and engaged members of their communities today, tomorrow, and for decades to come?”

That’s a lot to unpack, but UMass will focus on six key areas, Reyes explained: education, research and creative activity, translation and knowledge transfer, engagement, inclusivity and wellness, and financial and operational viability.

Then, importantly, he added, “it is important to stress that these are not six independent areas. Rather, they are six interconnected areas that must work in synergy with each other to achieve our goals.”

It’s a theme of connectivity that … well, connects Reyes’ thoughts with the conversations BusinessWest had with three other area higher-education leaders as they considered how academia has changed over the years — and where it’s going next.

“There’s been an evolution in higher education,” Elms College President Harry Dumay said. “About a decade ago, we knew there was a demographic cliff coming up for traditional undergraduate students. So everyone was thinking about the non-traditional population. And Elms had a strategy of partnering with community colleges to create degree-completion programs, which was very successful in growing enrollment in college through non-traditional students.”

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), said the role of his institution has become more prominent with last year’s launch of MassReconnect, which makes community college in Massachusetts free for adults over age 25 — another example of how colleges are prioritizing non-traditional students.

“We’ve become even more essential,” Cook said. “The fundamentals of what community colleges offer are even more important, if that’s possible, than they were 40 years ago. Access, opportunity, equity — all the things we talk about in the public sector — are really part of our DNA. And it’s invigorating to be a part of this, especially with MassReconnect, with a different kind of spotlight shining on us that further underpins this value that our name represents.”

Whether attending college right out of high school or returning as part of that older, non-traditional, often career-changing crowd, today’s students are increasingly facing an economy in flux, so they need, more than anything, to learn how to learn, Bay Path University President Sandra Doran said.

“Today’s graduates will have, on average, seven careers — not seven jobs, but seven careers,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s why we’re really committed to the concept of lifelong learning.”

Elaborating, Doran said, “in the past, you’d go to school for four years, then start your career. But that’s not always how higher education works. You might be taking college courses as a high-school student, or between ages of 17 and 24, or, sometimes, when you’re 50 years old. You might be in the workforce and, at the same time, taking college courses. This continuum of being able to learn any time you need to learn — and have the courses and programs available to do that — is really important to your future. And being adept at online learning is absolutely critical.”

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

“Today’s graduates will have, on average, seven careers — not seven jobs, but seven careers. That’s why we’re really committed to the concept of lifelong learning.”

In such a different environment from 40 years ago, she added, colleges and universities need to provide pathways, credentials, certificates, and degrees that are adaptable to people at all stages of life, not just those in that 17-24 age range.

“What we used to refer to as a student conjured up notions of sitting at a desk, taking notes, listening to a professor. But that’s not the only way education is delivered anymore,” Doran added. “People can learn forever.”


Into the Real World

Students are also training for a work world that’s fiercely competing for top talent — meaning not just graduates with skills, but those able to keep learning on the fly. With that in mind, Elms College recently crafted a strategic plan that emphasizes the core value of a liberal-arts education, experiential learning in the real world while still in college, and innovation.

“The employers of today are really desperate for students who are real-world ready; you don’t have to teach them how to behave in the workforce,” Dumay said. “At the same time, they can think on their feet. They have that critical thinking. A liberal-arts undergraduate education prepares students to think on their feet, articulate their thoughts, work in groups, all the soft skills that employers are looking for.”

At the same time, he said, the Elms has brought flexibility to the forefront, offering non-traditional students everything from remote options to short-term certificates and stackable credentials that will get them into careers, with growth potential, more quickly than in a full, four-year program.

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

“A liberal-arts undergraduate education prepares students to think on their feet, articulate their thoughts, work in groups, all the soft skills that employers are looking for.”

The presidents we spoke with also emphasized the importance of offering programs relevant to growth industries, like STCC’s future involvement in the Richard E. Neal Cybersecurity Center of Excellence being built at Union Station in Springfield, or its continued leadership in health sciences (at a time when healthcare deals with persistent staffing shortages), and HVAC and energy systems (as green energy continues its ascent).

“These are really, really helpful programs to have when we map out what the needs are in the workforce,” Cook said, noting that STCC’s School of Health will be renovated in a major capital project.

Doran takes a similar approach. “Bay Path has always been workforce-driven. That, again, relates back to lifelong learning — always being responsive to the marketplace, to employers. We started in 1897 as a business institute, as a reaction to what was needed in the workplace. That commitment to providing employers with a talented, long pipeline of potential employees really is a commitment to our region, and our lifelong learners.”

She, like Dumay, stressed the importance of flexible programs adaptable to the needs of non-traditional learners.

“It’s not one size fits all. Personalized education is a continuing trend,” Doran said. “We know how important it is for students to feel their college experience is valuable and works for them.”

Reyes said UMass intends to strengthen its role as a public research university in the coming years.

Javier Reyes

Javier Reyes

“We must continue to embrace our role as the primary developer of talent in the Commonwealth while ensuring that all of our students — regardless of their discipline — have the core skills, soft skills, and critical-thinking skills that will allow them to thrive in a rapidly changing economy and a rapidly changing world.”

“Fulfilling our role as a premier land-grant public research university will require us to continue to grow our research infrastructure while also expanding opportunities for students across all disciplines and at all levels to engage with research and hands-on learning opportunities,” he said, noting that, in FY 2023, UMass faculty received 1,164 research awards totaling nearly $240 million. “This is tremendous and speaks to the confidence in the research that is happening at UMass Amherst and the impact that our faculty have on the common good.”

In the current academic year alone, he noted, the campus became home to the National Science Foundation’s Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Academic Center for Reliability and Resilience of Offshore Wind, while UMass Amherst became one of just 18 institutions to receive the National Science Foundation’s inaugural Accelerate Research Translation Award, aimed at translating the research conducted in campus laboratories into tangible solutions to real-world problems.

“We must continue to embrace our role as the primary developer of talent in the Commonwealth while ensuring that all of our students — regardless of their discipline — have the core skills, soft skills, and critical-thinking skills that will allow them to thrive in a rapidly changing economy and a rapidly changing world, so that they can succeed and grow in the fields that they choose to be a part of.”


Better Days

Going back to MassReconnect for a moment, Cook noted that community-college enrollment had been on a downward trend in the Northeast for a while, but for both the fall and spring of the 2023-24 academic year, STCC saw a double-digit increase in enrollment, and he expects that pace to continue.

John Cook

“We’re not all the way back to pre-pandemic, but we have changed the trend, and we hope to continue to build on that.”

“We’re not all the way back to pre-pandemic, but we have changed the trend, and we hope to continue to build on that,” he said.

“We’ve been through COVID, which were pretty tough years,” Cook added. “When you combine the momentum of a major capital project and MassReconnect and our equity outlook and the fact that we’re the most affordable college in Springfield … these are wonderful fundamentals. It’s a great place to be.”

BusinessWest Anniversary

Hospitals Grapple with Some Significant Trends

Twenty years ago, in the issue commemorating BusinessWest’s 20th anniversary, area hospital leaders talked about what had changed the most over two decades, and they all mentioned the same thing: a shortening of hospital stays, with procedures that once required a several-night stayover now requiring only one — or none at all.

Today’s hospital leaders are still talking about it — because the trend has only accelerated.

“The time people spend inside the hospital for various procedures has been shortened significantly,” Holyoke Medical Center Spiros Hatiras said. “When I started in healthcare 30 years ago, someone would come in for a gallbladder surgery and spend four days in the hospital. Now it’s the same day, come in and leave.

“The same with other procedures,” he went on. “People even get knee replacements and leave the same day. For bariatric surgery, they just stay one night. They used to spend more time in the hospital, so that definitely has changed.”

Dr. Mark Keroack, president of Baystate Health, noted that, around the time BusinessWest ran that story, he started seeing an accelerating shift to more procedures done in the outpatient arena — which has impacted revenues across virtually all hospitals.

“We have 1,000 hospital beds, but 60% of our revenue comes from the ambulatory side. And even in my career, things that used to land you in the hospital for a week don’t anymore. Now you’re out in a day. That is an incredible advance because of microsurgery and advanced techniques.”

The other dramatic shift regionally — and nationally — has been a trend toward consolidation. Over the past four decades, Baystate Health, and its flagship hospital, Baystate Medical Center, have brought formerly independent hospitals in Greenfield, Palmer, and Westfield under its umbrella, while Mercy Medical Center was acquired by Trinity Health, and Cooley Dickinson Hospital is now part of the Mass General Brigham family.

“Healthcare has been evolving, and how hospitals are reimbursed has become extraordinarily challenging. There’s been a shift from inpatient care to outpatient care, which is beneficial for the community, but challenging to maintain revenues to support hospitals, which communities rely on for services,” said Dr. Robert Roose, president of both Mercy and Johnson Memorial Hospital in Enfield, Conn., both part of the Trinity family.

“And as those trends continue to shift and reimbursement rates for services decrease, that has reinforced the value of being part of a large system that has scale, that can leverage strengths across the service area.”

Cooley Dickinson Health Care President Dr. Lynnette Watkins said Cooley becoming part of Mass General Brigham just over a decade ago has been a benefit in many ways, and a model for what’s happening with formerly independent hospitals across the country.

Dr. Mark Keroack

Dr. Mark Keroack

“We have 1,000 hospital beds, but 60% of our revenue comes from the ambulatory side. And even in my career, things that used to land you in the hospital for a week don’t anymore. Now you’re out in a day.”

“So you still have that community impact, but you’re also backed by a larger network,” she told BusinessWest, citing, as one example, a current, $26 million capital project that will add about 7,700 square feet to the Emergency Department, increasing its footprint by about 40%. “We would not be able to undertake a renovation like this without the support of Mass General Brigham and its ability to engage and identify contractors and work through supply-chain issues and, candidly, to finance a project as large as this.

“Also, in order to be able to recruit and retain talent, particularly in primary care, we have to be competitive in the market,” Watkins continued. “And a lot of our colleagues come to Cooley Dickinson for that great community feel and care, but also are attracted by competitive compensation and the fact that we’re part of Mass General Brigham.”

Baystate’s own growth story began almost 50 years ago with the merger of three facilities into what is now known as Baystate Medical Center — and it has grown significantly since, with the expansion of Baystate Children’s Hospital, a massive addition known as the Hospital of the Future in 2012, and other projects.

But Baystate Health also encompasses Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield, and Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer, along with a host of physician practices and a cluster of specialty services in Springfield’s North End, most notably the D’Amour Center for Cancer Care, which opened in 2004.

“People don’t have to leave the area to get their care, and to get advanced medical care — level-1 trauma, neonatal ICU, specialty cancer care, specialty pediatric care, all those things that built up over the years,” said Keroack, who will retire from a more than four-decade career in healthcare this year. “Baystate has grown to the point where we’re doing roughly 65% of the medical care in Western Mass.”

Dr. Lynnette Watkins

Dr. Lynnette Watkins

“During COVID, we lost hospital personnel because they got sick or their families got sick or burnout occurred and individuals decided to take time off. We also had trainees in the pipeline that, for a couple of years, did not have the ability to learn at the bedside.”

At the same time, he added, a number of small hospitals closed or were repurposed over the years, from Ludlow Hospital to Farren Memorial Hospital in Turners Falls to Mary Lane Hospital in Ware, partly because of that shift to outpatient care and the ability of the region’s larger hospitals to diversify what they offer. “It’s hard for a small community hospital to make it.”


Getting Back to Work

That said, all hospitals these days, of all sizes, are struggling with workforce shortages across the spectrum, from nurses to many specialists.

Keroack said Baystate employs around 13,500 people and, before the pandemic, typically averaged 600 to 700 open positions at any given time. That number shot up to 2,100 during the Omicron phase of COVID — a time known in healthcare as the Great Resignation.

“No one wanted to work in healthcare. It was scary and difficult,” he recalled. “But we’ve done an awful lot to be better employers — we’ve done a lot with workplace safety, flex schedules, employee wellness, and novel approaches to new pipelines with our education and training partners.”

With almost 1,500 openings currently, “we’re about halfway back to where we used to be,” he added. “There’s still some work to do, but we’re making good progress and heading in the right direction.”

Watkins agreed that COVID took a toll on the workforce at Cooley Dickinson.

“We’ve had shortages before, particularly in nursing, but in the technical fields as well — radiology technologists, pharmacy techs, laboratory techs — but during COVID, we lost hospital personnel because they got sick or their families got sick or burnout occurred and individuals decided to take time off.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras

“Even though you have interoperability, the systems are not talking to each other. It’s a mess, if you ask me, where you could have made a really big breakthrough in medical records.”

“We also had trainees in the pipeline that, for a couple of years, did not have the ability to learn at the bedside,” she added. “And learning on the screen or in a sim lab is not the same as learning at the bedside. So these graduates are taking longer to complete their training, and taking longer to onboard and orient. That means more folks, particularly those that enjoy teaching and mentoring, are really required in order to bring this new cohort along.”

That has ramped up partnerships with UMass Amherst, Bay Path University, Springfield Technical Community College, and others on targeted programs to get more talent into the pipeline, from certified nurse aides to lab techs and surgical techs.

“One of the silver linings is that it has really forced us to be creative and collaborative,” Watkins said. “We even have high-school and college students as a part of our volunteer programs here at the hospital, so that young people can get exposed to what it means to be in a hospital, and what sorts of positions there are. Doctors and nurses are important, but there are other ways that you can work in the hospital and have a great experience.”

Roose said healthcare leaders have come to understand the importance of caregivers’ concerns at a time when the industry in general is at “an inflection point” when it comes to how hospitals operate.

“We need to double down and maximize our efforts to support caregivers through systems that keep people well and transform the systems that keep people well and transform our services in ways that meet the evolving needs not only of the patients we serve, but the colleagues that are part of our mission and drive service.”

Holyoke Medical Center has taken big steps to address those concerns as well, Hatiras said, including with compensation, but the system has still struggled, emerging from the pandemic, with employee expectations when it comes to long hours, weekends, and on-call hours — and a desire for more of their work to be remote, which isn’t always possible.

That said, artificial intelligence could begin to have a broader role, not in replacing providers, but making their jobs a little easier.

“You can have a natural conversation with the patient about their condition; the doctor can tell you what your blood pressure is, the patient can say what their symptoms are, and you can have AI listening in and creating an actual note for the chart instead of someone having to transcribe it or dictate it or type it,” Hatiras said, adding that AI can process copious amounts of information and … not make a diagnosis, exactly, but augment the doctor’s own decision making.

“It could be helpful as an overlay with all the patients that come and go — ‘hey, doctor, can you check this patient based on the data input? He may need attention; he may have sepsis; he may have an infection.’ It can be a tool to assist.”


Evolution Continues

Speaking of technology, Hatiras noted that one of the most monumental changes in healthcare in recent decades is the electronic medical record.

“I would say there are benefits and drawbacks. One benefit is that you can access certain information from anywhere. In the old days, you had paper charts, and if a doctor was on call and needed to look at somebody’s chart, he couldn’t. Now you can look at it — X-rays, lab results, all sorts of things. And there’s certainly more data being captured this way.”

The main downside is what Hatiras characterizes as a big missed opportunity, and that’s the failure of the U.S. government, early on, to establish a bid process and choose the best electronic medical record system and make it the national standard.

“What has happened is we have a hodgepodge of a system,” he explained. “If you physically cover more than one hospital, it’s a bear; you’ve got to learn each other’s systems: how to input orders, how to check labs. It’s not easy. Secondly, you can’t train for it in medical school because what system are you going to train on? If we had a national system, we could be learning this from year one in medical school. And even though you have interoperability, the systems are not talking to each other. It’s a mess, if you ask me, where you could have made a really big breakthrough in medical records.”

Speaking of government, Keroack noted that the way healthcare is paid for has changed dramatically, especially over the two decades since Romneycare; today, 97% of Massachusetts residents carry health insurance.

And with more than 90% of Baystate patients cared for under a global budget — specifically, Medicare and Medicaid accountable-care organizations — “if we overspend or are inefficient, we have to eat the difference. It leads us to emphasize prevention, wellness, and coordination of care. It’s changed the way doctors think about keeping people healthy.”

Today, with an older population than the national average, 70% of Baystate’s payments come from Medicaid and Medicare and 30% from commercial managed care, while the average hospital in the U.S. is 40% government and 60% managed care.

“Over time, the country’s going to have to tackle the question of whether we move to some single-payer health approach,” Keroack added. “We’re not done as a nation dealing with the cost of healthcare. We have the highest cost of healthcare in the world and the most splintered, uncoordinated program of paying for it.”

Meanwhile, major projects continue locally in an effort to meet community needs, from Cooley Dickinson’s Emergency Department overhaul — the ER was built in the 1970s when ER visits were less than half what they are today — to Trinity Health’s Enfield Ambulatory Center, which will reflect that overall shift toward outpatient care.

“There will continue to be an emphasis on innovation, technology, and what will be known as precision medicine or personalized medicine as we move into the future,” Roose said, citing projects at Mercy from a new palliative-care center to an agreement with the US Oncology Network to improve services, technology, and access to clinical trials.

“The main emphasis will continue to be on compassionate care and creating experiences that are holistic and compassionate and help people along their healing journey.”

BusinessWest Anniversary

Technology, Immediacy Have Changed the Game

When she first started working for Merrill Lynch in 1985, Pat Grenier had a desk, a phone, a phone book, and a street directory. And there was a lot of cold calling.

“I picked a street, and I would call everyone on that street; you can’t do that anymore,” she said, adding that it goes without saying that there’s no phone book anymore. And there’s nowhere near as much cold calling — in this sector and most others. And the desk and desk phone are not used nearly as much as they were even five years ago.

These are just some of the changes that have come to the broad financial-services sector, said Grenier, president of Grenier Financial Advisors, noting that, back when she started, and until maybe a few decades ago, this was what she called a ‘transactional’ business. Now, it’s far less about making transactions — especially the buying and selling of stocks — and more about partnering with the client to secure lifelong financial security.

“Now, our business is far more planning-oriented, and advisors are working more as a part of a team,” she said, adding that, instead of buying and selling stocks for clients, professionals like her will advise clients on everything from retirement planning to the specifics of a senior-living facility contract, to helping family members find bookkeepers or companions for their parents. “All that is not transaction work.”

Barbara Trombley, president of Trombley Associates, agreed, noting that the word advisor has come into popular use only over the past two decades or so.

Years ago, she said, individuals would have called someone who did what she does a stockbroker or even ‘my guy’ — a nod to how few women ventured into this field.

“It’s not just us putting together a portfolio — it’s how do you spend your money? How do you make it last? How do you leave money to your kids? And it’s a lot more personal,” she told BusinessWest. “I don’t get upset about the market going up and down on a day-to-day basis because I’m not trading stocks.”

Much has changed, and the same is true in another branch of the broad financial sector — insurance.

Indeed, when Sam Hanmer, president of Rush Insurance and a nearly 40-year veteran in this field, first started, he used “manuals, microfiche, the fax machine, and a dot-matrix printer,” he recalled. And customers were OK with getting answers to their questions in a few days.

Now, everything is stored in the cloud, and those same customers want this information instantaneously.

“The expectation is that they call, and they want the answer,” he said. “It’s on-time delivery in just about any setting, including insurance.”

Lisa Johnson, chief operating officer of Amherst-based Encharter Insurance, agreed, and said this business has changed in many other ways as well. Maybe the biggest has been consolidation brought on many different factors, ranging from the higher cost of doing business in a far more technology-driven field to retiring Baby Boomers looking for an exit strategy.

Pat Grenier

Pat Grenier

“Now, our business is far more planning-oriented, and advisors are working more as a part of a team.”

“It just became too difficult for small, independent businesses to survive given the amount of technology needs required to run an agency these days,” she said. “Human resources has changed so dramatically; you almost can’t run a business without having a human-resources expert to turn to. A lot of this has driven many of these smaller agencies to decide that this is the time to sell.

“What used to be your neighborhood agency is now likely owned by a much larger entity,” Johnson added, referring to a trend that covers not only insurance but many any business groups as well, from banks to accounting firms to law firms.

Meanwhile, another trend impacting almost every sector — challenges with finding and retaining talent — is also prevalent in this field, she said, using understatement when saying, “young people are not turned on by insurance.”

This has led to ever-greater amounts of automation and use of AI, she said, adding that these trends will only accelerate in the years and decades to come.


Money Never Sleeps

Flashing back to when he started in financial services nearly 40 years ago, Mike Matty, president of St. Germain Investment Management (which is celebrating its own milestone: 100 years), started by talking about technology and how it has profoundly changed this business and financial services in general.

“I always say that people have more information available to them today, on the internet and on their phone, than I had available to me as a mutual-fund manager back in the ’80s,” he told BusinessWest.

Barbara Trombley

Barbara Trombley

“It’s not just us putting together a portfolio — it’s how do you spend your money? How do you make it last? How do you leave money to your kids? And it’s a lot more personal. I don’t get upset about the market going up and down on a day-to-day basis because I’m not trading stocks.”

“There wasn’t even CNBC back then,” he added. “If you wanted to know what happened with the stock market back in those days, you turned on the 6 o’clock news and waited for the business segment. The world is so different right now.”

That goes for everything from the Dow, which was at or around 2,000 in the late ’80s (except for that fateful day in October 1987, when it lost 25% of its value) and is now at 38,000, to the way information is available instantly.

Too much information in some respects, said Matty, noting that the 24/7 nature of CNBC and other outlets creates higher levels of anxiety among those watching their wealth.

“Everything becomes an immediacy that they need to do something about,” he explained. “They’ll say, ‘the opening bell in seven minutes’ or ‘the most important hour of the day, the closing bell.’ They try to create anxiety and news out of a clock.”

This anxiety, and need to do something, certainly contributes to the wild fluctuations that have defined the markets in recent years, he said, joking that people might be better off if they waited for the 6 o’clock news.

They are certainly better off with today’s financial professionals, who do far more advising than their predecessors did 40 years ago.

“In 1984, most folks on this side of the table were more asset managers than financial planners,” Matty explained. “Now, the term we use is ‘wealth managers,’ because with that term comes the financial planning and the estate side of things; it’s a holistic approach as opposed to just managing a slice of your assets, which is more the way the business was years ago.”

Grenier agreed and described a typical day, and typical customer interaction, 40 years ago this way: “We focused on … ‘well, we have A, B, and C for you to buy because we think it’s going to do this, that, or the other thing.’ We didn’t look at the entire person, whereas now we are looking at the entire person, as well as their family.

Sam Hanmer

Sam Hanmer

“The expectation is that they call, and they want the answer. It’s on-time delivery in just about any setting, including insurance.”

“And we’re talking with them about transitioning wealth and protecting wealth,” she went on, adding that financial-services professionals are coaches, counselors, caretakers, and mediators — even if these words aren’t necessarily printed on business cards. “‘If you have a trust, is it titled properly? Are your beneficiaries up to date?’ I talk to them about all of that, whereas, when I first started, it was, ‘OK, I have this municipal bond,’ or ‘I have this stock.’”

This represents a dramatic change in this field that is still ongoing, said Matty, adding that today’s financial advisors serve in the same way Google Maps does.

“We guide people,” he said. “We need to know where you are, so let’s find out where we’re starting from. Let’s then figure out where you want to go and look at the options for getting there.”

Meanwhile, some important things haven’t changed.

“Oftentimes, you’ll have these conversations with people, and they’ll say, if I die…’ And I say, ‘let’s back up a minute. There is no if, there’s only going to be a when, unless you know something that I don’t, so let’s talk about what you want to do with your money between now and then to help you accomplish your goals.’”

In other words, death and taxes are still the only certainties in this business.


Policy Makers

Turning back the clock to to 1985, when he got his start in the insurance business, Hanmer, who has been with several agencies over the decades and unretired a few years ago, said there are certainly more players in this sector, primarily because the business was in many ways easier and less costly.

Mike Matty

Mike Matty

“People have more information available to them today, on the internet and on their phone, than I had available to me as a mutual-fund manager back in the ’80s.”

“When I started in the agency, your personal lines and your automobile insurance, specifically, had what they called ‘fixed and established rates,’ and that was all set by the state; the insurance companies didn’t set the rates,” he explained. “And that allowed you to have a mom-and-pop agency on just about every corner because it was more of a convenience buy then ‘I need to go shop my insurance to see if I can get the best deal,’ because every agency would provide you with the same number when it came to auto.

“All this allowed for what I call a lifestyle business,” he went on. “You could make a pretty good living with two, three, or four people in your office, and there would be one right down the street and another right down the street from that.”

It’s much different now, Hanmer said, adding that, when the state changed to competitive rating a quarter-century ago, that changed the dynamic in the industry. Prior to that time, and because the state set the rates, most direct writers didn’t have a presence in the state.

Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson

“Businesses look to cut down on the vulnerabilities they have. And a big vulnerability for all of us in insurance over the past decade, and I’ve really seen it accelerate, is personnel — trying to get people who are well-trained and understand that the insurance business is just really difficult.”

“They didn’t want to play that game,” he said, adding that the Progressives, State Farms, and Liberty Mutuals of this world now have a huge presence in the state, and its residents are subject to their endless TV commercials.

“With that competition, agencies had to work a whole lot harder because they had to shop everything,” he went on. “A lot of them said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ and that started the consolidated process.”

And it has continued unabated, said Johnson, noting that private-equity funds have discovered the insurance industry, and now, many of the mergers are driven by aggregators backed by private-equity funds.

All this consolidation is in some ways good for consumers because larger agencies provide them with more choice, she said, adding that this is countered by perhaps not knowing the person behind the counter — or on the other end of the phone — as well.

Meanwhile, the players left in the industry now find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain talent (yes, you’ll read these same words in just about every story in this 40th-anniversary issue), which is prompting many to outsource tasks and turn to virtual assistants based in other states or, increasingly, other countries.

“A lot of quoting of business is now automated, as are some aspects of claim handling, billing, invoicing, those types of things,” Johnson said. “Anything repetitious is now likely to be automated, and that’s not unique to the insurance industry.

“Businesses look to cut down on the vulnerabilities they have,” she went on. “And a big vulnerability for all of us in insurance over the past decade, and I’ve really seen it accelerate, is personnel — trying to get people who are well-trained and understand that the insurance business is just really difficult.”


BusinessWest Anniversary

Workforce Challenges Have Emerged over Time

When you’ve been building things for as long as Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC) has, well … sometimes you enjoy the sequel.

Take, for example, the Montgomery-Russell bridge on I-90 over the Westfield River. DOC is currently renovating it, a $46.9 million project that includes deck rehabilitation, lighting and drainage improvements, and a major steel component replacement.

It’s a return of sorts for Holyoke-based DOC, which built that bridge nearly 70 years ago.

“When you have situations like that, it’s kind of cool,” said Joubin Hassanein, the company’s president. “You look back at photos of the people that were working on that original bridge, and to know that they’re kind of connected to you in some way is pretty awesome.”

With a 145-year history of major projects, from Springfield’s Memorial Bridge to Rowe’s Wharf in Boston and that city’s Leverett Circle Connector Bridge, the leaders at O’Connell’s can take a long view of what has changed in the construction industry, but Hassanein believes some of the bigger changes are still to come.

“Construction in general has been an industry that hasn’t seen a lot of change over the course of a long time — except for the period that we live in now,” he told BusinessWest, especially in the realm of technology. “We’re seeing a rapid adoption of technology into construction. We’re probably in the early stages of a very fast-changing scene within the construction industry. And I think it’s important for companies to be nimble enough to move with that change, and we’re heavily invested in that.”

DOC is equally invested in wastewater and drinking-water facilities, which now account for about 40% of its work, with the other 60% falling mostly into the education sector, but also healthcare, hospitality, senior living, and other areas. With two offices in Massachusetts and one each in Connecticut, New York, and Florida, it’s also looking to expand geographically.

David Fontaine Jr., CEO of Fontaine Bros., has also had a hand in plenty of large-scale public work, as well as helping to shape the landscape of downtown Springfield, from the MassMutual Center project 20 years ago to the recent conversion of the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate apartments.

“It’s great to see the momentum that’s generating for the area,” he said, adding that high schools and colleges have been another mainstay, with work at Deerfield Academy, Wilbraham Monson Academy, and a host of other schools, as well as healthcare projects for clients like Baystate Health and Mercy Medical Center. “We intentionally keep a mix of work in public and private sectors. The public sector is a little less sensitive to the ups and downs of interest rates.

“Almost 70% of our work is with repeat clients, so that’s important,” Fontaine added. “When there are fewer projects out there and they’re more difficult to get, we see fierce competition for every project we’re going after. But even with that fierce competition, we’ve won six of the last seven projects we competed for. We attribute a lot of that to those repeat relationships.”

When Joe Marois opened the South Hadley-based construction firm that bears his name in 1972, business was conducted differently, and he was discouraged to see some of that fall away.

Joubin Hassanein

Joubin Hassanein

“We’re probably in the early stages of a very fast-changing scene within the construction industry. And I think it’s important for companies to be nimble enough to move with that change.”

“It was a complete joy. A lot of the work we did initially was, believe it or not, on a handshake. We were doing colleges and private work, a lot of the mills, very little public work. But there was an abundance of work, and we had large crews, and it was a different time.”

Heightened competition in the private sector, however, eventually shifted the dynamic.

“As people started seeing what we were doing, they started migrating into our area to the point where the profits became problematic for us. So we migrated into the public sector. And that’s a lot more difficult — it’s permitting-intense, it’s paperwork … the process is very difficult. We’re dealing with engineers who have to deal themselves with peer review, which increases the requirements for the project substantially. We’ve had to use attorneys more in the last 20 years than in prior years just to make sure we cross our Ts and so forth.”

Ryan Pelletier, project manager for Houle Construction in Ludlow, said his firm has been focused for more than 30 years on the healthcare and hospital industry.

“That’s been our mainstay, our bread and butter. We do other things, all kinds of commercial work. But 90%, of what we do is healthcare by virtue of our repeat customers.”

His father, company President Tim Pelletier, arrived at Houle as an estimator back in 1989, working for company founder Ray Houle. At the time, the firm was building Friendly’s and Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants up and down the East Coast, as both were in serious growth mode.

Later, “Ray saw some opportunities in healthcare, and also, some of the guys were settling down with wives and kids, and fewer of them wanted to do the traveling,” Ryan said. “So the team leaned into the healthcare sector. They found some idiosyncrasies and peculiarities about the sector that makes it unappealing for some companies, but we found a niche there.”

David Fontaine Jr.

David Fontaine Jr.

“When there are fewer projects out there and they’re more difficult to get, we see fierce competition for every project we’re going after.”

COVID was an interesting time, he added, as Houle built temporary structures at Baystate Medical Center and Cooley Dickinson Hospital to handle COVID overflow, among other projects, but infection-control measures at area hospitals didn’t make things easy. “We were really, really needed, but they also didn’t want us there.”

All these firms have traveled different paths and made unique impacts on the landscape — both literally and figuratively. But they’ve shared many challenges, too.


Priming the Pump

One substantial change across the industry has to do with workforce — in particular, the flow of young workers into the industry, which has slowed to a trickle, something every contractor we spoke with for this story recognized.

Many years ago, Marois said, each summer, “we’d have nine or 10 or more college students that would come here automatically, and we’d hire them all. They’d stay for the four-year college stint.”

Nowadays, even vocational-school graduates are slim pickings, he went on. “It doesn’t seem like a lot of people have ambitions to be in the trades anymore. Not a lot of people are showing up. We’re even advertising on television.”

Joe Marois

Joe Marois

“It doesn’t seem like a lot of people have ambitions to be in the trades anymore. Not a lot of people are showing up.”

Pelletier agreed. “The economy has been shifting. Traditionally, you got apprenticeship work in the field. Today, a lot of young people are being pushed toward college, and none are excited to come out of school with an expensive degree to go into a career where they didn’t need a degree to begin with.”

He hopes some might be drawn by rising salaries, especially for in-demand trades like HVAC. “Demand is as high as ever, so beginning wages are increasing, and the costs to us are increasing.”

Indeed, Marois said someone still learning on the job can make $17 an hour, and they could be making $45 to $50 on a public-works project not too much later. “There’s some incentive there for young people, the fact that you can start at that level that quickly. But it doesn’t seem to be enticing for a lot of these young people.”

Hassanein said some of the technology being used in construction today may draw more individuals to consider a career.

“We have a lot of connected systems and data, and being able to make decisions and being guided by that data is becoming more and more prominent in our world, where it wasn’t before. So the people you want to bring in are people that can do that type of work and can process that information and translate it to the job.”

Pelletier added that “the obvious answer is to make it more appealing, pay more, and offer more benefits, but we can also get people from different sectors, like warehousing and retail. That’s something I like to do — find people in my daily commute, at Dunkin’ Donuts or Men’s Wearhouse, somebody who has a good personality and is always working hard; I encounter them daily. They may be at a job that’s just paying the bills, and if I have a need for an apprentice, I can put them on a career path.

“Our only option at this point is to be more proactive than looking for the kids who go from trade school right into the industry,” he added. “Those kids don’t exist in large numbers anymore. So we have to deal with that.”

Hassanein added that the workforce shortage across the industry was in evidence before COVID, but the pandemic exacerbated the situation.

“When we talk about the workforce, there’s certainly a focus on inclusion — a broad mix of people of color and women, people who represent the area that we’re building. We want to help them not only get into the trades, but be successful in the trades.”

“I think our industry lost quite a bit of people in the last downturn and never really recovered. So, as an industry, we’re challenged,” he said, adding that casting a net for a more diverse workforce, including more women, would help.

Fontaine agrees, noting that Liz Wambui, the firm’s director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Impact since 2021, has made some positive headway in workforce matters.

“It’s great to see the construction industry embrace diversity in the workplace,” he said. “When we talk about the workforce, there’s certainly a focus on inclusion — a broad mix of people of color and women, people who represent the area that we’re building. We want to help them not only get into the trades, but be successful in the trades.

“That’s where Liz goes above and beyond; she works with different partners on pathways into the industry, and once someone is in the industry, she partners with them to help them transition from project to project and make those first couple of years a success so they can have a long-term career.”

Considering the current challenges, Fontaine added, “a lot of Liz’s role is focused on the workforce generally. It’s a need we have across all the trades we work with, and we’ve done some innovative things, like partnering with unions, which are very forward-thinking and helpful in coming up with ways to attract people into the trades and keep them.”


Something to Build On

Some of the challenges of today’s construction industry are sector-specific, like the trend toward hospitals being acquired by national players, as in the case of Mercy Medical Center and Trinity Health.

“Where that becomes a challenge is the powers that be are located elsewhere, and decisions are being made halfway across the country for things that are local,” Pelletier said. “They don’t necessarily understand the complexities of the local market.”

Hassanein said it’s a good time to work in education because many colleges are prioritizing energy efficiency and carbon neutrality, and DOC is helping them achieve those goals over a number of years. “We’re at Mount Holyoke, Trinity, and Amherst right now, for example. Those are multi-year projects.”

Some of this work is still in its infancy, he added, but it’s expanding quickly. “It’s definitely a great place to be. Almost every academic institution has a goal established, with a deadline, and until now, they’ve been kind of waiting because the technologies have been changing at a rapid pace, so they didn’t want to invest a lot too early and realize that it’s outdated. But now, the clock is ticking, and they’re all in full motion.

“We’re always evolving, and you have to be a company that’s nimble enough to evolve with the environment that you have,” Hassanein went on. “The continuous-change element is a really key part of any company’s success going forward.”

Fontaine agrees that sustainability, green building, and new technology are exciting elements of construction today, but he added that another aspect of his firm’s success is not getting too busy when times are busy.

“A lot of people will chase whatever the new sector is, whatever they think the new geography is; they want to grow just to grow and do as much volume as possible. Our goal is always to do as good a job as we can on projects where we can be successful and execute.”

Despite the workforce challenges, he added, “I think the industry is in a good place. It’s been a positive profession for the last 20-something years that I’ve been in it.”



BusinessWest Anniversary

The Landscape Has Changed — in Many Ways

When Jack Dill, president of Colebrook Realty Services, arrived in downtown Springfield in the mid-’70s, it was a different world and a much different city.

The still-new mixed-use complex on Main Street, then called Baystate West, complete with a 28-story office tower, was crammed with retail on two floors (much of it migrating from storefronts elsewhere in the downtown), everything from a Friendly’s to a sporting-goods store to a men’s clothing shop.

It was connected via airwalks to two major department stores, Forbes & Wallace and Steiger’s, the latter of which was also connected via airwalk to an even more recent addition to the landscape, the new home of Springfield Institution for Savings, which Dill helped conceptualize and build as an employee of the bank. It, too, had retail and restaurants on two floors.

By 1984, the scene had started to change, with retail experiencing a sharp decline in Baystate West with the opening of the Holyoke Mall in 1979. Forbes & Wallace was soon demolished to make way for what is still known as Monarch Place, even though the namesake tenant and partner in the project, Monarch Capital Corp., filed for bankruptcy in 1991, and the property was subsequently sold at auction to Peter Picknelly.

By the mid-’90s, Steiger’s was demolished as well. In its place was built a park dubbed “a little park for a little while.” It’s still there. Meanwhile, at what is now Tower Square, there is very little retail (although Big Y is now a tenant), but two colleges (UMass Amherst and Cambridge College) and the YMCA of Greater Springfield call it home. And at what is now the TD Building, which Dill now co-owns, there is just a single restaurant, but the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, United Way of Pioneer Valley, and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and its many affiliates are based there.

This quick history lesson helps show the many ways the landscape has changed over 40 years and continues to change, said Dill, adding that downtown Springfield is not unlike many other downtowns that suffered losses in retail to the malls and, later, internet shopping, and other properties — from the offices of banks that no longer exist to long-closed mills, to most of the Springfield Republican building — given over to new uses ranging from housing to breweries; from cannabis dispensaries to co-working facilities.

And we haven’t even mentioned the new, $1 billion casino complex built a few blocks south on Main Street.

“And now, the internet and that kind of distribution model is creating real problems for the large, enclosed malls,” said Dill, citing the ongoing demolition of the Eastfield Mall, the first such facility in the region, and the start of work to transform it into a mix of retail, housing, and other uses, as an example of how the scene continues to shift and change the landscape in the process.

Jack Dill

Jack Dill

“The internet and that kind of distribution model is creating real problems for the large, enclosed malls.”

Evan Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, agreed. He said the landscape has certainly changed from a commercial real-estate perspective, and it continues to evolve due to powerful forces ranging from malls to consolidation of the financial-services sector to, most recently, the COVID 19 pandemic, which introduced the world to remote work and hybrid schedules that left many to ponder the fate of office facilities in communities of all sizes.

He has seen, and been part of, movements to create dedicated facilities for healthcare practices (something that was novel four decades ago when such businesses would be next to accountants and lawyers) and to rethink downtown office towers, such as the one he owns, 1350 Main St. in Springfield.

Plotkin said the rise of remote work will certainly impact demand for office space, but he sees a partially offsetting force in east-west rail, which has the potential to put some area communities on the map, drive development in areas near the rail stops, and even prompt some businesses to realize they don’t have to be in Boston anymore.

“It could be transformative; in Springfield, for example, it could drive development in the Union Station area and make that area much more attractive,” he said, adding that he’s already seen more interest in properties there. “If east-west rail is successful, and I think it will be, and it becomes a reliable way to get to Worcester or Boston, it changes things dramatically.”


Space Exploration

Overall, the real-estate sector has seen a number of ups and downs over the past 40 years, from the boom times of the mid-’80s to the bust that came later that decade; from the surge provided by the arrival of the cannabis industry — which impacted most communities, but especially Holyoke — to the most recent turmoil resulting from the pandemic. And there have been headwinds of different strengths, from the tornado in 2011 to the Great Recession of 2008 to Springfield’s being placed in receivership 20 years ago.

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin

“If east-west rail is successful, and I think it will be, and it becomes a reliable way to get to Worcester or Boston, it changes things dramatically.”

Overall, compared to other regions, the scene in Springfield and surrounding communities has remained relatively flat, said those we spoke with. There has been some new building and notable renovation projects — Springfield’s Union Station tops that list — but, overall, little movement of new businesses into the region (MGM Springfield being a major exception) and large amounts of what Plotkin called “musical chairs,” tenants moving from one location in the region to another.

“I’m seeing a lot of businesses move from property to property, but not really much new growth,” he explained. “We really need to look at how we can bring new businesses here.”

Meanwhile, the landscape has certainly changed on the retail side — everything from the departure of Johnson’s Bookstore, a watershed moment in the history of downtown Springfield, to the ongoing redevelopment of the site of the massive GE transformer complex in Pittsfield; from the successful conclusion of decades-long efforts to convert the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into a mix of retail and market-rate housing (the first tenants have started moving in) to the massive, ongoing effort to redevelop the massive Ludlow Mills property. That undertaking, a mix of brownfield and greenfield development led by Westmass Area Development Corp., is already more than a decade along, and will likely take another decade.

At present, with interest rates high and questions about the economy (let alone who will occupy the White House) moving forward, new building has been mostly stagnant, said those we spoke with, creating a white-hot market for manufacturing and distribution facilities. Meanwhile, cannabis is starting to retreat, with some of the properties turned over to that use (or intended for that use) now back on the market, especially in Holyoke.

But the biggest area of concern moving forward is the office market. Remote work and its impact on how much space companies will need is a huge factor, but there are other considerations as well, said Plotkin and Dill, noting that the continued consolidation of many sectors (a thread running through these 40th-anniversary stories) is an issue as well.

And it has been for decades now.

“Coopers & Lybrand had a large presence here, and they consolidated and moved to Hartford,” said Dill, citing just one example of this movement from years ago. “There are fewer banks, fewer head offices … fewer players in many sectors, and it has certainly impacted the market.”

“Having access to Boston that’s walkable from your downtown … that will have a big impact. You can live in downtown Springfield and, in an hour and a half, be in Boston. It takes longer than that to drive to Boston from Sudbury.”

As for remote work, Dill preferred to remain somewhat optimistic about its future and, thus, its overall impact on the real-estate market, despite growing concern, if not outright panic, in larger cities such as Boston and San Francisco.

“It’s taken some time, but we’re starting to see a return to the office,” he said, noting that several major corporations are ordering workers back, or trying to. “Work is kind of a social activity — there’s a reason we were all together in the first place as opposed to being out tending our own field.

“The joys of working at home, working in your pajamas, gets old after a while, I think,” he went on, leaving room for a measure of compromise in the form of a four-day workweek.

Plotkin is not quite as optimistic. He sees more permanence to remote work and hybrid schedules, and noted that Zoom has greatly reduced the need for people to be in their offices and for consumers to visit these offices.

This leaves questions about existing office towers and other facilities and their futures, he said, adding that conversion to residential use is an option that should be explored.

There is a huge need for housing in the region, he went on, and the need may grow if east-west rail becomes a reality, which he believes it will.

“Having access to Boston that’s walkable from your downtown … that will have a big impact,” Plotkin said. “You can live in downtown Springfield and, in an hour and a half, be in Boston. It takes longer than that to drive to Boston from Sudbury.”


Bottom Line

Flashing back 40 years, Dill said that, in many respects, downtown Springfield still looks a lot like it did then, at least from the street.

But a closer look — one inside the buildings on either side of Main Street — reveals large amounts of change, especially in Tower Square and the TD Bank building.

It’s very difficult to project what might come next given all that has happened over the past four decades, from the rise of malls to the demise of many of them, said Dill, adding quickly, and forcefully, that the only constant is change.

BusinessWest Anniversary

The Environment Has Shifted Profoundly

Tom Senecal used some hard numbers to detail what is perhaps the biggest change in the banking industry over the past four decades.

“In 1985, there were 18,400 banks in this country,” said Senecal, chairman of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank. “We are now down to 4,600; we’ve lost 13,000 banks in those 40 years. Credit unions … there were around 12,000; now they’re down to 4,200, so they’ve lost more than 7,000. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, there were 230 banks in 1985; I think we’re down to 130, and we expect to be down to 80 by 2030.”

That consolidation, brought on by many factors, but especially the higher cost of doing business and shrinking margins, has changed the local landscape in all kinds of ways, including commercial real estate, with dozens of former bank buildings and offices given over to new uses, from jewelry stores to cannabis dispensaries.

Indeed, it would take quite a bit of space in this story to list all the banks that were here 40, 30, or 20 years ago that aren’t here anymore. Just a partial list would include, on the larger-institution side, Bank of New England, Springfield Institution for Savings, and BayBank (names and letters that were once on office towers in downtown Springfield), and also Shawmut, Fleet, and BankBoston. On the smaller, community-bank side, Hampden, Heritage, Chicopee Savings, United, Woronoco, and Westbank are just some of the names that have disappeared from the landscape.

All of this is reflected in the large collections of business cards amassed by some bankers in this area, sometimes without actually leaving their office — it was only the name and logo on the card that changed.

But consolidation of the industry (and we’ll get back to it later) is obviously just one of many changes in this sector since Ronald Reagan was running for a second term in the White House. There have been huge changes in technology and how people bank, in how many non-bank entities are now vying for market share in this industry, and also in how people work, where, and even what they wear to the office.

Indeed, Lauren Duffy, executive vice president and COO of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, is one of many officers at the institution that do not have their own office anymore. She works remotely a few days a week, and for the days she’s in, she reserves a desk online.

“I try to make sure I get one with a good window,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she usually does. And this sea change is only one of many in the world of credit unions, which four decades ago might have served the employees of one company or institution (like UMass Amherst or Mercy Hospital) and now have memberships that are much larger and more diverse.

There have been other changes as well, said Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, who has almost exactly 40 years of experience in the industry and is one of those who saw his business card change repeatedly, but not the location of his desk. He said the business is, well, less formal now, reflecting trends across business.

“When I started out back in the ’80s, you had to wear a suit and tie every day,” he recalled. “If you left the floor you were working on, you had to put your suit jacket back on; you couldn’t walk through the lobby without being very formal.”

Dan Moriarty

Dan Moriarty

“Over my career, people have always been talking about how branches were dying or how we wouldn’t need anymore. But for small community banks or community banks in general, a physical presence will always be a necessity.”

Getting back to technology, it is a thread that runs through each and every story in our 40th-anniversary edition, and for good reason. In banking, the changes have been profound, with paper and old-fashioned bankbooks giving way to automated tellers and mobile banking, greatly reducing the need to visit the local branch and generating discussion and debate about whether banks will need such facilities moving forward — and, if so, how many.

Senecal said PeoplesBank plans to add three branches just this year as the institution plots an organic growth strategy while also looking hard at mergers and acquisitions. Meanwhile, Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Middletown, Conn.-based Liberty Bank, can see a day, not far ahead, when the bank will make net reductions in the number of branches in its portfolio. And Dan Moriarty, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, like others we spoke with, noted that, while the branch is visited less often today than before, and this trend will likely accelerate in the future, there will always be a need for face-to-face, in-person service.

“Over my career, people have always been talking about how branches were dying or how we wouldn’t need anymore,” Moriarty said. “But for small community banks or community banks in general, a physical presence will always be a necessity.”


By All Accounts

As he talked about the changes that have come to this sector since he entered the business more than 30 years ago, Senecal reflected on the building, and the office, he was sitting in.

This is the inverted-triangle-shaped office tower off I-91, across the street from the Holyoke Mall. It was once the headquarters to Heritage Bank, which famously failed amid excess and scandal in 1992, a time when many institutions were failing and the banking industry was in a state of turmoil.

Lauren Duffy

Lauren Duffy

“When I started working in credit unions almost 20 years ago, our financial services were fairly simple. It was a savings account, a checking account, and, most commonly, a car loan, a mortgage, or a personal loan. We’ve evolved with the economy and with the region, and it’s so complex now, the many things that we can offer.”

“The top floor here, the eighth floor, is much larger than the second floor, because of the shape of the building,” he explained. “Heritage had four offices on the eighth floor; we have maybe 30 on the second floor now. The eighth floor was extremely opulent. Joe Lobello, our president at the time, was pretty adamant that he did want the negative association of a failed bank; we were looking to move our headquarters, but he did not want to buy this building because of that negative association.

“Joe realized how inexpensive it would be to buy this building as opposed to building something new, so he finally acquiesced,” Senecal went on. “But my office is on the second floor because Joe did not want to be associated with the opulence of the eighth floor. Twenty-five or so years ago, Joe’s office was on the second floor, and today, my office is still here.”

Perhaps, but very little else about this sector is the same as it was a few decades ago. As noted earlier, institutions have disappeared, and many others have changed their name, in many cases dropping the word ‘Savings’ from the sign over the door because that word did not accurately reflect all that an institution could provide for its clients.

“When I started working in credit unions almost 20 years ago, our financial services were fairly simple,” said Duffy, speaking for other credit unions and banks as well. “It was a savings account, a checking account, and, most commonly, a car loan, a mortgage, or a personal loan. We’ve evolved with the economy and with the region, and it’s so complex now, the many things that we can offer — all the many things that we can do with cards and mobile apps, and all the ways we’re trying to be more accessible to people and really innovating around the idea of financial wellness.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch

“There’s not necessarily that loyalty now, especially when people can go online and see what others are paying on accounts or charging for fees or charging for loan rates. So you have to be more competitive.”

“That’s what credit unions were founded to address all those years ago,” she went on. “But we were addressing it in a more simple way 40 years ago than we are today.”

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts/Connecticut border, which wasn’t crossed by institutions based on either side years ago, is now readily crossed, with PeoplesBank advancing south, for example, and Liberty marching north.

The biggest change, though, has come in how people bank and the technology they use. It brings convenience, obviously, with people able to do almost everything by phone now.

This convenience brings expectations, on the part of consumers and commercial clients alike, Glidden said. “Everyone is trying to deliver that Amazon experience, and it’s of great importance today for a bank to stay up with what the consumer’s expectations are — and that’s higher, probably, than what banks have historically delivered.”

But this convenience also brings the ability to change banks quite easily, said Welch, which is forcing institutions of all sizes to pay even more attention to what the competition is doing and adjust to remain competitive.

“At the touch of a button, people can move their money anywhere, within seconds or minutes,” he said. “It used to be that you would have to go into the bank and have them draw up a cashier’s check, go down the street, sit down with someone to open a deposit account, and then move money over. Now, it can be done in an instant.

Dave Glidden

Dave Glidden

“Everyone is trying to deliver that Amazon experience, and it’s of great importance today for a bank to stay up with what the consumer’s expectations are — and that’s higher, probably, than what banks have historically delivered.”

“So there’s not necessarily that loyalty now, especially when people can go online and see what others are paying on accounts or charging for fees or charging for loan rates,” Welch went on. “So you have to be more competitive.”

Senecal agreed, noting that this is just one of the many pressures facing financial institutions today.

“Banks used to have 4% margins; getting out of bed, they had 4% margins — they didn’t have to do anything,” he explained. “Margins are down to 2.5% now and struggling to get to 3%. No banks in this country are enjoying those 4% margins we used to enjoy because information is so readily available that consumer behavior can change in an instant. You can move your money so fast, and that sort of competition drives attractive prices — it drives mortgage rates down, and it drives savings rates up, which squeezes margins.”


Points of Interest

This simple math explains why size is more important than ever before in this industry, and thus why the current pattern of mergers and acquisitions will continue into the future, with both banks and credit unions.

“It’s a consolidating industry, and we’ll continue to consolidate,” said Glidden, adding that, for a number of reasons, ranging from rising interest rates to the current administration in the White House, the pace of such transactions has slowed somewhat in recent years.

But consolidation will continue, he said, and especially on the community-bank level.

And while the number of banks continues to shrink, it is likely that there will be fewer of the traditional branches that have come to symbolize the industry, said Glidden, who worked for many of those institutions no longer here — Shawmut and then Bank of Western Massachusetts., for example — before arriving at SIS (which was later acquired by Banknorth, which was subsequently acquired by TD Bank), before moving on to Liberty.

He made it clear that branches are still critical to any institution’s success, and they provide great visibility. But there is no denying that use of these facilities continues to decline.

“Many of our younger generations have never been in a branch and probably never will be in a branch and are fine with a totally digital banking experience,” he said. “And this has really changed the dynamic of how we as bankers and financial advisers have to respond and engage our customers.

“Years ago, you might have gone to the branch once a week, or, if you were a small-business owner, you might go five times a week,” Glidden went on. “The reality now is that you might go the branch every two or three weeks, or you might go to it when you really have a question or problem you want resolved and you don’t want to do it through the call center or any of the other channels.”

As a result of these trends, banks are looking to maximize the visits that do happen, he said, while also thinking hard about consolidating their branches. He can see a day a bank with maybe 20 branches in an area like Greater Springfield might want to get down to 10.

Moriarty agreed that fewer people are visiting branches and those that do visit them less often, but he stressed that there will always be a need for such facilities.

“I feel that customers still want to come in and talk to someone, either to better understand a product or get advice or just get that face-to-face interaction because trust is a big part of the equation,” he told BusinessWest. “Down the road, we’ll still see that kind of interaction because people want and need it.”

Whether they will still need cash is another story, he went on, adding that, given the pace of change and the emergence of debit cards, he wonders how long consumers will still need coins and currency.

That might be the next chapter in the ongoing evolution of banks, credit unions, and the entire financial-services industry.




The Western Mass. region has a strong tradition of entrepreneurship that goes back more than three centuries.

And BusinessWest publisher John Gormally reflects that tradition in many ways. He has owned, or still owns, everything from a billboard company to a television station to a boutique resort hotel in Costa Rica. But his story began 40 years ago with a small, monthly publication he decided to call the Western Massachusetts Business Journal (the first issue is pictured at right).

As he tells the story, he looked around New England and saw that other cities and other regions had publications focused specifically on the many aspects of business. He saw that the Greater Springfield area did not have such a publication, and decided that it should, because, well … there were stories that needed to be told.

Four decades later, there are still stories to be told, and we remain dedicated to telling them. We also remain dedicated to expanding on Gormally’s initial vision of 40 years ago and finding new and better ways to turn a mirror on the region’s business community and provide thought-provoking stories and commentary on what is reflected by that mirror.

A great many changes have come to the region and its economic landscape over the past 40 years, and these are reflected in the stories that start on page 6, each focusing on a specific sector. These developments involve everything from the consolidation of many industries to profound shifts in how work is done, where, when, and by whom (or what, in the emerging AI era).

There are many common threads running through these stories, but the biggest is technology. Those who can recall what the workplace was like 40 years ago remember a time when desks didn’t have computers on them, when people who wanted to contact someone reached for a three-inch-thick phone book, when the fax machine was a wonderous new way to deliver information; when the internet was still a decade away from emerging from government research facilities into millions of homes and businesses, when portable phones were the size of bricks and the only thing you could do with one was call someone.

Now, information is everywhere and instantaneous. People can call or text their lawyer at 3 a.m. — and he or she will answer the phone. Consumers can move their money from one bank to another in a matter of minutes — or get a quote on car insurance or a loan approval just as fast. Manufacturing equipment can and does run all night, with no one to attend to them. Business meetings are often taken by Zoom, saving travel time and expense and allowing people to work from virtually anywhere, while not diminishing the value of in-person collaboration.

There have been many other developments as well. Our business community is different in many ways, but it is especially more diverse, with far more women (29 of whom earned a spot in this year’s 40 Under Forty) and those from traditionally minority populations serving in leadership positions and owning their own businesses. This has been a profound and refreshing change.

Speaking of 40 Under Forty, BusinessWest introduced that recognition program and gala in 2007, and it remains a fiercely coveted honor among the region’s young professionals. We followed that up with other recognition programs and accompanying galas, including Difference Makers in 2009, the 40 Under Forty Alumni Achievement Award in 2015, Healthcare Heroes in 2017, and Women of Impact in 2018. Why? Because so many success stories, both individuals and organizations, deserve to be celebrated, and their stories told.

Those stories and thousands more in the pages of BusinessWest and the Healthcare News, our sister publication introduced in 2000, and on our two websites, businesswest.com and healthcarenews.com, have, over the years, testified to a changing business landscape. So has our use of daily e-newsletters, social media, and weekly podcasts, dynamic business tools that further reflect changes in the way people work, share information, and engage with each other in 2024.

Even the way we produce this magazine is much different today; we went, like other media companies with a long history, from using negatives and paste-up ads in the ’80s and early ’90s to quickly laying out and producing each issue digitally, and immediately sharing stories on our websites and through daily e-news. And we’ve undergone all that change while retaining our culture as a small, independent, local operation with deep roots and a commitment to the communities of Western Mass.

The downtowns of many of those communities, by the way, have been dramatically reshaped by changes that have come to retail and other sectors. Meanwhile, many of the huge manufacturing mills that once gave many communities their character (think Holyoke, Easthampton, Chicopee, Greenfield, Palmer, and Pittsfield) have become housing facilities, spaces for artists, multi-use properties, shared office space, small-business incubators, or cannabis cultivation operations, to name a few.

Yes, cannabis cultivation. That’s another profound development, and one of many that probably could not have been imagined back in 1984.

Indeed, when asked to look ahead and project what will come next, many of those we spoke with said, given the pace of change that has taken place, predicting the future is very difficult, indeed.

As for BusinessWest … we’ll just keep doing what we have been doing: holding up that mirror and putting the spotlight on a business community that is rich, diverse, ever-evolving, and with an endless supply of good stories to tell.

We thank our advertisers, our readers, and the entire Western Mass. business community for your support over the past four decades, and we’re looking forward to the next 40 years of progress, challenge, and unpredictability.


40 Under 40 Class of 2024 Cover Story

When BusinessWest launched a program in 2007 to honor young professionals in Western Mass. — not only for their career achievements, but for their service to the community — there was little concern that the initial flow of nominations might slow to a trickle years later.

We were right. In fact, 40 Under Forty has become such a coveted honor in the region’s business community that it makes the job of five independent judges a challenging one — but also a gratifying one.

“That was fun!” one judge emailed along with her scores. “What an amazing way to get to know so many people, and so many better. This was an enjoyable process.” Another wrote, “what an amazing group of individuals! I was amazed to see such talent in Western Mass.”

We agree; in fact, we thought all 40 of this year’s cohort are deserving for many reasons — and so many different reasons — and also felt for the many worthy individuals who barely missed the cut. But there’s always next year, and nominations are welcome all year long.

As usual, this year’s winners hail from a host of different industries, from law to banking; from retail to healthcare; from restaurants to nonprofits, just to name a few. Many are advancing the work of long-established businesses, while others, with an entrepreneurial bent, created their own opportunities instead of waiting for them to emerge.

Almost all would be justified in saying their careers leave them no time for volunteer service. Yet, almost all are doing what they can for their communities and local nonprofits.

They’re all success stories — just 40 among so many more we haven’t gotten around to telling yet.

We’ll also unveil the 10th annual Alumni Achievement Award winner on June 20, given to the former 40 Under Forty winner who has impressively continued and built upon his or her track record of accomplishment. Nominations for that award will be accepted through May 10. Click HERE to nominate.

This year’s 40 Under Forty sponsors include presenting sponsor PeoplesBank and partner sponsors the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, Live Nation Premium, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, and Mercy Medical Center/Trinity Health. The presenting sponsor of the Alumni Achievement Award is Health New England.

2024 Presenting Sponsor

2024 Partner Sponsors

Meet Our Judges

Ryan BarryRyan Barry is a partner at Bulkley Richardson in Springfield, where he focuses on representing colleges and universities, healthcare organizations, nonprofits, and small businesses. Barry’s volunteer work includes serving on the board of directors of the Center for Human Development. He was named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2020.

Chrissy KiddyChrissy Kiddy, vice president of Corporate Responsibility and Social Media Management at PeoplesBank, is dedicated to fostering positive change, championing inclusion, and celebrating community spirit. She serves on the board of the Care Center of Holyoke and Revitalize Community Development Corporation, while also acting as an ambassador for the Bushnell Theater.

Andrew MelendezAndrew Melendez, as founder and director of the Latino Economic Development Corp., has played an instrumental role over the past year in assisting more 300 businesses. A 40 Under Forty honoree in 2015, he also previously served as the Western Massachusetts director for Associated Industries of Massachusetts and executive director of YMCA of Agawam.

Hannah RechtschaffenHannah Rechtschaffen, director of the Greenfield Business Assoc., has an extensive background in business development and creative placemaking, including four years as director of Placemaking for W.D. Cowls, growing the Mill District project in North Amherst. A member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2022, she also chairs the Sustainable Greenfield Implementation Committee.

Erica SwallowErica Swallow is the co-founder and team co-lead of the Turnberg & Swallow Team at Coldwell Banker Realty, Western Massachusetts. Her real-estate team has helped more than 1,000 clients, with sales production totaling more than $300 million over 43 collective years. Also an award-winning children’s book author, Swallow was the highest-scoring honoree in the 40 Under Forty class of 2023.

Alumni Achievement Award

2024 Presenting Sponsor Alumni Achievement Award

Class of 2024

Owner, Wind & Water Doula Care: Age 35

For a decade, Jen Walts was a high-school teacher. And she’s still an educator today — in a much different way.

“I experienced an empowering birth and realized one of the main reasons why that experience was so positive for me was that I was well-educated and had a support team that I could turn to for more wisdom and resources,” she recalled.

It was so empowering, in fact, that Walts decided she wanted to bring that experience to other women — and Wind & Water Doula Care was born.

“I knew I wanted to shift into the world of birthing, but with education at its core, empowering families to soak in as much knowledge as they can in such a transformative time.”

Offering holistic prenatal support to support families through labor, birth, and early postpartum, Walts believes in bodily autonomy and informed consent through the birth process, empowering families to identify core values that shape their birth preferences, including, in some cases, the affirming, relaxation-inducing method of breathing techniques known as hypnobirthing.

“It’s an intense understanding of the physiology of labor and birth, so they feel less anxious about the process,” she explained. “It’s not happening to them; instead, they can move through it with some valuable coping tools. I call it preparing your mind to trust your body.”

Walts has attended or supported more than 75 births and taught childbirth education to more than 100 families.

“Jen is an active listener to parents, and she offered us generous and detailed strategies from pain management to postpartum planning,” one client testified. Added another, “she exudes a reassuring and calm presence that felt so helpful throughout the shifting dynamics of birth.”

Walts said too many families fall victim to “information overload” from social media. “That can be helpful to some extent, but it can also be overwhelming and can really disconnect you from your intuition and what you want for your family. I’m working on the outside of any medical system; I want to get into what values they have, what values they want to show up in their birthing.”

Walts was recently appointed program co-coordinator for a grant-funded program that will increase access to doula care for families birthing at Seven Sisters Midwifery and Community Birth Center in Northampton, which could help fill a persistent need for doulas locally.

A big question for women, she said, is “how do I advocate for myself in a system that’s built for efficiency? We’re taking back autonomy and voice in the healthcare system.”

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2024

President, Western Mass Rabbit Rescue: Age 39

Four years ago, Jordana Starr found a rabbit. Then she decided to find some more.

“It started in 2020 when a friend of mine, a rabbit owner like me, saw a posting about a loose rabbit. So we decided to try to capture this domestic rabbit who couldn’t survive outdoors,” she recalled. “It was a success — we captured the rabbit, got him neutered, and found him a home.”

Soon after, they launched a Northampton-based nonprofit dedicated to doing that work on a larger scale, then procured space for a shelter after a large rescue of 45 rabbits. While Starr’s original partner eventually left the organization, she still leans on a group of committed volunteers who help with day-to-day operations, fostering rabbits, transportation, and more.

“There’s a nationwide crisis of people trying to surrender pets,” she said. “So we have to triage; we can’t take every pet, or we’d be handling thousands of pets. We can handle maybe 50 in the whole rescue at a time — maybe a dozen requests every week.”

For instance, “if someone is bored with their rabbit, but they’re safe, warm, and well-fed, we’ll probably turn those away. If a rabbit has been abandoned and neglected, or is very sick, we’re more likely to act in those scenarios. We get them spayed, neutered, and take care of all their medical needs — and some have high medical needs.”

The team will try to bond rabbits if someone wants more than one, and they make sure families spend time with the animals they’ll be adopting.

“When you first see them make that connection and bond — you see them falling in love — you know you’re completing a family in an important way. We know the work we’re doing is really paying off from the phone calls and letters from people thanking us. We’re not only making a difference for the rabbits, we’re making a difference for humans.”

It’s quite different work from Beerology, the home-brew shop Starr and her husband, Mike Schilling, have co-owned in Northampton since 2016. Meanwhile, in her spare time, Starr loves international travel, ballroom dancing, and performing in theater. In fact, she landed her first professional role last summer with Faultline Ensemble, playing a rookie EMT in a play called Counting Pebbles; the group is hoping to win a grant to tour the show in six cities.

“It’s about trauma and resiliency,” Starr said — both of which she’s had to navigate plenty for some furry friends looking for a better life.

—Joseph Bednar


Class of 2024

Human Resources Manager, RepresentUs: Age 31

Stephanie Slysz has long been interested in politics. In college and early in her career, she interned in the Massachusetts governor’s office and the U.S. State Department, worked at a U.S. embassy, and volunteered on a mayoral campaign.

While working as an office assistant at WHMP, she learned about RepresentUs because its executive director at the time, Josh Silver, was a regular on the station’s Bill Newman Show.

“We were nerding out about ranked-choice voting one night,” she recalled. “They were hiring for his assistant, he recommended I apply, and the rest is history.”

Slysz sees her current role as “an opportunity to grow HR for an organization that I strongly believe in, and I very much appreciate supporting the folks doing the work on the ground.”

RepresentUs describes itself as America’s leading non-partisan anti-corruption organization, fighting to fix “our broken and ineffective government.” Among its current campaigns are efforts in numerous states to implement ranked-choice voting, fight campaign corruption, and defend democracy and voter access.

Similar to how same-sex marriage, cannabis legalization, and other ideas found traction on the state level first, she explained, “the idea is to create enough momentum in these cities and states so Congress has to act on it eventually.”

As opposed to working on the ground in campaigns, where it’s easy to get emotionally invested and burnt out, Slysz feels energized to support the priorities of RepresentUs on a broader scale.

“I will always need to dedicate my time to mission-based things, whether it’s where I work or volunteering in my community,” she said, before expressing enthusiasm about the RepresentUs mission. “If you can fix the problem of money in politics, if you can make government work for more than special interests, you can fix all these other things. That is the root problem.”

Speaking of community, Slysz also chairs the Hatfield Planning Board, through which she sits on a multi-town committee organized by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to address farmland-protection policies, represents the board on the Hatfield 2040 Comprehensive Plan Committee, and more.

“I am involved locally, and that is also not partisan; I feel like it’s the way you can have the most impact on your community,” she said. “Nationally, nothing is really moving, so taking it local is the way to go. A lot of young people don’t know about their small town and their local government, but it’s not a huge lift to sit on a board or committee, build your skills, and be more connected to your town.”

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2024

Tax Collector, City of Holyoke: Age 39

Laura Shaw acknowledged that few people, if any, would list ‘tax collector’ as a career objective.

And she certainly didn’t.

Indeed, growing up, she studied criminology and law and aspired to join the FBI, before working in airline security and later as budget director for the Hampden County Registry of Deeds.

When she saw a posting for tax collector in Holyoke, she thought it would be something she’d be good at, and perhaps even enjoy. And why not? After all, it’s in her blood; her grandfather, William Burns, held this same position through much of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

And from what her parents, her many aunts and uncles, and a colleague hired by her grandfather tell her, Shaw brings many of the same attributes to the job that her grandfather did.

These include patience, diligence, being direct but fair with those who owe the city taxes, and even having a sense of a humor about the job and its responsibilities. Indeed, she described a tax collector as “an accountant who gets yelled at,” and wondered out loud, while marching in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, if she should wear the sash with ‘Tax Collector’ written on it and risk being booed — or worse.

Jokes aside, tax collecting is serious business, she said, adding that property and excise taxes and other assessments are the lifeblood for any community, especially one like Holyoke.

“I like going to work every day, even if a lot of it is dealing with unhappy people,” she said, adding that many of the harder questions she gets are for the assessor, and she is essentially the “bearer of bad news.”

In addition to her work at City Hall, Shaw is very involved in her community, especially with its pride and joy, the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round. She serves on the board for the landmark attraction and chairs its fundraising committee, spearheading, among other initiatives, a golf tournament that raised $20,000.

She also serves as a member of the city’s patriotic events committee, assisting in efforts to honor veterans; she started a push-up challenge at the 2023 Memorial Day celebration and has facilitated art contests for Girls Inc. of the Valley and the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club in which young people depict what Veterans Day and Memorial Day mean to them.

For Shaw, serving the city and its people is a passion, something she takes as seriously as collecting taxes — and serving faithfully as that accountant who gets yelled at.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Marketing Director, TommyCar Auto Group: Age 37

While acknowledging that it sounds somewhat cliché, Kayla Sheridan said the broad scope of her work with TommyCar Auto Group constitutes not a job, but a passion.

“It’s important to me because it allows me to combine my love for marketing with my desire to make a positive impact in the community,” she said of her role in marketing and public relations, which also involves being the driving force behind virtually every aspect of the Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament staged by the company each year. “Every campaign, event, or initiative is an opportunity for me to connect with people, inspire change, and drive success.”

A graduate of the University of Connecticut with a degree in communication sciences and business administration, Sheridan said she knew little about the auto industry when she joined TommyCar as social-media coordinator a decade ago. But she quickly immersed herself in it to better understand how to get the TommyCar message across and help position the company for continued growth.

“I’ve grown to love the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the automobile industry,” said Sheridan, who gradually took on more responsibilities and, eventually, the title of marketing director. “And one of the challenges in this industry is the need to adapt to changing trends and technologies; digital marketing, in particular, has undergone a significant transformation in recent years, and my role has been to navigate these changes and incorporate new strategies into our marketing campaigns.”

Today, she handles everything from media buying to managing the websites for the dealerships; from coordinating events and sponsorships to helping set a tone for the auto group’s philanthropic giving.

While doing that, she has become a force in the Driving for the Cure event, which has now raised more than $1.5 million for cancer research, handling everything from the securing of sponsorships to decorations in the hall; from the menu to organizing on-course activities.

“It’s been an honor to play such a pivotal role in an event that supports such a worthy cause,” she said, adding that giving back the community is one of her core values, and she does so in many ways, from participating in the Hot Chocolate Run to benefit Safe Passage to spearheading the Sip and Shop Galentine’s Day event at the TommyCar dealerships to showcase and support women-owned businesses.

The mother of two young children, Sheridan is very active in their lives, especially their many sports, including motorsports, where she can once again use that phrase ‘driving force.’

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Chief Dam Safety Engineer, FirstLight: Age 39

Media SehatzadehMedia Sehatzadeh has worked on four continents and several different countries, from Norway to Malawi. She’s thrived in all those settings, she said, because she speaks a common language she encounters everywhere: engineering.

“The engineers are the same, and they speak the same language,” she told BusinessWest. “The language of the countries may be different, but the mathematical language and the way that you approach a problem and the way you design something and make improvements … it’s heartwarming for me to see how similar it is and how much we have in common.”

Her latest work with this common language is taking place in the Northeast, as chief dam safety engineer for FirstLight, a clean-energy power producer, developer, and energy-storage company serving North America. Sehatzadeh is responsible for overseeing critical infrastructure that serves communities across Western Mass., ensuring their safety and functionality.

Her responsibilities extend to managing the overall safety program for all dams at the company’s hydroelectric facilities across New England, including the Northfield Mountain Pumped Hydro Storage Station, the largest pumped-storage asset in New England, capable of storing 8,700 megawatt-hours of electricity, sufficient to power more than 1 million homes.

Sehatzadeh said she always wanted to be a civil engineer, and after earning a bachelor’s degree in that realm in Iran, she completed a master’s program in environmental geology, hydrology, and geohazards at the University of Oslo in Norway.

“Hydrology is something within the overlap of civil engineering and geosciences,” she explained, adding that dam safety became her specific area of focus.

She started her career in Norway, but would later work on projects in different corners of the globe, including the detailed design and construction of the Kamuzu Barrage on the Shire River in Malawi in East Africa. She came to the U.S. in 2018 and eventually became a U.S. citizen.

Since arriving, she’s been part of several projects locally, including the ‘dewatering’ of the Northfield Mountain reservoir and subsequent inspection and monitoring to ensure the safety of the mountain’s dam and dikes — critical structures that “generally don’t see the light of day,” as she put it.

While proud of her work, Sehatzadeh is equally gratified by her mentorship role through Women in Hydropower and her work to encourage women to enter STEM fields.

And when not working, she enjoys art, hiking, snorkeling, and pretty much anything else that will get her outdoors.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Youth Mental Health Coalition Manager, Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts: Age 39

Tiffany RufinoIt’s called “I Am More Than My Mood.”

That public awareness campaign, seen on billboards, buses, and digital ads since its unveiling in early 2023, aims to destigmatize the subject of mental health and empower young people to talk about it — and, hopefully, take steps toward self-care.

It’s just one element of Tiffany Rufino’s impactful work as Youth Mental Health Coalition manager at the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts.

“The coalition is all about preventive methods for youth mental health, how we convene and bring together different professionals and residents across different sectors: behavioral-health professionals, private clinicians, and residents who are interested in youth mental health and want to impact change in their communities,” she explained.

Many ideas in the campaign came a youth advisory board called Beat the Odds, Forget the Statistics.

“They get together weekly and talk about topics around mental health and work to bring information to the community and build awareness,” Rufino explained. “They’re comfortable talking about mental health and encourage their peers to do the same.”

She’s learned that today’s teens are a little more open to talking about mental health than, say, their parents.

“It really becomes an opportunity to share some challenges they’re going through and recognize that other young people are experiencing the same,” she went on. “With the coalition, we’re focusing on parents and guardians, getting them up to speed on where their youth are and helping them realize that talking about stress doesn’t make you weak or inferior in any way; it’s just the reality of life.”

Rufino has worked in community and youth development for a long time, building relationships with local schools and colleges with Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts and addressing root causes of poor reading levels in schools with Parent Villages, to name two previous roles.

“I really have a passion for creating opportunities for young people, especially my community in Springfield, and making sure they have opportunities and pathways for success,” she said, adding that, through the coalition she has assembled at the Public Health Institute, she’s able to address issues ranging from stress, anxiety, and depression to the ways intergenerational trauma impacts parenting today.

“The youth are so critical because they can impact change now and in the future,” Rufino said. “It’s a really great feeling to be able to spearhead this work and see tangible results coming from young people, and even parents and guardians. It gives me goosebumps every time.”

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2024

Owner, Spill the Tea Sis: Age 38

Mischa RoyMischa Roy has long been connected with the arts in Western Mass.; two decades ago, at age 18, she was one of the youngest exhibitors at the Paradise City Arts Festival, among other high-profile events. She eventually opened retail spaces for her handmade wares and, in 2014, launched a wholesale brand called Spill the Tea Sis, selling to more than 6,000 stores across the country.

Roy moved to Florida for a while, but during the pandemic, she decided to come home and operate the wholesale business from Western Mass., but she was struck by the impact COVID was having on Northampton’s downtown.

“I was walking around Main Street and saying, ‘man, that little storefront could probably use some life,’” she recalled, so she opened a Spill the Tea Sis location there, selling unique home and gift items, in July 2022. Since then, the store has been named best gift shop by Valley Advocate readers two years running. “It’s kind of been a whirlwind of crazy growth since then. Now, it’s a million-dollar-a-year business, and we run events.”

Roy said all the candles, jewelry, and many other items sold at Spill the Tea Sis are made in-house, and she’s been able to support other local artisans as well. The store also features an active herb wall and its own tea line, and many of her offerings have a metaphysical bent.

“A lot of stores around here have similar products to each other. When somebody walks in our door, I want them to find the thing they can’t find anywhere else,” she said. “I want them to find something they love, that speaks to them.”

Last year, Roy launched a monthly block party from May to October, giving local vendors who may not have a brick-and-mortar presence, farmers, and other stores on Main Street the chance to set up tents and connect with visitors, and she’s looking forward to repeating the experience in 2024. She also brought a successful pop-up to the Big E in 2023 and plans to return this fall.

She has also spearheaded a slate of free artistic and cultural programming on Main Street and hosted events for community members to participate in, contributing to downtown vibrancy and drawing more visitors to town.

“People bring friends to town, and when they come here, they know they’re going to have an experience,” she said. “The reality is, people need more reasons to come back post-pandemic. I really enjoy making connections with our community and our customers.”

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2024

Associate Attorney, Bacon Wilson, P.C.: Age 39

Jennifer SharrowJennifer Sharrow can’t remember the name of the book she read back in middle school. But she does recall it was about a judge, that it made a deep impact on her, and that it inspired her to want to be a judge herself.

She would later adjust that career goal slightly — with a focus on becoming a lawyer — while maintaining a strong desire to enter the legal profession because she saw it as way to help people and positively impact lives.

And she’s essentially proven herself right during a wide-ranging career to date, one that started at the height of the Great Recession — when most law firms stopped hiring — with a job at AmeriCorps, a semi-volunteer position doing organizational development for a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Manchester, N.H.

She then went on to be a civil-rights investigator with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, commuting from New Hampshire to Boston on Amtrak, and then something she described as “more holistic that got me more involved in the community” — a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then the Small Business Administration in the broad realm of community development, assisting small businesses with everything from loans to recovery after natural disasters.

Sharrow continues to work with small businesses in her current role as an associate attorney with Springfield-based Bacon Wilson, handling everything from initial business formation to employment agreements; from leasing of commercial properties to sales of business assets.

She is her department’s authority on women-owned businesses, helping clients work with the state Supplier Diversity Office to give marginalized business owners access to additional opportunities. And recently, she spearheaded Bacon Wilson’s response to the new federal requirements for businesses under the Corporate Transparency Act.

“I like working with the business owners,” she said. “It’s the variety of businesses I enjoy, even when they’re starting out. Entrepreneurs amaze me; their spirit and enthusiasm in starting these businesses is inspiring. And it’s the same with the people who have been working in these businesses, building them up and putting in their time and sweat and stress. I’m just so impressed by them.”

Active in the community, Sharrow is chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals in Belchertown and a member of Springfield Women with a Purpose, the Hampden County Bar Assoc., and the Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Assoc. An avid runner, she participates in many area 5Ks, especially those supporting shelter animals.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

President, Iron-Lift LLC: Age 39

Jenna RahkonenJenna Rahkonen said she developed a unique set of skills during her career in manufacturing and construction — and used them to launch a business last year.

Rewinding a couple decades, she joined her family’s business, Alden Manufacturing, right out of college and eventually became director of Operations there.

“I learned a lot being involved in projects from start to finish and being in the factory when things were made,” she recalled. “I fell in love with the job, which was shocking to everyone, including myself.”

After her family sold the business, Rahkonen moved into the construction world, working in the Finance department at Northern Construction in Palmer, and later helping her husband, Alex, start his own crane-rental company, Northern Crane LLC, in the same town. There, while maintaining her financial role at Northern, she aided in the completion of 10 wind-turbine projects across the U.S. But she craved the challenge of running a business of her own.

“That’s how Iron-Lift LLC was born,” she said, explaining that the steel-erection company, which specializes in bridge construction, operates two branches out of its Monson headquarters: one that works on the state level with the Department of Transportation, the Department of Fish and Game, and other agencies; and a federal branch that has secured significant contracts, including a major current project performing lock and dam repairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It’s been interesting every single day, waking up and learning something new, overcoming a new challenge,” she said. “And I have an incredible team behind me.”

Active in the community, Rahkonen also volunteers with HomeFront Strong, a nonprofit organization that works to build resilience in veterans and military families. As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and the granddaughter of a Korean War and World War II veteran, she wanted to give back to those who have served this county.

Specifically, she’s HomeFront Strong’s treasurer and auditor; coordinates the food-distribution program, which delivers boxes of food to homebound veterans in the Palmer and Ware area; and serves on the board of directors, where she’s involved in the annual golf-tournament fundraiser, the annual Veterans Day breakfast, and fundraising for Suicide Awareness Month every September.

“It really puts a focus on family members of veterans as well, because they all go through similar things,” Rahkonen said. “We also do storytelling, where veterans and surviving family members tell their stories to volunteers during an interview. We’re trained in PTSD and mental health, and it’s therapeutic for them to tell their story.”

—Joseph Bednar


Class of 2024

Founder and Principal, BroadLeaf Advisors: Age 36

Shavon ProphetShavon Prophet is a big believer in employee ownership of businesses.

“It’s a way that we can ensure that legacy businesses can continue on into the future and create more wealth for more people,” she said. “In the studies of employee-owned businesses, they have performed better on every outcome — recruitment and retention, employee engagement, and the stark contrast when it comes to how much wealth people have been able to build when they have an ownership stake in where they work.”

Long story short, she has made employee ownership a big part of her life’s work, the latest manifestation of which was the founding of BroadLeaf Advisors to help more businesses become owned by their employees.

Prophet has taken an intriguing path to this place in her life and career.

“I’ve always been really motivated by social impact — doing good for the world — ever since I was a child,” she explained, adding that her undergraduate degree was in environmental studies, and she started her career at green building firms.

But she ultimately felt pigeonholed by such work and eventually earned a social impact MBA and learned about social enterprise and designing businesses that were not only successful for their owners, but lasting in the community. And she would eventually focus on “democratizing the workplace,” as she put it.

As an advocate and educator of employee ownership, Prophet — a proud Filipino-American, hence the flag in her photo — has presented at several national conferences and led educational sessions for business owners and economic-development professionals across the Northeast. She has helped hundreds of business owners explore succession planning and employee-led buyouts, with a special focus on worker cooperatives and democratic business models.

In 2023, she was appointed by Gov. Maura Healey to serve on the MassCEO advisory board for a four-year term following passage of the act that enabled the organization. That same year, she was appointed to the advisory board of the Center for Women & Enterprise for the Western Mass. region. A strong supporter of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, Prophet has also mentored entrepreneurs through local business accelerators, such as EforAll Pioneer Valley and Valley Venture Mentors.

And as a social entrepreneur herself, she co-founded All Good Cooperative, a multi-stakeholder cooperative made up of farmers, healers, and artisans in Western Mass. that won first place last year at the EforAll Pioneer Valley pitch contest and sold produce and goods from nine small businesses at local farmers markets.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

CEO, Academic Leadership Assoc.: Age 36

Vilenti TullochIt’s difficult enough to start a new business or nonprofit at any time and under any circumstances. But to do so at the height of a pandemic … well, that’s another story.

But that’s what Vilenti Tulloch did with the Academic Leadership Assoc. (ALA), a program with a mission to empower young people to make positive changes within themselves and in the community through mentoring literacy and self-advocacy while addressing their social and emotional needs. ALA has also developed a professional-development component called Equity in Action.

It was a step Tulloch thought he needed to take at that time in his career and with that much need within the community, and he has never looked back, capitalizing on an ability to relate to young people and, even more importantly, inspire them to set goals and then reach them.

As he explains how he started, Tulloch — who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Westfield State University and then a master’s degree in educational psychology at American International College — flashed back to when he was a teacher at an elementary school in Southbridge. “One of the administrators came to me and said, “the kids really like you; they gravitate toward you. I think it would be great if you started a mentoring program.’

“That wasn’t even on my radar back then — I was just trying to learn how to be a teacher,” he said, adding that his mentoring efforts turned into something called the Young Gentlemen’s Club. The students had to wear ties once a week, and there both check-ins and follow-ups that helped keep young people on the right path.

Tulloch would later become an adjustment counselor and then an administrator at the school before deciding to also launch his own initiative. He credits his wife, Yeselie, with coming up with the name, while he finalized a mission and a strategy for fulfilling it.

In his role, Tulloch trains mentors, leads school-based mentoring, and provides professional-development programs to nearly a dozen schools in four districts across Western Mass., including Springfield, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, and Holyoke.

“We’re growing, and we’re building systems that are really having an impact on the students and staff in the schools we’re working with,” he said, noting that, in 2021, he decided to devote all his time to the ALA.

Tulloch has earned several awards and accolades over the years, from a Game Changer award from the Springfield Thunderbirds to an NAACP award for community service. And now, he has another one: Forty Under 40.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Director of Youth, Violence Prevention, and Court Support Programs, YWCA of Western Massachusetts: Age 38

Yhidda OcasioYhidda Ocasio knows struggle. So she knows how to connect with those who are struggling.

She arrived in the U.S. as a young girl, after her family decided to escape the rampant crime and crushing poverty of Colombia to pursue the American dream. As a young teen, she sought employment at a McDonald’s because she could bring extra food home after her shifts, and her family didn’t have to go to bed hungry.

So, in her 17 years working at the YWCA of Western Massachusetts in Springfield, she’s been able to bring deep empathy to three roles — a young-parent support counselor and case manager, assistant program director of the domestic-violence shelter, and, currently, director of Youth, Violence Prevention, and Court Support Programs. She has also worked part-time as a Human Rights officer at the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).

“The YWCA has been a rewarding opportunity for me to give back to the community, and I’ve been able to apply the challenges I went through, not just in Colombia, but the barriers here as an immigrant,” Ocasio told BusinessWest. “My mom became a single mom several years after I arrived here, and she was working two to three jobs. Seeing my mom go through that struggle changed the outlook I had in regard to other women — single moms who were struggling.”

Over the years, Ocasio has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Westfield State University and Northcentral University, respectively, earning induction into the National Society of Leadership and Success at the latter — all this with English as her second language.

But that’s to be expected from someone who lives by the words in Matthew 19:26: “with God, all things are possible.” And she’s quick to express gratitude for everyone who has supported her along the way, from her mother and brother to her husband, Juan Ocasio; from the leaders at DDS to YWCA CEO Elizabeth Dineen “for her relentless mentorship.”

Ocasio has spoken at statewide trainings for nonprofits on topics like sexual assault, domestic violence, and healthy relationships, as well as addressing community events on immigration issues and refugee challenges. When she became a U.S. citizen in 2019, her colleagues threw her a huge party.

“It was a great day at the YWCA and a wonderful day to be an American,” Dineen said. “This is still the land of opportunity, and as a country, we are most fortunate to have humans like Yhidda Ocasio want to become a citizen.”

—Joseph Bednar


Class of 2024

Chief of Staff and General Counsel, Town of West Springfield: Age 39

Kate O’Brien Scott says she got into the legal profession “on a whim.”

Indeed, she majored in sports management at UMass Amherst, but after getting some experience in that field during an internship with the NHL’s Nashville Predators, she decided, “I don’t want to be doing ticket sales my whole life.”

Not knowing what else to do, she took the Law School Admission Test, applied to Western New England University School of Law, got accepted, and earned a scholarship. The rest is history that’s still being written.

Indeed, after working for five years in the private sector with the Springfield-based firm Sullivan, Hayes & Quinn, O’Brien Scott accepted West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt’s bid to essentially succeed him as head of the city’s Law department. And now, she follows him as a Forty Under 40 honoree.

“After he got elected mayor, we went out to lunch, and he said, ‘do you want to come work for me?’ I said, ‘absolutely,’” she recalled. “I was ready for a change of pace, and having grown up here and lived my whole life here, I thought that working for the town was something where I can make a difference in a different way.”

There are two titles on her business card — general counsel and chief of staff — with the latter emerging as she became increasingly involved in project-based work, everything from personnel issues to collective bargaining; from the town’s fiber project (in conjunction with two other department heads) to developing a downtown revitalization plan.

It’s a broad job description, one she’s enjoying.

“I like that every day is different,” she said. “When I started here in 2016, I never thought I’d be involved in all the things I’ve gotten involved in. Seeing all the behind-the-scenes things, and how they come together, and taking a project that starts as an idea to the end and then seeing the fruits of our labor is very rewarding.”

O’Brien Scott, who recently added ‘mom’ to her personal profile — her son, Callan, was born last November — is also active in the community. She has served on the board of the West Springfield Boys & Girls Club; is a member of the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Assoc.; and currently serves on the West Springfield Police Station Siting Committee, Cannabis Steering Committee, and Sister City Committee, as well as leading the Blight Task Force.

In addition, she volunteers with the West Springfield Lions Club and supports other nonprofits, while also spending time with family and playing golf and softball.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

CEO, Unstoppable Latina LLC: Age 37

Paulette Piñero remembers the hours before she slipped into a coma.

It was March 2020, and she was one of the very first COVID cases in Massachusetts. “My legs were purple; they thought they might have to cut them off. I lost 40% of my lung capacity by the end of the first week. A social worker brought me an iPad so I could say goodbye to my family.”

Two years before that, she’d started writing a business plan, one that would help clients with business strategy and creativity. “But I continued to second-guess myself: ‘this is not for me,’ or ‘maybe I’ll do it at some point when I retire.’ I just felt like the dream was out of reach.”

But in February 2020, a month before she fell ill, Piñero started working with a SCORE mentor and developed a real launch plan. And when she woke from her coma, she knew she didn’t want to waste any more time.

“I promised myself, if I left that hospital, I would never put my dreams on the back burner — and, miraculously, I left the hospital. I had physical therapy for more than two years, and I was diagnosed that summer with long COVID. But I still launched my business; it was the first thing I did when I got out of the hospital.”

Before creating Unstoppable Latina, Piñero spent her career — in both Puerto Rico and then Massachusetts — in the social-impact space, working on strategy, programming, and marketing programs for nonprofits and impactful companies.

Now, she empowers women entrepreneurs by cultivating their confidence and brand positioning to embrace personal narratives, address human needs creatively, and lead industries with inventive ventures.

“The way I measure impact is, do you feel like the CEO of your business? Do you have a strategy and the tools that will move you from a side hustle and overwhelmed to stepping up as the CEO of your business and making decisions? And then, can you disconnect and be present with your family?”

That last part is especially important, said Piñero, who is also the co-author of the 2021 book Extraordinary Latinas: Powerful Voices of Resilience, Courage & Empowerment.

“This experience has allowed me to see business success as something that serves both your clients and yourself. That, to me, is more successful than just the revenue. My business is not just for helping the local economy, but helping Latinas be confident in their business and be present for their families and community.”

—Joseph Bednar


Class of 2024

Executive Editor, Reminder Publishing: Age 28

Payton North didn’t remember aspiring to being a reporter and editor when she was growing up. But her mother found proof that this was, indeed, a long-standing career goal.

“She found a paper I wrote when I was a sophomore in high school where I talked about how I wanted to be an editor,” said North, who recalls having some interest in broadcast journalism, but eventually desired to make an impact that “would not be limited to a minute or two of soundbites.”

To say North has made that dream come true would be an understatement. She is now executive editor for Reminder Publications, leading efforts to produce eight weekly newspapers, one daily, two monthly magazines, and several specialty publications. She now oversees 20 employees as well as more than a dozen freelance writers and photographers.

She still does some writing, which she enjoys, but acknowledged that much of her time is now devoted to planning, managing, setting a tone for these publications, and mentoring younger staff members.

She acknowledged these are certainly challenging times for print publications, which have lost both readers and advertisers to the internet, but she said the need for local news remains, and such content is perhaps more important than ever.

This is the message she hammers home to young reporters, who often wonder out loud just how important it is to cover that local planning board or school committee meeting. North will answer for them.

“Accountability in our communities is so important,” she explained. “If we don’t have reporters’ boots on the ground covering our select board meetings, our town council meetings, our school board meetings — the local government that is affecting people’s taxes and their children’s school — something very important is lost. Those are the stories that really hit people in their homes, and I’m glad people come to us for that because they can’t get it anywhere else.”

While busy managing publications — and people — North is also active in the community. She volunteers with Valley Eye Radio, a nonprofit that reads and records newspapers and broadcasts in senior centers and hospitals for those who are visually impaired, and also gives of her time at Whispering Horse Therapeutic Riding Center in East Longmeadow.

All of this material could go into a short item for the Reminder’s publications — one announcing that North is a deserving member of the Forty Under 40 class of 2024.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Social Media Manager, Baystate Health: Age 34

Ally MontemagniAlly Montemagni sees herself as both a storyteller and an educator — and believes both roles are critical.

“Storytelling is my favorite part of the job. It’s just an honor to share someone’s story in healthcare,” she said, noting that she oversees all things social media — from content creation and video monitoring to analytics and reporting — across the entire Baystate Health network, from hospitals to specialty centers to primary care. “Usually it’s some real challenge, and we can put words and visuals to a patient’s story and bring it to life. It’s uplifting and validating for both the community and our team members.”

As for education, “we have an important role in providing a trusted source of information,” she explained. “That spiked during COVID; just keeping up with all the changes was a wild ride. In an age when people can put out anything on social media, to put out information that’s reliable, trusted, and comes from our experts, that’s an important role, and it’s a great way to interact with our community.”

But Montemagni’s favorite part of her job is spending time with patients and families, making sure they’re comfortable sharing their lives, and then doing so with sensitivity, as she does during the annual WMAS Radiothon for Baystate Children’s Hospital.

“That’s my favorite two days — interacting with the families and making fun content for the purpose of raising money for children in our community. I’ve cried with people. It’s all about the interaction with people and being a voice for their stories.”

Outside of work, Montemagni is a board member of Jenna’s Blessing Bags, which, for the past six years in Western Mass. and Northern Conn., has partnered with churches, community organizations, homeless shelters, police departments, and others to provide backpacks filled with life essentials to the homeless.

The charity was actually launched in Pennsylvania by her cousin, Jenna Burleigh, who became a victim of homicide in 2017. When her family decided to continue the work in her name, Montemagni brought the project to this region.

She also started a website, blog, and Instagram page called High Tide Healing, where she relates her own struggles and healing methods for grief. In addition, she has provided free photography services for worthy causes — including, recently, Rick’s Place, which provides grief support for children, teens, and families.

“It’s very, very close to my heart,” Montemagni said of Jenna’s Blessing Bags. “It’s our way of giving, turning some of that grief into purpose for us.”

And that’s a story worth telling.

—Joseph Bednar


Class of 2024

Director of Operations and Finance, Revitalize Community Development Corp.: Age 36

Chelsea McGrathChelsea McGrath knows what kind of impact home improvement can make.

“I never saw the impact until I started working here — how mold affects health, and how leaks, dirty carpets, dust, duct and vent cleaning, things that are really simple in nature can have such a big ripple effect. Poorly controlled asthma means kids are missing school and falling behind, which means the parents are missing work.

“So to come in and do a relatively simple intervention — pull up the carpet, get rid of the mold and leaks — now the kids can go to school, the parents can go to work … and it’s something that’s so easy to fix.”

That only begins to describe the broad community impact of Revitalize CDC. Meanwhile, the organization’s president and CEO, Colleen Shanley-Loveless, described McGrath’s impact since she came on board in 2021.

“Since joining us, Chelsea has hired staff, created new agency departments, and established policies and procedures to help us work more efficiently,” she noted. “Because of her commitment, dedication, and professionalism, Revitalize CDC has been able to add programs and hire and promote the right individuals.”

That includes increasing the budget from $1.3 million in 2021 to almost $5 million today, and purchasing a new facility to house the programs and growing staff. In 2020, Revitalize served 163 low-income families, impacting 657 people. In 2023, it served 650 families, impacting 2,521 individuals, Shanley-Loveless noted. “We couldn’t do what we do without her.”

Among the programs McGrath launched since her arrival is a nutrition program conducted, like the asthma program, in partnership with Baystate Health’s BeHealthy Partnership.

“We’re providing healthy food for people with diabetes or childhood obesity, and we’re able to educate people about proper food and make sure they have recipes and the supplies they need to cook food,” she said. “I’ve seen some dramatic changes — fewer trips to the emergency room, and some of the A1C scores have dropped.”

That’s real impact, and explains why McGrath tied for the highest judge scores among the 40 Under Forty class of 2024. So does her copious volunteer work with organizations like the WillPower Foundation, Rick’s Place, Yappy Tails dog rescue, and the Garden, a program at Cooley Dickinson Hospital for young people dealing with grief.

“If you’re in a position to help people, you have an obligation to do so,” McGrath said. “But I get so much out of it, too. It makes me happy. It makes me feel worthwhile. It’s not ‘why would I do that?’ but ‘why wouldn’t I?’”

—Joseph Bednar


Class of 2024

CEO, Sweetera & Co.: Age 37

Natalie MercadoNatalie Mercado always knew she wanted to work in the food space. After high school, she enrolled in New England Culinary Institute and earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts and restaurant management, then slowly rose up the ladder, eventually becoming a sous chef.

“My goal was always to open my own restaurant,” she recalled. “I did catering jobs on the side, but I never took the initiative to open up a business.”

In the meantime, she went to work for MassMutual as an underwriter consultant, a job she still has. But in 2021, she started pursuing her dream again, getting entrepreneurial help from EforAll Holyoke.

“I applied with the intention of starting a restaurant. This was all during COVID, and I was advised to rethink my business plan because so many storefronts were closing down.”

So, Mercado pivoted and launched a food trailer called Sweetera & Co., specializing in “milkshakes and over-the-top desserts.” She posts on her website and social media to let people know where the truck will be each week, and she also started catering. The enterprise was an immediate success, and still is three years later.

“I really didn’t expect it to take off the way that it did. It was a great surprise, honestly, because I had endured so many setbacks with building the trailer,” she said. “It was during COVID, so supplies were back-ordered, and trying to find reliable contractors was hard. So it took longer than anticipated. I had to get comfortable getting uncomfortable.”

But Mercado isn’t done challenging herself, with plans to launch a second trailer in Florida by next year and a storefront by 2026.

“Everyone’s like, ‘you’ve come so far, and you should be proud of yourself.’ And I am proud of myself, but I’m also hard on myself,” she told BusinessWest. “I know where I want to be, and I know I’m not there yet. But I need to give myself more credit than I do.”

She still enjoys her work at MassMutual, approving life-insurance applications and helping clients secure their future. But she sees a bigger future for herself in Sweetera & Co.

“I love the creativity,” she said. “The best part of it is seeing the customers’ reactions when they get their bubble waffle sundae or their milkshake — their eyes get really big like, ‘oh, wow.’ The feeling I get is incomparable. It really makes all the hard work and all the setbacks worth it.”

—Joseph Bednar


Class of 2024

Director of Philanthropy and Community Engagement, MGM Springfield: Age 38

Jennifer McGrathJennifer McGrath is fond of saying there are … well, two sides to Jennifer McGrath.

The first is the professional side. For more than a dozen years, it played out at Six Flags New England, and for the past seven months, it’s been at another regional institution focused on fun — MGM Springfield.

The other side involves a commitment to health and wellness — her own, but especially helping others find it. This commitment involves everything from teaching Zumba and trampoline to her own fitness platform.

To say that she is passionate about both sides would be an understatement, and this passion certainly explains why she is a member of the Forty Under 40 class of 2024, and why — to quote Kristine Allard, vice president of Development & Communication at Square One, who nominated her — “Jennifer McGrath is a force in Western Mass.”

As we explain why, we’ll start with that professional side. At MGM, she handles everything from coordinating community events to supporting nonprofits, such as Square One and the Mayflower Marathon; from developing relationships with government officials and the business community to managing all philanthropic requests and coordinating charitable sponsorships.

“My biggest part of my role is impact,” she said. “How can we volunteer? How can we provide our monetary donations? How can we create impact for the city, its students, its residents, and the region as well?”

She took on similar responsibilities, and others, including the training of more than 30,000 employees, at Six Flags, and said of her career to date, “it’s all about fun, entertainment, and allowing people to escape and celebrate the fun times in life. It’s no secret my entire career’s been built around that.”

As for the other side, McGrath sums it up by saying she’s focused on “health for everybody and every body.”

She’s an instructor at Fitness First and an experienced Zumba and JumpSport instructor. “I’m all about body heath and body positivity,” she told BusinessWest. My mission is all about wellness, and that means mind, body, and spirit.

Elaborating, she said she battled eating disorders earlier in her life, and her struggles and eventual triumph led to a passion to helping others find health and wellness, especially through her fitness platform.

“Almost 300 people come together daily, and we promote body wellness,” she said. “We post body inclusion, we champion positivity, and we talk about ways we can remain healthy through mind, body, and spirit.”

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Executive Director, Craig’s Doors: Age 35

When he was chosen as a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2024, Tim McCarthy was hesitant to talk about himself, firmly believing this is a team honor. “This is such a remarkable team,” he said. “It’s truly the best team in the country doing this work.”

That work is serving unhoused residents in Western Mass. at three sites. During McCarthy’s time as director, he has expanded programming to add new shelter locations, increase bed availability, and expand case-management support to residents of the region.

Currently a graduate student in mental health counseling and a member of the BEAHR Lab at UMass Boston, he has also worked to make Craig’s Doors (which was established in 2011 and named in memory of Craig Lorraine, a veteran and well-known street musician in Northampton and Amherst) a trauma-informed operation that practices what McCarthy calls “radical compassion.” It’s also the only homeless shelter in the country that provides free transportation to guests, thanks to a state-funded partnership with the PVTA.

“I just fell in love with this work and this population, and I had a vision for how it could intersect more deeply with concepts surrounding mental health,” he explained, adding that he also employs a number of former clients. “We’ve got a lot of folks with lived experience who existed in the margins. I’m a firm believer in providing opportunities for folks; a lot of people have overwhelming competence that might not be reflected in their résumé, so we try to build internally.”

McCarthy not only wants to raise people out of homelessness, he wants to close opportunity gaps he feels are far too prevalent today. “The outcomes we’re striving for are not built into the nature or ethos of this country right now. But we bring a level of competition to compassion. We’re out here trying to be the best at this work; we’re always trying to be better than we were the day before.”

Recognizing that homelessness is “the most glaring manifestation of wealth inequality,” he noted, Craig’s Doors has closed the compensation gap on its team, where everyone, no matter their role, starts at $20 per hour or more.

“That has allowed us to retain an incredible team and develop our roster. It also helps us to attract top talent within the space,” McCarthy said.

“We’re really practicing what we preach about humility and self-reflection,” he added. “We’re bringing a competitive work ethic promoted by capitalist ideals, but instead of applying it to individual wealth, we’re applying it to our principles.”

—Joseph Bednar