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Cover Story

Changing Course

Susan Beaudry, founder of Beau Co. Wine

Susan Beaudry, founder of Beau Co. Wine

Among the many side effects of COVID and the so-called Great Resignation that has accompanied it has been a recognized surge in entrepreneurial activity. It has manifested itself in many ways, from soaring registration for the “Basics of Starting a Business” course at the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center to the absorption of many vacant storefronts, to area chambers filling their calendars with ribbon cuttings. Each story is different, but there are some common threads, including a desire to use the time and inclination provided by the pandemic to realize what’s important. And in many cases, it’s starting that business that one has always dreamed about.

 

Susan Beaudry says there’s a story behind every wine label she distributes.

That’s certainly the case with one called Sophie, a product of South Africa.

“The locals … their accents couldn’t pronounce sauvignon blanc,” she explained. “And it kept coming out ‘Sophie,’ so they named the wine Sophie. The wife of the husband-and-wife team that own it created this beautiful young woman that’s on the label — Sophie. The tagline is ‘the most beautiful woman that never was.’”

It is these stories — and, again, she has dozens of them — that go a long way toward explaining Beaudry’s fascination for wine, and her dream of creating a business that brings labels like Sophie to the 413.

It’s a dream she’s had for some time now, and one that became real because of COVID-19 — at least in some respects.

Beaudry, as many readers may know, was the executive director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, which was essentially shut down by COVID in early 2020, and there are now questions about when and if it will return to the place in regional culture it occupied before COVID arrived.

But that’s another story.

This one is about how Beaudry found the time — and the inclination — during COVID to move ahead and make that dream, called Beau Co. Wine, reality.

“Toward the end of 2020, we started seeing many people who were either laid off or who had left their jobs, for whatever reason, who wanted to start their own businesses.”

The wines she imports can be found, among other places, at the Springfield Wine Exchange, a new storefront in Tower Square owned by Carlo Bonavita, who is part of this movement, if we can call it that, as well. He decided a few years ago to go back into business — the liquor-selling business — for himself and found some additional motivation during the pandemic (more on that later).

Beaudry and Bonavita are far from the only ones to use this crack in time to pause, re-evaluate, and perhaps fulfill an entrepreneurial urge, said Samalid Hogan, executive director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Western Mass. office. But not for much longer, which we’ll get to in a minute.

She told BusinessWest that, as a result of a number of colliding factors — from people losing their jobs to individuals losing interest in what they were doing, to remote workers not at all excited about orders to return to the office — there has been a surge in entrepreneurial energy.

“Toward the end of 2020, we started seeing many people who were either laid off or who had left their jobs, for whatever reason, who wanted to start their own businesses,” she explained. “And in 2021, we’re seeing a huge surge in people calling the office looking for help in starting a business. There were so many that we had to create another ‘Basics of Starting a Business’ class; we usually offer one a month, but we had to double up and increase the number of registrations from 30 people to 40 people.”

And now, she is part of this story, although she certainly doesn’t need the “Basics” course.

Indeed, she will be stepping down from her role with the MSBDC later this month to start her own consulting business.

Samalid Hogan

Samalid Hogan says many people reached a crossroads during the pandemic and chose the road to business ownership — and she’s one of them.

She said that, like others during this time of COVID, she did a lot of thinking about what was important and what she wanted to do with her life. And she decided that now was the time to put her own name in the door.

Actually, that name will be Greylock Management Consulting, a nod to the highest mountain in the state, a venture that will be focused on both existing businesses and the agencies providing services to startups, especially minority-owned ventures.

Hogan said she is launching this venture with both eyes open, and full acknowledgement of the fact that consulting is often a challenging way to earn a living and a significant departure from a steady job with a steady paycheck. But it’s a gamble she’s ready to take.

Actually, she’s taking two gambles. In addition to her own business, she has become chief operating officer for the Latino Marketing Agency, launched by Veronica Garcia, who also fits the profile of someone who found time and inspiration during the pandemic to move ahead with an entrepreneurial venture.

A television producer, soap-opera actress, and influencer in the Latino community, she worked for many years at New England Public Media, where she was the host of a popular and award-winning bilingual series named Presencia. In April of this year, when NEPM announced it could no longer produce the show, she left the station to start to Viviendo Sin Limites (Living Without Limits), with the goal of having it become the go-to resource for mental health and emotional well-being for the Spanish-speaking population. She also started the Latino Marketing Agency, in conjunction with Hogan, to help Hispanic-owned businesses with that critical aspect of their operations.

“I now have the privilege to know many entrepreneurs in this region, and I’ve found that marketing is one of the areas where they need assistance, especially Latino businesses,” she said, adding that, like Hogan, she is confident that her change of course career-wise, from steady paycheck to the uncertainty of being a business owner, is the right course.

 

Proof Positive

As noted, Bonavita is no stranger to wines and the liquor business. Indeed, his family owned and operated several liquor stores in the area, including Riverside Liquors in Agawam, and he worked at them for a number of years.

When he left in 2002, he signed a non-compete agreement that was 15 years in duration. It wasn’t long before he started counting the years down, and after a decade or so of working in property management, specifically condominium projects, he was quite ready to go back to working for himself.

COVID only served to accelerate the process further.

Veronica Garcia has launched two new ventures

Veronica Garcia has launched two new ventures, Latino Marketing Agency and a platform called Viviendo Sin Limites — Living Without Limits.

“When COVID hit, it changed the way we did business a zillion percent,” he explained. “It meant more hours, more everything, and at the age I was getting to, I was getting burned out and tired of this. I knew it was time to do what I wanted to do.”

And that was to open another business of his own, one he calls the Wine Exchange. He has a wide variety of labels with price tags from $7.99 to $115, and features a variety of gift baskets as well. He opened in October, good timing considering the approaching holidays, and said he’s off to a good start thanks to those who are returning to the office tower in his building and the others in the downtown area.

As for his decision to strike out on his own?

“I absolutely love it — I really do,” he said. “I’m not a guy who could retire completely, and I couldn’t sit at home. So this is perfect; it’s where I want to be at this point in my life.”

Beaudry, who provides most of the labels on his shelves and in his racks, said essentially the same thing, but her story — her dream of becoming a wine wholesaler, importer, distributor, and ‘enthusiast’ — is much different and took a lot longer to become reality.

“I was getting burned out and tired of this. I knew it was time to do what I wanted to do.”

She said her love of wine developed over time and especially when she was traveling extensively for her former employer, Simplex. Her travels would take her to its various branch offices around this country and other countries, and would inevitably involve visits to local attractions — and restaurants, preferably the ‘hole in the wall’ she asked to be taken to.

The good food she encountered was almost always accompanied by good wine as well. She would attempt to replicate what she encountered, food and beverage-wise, at dinner parties that would grow in size over time, with many of the attendees encouraging her to start her own restaurant or other related business.

She said she long desired to venture into wine importing and distributing, but life and family responsibilities made it difficult to leave a steady paycheck and take that leap.

“I think COVID presented the opportunity, with the symphony not performing and all the employees furloughed,” she explained. “Meanwhile, my daughter had just completed her first year of college, so the stars were aligned for me; I went ahead and got started.”

There are many stories like these being written in the region at this unprecedented time, when many have been sidelined by COVID and others have taken stock of their lives and decided they wanted — and needed — something different. The so-called Great Resignation (Bonavita and others we spoke to could be considered part of that) has prompted some to leave for other jobs, but others to absorb some risk and go into business for themselves, Hogan said.

The phenomenon has manifested itself in many ways, from new beer labels to the absorption of vacant storefronts, to area chambers of commerce giving their giant ceremonial scissors a workout with seemingly non-stop ribbon cuttings.

And also those soaring registration numbers for the MSBDC’s “Basics of Starting a Business” class, which is now offered online because of the pandemic, said Hogan, adding that she has seen a very diverse group of individuals gravitate to that offering.

By that she meant both older and younger men and women, those representing many ethnic groups, and people with varied backgrounds, from professionals to retirees, to some not far removed from the college classroom.

The class, as might be gleaned from its title, focuses on the basics — writing a business plan, legal considerations, licensing, insurance, business entities, and much more.

Many of the labels Susan Beaudry now distributes can be found at the Springfield Wine Exchange, founded by Carlo Bonavita, left.

“We don’t give advice during the class,” she stressed. “The goal is to give information to the attendees so they understand all that is involved with starting a business from an administrative, practical point of view; we don’t get into business models, and we don’t get into whether you have a good idea or not.”

Many who sign up for that class will eventually reach out for one-on-one advisory services from the agency, she said, adding that there has been a decided uptick in the number of people seeking such services.

 

Grape Expectations

As for her own venture, Greylock Consulting, Hogan is confident she has a good idea, one born from a desire help more small-business owners, especially minority-owned businesses. Her plan is to consult for individual businesses and also the various groups assisting such businesses and help streamline and improve the programs they provide.

She said she has several clients in the pipeline and is confident she can succeed in the challenging world of consulting.

“I’ve done consulting before,” she said. “You have to have a good, healthy pipeline of clients, there’s a lot of proposal writing involved, a lot of meetings prior to revenue-generating activities that you have to be willing to do and invest your time in. It’s a different world, but I like it.”

It’s a different world for Beaudry, as well, but one that she long desired to be in.

That said, she acknowledged that starting her importing and distribution company required more than time and inclination. It also requires capital, and a lot of contacts.

“It took a lot of tenacity — finding a warehouse, securing the insurances, the licenses, and everything else you need,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s really just been about working my contacts, people I know who tell me, ‘this is where we buy our great wines; the person who owns it is this … go introduce yourself.’ It’s been typical sales-call daily activity: going out, shaking hands, letting people know who I’m representing and some of the wines that I have available.

“It’s also very new — it’s just starting to gain momentum now,” she went on, adding that there have been distribution issues to contend with and other challenges, but, overall, she is making steady progress.

The next step is to create her own import activities, Beaudry said, adding that she will soon be traveling to Europe to meet with some small, boutique vineyard owners and winemakers, with the goal of importing some labels on her own.

She has a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Westfield, one she hopes — and expects — to outgrow in only a year or two, and plans to distribute the wines she brings there to restaurants, country clubs, liquor stores, concert arenas, “anywhere you can buy a glass of wine.”

At present, she carries 58 different SKUs, and she’s connected with another distributor who will give her another 100, all them small, boutique winemakers that have a story.

“These are small businesses, family-owned, multiple generations for many of them,” she said. “I want to stick with these family-owned small options that have a lot of historic value — and they have interesting stories; the further back the history of the vineyard goes, the more interesting the story is, and a lot of people who love wines also love the stories.”

As for Garcia’s story, it’s another one where the opportunity and inclination were there to propel her to her current status as business owner.

She said she has long understood that, in general, and within the Hispanic community in particular, mental illness is something that isn’t talked about — or really understood. And she has long desired to create a forum where such issues could be discussed and both information and inspirational stories could be presented. So when NEPM announced that it would no longer produce Presencia, she gave her notice and created Viviendo Sin Limites.

Its stated mission is to “motivate, inspire, educate, and inform in a dynamic environment through interviews, blogs, conferences, sharing personal experiences related to our emotions and well-being, and offer tools to have an open, lively, positive, creative, and joyful mind,” and the goal is to be one of the first talk shows in New England for the Latino community through social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

As for the Latino Marketing Agency, it has already signed on a few clients to provide marketing and consulting services, she said, adding that she believes there is enormous potential for such a venture in this market — for both Hispanic-owned businesses and companies looking to market effectively to the region’s growing Hispanic community.

 

Dream Weavers

Summing up what she’s seeing, hearing — and doing herself, Hogan said that, because of the pandemic and issues springing from it, including those leading to all those resignations, many people are finding themselves at a crossroads.

And increasingly, they’re taking the road to entrepreneurship, one that certainly has its share of dangerous curves, speed bumps, hills, and dips. This road is not for the faint of heart, but in this climate, many people are finding they have what it takes to at least start down that road and pursue a long-held dream.

That’s how it is for Beaudry, who spends a good amount of time telling stories like the one about the Sophie label from South Africa and countless others now in her warehouse and on area shelves.

As for her own story, it’s still being written, and like the many others now generating some entrepreneurial energy, she’s finding each chapter to be everything she hoped it would be, and more.

 

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

Cover Story

The Road Ahead

In late May, after 15 months of living through a global pandemic, the state entered into a phrase the governor called “a new normal.” A few months later, most businesspeople would say this ‘normal’ isn’t everything they expected or wanted. Indeed, while business has picked up in many sectors, from hospitality to healthcare, there are myriad challenges facing the business community, from what can only be called a workforce crisis to shortages of goods and rising prices; from a new and very potent strain of the coronavirus to issues with when and how to bring employees back to the office. To get a sense of where things are and, especially, where we may be headed, BusinessWest convened a panel of area business leaders — Deborah Bitsoli, president of Mercy Medical Center; Harry Dumay, president of Elms College; Patrick Leary, a partner with MP CPAs; Elizabeth Paquette, president of Rock Valley Tool in Easthampton; Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank; and Edison Yee, a principal of the Bean Restaurant Group. Their answers to a series of questions on the economy and the forces shaping it are certainly eye-opening.

 

BusinessWest: How is the process of returning to ‘normal’ proceeding at your business?

 

Bitsoli: “It does appear that patients are coming back; our Emergency Department is really returning back to the volumes it had before the pandemic. On the surgical side, the same thing is occurring. I do think there is a lot of caution about the fall, but for the time being, patients are seeking the appropriate level of care, including a lot of the screenings they put off. That’s the good news in terms of a public-health policy standpoint. At the hospital, we’re still wearing masks, and we’re still relying heavily on Webex; we have some meetings face to face, but we still have masks on. As for returning to normal, we continue to have a focus on patient safety, and we have an expansion planned in our Emergency Department. Overall, we are trying to return to normal, but everyone is looking to the fall, and there is caution there. The one big difficulty is hiring staff.”

 

Dumay: “At the college, ‘normal’ for us would mean getting back to the high-touch, nurturing, vibrant, in-person environment for teaching and learning. Returning to normal means having everyone on campus in the same mode we had pre-pandemic. The process for preparing for that is the same as we had last year, with the ElmsSafe Plan for making sure that employees and students are safe. That begins with a level of vaccination that we need to accomplish. That’s why we came out very early and required vaccinations for our students and employees. The challenges are to ensure that we’re getting to that level of vaccination that the state considers optimal for campuses, which is roughly 90%. We are gearing up for the fall, to have full in-person learning and all of our faculty and staff on campus. We have a task force that is meeting on a regular basis to come up with all the elements of the ElmsSafe plan so that we can make sure our campus is safe and as back to ‘normal’ as possible.”

 

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

“For the traditional undergraduate, first-time freshman, we had a record deposit year, and we are looking at potentially a record enrollment year for first-time freshmen, so that has come back better than it was before.”

 

Leary: “We have found that our biggest challenge to returning to normal is a big investment in software. When we all went remote in March of 2020, we found the flaws in our system, we found out where we were falling down and where our system couldn’t handle the stress of people working remotely, etc. So we had a big investment in software across the board — we’ve replaced really all of our systems, so we met the challenge of not only keeping up with workload, but having people keep up with workload while also learning new software. The other challenge involves getting back to the office; being a CPA, we can work from just about anywhere — I can be in my office, or I can be sitting in the Caribbean, which, unfortunately, is not what I’m doing now. This presents us with a lot of challenges. We have a very young workforce — half our staff is 30 or younger — so they’re very much tuned into the social aspects of being in the office and like being in the office, which is great. Our greatest challenge is going to be how we incorporate our client-service work with the protocols of each of our clients; each one presents its own unique circumstances — our staff can’t be stagnant and say ‘this is how we’re going to do things.’

 

Paquette: “We’re a machine shop that manufactures parts for aerospace, defense, sports, and leisure, blow-mold and extrusion. When everything hit in the spring of 2020, we were getting letters from larger customers saying ‘you can’t shut down — you have to stay working.” So we were very busy, but at the same time, we had seven of our 43 employees leave for one reason or another due to COVID, so we had this intense workload, and we had to scrounge and fill the gaps in our workforce. And then, in mid-June, our largest aerospace customer said, ‘we don’t have anything to send anymore,’ and by the end of the summer, we had laid off a total of 13. Now, with things a little more normalized, we’ve been able to bring back some of those we had to lay off. So when we talk about returning to normal, we’re just trying to work our way through this crisis and keep people’s mental health in mind and … just keep working.”

 

Senecal: “Overall, I don’t know if ‘normal’ is the right word at this point — it certainly is a new normal. We’re going back to a hybrid method for our workforce — we’re going to allow people to work from home as well as work in our building. I’m a firm believer in culture, and I’m a firm believer in some sort of work in the office. The challenges with that hybrid workforce include dealing with office space — that’s going to affect a lot of our customers — and technology needs; how do we adapt to technology, and how do we use technology? One of the biggest ones is communicating expectations when you go to a hybrid model — how do you communicate with people expectations of what is expected of them, for meetings, for hours worked, for a lot of things? How do you evaluate good performance from a remote-workforce perspective? Those are all a challenge. Also, getting people comfortable with and without facemasks — we’re going back to work in this new normal, and people aren’t sure of the expectations when it comes to facemasks. It’s challenging getting people comfortable in those settings.

 

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“I think we’re all going in the right direction, and there’s nothing but good news ahead as long as inflation stays in check.”

 

Yee: “For restaurants, it’s a new normal as well. Outdoor dining is very much prevalent, but customers are starting to return to the dining rooms. And while they are beginning to feel more comfortable doing so, not everyone has made that transition — although a lot of them have. Our late-night business has not come back yet, but we feel that might change as time progresses. But to be frank, it was a messy way to get into COVID, and coming out of it has been messy as well, with lots of disruption in supply chain, with labor shortages, and other issues. We’re adjusting, as we always do, in the restaurant business, with much more takeout business as part of our overall sales, and with using technology to help us smooth out the rough edges from not having enough frontline workers.”

 

BusinessWest: How has this year been business-wise, and what is your forecast for the rest of this year?

 

Bitsoli: “Business is almost back to normal, but it will very interesting to see what happens in the fall when we hit flu season and everyone goes back into the office. And we still have a large number of people who haven’t been vaccinated. Directionally, we’re moving back to normal, but everyone is looking to see what happens when we migrate back inside. Internally, while the volumes of business have returned, people are tired because of the duration of this and the expectation of what’s going to happen in the fall. So we’re investing a lot of resources right now in things like a Zen room, spot yoga, massage chairs … so that is a new normal for us in terms of something we’re going to need to continue on with until we come to the end of this pandemic.”

 

Dumay: “For the traditional undergraduate, first-time freshman, we had a record deposit year, and we are looking at potentially a record enrollment year for first-time freshmen, so that has come back better than it was before. For continuing-education students, those who come to us from community colleges, that’s a population that often doesn’t enroll until the last minute, so we’re still watching that, but it looks a little softer than it had been previously. And graduate-school enrollment is very much looking to be a record year in terms of enrollment. One area where students and families may still be hesitating is a return to residential living.”

 

Yee: “For restaurants, we like to compare numbers to 2019, our last ‘normal’ year. And for quarter one, it was lower, when you’re looking at year-over-year numbers. It wasn’t until the vaccinations reached the general population that things started improving; in the second quarter, the sales have bounced back to a much higher level, better than 2019. We anticipate that this trend will continue.

 

Edison Yee

Edison Yee

“We’re very optimistic about the last two quarters of the year and going into 2022. We’ve seen a lot of positive results during this summer, which is traditionally our slower time of year. It’s been a very strong summer to date and much higher than 2019 levels.”

 

Paquette: “While we had lost work in aerospace, we’ve started to see some of it comes back. For us, workload is good and steady, and we project that this will continue through the rest of the year. The workload is good for the number of people we have.”

 

Senecal: “In the past 18 months, our deposits are through the roof. We are up more than 35% in a little over a year. And the balances are not going down. As we talk about demand and this influx of demand and a surge in spending, I’m not seeing it from people’s deposit accounts — those numbers are not going down. We’re up over a little more than $1 billion over the past 18 months in deposits. That’s a function of a lot of things — PPP money, stimulus money, people not going out and spending. We have an enormous amount of money in the system, and the government continues to put money into the economy. That adjusts to inflation, and that’s showing up everywhere in our economy — food, transportation, supplies, inventory, computer chips … it’s showing up everywhere, and I think it’s going to have an impact. We see good times ahead as long as inflation can be kept in check and interest rates stay relatively low.”

 

Leary: “The need for our services greatly increased in 2020 because of the PPP program and other initiatives and trying to help clients understand the rules, what qualifies for forgiveness, and so on. There was great demand for our services, and it’s continued into this year. As for our customers … most of them are doing OK post-pandemic, but I’m concerned that the federal money that these businesses have received is masking how they are doing financially. And as demand starts to grow, will these businesses be able to find the staffing to supply the products and provide the services?

 

BusinessWest: That’s a good segue to the next question. Attracting and retaining workers has become the dominant challenge for 2021. How has your business been impacted?

 

Yee: “There is virtually no one applying for jobs, and the people we do have working are tired from working extended hours, so we’re trying to give them breaks by closing an extra day during the week or sometimes two, which we’ve never done in the past. But we’ve found that’s one of the only ways we can deal with this labor shortage — giving people some extra time for that work-life balance.

 

Senecal: “I received a résumé the other day from a headhunter for a position we were looking to fill … the person was very well-qualified and has all the right skill sets. But in big, bold letters on the résumé, it said this person is only interested in working remotely. I don’t think I’ve ever seen on that on a résumé before, but it’s an indication of the world to come.”

 

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary

“I’m optimistic about the rest of 2021 and 2022, at least the first half. It will be interesting when the government programs start to dry up and slow down and we see how people react to that when it comes to their spending habits.”

 

Leary: “We’re seeing the same thing many of our customers are seeing. As tax laws change and accounting rules change, we have a great demand for people, and it’s not for entry-level people, but more experienced people. And it’s very challenging to find them. But what we’ve found is that, because of the ability to work remotely, instead of searching for someone and saying, ‘we want you to work in our Springfield office or our Connecticut office,’ we can say, ‘you can work anywhere in the country — we have the ability to let you work wherever you want.’”

 

Dumay: “I haven’t looked at the comparisons closely, but it certainly seems, anecdotally, that we have more open positions than we normally have. For some, we’re seeing good pools of candidates, and for others, the pools are not as strong as we would like. So in many ways, we’re like everyone else. There is a higher level of vacancy at the college, and for many positions, the pool of applicants is simply not as robust.”

 

Bitsoli: “From a business standpoint, the thing that’s very different for us and most all businesses is the staffing. It really is different. There are people who retired early, people who decided to change career paths … so we’re dealing with quite a few staffing challenges, like everyone else. One of the things I’ve heard anecdotally is that, because of the incentives being offered by the state, for people at a lower level, like dietary, housekeeping, nurse aides, and other positions, it’s almost better for them financially to stay at home than it is to work. I’ve also heard anecdotally that there’s a group of people that are gathering resilience over the summer, and they plan on coming back after Labor Day.”

 

BusinessWest: What are the forces — workforce, inflation, inventory, COVID, and more — that will determine where the local economy goes?

 

Senecal: “I think we’re all going in the right direction, and there’s nothing but good news ahead as long as inflation stays in check. Businesses are opening and growing, and with the levels of demand we’re seeing, that’s a good problem to have. And I think things will start to open up from a supply-chain perspective. We talked a little about unemployment benefits ending in September; let’s see if that pushes people back to work and brings the labor situation closer to normal. Overall, as long as COVID stays under control and we don’t go back to shutdowns — such shutdowns are devastating for the economy — I feel very positive about the fourth quarter and going into 2022.”

 

Dumay: “I second that optimism and emphasize the ‘as long as’ comment regarding COVID. The only thing that is sobering or bringing caution to my optimism is the slowdown in the rate of vaccination across the country, especially in areas of the country where it’s very low. Also, with the CDC looking at potential mask mandates and people getting alarmed about another surge … that could slow down what is looking to be an optimistic time and an opportunity to really get back to normal.”

 

Yee: “We’re very optimistic about the last two quarters of the year and going into 2022. We’ve seen a lot of positive results during this summer, which is traditionally our slower time of year. It’s been a very strong summer to date and much higher than 2019 levels. We’re really positive about what’s to come, but there are many challenges that could slow things down moving forward, like labor shortages, inflation, and supply-chain disruptions … those are all major concerns. We’re eager for everyone to get to normal so we can see a higher level of business than we have and, we hope the pent-up demand generates business across the area.”

 

Bitsoli: “People are looking for optimism, and I think as long as the economy holds out, and if we can get more people vaccinated, things should continue to improve. With the new variants out there are certainly concerns, and there are questions about whether the vaccines are going to continue to keep people healthy even when they’re exposed to the variants and keep them out of the hospitals and from getting severe complications.”

 

Deborah Bitsoli

Deborah Bitsoli

“As a leader, what I’ve learned is the importance of that human connection. We’ve all talked about the fact that Webex is great from a technology standpoint, but that relationship building and that ability to look someone in the eye … I really realize that there’s something to that, and it’s quite big.”

 

Paquette: “It’s really business as usual for us now. Our biggest concern is trying to hire people who are skilled — which means we’re like everyone else. But we’re seeing a lot of people who are interested in growing their skill set, and that, to me, is a positive; I’ve never had as many people enrolled in school and training programs as we do now. We’re rebuilding, we’re in a good space, and we’re growing. It feels much different than a year ago.”

 

Elizabeth Paquette

Elizabeth Paquette

“I had to spend a chunk of my time with a remote first-grader, so I had that stress at home while trying to be at work. So I found that employees function better if we’re able to meet them where they’re at.”

 

Leary: “I’m optimistic about the rest of 2021 and 2022, at least the first half. It will be interesting when the government programs start to dry up and slow down and we see how people react to that when it comes to their spending habits. But as we heard, deposits are way up, which means people have money to spend; they have disposable income. So I think people will start to spend as they get out and feel more comfortable going to restaurants or getting on an airplane. I see that continuing for the next year or so, but who knows after that what will happen? We need to have supplies free up, and we need to push for everyone to get vaccinated.”

 

BusinessWest: Finally, what have you learned during this pandemic, and how has this made you a different and perhaps better leader?

 

Bitsoili: “As a leader, what I’ve learned is the importance of that human connection. We’ve all talked about t the fact that Webex is great from a technology standpoint, but that relationship building and that ability to look someone in the eye … I really realize that there’s something to that, and it’s quite big. Also, I knew this before, but now I really know it: you really have to lead from the heart because employees want to feel the empathy and the caring from leadership. Lastly, it’s visibility and the ability to connect with people on their turf and really be able to listen to issues and immediately follow up with resolution. These are all things I knew, but this pandemic has caused me to reflect and overemphasize the need to do those things.”

 

Dumay: “I realized the importance of connecting with the people with whom I work, the faculty and staff at Elms College, and be present and pay attention to what people are experiencing and have that be relevant to my decision making. Also, I’ve learned the importance of giving people some answers, even if they don’t have the complete answer. There was a lot of uncertainty during the past year, and people were looking for the leaders of organizations to provide some answers. For someone who likes to completely process things and share them when they’re finalized, I had to learn to provide answers that are sometimes incomplete and need to be finalized. That was important to me.”

 

Leary: “One thing that I learned is that each person is very unique with regard to what their circumstances are — they might be a single parent with high-school children, or they may have a newborn … there are so many factors, and we can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy. We have to be flexible when it comes to work-life balance.”

 

Paquette: “I had to spend a chunk of my time with a remote first-grader, so I had that stress at home while trying to be at work. So I found that employees function better if we’re able to meet them we’re they’re at. Everything was remote to me outside the shop, but in the shop, it just seemed important that people had someone that they could look to make them feel better. We definitely improved our transparency with employees to let them know where we were at. It was probably so scary to see so many people laid off, some by choice, but some by our choice. I held meetings with people just so they would know what was going on and that they had as much information as I had in that moment. And the response was pretty good. Most people stayed, and they kept at it at a time when it was hard to keep at it.”

 

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

Cover Story Special Coverage

The Business of Pivoting

Nicole Ortiz, founder and president of Crave Food Truck

Nicole Ortiz, founder and president of Crave Food Truck

Nicole Ortiz remembers a lot of people having some serious doubts about whether she should go forward with her plans to put a food truck into operation late last spring.

After all, it was the middle of a pandemic, people were staying home, the economy was tanking, and the restaurant business, perhaps more than any other, was suffering mightily.

But Ortiz, a graduate of the Culinary Arts program at Holyoke Community College, was determined to make her dream, which she would call Crave, become reality — pandemic or not.

She had already acquired the vehicle itself, and her experience in the accelerator program operated by EforAll Holyoke had given her the confidence (and technical know-how) to get her show — a food truck specializing in Puerto Rican cuisine — on the road … literally.

Problem was, it was not business as usual when it came to securing the needed approvals and permits from city officials.

“It was even difficult to speak with officials from cities because people weren’t working as much, and you couldn’t even get into city halls,” she said. “Everything has to be mailed in, which takes … as long as that takes. Meanwhile, a lot of cities don’t have ways to do this online; you can’t e-mail them or submit a form online. You have to mail it in, and that took a while.”

But Ortiz persevered, and opened for business just over a month ago. Her truck, usually parked on Race Street, not far from the Cubit Building and just a few blocks from the computing center, is actually exceeding goals set higher than most everyone she knows thought were reasonable.

Successful launches in the middle of COVID-19 are certainly rare, and for most area entrepreneurs, especially those trying to get a concept off the ground or to the next level, these are challenging times, when the focus is on pivoting and adjusting to meet changing needs and changing ways of doing things.

Juan and Elsie Vasquez, owners of 413 Family Fitness

Juan and Elsie Vasquez, owners of 413 Family Fitness, are like many small-business owners in that they have had to pivot during the pandemic and create new revenue streams.

In most all ways, the same can be said of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem itself, which specializes mostly on programs focused on people gathering in large numbers or sitting across a table from one another — things that can’t be done during a pandemic. Agencies within the ecosystem have been pivoting and adjusting as well.

This is especially true of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), the nonprofit based in Springfield’s Innovation Center, which is in the midst of what interim Director Chris Bignelli, a partner with the Alchemy Fund, calls a ‘reset.’

That’s the word he chose to describe a retrenching after most of the agency’s staff members left within a week of each other last spring, and after COVID prevented it from staging any of the large gatherings for which it became known — not only here, but across the state and beyond.

“Our mentors advise entrepreneurs about the importance of pivoting and changing directions when needed, and we’re doing the same,” he said, adding that the pandemic and other forces are compelling the agency to look inward and find new and perhaps different ways to provide value to entrepreneurs while also providing support to other agencies and initiatives within the ecosystem.

“For a while there, it really felt like we were kind of providing therapy to small-business owners.”

As VVM resets and reinvents, though, work within the ecosystem goes on during these trying times — despite COVID, and in many cases in an effort to help business owners survive it.

People like Juan and Elsie Vasquez. They operate 413 Family Fitness in Holyoke, a business that, like most all gyms, was devastated by the pandemic. With help from those at EforAll Holyoke, the couple has pivoted to everything from outdoor classes to staging quinceañeras, or sweet-15 birthdays (a tradition among Hispanics), and leasing out their space to third parties (more on that later).

Meanwhile, another initiative within the ecosystem, WIT — Women Innovators and Trailblazers — is continuing its mentoring program despite COVID, and is preparing to embark on its third cohort of matches.

Leah Kent

Leah Kent says the mentor she’s been matched with through the WIT program, Melissa Paciulli, has helped her set firm goals for her business and move out of her comfort zone.

The second cohort, featuring 45 teams, up from 20 in the first, was started just before the pandemic shut things down, noted Ann Burke, vice president of the the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts and one of the architects of the program, adding that she had some concerns about whether those matches could withstand COVID and its highly disruptive nature.

But for the most part, the partnerships persevered, and many have the legs to continue even after the formal program is over.

“We were really trying to see what would happen with the cohort and how they would respond with all that was happening,” said Burke. “I thought most of them would just throw up their hands and say, ‘we can’t do this’ amid all the business issues, personal issues, and issues at home. But for the most part, that’s not what happened.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the local entrepreneurship ecosystem and how it is carrying on through the pandemic, providing more evidence of its importance to the region.

Keep on Trucking

Flashing back several months and then fast-forwarding to today, Ortiz described the process of opening with a single word — ‘crazy.’

That sentiment applied to everything from getting her truck outfitted for the road — meaning wrapped with her logo and fully equipped — to buying all the supplies she needed (which meant going to the grocery store a number of times), to getting those aforementioned permits and approvals. Work started later than she wanted, and everything was made more difficult by the pandemic.

“Most of March and half of April, I called a halt to everything,” she said, noting that she bought the truck in February, but, because of the pandemic — and also the fact that she was still in school, which was also more complicated — she wasn’t able to advance her plans. “And then I started to feel more comfortable, and by the end of the April, I was going full speed.”

Or at least the speed at which City Hall would allow her to travel.

Now that she’s open, all that craziness seems like a distant memory, and business is, as she noted, exceeding expectations.

“We’ve been busy every day, and we usually sell out by the end of the day,” she said, noting that Craze features tacos, rice bowls, vegetarian and vegan dishes, and more, and uses social media to connect with potential customers. “COVID might actually be helping because people don’t want to go to restaurants.”

She credits EforAll — she was the first-place winner in its recent winter accelerator — with helping her get the doors open, especially with such matters as insurance and accounting, but also focusing on the model she wanted and the service she wanted to provide.

And such work is carrying on in the COVID-19 era, although it’s somewhat different and also in some ways more challenging, said Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll.

“We’ve been really fortunate that we can continue to offer a lot of the services that we provided before the pandemic in a virtual format,” she explained. “And we made that pivot very quickly, out of necessity.”

Elaborating, she said the agency was in the final stages of its winter cohort when the pandemic hit, and quickly shifted to not only a virtual platform, but a somewhat different purpose as it helped both those cohort members and other small businesses cope with everything that was happening.

“For a while there, it really felt like we were kind of providing therapy to small-business owners,” she explained. “We felt like there were a lot of things out of our control, but what we did want to do was support them, whether it was with help navigating PPP loans or even just applying for unemployment. We were doing a lot of one-on-one support and just helping people however we could.”

“It gives people a place to come and brainstorm as a group and impose that accountability that can sometimes be missing when you’re running your own venture.”

And such help was certainly needed, she said, adding that, in the case of PPP, many small businesses didn’t know if they were eligible, and if they were, they certainly needed assistance with paperwork that most established businesses turned over to a seasoned accountant. Meanwhile, a number of local, state, and federal grant programs emerged, and small businesses needed help identifying which ones might be appropriate and then navigating the application process.

Beyond that, EforAll also helped some businesses identify ways to pivot and find new revenue streams in the middle of a pandemic, Murphy-Romboletti said, adding that such assistance was provided to restaurants — helping them move beyond takeout and Grubhub, for example — and to other kinds of ventures, like 413 Family Fitness, which is one of those businesses that just ‘graduated’ from the most recent accelerator.

Like all fitness centers across the state, this operation had to shut down back in the spring, said Elsie Vasquez, forcing the company to pivot. It did so by offering classes online, then a shift to outdoor classes, more one-on-one personal training, and finally a reopening of the studio in July, with a host of restrictions.

“We’ve even done some space rental to bring in some revenue,” she told BusinessWest, adding that EforAll has been invaluable in helping to not only identify ways to generate business, but make them reality.

“The biggest thing we learned is that we have to pivot our business,” she explained. “We came in with an idea of what we wanted to do, and it’s been working out OK, but EforAll really opened our eyes to the fact that we have to think differently, and that your beginning result may not be your end result.”

In Good Company

While companies are pivoting, so too are some of the agencies within the ecosystem that serves them. And VVM is probably the best example.

Hope Gibaldi, who was serving the agency in a part-time role when the pandemic hit and is now full-time, serving as engagement manager, told BusinessWest that the agency has had to readjust as a result of the pandemic and its inability to stage the large gatherings it became known for.

Meanwhile, is doing what its mentors advise entrepreneurs to do — assess needs within the community and go about meeting them.

“There were listening sessions prior to the pandemic,” she noted, “and we’ve been taking the priorities identified during those sessions with an eye toward addressing them, while also trying to figure out how we can continue to provide value to entrepreneurs during COVID and what programming might look like when we come out of COVID.”

Elaborating, she said hybrid models blending in-person and remote programming are being considered, while, in the meantime, the agency is creating ways to bring people together on a remote basis to share ideas and work through common problems.

One such program is the introduction — or reintroduction, to be more precise — of ‘Entrepreneurial Roundtables,’ a peer-led “accountability group,” as she called it, that meets via Zoom.

“It’s a place where mentors and entrepreneurs can come and address their challenges,” Gibaldi explained. “It gives people a place to come and brainstorm as a group and impose that accountability that can sometimes be missing when you’re running your own venture.”

Other initiatives already in place or in the planning stages, she said, include everything from the agency’s once-thriving Community Nights (now handled remotely) to expert-in-industry mentorship, to a book club, to be launched in January, focusing on offerings in entrepreneurship, marketing, personal and professional growth, and more.

Overall, VVM looks a little different, but its mission hasn’t changed, Gibaldi said, adding that it is working to partner with other agencies and initiatives within the ecosystem to help them succeed.

One example is WIT, and helping to recruit mentors for that program, which has thus far created dozens of effective matches.

Leah Kent and Melissa Paciulli comprise one such match. The former is a writer and book designer who also helps other writers with the process of getting published, while the latter is director of the STEM Starter Academy at Holyoke Community College. Kent described the relationship as an intriguing, and effective, collision of science and creativity.

“We can understand each other quite well, but we bring different strengths,” she explained. “That complementary pairing has been so fantastic. In my work, she’s really honed in on the way that I help readers finish their manuscripts and get their work published.”

The two were part of the cohort that launched last March; the kickoff gathering was on March 12, and the next day, schools were shut down, and much of the business world ground to a halt. Kent’s original mentor was not able to continue participating because of the pandemic, so she was reassigned, if that’s the right word, to Paciulli, whom she credits with taking her outside her comfort zone and helping her set the bar higher professionally and personally.

Paciulli said Kent is her second match through WIT, and one of many business owners and students she has mentored over the years. She finds the work invigorating and rewarding, especially when the mentee is coachable and open-minded — like Kent.

“When you’re working with entrepreneurs and they’re coachable, and they take action on your direction, because it’s an iterative process of finding your product, getting it to market, and pivoting when you need to … it’s a super-cool experience to be part of one’s journey in that way,” she said. “When they’re coachable and they’re action-oriented — and she is — it’s awesome.”

Where There’s a Will…

Summing up what the past seven months or so have been like for entrepreneurs and small businesses, Murphy-Romboletti said it’s been a continuous run of challenges that have tested them — and her agency — in every way imaginable.

In many ways, COVID-19 and everything it has thrown at these businesses only reinforces what she pretty much already knew.

“What always inspires me about entrepreneurs is that, if you tell them ‘no,’ they just say, ‘OK, let me find out a way to make this work,’” she said.

Many have been doing just that, providing more evidence of their resiliency and more reminders of the importance of the entrepreneurship ecosystem to this region and its future.

The pandemic has slowed some things down and added to the already-long list of hurdles entrepreneurs have to clear, but it certainly hasn’t stopped people like Nicole Ortiz — and countless others — from getting down to business.

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

40 Under 40 Features

Meet the Judges

By the time you read this, the deadline for nominating an individual for the 40 Under Forty class of 2018 will be drawing to a close.

So if you were thinking of nominating someone and didn’t, well, aside from beating yourself up a little, you can take solace in the fact that there’s always next year — if the individual is currently under 39, that is.

If you did nominate someone, good for you. And know that you’re in good company — and a lot of company. Indeed, as this issue went to press a few days before the deadline, nominations were coming in at a pace destined to break the record.

With that, it’s time to meet the individuals who will be scoring all those nominations. As always, BusinessWest strives to put together a group with diverse backgrounds, individuals who can bring many different perspectives to the task of weighing nominations. And we always like to invite a few people who have a 40 Under Forty plaque on their desk to be part of this as well; they are, after all, rising stars.

This year’s panel of judges reflects all that, and we added an additional twist as well. All of them have been in the news (as in BusinessWest) recently, and in some cases only a few months ago. In fact, most of them graced the cover of the magazine.

Here are this year’s judges:

Ken Carter

Ken Carter

Ken Carter

Carter is a member of the UMass Amherst Polymer Science and Engineering Department. His research involves the synthesis and characterization of polymeric materials with specially designed properties. Carter’s research focuses on the development of organic and hybrid materials for future use in advanced electronics and storage technologies.

Carter is a principal with the startup FogKicker, which has developed a product that removes fog from glass surfaces. He and partners Marc Gammel and Yinyong Li were featured on the cover of the Nov. 13 issue of BusinessWest.

He also has projects studying advanced nanocellulose materials and applications that utilize it. He has numerous publications, more than 30 patents, and a successful startup, Treaty LLC.

Mark Fulco

Mark Fulco

Mark Fulco

Fulco returned to Springfield in 2017 to serve as president of Mercy Medical Center, following a two-year assignment in leadership at Trinity Health’s corporate office in Livonia, Mich. His appointment made him the cover story in the Oct. 2 issue of BusinessWest.

Fulco first joined the Mercy team in 2005 as senior vice president of Strategy and Marketing and a member of the senior leadership team. In 2015, he was named chief transformation officer to reflect his growing responsibilities around population-health management and value-based contracting.

Fulco is also a graduate of Clark University and the University of Hartford’s Barney School of Business and Public Administration.

Jim Hickson

Jim Hickson

Jim Hickson

Hickson is senior vice president and commercial regional president for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut for Berkshire Bank. In that capacity, he leads both the Commercial Lending and Business Banking business units in those respective markets. He was featured in a cover story on the bank in the Feb. 6, 2017 issue.

Hickson has more than 28 years of financial experience, including commercial, asset lending, and management consulting. He holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Boston College and an MBA from Boston University, and is heavily involved in the community. He serves as board chair and president of the board of directors for Common Capital Inc., a board member and governance committee member of Wayfinders Inc., a board member and loan committee member for the New England Certified Development Corp., (NE CDC), and a board member of Wilbraham Friends of Recreation.

Angela Lussier

Angela Lussier

Angela Lussier

Lussier is CEO and founder of the Speaker Sisterhood, a network of speaking clubs that help women discover, awaken, and create their voice through the art of public speaking. Her work was captured in a cover story in the May 1 issue.

Lussier, a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2014, is an award-winning speaker, four-time author, two-time TEDx presenter, and the host of “Claim the Stage,” a public-speaking podcast for women rated #1 on Forbes’ inspiring-podcasts list in 2017. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, and her work has been featured on ABC, NBC, Forbes, Virgin, and Entrepreneur. Her motto: “Stop waiting. Start creating.”

Kristi Reale

Kristi Reale

Kristi Reale

A partner at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. (her ascension to partner was reported in BusinessWest roughly a year ago), Reale has close to 24 years of public-accounting experience. She specializes in closely held businesses and has extensive experience in providing compilation and review services as well as business valuations, management-advisory services, and business and tax planning.

Reale is a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2009 and serves as treasurer of the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts and Unify Against Bullying. u

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur

Paul Kozub Tackles the Hard Stuff to Take V-One National

Proof Positive

paulkozubcoverpicWhen he launched the V-One brand more than 11 years ago, Paul Kozub had a good product and a great story — the one about a commercial lender who quit banking to make vodka in his basement. As he prepares to take the brand national, he knows the great story isn’t nearly enough. The good product is the foundation of his efforts, but getting to the next level will be a daunting task. So he’s leaving no stone unturned, and these efforts have earned him BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2016.

He calls it ‘V-One Vodka Corporate Headquarters.’ Except when he opts to simply to say ‘the Church.’

Those are Paul Kozub’s chosen methods for referencing the former St. John’s Church on bustling Route 9 in Hadley, the 114-year-old structure he acquired in 2014 after some prolonged negotiations with the Diocese of Springfield and then spent months rehabbing, mostly by himself.

On the outside, it still looks like … a church, except for the huge slab of Goshen stone on the front lawn with the V-One logo placed on it, signage approved after months of hard talks with the town fathers.

On the inside, though, it looks a little like a bar and a lot like a banquet hall. Which it isn’t. Kozub doesn’t actually have a liquor license, but he can — and does — host a number of ‘tastings’ each year to promote his growing line of vodka flavors, as well as weekly sales meetings and a host of special events, including one on Christmas Eve for his family and his wife’s as well.

One fixture of V-One HQ is a large collection of vodkas, maybe 100 of them, kept on racks just off what used to be the altar long ago. You won’t find every brand here — there are more than 1,000 of them — but certainly all the recognizable names and then another few dozen recognizable only to those certainly in the know. Which he is, as will become quite clear.

Indeed, Kozub says he’s amassed this collection — and keeps adding to it — so he will know about the competition. Everything about the competition, that is — from the new flavors they’re putting out to the design of their bottles to the ingredients printed on the label.

Paul Kozub stands beside his new signage

Paul Kozub stands beside his new signage, placed on a huge slab of Goshen stone, outside V-One Corporate Headquarters, a.k.a. ‘the Church.’

Take grapefruit-flavored vodka, which all the major brands now have, for example. Kozub did.

“What I did was buy every grapefruit vodka I could find,” he said, while reaching for a few. “When I come up with an idea, like this one, I try every grapefruit offering I can get my hands on, with the goal of making mine unique.”

It is only through such research and legwork, said Kozub, that he will be able to take V-One from status as a ‘local’ flavor and make it a regional and then national and perhaps international brand.

Actually, V-One is already international, as Kozub explained while digging for his phone and scrolling to a photo of him next to a poster for his vodka at Frederick Chopin Airport in Warsaw (his vodkas are made in Poland and available in duty-free shops at several airports in that country), right next to similar posters for Rolex watches and high-end perfumes.

But, while obviously proud of that product placement, Kozub knows he is facing a long, winding, extremely difficult road just to take his vodkas beyond most of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, the places where they are now available.

However, with the help of some new investors to whom he is selling a small equity stake in the company, Kozub is poised for territorial expansion. The first target is New Hampshire, where Kozub is currently gaining the necessary approvals to secure shelf space in the state-operated stores that feature low prices that often entice people to cross borders.

After that, other New England states are being eyed, as well as the potentially lucrative but tough-to-crack Boston and New York City markets.

To get to the next level, though, Kozub knows he needs something beyond the proverbial ‘good story’ that helped him get off the ground and then well-established within the 413 area code. Most people in this region know it by now: it’s about how an intrepid commercial lender rising in the ranks at TD Bank put that career on permanent hold after deciding to take a small inheritance from his grandfather, as well as some inspiration from his entrepreneurial father, and create a new vodka label in his home.

“As I go into Miami, San Francisco, and other major cities, the story about the guy who started making vodka in his basement is great, but we’ll need much more,” he explained. “So I want to lead with the product itself, and how we tell our story.”

Efforts to move beyond his Hollywood-script saga and create a product that will appeal nationally essentially sum up what Kozub has been doing for the past 12 to 18 months or so. This is a multi-faceted assignment involving everything from lining up investors to initiating marketing pushes in some major cities, to months of hard work designing a new bottle for his vodkas.

Paul Kozub stands next to a sign for his vodka at Frederick Chopin Airport in Warsaw

Paul Kozub stands next to a sign for his vodka at Frederick Chopin Airport in Warsaw. While V-One is technically international, the next real challenge is to make it a national brand.

The sum of these efforts has earned Kozub BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2016. Established two decades ago, the award recognizes a centuries-old tradition of entrepreneurship in this region and honors those who are continuing that legacy, something Kozub summed up simply by saying, “I feel like I haven’t worked a day in 11 years.”

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Beyond those racks loaded with vodka bottles, Kozub has a number of other items, or props, lurking behind what resembles a bar counter (complete with bar stools) installed at the front of the old church’s nave.

One of them is a 50-pound bag of corn, bought at a nearby Tractor Supply Co. location, very effectively labeled (at least for this exercise) with the words ‘feed for cattle, sheep, and horses.’

Paul Kozub says he has a patent on his so-called ‘bottle jacket,’

Paul Kozub says he has a patent on his so-called ‘bottle jacket,’ one of many examples of how he’s leaving no stone unturned as he takes the brand national.

“This is what you feed cows — a lot of popular vodkas today are made from corn,” said Kozub, as he began a well-rehearsed presentation he gives to various audiences while not-so-delicately lowering the bag onto the counter so its weight can resonate. “It’s the cheapest ingredient you can find; it costs about six cents a pound, and it takes about three pounds to make a bottle of corn vodka.

“This is spelt,” he went on, holding up a small box of the hulled wheat that is his not-so-secret ingredient. “If you buy this at the store, it’s about eight dollars a pound; so you’re talking six to eight cents versus eight dollars.”

That bag of corn is one of many selling points used by Kozub as he goes about introducing his product and differentiating it from all those competitors. Others include the fake-fur-lined ‘bottle jackets’ and soon-to-arrive summer ‘bottle life vests’ (made in Poland) that he says are unique and patented.

“They’re something cool — no one can else can make a bottle winter coat like this,” he noted while holding one aloft. “Almost everyone has a box with two glasses in it. This is my equivalent, but I like to stand out.

“Over the past few years, I’ve been prepping for a national launch,” he went on while putting most of what is now on display at the church in perspective. “I’m trying to get the whole brand tightened and leave no stone unturned, because it’s going to take a lot to get from where we are to where I want to be.”

Those sentiments, and the aggressive, confident manner in which he backs them up, speak volumes about the passion and commitment Kozub has for all aspects of this endeavor, qualities that Shaun Dwyer recognized long ago.

Now the first vice president of Commercial Banking for Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, which is now financing aspects of the V-One venture, Dwyer says he’s known Kozub for 15 years now, or back to when they were both young lenders at TD Bank trying to earn their stripes. He’s followed Kozub’s adventures throughout his career, and summons most of the same adjectives and adverbs used by others to describe how the entrepreneur goes about his work.

“Paul is a driven, highly motivated guy who’s very focused on what he does,” Dwyer explained. “He’s passionate about V-One, which contributes significantly to its success. And he’s involved in every aspect of the business, from creating and testing new products and flavors to the marketing, to the distribution, to customer relations.

Shaun Dwyer

Shaun Dwyer, a commercial lender with PeoplesBank, says Paul Kozub’s passion for his vodka brand has been a key ingredient in its success.

“And he knows how to earn money, which is the most important thing,” Dwyer went on, adding that his client definitely used his years in banking to his advantage. “He’s done well. He hasn’t gone in over his head during the time he’s been in business, he’s taken smart steps, he knows his markets, and he knows he’s got a good product.”

While those comments neatly and concisely sum up Kozub’s first 11 or so years in business, marked by strong success — growth has averaged 20% per year, by Dwyer’s estimates — one really needs to go back to 2005 for a more detailed look at how things got started and, hopefully, a deeper appreciation for the chapters to the story now being written.

It was in October of that year that Kozub first graced the cover of BusinessWest. Actually, it was one of those smaller pictures at the bottom of the page that alert readers to the stories inside.

That piece revealed that Kozub entered banking with no real intention of making it a career. Instead, he was focused on following the lead of his father, Edward, who took Janlynn Corp. from a mom-and-pop operation to a business that employed more than 100 people, but tragically died while Paul was still in high school. He was, as he put it, working in financial services to learn the mechanics of small-business management from the “other side.”

While his father inspired him, it was his grandfather, Stanley, who is actually credited with giving him the proverbial push he needed. Family legend has it that he was a moonshiner during Prohibition, and young Paul, upon seeing a truck laden with potatoes pass his Hadley home, began conceptualizing a plan to make vodka with that vegetable as its base.

Using $6,000 his grandfather left him, he started in his basement, and, after a number of fits and starts, eventually brought V-One to the marketplace.

Over the ensuing years, Kozub and V-One would regularly grace the pages of BusinessWest, with everything from an actual cover story to a host of news briefs detailing everything from new flavors (there are now four) to awards (there have been many of those); from his purchase of St. John’s Church to his 10th anniversary in business, celebrated, as only they can in this business, 18 or so months ago.

Slicing through all those articles and updates, Kozub said the message they send is that there isn’t nearly as much glamour in this business as one might think, and far more challenges and high hurdles than one can imagine.

“It’s a difficult, incredibly competitive business,” he said, adding that each step in the process of growing V-One and bringing its brand to prominence has been carefully choreographed, with the goal of achieving marked — but controlled — growth.

And so it is with the next, very ambitious steps now on the drawing board and in the process of becoming reality.

Taking His Shot

Kozub told BusinessWest that, by his conservative estimates, it takes at least $500,000 to enter a new market — a state or major city, for example — and do the job right, which is the only way he knows.

“I’ve been thinking about how we’re going to grow and how we’re going to get bigger, and of course everything comes down to money,” he explained with a heavy sigh. “You need money to enter each state because you need salespeople, you need marketing, you need brand awareness … there’s a lot that goes into this.”

This simple math and sobering dose of reality made it clear that, for him to grow, he needed capital, probably in the form of investors willing to gamble on his brand in exchange for a piece of it.

New vans like this one, detailed with the V-One logo

New vans like this one, detailed with the V-One logo, are one of many ways Paul Kozub is building his brand.

Since he started V-One, Kozub has been largely resistant to the idea of taking on investors, not wanting to relinquish even a small percentage of his venture. But having gone about as far as he thought he could in the markets he’s in, and with a strong desire to continue growing, he understood he was at a crossroads.

So he started talking to some money people — in the careful, studious manner that has marked all of his activities to date.

“About 18 months or so ago, I was approached by a very influential person in the business who had started a similar company and eventually sold it for millions, and he wanted to invest in V-One,” he explained. “After months of negotiations, I found out that he really wanted to take over my company and not simply invest, so we cut off talks.”

Roughly a month later, he was approached by another group, based in Texas, he went on, adding that his research, and the negotiations, eventually led to a deal that will generate a few million dollars in capital that will enable him to expand the V-One footprint, if you will, in a few directions.

One is north, to New Hampshire and the other New England states, and then west and south, to New York and New Jersey.

It’s a bold step, and Kozub acknowledged there are risks. But the alternative, merely standing pat, does not reflect the established growth formula. And he will continue to move in a measured, controlled manner.

“When I quit my job at TD Bank, I went for it, and I knew that if I could sell 500 cases in a year I’d be able to make a nice living,” he said, adding that he long ago recalibrated his goals and aspirations. “So with this next stage, I’m going for it again, but we’re going to be very calculated moving forward, and we’re definitely going to test each market before we enter it.”

Elaborating, he said the financing from his new investors will essentially come in three rounds, which will facilitate and essentially drive this controlled pace of growth he described. And the first goal, as mentioned earlier, is basically the rest of New England, meaning New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont.

That includes Boston, he went on, where the company has really just put a toe in the water, with the understanding that penetrating that market will be extremely difficult, due to some well-established heavyweights in the industry.

“I just hired a PR firm in Boston to help me get established there,” he explained. “It’s a great market, but it’s also very tight-knit; getting into some of Boston’s famous restaurants is … next to impossible.

“The competition in these big cities is just unbelievable, because everyone wants to be there,” he went on. “For example, Russian Standard Vodka went to Boston seven or eight years ago, and I know they spent half a million dollars to get their brand going there, and it really didn’t do much.”

BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti presents Paul Kozub with the plaque marking his selection as Top Entrepreneur for 2016.

BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti presents Paul Kozub with the plaque marking his selection as Top Entrepreneur for 2016.

This outcome helps explain that, while capital is obviously critical to the process of penetrating new markets, the product, or products, will ultimately determine how successful those efforts are.

Thus, he returned to that notion of leaving no stone unturned as he prepares to take V-One national.

Fifth Dimension

With that, Kozub went behind the bar again, this time to collect a thick file folder detailing his work to create a new bottle for his vodkas; his current model is a futura style, essentially something off the shelf, as they say in this business, and fairly common, with several brands using it.

He wasn’t about to reveal anything too specific about what he had in mind for this redesign, but did get into great detail about how this is a very serious — and expensive — exercise, worthy of as much attention as what goes inside the bottle.

“It’s always been my dream to have my own bottle because I have my own vodka that’s the only vodka in the world made from spelt, and we feel it’s the cleanest vodka in the world,” he explained. “We want our bottle to reflect that. As I roll out nationally and get on the shelves in Miami and San Francisco, I really want the bottle to stand out.”

Elaborating, he said that, through his contacts in Poland, he was introduced to what he called the “best bottle designers in the world,” based in Cognac, France. These designers gave him 13 options, all different in some way, and he has whittled that field down to two, and essentially one that he says he’s leaning toward.

Why is the bottle so important? In the vodka world, image is an important consideration, he said, and the ornate, decorative bottles one sees on the shelf — often doubling as works of art — play a big role in image-projection efforts. But practicality is also an issue.

“You think about everything, including how it’s going to fit in the bartender’s hand and how it’s going to pour,” he explained. “Some of these bottles that brands come out with … they’ll never be used in bars because bartenders don’t like to hold them and they’re very awkward to pour. We do very well in bars and restaurants, and the new bottle will fit very well in bartenders’ hands.”

Kozub’s intense focus on creating a new bottle is an example of how he’s still fully involved with every aspect of this operation, but also how his role is changing in some ways.

He no longer makes deliveries himself, and he lets his sales staff handle most of the roughly 100 tastings the company will schedule a year — although he still presides over several of them. Instead, he’s content to wear what he called his ‘CFO hat’ and the ‘strategic planning hat.’

He has the latter on all the time, as one might imagine, and there are many elements to it, from the bottle to the bottle jackets; from the marketing strategies for entering new regions to lining up investors; from ongoing renovations of ‘the Church’ (there is still a lot of work to be done) to determining when and if to add more flavors to the portfolio.

And there will likely be at least one flavor to join grapefruit, triple berry, lime, hazelnut, and vanilla, he told BusinessWest, adding that he doesn’t know what it will be yet, and there are several possible contenders for the light blue bottle he’s already picked out to give him a full rainbow.

The need to keep adding flavors, the need to keep undertaking strategic planning, is very necessary, he said, because this is a fast-moving, constantly changing industry, where trends change quickly and often.

Indeed, while vodkas — and, specifically, flavored vodkas — were all the rage just a few years ago, bourbons and other ‘brown whiskeys’ are now hot, and vodka is essentially flat, Kozub explained.

Meanwhile, tastes among all demographic groups, and especially the younger generations, are shifting away from mainstream offerings and more toward designer products, such as the myriad craft beers now populating the market.

Which means he is likely in the right places at the right time with the right products.

“As time goes on, I think there will be more people seeking out niche vodkas, or ‘craft vodkas,’ as I like to call them,” he explained. “If you have a bar, and you have Bud, Miller, and Coors on tap, your bar probably won’t be in business for long. You need to have those craft beers, and it’s the same with whisky, rum, gin, and vodka — that’s the trend.”

As he goes about tackling life in this constantly changing landscape and the myriad challenges still ahead of him, Kozub displays the same entrepreneurial spirit and not-so-quiet confidence that have defined his efforts from the beginning.

And while the stage is set to get exponentially bigger, he’s saying essentially the same thing he was when he was delivering cases to area liquor stores and restaurants himself.

“We have one of the best vodkas in the world — I just have to let people try it,” he said. “If I can do that …”

Glass Act

He didn’t actually finish that thought, but he didn’t really have to.

From the start, he’s always thought, and always known, that if he could make a good introduction, then people would buy his product.

In other words, he’s always had more than a good story about making vodka in his basement — a lot more. And as he prepares to take his portfolio of flavors national, he plans to add even more.

That’s what he means by “leaving no stone unturned” — even the one in front of V-One Corporate Headquarters.

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

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

Cover Story

Cover Story

Bob Cummings, CEO and managing principal

Bob Cummings, CEO and managing principal

When Bob Cummings started out in benefits administration, health-insurance co-pays were $3, premiums were well under $100 a month, his office ran on MS-DOS, and it issued paper statements. Much has changed since then, obviously, but not his company’s success formula, based on personalization, creativity, knowledge of a complex and ever-changing subject, and what American Benefits Group prefers to call ‘enabling technology.’

Bob Cummings calls it his “acronym glossary.”

It’s aptly named, and those in his industry, known as benefits administration solution providers, really need one. Actually, it’s their clients that do, so Cummings and others at Northampton-based American Benefits Group, which he serves as CEO and managing principal, always have some on hand.

Comprehending what all those letters stand for will go a long way toward at least better understanding conversations involving benefits these days, he said, noting that there are no fewer than 60 acronyms listed on the two-page sheet.

They range alphabetically from AD&D (accidental death and dismemberment plan) to WHCRA (Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act), with an alphabet soup of agencies, acts, products, and services in between.

There’s COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act), EOI (evidence of insurability), HDHC (high-deductible health coverage), MSA (medical savings account), POP (premium-only Section 125 cafeteria plan), PCE (pre-existing condition exclusion), and PWBA (Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration), which, as everyone knows, is now called the EBSA (Employee Benefits Security Administration), which is obviously listed earlier in the glossary, in the ‘E’ section.

Got it? Of course not.

And Cummings and his team members, who collectively serve as benefits consultants, or advisors, understand that. They also understand that knowing what those letters and phrases, such as ‘Cadillac tax,’ stand for isn’t what’s really important. Rather, it’s being able to decipher which products add up to the best, most practical options for a company’s employees.

And because it excels at that basic mission, American Benefits Group (ABG — that acronym’s not in the glossary) is enjoying a period of profound growth and expansion of an already diverse portfolio.

“This is a really exciting time for us — we’re enjoying a major growth spurt,” said Cummings, who segued into benefits work in the mid-’80s after running a small insurance agency. “Hardly a day goes by that I’m not sending out new client proposals.”

Cummings attributed this growth to an intriguing blend of services — including ‘360-degree benefit-solutions packages’ and account administration — and operating traits that together add up to solid, dependable service that he categorized through early and frequent use of the phrase ‘customer-centric.’

The recipe calls for equal and generous portions of personalization, innovation (meaning investments in what the company calls enabling technology), creativity (more about what that means later), and knowledge, all of which translates into a single word (no acronym required): value.

To help explain his points on innovation and technology, which has been a staple of the company since the beginning in 1987, Cummings held aloft the so-called American Benefits Group Benefits Card, which was created in response to one of the most significant and far-reaching additions to that acronyms list, the FSA, or flexible spending account.

“This has been a real game changer,” Cummings said of the card, roughly 30,000 of which are now in circulation, a number that could rise 25% by year-end. “I can go use it at the doctor’s office, the hospital, the pharmacy, the dentist, the vision provider … it won’t work at a restaurant or a gas station — it’s a specially programmed card — but it will work at the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority] to buy my transit pass, and I can pay for my parking with it, too — any eligible merchant.”

Bob Cummings, seen here with Clodagh Parker, director of Flexible Compensation Services, and Herb Mayer Jr.,

Bob Cummings, seen here with Clodagh Parker, director of Flexible Compensation Services, and Herb Mayer Jr., director of Operations, says ABG is experiencing explosive growth.

The benefits card, which acts in much the same way as a bank account, is just one piece of the equation, though, he went on, listing as just one example a mobile app that allows one to access their account through any connected device. But it’s an apt illustration of how this company has managed to adjust with the times to effectively serve customers and enable business owners and managers to more effectively navigate the complex issues involved with benefits.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Cummings and others at the company about the constantly and profoundly changing landscape of employee benefits, as reflected in that glossary, and how this firm has come to be a star performer on a highly competitive playing field.

Dollars and Sense

As he talked about the current benefits landscape, Cummings said it would be prudent to first turn the clock back nearly 30 years, when he first entered this field, and not long before he started writing a column on insurance benefits for a recently launched publication known as the Western Mass. Business Journal (WMBJ), now known as BusinessWest (no accepted acronym, although BW is gaining ground).

The benefits world was much different back then, of course, he said with a laugh, citing as evidence the $3 co-pays levied upon health-insurance policyholders, the emerging phenomenon known as the HMO (health maintenance organization), and the MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) platform on the office’s computers.

“In those days, I was one of a handful of people who were actually doing group benefits and group health insurance,” he recalled, noting that he first set up shop on King Street in Northampton and chose the name American Benefits Group because he liked to think big and thought that brand reflected this philosophy. “And I can remember when group health insurance was less than $100 a month for the premium, and people paid $5 for an office visit and $3 for a prescription, so nobody thought twice about going to the doctor when they needed to. That was the world we lived in in 1987.”

That world soon changed, however, as the cost of health coverage increased in double-digit increments on a seemingly annual basis, and new products began to emerge along with yet another acronym that would eventually dictate the course of an industry — CDHC, or consumer-driven health care.

“By 2002, we saw the creation of health savings accounts [HSAs] and health reimbursement arrangements [HRAs],” Cummings went on. “Of course, no one knew what they were, just like no one knew what a flexible spending account was in 1988. I knew what a flexible spending account was in 1988, and said, ‘no one knows what this is, but I have the feeling that eventually, every employer will want to offer these to their employees.’

“So in 1988, in the MS-DOS world, I put my big toe in the water — actually, I put everything in the water, and I started administering flexible spending accounts,” he went on. “And I was one of the first people in New England, maybe on the East Coast, to do that.”

He started with a handful of clients based in and around Northampton — Florence Bank, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, AAA of Pioneer Valley, among others — and gradually built the portfolio.

Before he could administer a company’s plan, however, he had to educate the employer — and the employees — about the specifics of the plan and its many benefits. It was a huge part of the equation, and it remains so today.

Indeed, while technology, products, the amount of the deductibles on the health plans, and much more have changed exponentially since Ronald Reagan patrolled the White House, the basic assignment for companies like ABG hasn’t, he went on.

Indeed, success still comes down to those four qualities listed earlier — personalization, innovation, creativity, and knowledge, said Cummings.

When a Plan Comes Together

The company’s customer-centric approach, along with all that aforementioned technology, including cloud-based systems, has in many ways leveled the playing field when it comes to TPAs, or third-party administrators.

This phenomenon, coupled with the company’s partnership with NFP (National Financial Partners), one of the nation’s largest distributors of financial-services products, has enabled ABG to greatly accelerate its growth pattern over the past decade or so.

Over that time, the company has expanded the portfolio of FSA administration from 40 employers and 1,200 participants to hundreds of employers and more than 30,000 participants, said Clodagh Parker, ABG’s director of Flexible Compensation Services, adding that the firm has gone from four or five employers to more than 30 in that period.

That portfolio is diverse, she went on, noting that it includes major employers across several sectors, including carmakers Fiat, Mitsubishi, and Ferrari North America (she jokes that Ferrari let her sit in one of its vehicles once), and Wall Street giant Cantor Fitzgerald.

But its core business, its sweet spot, if you will, is smaller companies with dozens of employees, rather than hundreds. Such businesses usually don’t have large human-resources departments (or even an HR person) and, thus, do need a partner and benefits-solutions provider and, quite often, an FSA administrator.

“I know that every small-business owner is majorly challenged today with just trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do,” Cummings said. “The average small-business owner needs help — they don’t have a full-time department to do all this stuff. If they have a bookkeeper or office manager, he or she is also wearing the double hat as the defacto HR person. These companies generally need to know not just what they’re supposed to do, but how they’re supposed to do it. And that’s been the biggest change from what I guess I would call the good old days.”

The process of serving these companies — and all other clients, for that matter — begins with that aforementioned 360-degree benefits solution, said Cummings.

“It includes strategic analysis for the client and helping the client design a program that’s going to meet their cost objectives and diverse employee needs,” he told BusinessWest. “It also includes providing all of the communication and the carrier negotiations — the pricing-market negotiations with insurance carriers; providing the technologies for the administration of the program, including the web-based, paperless enrollment and communications technology for the employees; and the administration services we offer on a national level, with the FSAs being the biggest.”

Elaborating, he said many of the clients the company has added over the past several years already offered benefits, obviously, but didn’t believe they were getting adequate value when it came to what was being offered and the prices being paid.

With the advent of mandated healthcare coverage, first in Massachusetts and then nationwide, there is considerably less room for negotiation on price, he went on, so the value comes in finding the right set of products for the employee group in question.

American Benefits Group Benefits Card

Bob Cummings calls the American Benefits Group Benefits Card a “game changer.”

“Maybe we go to the $2,000-deductible plan, and we implement an HSA, so we send less premium to the insurance company, and we use some of that savings to help cover some of the out-of-pocket expenses for the employee participants,” he said, offering one example of where the quest for value may take a business owner or manager. “If the client is of sufficient size, we can look at other strategic funding alternatives, including what’s known as partial self-funding, where we might use insurance to protect against more catastrophic risk, and have the employer fund the claims up to that limit.

“We would look to first develop a strategy in terms of the benefits program and looking at the existing benefits program and doing an audit,” he said. “Compliance is a very big issue these days — there’s so much more compliance today than at any other time in history, and it just got much, much bigger. In many cases, employers don’t even know about the regulations, let alone how to comply with them.”

In a nutshell, ABG analyzes a client’s data, needs, budget, and more, and comes up with a solution in the form of what Cummings called an “employer benefits HR web portal,” a platform solution called Employee Navigator, which eliminates paper and provides considerably more efficiency when it comes to enrollment, communication, and other facets of effective plan administration.

Letters of the Law

Summing up all that’s happened over the past three decades or so, Cummings said long gone are the days when companies in this industry were called upon to do little more than get quotes on insurance coverage.

“The bar has certainly been raised for insurance brokers and people working in the employee-benefits marketplace,” he explained, adding that companies aren’t looking for quotes, they’re looking for comprehensive, cost-effective solutions.

By becoming proficient at providing them, ABG is enjoying a period of profound growth triggered by still another acronym it’s been providing from the beginning: ROI.

And every business owner and manager knows what that stands for.

 

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

Insurance Sections
Homeowners’ Liability Often Extends Beyond the Home

By JOHN E. DOWD Jr.

John E. Dowd Jr.

John E. Dowd Jr.

One misconception about homeowners’ liability insurance coverage is that it covers only incidents in the home. In actuality, the comprehensive personal liability (CPL) coverage under a homeowners’ insurance policy is really not associated with any location, other than the limitations and exclusions on the policy.

Here are some examples of what probably would be covered by CPL:

• Sports incidents: for example, you are playing golf and you drive a ball that hits someone in the head and disables them. If you are found liable, as long as you were not doing it professionally, your policy will likely provide coverage.

• After shopping at your local market, you accidentally drop a bottle of olive oil in the parking lot, and it shatters and bleeds the oil onto the pavement. Another shopper comes along, slips, and seriously injures herself on the pavement. While the assumption is that the injured party will take action against the market, the typical practice of attorneys is to go after everyone associated with the incident.

• You are on vacation at a hotel, and you are so excited to leave the room to enjoy a sightseeing tour that you forget to turn off the faucet. The running water causes significant damage to the hotel structure. The hotel decides to go after you for damages. Your CPL will defend you and may pay out damages if you are deemed liable.

• Your kid lends his skateboard to a friend, and the friend, who may not be experienced with the skateboard, gets seriously injured trying to make a maneuver. Parents can be held liable for this injury, and there is a very good chance this will be covered by the CPL coverage.

• If your dog bites a stranger at the park, your CPL will cover you as the owner and responsible party for the dog, as long as the policy does not exclude coverage for your dog breed. Some homeowners policies exclude coverage for breeds deemed dangerous, such as pit bulls.

Additionally, the CPL coverage will usually extend coverage for the following items, even if an incident happens away from the insured premise:

• Trailers that are not attached to a motor vehicle;

• Motorized golf carts;

• Watercraft that does not have a motor or is not more than a specified amount of horsepower;

• Sailboats below a certain length;

• A vacation residence (however, certain conditions may apply, so you also may need to schedule it); and

• Non-motorized bikes.

Here are examples where coverage does not exist and is excluded by nearly every homeowners’ insurance policy:

• Your cars, which are clearly excluded if registered for road use. This is exactly why you need to get a separate auto insurance policy;

• Motorized recreational vehicles, especially if they are off the premises;

• Any incident related to business; and

• Intentional acts.

Policies vary, so it is important to review your policy to see what may be covered and what may not be covered. Additionally, some policies allow you to endorse a coverage that may not be on the policy. This is why it is so important to sit down with your agent to address additional risks you may have and make sure coverage for those risks is addressed.

Liability coverage is perhaps the most important coverage you should have, simply because most of these cases involve attorneys, and if coverage exists, the insurance companies provide for your defense, as well as any settlement up to the limits of your policy. Again, an annual review of your personal risk exposure with your agent is essential. It could be a very short conversation with your agent from year to year if nothing has changed in your life, but more often than not, changes do occur that could expose you unnecessarily to a potentially uninsured loss exposure. Ignorance is never a good defense.

One thing that you should carefully note is that, if you are involved with any activity where you charge a fee of some kind, there is a good chance that the insurance company will deem this to be a commercial exposure and will therefore not cover the activity under your CPL. Your agent or broker is always available to answer these questions, and you should never hesitate to put him or her on the spot.


John E. Dowd Jr. is the fourth-generation president and CEO of the Dowd Insurance Agencies. The Dowd Agencies is a full-service agency, founded by his grandfather in 1898, which provides personal, commercial, and financial-planning needs. The Dowd Agencies has six offices in Western Mass.; (413) 538-7444; [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Sections
Sumner & Toner Offers Generations of Insurance Expertise

The two generations of leaders at Sumner at Toner

The two generations of leaders at Sumner at Toner: From left, Warren Sumner, Bud Sumner, Bill Toner, and Jack Toner. Together, they’re charting a course for a company now 80 years old.

There’s an oversized postcard prominently displayed on the bookcase in the conference room at the Sumner & Toner Insurance Agency in Longmeadow. Its few words and accompanying photographs effectively tell the story of this enterprise and the recent history of the insurance industry in general.
Well, they begin to tell the story.
Pictured on one side of the missive is Warren Sumner, and on the other is William “Bill” Toner Jr. In between is a message, written in the form of a subtle warning: “Always treat your competitors with respect,” it reads. “You may end up sharing office space.”
That’s exactly what happened in 1998, when Sumner, a principal with the Sumner Spingler Insurance Agency, located on Williams Street, decided to join forces with Toner, a principal with Smith & Toner, located just a few hundred yards away on Bliss Road.
This merger, which came a few years after Richard Smith and Douglas Spingler both retired from the firms that bore their names, is typical of the many consolidation initiatives that have taken place in the insurance industry over the past few decades. Such unions have materialized with the knowledge that two companies can, theoretically, succeed better as one, with a shared office, computer network, telephone system — and philosophy about how to thrive in an increasingly competitive insurance landscape.
“We have me here, and Warren Sumner across the street,” said Toner, reflecting back on how and why the merger came about. “After three years of that, we said, ‘let’s merge.’ And when you put two businesses together, there are synergies — you don’t have to duplicate expenses.”
But what ultimately determines how successful such mergers are isn’t bottom-line savings on rent and utilities, said Sumner, but how well the new company melds the talents of the merged entities to effectively serve customers and negotiate the many challenges now facing those in a rapidly changing insurance industry.
And the company now known as Sumner & Toner — which sprung from an enterprise born 80 years ago — has been successful with this, Toner said, noting that his expertise in commercial products (especially with contractors’ needs), coupled with Sumner’s experience in personal lines and marketing, has given the company a competitive edge.
“There was and is good synergy between the two of us — we were able to bring our collective expertise to the table,” Toner noted, adding that the next phase of this process is greater use of social media to market the company and communicate with clients and potential clients.
And this is one of many assignments that will mostly fall to the next — and, in many respects, current — generation of leadership at the company, specifically Jack Toner (Bill’s son), and Bud Sumner (Warren’s son).
These younger principals have complementary skill sets as well, said the elder Toner, referencing Bud’s expertise in medical and professional offices on the commercial side of the ledger, and Jack’s work with younger individuals — both as an insurance executive and as current co-vice president of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS).
For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest takes advantage of the recent milestone anniversary to offer an in-depth look at how Warren Sumner and Bill Toner came to be on that postcard, and what happens next for this enterprise, where things have certainly come together nicely, and in more ways than one.

Policy Makers
As he traced the history of the company, Bill Toner started with his transition from work within an insurance company to owning an insurance agency.
It’s a significant if not uncommon career shift, he said, noting that insurance companies, or carriers, assume the risk for the policyholder and pay the claim when something happens. The agency, or what he called the “intermediary,” helps to market the different insurance products and services of the insurance companies, selling on behalf of those corporations.
Toner said he was drawn to the agency side of the industry after working for one of the many large insurance companies in Hartford. After serving in the Army for three years, he acquired from his father the Angers Agency Inc., the Springfield-based entity founded in 1933 that the elder Toner purchased upon his retirement from the General Accident Insurance Co. in New York. (It is the 80th anniversary of that business venture that is being celebrated this year).
Bill Toner said he ran that agency for 14 years, before opting to merge with Smith in 1984, and then with Sumner in 1998.
Warren Sumner was a marketing and sales vice president for Milton Bradley for years, but, as with Bill Toner, the entrepreneurial bug was biting, and he decided to venture out on his own by purchasing the Spingler Insurance Agency in 1987. A few years later, he merged with his friendly competitor across the street to form Sumner & Toner.
“My father has the advertising, marketing, and sales background, which, with the product knowledge in insurance, makes him a great salesman and advocate for his clients when a claim arises,” said son Bud Sumner. Currently, the elder Sumner is starting to get a small taste of retirement by reducing his hours.
Bud Sumner, who started with Aetna but founded his own small agency in Needham, decided to merge that venture with Sumner & Toner in 2001, giving the company a foothold in Eastern Mass. and Rhode Island — geographical diversity that has benefited the company in a number of ways.
The current leadership team became complete when, after a brief stint as a leasing agent for a real-estate company directly after graduating from Georgetown University — his father’s alma mater — Jack Toner joined the company in 2007.
Together, the two generations of Sumners and Toners are doing what agency operators across the region are trying to do — maintain and ultimately grow market share at a time of change, heightened competition, challenge, and opportunity.
All of those dynamics come together amid the proliferation of online giants such as Geico and Progressive, said Jack Toner, adding that these companies present a challenge because their marketing pitches and promises of savings are alluring, and they essentially eliminate that intermediary role that agencies play.
But they also represent an opportunity, he went on, because those same agencies can let clients and potential clients know that they usually can’t click their way to solutions for their insurance needs. This is the message he’s imparting to many young professionals in YPS, some of whom are buying insurance for the first time.
“The product that we’re offering and the services that we promise to offer are sophisticated,” said Bill Toner, explaining his caution for online one-size-fits-all insurance products. “It’s a complex sale; people think that they can go online to buy auto and home insurance — and they can — but they don’t have the expertise to know what they are missing, and that sophistication of the sale brings us to the table because we can offer that advice.”
Bud Sumner agreed. “Anybody can save you 15%; just don’t call them when you have a claim, because all [national online companies] are doing is raising your deductible and lowering your limits.”
Or they’re taking away coverage, Bill Toner added. “We have the philosophy that we should take the time and labor, which is our capital, to invest in the relationship so that, six months to a year later, they’ll realize we’ve been something of value for them. That’s our general philosophy of business.”
The two terms ‘challenge’ and ‘opportunity’ could also be ascribed to other changes within the industry, said Bill Toner, specifically citing the deregulation of auto insurance in the Commonwealth in 2008, which allowed insurance companies to set their own rates, and agencies to offer package discounts for auto and home or auto and boat, Bill said.
“This was good for the consumer — they got discounts,” he explained. “But it was good for us because we were able to develop the entire account and develop relationships.”
But Sumner & Toner isn’t out to sell everything to everybody, he went on, noting that, with a client base that is 60% personal and 40% commercial, the agency would rather offer advice and good service instead of pushing what Bill calls the ‘horror-story’ campaign. That would be advertising by fear, as in, what would happen if someone came over to visit and fell down the stairs?
“Our proposition has always been a quality product and package that will fit into your financials, which you can afford and protects your assets,” said Jack Toner.
Still another challenge moving forward is creating a strategy for effectively using social media to promote the agency and its services and also communicate with clients and potential clients.
“That’s a whole other arena we’re entering into,” said Jack Toner. “I think that our industry has a place, or is finding a place, in social media, and while we’re not totally sure where we want to place ourselves, we’re very aware of it.”
Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and all the other forms of social technology have created new marketing avenues, but industry-wide, there is no clear consensus on how to best meld these vehicles, said Bill Toner, adding that the company is currently grappling with the question of whether to hire someone to devote specific time to social media.

Predicting the Future
Stating that he’s not an actuary or a meteorologist, Bill Toner explained that the future will only get more expensive for the consumer through property-insurance premium increases due to the many recent instances of Mother Nature’s wrath and the potential escalation of extreme weather globally.
“Obviously, the insurance companies set their rates contemplating catastrophic things, because no insurance company I know of went financially bankrupt or went out of business,” he said, referencing the recent past and its tornadoes, ice dams, freak October snowstorm, and more. “But they found that it was difficult and that, actuarially, they have to cover catastrophes like what we’ve all experienced, because they’re predicting scientifically that it’s going to happen moreso in the future.”
There is no crystal ball for Sumner & Toner to predict the weather, but putting clients together with the best products — and assisting them with their claims should catastrophes, large or small, happen — is the firm’s main mission.
And the effective way they’re varying that mission is proof positive of what’s written on that aforementioned postcard. Sometimes, companies do wind up sharing office space with their competitors, and, in this case, it brought together families, generations, and a shared formula for success.

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion
Idea Mill Points Way to a Vibrant Holyoke

“Being down at the bottom gives you the chance to come back.”
That was one of the many messages that John Geraci, who has launched several Internet-based startups, left with participants at Idea Mill (see cover story, page 38). He was addressing an audience of entrepreneurs, business leaders, city-planning experts, and others interested in seeing Holyoke make exactly that kind of comeback.
‘Down at the bottom’ may have been a harsh way to put it, but it’s undeniable that this unique community — one of the nation’s first planned industrial cities, with a central manufacturing district built along a series of canals — has seen better days; it still ranks among the poorest cities in Massachusetts, and many of those formerly bustling mills have been vacant for decades.
But change is in the air.
Local economic-development officials have been talking about the rise of an Innovation District along the canals, and city leaders are buoyed by the ongoing development of the high-performance computing center that won’t produce many jobs, but will surely raise the city’s profile in attracting other high-tech businesses.
Idea Mill, which brought together a few dozen visionaries to discuss Holyoke’s potential, further focused those goals by emphasizing, throughout the day, the concept of ‘entrepreneutial density,’ the idea that many innovative companies, startups and established firms alike, working in one area raises the bar for all of them — not just through competition, but collaboration as well.
The idea of CEOs discussing current projects and future ideas among one another wasn’t the paradigm 20 years ago, said Baer Tierkel, another serial entrepreneur, but that kind of shared passion can be the lifeblood for a growing economy — in this case, one that could spring up in the old mill buildings along the canals.
That’s why another recurring theme at Idea Mill was promoting those buildings themselves, and convincing entrepreneurs to see them not as relics from a long-ago past, but living real estate with a palpable sense of history mingled with a modern, funky vibe. Many businesses have already caught on — the success of Open Square, where the conference was held, speaks to that — but event organizers believe the Innovation District can be so much more.
There’s plenty to be excited about in the Paper City these days, from the high-performance computing center to the possibility of a large resort casino. But what the speakers at Idea Mill made abundantly clear is that the city’s fortune won’t rise on technology itself, or any individual building project, but on people with passion and a vision, competing with each other while collaborating on something greater: a new, vibrant Holyoke.
We’ve said many times that economic development and job growth in this region will come organically. It will happen the same way it happened 200 years ago, with entrepreneurs taking concepts for new products and turning them into businesses. There are many ways to foster entrepreurship, and one of them is to relate success stories that happened here (complete with the challenges and struggles that are part and parcel to each of those stories) with the hope that they will inspire others who want to choose that path, and convince them that they don’t have to move to Cambridge or Silicon Valley to achieve those dreams.
That’s what Idea Mill is all about, and we consider it an exciting addition to the many endeavors taking place in the Valley to inspire the vision and entrepreneurial daring it will take to transform Holyoke and the entire region.
And that’s an idea worth developing.

Departments People on the Move

Bradley Newell

Bradley Newell

Bradley Newell recently joined Consolidated Health Plans in Springfield as Chief Financial Officer. Newell oversees the Finance Department, Information Technology, and Employer Enrollment area. His major responsibilities include billing, receivables, payables, general ledger reconciliation, financial reporting, and information technology.
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Jon Parent has joined Valley Computer Works in Hadley as a Master Account Representative.
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Janet Uthman

Janet Uthman

Comcast has named Janet Uthman its Vice President of Marketing and Sales for Western New England. She oversees all marketing and sales initiatives for the region, which encompasses 300 communities in Connecticut, Western Mass., New York, and Vermont. She will also be responsible for overseeing marketing campaigns, competitive intelligence and strategy, and local marketing and sales event sponsorships. Additionally, she will oversee regional sales channels.
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Eric Taylor

Eric Taylor

Eric Taylor has joined the American Institute of Economic Research in Great Barrington as a Graphic Artist and Web Content Manager.
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Ann Marie Gorham has joined Baystate Ob/Gyn Group in Springfield as a Nurse Practitioner, providing routine gynecologic care.
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James Parrish has been named Executive Vice President of Company Operations for Friendly Ice Cream Corp. in Wilbraham.
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Susanne deVillier

Susanne deVillier

Susanne deVillier has joined Easthampton Savings Bank as the Branch Manager for the new Agawam office, slated to open in the coming weeks.
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Florence Lombard has been named the Chief Executive Officer of the Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst Association in Amherst. Lombard is the founding member and former CEO of the Alternative Investment Management Assoc., a global hedge-fund industry association.
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Paul Erwin

Paul Erwin

NUVO Bank & Trust Co. in Springfield has hired Paul Erwin, CPA, to be its Chief Financial Officer.
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The Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow announced the following:
• Thomas Laurin has been named to the Board of Directors.; and
• James Ross III has been named to the Board of Directors.
Laurin and Ross, both second-generation supporters of the school, take their fathers’ places on the board. Francis Laurin served on the board for many years and established the Laurin Audiological Center for Children in Pittsfield as a resource for the families of deaf children in Berkshire County. James Ross Jr. served for 20 years as a treasurer and a member of the Willie Ross School Board of Trustees.
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Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has joined Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton as Director of Major Gifts. He is responsible for increasing the number of donors and support for Cooley Dickinson at the level of $10,000 and above. He will also be instrumental in raising the remaining $4.2 million of an $8.2 million campaign that will make possible a number of initiatives, primarily a new Cancer Center and nurse-development programs.
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Lena Buteau

Lena Buteau

Monson Savings Bank has announced the recent promotion of Lena Buteau to Assistant Vice President, Retail Banking. Previously the Branch Manager for the Monson branch, Buteau will now oversee all of Monson Savings’ branches in Monson, Hampden, and Wilbraham, and will direct the institution’s retail banking operations.
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The Springfield affiliate of Rebuilding Together announced the following:
• Ralph DiVito has been elected to its Board of Directors. DiVito is Director of Business Development at Rocky’s Ace Hardware in Springfield; and
• Frank Nataloni has been elected to its Board of Directors. Nataloni is Owner and President of Kitchens by Curio in Springfield.
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The U.S. Supreme Court recently admitted a group of Widener University School of Law attorneys to its bar in Washington, D.C., including George Pappas of Springfield. Pappas, a 2000 graduate of Widener’s Delaware campus, has his own law practice with offices in Springfield and Charlotte, N.C.
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Pamela Wells, Resident Service Manager at the Springfield Housing Authority, was recently appointed to the Springfield Advisory Board of the Department of Transitional Assistance. The appointment was made by Gov. Deval Patrick, Commissioner Julia Kehoe, and state Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby.
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Berkshire Bank in Pittsfield announced the following:
Kevin O’Donnell

Kevin O’Donnell

• Kevin O’Donnell has been promoted to Assistant Vice President. O’Donnell’s role includes the continued growth of the Wealth Management Center by assisting customers in outlining their financial goals and developing thoughtful strategies to achieve those goals; and
Nicholas Strom-Olsen

Nicholas Strom-Olsen

Nicholas Strom-Olsen, CFP, AIF, has been promoted to Assistant Vice President. His areas of focus include retirement planning, education planning, investment management, and insurance.
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Loretta Brennan Glucksman, Chairperson of the American Ireland Fund, will receive the 2011 Ambassador of Ireland Award by the Saint Patrick’s Committee of Holyoke Inc. and the Republic of Ireland. Presented annually by a representative of the Irish government, the award honors individuals who have made extraordinary efforts in furthering the relationship between the people of the U.S. and Ireland. Glucksman’s philanthropic efforts in Ireland and the U.S. are internationally recognized. The American Ireland Fund raises funds to support programs of peace, culture, education, and community development in Ireland, having raised more than $250 million for Irish charities. The award will be presented in Holyoke during a pre-parade breakfast and reception on March 20.
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Realtor Stephen Oates has completed the requirements to be licensed as a licensed Real Estate Broker in Massachusetts. In other news, Oates recently received a 2010 Coldwell Banker Sterling Society Award of Recognition and a 2010 Silver Coldwell Banker Sales and Service Award working with Coldwell Banker Upton-Massamont Realtors.
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W.F. Young Inc. of East Longmeadow announced the following:
Steve Gootzeit

Steve Gootzeit

• Steve Gootzeit has been appointed Director of Marketing;
Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

• Tom Johnson has been appointed National Sales Manager, Animal Health Care;
Laurie Klafeta

Laurie Klafeta

• Laurie Klafeta has been appointed Export Sales Administrator; and
Molly O’Brien

Molly O’Brien

• Molly O’Brien has expanded her role as Advertising Supervisor with new responsibilities.
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Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas, LLP of Springfield announced the following:
• Associate Attorney Kelly Koch has joined the Domestic Relations Department. She handles matters relating to divorce, child custody, antenuptial agreements, post-divorce issues, guardianships, and probate litigation;
• Associate Attorney George Adams IV has joined the Business/Finance Department. He focuses on general corporate and business matters.;
• Associate Attorney Christopher Visser has joined the Litigation/Alternative Dispute Resolution Department. He focuses on medical-malpractice litigation; and
• Associate Attorney Abena Mainoo has joined the Litigation/ADR Department. She handles commercial and corporate litigation matters, primarily for large financial institutions.
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Nate Dube of Expert Laser Services in Southbridge, will lecture at the upcoming Digital Marketing Forum in Austin, Texas, detailing his use of social media in an unconventional marketing campaign. Dube will discuss his Destroy Your Printer Contest, which invited office workers to submit videos of creative ways to vent their frustration against office imaging equipment. Dube first posted the videos on YouTube, then promoted them using a variety of social media. Bloggers and Internet news outlets picked up the story, and Dube found himself answering calls and tweets and doing interviews. The contest also earned Expert Laser a cover story in the international trade magazine the Recycler.
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Christina Sousa has been named by TD Bank as Manager of its Ludlow branch at 549 Center St.
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David Hrycay was the recipient of a Carole-Cope Ward Award from Mass-West Enterprises and the state Department of Developmental Services’ regional employment-services office. The award is given annually to a staff member who goes above and beyond normal job responsibilities for the benefit of individuals supported. Hrycay is a Job Coach and works with individuals with intellectual disabilities at the Route 20 redemption center in Palmer.
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John J. Turgeon, Certified Public Accountant and Human Capital Strategist, is now a member of Kostin, Ruffkess & Co., a Farmington, Conn.-based certified public accounting and business-advisory firm. As leader of the Human Capital Consulting Group, he offers an array of services to clients, including executive coaching, personal-development planning, leadership-meeting facilitation, and professional recruitment assistance.
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Amy Driver has joined Kunhardt Financial and Insurance Strategies in Northampton as Senior Services Assistant.
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Dr. Jose Vinagre has received recognition from the Heart-Stroke Recognition Program of the National Committee for Quality Assurance and the American Heart Assoc.-American Stroke Assoc. for providing quality care to his patients with cardiovascular disease or who have had a stroke.
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John Shecrallah of Peter Pan Bus Line’s Springfield central operations office, has been promoted to Director of System-Wide Operations.
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Janice Santaniello has joined Keller Williams Realty in Longmeadow. She has been a full-time Realtor in the Longmeadow area for more than 10 years.
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Nina Wishengrad has joined Market Mentors of West Springfield as a Copywriter.
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Farmers recently named to the committee of the Hampshire-Hampden County Farm Service Agency, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are:
• Diana Strzemienski, who with her family runs a 112-acre beef cattle, hay, and vegetable farm in Palmer; and
• Peter R. Hanifin, who, with his family, operates a 50-acre hay farm in Ware.
The committee is responsible for the local administration of federal farm programs.

Company Notebook Departments

Berkshire Hills, Legacy Announce Merger
PITTSFIELD — Berkshire Hills Bancorp Inc. and Legacy Bancorp Inc. recently announced a definitive merger agreement under which Berkshire will acquire Legacy and its subsidiary, Legacy Banks, in a transaction valued at approximately $108 million. The merger of Legacy into Berkshire will create a combined institution with $4 billion in assets. This in-market merger will create efficiencies and market-share benefits for the combined banks, which both have branches in Western Mass. and Northeastern New York. Including Berkshire’s pending merger with Rome Bancorp, the combined bank will have more than 60 offices serving Berkshire County, the Pioneer Valley, New York, and Southern Vermont. Legacy has nearly $1 billion in assets and 19 branches, while Berkshire has nearly $3 billion in assets and will have 47 branches, including the Rome branches. Both banks are headquartered in Pittsfield and have histories stretching back more than 150 years serving the Berkshire County market. Michael P. Daly, Berkshire’s president and chief executive officer, noted in a statement, “this in-market combination will create a strong platform headquartered in Berkshire County for further growth of our Northeast regional franchise.”

Tighe & Bond Approved for Fisheries & Wildlife Projects
WESTFIELD — The Mass. Division of Fisheries & Wildlife recently prequalified Tighe & Bond to perform biological surveys, research, and testing at varied sites throughout the state. This approval allows the firm to participate in Fisheries & Wildlife bid opportunities in eight service categories that include: wetland delineation and soil surveys; engineering services; GIS and database projects; road and trail assessment and mapping; property boundary location and marking; natural community, restoration, natural-resource mapping, and management planning; plants and fungi; and reptiles and amphibians. The Division of Fisheries & Wildlife is part of the Mass. Department of Fish and Game, which awarded Tighe & Bond a master service agreement earlier in 2010 for ecological and river restoration through its Division of Ecological Restoration. Tighe & Bond was also recently prequalified for another two years to provide similar services to the Mass. Department of Transportation.

Bay Path Receives InternHero Award
LONGMEADOW — Annually, the Hartford-Springfield Economic Partnership (HSEP) recognizes students and colleges that promote HSEP’s InternHere.com program. This year, HSEP selected Bay Path College as the recipient of the 2010 College InternHero Award for its special support of InternHere and the large number of undergraduates who have benefited from the program. An initiative of HSEP, InternHere assists college students in finding internships. The Web site features more than 1,000 regional businesses and organizations that post internship opportunities. Students can search for internships and apply to opportunities online. Bay Path was recognized at HSEP’s 2010 State of the Region Conference on Dec. 9.

Berkshire Wind Completes $64.7M Financing
BOSTON — The Berkshire Wind Power Cooperative Corp. (BWPCC) recently issued $64,705,000 in tax-exempt revenue bonds to complete the financing for its Berkshire Wind Power Project, the largest wind project to date in Massachusetts. The 10-turbine, 15-megawatt project, located on Brodie Mountain in Hancock, is scheduled to begin operation in mid-February. All 10 turbines are fully erected, and remaining construction work involves completing electrical connections needed to deliver project electricity to the power grid. Proceeds from the 20-year bond issue will be used primarily to repay a $52.5 million, short-term loan taken by BWPCC to finance turbine purchases and preliminary construction activities. The bond issue, rated A by Fitch Ratings and A-minus by Standard & Poors, also will fund additional construction expenses, a debt-service reserve fund, and underwriting costs. The BWPCC is comprised of 14 state municipal utilities and the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. (MMWEC), all nonprofit, public-power entities. Through contracts with BWPCC and MMWEC, the municipal utilities will receive their respective shares of project output and be responsible for their proportionate share of debt service on the bonds. Once it is operational, the project will nearly double the state’s current 18.5 megawatts in windpower resources, which include more than 20 comparatively small projects ranging in size from 100 kilowatts to the 3-megawatt project operated by the Princeton Municipal Light Department, according to the state Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs Web site. Wind speeds atop Brodie Mountain, one of the best inland wind sites in Massachusetts, average about 8 meters per second, making it a Class 6 wind resource on an American Wind Energy Assoc. scale of 1 to 7. The BWPCC project is expected to operate at a capacity factor of approximately 40% and produce more than 52,500 megawatt hours of electricity a year, enough to power approximately 6,000 homes.

Adam Quenneville Receives National Recognition
SOUTH HADLEY — Adam Quenneville Roofing, Siding & Windows has received national recognition in Compass magazine. The magazine delivers monthly columns from the foremost industry experts in the fields of training, marketing, motivation, and more. In addition, Compass highlights the most accomplished contractors in the country and, in the latest issue, featured the local firm as the cover story. Labeled as an “innovator” and “revolutionary roofer,” Quenneville was also recognized for being a green company. Quenneville noted in a statement that “we’ve recycled over 2 million pounds of roofing shingles. One of the company’s goals is to save the planet one roof at a time.” The firm is located at 160 Old Lyman Road.

Opinion
Creating a State of Diversity in Massachusetts

‘Inclusion Incorporated’ is an excellent phrase for the new world of hiring and workforce development being faced by corporations and other organizations throughout New England every day.

The cover story with that title in the July 21 edition of BusinessWest focuses tellingly on the many factors that make diversity an economic imperative — a subject that is now urgently discussed in business schools and boardrooms, and would be even if it weren’t so prominent on the political pages.

As Lorie Valle-Yanez of MassMutual pointed out in that story, with Baby Boomers beginning to retire, organizations will need to find large numbers of new employees in the next few years, and they will be recruiting from a pool that is much more diverse than the group checking out. Workplaces that give a cold shoulder to employees of color will soon find themselves short of talent.

One big problem for Massachusetts is its reputation as a place that doesn’t welcome diversity. College recruiters, corporate human-resources directors, and others repeatedly find that talented people of color from other parts of the country are reluctant to locate here. The problem reached its peak during the bitter court-ordered busing conflicts in Boston in the 1970s, but it was simmering for decades before that. And it persists.

Commonwealth Compact, a statewide program, was launched earlier this year to face the problem squarely and turn it around. The stated goal is to make Massachusetts a location of choice for people of color. This is no small ambition, we know. But the response has been so positive, so broad, and so fast that we are encouraged to hope real progress can be made.

Driving our project is the belief that diversity is more than a moral or social issue. Real inclusion of all kinds of people, at all levels of organizations, is absolutely crucial if they hope to thrive in our shrinking world.

Together with a group of more than 50 advisors from all segments of the community, and with the support of Gov. Patrick, the group’s creators agreed to confront honestly the question of how much of the state’s poor reputation is a leftover from busing and how much is still deserved; build on the work of other groups in the field, collaborating to expand their efforts and not competing; and rally a statewide community response.

One first step was a survey by the McCormack School last year of more than 300 boards of directors. It found that 95% of members were white and 87 male in corporations, with numbers only slightly better for non-profit organizations. Other indicators were also discouraging: for instance, in paired tests of couples seeking housing, nearly half of those of color received fewer options or inferior financing.

Commonwealth Compact’s Bench-marks Initiative seeks to encourage organizations of all kinds to respond with individual actions that could be very powerful collectively.

Specifically, organizations are asked to measure annually their own diversity on a detailed list of 25 benchmarks, ranging from board membership through the workforce — including retention and promotion rates vs. white males — to policies relating to customers and suppliers. Individual information is confidential, but the data will be aggregated and reports issued. The object is improvement over time. To date, 125 organizations have signed on, including Staples, Raytheon, John Hancock, Harvard, MIT, UMass, Partners Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

This strong response shows an enormous and heartening appetite to make real progress. To build further, Commonwealth Compact is preparing an online talent database of people of color, and a clearinghouse to connect people with ongoing agencies, programs, and events.

We encourage organizations from all over the state to join the effort, so that inclusion really can be incorporated.-

Robert Turner is the director of the Commonwealth Compact; (617) 287-5579.

Cover Story
Smith & Wesson’s Aggressive Drive for Growth and Diversity Is on Target
March 5, 2007 Cover

March 5, 2007 Cover

When Mike Golden came to Smith & Wesson in late 2004, he laid out a strategic plan calling for diversification, across-the-board growth in the core product — handguns — and operational improvements to increase margins and profits. Two years later, he and his leadership team have made great strides with all those goals, and as a new fiscal year dawns, this company with the great brand and glorious past has an even brighter future in its sights.

There are many ways to measure the progress recorded at Smith & Wesson since Mike Golden took over as president and CEO just over two years ago.

Start with the stock price. It was about $1.40 then; it’s over $13 now. There’s the 76% growth in sales of the core product (handguns) over the past 24 months, and a 465% rise in operating profits, contributing to roughly 250 additional jobs at the Roosevelt Avenue plant in Springfield. S&W has also regained some of the market it once dominated in handgun sales to state and municipal police departments, and was named Manufacturer of the Year (2005) at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention a year ago.

And then … there’s the magazine covers — 80 of them over the past year at last count, but the number seems to go up virtually every week. These aren’t pictures of Golden, either; rather, it’s a host of new S&W products that are getting face time on some of the shooting and law enforcement realms’ most popular publications.

The January issue of American Rifleman profiled the company’s new Elite Gold shotguns; the latest cover of Guns & Weapons features both S&W’s new M&P (that stands for Military & Police) 5.6mm tactical rifle and the M&P 45 caliber pistol; the January edition of Shooting Illustrated had a close-up of one of the company’s new .44-caliber Magnum revolvers; and the cover of the current issue of American Cop announces an exclusive review of a compact model of the M&P pistol.

And these are just the most recent triumphs at the newsstand; over the past 18 months, the company has won cover stories in countless other publications, from Guns & Ammo to Special Weapons to Shooter’s Bible, the self-described “world’s standard firearms reference book since 1924.”

Spread all these out on a coffee table and they start to convey what has taken place at Smith & Wesson since Golden arrived in the fall of 2004, after 25 years of work with some other famous brands, including Black & Decker.

But new products and more aggressive marketing (those are the basic ingredients to gaining cover pieces in this industry) are only part of the story.

There are also investor relations, hard lobbying of elected officials in Washington that helped win the company its first major order from the U.S. government in more than 15 years, investments in new equipment and margin-improving processes, and diversification into product lines well beyond S&W’s bread and butter — handguns.

All these elements are part of the strategic plan Golden put in place for a company that has always had the name (with an 87% awareness level), but wasn’t, by his account, well managed or marketed when he arrived. There are several prongs to this strategic plan, and all of them essentially involve leveraging that famous brand, and putting the Smith & Wesson name on everything from black powder rifles to leather jackets to the hood of a Busch Series race car.

“Research shows that whether you like guns or don’t like guns, whether you’re male or female, young or old, Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter,” he explained. “The perception of the brand is extremely positive. This is a 155-year-old legacy brand that everybody knows and everybody likes, and that gives us the ability to grow the business.”

But brand recognition does not necessarily translate into sales — it didn’t at S&W for many years — so Golden and his management team put the focus on creating new products and lines that could outperform the offerings of companies that had taken market share from Smith & Wesson over the years.

The results are starting to show. The M&P pistols have been turning heads and drawing top marks at so-called T&Es, testing and evaluation periods during which police departments shopping for new weapons test what’s on the market. Those strong performances have netted some new orders from law enforcement agencies, but Golden says the company, now with just over 10% of a $150 million market it once owned lock, stock, and barrel, is just scratching the surface in that sector.

Meanwhile, it is making strong headway in the product category called long guns, which includes everything from shotguns for sport to tactical rifles for SWAT teams. In that latter category, S&W’s M&P models are so popular the company can barely keep up with orders.

In this issue, BusinessWest, in yet another cover story for this 155-year-old company, conducts a wide-ranging interview with Golden, in which he explains why, by aiming high, Smith & Wesson’s quest for a return to its glory days is clearly on target.

Bullet Points

Golden has logged considerable air miles in recent months. He’s spent a lot of time on Wall Street talking with investors and in Washington conversing with elected leaders and federal officials in efforts to bolster both domestic and international sales. In January, he spent a week in Orlando at the SHOT (Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade) Show.

Smith & Wesson had two booths at the event, sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and it needed them. The company was displaying a wide array of new products, from its new Elite Gold shotguns to six retro revolvers, including the ‘Model 40 Lemon Squeezer,” so-called because it has a grip safety on the back strap (one has to squeeze the grip in order to fire the gun), to its new M&P pistols. Those displays drew considerable attention that will no doubt lead to more magazine covers: The Army Times selected the M&P 45 as its featured product in ‘Best of Day Two’ at the show.

Beyond the new models, however, what the hordes of shooting industry media noticed from Smith & Wesson was something missing in recent years — energy, said Golden, adding that, overall, instilling some has been his broad assignment.

He’s done it by assembling an effective senior management team, which includes many newcomers as well as several S&W veterans, and by taking several pages from the scripts he helped write for Black & Decker and, after that, for the plumbing fixtures giant Kohler and the hardware and tool maker Stanley Works. These touch on matters ranging from marketing (NASCAR participation included) to dealer relations.

He’s also worked to make the company more visible to the industry and the public at large. He oversaw creation of the Smith & Wesson museum, a small, glass-walled room inside the plant that displays many historical pieces, including the S&W 38, perhaps the most famous handgun ever made; dozens of collector’s items, some valued at more than $500,000, and even some Hollywood memorabilia, such as the .44-caliber Magnum toted by Clint Eastwood in the movie Sudden Impact.

The various steps have been taken to ensure that the company with the glorious past has a real future, said Golden, adding that he believes Smith & Wesson is well-positioned for strong growth for many years to come.

“The past two years have been the most the exciting thing I’ve ever been involved with,” he said. “We’ve grown in every channel that we do business in, and we take great pride in the fact that we’ve done everything we said we were going to do.”

Indeed, when BusinessWest talked with Golden soon after his arrival, he laid out many of the points in a strategic plan for the company. It called for diversification on a number of levels, investments in new technology that would make the company more efficient and improve margins without eliminating jobs, and aggressive pursuit of market share in many domains through new sales and marketing tactics.

There has been progress on virtually all fronts.

Inside the plant, the company has implemented what it calls the Smith & Wesson Operating System, based on the Toyota Production System (TPS), or lean manufacturing. In response to increased demand for its pistol lines, the company invested more than $40 million in new technology in the form of new machining cells that that have reduced the slide-manufacturing process from 15 steps to three, and manufacturing centers that have reduced the barrel-manufacturing process from 13 steps to four.

Meanwhile, the company has made fundamental changes in its approach to sales at the sporting goods level, yielding sharp increases in handgun sales within that market.

“A year ago, we changed our sales strategy,” Golden explained, “from a channel where we used independent reps to represent half the country — salespeople who sell Smith & Wesson but also sell fishing tackle, ammunition, and many other lines — to using all Smith & Wesson factory employees who sell only Smith & Wesson.

“This was chapter right out of the Dewalt (a division of Black & Decker) power tool book,” he continued, “and it’s focused on the independent dealers. This is where the action happens; it’s where the consumer walks into the store and makes their purchasing decision.”

The results have been exactly what the company hoped for, he said, noting that the closer relationship between salesperson and dealer and the singular focus on Smith & Wesson have driven at least 30% growth in sporting goods sales for each of the past several quarters, and 52% in the most recent quarter.

These and other steps have been blueprinted and implemented by a leadership team that blends experience in the gun industry (CFO John Kelly has spent 25 years at Smith & Wesson) with work manufacturing, marketing, selling, and licensing some of the country’s most famous brands.

Tom Taylor, S&W’s vice president of Marketing, spent 24 years with Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay before joining the company two and a half years ago; Tom Fimmen, vice president of Sales, who joined the team a year ago, has logged a quarter-century of experience with such companies as Union Carbide, GE Silicones, and Stanley Works; Ken Chandler, vice president of Operations, has held similar positions with Ingersoll Rand and Autoliv; and Bobbie Hunnicut, vice president of Licensing, has 25 years of experience with Stanley Works, Meridith, and Harley-Davidson.

But while the management team has mapped the plan and executed it, the stars of this show are the new products that have rolled off the assembly line. Collectively, they have enabled the company to penetrate new markets, gain coveted federal contracts, and win back some of the police contracts that made the company a household name — and part of some of some of Hollywood’s more memorable lines.

On the Beat

Along one wall in an area of the massive plant known as the revolver fitting room are several large cork boards covered with the badges of police departments to which Smith & Wesson once sold handguns, principally revolvers. There are thousands of them on this and other displays around the plant, representing small towns, big cities, and every state police department in the country.

“It’s my job to get those people back,” said Golden, motioning to the badges and noting that the company, which once owned roughly 98% of the law enforcement market, lost nearly all of that business. It happened because it didn’t take seriously the threat posed by Austrian gunmaker Glock and its superior pistols, and this complacency cost the company dearly. “One by one, police departments converted their primary service weapon from a revolver to a pistol, and today Glock has 65% of the market.”

Getting all those state and local police forces back in the fold, and not just on the wall, is a simple function of putting out a quality product and effectively selling it, said Golden, adding quickly that law enforcement officers have no room for tradition or nostalgia when choosing weaponry; accuracy and stopping power — the factors measured at T&Es — are what sell guns.

The M&P model pistols, launched in January 2006, are winning over many departments — nearly 150, representing about 20,000 officers, were using S&W guns at last count, he said, noting that the products have a 78% win rate at the T&Es in which they’ve been involved, and that more than 130 of the nation’s 17,000 law enforcement departments are currently testing the products.

“This leaves considerable room for growth,” said Golden, adding that the company intends to achieve it by continually listening to end users (something he said it stopped doing years ago), and making products they like and trust.

But municipal and state police departments constitute just one segment of the handgun market, said Golden, noting that S&W is looking for growth in the other three — retail (for sport and home security), where the company has traditionally fared well, and U.S. government (including the military) and international sales, where, at least recently, it hasn’t.

But through better products (those M&P models), some effective lobbying (the company hired a firm to keep its name front and center), and support from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and others, Smith & Wesson is getting some consideration — and some new contracts.

In late 2005, the company won $20 million in government business (all four of the contracts awarded for firearms) totaling more than 73,000 pistols for the Afghanistan National Police and Border Patrol, said Golden, noting that more penetration in this sector could be on the horizon. Indeed, there are indications that the U.S. armed forces may be switching from a 9mm pistol (Beretta is near the end of a 20-year contract to produce them) to a 45-caliber model — and Smith & Wesson just launched its M&P 45, as Guns & Weapons and some of those other publications announced.

Details on the new military contract are emerging — specifications are due to be released later this year — but Golden said it may involve nearly 700,000 guns and be worth between $300 million and $500 million. Recognizing the size and scope of that contract led Golden to hire a lobbying firm to state S&W’s case, and he believes the combination of product quality and lobbying will effectively position the company to win that huge contract.

As for international sales, the company is taking several steps to improve market share in that realm. It is increasing its sales force to develop more contacts within police and military outfits in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. Meanwhile, in Washington, it is lobbying for a shortening of the federal export approval timeline and a raising of the $1 million Congressional approval export threshold.

Magazine Racks

As large as the handgun market is (currently about $600 million), the long-gun market is 80% larger ($1.1 billion), said Golden, using that simple statistic to explain why S&W has penetrated many areas within that realm. And it does so with the intention of capitalizing fully on that 87% brand-recognition rate and the apparent across-the-board faith in that brand among Democrats, Republicans, and every other category.

“Our research showed that many people believed Smith & Wesson was already in the shotgun and hunting rifle business,” he explained. “When we asked them about the brands they preferred in those categories, the No. 3 brand they listed was Smith & Wesson, and we weren’t even in those businesses. That’s when we knew there was an opportunity to get into that.”

S&W started its long-gun movement with the production of tactical rifles, the fastest-growing segment in that market, because they are used by many constituencies, including the military, law enforcement, sport hunters, and competitive shooters. The M&P 15 series, introduced in March 2006, is proving popular with all
hose groups, said Golden, noting that the company is being challenged to meet orders.

“The demand has been phenomenal,” he said, noting that in less than a year, sales and orders for the M&P 15 now exceed 10% of the tactical rifle market (now more than $152 million), and 55 law enforcement agencies have ordered the product. “We’ve told our salespeople, ‘don’t aggressively sell it, because we’re selling every piece we can make.”

Penetration into the long-gun market has also manifested itself in a partnership with a company in Southern Turkey to produce the first shotguns to bear the Smith & Wesson name. And late last year, the company announced the acquisition of Rochester, N.H.-based Thompson/Center Arms, a 41-year-old venture that is considered a leading player in black powder and interchangeable firearms, for $102 million.

The Thompson acquisition provides many benefits for Smith & Wesson, said Golden, including immediate entry into hunting rifles, long-gun barrel manufacturing expertise that will help accelerate S&W’s growth in rifle sales, and an expansion and strengthening of distribution channels.

The move into long guns is part of a broader strategy to diversify the company into products across four main categories — safety, security, protection, and sport. “Because this is what the brand stands for,” he said, adding that this includes products beyond firearms, everything from handcuffs to explosion-detection devices; from flashlights to pocket knives.

But through licensing, the company will also puts its name on T-shirts, caps, leather jackets, purses, backpacks, and more, he said, adding that this initiative is part of the same marketing plan that has the Smith & Wesson name on the #30 car on the Busch circuit.

Diversification also comes in the form of specially engraved guns — for which there is a solid market — and commemorative pieces, including two special ones in 2006: the 50th-anniversary edition of the Model 29 .44-caliber Magnum made famous by the Eastwood character character in Dirty Harry, and the 75th anniversary edition of the Walther PPK, made famous by Ian Fleming’s James Bond character.

Add all this up, and it’s more than enough to keep the sporting arms and law enforcement press busy — and Golden eternally optimistic about 2007 and well beyond.

“We think there are great opportunities for growth in handguns, long guns, across the board,” he said. “And we’re solidly positioned to achieve that growth. We’ve moved aggressively, and the pieces are in place.”

Clip Files

In his piece on S&W’s compact M&P, American Cop writer Mark Henten described the gun this way: “It’s definitely a well-thought-out handgun built with the combat demands of today’s cops and soldiers in mind.”

He also said it was a return to “the good old days,” referring, ostensibly, to the time when Smith & Wesson dominated the police market through quality products and its reputation.

This, in a nutshell, is what Golden and his team had in mind when it put together that strategic plan more than two years ago: making the past prologue.

The sales numbers, stock price, NRA awards, and all those magazine covers show that this company’s broad battle plan is certainly on target.v

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

Departments

Westbank in West Springfield announced the following:
• Michael J. Harrington has been promoted to Vice President, Commercial Loans. He will be working from the Westfield branch;
• Robert D. Fluharty Jr., Vice President of Leasing, has been appointed the additional responsibilities of a Commercial Loan Officer, and
• Joseph S. Lemay, Vice President of Indirect Lending, has been appointed the additional responsibilities of Head of Consumer Loans.

•••••

Winstanley Associates of Lenox announced the following:
• Brenda Gelston has joined the firm as Director of Marketing. She will be responsible for developing new business and determining the needs, issues, concerns and priorities of clients;
• Jenny Wright has joined the firm as Art Director, and
• Kelly Galbraith has joined the firm as Graphic Designer.
In their roles, Wright and Galbraith will be responsible for developing creative concepts and executing designs for several of Winstanley’s larger accounts, including Spalding, Polar Beverages, Legacy Banks, Hardigg Industries, Adirondack Beverages and Smith & Wesson.

•••••

Paul Nicolai

Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly recently featured attorney Paul Nicolai in an article on the subject of lawyers collecting fees from clients. The Jan. 30 cover story, “At What Cost?” examined whether lawyers should sue clients to get paid. Nicolai is President of the Nicolai Law Group, P.C. in Springfield, and is Chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Fee Arbitration Board which settles attorney fee disputes.

•••••

Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, Associate Professor of Political Science at the UMass Amherst, has been nominated by President George W. Bush to be the Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the U.S. Department of Justice. Sedgwick, who is on a year-long leave from his faculty post, is awaiting approval of his nomination by the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee. If the panel endorses his nomination, he must then be confirmed by the Senate. One of the nine largest statistical agencies within the federal government, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has a budget of nearly $46 million and 52 staff.

•••••

Commercial banker Michael J. Oleksak has been named Regional President for the Pioneer Valley for Berkshire Hills Bancorp Inc., the holding company for Berkshire Bank in Pittsfield. A separate business unit for the region has been established at 31 Court St., Westfield, with local management.

•••••

Jenna Lisella, Manager of the West Springfield McDonald’s on Riverdale Avenue, has received a 2006 Ray Kroc Award. The award is given to McDonald’s employees who have continued the legacy of Kroc, founder of the company.

•••••

Kathleen Lodge has been named Sales Manager for Applied Software Technologies of West Springfield.

•••••

Project manager James E. Graf will oversee a new southern New England office in Wilbraham for Enterprise Engineering Inc., with offices in Freeport, Maine, and Anchorage, Alaska.

•••••

American International College in Springfield announced the following:
• Richard F. Bedard has been named Executive Vice President of Administration. He will oversee athletics;
• Edward D. Meyer has been named Executive Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness. He will oversee the grant-funded office for institutional research;
• Roland E. Holstead has been named Vice President for Educational Enterprise. His role will include marketing and creation of new programs, and
• Gregory Schmutte, Dean of the School of Psychology and Education, will also serve as Vice President for Academic Affairs.

•••••

Jewish Geriatric Services in Longmeadow announced the following:
• Lois R. White has been named Executive Vice President of Ruth’s House,
• Jane W. Sullivan has been named Director of Resident Care.

•••••

 

Lavena Pleva has been promoted to Unit Organizer for Princess House, based in Taunton.

•••••

Denise Deslaurier has joined For K-9’s & Felines in Westfield.

•••••

Lowell McLane has been appointed National Sales Manager of WWLP-TV, Channel 22, in Chicopee.

•••••

Environmental Compliance Services Inc. in Agawam announced the following:
• Kevin C. Sheehan has been appointed Chief Executive Officer;
• Mark A. Haynes has been promoted to Vice President and Corporate Operating Officer;
• Christopher C. Parent has become an Associate Stockholder;
• John C. Siedel has become an Associate Stockholder, and
• Mark C. Hellstein, the company’s founder, will remain President and a member of the Board of Directors.

•••••

Wesley John has joined Berkshire Bank in Pittsfield as a Vice President and Commercial Lender.

•••••

Lisa Kraus has been promoted to Branch Manager of Countrywide Home Loan’s West Springfield office where she will oversee operations and sales.

•••••

Plastic surgeon Colleen Jambor, M.D. has joined the Johnson Memorial Hospital Medical Staff and is in practice at Johnson Professional Associates, P.C., in Enfield, Conn.

•••••

Anderson Green has joined Reliant Mortgage Co. in East Longmeadow as Vice President and Regional Manager for Western Mass. He will oversee loan production and recruiting in Hampden and Hampshire counties, and will create markets in Northern Conn.

•••••

Andrew T. Henshon has been named Managing Partner for Renaissance in West Springfield, Pearson’s new venture of residential communities.

•••••

Wallace W. Altes has been appointed to the Board of Directors of Berkshire Hills Bancorp Inc., the holding company for Berkshire Bank. He becomes the first Albany (N.Y.) Capital Region resident to serve as a Director of the Pittsfield-based financial institution. He is currently Executive-in-Residence at the Graduate College of Union University in Schenectady, N.Y.

•••••

Sales Agent Joyce L. Korona has joined Carlson GMAC Real Estate in its Westfield office.

•••••

St. Germain Investment Management announced the following:
• Paul J. Valickus has obtained the Certified Financial Planner designation from the Certified Financial Planning Board of Standards, and
• Brendon C. Hutchins has obtained the Certified Financial Planner designation from the Certified Financial Planning Board of Standards.

•••••

Srisubha Gadey has joined the accounting firm of Kostin, Ruffkess, Themistos & Dane LLC in Springfield.

•••••

Fuss & O’Neill’s West Springfield office announced these promotions:
• Eric Bernardin has been named an Associate and promoted to Project Director in the Civil Engineering unit;
• Kurt Mailman has been named Senior Project Manager in the Environmental Planning and Infrastructure unit;
• Gregory Russell has been named Engineer II in the Civil Engineering unit;
• Kyle Spear has been named Engineer II in the Facility and EHS unit, and
• Rebecca Budaj has been named Hydrogeologist II in the Environmental Assessment and Remediation unit.

•••••

Big Y Foods Inc. in Springfield announced the following:
• Thomas Morin has been appointed Food Safety Auditor;
• Theresa Jasmin has been appointed Senior Accountant;
• James Billingsley has been appointed Staff Accountant;
• Marybeth McNamara has been appointed Assistant Food Service Sales Manager, and
• Jennifer Eichorn has been appointed Store Merchandising Assistant, Eastern Zone.

Opinion
There doesn’t seem to be much interest in this fall’s municipal election in Springfield, and that’s understandable.

Many Springfield residents are apparently of the opinion that the state-appointed control board is calling all the shots, especially with regard to the budget, and that it doesn’t really matter who is elected to serve the community as mayor, city councilor, school board member, or other office holder.

While the control board certainly holds most of the power in Springfield, it is wrong to believe that this election doesn’t have much meaning, especially in the mayor’s race.
The next two years will be pivotal for Springfield. What transpires will likely determine how soon the city can regain control of its finances, and what kind of community we will have when the control board packs its bags — hopefully in July 2007.

And that’s why we strongly endorse Mayor Charles Ryan for re-election. He has the strong leadership skills — and the ability to make hard decisions — that will be needed over the next two years. Ryan, who will be in his 80s by the end of 2007, will likely not seek another term beyond the next one, but he can use the next two years to construct a solid platform on which the next generation of Springfield’s leaders can operate.

Ryan was given an extremely difficult challenge when he took office in January, 2004: starting the process of repairing the considerable damage done to the city’s balance sheet, and its psyche, by an utterly corrupt Michael J. Albano administration. And we believe he has done an admirable job with that assignment.

Much work needs to be done in many areas, including public safety, education, and the broad topic of economic development, but we see some progress on many of these fronts. And any progress would be an accomplishment given the depth of the hole the city found itself in courtesy of its former mayor.

Indeed, the city had real problems with everything from paying its bills to putting police on the streets — and, as a result, had a massive public relations problem as well. Over the course of the past year or so, every major regional newspaper, from The Boston Globe to the Worcester Telegram to the Hartford Courant turned the spotlight on the City of Homes. The headlines varied but the theme was the same: ‘What’s Wrong with Springfield?’

The answer is complicated, and Ryan understood that going in. He also understood that the place to start — beyond the hard work on the city’s bottom line — was restoring trust in City Hall and the people who work there.

Albano’s legacy is a faulty bureaucracy defined by greed, cronyism, and rampant criminal activity. Ryan has taken major steps toward repairing the city’s tarnished image and restoring trust in local government.

With that foundation now laid, he should be given the chance to build on it.

We are especially eager to see progress on the economic development front. If Springfield is to see the kind of rebound everyone wants, there must be an infusion of new, well-paying jobs. To attract those jobs and the companies that provide them, the city must foster new-business development, while also focusing on what David Panagore, deputy executive director of the control board and this issue’s cover story, calls the “fundamentals” of economic development.

By this, he means a focus not only on the six or so major (and also stalled) projects in the city like Union Station, the old Hall of Fame, and the York Street jail, but also on safe streets, education, neighborhoods, and parks.

Charlie Ryan knows all about these fundamentals, and offers real leadership in the ongoing, and critical, work to give people reasons to live and work in Springfield.

Ryan has spent the past two years digging Springfield out of a very deep hole. But the job is far from complete. When it is, there remains the task of fully restoring confidence in a community that has little of that precious commodity left.

For both of these reasons, voters should take this fall’s election seriously, and give Ryan another two years to finish what he’s started.

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