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Cover Story

Lean and Green

solar canopies

These solar canopies over a parking lot are part of a massive, campus-wide photovoltaic project.

Because its region is so environmentally conscious, UMass Amherst would appear to be fertile ground for sustainable practices like green energy, eco-friendly buildings, and a buy-local ethos in food service. But it’s still remarkable how broadly — and effectively — the university has cast its net when it comes to sustainability. A national report placing the campus ninth in the nation for such efforts is the latest accolade, but UMass isn’t about to rest on its laurels.

Call it a reward for a decade of work.

When the Assoc. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education released the three-year results of its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), UMass Amherst earned placed ninth in the nation — a leap of 20 places from its previous rating in 2015.

That’s gratifying, said Steve Goodwin, deputy chancellor and professor of Microbiology at UMass, who has been heavily involved in efforts to make the state’s flagship campus more green. And it’s not a recognition that was earned overnight.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

When Kumble Subbaswamy became chancellor in 2012, Goodwin said, he ramped up those efforts by forming an advisory committee specifically around sustainability, which helped to raise the awareness of green issues around campus.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

“This new STARS score reflects the university’s continuing commitment to excellence in sustainability,” Subbaswamy said when the ranking was announced. “UMass Amherst is a leader in best practices for energy-efficient construction and sustainable food use, conducting world-class research, and preparing a new generation of students to be inspired stewards of our planet.”

But before any of that could be accomplished — through innovative food-service changes, solar projects, green-building techniques, and a host of other initiatives (more on them later) — there had to be buy-in from both the university’s leaders and its students.

“It gained a lot of acceptance early on because a lot of sustainability is doing what you do and meeting your mission with very high efficiency,” Goodwin said. “That’s not all of what sustainability is, but that was an appealing piece for us. A campus has a particular mission, and it has a limited set of resources to meet that mission.”

Steve Goodwin

Steve Goodwin says buy-in from students has been key to UMass Amherst’s sustainability successes.

Take, for example, the Central Heating Plant, a project completed in 2009 that replaced the campus’ 80-year-old coal-burning plant with a co-generation facility that provides electricity for 70% of the campus and 100% of the steam needed for heating and cooling buildings across the sprawling grounds — all while reducing greenhouse gases by 27%.

“That was a really big decision for the campus,” Goodwin said. “At the time, it was probably the best co-generation plant in the country. That really worked out well for us because we needed electrical power and we were heating with steam, so to get the efficiencies of co-generation was a really a big deal for the campus.”

Those early years of UMass Amherst’s new sustainability focus also saw a reduction in water use — by using recycled water where appropriate — and partnering with Johnson Controls to incorporate energy-saving devices on much of the campus lighting. And that was just the beginning.

“Since then, the sustainability committee has really taken the lead for the chancellor, and made it more of a campus-wide thing,” Goodwin said — in ways that continue to expand and raise the university’s green profile on the national stage.

Food for Thought

Early in the process, late last decade, UMass officials recognized food service as a prime area to boost efficiency and reduce waste. Not only did the sheer volume of food produced every day offer plenty of opportunity for improvement, but students were beginning to ask questions about waste.

“The initial step was to go trayless,” Goodwin said. “If you have a tray of food, it’s easier to heap a lot of food on the tray and not necessarily eat it all. But if you have to carry it all with your hands, you take less to begin with, and if you want more, you just go back.”

As a formal measure, in 2013, UMass Amherst became the largest food-service provider in the nation to sign on to the Real Food Campus Commitment, which requires participating universities’ food budgets to move away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food sources by 2020. “For an institution this large,” Goodwin said, “we purchase a very large percentage of local food.”

In 2014, UMass Amherst Dining Services was selected as a gold recipient for procurement practices in the 2014 Sustainability Awards given by the National Assoc. of College and University Food Services — just one way national experts were taking notice. Around the same time, the university’s sustainability staff and faculty team from Environmental Conservation, the Physical Plant, Dining Services, and University Relations won the state Department of Energy Resources’ Leading by Example Award.

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield is home to the Student Farming Enterprise, which allows undergraduates to gain hands-on experience managing a small, organic farm. Produce generated there is sold to local stores and a community-supported agriculture share program.

Building design has been another focus, a recent example being the John W. Olver Design Building, completed last year, which uses a wood-concrete composite flooring product that was developed on the UMass campus. The contemporary wood structure, which houses the Building and Construction Technology program, the Department of Architecture, and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, includes sustainability features such as LED lighting, motion sensors, ample natural light, electro-tinting glass, heat-recovery systems, bioswales, rain gardens, low-flow faucets, and public-transportation access.

Meanwhile, the Integrated Science Building, constructed in 2009, employs cooling systems that reuse rainwater, state-of-the-art heat exchanges and ventilation systems, passive solar collection, and extensive use of eco-friendly materials like bamboo, to name just a few features.

“Obviously building is a big chunk of where our resources go, especially energy and water resources, so building design has a big impact,” Goodwin said, noting that UMass typically aims for some level of LEED certification on new buildings.

“But we’ve also done some things that go above and beyond those certifications to try to make our buildings more suited for their particular uses,” he went on. “There’s a whole variety of passive solar issues, lighting issues, energy and water use around buildings, reclaiming ground water, those sorts of considerations.”

Textbook Examples

On an academic level, Goodwin said, sustainability has made its way into the curriculum of nearly every program on campus. “I don’t think there’s any school or college that doesn’t have something that deals with an aspect of sustainability. They range from the obvious — an environmental science course, for instance — to a social justice course where they’re making connections back into sustainability and how that impacts the way people experience their communities.”

He stressed repeatedly, however, that raising up a culture of sustainability has never been a solely top-down effort, and that students have long been engaged on these issues.

“One of the things we did early on was to establish a culture within the dormitories and among the students — in part because the students really want this. They care about these issues a lot,” he said. “So we spend a lot of time building various aspects of sustainability into the curriculum, but also extracurricular activities.”

For example, ‘eco-reps’ are students who are specifically trained around issues of sustainability and are responsible for a floor of a dorm, to help students understand the impact of their day-to-day activities. “We run competitions between the dorms — who’s going to do the most recycling or use the least water this year, those kinds of things.”

Students had a direct impact on one of the university’s most notable green decisions — to divest its endowment from direct holdings in fossil fuels in 2016, becoming the first major public university to do so.

The John W. Olver Design Building

The John W. Olver Design Building is a model for green design and operation.

A year earlier, the board of directors of the UMass Foundation voted to divest from direct holdings in coal companies in response to a petition from the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, a student group. Energized by that decision, the campaign staged a series of demonstrations to call for divestment from all fossil fuels, and the foundation board followed suit.

“Important societal change often begins on college campuses, and it often begins with students,” UMass President Marty Meehan said at the time. “I’m proud of the students and the entire university community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement, one that has been important to me throughout my professional life.”

It’s an example, Goodwin said, of the ways university leadership and the student body are often in alignment on issues of sustainability, both locally and globally. “So it’s been a balance of having sustainability in the curriculum, having demand from the students, and also having the central administration realize the importance of sustainability university-wide.

Numerous people on campus are tasked with making sure UMass continually improves its efforts, including the creation of a new position, sustainability manager, seven years ago.

“We’re having a huge impact in the region, and we’re proud of the impact we’re having — and at the same time, we’re also proud of what the students are experiencing,” Goodwin said. “Not only are they learning about these issues, but they’re living this approach as well. They’re living within an environment in which sustainability has a higher priority, so now we hope that impact will increase as they go out into their communities and spread the impacts of sustainability.”

Green Makes Green

Last year, UMass Amherst made news on the green-energy front again, installing more than 15,000 photovoltaic panels across campus, providing 5.5 megawatts of clean electrical power for the campus to use for a heavily discounted rate. The initiative is expected to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the regional grid by the equivalent of 31,000 tons of carbon dioxide and cut the university’s electric bills by $6.2 million over 20 years.

“It’s a situation where doing the right thing is also a very smart business decision as well,” Goodwin said. “As time goes on, some of those challenges will get to be a little trickier. Now we’re trying to make decisions about the need to increase the amount of electricity that we’re currently generating, so we’re going to expand the base, but how, exactly, is the right way to do it that’s efficient, a good financial decision, and also a good decision for the environment? It gets very complex.”

For now, he went on, the campus has a strong foundation in decreasing its carbon footprint and decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted — efforts that have run the gamut from large-scale energy production to UMass Amherst’s participation in ValleyBike Share.

“The campus had been trying to run an internal bike-share program with some success, but we were hoping to do better,” he noted. “Now, with ValleyBike Share, the campus is working with other communities to develop a program that will actually bring a little more connectivitity between the university and the surrounding communities. So it has multiple benefits.”

Clearly, the impact of sustainable practices on not only the campus, but potentially the world, through the continued efforts of alumni, is reward enough for the university’s broad sustainability efforts — but the STARS recognition is nice too, Goodwin admitted, as it showcases UMass Amherst in the top 10 among some 600 participating institutions.

“We’re very excited about that, but it’s a huge amount of work, to be perfectly honest, because it’s all self-reporting,” he explained. “It covers so many aspects — the academic side, the financial side and investments, energy use, and the social side of sustainability. So it’s a very wide-ranging analysis. And, of course, after you do all that self-reporting, they go and verify everything as well.”

The end result is certainly a source of pride on campus — and a little more motivation to continue and broaden these efforts. Not that UMass needed any.

“Sustainability means a lot of different things to different people,” Goodwin said. “But to me, it was always a way of thinking: ‘OK, yes, we have a set of decisions to make; let’s make sustainability a part of that decision-making process.’ And I think our students are picking up on that as well.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Tracking Progress

Springfield Train StationThe launch of the Hartford line last month, which expands rail activity from Union Station in Springfield to a host of Connecticut stops, has been a success, judging by early ridership. More important, it has municipal and economic-development leaders from Greater Springfield thinking about the potential of a Springfield-to-Greenfield service beginning next year, as well as the viability of east-west service between Boston and Springfield. It’s about more than riding the trains, they say — it’s about what riders will do once they get here.

When is a train not just a train?

Because the ones stopping at Union Station as part of the so-called Hartford line — which connects Springfield with New Haven via six other stations that roughly track I-91 through Connecticut — represent more than that, said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief Development officer.

“The simplest way to explain it is, the future is about connectivity, whether that connection is physical or electronic,” Kennedy told BusinessWest. “That’s going to be the case for the next 20 to 30 years going forward. And, in the case of rail, it’s critical that we increase our activity in Union Station.”

The reason is simple symbiosis. At a time when Springfield is preparing for an influx of visitors with the opening of MGM Springfield next month, in addition to other significant economic-development activity downtown, a train stop for several CTRail trains each day promises to make the city a more attractive destination, Kennedy said. That could have spinoffs for other regional attractions, particularly after a northern rail line is completed next year, connecting Union Station with Greenfield.

“The simplest way to explain it is, the future is about connectivity, whether that connection is physical or electronic,” Kennedy told BusinessWest. “That’s going to be the case for the next 20 to 30 years going forward. And, in the case of rail, it’s critical that we increase our activity in Union Station.”

“When they bring Greenfield and Northampton and Holyoke into the loop with new depots (all built over the past few years), that’s going to have a dramatic effect on how everyone comes and goes from Springfield,” Kennedy said. “MGM is an entertainment giant, and we’re basically going to be sharing [visitors] up and down the Valley, sending some of our visitors to MGM north to see what goes on up there, and seeing an awful lot of people come here. That’s connectivity.”

Michael Mathis, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, agreed that expanded rail will benefit not just the casino, but the city and region as a whole, helping to brand it as an accessible travel destination.

“This new high-speed connection will be a welcome catalyst for business and tourism in the city and connect two important regional economic hubs,” Mathis told BusinessWest. “As awareness of the service continues to grow, we anticipate more and more people will be attracted to the area.”

To further promote exploration of the city from Union Station, MGM and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority will launch the Loop, a free shuttle service linking downtown tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants, and arts and culture destinations. Debuting Aug. 24 as part of MGM Springfield’s opening, the Loop will connect Union Station, the Springfield Armory, Springfield Museums, the Basketball Hall of Fame, MGM Springfield, and the MassMutual Center, as well as four downtown hotels.

Rail activity in Union Station has picked up significantly

Rail activity in Union Station has picked up significantly, and expanded Springfield-to-Greenfield service next year will continue that trend.

“Any time you have a significant number of individuals coming into the city, that’s an economic opportunity,” said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. “Certainly, things are happening in the region, and downtown Springfield in particular, and it’s a big plus that it’s very walkable, or an easy commute with the MGM trolley to different venues here.”

All Aboard

Looking ahead, Gov. Charlie Baker recently announced that passenger rail service between Springfield and Greenfield will begin on a pilot basis in spring 2019. Under the agreement, MassDOT will fund the cost and management of the pilot service, which will be operated by Amtrak and conclude in fall 2021.

The pilot will provide two round-trips each day and make stops at stations in Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield. Southbound service will be provided in the morning hours, and northbound in the evenings. This pilot service will leverage the MassDOT-owned rail line currently used by Amtrak’s Vermonter service.

Economic-development officials in the Pioneer Valley, and the cities connected by that future line, will likely be cheered by the early success of the 62-mile Hartford line, which began operating on June 16, with trains running approximately every 45 minutes between Springfield and several communities in Connecticut, including Windsor Locks, Windsor, Hartford, Berlin, Meriden, Wallingford, and New Haven. This expanded service is in addition to the existing Amtrak service throughout the corridor.

After two days of free rides, the line began running at regular fare prices on June 18, and in that first full week of June 18-24, ridership on the Hartford line totaled 10,719 customers, which Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy characterized as a success.

“I’ve spoken with scores of riders who have begun to use the Hartford Line and who are saying their commute has become much easier and less stressful,” ConnDOT Commissioner James Redeker said in a statement. “With easy access and connections with our CTtransit buses, we are opening up all kinds of options for getting around Connecticut — whether you’re going to work, to school, or simply playing the role of tourist.”

The Hartford Line connects commuters to existing rail services in New Haven that allow for connections to Boston, New York City, and beyond, including the New Haven Line (Metro-North), Shore Line East, Amtrak Acela, and Northeast Regional services.

“We know that it will take some time for this new rail service to grow to full maturity and become part of the everyday lives of Connecticut residents, but there is definitely an excitement about this long-overdue train service,” Malloy said at the time. “At the end of the day, this transit service is about building vibrant communities that attract businesses, grow jobs, and make our state a more attractive place to live, visit, and do business.”

This is precisely the model Massachusetts officials want to see replicated here — right away around Union Station, and eventually up and down the Valley as well.

“With the Loop service starting there, it will provide an opportunity to see Springfield even beyond the casino,” said Chris Moskal, executive director of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority.

The activity at Union Station has impacted other downtown development as well, Kennedy said, including Silverbrick Lofts and future market-rate apartments in the Willys-Overland building. “The 265 units at Silverbrick wouldn’t have happened without Union Station,” he noted. “They were very specific about that.”

Down the Line

Beyond north-south rail, however, are much more ambitious rumblings — and they’re rumblings from far, far down the proverbial track at this point — about east-west rail service connecting Boston and Springfield, and perhaps Albany one day.

MassDOT plans to carry out an extensive study over 18 months, analyzing many aspects and options for potential east-west passenger rail service. This will include engaging with stakeholders and evaluating the potential costs, speed, infrastructure needs, and ridership of potential passenger rail service throughout this corridor.

“Carrying out a comprehensive study on east-west passenger rail will allow us to have a rigorous, fact-based discussion regarding options for potential service,” state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said last month. “Many legislators, local and regional officials, and business leaders called for such a study, and we are pleased to take a step in advancing this planning for future service.”

Eventually, Kennedy told BusinessWest, rail service from, say, Montreal to New York and from Boston to Albany would position Springfield in an enviable spot as a central hub along both lines.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said as much when the Hartford line opened last month, calling enhanced rail service between Springfield and Boston a potential “game changer” for the region. “Investing in our transportation infrastructure will benefit people across the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Between Amtrak and now CTrail, riders have several options

Between Amtrak and now CTrail, riders have several options each day to travel to and from Connecticut and beyond.

Sullivan said increasing the speed and ease of travel to a destination like Springfield, with more frequent schedule options, will open up opportunities to attract visitors from both the north and south. He’s not as optimistic about east-west rail, at least not in the next decade, since it’s not in the state’s five-year budget plan and has many logistical and cost hurdles to overcome.

“But certainly, the Connecticut line coming in gives the Convention & Visitors Bureau some travel and tourism opportunities, and it’s incumbent on those entities to sell the region hard — and they’re doing that,” he said. “It’s a significant opportunity.”

Kennedy noted that, when he travels on the eastern part of the state, each T stop is marked by renovated buildings and generally lively activity around the stations. If Massachusetts can be traversed in all directions by rail, he believes, highways could become less congested while trains bring economic energy into each city they stop in. “I see really good things ahead and significant potential,” he said. “Trains are a key component of the future.”

That’s why it’s important for Springfield to continue to grow with rail in mind, he added.

“One of the reasons for our recent success is that we planned bigger rather than smaller,” he said. “Springfield had a history of thinking too small, but certainly over the past five to eight years, we thought bigger, and it’s worked very well. We’ll continue with that big-picture thinking with Union Station as a critical node.”

Moskal agreed.

“Believe me, we’ve had an unbelievable response from people who use Union Station every day,” he said. “From what I’m hearing from people, they’ve said, ‘where has this service been?’ I’m like, ‘it’s here now.’ The spinoff potential has excited people. You can take the bus from there. The activity in and around the station is enormous. And the opportunities are only going to expand.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

This Is a Laughing Matter

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman will soon open what they believe is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Pam Victor is official president and founder of Happier Valley Comedy, but she prefers the title ‘head of happiness.’ It’s effective, and she likes it, and as the founder, she said picking her title is one of the rewards of her job. The far bigger reward, though, is changing people’s lives — just as hers was changed — through improvisation.

Pam Victor refers to it affectionately as simply ‘the experiment,’ or, more formally, the ‘can-I-make-a-living-doing-what-I-love experiment.’

It was undertaken back in the summer of 2014, and the premise was pretty simple. Victor was going to see if she could make $16,000 a year — the poverty level for a family of two back then — through a business based on improvisation.

She was confident — well, sort of — that she would meet or surpass that threshold, but at the start, she was already thinking about the great blog post she would have if she didn’t.

“‘An artist can’t even break the poverty line,’ or something like that, is what I would have written,” Victor recalled, adding that she never had to submit that blog post, because she greatly exceeded her goal by teaching improvisation and using it to help professionals and others achieve any number of goals, including one she calls the ability to “disempower failure,” which we’ll hear more about later.

Today, that nonprofit business Victor started, called Happier Valley Comedy, continues to grow while carrying out a simple mission — “to bring laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world).”

It does this through three business divisions:

• Classes in improvisation. Victor started with one, and there are now eight a week, and there’s a waiting list for some of them;

• Comedy shows, such as the one on June 9 at the Northampton Center for the Arts, featuring the Ha-Has, the comedy group Victor started; and

• Personal and professional growth through use of improvisation, what the company calls its ‘Through Laughter’ program. Victor and her team visit companies, groups, and professional organizations and undertake exercises — usually highly interactive in nature — designed to help bolster everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

It’s not what many people think of when they hear ‘improv’ — people taking to the podium and talking off the cuff (stand-up comedy) or even some of those other things people might conjure up; “we don’t cluck like chickens, and we don’t do ‘trust falls,’” said Victor. People do stand in circles, sometimes, and they do take part in exercises together.

Many of them are designed to address self-confidence and what has come to be known as the ‘impostor syndrome,’ said Victor, adding that this afflicts everyone, not just women, although they often seem especially vulnerable to it.

“I see it in my female colleagues, and I see it stop us from manifesting our successes because we talk ourselves out of success before we even have a chance to get into the ring,” she explained, referring specifically to the voice inside everyone that creates doubt and thoughts of inadequacy.

Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations

With its Through Laughter program, Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations and undertakes exercises designed to boost everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

“The improv exercises help us step into the unknown and step into possibilities,” she went on. “It’s a muscle that we can strengthen, and every time we do it, we strengthen that muscle.”

Meghan Lynch, a principal with the marketing group Six Point Creative, has become a big believer in improv. She was first introduced to it when Victor did a presentation at a women’s leadership group, and Lynch then arranged to have Happier Valley come to her company. There have been several workshops, and as employees are added, Lynch schedules what are known as ‘improv workout sessions.’ Six Point even hires Happier Valley to do improv sessions as the company onboards new clients “to start the relationship off with some momentum,” as she put it.

All three divisions of this business — and the venture as a whole — are set to be taken to a much higher level with the opening of what Victor is sure is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Currently, it has another name — the “dirty vanilla box.” That’s how Victor and business partner Scott Braidman, who takes the twin titles general manager and artistic director, refer to the 1,300-square-foot space being built out at the Mill Valley Commons on Route 9 in Hadley.

There, in a retail center that Victor and Braidman have nicknamed the ‘Play Plaza’ — there’s also a tavern, an Irish dance center, a kung fu studio, and an outfit that grows coral at that location — the partners are outfitting space into classrooms and a performing area with 70 seats.

“This is the answer to a dream, really,” said Braidman as he walked within the space, noting that this will be the first improv club in Massachusetts outside of Boston, and it will enable him to meet a long-time goal of doing essentially what Victor has been doing — making improv a career.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Victor and Braidman about their venture, which is, indeed, a laughing matter — and also a very unique enterprise that is changing businesses, and changing lives, through improvisation.

Getting into the Act

As one might expect, Victor, who takes the title ‘head of happiness,’ uses humor early and often to communicate her points.

Consider this response to the question about why she believes her improvisation classes have caught on to the point where there is that waiting list.

“It’s cheaper than therapy,” she deadpanned, adding quickly that, in many ways, that’s not a joke. Her classes — $22 to $25 for each of eight classes — are much, much cheaper than therapy. And from what she’s gathered, they are just as effective, as we’ll see.

Three years or so later with those classes and the other divisions within Happier Valley Comedy, the experiment is more or less ancient history. The matters at hand now are building out that dirty vanilla box and substantially updating the business plan to reflect everything this facility can do for this nonprofit venture.

Before looking ahead, though, to tell this story right, we first need to look back — about 15 years or so, to be exact.

That’s when the clouds parted, as Victor put it in a piece she wrote about her venture for Innovate 413, and “the Great Goddess of Improv locked me in a fierce tractor beam with songs of love and connection.”

Happier Valley logo

Thus began what can be called a career in improv. But things developed very slowly after that.

Victor took one leap of faith, as she called it, when she founded an improv troupe that played mostly in libraries as fundraisers. And she took another one in 2012 when she summoned the courage to spend five weeks in Chicago studying at the mecca of longform improv, the iO Theater.

She took a third leap, perhaps the biggest, a few years later, when, after the son she had homeschooled for 10 years went off to college, she waged that aforementioned experiment.

“I tried everything,” Victor said when recalling the early days and her efforts to promote improv and its many benefits. “Classes, writing about it, doing corporate-training workshops, speeches — anything I could do, I tried. And sure enough, it worked out.”

By that, she meant that after six months, not a year, she had passed that $16,000 threshold and, more importantly, had gained the confidence to launch a business, officially a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that would be called Happier Valley Comedy.

“It was one of those experiences where not thinking about the impossibility of it was quite advantageous,” said Victor, using more humor as she put into perspective the experience of launching a business based on improv in a region that was essentially an improv desert. “Ignorance is power in some ways.”

In the beginning, she started with one set of classes — titled “The Zen of Improv” — and doubts about just how many there could eventually be.

“I thought I had run out of the number of people who were interested in taking improvisation in the Pioneer Valley — those 12 people,” she said, adding that some of those original students signed up for more, and, to her surprise, there were many more people willing to take seats than she imagined.

Why? Maybe because it is cheaper than therapy, she told BusinessWest, adding that few of her students actually want to perform improv. They sign up because the sessions are fun and they give participants a chance to experience what Victor calls “the true meaning of community.”

“People seem to find that the classes have a great deal of impact outside of the classroom as well,” she explained. “People regularly tell me that improv has changed their life, and that’s a good feeling. It’s a fantastic community of people, and you get to make a whole bunch of new friends, which is rare as an adult.

“Improv is a team sport,” she went on. “We’re seeking joy, we’re seeking ease, and we’re also seeking how to make our scene partners look good; people learn how to be of service to each other and to the moment, so there’s a lot of mindfulness to it as well.”

As Victor and her team would discover, these improv classes were not only popular and effective, but demographically unique within the improv world in that they were and still are dominated by middle-aged professional women and not the younger men that are the norm.

“We’re the unicorn of improv, or Wonder Woman’s island,” said Victor, adding that she’s not really sure why her classes take on this demographic shape, but she’s clearly proud and quite happy that she doesn’t have the problem most other improv groups have — attracting women.

She would, however, like to attract more men … but that’s another story.

Grin and Bear It

As for the Through Laughter division of the company, it has also enjoyed steady growth, said Victor, adding that Happier Valley Comedy uses improv within that broad realm of personal and professional development to improve people’s lives at home and in the workplace.

And this aspect of her business takes on a number of forms, she said, citing, as just one example, an interactive presentation she’s done with groups such as the Women Business Owners Alliance called “Meet Your Evil Eye Meanie: How the Voice of Unhelpful Judgment Is Getting in Your Way.”

It uses improv exercises and humorous stories to help women identify and disempower their fear-based internal critical voice in order for them better manifest their professional dreams.

“As my comedy hero Tina Fey says, ‘confidence is 10% hard work and 90% delusion,” she noted. “The primary focus of my job is to help people quiet their voices of unhelpful judgment and get to the ‘delusion’ that leads to success.”

And with that, she again referenced the ‘impostor syndrome.’ In her efforts to help people address it, Victor has actually put a name to the problem, or at least to the voice inside people that causes all the trouble.

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy — and arguably a lot more fun.

“We call him ‘Calvin’ — that’s a random name; that’s the voice inside our head that is our evil critic. It’s the voice that’s constantly in our head conjugating ‘to suck’ — as in ‘I suck at this,’ or ‘you suck at this’ — it’s that super-judgmental voice,” she said, referring to things people say to themselves, out loud or under their breath.

“I teach people that voice is a liar,” she went on. “And by naming it, that helps to disempower it a little bit or make it a little more manageable, because that voice is never going to go away — that’s human nature; that’s who we are. But we can use some techniques for quieting it.”

These are improv exercises, she went on, adding that they are designed to address that impostor syndrome and the accompanying fears and doubts and be that team sport she described earlier.

She’s putting together another presentation, a workshop she’s titled “F*ck Your Fear and Trust Your Truth,” a name that speaks volumes about what she wants attendees to do — not just that day, but for the rest of their careers and the rest of their lives.

This is a part of a subcategory within the Through Laughter division devoted to personal growth and female empowerment, she explained, adding that this workshop is being designed to help women use the skills associated with improv to enable them to quiet their judgmental voices and their inner critic so they amplify their truth and speak their mind.

“This will hopefully help women on all fronts, from their personal life to their professional life,” she noted. “Women in leadership roles can hopefully get better at speaking up for themselves and being heard, even women eyeing political positions — they’re calling this ‘the Year of the Woman.’”

Lynch told BusinessWest that the use of improv has been beneficial to Six Point on many levels. It has given employees there a common vocabulary, she said, including the now-common use of the word ‘triangles.’

Explaining it is quite complicated, said both Lynch and Victor, but a triangle essentially describes a relationship between a group of people, especially employees. There are several triangles within a company, and the actions of a specific employee could impact several such relationships. The goal of triangle-related exercises is to make individuals understand how their movements impact such relationships.

“We’ll often start conversations now with ‘let me tell you about my triangles — these are the pressures I’m experiencing — you tell me about yours, and how do we work together to solve this problem?’” said Lynch. “And it’s been a game changer in terms of creating trust and open communication around those, and that’s just one example of adopting that vocabulary into our day-to-day lives in a way that improves communication.”

Both Victor and Braidman believe Happier Valley will be able to introduce more people to the notion of triangles — and many easier-to-comprehend concepts as well — as they build out that vanilla box into an improv club.

The two had been looking for a site for some time, said Braidman, adding that the nonprofit got a huge boost from the most recent Valley Gives program — $26,000, to be exact — that made creation of this new facility possible.

The location is centrally located, he went on — halfway between Amherst and Northampton and on busy Route 9 — and the space is large enough and flexible enough to host classes, performances, workshops, and more.

If all goes according to plan, he said, classes should start there in late June, and Happier Valley comedy shows will commence in August.

Passion Play

Victor told BusinessWest that Braidman will often give her some good-natured grief about her unofficial titles at Happier Valley Comedy and those assigned to other people as well. ‘Head of happiness’ is just one of hers. “Laugh leader’ is another used on occasion, and there are still others that come into play.

“I have my own business, so I get to make up my own titles,” she explained, adding that this is just one of the perks that comes from conducting that experiment, succeeding with it, and, indeed, making a business doing something she loves.

The bigger perk is changing lives, just as hers was changed, through improvisation.

It’s a reward that takes her well above the poverty line, in every way you can imagine.

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

Cover Story

Growth Industry

Matt Yee stands outside a room

Matt Yee stands outside a room equipped to simulate ‘summer.’ Access inside is extremely limited.

Green Thumb Industries’ marijuana-cultivation facility in Holyoke is not like most other businesses — or any other business, for that matter. There is no sign over the door, there was no elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony when it opened, and, with a few minor exceptions, no one will visit this place. It is like all other businesses, though, in keeping the focus on innovation and putting out a quality product.

The ‘flowering room,’ as it’s called, is climate-controlled to simulate early fall.

And it does that so well that when Matt Yee, president of the Massachusetts market for Green Thumb Industries (GTI), walks inside … he has flashbacks of a sort.

“This is perpetual September. I always feel like I’m walking through the Holyoke Community College parking lot at the beginning of school — it always reminds me of that.”

“This is perpetual September,” he told BusinessWest, referencing the temperature, the warmth of the sun, and a slight, cool breeze. “I always feel like I’m walking through the Holyoke Community College parking lot at the beginning of school — it always reminds me of that.”

Perpetual September? Welcome to GTI’s 45,000-square-foot marijuana-cultivation facility in Holyoke, a recently opened venture that is, in just about every way you can imagine, not like any other business in this region.

That much becomes abundantly clear after one short visit — only, you really shouldn’t expect to visit this place anytime soon. They don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat — not because they’re not friendly, but because they don’t want or need company.

For starters, there’s no signage on the property, at least for GTI (there are other tenants in this old paper mill), and for a reason. The company doesn’t exactly want to broadcast its location, although its address, 28 Appleton St., in the so-called Flats section of the city, is commonly known.

The sign outside one of the growing rooms conveys the importance of keeping the plants safe at GTI’s Holyoke facility.v

The sign outside one of the growing rooms conveys the importance of keeping the plants safe at GTI’s Holyoke facility.

Also, there is no front door, really. You enter through the back, and only after using a coded key to get through a tall gate and passing under several surveillance cameras. Once inside — again, if you get that far — you can’t go any further without checking in with security, leaving a copy of your driver’s license behind, getting a badge with a recorded number on it, and being escorted by an employee through some more locked doors.

But before going through — and unless you’re an employee, an elected official on business, some other sort of VIP, or a business writer on assignment, you probably won’t be going through — one must step onto a large mat of sorts covered by about an inch of water.

That’s because marijuana plants are somewhat fragile and susceptible to contamination that might be brought into their home on the soles of one’s shoes. For the same reason, no one gets further than the security desk without donning a white lab coat.

“Contamination of the system can cause millions of dollars in damage,” said Yee. “Even walking across the parking lot, people can pick up some powdery mildew — one of the biggest issues we have — or various aphids and bugs, and those can be issues as well.”

To help keep these plants — which give new meaning to the phrase ‘cash crop’ — safe, GTI has enlisted the help of what are known as “beneficials” — tiny mites that feast on many of the known enemies of marijuana plants. There are hundreds of them in small packets placed next to each plant.

“If there’s an invasion of aggressive bugs, they’ll eat those little guys,” Yee said of the mites. “It’s an interesting process — signing the invoice for 25,000 bugs was kind of interesting; they’re very, very, very small, but you can see them, although it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

These are just some of the steps (ladybugs and other beneficials are also deployed) being taken to ensure that the first crop, and all those to follow — the business plan calls for cultivating 120 pounds per month — will be as healthy and profitable as possible, said Yee, who came to this job and this industry thanks to a chance encounter with Pete Kadens, president of Chicago-based GTI at the restaurant Yee was managing (more on that later).

The flowering room he showed BusinessWest was empty, but by the time this magazine went to the printer, it was full of plants enjoying those cool fall breezes. From there, it’s only a few more steps until the fruit of the plant is processed into product, such as the small joints called ‘dog walkers’ — because you can start and finish one in about the time it takes to walk the dog — to be placed in tins already stored in the so-called trim room.

“It’s a great little product — everybody really loves these all across the nation,” he said, adding that, starting in several weeks, these dog walkers and other products will be shipped to GTI’s recently opened dispensary in Amherst and other locations across the state.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look inside GTI’s facility in Holyoke, and also inside a business that is new to Massachusetts and this region, but appears to have a future that might be as bright as the high-pressure sodium lights inside the flowering room.

Branch Office

Those are 1,000-watt units, and there are 88 of them in the room, Yee explained, adding quickly that it gets so bright in those rooms that employees wear protective sunglasses when inside.

That was one of many bits of information Yee passed along while serving as tour guide, one of many functions he’s taken on (although, now that growing has started, the volume of tours has subsided) while carrying out a role he probably couldn’t have imagined for himself a few years ago.

GTI expects to cultivate 120 pounds of marijuana per month at its Holyoke facility.

GTI expects to cultivate 120 pounds of marijuana per month at its Holyoke facility.

But the picture changed quickly and profoundly after Kadens ventured into Johnny’s Tavern in South Hadley for dinner back in 2016. Yee, as noted, was general manager of that eatery (one of many owned and operated by his family), with the emphasis on was. Indeed, the two started talking, and the more Kadens talked about the cannabis industry and its potential in the Bay State, the more Yee wanted to be part of it.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, Yee joined GTI and has taken a lead role in opening the Holyoke facility and getting the first plants in the ground, if you will.

First, though, there was a lengthy learning curve for Yee, who said his education in cannabis and the business of cultivating and distributing marijuana took him to GTI facilities across the country, including those in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia.

“It was a really intense drop into the cannabis world,” he recalled, adding that GTI has facilities similar to the one in Holyoke operating in several states.

The operation on Appleton actually represents what Yee called the third iteration of a GTI growth facility. Lessons have been learned over the years, he said, in everything from production to automated systems to air handling, and they’ve all been applied to the Holyoke plant, which came to be after a lengthy review of options regarding what to build and where.

“It came down to ‘should we do this in an open field somewhere for cheaper or do the socially responsible thing and breathe new life into a vacant space?’ And we decided to do this — and it was a project.”

Indeed, as Yee walked through the facility, he noted that, while it provided one key ingredient in the form of wide-open spaces and high ceilings, the old mill required quite a bit of expensive work to be retrofitted into a marijuana-cultivation facility.

But in the end, GTI determined that rehabbing such a facility is a better alternative to building new, even it is the more expensive alternative.

“It came down to ‘should we do this in an open field somewhere for cheaper or do the socially responsible thing and breathe new life into a vacant space?’” he recalled of the decision-making process. “And we decided to do this — and it was a project.”

‘This’ was a retrofit in the middle of an urban setting, granted one that has embraced the cannabis industry with open arms.

Thus, security is extremely tight, he said, noting the facility is outfitted with cameras, motion detectors, glass-break sensors, and more.

“Visitation is very, very restricted,” he said, adding that the state has access to the facility’s camera systems and monitors what goes on. If someone watching sees someone in the building without a badge, inquiries are made.

Joint Venture

Yee’s ability to learn quickly about the industry he joined was in evidence on the tour, as he talked about marijuana and, more specifically, how it will be cultivated in this old mill.

“Marijuana is an annual,” said Yee, who walked while he talked. “Typically, the seeds will pop in the spring, it will grow through the summer, and then, come the shorter days of late summer and fall, its flowering process is triggered — and it’s those flowers that we’re harvesting; it’s the fruit of the plant.”

Matt Yee says it will be a few more months before GTI is able to fill tins of ‘dog walkers’ it will ship out the doors of the Holyoke plant.

Matt Yee says it will be a few more months before GTI is able to fill tins of ‘dog walkers’ it will ship out the doors of the Holyoke plant.

There are no seasons, per se, indoors, so cultivators like GTI have to replicate them, he went on, as he stopped at a room simulating early- to mid-summer. Through a large, thick window, Yee pointed to and talked about the already-tall plants inside.

Taking visitors in that room, even after they’ve put on a lab coat and stepped on a few of those water-covered mats, constitutes far more risk than the company is willing to take on, he said, adding that these plants are much too valuable to risk contamination.

The sign on the door gets this point across. “Do Not Enter — Limited Access Area,” it reads. “Access Limited to Authorized Personnel Only.”

“There are about 18 hours of light in this room,” said Yee, returning to the subject at hand and the process of simulating summer-like conditions. “We’re really just pushing the plants to get to a proper size, and then we stimulate them to get to their flowering stage.”

Actually, the ‘summer’ room is the second stop for the plants, which start off as cuttings from other plants, known as ‘mothers,’ and take up residency in the ‘cloning room.’

Their third stop will be in that room that simulates September, where it is a constant 72 degrees, Yee went on, adding that the first plants were due to arrive there in early June.

In that setting, a shorter day, with the lights on for maybe 12 hours, is created. That difference in the amount of light is what actually triggers the plant to move into its reproductive cycle, he explained.

“The male plants will develop pollinating elements, and the female plants develop the flowers,” he noted. “We only have females here; there are no males on site.”

The plants will double or triple in size in the flowering room, he went on, adding that, when they’re ready for harvesting, they’re removed from their pots, the iconic fan leaves are removed, and the flowers are put into a drying room, to be hung on what are known as ‘Z racks.’

Once the flowers reach a certain level of dryness, they can be processed, said Yee, adding that the product is weighed and then moved into the ‘trim room,’ a space where the flowers are “manicured” (Yee’s word) into their final, saleable form, such as those aforementioned dog walkers.

From beginning to end — from the nursery to that tin of dog walkers — the process covers about three months, and, starting with the second batch, there will be continuous yield at this facility, which will be needed to recover the significant investment (nearly $10 million) in this facility.

“We’ll be harvesting about half a room a day,” he projected, adding, again, that the overriding goal is to keep the crops safe — from invading insects and anything else — until they’re harvested.

Yield Signs

Getting back to those packets of beneficials, Yee said the mites are really small and quite hard to see, and he’s essentially taking the distributor’s word that there were 25,000 of them in that last order.

“If you crack one of the packets open and pour the contents in your hand, there’s sawdust or whatever it is … and if you look hard, you can spot these little critters rolling around.”

What’s somewhat easier to see is the vast potential for the cannabis industry in Massachusetts, although that picture is still coming into focus, on both the medicinal and recreational sides of the spectrum.

GTI intends to be well-positioned to capitalize on whatever market eventually develops, and the Holyoke facility will play a huge role in those efforts.

It is really unlike any business you’ve ever visited — only, you won’t know, because you probably won’t be visiting.

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

Cover Story Sections Travel and Tourism

Hot Tips

Vacations are highlights of anyone’s calendar, and summertime is, admittedly, a perfect time to get away. But it’s also a great time to stay at home and enjoy the embarrassment of riches Western Mass. has to offer when it comes to arts and entertainment, cultural experiences, community gatherings, and encounters with nature. From music festivals and agricultural fairs to zoos and water activities — and much more — here is BusinessWest’s annual rundown of some of the region’s outdoor highlights. Have fun!

 

MUSIC, THEATER, AND DANCE

FreshGrass Festival
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, MA
www.freshgrass.com
Admission: $46-$119 for three-day pass; $350 for VIP ‘FreshPass’
Sept. 14-16: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is known for its musical events, and the Fresh Grass festival is among the highlights, showcasing close to 50 bluegrass artists and bands over three days. This year, the lineup includes Indigo Girls, Trampled by Turtles, Flogging Molly, Béla Fleck, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and many more.

Green River Festival
One College Dr., Greenfield, MA
www.greenriverfestival.com
Admission: Weekend, $129.99; Friday, $34.99; Saturday, $69.99; Sunday, $64.99
July 13-15: For one weekend every July, Greenfield Community College hosts a high-energy celebration of music; local food, beer, and wine; handmade crafts; and games and activities for families and children — all topped off with hot-air-balloon launches and Friday- and Saturday-evening ‘balloon glows.’ The music is continuous on three stages, with more than 35 bands slated to perform.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
358 George Carter Road, Becket, MA
www.jacobspillow.org
Admission: $25 and up
Through Aug. 26: Now in its 86th season, Jacob’s Pillow has become one of the country’s premier showcases for dance, featuring more than 50 dance companies from the U.S. and around the world. Participants can take in scores of free performances, talks, and events; train at one of the nation’s most prestigious dance-training centers; and take part in community programs designed to educate and engage audiences of all ages. This year’s highlights include a season-opening performance by the Royal Danish Ballet, a visit from the ever-popular Pilobolus, and an artist-curated program by New York City Ballet’s Daniel Ulbricht.

Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle St., Great Barrington, MA
www.mahaiwe.org
Admission: Varies by event
Year-round: The beloved Mahaiwe Theatre dates back to 1905 — continuously running programs since its opening — and underwent an extensive, $9 million renovation starting in 2003. Today, the theater seats just under 700 and hosts year-round arts programming, including music, dance, theatre, opera, talks, and movie classics. It’s leaders say Mahaiwe is a staple and a resource: its live performances inspire tens of thousands of audience members each year, its embrace of modern technology supplements programming with live, high-definition satellite broadcasts from around the world, and its year-round schedule enhances the quality of life for those who reside in and visit the Berkshires.

Old Sturbridge Village Craft Beer & Roots Music Festival
1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA
www.osv.org
Admission: $14-$28; free for children under 4
July 21: OSV’s craft beer festival is back, with more brews, bands, and bites than ever before. Eighteen craft breweries from across New England will offer an opportunity to sample and purchase some of the region’s top beers, ciders, and ales, while barbecue pork, brats, burgers, and more will be available. At five indoor and outdoor stages, more than a dozen musical artists will present the sounds of Americana, bluegrass, country, folk, and roots music.

Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival
Court Square, Springfield, MA
www.springfieldjazzfest.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 11: The fifth annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival will offer a festive atmosphere featuring locally and internationally acclaimed musical artists. More than 10,000 people are expected to hear sounds from a mix of well-known artists and up-and-comers. Headliners announced so far include Maceo Parker, Pedrito Martinez Group, and Jon Cleary, with more announcements expected soon.

Tanglewood
297 West St., Lenox, MA
www.bso.org
Admission: Varies
Through Sept. 14: Tanglewood has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937, and like previous years, it has a broad, diverse slate of concerts in store for the 2018 season, including the Festival of Contemporary Music on July 26-30 and performances by the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops orchestras, ensembles of the Tanglewood Music Center, and internationally renowned guest artists from the worlds of classical, jazz, American songbook, Broadway, rock, pop, and dance.

Williamstown Theatre Festival
1000 Main St., Williamstown, MA
www.wtfestival.org
Admission: $60-$75
Through Aug. 19: Six decades ago, the leaders of Williams College’s drama department and news office conceived of an idea: using the campus’ theater for a summer performance program with a resident company. Since then, the festival has attracted a raft of notable guest performers, with this year’s names including Matthew Broderick (The Closet, June 26 to July 4) and Mary-Louise Parker (The Sound Inside, June 27 to July 8). The 2018 season’s seven productions will spotlight a range of both original productions and works by well-known playwrights.

HISTORY AND CULTURE

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
1000 Hall of Fame Ave., Springfield, MA
www.hoophall.com
Admission: $16-$24; free for children under 5
Year-round: The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is home to more than 300 inductees and more than 40,000 square feet of basketball history. Hundreds of interactive exhibits share the spotlight with skills challenges, live clinics, and shooting contests. A $44 million capital campaign is funding a two-phase renovation project, with the first phase, including new dome lighting, a main lobby overhaul, and significant renovation of the Hall’s theater, now complete.

Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival
300 North Main St., Florence, MA
www.glasgowlands.org
Admission: $5-$16, free for children under 6
July 21: Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the largest Scottish festival in Massachusetts, held at Look Park, features Highland dancers, pipe bands, a pipe and drum competition, animals, spinners, weavers, harpists, Celtic music, athletic contests, activities for children, and the authentically dressed Historic Highlanders recreating everyday life in that society from the 14th through 18th centuries.

Glendi
22 St. George Road, Springfield, MA
www.stgeorgecath.org/glendi
Admission: Free
Sept. 7-9: Every year, St. George Cathedral offers thousands of visitors the best in traditional Greek foods, pastries, music, dancing, and old-fashioned Greek hospitality. In addition, the festival offers activities for children, tours of the historic St. George Cathedral and Byzantine Chapel, vendors from across the East Coast, icon workshops, movies in the Glendi Theatre, cooking demonstrations, and more.

Historic Deerfield
84B Old Main St., Deerfield, MA
www.historic-deerfield.org
Admission: $5-$18; free for children under 6
Year-round: Historic Deerfield, founded in 1952, is an outdoor museum that interprets the history and culture of early New England and the Connecticut River Valley. Visitors can tour 12 carefully preserved antique houses dating from 1730 to 1850, and explore world-class collections of regional furniture, silver, textiles, and other decorative arts on display in the authentic period houses and in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, a state-of-the-art museum facility. Check out the website for a packed roster of summer activities, including educational lectures, cooking demonstrations, and exhibitions of period decoration, textiles, furniture, and art.

Pocumtuck Homelands Festival
Unity Park, 1st Street, Turners Falls, MA
www.nolumbekaproject.org
Admission: Free
Aug. 4: This fifth annual celebration of the parks, people, history, and culture of Turners Falls is a coordinated effort of the Nolumbeka Project and RiverCulture. The event features outstanding Native American crafts, food, and live music, as well as demonstrations of primitive skills. The Nolumbeka Project aims to preserve regional Native American history through educational programs, art, history, music, heritage seed preservation, and cultural events.

Shakerfest
1843 West Housatonic St., Pittsfield, MA
www.hancockshakervillage.org
Admission: $65-$70 for all access; individual activities priced separately
Aug. 18: Hancock Shaker Village will present a day of music, ballads, storytelling, and dance — a place where musicians blend with the audience, and there’s no backstage. From food to free tours of ancient medicinal herb gardens, this festival offers numerous experiences to enjoy with the music, including afternoon harmony and dance workshop; an evening performance in the barn that combines traditional song and dance with new compositions, movement, and projections inspired by the Shakers who built the barn; and a rollicking barn dance.

Stone Soul Festival
1780 Roosevelt Ave., Springfield, MA
www.stonesoulfestival.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 31 to Sept. 2: New England’s largest African-American festival offers family-oriented activities, entertainment, and cultural enrichment, and is a vehicle for minority-owned businesses to display their wares and crafts. Entertainment at Blunt Park includes gospel, jazz, R&B, and dance. Sunday’s free picnic includes ribs and chicken cooked by talented pitmasters, backed by live gospel music performed by local and regional choirs.

Yidstock
1021 West St., Amherst, MA
www.yiddishbookcenter.org/yidstock
Admission: Festival pass, $236; tickets may be purchased for individual events
July 12-15: Boasting an array of concerts, lectures, and workshops, Yidstock 2018: The Festival of New Yiddish Music brings the best in klezmer and new Yiddish music to the stage at the Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College. The seventh annual event offers an intriguing glimpse into Jewish roots, music, and culture.

FAIRS AND FESTS

Berkshires Arts Festival
380 State Road, Great Barrington, MA
www.berkshiresartsfestival.com
Admission: $7-$14; free for children under 10
n July 6-8: Ski Butternut may be best-known for … well, skiing, of course. But the property also plays host to the Berkshires Arts Festival, a regional tradition now in its 17th year. Thousands of art lovers and collectors are expected to stop by to check out and purchase the creations of more than 200 artists and designers.

The Big E
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield, MA
www.easternstatesexposition.com
Admission: $10-$15; free for children under 5; 17-day pass $20-$40
Sept. 14-30: As regional fairs go, it’s still the big one, and there’s something for everyone, whether it’s the copious fair food or the livestock shows, the Avenue of States houses or the parades, the local vendors and crafters or the live music. But it’s not the only agricultural fair on the block. The Westfield Fair kicks things off Aug. 18-20, followed by the Blandford Fair and the Three County Fair in Northampton Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, the Franklin County Fair in Greenfield on Sept. 6-9, and the Belchertown Fair on Sept. 21-23, to name some of the larger gatherings.

Celebrate Holyoke
Downtown Holyoke, MA
www.celebrateholyokemass.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 24-26: Celebrate Holyoke is a three-day festival that made its return in 2015 after a 10-year hiatus, and typically draws more than 10,000 people downtown over the course of the weekend. This year’s festival will include live musical performances, food and beverages from local restaurants, activities for children, and goods from local artists and makers.

Downtown Get Down
Exchange Street, Chicopee, MA
www.chicopeegetdown.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 24-25: Now in its fourth year, Chicopee’s downtown block party, which typically draws about 15,000 people to the streets around City Hall, will feature tons of live music, as well as attractions for children, local food vendors, live art demonstrations, and the Get Down 5K Race.

Franklin County Beer Fest
66 Thunder Mountain Road, Charlemont, MA
www.berkshireeast.com
Admission: $25 in advance, $30 at the door
July 21: Join fellow brew enthusiasts for an afternoon of food, music, and drink. The third annual Franklin County Beer Fest will be held at Berkshire East Mountain Resort and will feature beer from several local breweries, local ciders, and local mead and libations. Online ticket buyers will receive a souvenir glass.

Mattoon Street Arts Festival
Mattoon Street, Springfield, MA
www.mattoonfestival.org
Admission: Free
Sept. 8-9: Now in its 46th year, the Mattoon Street Arts Festival is the longest-running arts festival in the Pioneer Valley, featuring about 100 exhibitors, including artists that work in ceramics, fibers, glass, jewelry, painting and printmaking, photography, wood, metal, and mixed media. Food vendors and strolling musicians help to make the event a true late-summer destination.

Monson Summerfest
Main Street, Monson, MA
www.monsonsummerfestinc.com
Admission: Free
July 4: In 1979, a group of parishioners from the town’s Methodist church wanted to start an Independence Day celebration focused on family and community, The first Summerfest featured food, games, and fun activities. With the addition of a parade, along with booths, bands, rides, and activities, the event has evolved into an attraction drawing more than 10,000 people every year.

River Celebration
350 Linden St., Brattleboro, VT
www.ctriver.org/celebration
Admission: $15; free for children 12 and under
June 16: The Connecticut River Conservancy will host this family-friendly event at the Retreat Farm in Brattleboro. Morning excursions including a pontoon cruise on the Connecticut River, a paddling adventure in the Meadows, a freshwater mussel ecology workshop, a fly-casting workshop, and more. Enjoy live music by River Rhapsody and lunch by Tito’s Taqueria and Vermont Country Deli. Additional activities include an ice-cream-making workshop and several demonstrations open all day: a stream table, a soil-infiltration table, a water-quality testing station, and more. Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman will moderate the “Farm/River Roundtable: Doing Right by Our Rivers.”

Worthy Craft Brew Fest
201 Worthington St., Springfield, MA
www.theworthybrewfest.com
Admission: $45 in advance, $50 at the door
June 16: Smith’s Billiards and Theodores’ Booze, Blues & BBQ, both in the city’s entertainment district, will host more than 25 breweries, with music by Feel Good Drift and the Radiators Soul and Rhythm and Blues Revue, and food served up by Theodores’, Mercado Food Truck, and Nora Cupcake Co. The event will also feature a home-brew contest; Amherst Brewing will make the winner’s beer and serve it at next year’s Brew Fest.

MORE FUN UNDER THE SUN

Berkshire Botanical Garden
5 West Stockbridge Road, Stockbridge, MA
www.berkshirebotanical.org
Admission: $12-$15; free for children under 12
Through Oct. 8: If the flora indigenous to, or thriving in, the Berkshires of Western Mass. is your cup of tea, try 15 acres of stunning public gardens at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. Originally established as the Berkshire Garden Center in 1934, today’s not-for-profit, educational organization is both functional and ornamental, with a mission to fulfill the community’s need for information, education, and inspiration concerning the art and science of gardening and the preservation of the environment. In addition to the garden’s collections, among the oldest in the U.S., visitors can enjoy workshops, special events, and guided tours.

Crab Apple Whitewater Rafting
2056 Mohawk Trail, Charlemont, MA
www.crabapplewhitewater.com
Admission: Varies by activity
Through Oct. 8: Wanna get wet? Crab Apple is a third-generation, multi-state family business that operates locally on the Deerfield River in the northern Berkshire Mountains of Western Mass. Its five separate rafting excursions range from mild to wild, full- or half-day runs, in rafts and inflatable kayaks. In short, Crab Apple offers something for everyone, from beginners to more experienced rafters.

Great New England Air & Space Show
57 Patriot Ave., Chicopee, MA
www.greatnewenglandairshow.org
Admission: Free; upgraded paid seating available
July 14-15: The 2018 Great New England Air & Space Show at Westover Air Reserve Base will feature popular attractions like the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, who last performed in Chicopee in 2008. But note the subtle change to the event title — ‘Space Show.’ That’s because the Air Force operates the largest space program in the world, and the Great New England Air & Space Show is entering a new phase by incorporating elements of space and cyberspace capabilities of military and civilian contractors.

Lupa Zoo
62 Nash Hill Road, Ludlow, MA
www.lupazoo.org
Admission $10-$15; free for children under 2
Through Nov. 4: Lupa Zoo brings the African savannah to Western Mass. residents. The late Henry Lupa fulfilled his lifelong dream of creating a zoo right next to his Ludlow house, filling it with hundreds of animals and instilling a warm, familial atmosphere. Visitors to the 20-acre can be entertained by monkeys, feed giraffes on a custom-built tower, and marvel at the bright colors of tropical birds. In addition to offering animal shows and animal-feeding programs, the staff at Lupa Zoo promotes conservation and sustainability.

Post #351 Catfish Derby
50 Kolbe Dr., Holyoke, MA
www.post351catfishderby.com
Admission: $10 entry fee
July 20-22: The American Legion Post #351 touts its 38th annual Catfish Derby as the biggest catfish tournament in the Northeast. Fishing is open to the Connecticut River and all its tributaries. The derby headquarters and weigh-in station are located at Post #351. A total of $1,425 in prize money is being offered, with a first prize of $300. Three trophies are available in the junior division (age 14 and younger).

Six Flags New England
1623 Main St., Agawam, MA
www.sixflags.com/newengland
Admission: $57.99-$67.99; season passes $109.99
Through Oct. 28: Continuing an annual tradition of adding a new major attraction each spring, Six Flags New England recently unveiled Harley Quinn Spinsanity, an extreme pendulum ride that sends guests soaring 15 stories in the air at speeds up to 70 mph. Other recent additions include the Joker 4D Free Fly Coaster, the looping Fireball, and the 420-foot-tall New England Sky Screamer swings — in addition to a raft of other thrill rides. But fear not: the park has attractions for everyone along the stomach-queasiness spectrum, from the classic carousel and bumper cars to the giant wave pools and lazy river in the Hurricane Harbor water park, free with admission.

Springfield Dragon Boat Festival
121 West St., Springfield, MA
www.pvriverfront.org
Admission: Free
June 23: The sixth annual Springfield Dragon Boat Festival returns to North Riverfront Park. Hosted by the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club, this family-friendly festival features the exciting sport of dragon-boat racing and will include music, performances, food, vendors, kids’ activities, and more. The festival is an ideal event for businesses and organizations looking for a new team-building opportunity, and provides financial support for the Riverfront Club as it grows and strengthens its presence in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley.

Valley Blue Sox
500 Beech St., Holyoke, MA
www.valleybluesox.com
Admission: $5-$7; season tickets $99
Through Aug. 1: Western Mass. residents don’t have to trek to Boston to catch quality baseball. The Valley Blue Sox, defending champions of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, play close to home at MacKenzie Stadium in Holyoke. These Sox feature a roster of elite collegiate baseball players from around the country, including some who have already been drafted into the major leagues. Frequent promotional events like postgame fireworks and numerous giveaways help make every game at MacKenzie Stadium a fun, affordable event for the whole family.

 

 

 

Cover Story Restaurants Sections

2018 Restaurant GuideThe region’s bevy of restaurants comprises one of the area’s most intriguing business sectors, one in which there is constant movement, new additions, and exciting stories unfolding. This year is no exception, and BusinessWest captures that movement, that excitement, in its annual Restaurant Guide.

 

 

There’s More Growth on the Menu

Bean Group has a number of intriguing plans coming to a boil

 

Taste of Italy

West Springfield’s bNapoli melds big-city style with local flavor

 

Who’s Cooking

A list of the area’s largest restaurants

Cover Story

Policy Shifts

Roger Crandall stops at State & Main in MassMutual’s headquarters building in Springfield.

Roger Crandall stops at State & Main in MassMutual’s headquarters building in Springfield.

Over the course of its 167-year history, MassMutual has successfully responded to changes in society and also in how business is conducted. Today, the pace of change has accelerated greatly, but the company is answering with new strategic initiatives involving everything from the design of workspaces to how individuals apply for life insurance.

They call it ‘State and Main.’

MassMutual built its former headquarters building in Springfield at that very intersection, so that may have something to do with that name. But it’s more likely a reference to the fact that this is where two of the main spines of the company’s sprawling current home on State Street come together. So that’s where many of the 4,000 people working there come together as well.

There’s a Starbucks there, as well as a small shop where people can get their electronic devices serviced, as well as a convenience store. Over the past 18 months or so, some small meeting places and workstations where people can plug in have been added in a nod to changes in how work is now done.

There is a row of these stations along one wall, which, coincidentally, was the old end point of the building before an addition was built. Where the windows once were, there are now photographs depicting work life at MassMutual decades ago.

If you’re looking for evidence of just how much things have changed, you can juxtapose a solitary worker on a laptop in one of these workspaces in front of a huge photo depicting row upon row of desks — an iconic glimpse of the workplace maybe a century ago (see photo above).

It took a long time to get from where things were in that photograph to where they are today, but the pace of change is rapidly accelerating — even when it comes to a product seemingly frozen in time, like life insurance.

While the basic insurance products haven’t changed much over time, how people research them, shop for them, and ultimately buy them have, said Roger Crandall, president and CEO of the Fortune 100 company, the only one based in the 413.

“We’re looking a lot at how to do business with people the way they want to do business,” he explained, adding that there is much that goes into this equation. “The single biggest thing that the technology revolution has done is give consumers the power to interact the way they want to interact.

“We can’t say, ‘you can only talk to us on the phone’; we can’t say, ‘you can only talk to us in person,’” he went on. “We have to be able to meet consumers where they want to be met, and that is what we call an omni-channel world.”

Responding to this new landscape is just one of the many organizational focal points for Crandall and MassMutual, with the emphasis on ‘many.’ Others include those aforementioned changes in the way people work, he told BusinessWest, adding that the company’s headquarters has seen a number of significant changes in response to trends involving more open spaces and the need to bring great minds together, not keep them apart.

As a result, there are far fewer of those large, private offices that once dominated large financial-services companies and often defined how high one had risen in the ranks, and much more of those open workspaces like those along State and Main.

A MassMutual employee gets some work done in front of an image that Roger Crandall calls “a look back in time.”

A MassMutual employee gets some work done in front of an image that Roger Crandall calls “a look back in time.”

These changes are taking place at all of MassMutual’s facilities, which leads to another of those focal points, a headline-generating consolidation and realignment of facilities that will see the company significantly increase its presence — on both ends of the Bay State.

Indeed, there will be $50 million in investments to the Springfield facility, with an estimated 1,500 more employees working there, many of them commuting to that facility instead of the one in Enfield, Conn., which is being closed.

Meanwhile, in Boston, MassMutual will build a new facility in the Seaport District that will be home to about 1,000 workers. The company will look to capitalize on the city’s emergence as a global leader and its already established ability to retain many of the young people who come there to be educated as a way to help attract and retain top talent for years to come.

Still another focal point for the company is Springfield and the region it serves as its unofficial capital, said Crandall, adding that, while the company’s commitment to the City of Homes has come into question — the sale of Tower Square triggered much of that speculation — he said it is as strong as ever, with involvement in everything from education and workforce development to entrepreneurship and new-business development.

Overall, the city has rebounded nicely from the financial turmoil of a decade or so ago, and the opening of MGM Springfield in a few months constitutes just one of many signs of progress, said Crandall, declaring that “Springfield has its mojo back.” (Much more on those thoughts later).

For this issue, BusinessWest caught up with Crandall for a wide-ranging interview that touched on everything from Springfield and its mojo to Boston and the latest addition to its business landscape, to all those changes at State and Main and what they mean for this 167-year-old company.

Space Exploration

That interview took place in Crandall’s spacious office on the second floor of its headquarters building. As he gestured toward his surroundings, Crandall, who has occupied them since 2010, admitted candidly that he wasn’t exactly sure what would become of them as MassMutual undertakes that realignment of its facilities to accommodate more employees and a changing workplace. He did know that it won’t look like it does now.

“This office is a dinosaur; no one would build an office like this in a new building,” he told BusinessWest. “This space may very well have 20 people in it when we’re all done — there’s plenty of room for 20 people in here in a modern configuration.”

He was more certain about many other things, especially the company’s changing footprint when it comes to facilities. It will be a smaller, more efficient footprint, he noted, one shaped to address a number of challenges and opportunities moving forward.

This change to the landscape has resulted from some seismic shifts over the past several years, especially a number of acquisitions — including Metlife’s retail advisor force, the Metlife Premier Client Group (MPCG) in the summer of 2016 — that left the company with a dispersed portfolio of facilities, and also changing technology, which, as noted, has altered everything from how people buy products to how they work.

These changes prompted the company to take a much-needed step back, said Crandall, before it could decide how to move forward.

“We said, ‘this is a good time to step back and say, ‘how is our geographic footprint aligned with what we’re trying to do from a long-term perspective?’” he recalled. “And that prompted us to take a look at a whole variety of options.”

Elaborating, he said recent acquisitions left the company with facilities in Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., Phoenix, Ariz., Somerset, N.J., Amherst, and other locations. And while advancing technology allows people in remote offices to communicate effectively, consolidating those offices emerged as the option that made the most sense.

“Although people work in different ways and the ability to work remotely is greater than ever because of technology, it’s really important to have more people interacting with each other,” he explained, “to get the best ideas, the best execution, and to take advantage of the diversity our workforce has.

“It’s great to be able to connect through devices, but face-to-face meetings are really important,” he went on, noting that roughly 2,000 employees will be relocated to Massachusetts from locations in other states. “So we liked the idea of getting to a smaller footprint.”

That makes sense on other levels as well, he noted, adding that the company was really only using about 60% of its facilities in Springfield and 60% of its facilities in Enfield.

At the same time, the company has put an even greater emphasis on the broad issue of workforce development and the challenge of attracting and retaining top talent.

And this combination of factors prompted a long, hard look at Boston — a city that has drawn similar looks from a host of other major corporations — and then hard action.

“We thought about how to set ourselves up to attract the best and the brightest for the next 25 or 30 years,” said Crandall. “And that’s where having a location in Boston, which has really emerged as a global city in the last decade, came to the forefront.

“Boston has become a true world leader,” he went on. “It’s always been a world leader in education, and it’s become a world leader in medicine and life sciences, and it’s also a very significant financial center as well. People go to school there, and they want to stay there.”

But while MassMutual will build a new facility in Boston’s Seaport District at 1 Marina Park, it will maintain a strong presence at both ends of the state, said Crandall, adding that Springfield will remain the company’s home.

Once used as basketball courts, space on the fourth floor of MassMutual’s headquarters building is now dedicated to meeting spaces known collectively as the ‘tree rooms.’

Once used as basketball courts, space on the fourth floor of MassMutual’s headquarters building is now dedicated to meeting spaces known collectively as the ‘tree rooms.’

The fact that it is only 90 minutes away on the Turnpike from the Boston offices (traffic permitting) should bring a number of benefits, he noted.

“It’s very, very different running a company where people can drive back and forth, and running a company where you have to get on a plane,” he noted. “And from that culture perspective, that became important to us as well.”

Room for Improvement

As for the facilities in Springfield, Crandall told BusinessWest that what’s planned is a reconfiguration and not an expansion in the true sense of the word.

But more people will be working at that location — and turning up at State and Main for lattes, to have their phone repaired, to get their dry cleaning, and, increasingly, to get some work done as well.

As Crandall noted earlier, there will be fewer private offices moving forward and more open spaces where people can work and collaborate as the company strives to moves away from a historical hierarchy that has defined much of its history and that of other financial-services giants as well.

The company has already taken a number of significant steps in this direction, he went on, referencing rows of tables where people can work on laptops, spaces where a few people can gather and talk, and larger, technology-equipped meeting spaces, such as those now known simply as the ‘tree rooms.’

There’s ‘Birch,’ ‘Elm,’ ‘Maple,’ ‘Hemlock,’ and others. These are meeting facilities created on the fourth floor of the headquarters building — space devoted to basketball courts until 1980 and for less ornate (and modern) meeting spaces in recent years.

Meanwhile, there are more meeting spaces on the ground floor just off State and Main that, like the ones a few floors up, are always occupied and need to be booked well in advance. These rooms are named for national parks, and include ‘Yosemite,’ ‘Zion,’ ‘Everglades,’ and ‘Glacier.’

As for what’s going on in all those meeting rooms, Crandall said the company is focusing its efforts in many directions, including what he called “a digitization of everything we do.”

And that brings him back to that omni-channel world he mentioned and the need to meet consumers where they want to be met.

“We’re basically building a digital insurance company from scratch to disrupt ourselves,” he explained. “It’s going to give us the ability to be much more responsive to consumer demands, and have much lower costs, which will enable us take advantage of the next big opportunity, which is to broadly offer more Americans insurance.”

Elaborating, he said there are 35 million American families with no insurance at all, and insurance penetration in this country is among the lowest in the world. “When we go out and do focus groups and ask people if they need life insurance, 70% say ‘yes,’” he said. “And 50% of the people who have life insurance say they need more life insurance, so there is this big unmet need.”

There are many reasons for this, he said, including the fact that fewer people are working for the kinds of large companies that offer life insurance as a benefit, and more are working for smaller ventures that don’t, or are self-employed.

To meet that need, the company is responding proactively with products and processes that can put insurance within reach and bring the numbers from those surveys down.

“No normal person sits down and thinks about the process of buying life insurance,” he said. “But we took a look at that process a few years ago and determined that it was largely the same as it was in 1995, 1985, and, arguably, 1975 — a paper-based application that got sent through snail mail to an underwriter, which triggered a paramed going to someone’s house, and a process that begins with someone standing on a scale and goes downhill, from a consumer’s perspective, to 25 days later getting told you’re not the best risk class and you’re going to have to pay more for the product than you thought.”

To change that equation, the company’s data-science team began working with an accumulated asset — the applications taken for life insurance over the years — and built a machine-learning mortality-scoring model.

“That model, with the support of reinsurers, is being used to underwrite 75% of the policies MassMutual issues,” he went on, adding that this process often lowers the time required to get approval — down to one day for those who are younger and in good health — and brings down the cost of that insurance.

And this is just one example of this digitization process, which doubles as a growth strategy.

“What really matters to us in the long run is being able to have the talent we need to execute our mission,” Crandall explained, “to help people secure their future and protect the ones they love, and to continue the growth trajectory we’ve been on — we’re now the biggest seller of whole life insurance in the country and are the second-biggest seller of all life insurance in the country.”

Paying Dividends

As MassMutual continues to respond to a changing landscape for a wide range of business perspectives, it is doing the same when it comes to its work within the community and especially its home city of Springfield, said Crandall.

He noted that there have been many forms of progress in recent years, from new vibrancy downtown to the city’s much-improved fiscal health, to a better perception of the city across the state and even outside it.

Roger Crandall says MassMutual is essentially building a digital insurance company from scratch “to disrupt ourselves.”

Roger Crandall says MassMutual is essentially building a digital insurance company from scratch “to disrupt ourselves.”

“The vibe in Springfield is as positive as I’ve seen it in 30 years,” he said when asked to offer his assessment, adding quickly that there are many areas of need and concern, and MassMutual and its foundation are partnering with others to help address many of them.

Especially those in the broad realm of education.

Noting the importance of education to attaining a job in today’s technology-based economy, Crandall said MassMutual’s commitment to education takes many forms, from financial-literacy programs involving middle-schoolers to a $15 million commitment to help create a sustainable workforce in data science.

“We know that, in the long run, better educational outcomes are such a powerful way to change people’s trajectories in life,” he explained, adding that it starts with getting individuals not only through high school, but graduating with the skills they will need to thrive in this economy.

But the company’s commitment to the city and the region — what Crandall called ‘enabling philanthropy’ — encompasses many different aspects of economic development, he went on, listing, for example, its work with DevelopSpringfield to revitalize neighborhoods across the city, and its backing of Valley Venture Mentors ($2 million to date) and financing of startups that pledge to put down roots in the region.

There has also been support of workforce-development initiatives, such as a training center for call-center employees at Springfield Technical Community College and a similar initiative involving the precision-manufacturing sector.

Then there’s the company’s support of ROCA, the agency that works with incarcerated individuals, usually repeat offenders, to help them change the course of their life and succeed outside the prison walls.

“There is no greater waste of a person’s potential or, frankly, the economic potential of our community than having a large group of young men who are unemployable or in prison,” said Crandall. “When you talk to a young man who’s been in prison who’s now a member of the carpenter’s union, getting married and having a child, and buying a home … to think about where he is as opposed to when he was 18 — that’s inspiring.”

Overall, Crandall, deploying that word ‘mojo,’ said the city has not only many positive developments breaking its way, but also more confidence and self-esteem. Perhaps even more important — and those factors are significant in their own right — is the fact that those outside the city are sharing those sentiments.

To get that point across, he relayed a recent conversation he had while visiting one of the company’s agencies in Brooklyn, a borough that had more than its share of problems a generation ago but has morphed into one of the hottest communities in the country.

“I was talking to one of our agents, probably in his mid-30s, and he said, ‘I just invested in a property in Springfield, Massachusetts,’” he recalled, adding that he responded by asking why this individual wasn’t investing in Brooklyn instead. “He said, ‘I’ve done great here in Brooklyn, but Springfield reminds me of Brooklyn 20 years ago.”

Past Is Prologue

Referencing those pictures placed where the windows were on the old exterior wall of the State Street facility, Crandall said each image was designed to be “a look back in time.”

“It’s a pretty neat historical kind of twist that adds an interesting flair to that area,” he said, noting that looking back is much easier — and generally more fun — than trying to look forward, anticipate the future, and prepare for it.

But that’s just what MassMutual is doing, and those exercises define the many strategic initiatives at the company — everything from its soon-to-be-much-smaller geographic footprint to its efforts to meet customers when and how they want to be met, to philanthropic efforts within the community focused on everything from education to providing new, productive lives for the incarcerated.

Crandall doesn’t know what his current office will look like in a year or two, but he does know it won’t look like it does now. And there may be 20 people working in that space.

It’s a dinosaur that’s extinct. The company is moving on from it, reconfiguring, becoming more efficient, and responding proactively to change.

And it’s doing that with every aspect of an altered landscape.

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

40 Under 40 Class of 2018 Cover Story

Announcing the 12th Annual Cohort of 40 Under Forty Honorees

40under40-logo2017aWhen BusinessWest launched a program in 2007 to honor young professionals in Western Mass. — not only for their career achievements, but for their service to the community — there was little concern that the initial flow of nominations might slow to a trickle years later.

We were right. In fact, 40 Under Forty has become such a coveted honor in the region’s business community that the flow has turned into a flood, with more than 180 unique nominations arriving this year, making the job of five independent judges tougher than ever.

They did their job well, however, as you’ll find while reading through the profiles on the coming pages. The format is a bit different this year — instead of being interviewed, the winners were free to craft and write out their own thoughts — but, collectively, they speak of a wave of young talent that is only getting larger during what can only be described as an economic renaissance in Western Mass.

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


40 Under Forty Class of 2018

Amanda Abramson
Yahaira Antonmarchi
Lindsay Barron
Nathan Bazinet
Andrew Bresciano
Saul Caban
Jamie Campbell
Crystal Childs
Nathan Costa
Jamie Daniels


But there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on what else they do in each of those realms.

The class of 2018 will be celebrated at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala on Thursday, June 21 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. A limited number of tables are available, and a number of individual seats and standing-room-only tickets are available as well — but they will sell out quickly.

The gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the fourth annual Continued Excellence Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their résumé of accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges. Nominations are still being accepted through Monday, May 14 at businesswest.com/40-under-forty-continued-excellence-award.

Speaking of judges, we thank those who scored the more than 180 nominations for this year’s 40 Under Forty competition (their story HERE). They are:

Ken Carter, member of the UMass Amherst Polymer Science and Engineering Department;
Mark Fulco, president of Mercy Medical Center;
Jim Hickson, senior vice president and commercial regional president for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut for Berkshire Bank;
Angela Lussier, CEO and founder of the Speaker Sisterhood; and
Kristi Reale, partner at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C..

Presenting Sponsors

nortwestern-mutual peoplesbank-logo

Sponsors

hne_logo_cmyk_stack-page-001 isenberg
renew-calm-logo-002

Partner

yps


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

40 Under 40 Class of 2018 Cover Story

Announcing the 12th Annual Cohort of 40 Under Forty Honorees

40under40-logo2017aWhen BusinessWest launched a program in 2007 to honor young professionals in Western Mass. — not only for their career achievements, but for their service to the community — there was little concern that the initial flow of nominations might slow to a trickle years later.

We were right. In fact, 40 Under Forty has become such a coveted honor in the region’s business community that the flow has turned into a flood, with more than 180 unique nominations arriving this year, making the job of five independent judges tougher than ever.

They did their job well, however, as you’ll find while reading through the profiles on the coming pages. The format is a bit different this year — instead of being interviewed, the winners were free to craft and write out their own thoughts — but, collectively, they speak of a wave of young talent that is only getting larger during what can only be described as an economic renaissance in Western Mass.

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


40 Under Forty Class of 2018

Amanda Abramson
Yahaira Antonmarchi
Lindsay Barron
Nathan Bazinet
Andrew Bresciano
Saul Caban
Jamie Campbell
Crystal Childs
Nathan Costa
Jamie Daniels

 

But there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on what else they do in each of those realms.

The class of 2018 will be celebrated at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala on Thursday, June 21 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. A limited number of tables are available, and a number of individual seats and standing-room-only tickets are available as well — but they will sell out quickly.

The gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the fourth annual Continued Excellence Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their résumé of accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges. Nominations are still being accepted through Monday, May 14 at businesswest.com/40-under-forty-continued-excellence-award.

Speaking of judges, we thank those who scored the more than 180 nominations for this year’s 40 Under Forty competition (their story HERE). They are:

Ken Carter, member of the UMass Amherst Polymer Science and Engineering Department;
Mark Fulco, president of Mercy Medical Center;
Jim Hickson, senior vice president and commercial regional president for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut for Berkshire Bank;
Angela Lussier, CEO and founder of the Speaker Sisterhood; and
Kristi Reale, partner at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C..

Presenting Sponsors

nortwestern-mutual peoplesbank-logo

Sponsors

hne_logo_cmyk_stack-page-001 isenberg
renew-calm-logo-002

Partner

yps


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Sharing the Gold

Kacey Bellamy

Kacey Bellamy

Kacey Bellamy’s pursuit of a gold medal took her and her teammates to Vancouver, Sochi, and finally PyeongChang, where the team triumphed over Canada, the country that had beaten them at the two previous stops. It was a long, hard journey, said the Westfield resident, who has been very much in demand since returning from South Korea, and one packed with lessons for school children and adults alike about never giving up on one’s goals and dreams.

Kacey Bellamy says she never had many doubts about the validity of that old saying about how the color of the Olympic medal really — really — matters.

And now, she doesn’t have any at all.

“It’s a totally different realm when you win gold,” said Bellamy, who had captured silver twice before as a member of the U.S. women’s hockey team before that squad broke through in PyeongChang in February. “It’s like everyone wants you to share it with them, and … it does things for you.”

Like bring an invitation to Wrestlemania 34 your way. Yes, Wrestlemania.

Indeed, as she talked with BusinessWest, Bellamy was fresh off her return flight from New Orleans. The night before, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, she took in the 34-match card and watched, among other things, the team of Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle force Stephanie McMahon and Triple H into submission. Bellamy sat in the second row with her brother, Robbie, and some of her Olympic teammates, and loved every minute of the show.

“It was awesome,” she said, noting that, while the hockey players were mostly spectators, they were interviewed during the show. “We used to watch wrestling as kids all the time — it was a pretty important thing for our family, and my brother got to come with us.”

But a seat just outside the squared circle was just the latest stopping point for Bellamy and her teammates on what has been a real whirlwind of activity since getting back in this time zone.

There have been appearances on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres’s program. At opening day at Fenway Park earlier this month, she was one of seven Olympians with New England ties to throw out ceremonial first pitches. As exciting as that toss was, meeting David Ortiz was even more so.

There have been visits and puck drops at several National Hockey League games, including tilts hosted by the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Tampa Bay Lightning. Bellamy received the Bold Woman Award at the Bay Path Women’s Leadership Conference on April 6, and last week gave a quick talk and handed out the honors at Westfield Bank’s Top Performers awards presentation.

And that’s obviously just a partial list of what has kept Bellamy busy the past month and half.

But she was quick to point out that, while the 586-gram gold medal she won has, indeed, opened some doors, she didn’t persevere through a decade of intense training and overcome some deep setbacks to shake hands with Big Papi, see the Undertaker from a few feet away, and hang out in Jimmy Kimmel’s green room.

No, winning the gold medal was always the goal, personally and professionally, she told BusinessWest, and one can’t — or shouldn’t — ever give up on their goals.

That’s the message she’s been leaving with the people she’s spoken before since she’s come back from PyeongChang. Actually, she delivered that same lesson long before she left for South Korea.

You just don’t give up on your dreams and your goals. The biggest thing for me is having a dream and then setting small goals personally to achieve that and working as hard as you can, day in and day out, to achieve those goals.”

That’s because it was this mindset that got her there. It’s what convinced her to put aside thoughts of retirement from the Olympics after a second straight — and even more devastating — loss to Canada in the gold-medal game at Sochi in 2014.

“You just don’t give up on your dreams and your goals,” she said. “The biggest thing for me is having a dream and then setting small goals personally to achieve that and working as hard as you can, day in and day out, to achieve those goals.

“Every school I go to, I try to tell that to the young kids,” she went on. “Because I think it’s important to have a dream at that age, no matter what it is. But it’s also important that you don’t just have a huge dream — you have to set small goals and work on them every day.”

With the gold medal now in her pocket — or around her neck; that’s where it usually resides — Bellamy has other goals to pursue. She wants to stay in hockey as long as she can and in as many ways as she can — as a player, a coach (she’s already done some of that), and perhaps as a broadcaster. Meanwhile, she wants to go on telling her story and stressing the lessons to be taken from it.

And that’s just what we’ll do here. Indeed, for this issue and its focus on women in business, BusinessWest talked with someone in an unusual line of work, but one with a message that applies to everyone who laces them up — in any setting.

Stranglehold on Determination

$577.

That’s what a gold medal from PyeongChang is worth — literally speaking. You can go on the Internet and look it up (we did).

That’s less than most people might think, and it’s because a gold medal doesn’t actually have that much gold in it — just 6 grams, actually; the rest is sterling silver. For the record, a silver medal is worth about $320, and a bronze medal … yikes, only $3.50. (It’s amazing what you can learn on the Internet.)

But that isn’t what most are thinking about when they ask, ‘what is a gold medal worth?’ No, they’re thinking about maybe six- or even seven-figure endorsement deals, a face on a Wheaties box, job opportunities, business opportunities, money, fame, all that.

For the most part, Bellamy is neither thinking about nor expecting much, if any, of that. She has a few endorsements — with Westfield Bank (she’s the institution’s main pitch person, if you will), the hockey equipment maker Bauer, and a nutrition company — and can’t say if there may be more coming her way. She doesn’t even have an agent.

Kacey Bellamy shares a moment — and her gold medal — with William Wagner, chief Business Development officer for Westfield Bank, at the institution’s Top Performer event earlier this month.

Kacey Bellamy shares a moment — and her gold medal — with William Wagner, chief Business Development officer for Westfield Bank, at the institution’s Top Performer event earlier this month.

As for other opportunities that might come her way from winning gold instead of silver? She’s not sure there will be anything that could be put in the category of lucrative.

But as she talked about these matters, she offered her own two cents on the worth of not only the gold medal but the others she competed for: Priceless.

That might sound like the one-word refrain from a credit-card commercial she doesn’t appear in, but Bellamy says that’s how she feels — about the medal itself but also the experience, meaning the years of hard work, the ups and downs, and the satisfaction that comes from never giving up on the ultimate goal and finally achieving it.

“I don’t look at the gold medal as a money maker,” she told BusinessWest. “I look at it from what it means to me — the relationships that I make, the people I’ve met, and, most importantly, the journey and what I’ve learned from it.”

This is what she talks about when she tells her story to young people and even those who aren’t so young. And if you haven’t heard it (OK, you probably have), it’s a really good one.

And she usually starts telling it by referencing what was obviously the low point in her life — getting cut from the first national team she tried out for.

“I used that as my motivation moving forward,” she said, offering her experience as an example of how others should deal with the adversity that life will inevitably throw at everyone.

“I didn’t point any fingers, and I didn’t blame anyone but me. I e-mailed the coach who cut me and asked what I could do to improve my game and about the things I needed to do,” she went on. “And I used that experience to motivate me and try to be better in every aspect of my game. And, knock on wood, that was the last team I was cut from.”

Net Results

Four years later, in 2010, she was part of the team that lost to Canada in the gold-medal game, 2-0. Just 22 at the time, Bellamy was excited merely to be representing her country and taking part in the Olympics. Still, the runner-up finish left a mark — as well as determination not to be standing on the lower podium and listening to another country’s national anthem four years later.

Such a mindset was positive in many respects, she went on, but in some ways, the focus became the goal (the gold medal) and not what it might take to reach it, which is where it should have been. And this is another lesson she imparts on her audiences of school children and businesspeople alike.

“The next four years after that, we were just focused on winning, but really the focus was on not losing,” she explained. “It was more ‘we don’t want to have another silver medal … we don’t want to have another silver medal.’

“I think we looked a little too far ahead,” she went on. “And that was kind of how that gold-medal game in Sochi ended; we were up 2-0 with three minutes left. They scored, and then they tied it up with a minute left, and then they won in overtime. I think it was the small details and the mental aspect of the game that we had to work on.”

Over the next four years, the team did what she called a “360 with our program,” learned from what went wrong at Sochi, and focused inward — just as she did when she was cut from her first national squad — with the goal of getting better.

“We just tried to get 1% better every day — in training, on the ice, and in mental skills,” she went on. “We were very prepared going into PyeongChang, and as a team, we always felt the positive vibe about the gold medal around our necks, and never thought, ‘what if we lose … what if we lose.’”

There is a virtual gold mine of lessons from the U.S. team’s Olympic experiences that can be applied to school, the workplace, and life itself, and Bellamy says she’s more than happy to share them, just as she shares her gold medal with those she meets in her travels.

Especially that notion of focusing on yourself, or your team, with the mindset that, if you strive to continuously improve and meet that goal, the larger goal will likely take care of itself.

“In the past, we always thought about the Canadian team and always tried to think about how we can be better than them,” she told BusinessWest. “But these past four years, we’ve just been focused on our team and us, and what we can do better.”

And then, there are those lessons concerning teamwork and how to flourish as a team.

Bellamy said that, while those who compete as individuals — from wrestlers to tennis players to golfers — sometimes get more attention and more hype, especially when they’re the best at what they do, she has always preferred the team setting.

“The reason I play is because it’s a team sport,” she said of her decisions to keep playing and return to the Olympics a third time. “You’re doing what you love to do with your sisters and your best friends, and you get to share that. And this is what makes it so special.”

Again, more lessons for the workplace.

Dream Job

As for what happens next … well, Bellamy wouldn’t rule out anything, including a fourth Olympics.

She is determined to help women’s hockey grow and thrive, and play as long as she can; she is currently playing professionally for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, but has also patrolled the blue line in the rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and suggests that maybe the sport would be best served by a merger of the two organizations.

Meanwhile, she’d like to do more coaching, especially at the high-school level, where she would be developing young talent and helping girls on and off the ice.

“You can’t play hockey forever, but you can grow the game forever,” she explained. “And I would definitely like to stay involved in the sport itself, whether that means playing or coaching.”

For now and for the short term, though, she’ll mostly be sharing her gold medal — something she really enjoys, especially if she’s doing it at Wrestlemania.

But while doing that, she’s also sharing her story — one that’s not about hockey or gold medals, but rather about dreams and goals, and how one should never let go of either.

She and her sisters, her best friends, never did, and the experience has provided her with a lifetime of memories and invaluable lessons to impart upon others. And all that is the very best answer to the question, ‘what’s a gold medal worth?’

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

Cover Story Golf Preview Sections

Grinding It Out

Two decades ago, people were clamoring to get into the golf business. It was seen as an almost can’t-miss proposition, and individuals and municipalities alike were looking to cash in. Things changed in a hurry, of course, and today, operations are struggling to stay in the black. To do so, they must be imaginative, flexible, and diverse.

For several years now, area golf-course operators have been saying there’s at least one too many courses in this region for the collective good, especially given the downward trajectory of the business as overall play has declined.

With the accent on ‘at least.’

Well, now there is actually one less track in the Greater Springfield area with the sale last fall of Southwick Country Club to an area developer. Where once there were fairways, greens, and tee boxes, there will soon be homes priced at roughly $300,000 and above.

Just what kind of impact this development will have on the region’s golf industry remains to be seen — Southwick was a relatively small operation, but the course had several leagues, was popular with women and seniors, and had a loyal core of regulars.

“Those people and those leagues will have to play somewhere,” said Ted Perez Jr., long-time pro and co-owner of East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, a truly family-run operation launched 55 years ago by Ted Sr. “They’re not going to stop playing, they’re not going to quit the game, so they’ll have to go somewhere else; that much is clear.”

What is also abundantly and even painfully clear is that the problems facing all golf-course owners and operators, public and private, are not going to be solved or even remotely dented by one course closing its doors. Those problems are far too systemic for that.

That’s why Perez and others we spoke with believe it’s not a case of whether other courses will join Southwick as casualties of a changing landscape, but when. While there is no consensus on when it will actually happen, the overriding sentiment is ‘soon,’ which is obviously a relative term.

Meanwhile … in professional golf, when a player has to work exceedingly hard to make pars and keep from falling down the leaderboard, those analyzing the action on TV like to say that he or she is ‘grinding it out.’

And that’s exactly what area courses are doing — working exceedingly hard so as not to lose ground, as in revenue or profits.

These exercises in grinding it out take many forms, and the efficiency of some of them can certainly be debated. And one large realm that falls in that category is pricing.

The back wall of Dave Fleury’s office

The back wall of Dave Fleury’s office — the one crammed with posters promoting events at Crestview Country Club — speaks to how golf operations have to focus on much more than golf.

Many courses are actually lowering theirs, even as the cost of everything from fertilizer to health insurance for employees continues to rise. Meanwhile, others are adopting what is now a common practice among airlines and hotels — dynamic pricing.

In these scenarios, open stretches on the tee sheets can be filled by discounting those slots in the same way that hotels will let unsold rooms go at below-rate prices on the theory that an occupied room is better than a vacant one.

Jamie Ballard, head pro at Crumpin-Fox Golf Club in Bernardston, said the club is now using dynamic pricing, and it is helping to fill in more lines on tee sheets and get people on the course.

“The margins in golf are so thin now, you have to value every tee time,” he noted while explaining why the club utilizes a company called Golf Now to handle its tee sheet use dynamic pricing to fill slots that may otherwise go unsold. “We don’t ever want to cheapen our brand by giving things away, but if I have a block of tee times on a weekend from 10 to 12 that we’re telling to sell our $100 rack rate that’s not booked, we have to find a way to fill that tee sheet more.”

But others, like Perez, who called such tactics part of what he termed the ‘race to the bottom,’ and Dave Fleury, owner of Crestview Country Club in Agawam and Elmcrest Country Club in East Longmeadow, see inherent dangers in discounting the product, especially the fear that people will be reluctant to pay full price.

“Sometimes it gets like a market in Morocco,” said Fleury, referring to the growing amount of price negotiating going on in golf now. “Golfers are much more emboldened to basically try to demand the price they want to pay, and that’s not really good for the game.”

Meanwhile, there are other elements to grinding it out. These include changes and improvements to make clubs more customer-friendly and especially family-friendly. And this involves both public and private courses; among the latter, Springfield Country Club initiated a massive makeover last year coinciding with new ownership, and stoic Longmeadow Country Club is making nearly $5 million in improvements this year (see related story, page 28).

And then, there’s diversification.

Diversification? Yes, there’s always been some of that at golf operations — from weddings in the clubhouse to snowshoeing on the course. But now, there’s much, much more of it, out of necessity. And it comes in all forms — from Easter brunches to bands to comedy nights, as we’ll see — in an effort to create critically needed revenue streams.

At Waubeeka Golf Club in Williamstown, in the far northwest corner of the state, diversification and grinding it out are being taken to new and intriguing levels. Indeed, Mike Deep, a real-estate business owner who bought the club five years ago to keep it from closing, is advancing plans for an elaborate resort at the course.

Plans are still in the developmental stage, but he can envision dozens of small cabins, a large conference facility, a banquet hall, and more. It’s an ambitious plan, he said, but the current landscape demands such boldness.

“You can’t stand still in this business — you’ll get run over,” he said, speaking for everyone involved in golf. “You have to change, and you have to think differently.”

Setting a New Course

The wall behind the desk in Dave Fleury’s office at Crestview goes a long way toward explaining all of what’s happening in golf today.

Indeed, space that years ago would probably have gone toward pictures of Fleury with many of the golf pros he’s met during a long career in course design (and he has a few of those around) now boasts posters announcing different events Crestview has staged over the past several years.

And the depth and diversity of these events gives new meaning to ‘diversification’ in the golf business.

There are appearances by bands, a Harley night, brunches, comedy nights, a Kentucky Derby party, cruise nights … you name it.

Fleury displays these posters … well, because he’s proud of them; he helped design them. But as a group, these events show in a powerful fashion just how much this operation has changed.

Years ago, Crestview was a private course, and the focus was on golf and the membership. Period. There were no Harley nights and no U2 tribute bands playing there.

Scenic Waubeeka Golf Club in Wlliamstown

Scenic Waubeeka Golf Club in Wlliamstown may soon add a destination resort and conference facilities in an effort to create a more diverse, profitable business operation.

But today, more than 70,000 people make their way down the winding road to the Crestview clubhouse annually, by Fleury’s estimates, and only a small percentage of them will take golf clubs out of the trunk.

The rest will be going to the restaurant, using the pool, checking out vintage cars, or taking part in what Fleury called “block parties,” events that become important revenue streams. Ton sum up how it works and what it means for the operation, he borrowed terms from baseball, not golf.

“There are very few home runs in this business,” he explained. “So if you can hit a lot of singles and doubles, then you can stay in business. If you look at every event like that, as long as we make a reasonable profit and we’re doing a good job of what we do, then they’re well worth doing.”

This is how it is now and will be moving forward, said those we spoke with.

Why? Well, let’s start by going back to where we started — the now-closed Southwick Country Club. A visit there provides some some intriguing perspective, geographically and otherwise, on a changed but still-crowded golf landscape.

Indeed, one can actually see another course from what used to be Southwick’s first fairway — the Ranch is right down the road, although it is a world away when it comes to price, quality, and amenities. And there are two more public courses within just a few miles of Southwick’s driveway — Shaker Farms Country Club in Westfield and Edgewood Country Club in Southwick. Tekoa Country Club, also in Westfield, is maybe three and a half miles away, and there are three more public courses just over the line in Agawam — Oak Ridge, St. Anne’s, and Agawam Country Club. East Mountain Country Club is only six miles away.

Things aren’t quite as crowded on the east side of the Connecticut River, but there are plenty of choices there as well.

There is simply an oversupply, said Fleury, adding that it would have been hard to imagine such a scenario 20 years ago. That’s when Tiger Woods was creating huge amounts of energy and interest in the game — and the business — of golf.

A stroll through the BusinessWest archives puts things in perspective. The headline on the cover of the May 1997 issue (this was a monthly back then) said it all: “Going for the Green: Round Numbers Are Adding Up for Golf Entrepreneurs.” One of the principals behind the Ranch project, talking about a surge in play at area courses, said at the time: “all you have to do is open the cash register and point to the first tee; everyone wants to play these days. You’ve got to get that $20 bill out of your pocket fast … because there’s a guy in line behind you who has his out already.”

But things changed relatively quickly, from a business-cycle perspective, and there’s no better evidence of this than the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, arguably the poster child for a struggling industry.

A municipal course — meaning it’s owned by the town — the Ledges was conceived just as Tiger and the game of golf were booming and it seemed like things would stay that way forever. Golf wasn’t a get-rich-quick scheme, per se, but for many private developers and even towns like South Hadley, it was something close to that.

Until it wasn’t.

Which, in the case of the Ledges, was essentially right away; from the start, it has been a losing proposition. The town’s manager said last fall that it has lost almost $9 million since the first foursome went off in 2001. And, remember, this was sold as a can’t-miss revenue generator!

The Ledges is still operating, but it is on the golf-business equivalent of life support. Town officials have said that, if things don’t turn around this year, they will pull the plug, and the course will close and revert to parkland.

If that happens, there will less competition for area courses, but the region will still be saturated, if not oversaturated.

And those in the business will still be grinding it out — or not. As noted earlier, more casualities are expected.

In the meantime, course operators will continue looking for ways to bring more people to their doorsteps — for golf or anything else that will generate revenue and help keep people employed.

Rough Estimates

This is the broad topic that is dominating regional and national meetings of golf-course operators, said Deep, adding that he has now attended many such gatherings.

“We have to change how people think about golf,” he said while summing up the broad assignment, which is even more daunting in Berkshire County, which has, as Deep noted, among the highest rates of golf courses per capita. There are 14 of them, by his count, and they are all fishing in a pool that seems to get smaller each year.

There might be only 13 if Deep had not stepped in five years ago. Waubeeka was losing about $400,000 a year at the time, he said, adding that he was confident (and now he has no idea why) that he could turn things around quickly and profoundly.

Instead, he could do neither, although he did make progress, reducing those losses consistently to where the club is now maybe $100,000 in the red. “We’re going in the right direction, but there’s no way anyone can continue to lose that kind of money,” he went on, adding that this reality prompted the plans for a destination hotel and convention facility, something the area lacks and needs.

Preliminary plans call for what Deep called a “village,” with a new clubhouse, a dining facility for 300 or more, and cabins scattered around the property. The project would be built in phases, and 2020 is the goal for the first stage.

To borrow another phrase from those television analysts, this ambitious move is, like a reachable par 5, a risk-reward scenario. There is considerable risk, but also potential rewards. And this is what is going on across the industry, albeit on a generally much smaller scale: Taking risks to realize rewards.

Put another way, and to paraphrase those we spoke with, the biggest risk comes in doing nothing and simply hoping the golf gods (ask anyone who plays) will smile on your operation.

One of the risks being taken is lowering prices, a difficult step at a time when other costs are escalating, but a necessary one for many clubs.

Crumpin-Fox is in that category, said Ballard, noting this step wasn’t taken lightly and is considered a calculated response to the changing landscape.

“Whether you like it or not, this is a business,” he told BusinessWest. “We might love our golf course and say, in our opinion, that we don’t have any competition, but the reality of it is we do. And if you have options, price is one thing that people consider.”

Other risks are more minor in nature and reflect Fleury’s comments about hitting singles and doubles — a discussion that prompts Perez to talk about ‘upstairs.’

That would be East Mountain’s expansive yet flexible ballroom.

“My brother, Mark (also a partner in the EMCC operation), talked about this six or seven years ago — he said we had to start using upstairs more,” said Perez, adding that, while the facility had always played host to weddings, chamber breakfasts, Rotary meetings, and more, it was clear that it was still being underutilized as a revenue generator.

Not anymore.

To get his point across, Perez referenced Trivia Night, or the latest in a series of them, staged on the Thursday night before he spoke with BusinessWest.

“We do it from the first Thursday in October until the last Thursday in March — that’s six months,” he said, adding that an average turnout would be 40 players, or about eight teams.

That’s not a large number of people, but most of them order food and drinks, and thus it becomes well worth turning the lights on. The goal, obviously, is to do this as many nights of the year as possible. And East Mountain does this with bands, comedy, and more.

“Pretty much every Friday, we’ve got something going on upstairs,” he said. “You don’t make a lot of money with it, but you keep people coming here, and you keep a few dollars going through the system.

“You realize why nightclubs open and close all the time,” he went on, referring specifically to the decidedly hit-or-miss nature of booking bands. “It’s nice to have, but thank God we don’t have to make a living with that.”

In many ways, though, golf-course operators do have to make a living with such events — or at least a part of their living.

“That’s part of the new reality,” said Fleury, noting that, if clubs do not adjust to it, then they increase their risk of being the next casuality.

Course Correction

As he talked with BusinessWest, Deep offered an observation that many in golf have made over the past few months: Tiger is back.

Indeed, he is playing on the tour again after almost three years of being sidelined by back ailments and surgeries to correct them. And he’s not only playing, he’s competing at a high level, with a few top-10 finishes.

His presence has been noticed in a number of ways: TV ratings have soared, attendance at the tournaments he’s played in has skyrocketed, competitors paired with him are complaining about how hard is to play in front of such huge galleries, and anticipation about the upcoming Masters is off the charts because he’s listed among the favorites.

“Tiger coming back is good for the game,” said Deep, expressing, without actually saying as much, the hope that maybe Woods’ comeback can fuel some sort of resurgence for the industry.

Maybe, but what’s more likely is that Tiger’s return will be like the closing of Southwick Country Club — it will help, but it won’t change the big picture.

No, course operators are going to have to keep grinding it out.

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

Cover Story

Recipe for Success

Caroline Pam and Tim Waite

Caroline Pam and Tim Waite with some of Kitchen Garden Farm’s products, now sold across the country.

Launched in 2001, the Western MA Food Processing Center in Greenfield has become a powerful engine when it comes to economic development in Franklin County and beyond. The WMFPC has been instrumental in helping farmers and other food and beverage entrepreneurs to grow organically — in every sense.

Caroline Pam gave the jar a half-turn.

That was how she started to answer a question, the one about what makes her company’s salsa and sriracha (hot sauce) stand out in a market crowded with competitors.

The answer, or at least a big part of it, was to be found on the back side of the jar in front of her, the one containing Kitchen Garden Farm’s ghost pepper sriracha, made from a blend of ghost peppers, red chilies, and habanero peppers — the one with the words ‘super hot’ and a small skull and crossbones on the front.

Those words on the back — “Our sauces are hand-crafted from organic peppers grown on our family farm” — resonate with many constituencies, said Pam, co-owner of Sunderland-based Kitchen Garden Farm along with her husband, Tim Wilcox. And that helps explain why the product is now sold across the country.

“Our products are truly unique — locally grown, farmer-made, certified organic, and preservative-free,” she noted. “What was once a very small pet project primarily for sale at our annual chili fest is now sold in California, in Minneapolis, on Nantucket … all over the country.”

What it doesn’t say on the label, although this is also an important part of the company’s progress to date, is that these salsas and srirachas are produced and packaged at the Western MA Food Processing Center (WMFPC) in Greenfield, a facility that has helped spawn a number of food labels — and business success stories.

Tucked away in an industrially zoned area about a mile from Greenfield’s Main Street, the food-processing center was launched in 2001. It was an ambitious undertaking and a response to a request from the state for a facility to help its agriculture industry and entrepreneurs within the very broad realm of food and beverage take concepts from their farms, family recipe books, and even the proverbial back of a napkin and turn them into business enterprises.

That response came from the Franklin County Community Development Corp., said its executive director, John Waite. He told BusinessWest the agency cobbled together more than $800,000 from various sources to create the commercial kitchen and adjoining warehouse and distribution facilities.

Over the years, more than 350 clients, by Waite’s count, have made their way down Wells Street to the center, and collectively they have registered varied amounts of success. Some didn’t find much of it for various reasons, he said, noting that there’s nothing easy about turning a food or beverage product into a business. But many have, and it has come in different ways.

Some have been using the facilities for years to bring a value-added product, or several, to the marketplace and scale up, sometimes in a big way. Kitchen Garden Farms falls in that category — Pam said the food processing center enabled the farm to go from making 400 bottles a year at a small commercial kitchen it was renting five years ago to 19,000 last year — as does Herrell’s Ice Cream in Northampton, which contracts with the center to produce its popular hot fudge sauce for retail sales.

And then, there are those who have done so well, they’ve ‘outgrown’ the center, if you will, and created their own production centers.

Topping that list would be Real Pickles, the venture launched by Dan Rosenberg, who started selling batches of organic dill pickles to a few dozen local stores in 2001. He came to the food processing center the following season and started producing value-added products such as organic sauerkraut and ginger carrots and expanding sales across the region. That venture did outgrow the WMFPC and moved into its own facility — right down the street, actually — in 2009.

There’s also Hillside Pizza, which also started in 2001, using the center to produce small pizzas used in various fund-raising initiatives. Today, it has three locations, in Bernardston, Hadley, and South Deerfield.

John Waite

John Waite says the WMFPC supplies pots, pans, and freezer space — but also the many kinds of technical support needed to help entrepreneurs convert food and beverage products into businesses.

Hillside now employs more than 40 people at those locations, said Waite, adding that this number contributes to a larger one — more than 100 by his count — when it comes to the number of jobs created directly or indirectly by the food-processing center, perhaps the best measure of its success, although there are many.

“We’ve made some twists and turns over the years, but the center has become what everyone envisioned back in 2001,” he explained. “That vision was that more local foods would be processed and there would be job creation. And we’re doing that.”

For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest paid an extended visit to the food processing center to get, well, a taste of how this unique facility has become a force in efforts to foster entrepreneurship, create jobs, sustain local agriculture, and, yes, put some intriguing products on the dinner table.

Not Lost in the Sauce

When Liz Buxton tells someone she’s chief cook and bottle washer, she’s not just summoning that battle-worn phrase to describe someone who wears a lot of hats.

She is the chief cook — at least for much of the work that is contracted out to the food processing center — and she also washes bottles on occasion. She also drives the fork truck regularly. And she monitors and repairs equipment. And … well, you get the idea.

As director of operations, she really does wear a lot of hats — although mostly she’s in a hairnet, an important part of the dress code at the facility.

And her presence at the center — as well as all those hats she wears — drives home the point that this facility is much, much more than a large, well-appointed kitchen. Indeed, the center is a resource; it exists not to help clients create a large batch of barbecue sauce, jam, salsa or cider, or just to do that. No, it exists to help those clients succeed in business.

“It certainly isn’t easy to scale up a small, family-kitchen operation into a commercial venture; our clients need many forms of guidance — on labeling, on meeting FDA regulations, on production, and more,” she explained. “And we provide all that.”

This is pretty much what the Mass. Department of Agriculture had in mind when it issued a request for proposals for what it called a ‘commercial kitchen’ at the start of this century, said Waite, adding that the Franklin Country CDC, in submitting its bid, thought such a facility would be a natural extension of what it was already doing, as well as a means to directly support what was, and still is, a big part of the Franklin County economy — agriculture.

Joanna Benoit says scaling up — taking a family recipe, for example, and turning it into a product and a business — is an involved process for which entrepreneurs need many forms of support.

Joanna Benoit says scaling up — taking a family recipe, for example, and turning it into a product and a business — is an involved process for which entrepreneurs need many forms of support.

But the name Western MA Food Processing Center was chosen to reinforce the fact this is, indeed, a regional facility, he went on, adding that there have been several clients from Berkshire and Hampshire counties as well, and even a few from more-urban Hampden County, although not as many as he would like. Meanwhile, some clients drive across the state to reach Greenfield, and still others arrive sporting license plates from Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

The facility meets federal, state, and local standards, and is well stocked with modern equipment, including two 100-gallon and three 40-gallon steam kettles; automated hot-bottling and filling; large-capacity mixers, choppers, and shredders; dry, cold, and frozen storage; a vegetable wash, prep, and blanching area; a quick-freeze production line; vacuum sealers; shared office space and equipment; 24-hour secure access; and more.

But these are only the tools of the trade, said Waite, adding that the center also provides other forms of support, especially all-important help with scaling up and taking a product across the region or even across the country.

“In the beginning, we were going to teach people how to use the equipment and have an FDA-certified kitchen,” he explained. “They would come in with their own recipe — they knew what they were doing, we assumed — and we would teach them. And we still have some people doing that.

“But then it became apparent that people needed more than the kettles and the stoves; they needed more help,” he went on. “So we helped them with labeling and FDA health and safety regulations, and other things.”

Still, despite these adjustments the center made, it wasn’t seeing many of the region’s farmers it hoped would use the facility to make products like tomato sauce, for example, from their tomato crops.

And there was a reason for this.

“They said, basically, ‘we’re not cooks, we’re farmers; we don’t want to be in the kitchen,’” said Waite, adding that these sentiments inspired those at the WMFPC to add co-packing solutions to its portfolio of services and have hired staff make those products for the farmers who want to devote their time to the fields.

And many businesses, such as the aforementioned Herrell’s, have taken advantage of those services, he went on, adding that, through this work, the center became quite adept at all aspects of food production.

This know-how is then passed on to the many clients, like Kitchen Garden Farm and countless others, who travel to the center, rent its facilities for $45 per hour, and handle their own production, said Waite, adding that, as a business venture itself, the WMFPC continues to grow and evolve.

And, thanks to the addition of an $800,000, 2,800-square-foot cold-storage facility last December, the center should succeed with something it has struggled to do — break even on the bottom line, said Waite.

“We now have about 5,000 square feet of storage, dry and cold, and that’s really going to help us moving forward,” he told BusinessWest. “The kitchen is large enough, but people need to bring in their ingredients, and they need space for their finished product, and for a while, that was limiting some our clients when it came to growth — they didn’t have space to store stuff. Now they do.”

The new storage space will eventually become a solid revenue stream, he went on, adding, for example, that area farmers can now use it as a meat warehouse, rather than traveling to facilities in Westfield, Chicopee, and New York.

Stirring Things Up

As he talked with BusinessWest about the center, Waite, over the course of a nearly two-hour visit, would regularly retrieve another jar, bottle, or package from an elaborate display case of products created at the center over the years and say ‘here’s another good success story’ — or words to that effect.’

When Liz Buxton says she’s chief cook and bottle washer at the WMFPC, she means it. Yes, she also drives the fork truck on occasion.

When Liz Buxton says she’s chief cook and bottle washer at the WMFPC, she means it. Yes, she also drives the fork truck on occasion.

Indeed, he probably did that at least a half dozen times, partially in an effort not to overlook anyone, but also because there are so many of these stories it’s easy to lose track — until you see that bottle on the shelf.

Among those he referenced were:

• Old Friends Farm in Amherst, which grows ginger, turmeric, and other crops, and makes syrups, honeys, and teas;

• Shire City Herbals in Pittsfield, makers of fire cider, an apple-cider vinegar;

• Zoni Foods — the creation of a Yale graduate still doing business in Connecticut — maker of plant-based gourmet frozen dinners like coconut curry noodles and zesty peanut noodles;

• The Artisan Beverage Cooperative, which produces a wide variety of fermented teas and other products and actually occupies its own space within the WMFPC complex;

• Appalachian Naturals, a producer of salad dressings and marinades that started at the WMFPC, outgrew it, and moved into its own facility in Goshen;

• Akara, a producer of African beancake, a close cousin to the veggie burger, that is still coming to the food-processing center; and

• Saw Mill Site Farm, makers of horseradish products, which is still using the WMFPC a dozen years after starting there.

These ventures, which offer some good insight into the very wide variety of products processed at the center, are at various stages in their development, said Waite, but the common thread is that the WMFPC has been an important partner in whatever success they’ve enjoyed and will enjoy down the road.

And as a partner, again, it provides more than those 100-gallon steam kettles.

“This place allows entrepreneurs to try things at a low cost,” Waite explained. “People rent by the hour — $45 an hour — so for $300, they can try a bunch of things instead of building their own place or buying their own equipment, which would cost tens of thousands of dollars. They just bring the ingredients.”

And some entrepreneurial spirit, said Joanna Benoit, Food Business Development specialist for the WMFPC, who also wears a number of hats.

Indeed, much if her time is spent managing the ambitious Pioneer Valley Vegetables program, whereby the center processes fruits and vegetables from a number of local farms for sale to a number of clients, including area schools.

But she also helps onboard new clients to the center, assisting them with everything from business-plan creation to marketing to scaling up a product from what is often family-kitchen scope to commercial scale.

And there is a lot that goes into this process.

“For many, it’s transitioning from a culinary process to streamlined production — it’s almost like a science experiment,” she explained. “You want to start thinking about developing a streamlined, consistent process, streamlining your ingredient sourcing, thinking about your packaging, your marketing, your branding … things you’re not always thinking about when you’re making a product that’s delicious and you’re proud of and you want to share with people.”

Elaborating, she said there is much more that goes into it than taking the ingredients from a family and multiplying the amounts for each by 10, 100, or 1,000. It’s not that simple.

There are all those other considerations, such as labeling, marketing, branding, and distribution, but there are also the many factors in scaling up that recipe.

And that’s where Buxton, chief cook and bottle washer, comes in.

She had spent more than 30 years in the food-service business before coming to the WMFPC, and took an intriguing path to employment there. Indeed, she was working as food and nutrition director for a local school district, and became introduced to the WMFPC when that district started buying produce from it through Pioneer Valley Vegetables.

“When this job came open, I was very interested in it,” she recalled, adding that there was a lot to like, especially the opportunity to use her vast experience to help clients reach whatever goals they have set for themselves — and support local agriculture at the same time.

No two days are alike, she told BusnessWest, adding that she works with clients to help them meet FDA and labeling regulations, find the right pH level to maintain proper shelf life without the use of preservatives, and more.

“Many of these things are very hard to do without guidance,” she said, adding that the ongoing work of helping clients navigate what can sometimes feel like whitewater is rewarding on a number of levels.

Food for Thought

Pam told BusinessWest that Kitchen Garden Farm has a number of ambitious goals for the future. And one of them is to join that list of distinguished clients who have actually outgrown the WMFPV and created their own commercial processing center.

She doesn’t know exactly when that will happen — 2019 is the goal — but she’s confident that it will.

Meanwhile, one thing she does know is that the food-processing center has played a pivotal role in the farm’s profound growth, brand building, and ability to sell its products on both coasts and countless places in between.

As noted many times earlier, and in many ways, there have been a number of success stories like this written over the past 18 years, and the best news is that there still many more waiting to be penned.

That’s because the WMFPV provides its clients with all the other ingredients they need to thrive.

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

Sections Workforce Development

Making Some Progress

Elizabeth Ryan

Elizabeth Ryan, working her way toward a bachelor’s degree in advanced technology systems, wants to move on to a leadership position in the manufacturing field.

While the region’s manufacturers continue to struggle to find qualified help and fill the enormous voids being left by retiring Baby Boomers, it appears that some progress is being made in efforts to inspire young people to consider the field and start down a path toward a career within it. Conversations with students at Springfield Technical Community College reveal that, while considerable work remains to be done to meet the workforce needs of this sector, some perceptions about it are changing.

Gary Masciadrelli said the letters keep coming.

And to back up those words, he started shuffling papers on his desk to find some. He didn’t have to look far or work hard.

“Here’s one — a local company looking for an intern,” said Masciadrelli, professor and chair of the Mechanical Engineering Technology Department at Springfield Technical Community College, as he held it aloft. “Here’s another one … someone looking for a manufacturing engineer. We get a letter almost every day or every other day. We’re constantly getting these demands for people to fill jobs; we could definitely use more students.”

Indeed, a number of area manufacturers are turning to STCC and Masciadrelli for some kind of help with a large and ongoing problem — finding enough talented help to help the steady steam of orders these companies are getting, especially as members of the Baby Boom generation reach retirement age.

“We have far more job opportunities than we have people to fill them,” said Masciadrelli as he talked with BusinessWest in his small office within STCC’s Smith & Wesson Technology Applications Center, equipped with state-of-the-art equipment on which students can train.

That ‘we’ he used referred to both the college — which has plenty of unused seats within both its associate-degree program and a new program launched in conjunction with Northeastern University whereby students may earn a bachelor’s degree on the STCC campus — and the manufacturing sector itself.

By some counts, there are hundreds of jobs, maybe more, within the region’s manufacturing sector that could be filled but have not been because there are simply not enough trained individuals. Changing this equation has become one of the top workforce-development priorities within the 413, which has a rich history in manufacturing and innovation dating back to the creation of the Springfield Armory (on what is now the STCC campus, ironically).

Masciadrelli told BusinessWest he’s doing what he can, but it remains a stern challenge to interest young people in this profession. Reasons vary, but at the top of the list are outdated perceptions about what the work is like; lingering doubts, fueled by talk about everything from robots to work going overseas, about the relative health of the sector moving forward; and strong memories among parents who saw stalwarts ranging from American Bosch to Moore Drop Forge to the Springfield Armory abruptly close their doors.

But some young people are managing to look beyond all that and see the vast potential that work in this sector holds. Many have role models, if you will — relatives or friends who stand as inspiring examples. And many are women, introduced to the field in high school and encouraged to continue down that path.

People like Lineisha Rosario, from Agawam, who started down the road to STCC and its mechanical engineering program (quite literally) while watching her father work on cars and becoming fascinated with how things worked.

“I was always with him and always willing to help, even though he didn’t let me because I was too little,” said Rosario, currently working for CNC Software Inc. in Tolland, Conn., which provides state-of-the-art software tools for CAD/CAM manufacturing markets, in the post-processing department.

She plans to continue working there after earning her associate’s degree in a few months, and encourages others to explore a field where they can stretch their imagination and expand their career horizon.

And also people like Elizabeth Ryan, who earned her associate’s degree at STCC and is now working toward her bachelor’s through the affiliation with Northeastern.

A graduate of Chicopee Comprehensive High School, she currently works as a mechanical engineer at Parts Tool & Die, an aerospace machine shop based in Agawam. She enjoys her current work handling programming, processing, and quoting, but has set her sights much higher.

“I want to move up the chain and see if I can get into a leadership position,” she explained. “I’m still fairly new to the industry since I’ve only been in it a year and half, but I have a lot of options now.”

Lineisha Rosario

Lineisha Rosario, currently working for CNC Software, says there are many career options for those looking to enter the broad field of manufacturing.

Indeed, she does, and this is the message that Masciadrelli and all those in the manufacturing sector want to get across loud and clear.

For this issue and its focus on workforce development, BusinessWest talked with Masciadrelli and several of the students enrolled in the programs at STCC. Their comments reveal that, while there’s still considerable work to do to close that gap noted earlier, this sector may be starting to turn some heads — as well as some cutting-edge parts for everything from the aerospace industry to the medical-device field.

Breaking the Mold

For many years now, area manufacturers, technical high schools, STCC, and workforce-development-related agencies such as the area regional employment boards have been working diligently to inspire young people — and their parents — to at least give manufacturing a hard look.

Programs have enjoyed varying degrees of success, but some progress has definitely been made when it comes to debunking myths and enlightening people about the opportunities to be found in this field.

For evidence of this, one needs to spend only a few minutes with Tim Vovk.

A graduate of West Springfield High School last May, he started work toward an associate’s degree at STCC last fall, more than four years after he signed up for something called the Pathways to Prosperity program, which introduces area young people to the manufacturing field while in high school.

“I thought to myself, ‘I might as well get to know the field; if I don’t like it, I can always leave it,’” he told BusinessWest. “I took the chance, and I grew to like it, especially the problem-solving aspect of it.”

Inspired by his cousin, a drafter at Pratt & Whitney, Vovk wants to follow a similar path because of the challenging and rewarding nature of design work.

Tim Vovk

Tim Vovk says he was introduced to manufacturing while in high school, and he grew to like it, especially the problem-solving nature of the work.

“I’m enjoying it even more than I thought I would,” he said, referring specifically to solid modeling and blueprinting. “It’s fun to see a concept take shape.”

The region — and area manufacturers — could use at least a few hundred individuals more like Vovk, and they’re a long way from getting there. But his story, or individual components of it (that’s an industry phrase), are becoming more common thanks to ongoing efforts to promote the industry, create pathways to enter it and thrive within in it, and provide people with the skills that area manufacturers are desperate for.

And STCC is at the forefront of all that, with new facilities (the Smith & Wesson Center), new programs such as the affiliation with Northeastern, and solid relationships with a number of area manufacturers, said Masciadrelli as he talked with BusinessWest just prior to a class (called Solid Modeling for Mechanical Design I) involving freshmen enrolled in the associate-degree program in mechanical engineering technology.

These students, mostly younger individuals but some looking for a new career opportunity, spent the first semester on basic modeling and learning software. In this spring semester, they are learning what Masciadrelli called the “mechanics of design,” meaning proper drawing standards, geometric dimensioning and tolerancing, and understanding how to put all that on blueprints, and, in general, understanding the language of design.

By the time they earn their degree roughly 15 months later, and probably well before that, they could be owning jobs in several different realms, including design (CAD); manufacturing, such as using Mastercam programming; and the broad ‘quality’ realm.

While those at STCC are training students for the field, they’re also trying to sell young people and their parents on a profession. And in most respects, it remains a hard sell, said Masciadrelli.

“You have to get into the high schools and get to the guidance counselors and the parents as well,” he explained. “They need to be made aware that this field has changed and there are some great opportunities for good-paying jobs and careers.

“Technology has changed the field of engineering tremendously,” he went on. “Things that were done by hand … the computer has taken over everything. Look at CNC machining; people are no longer running a Bridgeport, turning cranks and feeling the work. The computer runs the CNC machine; with the technology involved, a lot more people can get involved in this work.”

And by all indications, there will be plenty of work in the years and decades to come, he continued.

Amanda Cyr

Currently working at GKN Aerospace in Connecticut, Amanda Cyr is working toward her bachelor’s degree and, hopefully, a leadership position in manufacturing.

“The people at Pratt & Whitney are telling me they’re seeing no changes in he current demands for decades,” said Masciadrelli. “They never been so busy.”

He said the affiliation with Northeastern will help in this regard, because it will enable people to earn a four-year degree while they work (this is a night program) and in Springfield, as opposed to Boston or Amherst (UMass). And with that degree, new doors of opportunity can be opened.

“We want to show people what a great opportunity they have right here,”Masciadrelli explained. “You come here, spend two years, get a job — you’ll definitely be working when you graduate, and probably well before that — and while you’re working, you can complete your bachelor’s degree at night on this campus.”

There are actually two offerings through the affiliation with Northeastern — a degree in mechanical engineering technology (an offering that did not attract enough students to become reality this year), and another in advanced technology systems, which has attracted six students for this spring, including Ryan.

Where Dreams Take Shape

Perhaps the best selling tool the college has when it comes to its programs and the profession as a whole, Masciadrelli said, are individuals like its graduates and current students (most all of them already working in the field as well).

Through word-of-mouth referrals, they let others become aware of everything from the ample supplies of jobs available to the attractive salaries they offer. Through their stories, they effectively communicate that careers in this field are desirable and, contrary to popular opinion, not beyond their reach academically.

David Nawrocki, a graduate of Chicopee Comprehensive High School, tells a story heard often at STCC.

“Originally, I was going to do the engineering science transfer and transfer from here to UMass, but then I saw the course list, and I felt like a wanted to cry,” he explained. “I’m not really into Calc 2 and all the higher math like that. One of the admissions people sat down with me and saw how frustrated I was. I came and talked to Gary [Masciadrelli] my junior year, and he said, ‘I’ll see you next year.’”

Set to graduate in May, Nawrocki, currently working as an inspector at B&E Tool in Southwick, plans to enroll in the Northwestern advanced manufacturing program, earn his bachelor’s degree, and create more potential landing spots.

Specifically, he’d like to be a project manager or manufacturing engineer. “Something that combines the design side that I like with the practical application of the knowledge,” he explained.

Meanwhile, one his co-workers at B&E, Leah Babinova, a graduate of Westfield Vocational Technical High School last May, is just getting started at STCC.

She was inspired by her two sisters, both of whom went to STCC. One is now working toward a degree in aerospace engineering, while the other is working for a manufacturer in Connecticut.

Also an inspector at B&E, Babinova said she had that job before she even graduated from high school. Surveying the field, she said there are many attractive career opportunities already within her reach, and many more if she adds college degrees.

“There are a lot of good jobs out there,” she told BusinessWest. “Most people just aren’t aware of how many opportunities there are.”

Amanda Cyr is well aware. She’s already been working in the aerospace-engineering field for roughly eight years, since just before her graduation from Westfield Voke.

She’s currently at GKN Aerospace in Newington, Conn. as a manufacturing engineer and robotics programmer. She graduated from the associate-degree program at STCC and is now enrolled in the Northeastern program to generate more of those options her classmate Ryan talked about earlier.

David Nawrocki

David Nawrocki, an inspector at B&E Tool, is working toward his associates degree, and will press on for his bachelor’s

“I just want to continue growing within the industry and have plans to possibly be in a leadership role,” she explained. “And I think having a bachelor’s will help me down that path.”

She spoke for her classmates, her co-workers, and just about everyone else in the industry when she talked about why she chose it as a career.

“It’s challenging, it’s fast-paced, but it’s good — really good,” she said, while Ryan, sitting next to her, nodded her head in agreement.

“The whole world revolves around manufacturing,” she told BusinessWest. “Everything around you has to be manufactured, so if you think about things in that way, you get engaged in it. And the more you get engaged in it, the more you enjoy it.”

Part and Parcel

As Masciadrelli talked about the manufacturing field and the many types of opportunities within it, he said that, while the money’s good, and that’s important, the work itself brings many different kinds of rewards that are not obvious to many on the outside looking in.

“It’s an exciting field — you’re doing something, you’re making something,” he told BusinessWest. “You start with a drawing, and all of the sudden, that becomes something real; things fit together, or they don’t fit together. That’s what fun about it.”

People like Scott Vovk, Elizabeth Ryan, Amanda Cyr, and Victoria Bradenberg have already figured that part out. The region’s manufacturers need hundreds more to become similarly enlightened if they are to have enough talented people to handle the contracts coming their way.

It’s a huge challenge in every respect, but there is progress being made, in every sense of that phrase.

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

Cover Story Employment Sections

Team-building Exercise

From left, Courtney Wenleder, CFO; Alex Dixon, general manager; and Mike Mathis, president and COO. Photo by MGM/Springfield Mark Murray

From left, Courtney Wenleder, CFO; Alex Dixon, general manager; and Mike Mathis, president and COO.
Photo by MGM/Springfield Mark Murray

Mike Mathis said he doesn’t use any of those ‘gotcha’ questions, as he calls them, when he’s interviewing job candidates.

He said he’s been on the other end of a few of these, like ‘describe your greatest weakness’ or ‘how well do you get along with your current boss?’ He didn’t particularly enjoy those experiences and, more to the point, doesn’t believe they were particularly effective in providing real insight to those asking those questions.

But Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, said he does have some favorite — and effective — go-to questions (he wasn’t too revealing) that he likes to ask in an effort to get beyond the words printed on a résumé and determine if the candidate across the table would make a good fit.

And he’s had plenty of opportunities to put them to use in recent months as he’s interviewed finalists for the positions that make up the executive team that will open and then operate the $950 million resort casino complex taking shape in Springfield’s South End.

“The résumé gives me good insight into what their technical experience is,” he explained. “But I’m looking for personality and cultural fit, and you can usually get to that through them talking about their experiences.”

As he talked about his team members, or department heads, or ‘number ones,’ as he also called them, collectively, Mathis made early and frequent use of the word ‘diverse,’ and said it takes on the quality in many different respects. These include gender, age, race, geography (where they’re from), casino experience, and MGM experience.

As for those last two, some have it, and others, like Mathis himself when he was named to lead MGM Springfield, don’t.

“We have some who are internal MGM and others who are external to our company but in the industry,” Mathis explained. “We have a combination of young and those not as young, as I like to say, those with a little more experience. And we have a few from outside the industry; the company took a chance on me, and we’ve continued to take some of those chances on others.”

Anthony Caratozzolo: Vice President, Food & Beverage

Anthony Caratozzolo: Vice President, Food & Beverage

Anika Gaskins: Vice President, National Marketing

Anika Gaskins: Vice President, National Marketing

Brian Jordan: Director, Surveillance

Brian Jordan: Director, Surveillance

Monique Messier: Executive Director, Sales

Monique Messier: Executive Director, Sales

It is this team, featuring individuals with titles ranging from CFO to vice president, Table Games, to executive director, Arena Operations, that will lead the ambitious casino project through the most critical stage in this six-year process — the completion of construction, finalization of specific components such as dining options and other facilities, the assemblage of a team of roughly 3,000 people, and, finally, opening the doors (early September is the projected ‘go’ date).

At present, that team-building assignment is priority 1, said Mathis, adding that the members of the executive team will soon be, and in many cases already are, adding members to their own specific leadership teams, and soon these individuals will begin to assemble the larger teams they will lead.

“The number ones hire number twos, and the number twos hire number threes,” he explained. “And then, from there, you start building out your business plan and prepare for mass hiring.”

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest looks at the team Mathis has assembled and how it came together. Also, we’ll look at the daunting challenge this “dream team,” as Mathis called it, will face over the next six months and how it will go about making MGM Springfield ready for prime time.

A Strong Hand

Mathis told BusinessWest that he’s been a part of a few casino executive teams during his career “around but not in on a day-to-day basis” the casino industry, as he chose to phrase it.

Indeed, he was legal counsel for the Venetian Las Vegas, which opened in 1999, and also for a start-up operation, Echelon Place, also in Las Vegas.

Being the one on the other side of this equation, the one putting the team together, the one able to joke during meetings (and he’s already done this a few times) that ‘none of you would be here without me’ — well, that’s a completely different and quite rewarding experience.

“I have a great sense of pride when it comes to the group we’ve pulled together,” he said, emphasizing that this was a team effort. “What’s really nice is how, organically, this team reflects the personality of the community and our original vision. For me, as a day-one employee, I feel I’m a steward of the original vision of our president, Bill Hornbuckle, and of the mayor and the different community-group stakeholders I originally met with. And I want to reflect all that in the team we put together.”

Sarah Moore: Vice President, Marketing, Advertising & Brand

Sarah Moore: Vice President, Marketing, Advertising & Brand

Marikate Murren: Vice President, Human Resources

Marikate Murren: Vice President, Human Resources

Jason Rosewell: Vice President, Facilities

Jason Rosewell: Vice President, Facilities

Jason Rucker: Executive Director, Security

Jason Rucker: Executive Director, Security

Elaborating, he said this team is non-traditional in some respects, and, as noted, diverse in every sense of that word.

‘Non-traditional’ in that, in many cases within this industry, executive units travel as a team, Mathis explained. That was not the case here.

“Someone would come to my role already thinking about who their number two and number three would be,” he explained. “Some of those executive teams travel in groups. There’s nothing wrong with that … these people are used to working with one another, and there’s something to be said for that.

“But because I was new to the role, I came at it without some of those preconceived notions about who the team members should be,” he went on, adding that he actually worked with very few members of this executive team before MGM Springfield. “The group is really eclectic, and we make each other better.”

In total, there were hundreds of applicants for the 16 positions, Mathis went on, adding that, because the pools of candidates were strong and diverse, it was that much easier to create a very diverse team.

“One of things we believe in at MGM is that, if you have a diverse applicant pool, you’ll get great employees, and the diversity will be reflected in the hires,” he said. “So our focus has always been on making sure we’re getting great people in front of us before we make decisions.”

Elaborating, he explained that, for each of the positions, the company tried to have, as finalists, an internal (MGM) candidate, an external candidate, and a diverse candidate, and in most cases met that goal.

Overall, nine of the 16 members of the executive team are diverse or female, which, he said, makes it one of the most diverse teams not only within the MGM company, but within the industry.

Why is diversity important? “Within the hospitality industry and particularly with MGM Resorts, we’re a host to a wider range of customers than any industry I can think of,” said Mathis as he answered that question. “We’re the Disneyland for adults. We have international guests, local visitors, those who are interested in gaming, those who are interested in food and beverage, families … with that range of customers that we invite to our resort, we need our employees to reflect that diversity of customers. That’s a big part of our success, and diversity is one of our pillars — not only ethnically, but diversity in all respects.”

Great Odds ‘Relaxed.’

That’s the adjective Mathis summoned to describe not only how he wants those taking his interview questions to be, but also the kind of corporate environment, for lack of a better term, that he’s been trying to create at MGM Springfield.

Lynn Segars: Vice President, Slot Operations

Lynn Segars: Vice President, Slot Operations

Gregg Skowronski: Executive Director, Hotel Operations

Gregg Skowronski: Executive Director, Hotel Operations

Talia Spera: Executive Director, Arena Operations

Talia Spera: Executive Director, Arena Operations

That certainly sounds illogical given the nature of the casino industry in general and, more specifically, the ultra-challenging six months ahead for the team at MGM Springfield. But hear him out.

“I mean relaxed in terms of the collegiality between the team members,” he explained. “We’re all working hard, but time is going by quickly, and the work is hard enough without the environment being overly formal or not having that collegiality.

“People perform best when they’re happy; we believe in our business in the service-profit-chain model,” he went on, referring to the theory in business management that links employee satisfaction to customer loyalty and, therefore, profitability.

It was an unofficial goal, or milestone, to have this team in place, in this relaxed environment, at the start of 2018, and it has been met, said Mathis, adding that, while some team members still have some logistics to work out, such as finding homes and moving families, they are all at work now at MGM’s nerve center in at a renovated 95 State St.

They will meet collectively twice a week, said Mathis, adding that one of these sessions is an executive-team meeting at which specific information will be communicated about project status, timelines, and other matters, and decisions will be made that involve multiple departments. The second session is a weekly staff meeting, a 90-minute to two-hour roundtable with no set agenda.

Seth Stratton: Vice President and General Counsel

Seth Stratton: Vice President and General Counsel

Courtney Wenleder: Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Courtney Wenleder: Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Robert Westerfield: Vice President, Table Games

Robert Westerfield: Vice President, Table Games

“What we’ve learned is that meeting [the roundtable] is as productive as any other meeting we have,” he explained, adding that there are a host of smaller meetings involving some but not all of the executive staff members.

And as you might expect, there is quite a bit to meet about with the countdown now at or just under 200 days.

The biggest priority is building the individual departments, Mathis went on, adding that, while the casino is taking shape in a highly visible way on and around Main Street, the task of interviewing, hiring, and training 3,000 employees is already going on behind the scenes.

The top levels of each team will be filled out over the next few months, he continued, and mass hiring will commence in the early summer and hit high gear in the weeks just prior to opening.

Meanwhile, there are literally thousands of other tasks to be carried out, he said, listing everything from building the reservation system to creating training manuals; from interviewing vendors to detailing what will be needed in the warehouse.

“It’s a pretty incredible undertaking, and we’ve got a great team in place to carry it out,” noted Mathis, adding that this team will has borrowed heavily from the playbook created by another MGM casino that opened just over a year ago, National Harbor in Maryland.

“I don’t envy anyone that’s doing one of these as a one-off,” he told BusinessWest. “National Harbor is one of the most successful operations in the country, and we’ve taken their best practices, as well as lessons learned, and incorporated them into this project.”

Teaming with Excitement

Meanwhile, MGM Springfield will provide the playbook for the next MGM project, whenever it moves off the drawing board, said Mathis.

“Each time, the process gets better,” he noted. “One day, there will be a perfect opening; unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be it. But with each one of these, you get a little closer to that standard.”

A perfect opening might be beyond the reach of Mathis’ executive team, but it will likely move the bar higher. In the meantime, by most accounts, it is already setting a higher standard for diversity.

It’s been an intriguing team-building exercise in every sense of that phrase.

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

Class of 2018 Cover Story Difference Makers

difference-makers-logoBack in late 2008, the management team at BusinessWest conceived a new recognition program.

It was called Difference Makers because this would be a trait shared by those who would be honored — they were all making a difference in the community. The goal was, and is, to show the many ways in which an individual or group can make a difference, and suffice to say this goal has been met.

And the class of 2018, the program’s 10th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories below show.

This year’s sponsors are Health New England, Royal, P.C., and Sunshine Village.

The six members of the Class of 2018 will be honored on Thursday, March 22 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. For information about that event, sponsorship opportunities, or to purchase tickets, go HERE or call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.

Photography by Leah Martin Photography

 

005_bolducbob-diff2017Community Pride

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Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur

T-Birds’ Owners and Managers Continue to Push the Envelope

Front row, from left,

Front row, from left, Dante Fontana, Nathan Costa, Frank Colaccino, and Brian Fitzgerald; second row, from left, Paul Picknelly, Dinesh Patel, Chris Bignell, Chris Thompson, Sean Murphy, Francis Cataldo; third row, from left, Derek Salema, Peter Martins, Jerry Gagliarducci, John Joe Williams, Vidhyadhar Mitta, and James Garvey.

An Exercise in Teamwork

Back in the spring of 2016, a consortium of owners came together, bought the Portland Pirates AHL franchise, and relocated it to Springfield. It was said that this group brought hockey back to the City of Homes 10 days after it left. In reality, though, it has brought much more, including excitement, energy, innovation, and vibrancy — along with hockey. For doing all that, the team of owners and managers has been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2017.

If you go on eBay this morning, you can buy a bobblehead featuring Red Sox slugger David Ortiz wearing sunglasses and a Springfield Thunderbirds jersey. List price: $59.99.

But while you can buy it now, you can’t get it for at least a month or so.

That’s because no one actually has one to send to you. These items won’t be distributed until the Feb. 17 Thunderbirds game against the Providence Bruins.

The fact that this bobblehead is already for sale online demonstrates many things — from the incredible popularity of Big Papi to the awesome power of capitalism at work (60 balloons for a bobblehead?).

But it demonstrates something else as well: Just how far hockey has come in Springfield in 20 short months. Indeed, in the late spring of 2016, there was no hockey in Springfield. Well, there was no American Hockey League franchise, anyway.

Red Sox legend David Ortiz

Red Sox legend David Ortiz belts a foam baseball into the crowd during the game on Nov. 11. His appearance in Springfield represents just one example of the outside-the-box thinking that defines the new ownership and management team.

The Falcons, who had been playing at the MassMutual Center for more than 20 years, had pulled up stakes and were heading to Arizona. Into this void stepped what would become, by AHL standards (or any standards, for that matter), a huge ownership group of 28 that brought professional hockey back to Springfield.

Only, all 28 of them would be put off by that last phrase to some extent.

Indeed, they would prefer to say that hockey is just one of the things they’ve brought to the City of Homes. They’ve also brought imagination and entrepreneurship; Star Wars Night and $3 Coors Light draughts on Friday night; free parking in the Civic Center Garage (actually, it’s back by very popular demand) and … David Ortiz bobbleheads.

Evidence of all this was in abundance on Jan. 6, a frigid Saturday night when the wind chill was well below zero, representing a microcosm of what the team has accomplished and what it has become.

This was Blast from the Past Night, with the team donning Springfield Indians jerseys from the early ’90s for a tilt against the Providence Bruins. The night became a mix of nostalgia, high energy, and record sales at the merchandise shop.

“It was 6 below zero, and we had more than 6,000 people in this arena,” said Paul Picknelly, president of Monarch Enterprises and managing partner among the owners. “We sold out the place with families that are coming to downtown Springfield, feeling comfortable bringing their families downtown for professional sports.

“It’s not just about hockey,” he went on. “The previous owners’ mindset was ‘we have hockey in Springfield.’ What we’re saying is that we have something different that we’re offering the community.”

For bringing this family entertainment, this ‘something different,’ as well as much-needed vibrancy and even validity to downtown Springfield, the Thunderbirds team — not the one on the ice (although it is also a big part of the story), but rather the ownership and management team — has been selected by the leaders at BusinessWest as the recipients of the magazine’s Top Entrepreneur Award for 2017.

Several of the team’s owners and managers

Several of the team’s owners and managers gather on the ice in a host of jerseys worn by the team over the past season and a half. The ownership group is large (28 individuals and groups) but very engaged.

This group was chosen among a host of other intriguing candidates for many reasons, but especially the manner in which it has changed the landscape since that headline announcing that the Falcons were flying southwest — and we don’t mean the airline.

There is considerably more energy downtown on 36 game days and nights (there are actually a few morning contests as well, as we’ll see) between October and April, and maybe beyond.

But that’s just part of the story. Indeed, the T-Birds are a year-long phenomenon and a region-wide resource as well, thanks to an omni-present mascot and a management team laser-focused on keeping the team top of mind, even in the middle of summer.

The phrase ‘weaving our way into the fabric of the community’ was uttered by more than a few of the owners we spoke with recently, and this is exactly what the team has done.

For their ability to do that, and especially for their efforts to bring not only hockey but much more back to Springfield, the ownership and management team is truly worthy of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur honor.

Owning the Solution

They sound like characters on one of those Saturday morning cartoon shows.

But ‘Boomer’ and ‘Squeaky’ are real — well, sort of. They are the mascots, respectively, for the Thunderbirds and Balise Motors’ growing stable of car washes in Western Mass.

They appear together sometimes, and increasingly, and these joint appearances are just one example of the many ways in which the 28 owners of the Thunderbirds — Jeb Balise, a principal with the family-owned Balise corporation, is one of them — are involved and invested in the team and its success in Springfield and across the region.

Other examples abound, from construction company owner Dave Fontaine putting banners for the team at his construction sites, to Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners Peter Martins and Derek Salema running promotions at their stores (more on one of those later); from employees at Red Rose Pizza wearing T-Birds jerseys on game nights (principal Anthony Caputo is one of the owners) to Picknelly, a local partner with MGM Springfield, convincing that corporation to not only be a sponsor of the T-Birds, but to actively help market it after the casino opens this fall.

It happened very quickly, and the reason it did, and the reason everyone got involved from the ownership standpoint, is because everyone loves Springfield. We have diverse backgrounds, but we all love Springfield, and it’s an easy ask when you ask someone to invest in it.”

Indeed, just before a slot machine pays out to a winner, a screen will pop up asking the lucky player if he or she would like to buy a ticket to a Thunderbirds game, said Picknelly, adding that this is one of many ways the casino will help promote the team.

Collectively, these initiatives, and this involvement, speak to how unified these owners are in their desire to secure a long, prosperous future for this franchise. They have different businesses and different backgrounds — and many of them didn’t know much about hockey when they were approached about this venture — but they understood the importance of the team to the city, especially at that critical time in its history.

Indeed, using different words and phrases, the owners we spoke with said that the spring of 2016, when they all came together in this enterprise, was not the time (if there really ever is a good time) for Springfield to be without a hockey team.

Elaborating, they said that, with MGM coming in the fall of 2018, Union Station set to open soon, greater vibrancy downtown, and a general sense of optimism, the city needed to maintain momentum, not lose any.

So when Picknelly called and asked them to be part of a growing consortium of owners, they found it easy to say ‘yes.’

“I remember getting the call from Paul on a Friday afternoon; he said, ‘did you see the paper today?’” said Fran Cataldo, a principal with C&W Realty, referring to the day the Falcons’ owners announced they were selling the team to the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes. “I said, ‘yeah, I did.’ And he said, ‘it’s not going to happen; we’re going to keep hockey here.’

“And in the course of 72 hours, we identified a team, negotiated a purchase-and-sale agreement, and made a deposit on the team,” he went on. “It happened very quickly, and the reason it did, and the reason everyone got involved from the ownership standpoint, is because everyone loves Springfield. We have diverse backgrounds, but we all love Springfield, and it’s an easy ask when you ask someone to invest in it.”

Thunderbirds players wore replica Indians jerseys

Thunderbirds players wore replica Indians jerseys on Blast from the Past Night on Jan. 6, an event that became a microcosm of the team’s efforts to create energy and an experience at the MassMutual Center.

Cataldo, a long-time friend of Picknelly’s, said he’s worked with him on a number of initiatives that fall into the broad categories of economic development and improving the public perception of Springfield. And the purchase of the Thunderbirds fell into both categories, so be called it a “natural,” especially in the context of the question everyone was asking 21 months ago: ‘what if we lost hockey?’

“It’s more than losing hockey,” he said, answering the question himself. “You’re losing 4,000 or 5,000 people 30-plus nights a year downtown. They’re bringing their families downtown, they’re parking, they’re eating, they’re going out afterward; it’s a huge, huge economic engine for Springfield.

Frank Colaccino, CEO of the Colvest Group, who admits that he didn’t know a red line from a blue line when Picknelly called him, tells a similar story.

“He called me and said, ‘we’ve got to move quick; we need the support of people who work in Springfield and care about Springfield,’” he recalled. “I think it took me all of about five minutes to say, ‘Paul, do you think we’ll get our money back?’ He said, ‘yeah, I think we will,’ and I was in.”

Collectively, the ownership team being assembled needed to raise $5.5 million for the down payment on the team, and as it went about doing so, it focused on keeping the group local and committed to the region.

It even turned down more than $1 million from a New York investor that wanted in, but also wanted some controls in exchange for its investment.

“We all sat around this table and said, ‘we don’t want that,’” said Colaccino. “The person’s not from the area, doesn’t care about the area, and we decided we didn’t want to give up some of those controls. And it took some guts to walk away from that and say, ‘we’re going to raise this money.’”

In the span of about 10 days, Springfield lost hockey and got it back, but the act of buying the Portland (Maine) Pirates and bringing them to Springfield would be only the first expression of entrepreneurship with this franchise.

Net Results

The second, whether the ownership team realized it at the time or not (and they probably did), was hiring Springfield native Nate Costa to lead this venture.

Costa had most recently been working in the American Hockey League office in its Business Services Department, but he also had extensive experience in the field, if you will, working for the league’s San Antonio Rampage.

He arrived in Springfield with what he called a “blueprint” — one that called for not just hockey, but affordable family entertainment — but also with his hands full.

Indeed, the team didn’t have a name at that point, or colors, a uniform design, or even a lease with the MassMutual Center. All that got done, and Costa set about putting to work the lessons he learned in San Antonio, but also from watching some of the league’s most successful franchises.

From the outset, he said the focus has been on providing an experience, not just three periods of hockey, and also on making the team visible and active within the community. Doing those things requires a real commitment from ownership and the requisite resources to get the job done properly, something the previous ownership didn’t provide.

Chris Thompson, the Thunderbirds’ senior vice president of Sales & Strategy, who has worked with the team for nearly a decade and for three different ownership groups, described the difference between then and now.

“It’s a breath of fresh air having the support of the local investment group to give us the resources to be able to go out there and tell the story,” he explained. “We did some cool things with the Falcons back in the day, but we could never tell the story; the biggest difference between then and now is that the local group is fully engaged.”

It is also more entrepreneurial, a word that could be used to describe both ownership and management, said Costa, adding that this has become the team’s mindset largely out of necessity.

Elaborating, he said that, from his vantage point in the AHL offices, he saw what he called missed opportunities in Springfield, especially with regard to ticket sales at all levels, especially group sales and season tickets.

His goal upon taking over the team was to seize those opportunities.

“I put together a plan that I almost had in the back of my mind,” he recalled. “It was really focused on grassroots efforts — beefing up our season-ticket sales, doing more with marketing and on social media, and really taking an entirely fresh look at the franchise.

“I had absolute confidence, if we stuck to our plan when it came to ticket sales and having a sales mindset, that this could work here,” he went on. “And I think we’re starting to see that. It’s taken some time, but year one was a huge success on a number of levels.”

This was made clear by the team’s haul when it comes to year-end awards handed out by the league. The credenza in the conference room is crowded with such plaques, which recognize achievement in areas ranging from group ticket sales to “recovered revenue.”

Costa said those plaques result from a systematic look at all aspects of the operation with an eye toward making changes when they were needed, and that was often the case.

As it was with ticket prices, for example, said Costa, noting that, with the previous administration, all seats were priced the same. The new ownership has introduced price flexibility, dividing the seating bowl into several areas, with different prices for each one.

Another focal point was concessions. Using the team’s relationship with MGM, management was able to negotiate a Friday-night special on concession and beer sales in an effort to get more younger people and families in the arena.

Still another matter was parking, which was a recognized deterrent for many potential fans. So the club negotiated a deal whereby the team would make a payment to the city, enabling patrons to park in the Civic Center Garage for free, a step that brought immediate and lasting results.

“We really tried to take all the things we had heard from the previous couple of years and take them head on and find ways that we could make a tangible impact,” said Costa. “We did this not only for the casual fan, but the season ticket holders; they’re going to reap the biggest benefit from this because they’re coming every night.”

Goal Oriented

As for that aforementioned promotion at Dunkin’ Donuts, one that involved giving away two game tickets with purchases at the drive-up window on a specific day, the mere mention of it brought some wry smiles and looks toward the ceiling among those talking with BusinessWest.

This wasn’t a promotion gone wrong, per se, but one that didn’t go exactly as planned. And this created one of those good problems to have — sort of, but not really.

To make a long story a little shorter, far more people redeemed the tickets for this early-season game than management anticipated, leaving far fewer seats available for walk-up customers, a scenario the team has worked very hard to avoid.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
• 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

“It was the Friday after David Ortiz, so we were topical and people wanted to check us out,” Cataldo recalled. “The redemption, which is typically low for those tickets, was through the roof, and we essentially sold out of our tickets.”

Said Costa, “at the end of the day, we were turning people away at the box office, which you don’t want to do all the time.”

If the Dunkin’ Donuts promotion was something that went wrong — and that’s not the term most would prefer to use in reference to that night — then not much else has for this team.

Indeed, just about everything has gone exceedingly right.

Including the so-called ‘Shoot to Win’ promotion involving one of the team’s newest sponsors, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield.

In case you missed it — and that was almost impossible to do — young Nathan Vila managed to shoot a puck into a hole not much wider than the puck itself from about 150 feet away to win a new Mercedes GLA SUV. But that’s only part of the story.

“It was just before Christmas, and the young man [Nathan] was heading into the service in a few weeks and gave the car to his mother to drive,” said Peter Wirth, a principal with the dealership. “You really couldn’t script it any better.”

There hasn’t been a script, per se, for anything the Thunderbirds and their management team have done since they started scrambling to get the team ready for the start of the 2016-17 season in that hectic summer other than do what entrepreneurs do famously — think outside the box, innovate, invest in the company, and take some calculated risks.

And these are exactly the personality traits that inspired Wirth and his wife, Michelle, to want to be part of what was happening with the Thunderbirds.

“We went to a few games, and they seemed to be doing things the right way … it might as well have been the NHL; they were delivering a really good product,” he said. “They think outside the box, and they create energy and excitement, and we wanted to be part of that.”

And nothing personifies those qualities more than the night David Ortiz came to Springfield.

In case you missed it — and that, too, was almost impossible to do — the Red Sox slugger appeared before and during the Nov. 11 game against the Laval (Quebec) Rocket. He drove an ATV on the ice, signed a ton of autographs, and whacked some foam baseballs into the sellout crowd.

It was a huge success, but it was also a considerable risk given the huge sticker price attached to an appearance from Big Papi. But it was a risk the ownership team was more than willing to accept it.

“That was a huge commitment — those big stars certainly don’t come cheap,” said Colaccino. “But when that idea was presented, everyone around this table said, ‘what a great idea.’ The number being tossed around to get him here was a big one, but not one person said, ‘no, that’s not a good idea.’ Having a baseball guy come to a hockey arena … that’s outside-the-box thinking, and it was hugely successful.”

Costa quantified the matter by saying the team reaped a three-to-one return on that sizable investment thanks to a mix of corporate sponsorships, additional ticket revenue, a VIP event, merchandise, and special Red Sox-themed team jerseys made possible through the team’s relationship with MGM. Elaborating, he called the Ortiz night not only a microcosm of that blueprint mentioned earlier, but an example of his mindset when it comes to the team and its ownership.

“From day one, I’ve looked at this as a business venture because they’ve put their trust in me to make this work from a business perspective, and I’ve never lost sight of that,” he explained. “So when I presented the Ortiz piece, it wasn’t ‘give me what I need to get him,’ it was ‘here’s what it’s going to do for us, here’s what the return is going to be, here’s what it’s going to do for the community and the Thunderbirds name in general.’

“And coming from the American Hockey League and seeing what other AHL franchises need to do in a market like Springfield … it’s very entrepreneurial,” he went on. “It’s grassroots; it’s rolling up sleeves and doing the dirty work.”

Knowing the Score

Meanwhile, Costa said the Ortiz night was a very needed step to raise the bar in the team’s critical second year.

Indeed, calling on his extensive experience in the league, he said it’s not uncommon for a team to do well in its first year as it brings something new and different to a region. It’s also common for teams to struggle in their efforts to maintain that momentum.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge in year two to continue that momentum moving forward, and I knew we needed something special,” he said, referring to the Ortiz promotion but also a full year’s worth of events.

The Thunderbirds sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice

The Thunderbirds sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice at the Jan. 6 game, thanks to Snoop Dogg, his Indians jersey, and effective use of social media.

While Ortiz’s appearance in Springfield has probably been the high-water mark for this franchise, there have been plenty of other examples of outside-the-box thinking, risk taking, and, overall, an entrepreneurial mindset.

All those were on display on Blast from the Past Night, which highlighted the team’s success not only in creating an experience on the ice and in the arena, but in fully capitalizing on the awesome forces of social media.

In this case, the team put Snoop Dogg to work — or, more specifically, the Springfield Indians jersey he famously wore in the video for his song “Gin and Juice” — in its promotions for Blast from the Past Night. It was a natural tie-in to the evening’s festivities and inspiration for a $5 gin and juice special sold at the MassMutual Center that night.

“We sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice,” said Picknelly, noting that he and his son split one that night.

And then, there was Hockey Week in Springfield, staged in the middle of this month in an effort to bring people out during a difficult time of year and a few difficult days of the week.

The week started with a 1:05 p.m. tilt against the Hartford Wolf Pack on Martin Luther King Day. Youngsters were admitted to end zone seats for $5.55 courtesy of Friendly’s. The week continued with a Wednesday contest (those dates are always challenging) against one of the league’s most iconic franchises, the Hershey Bears. If the T-Birds won (and they did), then patrons’ ticket stubs would be good for the Feb. 7 game (yes, another Wednesday).

The week wrapped up with a Friday-night tilt against the Binghampton (New York) Devils, or a ‘3-2-1 Friday,’ as they’re called because a Coors Light, as noted, is $3, a hot dog is $2, and sodas are $1.

The unofficial goal moving forward, said Costa, with several owners nodding their head in agreement, is to make what happened on the night of that Dunkin’ Donuts promotion the norm.

Well, not exactly what happened that night, but the part about a game being sold out and patrons not to expect to be able to walk up to the ticket window a few moments before a game starts and buy some tickets.

“People are used to just walking up on game night and buying a ticket and getting a great seat,” Costa explained. “It’s not necessarily the case anymore, and from the beginning, that’s what we set out to do.

“What we’re trying to manufacture is urgency,” he went on. “That was the biggest thing we didn’t have coming into this. There was no urgency to buy tickets, no urgency to buy season tickets, no urgency to buy tickets early; we’ve tried to lay the foundation to change that — to create a sense of urgency.”

From all accounts, the team’s owners and managers are well on their way to doing just that.

Bottom Line

As he talked about the ownership group that he reports to, Costa acknowledged that 28 is a big number and one that most people would see as ungainly and something of a disadvantage.

He says this group is anything but that.

That’s because it’s not only large, but also visible on game nights and, most importantly, fully invested in the team, in every sense of that word.

“It’s been a huge benefit, and we couldn’t do what we do without it,” he said of the large group of owners. “We lean on them for support within the local community.”

Support comes in many forms — from getting much-needed introductions to exercising connections such as those needed to secure those Red Sox-themed jerseys for David Ortiz night, to bringing people to the MassMutual Center, as that Dunkin’ Donuts promotion did.

All that support has resulted in a changed landscape — where sometimes one can’t get a ticket on game night, and, yes, where David Ortiz bobbleheads are for sale on eBay two months before they’re actually handed out.

It’s a story of determination. A story of teamwork. But mostly, it’s a story of old-fashioned entrepreneurship.


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

Cover Story Sales and Marketing Sections

Getting the Message

bwcovermegaphone

Marketing was never an example of a simple exercise, but in today’s multi-media landscape, it is even less so. To help business owners and managers with this critical assignment, BusinessWest asked four area marketing firms to discuss the art and science of getting one’s message across in today’s world. Slicing through their commentary, one point becomes clear: it’s at least as important to focus on the message as it is on the vehicles used to deliver it.

 

It’s All About Storytelling

By Darby O’Brien
Focus more on the message and less on the delivery system   More …

The Name of the Game

By Michelle Abdow
Get their attention, and you needn’t worry about attention span   More …

By Any Measure

By Meghan Lynch
To boost profits, appeal to the heart, not the head   More …

Rock Relevance

By John Garvey
In this age, a relevant message is everything   More …

Cover Story Employment Sections

Paws for Effect

Lauren Mendoza

Lauren Mendoza gets plenty of work done at Inspired Marketing, at least after Finn gives her mouse back.

To some employers, the very idea of having employees’ dogs roaming about the office every day seems absurd. How would anyone get any work done? Would they pester clients and other visitors? But many area businesses that welcome pets into the company culture say the benefits — reduced stress and a sense of lightness and fun leading to more productivity, not less — definitely outweigh any drawbacks.

Maxwell Vondogenburgen (Max for short) came into Jill Monson-Bishop’s life around the time she launched her company, Inspired Marketing, in 2009.

Right from the start, neglecting one for the other was out of the question.

“Since I got Max, we’ve had a dog culture here,” Monson-Bishop said, while Max came sniffing around to check out the reporter visiting the company’s Maple Street office in Springfield. “It was almost necessary because some of the staff have dogs, and I want them to give me their all; I want them to be present and be here, and it helps from a logistical standpoint for the dog parents not to worry about running home at lunch or getting home before 5 to let them out.”

When you’re stressed, there’s nothing like being able to sit on the floor and have this unfiltered love of a dog. He doesn’t judge your deadline or your creative work. A dog just licks you, and everything else just melts away.”

But the benefits extend far beyond that, she added.

“It grew into what the dogs did for us. When you’re stressed, there’s nothing like being able to sit on the floor and have this unfiltered love of a dog. He doesn’t judge your deadline or your creative work. A dog just licks you, and everything else just melts away. Everyone thinks creatives are super fun, and obviously, we have fun, but there are elements of stress to our jobs, too. And dogs are great for that.”

Max’s title on the Inspired Marketing website is ‘employee satisfaction manager,’ which implies a broad set of responsibilities for someone getting paid in food, treats, and ear scratches. He’s joined in the office by two other mixed breeds: Monson-Bishop’s second dog, Vinnie — the ‘customer experience associate’ — and Finn, the firm’s ‘siesta manager,’ who belongs to Operations Manager Lauren Mendoza. Other dogs have come and gone over the years as well.

Deb O’Brien

Deb O’Brien has been bringing Fidelco dogs to work for well over a decade, providing educational opportunities for both the dogs and her fellow TD Bank employees.

As a result, when a client visits, they might be greeted by barking, but the dogs are behind a locked door, so no one gets jumped. Visitors are also asked if they have a problem with dogs before meeting any. “Almost everyone says no,” Monson-Bishop said. “Sometimes, during a meeting, a dog will try to get up on somebody, and we get them down, and most times the person is like, ‘oh no, it’s fine.’ It’s nice — sometimes meetings can be intense, and when we introduce a dog, it lightens the mood and can help us be more creative.”

Meghan Lynch didn’t have a dog when her advertising agency, Six-Point Creative, was getting off the ground, and one of the key considerations when adopting one was not having to leave the pet at home. “To me, there was no point in having a dog and bonding with him and then leaving him home alone for eight to 10 hours a day.”

So she talked to her partners about accommodating a dog at work, and everyone was willing to give it a shot. Five and a half years later, Dexter is a fixture in the office on Hampden Street in downtown Springfield. Meanwhile, he’s joined some of the time by Quincy and Goose, the fur babies of Senior Director Scott Whitney and Senior Designer Meghan Mason.

“It’s worked out really well, and it’s good for socialization because he’s coming into contact with different people all day long,” Lynch said. “Getting used to all the people coming in and out, and me going in and out, has made him a calmer, happier dog.”

And the feeling is reciprocal.

“From our standpoint, it means a lot having him around, especially if I’m having a tough day,” she said. “And for new employees, it’s a signal that we value work-life balance. We understand that you only have one life — you don’t have a work life and a home life; you have a life.”

When Blair Winans launched Rhyme Digital in 2011, he searched for a workspace that allows dogs, before finding one at Eastworks in Easthampton. When the digital-marketing company needed more space, he moved to an available building on Route 10 and brought the canine crew — four were in the office the day BusinessWest visited — with him.

“For me, it was the convenience of not leaving my dog at home, having to check on him, going back and forth. I had never worked in an environment that would have dogs at the office, but as employees came on here, I said, ‘my dogs are here; feel free to bring your dogs.’”

That’s why Winans’ lab, Butters, and pug, Flora, get to hang out with Design Master Ian Reed’s husky mix, Maggie, and Marketing Analyst Dan Taylor’s Aussie puppy, Ellie, instead of sitting quietly at home.

“I feel they supply so much comic relief,” Winans said. “When we’re in a meeting and Butters is trying to be the center of attention and barking at something going on outside the door, it’s just part of the environment here.

“And our clients get it,” he went on. “When I’m on a conference call and a dog is barking in the background, they ask, ‘which one is that?’ No matter how stressful things are, when these guys are begging for attention and trying to make you laugh, that’s an extension of what we want as a company culture. Our employees are part of a business, but they’re also part of a family.”

Tails to Tell

Businesses that are opening their arms to that concept of family and dog culture are a growing breed (pun intended). The Society for Human Resource Management’s Employee Benefits survey in 2015 found that 8% of respondents reported that their workplaces permitted pets, an increase from 5% in 2013.

A report published this year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health cited a recent study on the effects of dogs in the workplace on stress and well-being. In the study, employees who did and did not bring dogs to work completed a perceived stress survey several times throughout the workday. Employees who did not bring dogs to work had significantly higher perceived stress than employees who did. To assess differences in stress, employees who brought their dogs to work were instructed to leave them at home two days a week during the one-week study period. On days when employees in the dog group did not bring their dogs to work, their stress levels increased throughout the day, matching the pattern of employees who never brought dogs to work.

Lynch is a believer in that effect, but conceded that the dogs themselves need to get along — which, in her office’s case, they do. “There’s never been a problem. They all have beds with their person, so they interact for a while, then go back and lie down in their people’s offices, then they might come back again and play a little later in the day.”

Meghan Lynch

Meghan Lynch wasn’t going to adopt a dog if she couldn’t bring him to work with her.

She noted, however, that not every dog has the temperament for an office environment, and Whitney leaves his second dog home for that reason.

“You have to know your dogs, and which one would thrive in the office and which wouldn’t. It has to be the right dog fit. We’re not running a kennel here,” she told BusinessWest. “At the same time, they learn very quickly and pick up on each other’s behavior.”

For some dogs in the workplace, learning is the whole idea. Deb O’Brien trains German shepherds to be Fidelco service dogs for the blind; the puppies stay with her for 18 months, then it’s back to Fidelco in Connecticut for “college work,” learning seeing-eye and guide-dog skills.

“While we have them, our job is to raise them with basic obedience, manners, and tons of exposure to everything, so when they go into training and learning job skills, they’re already well-adjusted, well-behaved, and socialized in every social situation,” she explained.

That’s why O’Brien can be seen bringing a pup named Ray to work at TD Bank in downtown Springfield, where she is the commercial regional operations director, to get him used to the office environment, a wide variety of people, traveling on elevators, and all the outdoor distractions of a downtown city setting.

The main goal is socialization, but when she puts his Fidelco vest on, that’s behavioral-training time, and the dog quickly learns the difference, she noted. “Most of my challenge is telling people they can’t pet him right then.”

That said, fellow employees and others who work in the TD Bank building on Main Street have gotten a good education about Fidelco dogs, and about general etiquette on how to approach an animal in a public situation (always ask before petting, for starters).

“We’re not just training dogs; we’re training people,” she said. “There’s a difference between having a dog in the office for love, attention, and therapy, and being here to learn. But while you’re educating people, it’s also an opportunity to train your dog. They’re both learning.”

City life brings plenty of opportunities for training service dogs, from learning to relieve themselves on a hard surface where grassy areas aren’t plentiful to developing a comfort level around noisy buses, foot traffic, and other stimuli they might run into someday during their service career. But the socialization is critical, too.

“We all get something out of it,” she said. “I’ve seen people having a bad day, and they come into my office, and the minute we take the vest off, you see them de-stress.”

O’Brien began training Fidelco dogs after hearing an ad on the radio, and has now trained eight such animals, counting her latest companion. The hardest part, she said, is letting go.

“When it came time to return the first one, my heart got ripped out,” she recalled. “Seven dogs in, I’m better. But I see them with clients, and I see them working and doing what they’re intended to do. It becomes easier if I tell myself, ‘now they’ve got to go to college and get a job.’”

Pet Projects

As for humans that are supposed to be working, Monson-Bishop said some employers might feel welcoming dogs will just lead to staffers sitting around playing with their furry friends. But Inspired Marketing hasn’t seen that kind of loss in productivity. On the plus side, someone may walk their dog during lunch, which gets them out of the building, which is a healthy thing. “I’d like to see more dogs interacting in downtown Springfield.”

Of course, a building’s owner has to be OK with dogs as well, and Monson-Bishop said her landlord has been more than accommodating. “Other office buildings might not permit dogs, but we’re lucky.”

Rhyme Digital’s official ambassadors

From left, Butters, Maggie, Flora, and Ellie — on a break from their duties as Rhyme Digital’s official ambassadors — wait for a treat from Dan Taylor.

So are Max, Vinnie, and Finn, she added. “Statistics say socialization helps dogs live longer, and if we can give that to them here, it’s better for their well-being — with the caveat that this is not for all dogs. Not everyone should bring their dog to work. A very rambunctious dog could be very disruptive. They all have their individual personalities, and some wouldn’t thrive at work, and you wouldn’t put a child in a situation where they wouldn’t thrive.”

Lynch agreed that introducing canines into the office has not been a distraction or a drain on productivity.

“They all get into the routine of the day, and it’s a huge help not to run home to let them out, or pay for a dog sitter. And it’s a benefit for the people who don’t have dogs, because they get to be around a dog without having to feed or walk it.”

Winans reiterated that there’s a lightness, even a silliness, that dogs introduce to often-intense work, and that’s a healthy thing.

“We’re serious about everything we do, no question about that,” he said. “It’s more like, how can you feel stressed when you turn around and there’s Butters lying upside down, or having a meeting and these guys are having a wrestling match under the table? What we’re trying to do here is build an environment where people are able to get their work done and have some fun, and feel like they can bring their dogs, part of their family, into the office.”

In short, the benefits outweigh the distractions. “I feel like they’re happier, and the employees are happier,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s not to say they’re not annoying sometimes when you’re on a conference call and something interesting is happening by the front door and they can’t stop barking. But, at the same time, that’s just who we are.”

Like the others we spoke with, the team at Rhyme makes sure everyone who comes in — for client meetings or job interviews — is comfortable being around dogs. “There are some people who aren’t, so we corral the dogs and keep them away.”

But most people expect to be welcomed, and look forward to it, said Winans, who called his furry friends “official ambassadors” for the company. “I can’t imagine them not being here. The times when there are no dogs in the office, it is rare, and it feels like something’s missing.”

Lynch takes the same approach to office visitors. “Our dogs are part of the family and the culture here, and it’s something we tell people about in advance. Some clients may have a dog phobia or may be allergic, in which case I schedule meetings elsewhere.

“Overall, it’s a really positive experience,” she went on. “Some people specifically schedule meetings in order to see Dexter or see Quincy. Some of them bring treats and presents; they love them as much as we do.”

Monson-Bishop goes even further, claiming that dogs in the office are doing their small part to make the world a better place.

“It’s a family-based culture here,” she said, “and dogs unify us. At a time when the world is a little more tumultuous than usual, dogs bring humans together, and that feels good.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Economic Outlook Sections

Experts Don’t Foresee Any Rocking of the Economic Boat

economicoutlookartMore of the same. That’s what the experts are predicting for this region, and the country as a whole, when it comes to the economy. And by more of the same, they mean growth that is steady if unspectacular — even with tax reform — and few if any signs of what could amount to real trouble. “Another boring year,” was how one economist put it. But for many businesses, boring is more than acceptable.

As a student — and a professor — of economics, Bob Nakosteen fully understands that the region and the nation as a whole are, as they say, due for a recession.

Maybe even overdue.

Indeed, eight and a half years is a long time to be in an expansion, if history and especially 20th-century history is any guide, and that’s about the length of the run the country has been on, said Nakosteen, a long-time educator at UMass Amherst who pegged the summer of 2009 as when the Great Recession ended and the upswing — as unspectacular as it has been, for the most part, in this region — began.

But he quickly noted that there’s no actual relationship between how long a country has been in an expansion and when it’s due for a recession. Time isn’t officially one of the factors that determine such things, he noted, adding that none of the issues and indicators that do are — at this moment, at least — pointing toward recession.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

The issues in the state economy, especially in Western Massachusetts, are not macro-economic nearly as much as they are structurally micro-economic; there are individual sectors that are really struggling.”

“The expansion is old, certainly, but there’s nothing on the horizon to interrupt the expansion,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that a host of factors will shape what course a continued expansion takes. “The issues in the state economy, especially in Western Massachusetts, are not macro-economic nearly as much as they are structurally micro-economic; there are individual sectors that are really struggling.”

Karl Petrick, an economics professor at Western New England University, agreed, and summoned another word for what he’s projecting for at least one more year: boring.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

Trickle-down doesn’t really come to fruition the way people say it will. It’s been promised for decades and decades, but it’s never really happened.”

“Unless you were on Twitter, last year was pretty boring,” he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek while focusing his remarks on what was happening in this region economically. And that was essentially the same thing that’s been happening for the past several years — steady if unspectacular growth that amounts to a few percentage points on average and not the kind of boom times that traditionally follow a recession, especially like the one of almost a decade ago now.

“Even with the tax break, the projections are for the U.S. economy to grow at 2.5% in 2018, and in 2019, 2.1%,” he said. “And if we did see a big increase in growth, it’s very likely that that the Fed will raise interest rates to slow down inflation. The forecast is for another boring year — I hope.”

Indeed, for many in business, boring translates into a decent year, and that’s what Tom Senecal, president of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, said many of his clients — commercial and residential alike — experienced.

He told BusinessWest that the residential real-estate market is enjoying a surge fueled by low inventories, and that many individual sectors are experiencing steady growth. And he expects tax reform to lift most boats still higher.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

Inventory is extremely low in many area communities, and this is having a big impact on prices. We’re going back to seeing sale prices in excess of asking prices, and that hasn’t happened since the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

“With corporate tax rates projected to decrease from 35% to 20%, that will have a significant impact on most businesses,” he went on. “I expect that to be a determining factor in what our local economy will be like in 2018.”

There are other determining factors, obviously, and some areas of concern, both nationally and locally, including persistently stagnant wages.

Despite steady growth in the economy and soaring corporate profits that have fueled a nearly 20% rise on Wall Street this year, wages have remained flat, said Petrick. And he doesn’t believe — despite what leading supporters say — that tax reform will change that equation. And if wages remain stagnant, that might slow the economy down.

“Trickle-down doesn’t really come to fruition the way people say it will,” he explained. “It’s been promised for decades and decades, but it’s never really happened.”

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said the precipitous decline of traditional retail could pose some problems regionally (more on that later), as could a host of other factors ranging from escalating student debt to tighter immigration laws that could keep some foreign students from landing on area college campuses.

But overall, these concerns are not expected to significantly alter the picture or impact those projections for more of what the region has seen over the past several years.

Onward and Upward

“Stable.”

That’s the word Senecal summoned early and often as he talked about the local economy, and it’s another word business owners always like to hear.

He said the region’s economy has historically been fueled by education and healthcare (‘eds and meds’), and that trend continues. And those sectors are, well, stable, to say the least.

“If you think of the spin-off economies in the Western Mass. market, we clearly benefit from those sorts of industries [healthcare and education] that are not recession-proof, but they certainly come through recessionary times much more stable than the rest of the economy,” he said. “And I see this in the numbers from our residential loans and our commercial loans. The stability and continued growth has been there, and we expect it to continue throughout next year.”

Beyond eds and meds, Senecal noted, a number of sectors are doing “pretty well,” as he put it. These include ‘green’ energy businesses, commercial construction (although moreso in the eastern part of the state than this region) and the residential real-estate market, which, as noted earlier, has picked up dramatically over the past few years.

“Inventory is extremely low in many area communities, and this is having a big impact on prices,” he explained. “We’re going back to seeing sale prices in excess of asking prices, and that hasn’t happened since the late ’80s and early ’90s; it’s clearly a seller’s market right now.”

Surveying the scene locally as well as nationally, those we spoke with said there is no indication of anything that will disrupt this stability to any significant degree.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some question marks concerning the year ahead. And perhaps the biggest concerns tax reform and what it will mean.

Petrick and Nakosteen said such reforms — usually measures to be administered during a recession, not an expansion — can’t (or shouldn’t) be expected to trigger the wage hikes and subsequent consumer spending predicted by supporters of the legislation, because … well, because history shows this isn’t what happens, they told BusinessWest.

“Tax cuts really have little effect,” said Nakosteen, “especially when the economy is not in recession and is near full employment.”

Also, early and unofficial polling of business leaders indicates that wage increases for their employees are not in their plans.

“Many big corporations have already said that, whatever tax breaks they get, they’ll use them to buy back stock,” Petrick noted. “That will do wonders for the stock market, but there’s no indication they’ll use that tax break to raise wages.”

But Senecal projected that tax reform might, in fact, provide a real boost for the economy in the form of investments made by business owners.

“Tax reform has a significant impact on corporate spending,” he opined. “I think that, right now, a lot of businesses are waiting and seeing on tax reform to determine how aggressive or reserved businesses are going to be come 2018.”

Economic Indicators

As for other factors that might impact the year ahead, to one degree or another, Petrick put wages, and the stagnancy of same, at the top of that list.

“We see growth, but the foundation for continued growth continues to be a little bit shaky, in terms of wages at the national level and the state level,” he told BusinessWest. “They’re just not growing, even as unemployment comes down.

“And that is a bit of conundrum for us at the state level and the federal level, because that puts more pressure of households, especially with uncertainty with what’s going to happen with the individual mandate and how that might impact insurance rates,” he added. “It also impacts state tax revenue, because if wages don’t go up, the state doesn’t collect more.”

There are many reasons why wages are stagnant, he went on, listing everything from soaring health-insurance costs for employers to the decline of labor unions, to the retirement of Baby Boomers and their replacement by younger workers earning lower salaries. But the bottom line is that, generally, flat wages are not good for the economy.

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said the continued decline of traditional retail would further change the local landscape, and it might impact the economy in some ways.

Giant retailers like Sears, Toys R Us, Kmart, and others are closing stores in huge volumes, leaving malls with large boxes to fill (or not, as the case may be) and worries about their very existence. Meanwhile, many smaller retailers are disappearing from the landscape, for reasons ranging from the intrusion of online shopping to a lack of a succession plan.

All this is creating a number of empty storefronts and a lot of commercial real estate for sale and lease, said Nakosteen, adding that the problem is impacting even the most vibrant of downtowns, including Northampton’s, where tenants are asking, ‘why are lease rates so high if so many storefronts are empty?’

“And that’s a very good question,” he said, adding that the higher rates will impact existing retailers and perhaps dissuade others from coming downtown.

But it’s an issue in nearly every area community.

“There are so many empty storefronts,” Nakosteen went on, “and the retail sector is so important to so many downtown areas.”

Meanwhile, workforce issues might also have an impact on the course and strength of the ongoing expansion, he noted, adding that a lack of qualified workers within some sectors might stifle growth.

“The state, as a whole, has issues with the labor force not growing fast enough to accommodate the economy,” he explained. “And Western Mass. is even worse. We have very slow labor growth here; you can’t grow the economy faster than you can hire people to fill the jobs.”

Interest rates could play a role as well, the experts noted, adding that, if the economy does start heating up, the Fed will likely raise rates to keep it from overheating and sending inflation higher.

“Prime rate effects people’s home-equity loans, and it effects commercial borrowers,” Senecal explained. “And if the Fed increases rates two or three times, and that’s clearly their intent, that could have an impact on spending.”

Bottom Line

‘Stable. ‘Boring.’ ‘Steady.’ Those aren’t exactly headline-generating adjectives when we’re talking about the economy and where it might head in the months to come.

But they represent reality, and for many in this region — which, as has been noted countless times in the past, doesn’t enjoy stunning highs and crippling lows like other regions — those words are welcome, and much better than the alternative.

And if tax reform works, as Senecal and others believe it might, the region just might wind up doing better than ‘more of the same.’

 

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

Cover Story

Brush with Fame

Joe Ventura holds the cleat he made for Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch for the ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program.

Joe Ventura holds the cleat he made for Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch for the ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program.

The word ‘artist’ covers a lot of ground when talking about Joe Ventura. The Ludlow-based entrepreneur is lead singer for what’s considered the leading Bon Jovi tribute band in the country, and he custom airbrushes everything from hockey goalie helmets to cars and motorcycles. His latest canvas has become footwear, as in football cleats through the NFL’s ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program. For Ventura, it’s a foothold, in every aspect of that word, into another business opportunity.

Joe Ventura was clearly proud of the colorful shoe he had just created for New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead as part of the NFL’s ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program.

But he understood that probably the most important touch, and easily the most poignant, would not come via his talented hand.

Indeed, these Nike cleats, size 12½, were to be shipped out to Atkinson, Neb. within a few days. There, they would be signed by Jack Hoffman, a truly inspirational 12-year-old with pediatric brain cancer who developed a special relationship with Burkhead while the latter was toting the rock for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.

That bond remains strong, and Team Jack, an initiative embraced by the Nebraska players to raise money for cancer research, is Burkhead’s choice when it comes to the ‘my cause’ part of the NFL’s popular new program, to be celebrated during the full slate of games set for the first week of December.

As for the cleats part, well, Ventura, a Ludlow-based artist, came to the attention of the Patriots, and eventually Burkhead, in a roundabout way we’ll get to in a minute. Joe V, as he’s known to friends and those who get a close-up look at his work — that’s how he signs his creations — is now working on cleats for a few representatives of the team.

The cleat bound for Rex Burkhead’s locker will first be sent to Nebraska to be signed by the inspirational Jack Hoffman.

The cleat bound for Rex Burkhead’s locker will first be sent to Nebraska to be signed by the inspirational Jack Hoffman.

For Burkhead, he fashioned cleats that feature the words ‘Team Jack,’ a silhouette of the running back with Hoffman, and images of the boy from today and roughly four and half years ago, when, while wearing Burkhead’s number 22, he entered a Nebraska spring game and ran 69 yards for a touchdown.

For defensive lineman Alan Branch, who wears a size-16 shoe, Ventura had a little more real estate to work with, and took full advantage of it, fashioning a likeness of one of Branch’s daughters upon one of the cartoon characters used to promote his cause, FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education).

The cleats represent a new entrepreneurial and artistic beachhead for Ventura, who already had several — both on his résumé and on display in the workshop behind his Ludlow home. In addition to being lead singer for a Bon Jovi tribute band called Bon Jersey (yes, a guy nicknamed Joe V plays in a Bon Jovi tribute band), he is also an amateur dirt-bike racer and artist specializing in custom airbrush painting of everything from hockey goalie helmets to motorcycles to a few cars (including a Ford Mustang for one of the Patriots).

“I’ll paint … just about anything that can be painted,” he said, while scrolling through his phone for the photo of that Mustang, now featuring the famous Patriots logo. “I’m always looking for new opportunities, new things I can do.”

And while he’s certainly not limiting his sights to sports, he has always looked upon that realm as a fairly recession-proof niche for his venture.

“When I started this business, the first thing I thought of was, ‘what can I do if the market crashes so I can still do my job?’” he recalled. “The answer was sports.”

When asked what was in the business plan for Joe V Designs, Ventura gave a shrug of his shoulders as if to indicate that he wasn’t sure, exactly. But he hinted broadly that there would be more of everything already in the portfolio, and hopefully some new wrinkles.

That includes work for MGM Springfield, which is in talks with Ventura to create some murals for the $950 million casino set to open in less than a year. He has already fashioned a preliminary work — a scene, circa 1931, that depicts three Springfield motorcycle police officers with the entrance to the Indian Motocycle manufacturing facility in Mason Square in the background.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Ventura about his many forms of artistic expression — and entrepreneurial spirit — and about what might come next as he continues to fill in the canvas of an already-colorful career.

Signature Works

The orange Nike box declared that the sneakers inside were size 10, and the model was the Air Zoom Vomero 12.

The name on the shoebox tells a big part of the story

The name on the shoebox tells a big part of the story of how Joe Ventura is finding new opportunities to fill in the canvas of an already-colorful career.

But the two words typed on white tape across the side told the real story: Bill Belichick.

Indeed, the legendary coach is the third Patriots representative to engage Ventura in creating some shoes for ‘My Cleats, My Cause,’ only Belichick’s aren’t exactly cleats.

And Ventura wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing with those sneakers when he talked with BusinessWest much earlier this month. He was awaiting further instruction, as they say, and not from the coach himself.

“Bill wants a sketch of the shoe before I do it … he’s a little busy; it would be hard for him to stop what he’s doing to talk about a shoe,” deadpanned Ventura, adding that all he knew at that point was that he would be fashioning something that conveyed the Bill Belichick Foundation (BBF), which strives to provide coaching, mentorship, and financial support to individuals, communities, and organizations, and focuses on football and lacrosse.

And while Ventura is honored to be a client of the only coach to win five Super Bowls, and he did quickly put a picture of that Nike box with Belichick’s name on it up on his Facebook page, he doesn’t exactly get star-struck.

That’s because he’s worked with quite a few lights over the years. These are names that most casual sports fans might not know, but they are stars in their own galaxies nonetheless.

Like Jonathon Quick, goaltender for the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, for whom Ventura has designed a number of masks. And Dwayne Roloson, a long-time NHL netminder who played for a host of teams. And John Muse, who played his college hockey at Boston College and now patrols the net for Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League.

Even less well-known are some of the dirt-bike stars for whom he’s created helmets. That list includes John Dowd, the former professional motocross racer from Chicopee also known as the ‘Junk Yard Dog’; Dowd’s son, Ryan; Robby Marshall; and many others.

Ventura creates several hundred hockey-goalie masks each year, including those for most major college programs — he’s one of only seven certified Bauer painters in the country — and he’s done a great deal of work in the motor-sports helmet realm as well.

And then, there are the Indian motorcycles, now made in Indiana, that he will custom-paint for clients.

“I’m all around, everywhere,” he said of both his work and where it ends up. “The hockey masks go all around the world, and I’ve handled all the custom work from Indian pretty much since they opened.”

Still, it was his other career, more than a quarter-century as lead singer for Bon Jersey, that ultimately paved the way for his work with ‘My Cleats, My Cause.’

“One of my fans from the band is Brad Berlin, the equipment manager for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,” he recalled. “He was so into our music and what we did that he forgot what I did for a living. When they started ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ last year, they were frantic in Tampa trying to find artists; they had to go to California, one guy went to Maryland…

“Then, he remembered what I did for a living, and he sent me two sets of cleats that he wanted me to mock up, one for Tampa and one for New England,” he went on, adding that his mockup for the Pats — one that featured the team’s logo on a shoe that appeared to be made out of steel — obviously turned some heads.

Because, when Ventura went to the Patriots game against the Bucaneers in Tampa on Oct. 5, he got a sideline pass, met some players, and made some connections that turned into assignments.

He garnered the three mentioned above, plus defensive lineman Lawrence Guy and some of the team’s equipment personnel, and may get another for Brian Hoyer, the former Patriots quarterback now back with the team after the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. Also, he’s the unofficial go-to artist for anyone on the team who doesn’t have an artist.

Meanwhile, his contact information somehow got sent to the Buffalo Bills and, eventually, their equipment manager, who asked Ventura to create a few sets of cleats for their quarterback, Tyrod Taylor.

“From what the equipment manager told me, he took one look at them and said, basically, ‘I want this guy,’” said Ventura, adding that he’s awaiting some instructions from the player on what he’s looking for.

Different Strokes

Ventura likes to say that he lives in his backyard.

While that’s an exaggeration, it’s not far from the truth.

Indeed, the artist — that’s a phrase that covers a lot of territory, to be sure — spends large chunks of each day in a studio that can’t be seen from the street, provides no hint of the work going on inside, and is nondescript in almost every way. Except maybe when there’s a Nike box with Bill Belichick’s name on it on the work desk.

But it’s home — again, not literally, but for his growing business. And Ventura likes everything about it, especially the fact that no one knows it’s there.

“If I had a fancy storefront, I’d never get anything done,” he said, he said with a smile, noting that he doesn’t put an address on his colorful (what else would it be?) business card.

“There’s a phone number on there … if they want to find me, they can call me,” he said, adding that many people have, as evidenced by that deep and still-growing portfolio of work.

On the day BusinessWest visited, Ventura was referencing the recently completed left cleat bound for Nebraska, Jack Hoffman’s house, and, eventually, Burkhead’s locker.

This is the one with the image of a younger Hoffman, from when he was 7 or 8 years old. On the work bench was a photograph of the confident-looking 12-year-old, to be transferred onto the right cleat, which at that moment sported its basic white and black from the factory, with tape covering the cleats as Ventura prepared to go to work on it.

As he talked about Burkhead’s cleats, Ventura said that, like almost everything he does, this specific project is customized, and it tells a story — actually, several of them.

The first is the story the client wishes to tell, be it a reference to a nonprofit or something important enough to them to be painted on the chassis of a motorcycle. But there’s also Ventura’s story — specifically his attention to detail and desire to go above and beyond for the client.

Like with Burkhead. While what Ventura has done with the cleats is certainly creative and inspirational, the artist knew the crowning touch had to be a signature from Jack Hoffman.

And so he made those arrangements, with the signing to be videotaped and sent to Burkhead.

He also came up with the other design elements with little, if any, instruction beyond creating something that told the story of Team Jack.

“I had to do some research on it, and then my mind just starts to flow, and I come up with these ideas on how to do things,” he said, while giving ample credit to his partner, Jeff Ottomaniello, whom Ventura says he’s been training for the past 15 years.

The artist’s mindset came through when he was asked how long it took to create a cleat like the one bound for Nebraska.

“When you’re doing a portrait like that for a cleat, which is highly impossible, it could take a day to do that one cleat,” he explained. “But I don’t like to talk about how long it takes, because it’s not how much time it takes, it’s being able to create that image; it’s more of the passion of being able to do it.”

Where this passion will take him in the future is a question without a clear answer. Like the famous coach he’s creating shoes for, Ventura doesn’t get very emotional — or very detailed — when he talks about what comes next.

He didn’t say “on to Cincinnati,” but implied that it was on to whatever work his current portfolio — or even his work with Bon Jersey — might inspire.

“My favorite sport is football, and for me to be involved in this [cleats] program is pretty cool for me,” he told BusinessWest. “Once this is done, we’re going to make a portfolio and send it to each one of the teams in the NFL; knowing that we have some backing from the people we’ve done work for, it will be a little easier for people to see us and maybe get more of these.”

As for MGM, he said he’s now in talks with the company about creating murals depicting scenes from Springfield past and present. If that comes to fruition, he believes that high-profile work may open even more doors down the road.

Getting a Foothold

Ventura said he wasn’t at all sure what happens to the cleats worn during ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ week when those games over.

He suspects some of them may be auctioned off or given to the charities in question for display, but he doesn’t know their exact fate.

He does know that the cleats he created for the Patriots, the ‘steel’ shoes, will be put on display at the Patriots headquarters in Foxboro.

His ‘Joe V’ signature won’t be very visible, but the cleats, like all his work, including that with Bon Jersey, seemingly lead to additional opportunities.

In other words, he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop — literally and figuratively.

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

Cover Story

A Huge Opportunity — Clearly

From left, principals Marc Gammell, Yinyong Li, and Kenneth Carter

From left, principals Marc Gammell, Yinyong Li, and Kenneth Carter

There’s no word yet on whether the creators of FogKicker will embrace Johnny Nash’s 1972 reggae hit ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ as their theme song, but it would certainly work. The product, developed in the polymer science lab at UMass Amherst, has proven itself successful in keeping a range of surfaces, from scuba masks to bathroom mirrors, clear of fog. Partners Yinyong Li, Marc Gammell, and Kenneth Carter are scaling up their venture, Treaty Biotech LLC, and while their vision of the future isn’t totally clear, it is certainly coming into focus.

They call it ‘big glass.’

That’s the term the principals at Treaty LLC, developers of the product known as FogKicker, summon as they talk about larger surfaces such as car windshields, bathroom mirrors, and shower doors.

And they foresee a day when their product will be in widespread use on all of the above, and more, to clear away annoying — and sometimes dangerous, especially when it comes to those windshields — fog.

We made a strategic decision to go after this niche market, where we knew there was a problem, where there are anti-fogging products out there that work fairly miserably, and where we knew we could gain a foothold.”

But for now, they’re more focused on what would have to be labeled ‘small glass,’ or at least ‘smaller glass,’ as in the goggles used by scuba divers, snorkelers, swimmers, skiers, mountain climbers, and others. And in this realm — large in its own right by any estimation — those who developed FogKicker in the polymer science lab at UMass Amherst can see some clear opportunities, pun obviously intended.

“There are certainly a number of applications for this product — everyone has a bathroom mirror,” said Yinyong Li, who, along with Kenneth Carter, a professor in the Polymer Science and Engineering Department at UMass Amherst, discovered that nanocellouse, a biological material plants use to help them absorb and circulate water, could also be used to solve one of society’s big problems — keeping glass surfaces free of fog.

Cellulose, of course, is used in the production of a number of paper products, said Yinyong, adding that, in many respects, FogKicker acts like an invisible paper towel to absorb moisture and keep glass surfaces clear of fog.

Yinyong, the company’s chief technology officer, who attained his Ph.D. from UMass in 2016; Carter; and third partner Marc Gammell, who recently earned his undergraduate degree at UMass, are making giant strides forward in the process of taking FogKicker from discovery in the lab to successful business venture.

They have succeeded in raising capital, and also in raising the product’s — and the company’s — profile, through appearances like the one late last month on the CNBC reality program Adventure Capitalists, for example.

The video clip shows Gammell and Carter (an experienced diver himself), both clad in FogKicker pullovers, appearing on a dock somewhere with the ocean in the background, making a pitch for their product — and also for what the two called ‘smart capital,’ as well as individuals to join their team.

The creators of FogKicker are in the process of scaling up their venture, focusing first on sports goggles and other smaller glass surfaces.

The creators of FogKicker are in the process of scaling up their venture, focusing first on sports goggles and other smaller glass surfaces.

“We want someone who has industry-specific connections,” Gammell, the company’s CEO, says in the video, referring specifically to the diving market. “Someone who has some serious marketing clout, someone who knows their way around building a brand; we want a real team player that brings that to the table.”

In a nutshell, that short video, which also goes into some detail about the product and how it works, neatly sums up where this company is right now and what it’s doing to get where it wants to go.

It has a product that works — one that those in the diving industry have been quick to embrace, as we’ll see — and a road map of sorts for getting to the next level with small glass and ambitions for doing the same with big glass.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with the FogKicker team about their vision for their product and their company, and how things have come into focus, in every sense of that word.

Glass Act

As they talked with BusinessWest about FogKicker and their plans for it, Yinyong, Gammell, and Carter were getting ready to travel.

Their destination was Orlando and, more specifically, the week-long Diving Equipment & Marketing Assoc. (DEMA) trade show. Armed with a new and vastly improved show booth, the partners were — wait for it — looking to make a splash with their growing portfolio of products.

Or another splash, to be more precise.

Indeed, it was at the 2016 DEMA show in Las Vegas that the partners first caught the attention of the diving community, and in a big way.

The FogKicker principals, from left, Kenneth Carter, Marc Gammell, and Yinyong Li, display their products at one of the many trade shows they’ve exhibited at recently.

The FogKicker principals, from left, Kenneth Carter, Marc Gammell, and Yinyong Li, display their products at one of the many trade shows they’ve exhibited at recently.

“We were met with huge enthusiasm, and seemingly overnight, our product was available all over the world, because this is a worldwide conference, and people were buying cases and cases of it,” said Carter, the company’s chief scientific officer.

This response came, he went on, because FogKicker established itself as a clear (literally) improvement over other methods of keeping scuba masks clear of fog — from saliva to soaps that were already on the market, both of which eventually wash off and lose their effectiveness. “This is one of the first water-resistant anti-fogging coatings that have been produced.”

But to tell this story, we need to go back further, to earlier this decade, when Yinyong and Carter, using funding from the National Science Foundation, started to look at ways that nanocellulose, derived from paper pulp, could be used in electronics.

“Cellulose is one of the most abundant products in the world; it’s the basis of wood, paper, trees, algae, and plants in general,” said Carter. “Paper makers grind it up into a pasty pulp, and they spread it over wires, and that’s how we make paper — it’s essentially just dried cellulose.

“What was discovered a while ago is that, if you keep breaking that pulp down, mechanically breaking it down and chemically treating it, you can get to what’s known as nanocellulose — nanoscopic particles of cellulose,” he went on. “We were playing around with it, and trying to think of other things we could do with nanocellulose.”

The two discovered they could take many common sources of the material, such as waste paper, cotton, or recycled paper, and convert them into nanocellulose. The bigger discovery, as it turned out, came when they placed this material on various surfaces and, in doing so, created completely transparent coating that did not fog up when exposed to humid air or steam.

“Because it’s paper, it’s very absorbent to water — we all know that paper loves water,” Carter explained. “When things fog up, what’s happening is that water vapor in the air is hitting a cooler surface, and it condenses, forming tiny beads of water, which we see as fog.”

When water hits the nanocellulose films, it gets absorbed, said Yinyong, and doesn’t form those beads, thus eliminating fog.

Fast-forwarding through the all-important discovery phase to ensure that the product is unique and the patent-disclosure process, Yinyong made the concept an entry in the 2015 Innovation Challenge at UMass Amherst, and he came away with the $20,000 grand prize.

He also came away with an eventual partner in this fledgling business venture. Indeed, Gammell was another contestant at the Innovation Challenge. He didn’t fare nearly as well with his entry, but he would also have to be considered a winner, because he was so impressed with what Yinyong brought to the table that he asked if he could be a part of it.

“I was pitching my own crazy business idea, and Yingong was pitching FogKicker,” he recalled. “Yingong wound up going to the finals, and I went just to watch him do his extended pitch, and afterwards, I was so pumped up about FogKicker and his work with nanocellulose that I introduced myself and told him I wanted to help him any way I could.”

Things have accelerated at an impressive pace since then, with FogKicker and Treaty Biotech LLC moving on to more innovation and entrepreneurship competitions, including the Venture Well program in Hadley and Valley Venture Mentors’ Accelerator program, and winning some prize money at nearly all of them.

They also took part in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, as it’s called, a program that prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory and move forward with NSF-funded projects ready for commercialization.

“It’s like a boot camp — they scrutinize everything you do,” said Carter, adding that Treaty LLC won $50,000 to do customer discovery.

And those efforts took the partners to Tek-Divers, a Middle Eastern outfit that offers a wide range of recreational diving and extreme deep diving.

“They dive under some of the most extreme conditions out there — so we went to talk to them, realizing, who better could tell us whether we had something interesting than people who put their lives on the line?” said Carter. “And immediately, they loved us; they said, ‘boy, this stuff is great.’ And they bought a lot of it.”

View to the Future

The partners at Treaty LLC have been putting the capital they’ve attained from competitions and other sources to use in the many specific areas covered by that broad term ‘scaling up.’ That process includes everything from prototype development and production (now taking place at a location in Springfield) to marketing, like the DEMA show; from gaining more capital, through a variety of methods, including that Adventure Capital episode, to adding more team members, something the partners expect will happen over the next several months.

Product development was an exercise in listening to the experts and responding to what they said, Yinyong noted, adding that initial thoughts about possibly creating one-use disposable wipes were discarded amid feedback from divers and environmentalists fearful of the ocean being littered with the packages for those wipes.

What emerged instead was a felt-tip-marker-like device that places drops of FogKicker on a surface to be rubbed in. To date, the company has sold roughly 30,000 small bottles of various solutions.

As noted earlier, Treaty Biotech is, for the most part, focused on that ‘smaller glass’ market, and especially the sports-goggle market and the scuba/snorkeling market.

“We thought really hard about what would be best way to roll this out,” said Carter. “Of course, you would sell more volume and more bulk material if you put it in squirt bottles for home use, but how do you even approach that market?

“So we made a strategic decision to go after this niche market,” he went on, “where we knew there was a problem, where there are anti-fogging products out there that work fairly miserably, and where we knew we could gain a foothold.”

Even within that seemingly small niche, the numbers are impressive and the sales potential considerable, said Yinyong, noting that the business plan estimates that there are 14 million scuba divers and snorkelers in the U.S. alone, and maybe 25 million worldwide.

Educating them about their product is important, he said, because many are firmly convinced that anti-fogging products don’t work, or don’t work any better than their own saliva.

The appearance on Adventure Capitalists, a show billed as the outdoor person’s Shark Tank, is expected to help boost efforts in this regard. Contestants make presentations to a panel of investors — all of them involved in sports, business, and investing — who then put those products through their paces, often in harsh conditions.

But there are, of course, much bigger numbers in the ‘big glass’ market, said Gammell, who did some quick math and estimated that there are more than 250 million car and truck windshields in this country alone.

Meanwhile, there are probably 100 million bathroom mirrors within the residential market alone, he said, adding quickly that the commercial market — hotels, motels, gyms, and other segments — is equally potential-laden.

And there are other markets as well, including the huge healthcare field, Gammell noted, adding that all of these markets and others are potentially within the company’s reach.

To reach them, the company and its principals are moving in a number of directions, from an aggressive push for seed funding from investors to talks with contract manufacturers about scaling up production; from a website makeover to a new trade-show booth for the DEMA event and many others to follow.

“Big glass … we could be there in a year,” said Gammell. “And in a year, hopefully we’ll have big accounts with Dick’s Sporting Goods, CVS, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, and others. And we’ll have some hires — we’ll have a bigger team.”

Bottom Line

If you listen to the lyrics from “I Can See Clearly Now,” they include lines you would never, ever hear from aspiring entrepreneurs, such as “I can see all obstacles in my way,” or “I think I can make it now, the pain is gone,” or “all of the bad feelings have disappeared,” or even (and especially) “look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies … look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies.”

Yinyong, Gammell, and Carter certainly know better. They know there are obstacles they probably can’t see, and there are obviously some clouds within that blue sky.

But overall, the future is certainly bright for FogKicker, and there are enormous opportunities for this venture — clearly.

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

Business & Innovation Expo of Western Mass. Cover Story Events

Looking Back at an Exciting, Informative Day

expologo2017comcastThe Business & Innovation Expo of Western Mass., the annual show produced by BusinessWest and the Healthcare News and presented by Comcast Business, drew nearly 150 exhibitors and 2,000 visitors to the MassMutual Center on Nov. 2. They enjoyed a series of educational seminars, breakfast and lunch programs, a day-capping Expo Social, and much more. Take a look through the photo gallery below for a recap of all the excitement, insight, and innovation.

Photography by Dani Fine Photography

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businessinnovationexposhowguide2017-page1

Cover Story Features

Star Power

 

Lenny Recor attends to the second floor at the TD Bank building, a position he secured with the help of Sunshine Village.

Lenny Recor attends to the second floor at the TD Bank building, a position he secured with the help of Sunshine Village.

Back in the mid-’60s, a group of parents, advised by friends, family members, and attorneys alike to put their developmentally disabled children into an institution, collectively rejected that idea and, far more importantly, came up with a much better one. The result of their innovative, forward-thinking outlook was Sunshine Village, which, 50 years later, remains an immensely powerful source of light, warmth, hope, and lives fulfilled.

 

Lenny Recor was in a good mood — or as good a mood as you might expect someone to be in on a Monday morning.

Actually, the day of the week doesn’t seem to matter much to Recor, who appears to wear a smile on an almost permanent basis. And such was the case as he went about his work vacuuming, mopping, dusting, and cleaning bathrooms at 1441 Main St. in Springfield, a.k.a. the TD Bank Building.

“I like to work … it’s meaningful, and I get to meet people and say hello,” said the 39-year-old. “Besides, it’s good to have money in your pocket — really good.”

The ability to work and put money in one’s pocket is something that many people might take for granted, but not Recor.

He has managed to secure several such opportunities thanks to Sunshine Village, the Chicopee-based nonprofit that this year is celebrating a half-century of doing what it does best — creating ‘great days’ for hundreds of individuals with developmental disabilities and help them lead rich, meaningful (there’s that word again) lives.

And these great days come in many forms, said Gina Kos, long-time executive director at Sunshine Village, noting that, for some, it means a day of working and earning. For others, it might mean volunteering at one of a number of area nonprofits. For still others, it might mean using a computer or practicing yoga. And for some, a great day may involve learning to shake hands or hold a spoon.

“A great day is a collection of small, proud moments,” she told BusinessWest, noting that this simple definition covers a significant amount of ground, to be sure. “What goes into ‘great’ depends on the individual.”

Elaborating, she said the agency’s mission, and its mindset, are neatly summed up with a collection of words — a summary, if you will, of what the agency provides for its participants — now filling one wall inside the agency’s administration building:

“Warm welcomes, new skills, shared laughs, many choices, caring staff, friendships, creativity, new experiences, safe travels, big smiles, helping hands, happy people, kind words, unique opportunities, lifelong learning, fun times, teamwork, dedication, shining moments, celebrations, personal accomplishments, sunshine, great days,” it reads … with those last two words in bold red letters.

Over a half-century, Gina Kos says, Sunshine Village has evolved, but has always remained true to its core mission.

Over a half-century, Gina Kos says, Sunshine Village has evolved, but has always remained true to its core mission.

But it’s not what’s on the wall that defines Sunshine Village, but what goes on inside the walls — and, in Recor’s case and many others, well outside them.

At the hangars and administration buildings at nearby Westover Air Reserve Base, for example, where participants at Sunshine Village have been employed for more than 40 years, handling various cleaning duties. Or at a host of nonprofit agencies such as the Cancer House of Hope, Habitat for Humanity, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and many others. Or at area businesses and office buildings ranging from the Trading Post, a large convenience store just down the street from the agency’s headquarters on Litwin Drive in Chicopee, to the TD Bank building.

And while on the subject of great days, Kos said Sunshine Village strives to provide them for both its participants and the team of employees who serve them.

“We work very hard to be a provider of choice and an employer of choice,” she noted, adding that these are the broad organizational goals outlined in a three-year strategic plan for the agency, one due to be updated in the near future. “And in the third year of our plan, we’ve realized outcomes with both of those goals that have really exceeded our initial expectations.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Village as it marks a key milestone, and at how, as it looks forward to its next half-century of creating great days, it will continue its evolutionary process.

Bright Ideas

When asked about the circumstances that brought her to the corner office at Sunshine Village, Kos quickly flashed back more than 25 years to the agency’s first annual fund-raising golf tournament at Tekoa Country Club in Westfield.

“I was a volunteer — I drove the beer cart,” she recalled, adding that she had such a good time, and was so impressed with the agency’s mission and how it was met, that she volunteered again the next year.

And through those experiences, Kos, who was, at the time, working in the banking sector, decided she wanted to get involved at a much higher level.

Indeed, she joined Sunshine Village in a marketing position, and a few years later rose to director. She told BusinessWest that, early on, her focus was on putting the agency on a stronger financial footing and enabling it to operate more like a business, or a nonprofit business, to be precise.

Kori Cox, a participant in Sunshine Village’s community-based day services, describes herself as an ambassador committed to generating positive thinking.

Kori Cox, a participant in Sunshine Village’s community-based day services, describes herself as an ambassador committed to generating positive thinking.

“When I came here, people in the human-services world didn’t talk about money,” she noted. “But I said, ‘you need to talk about money.’ And today, I think a lot of organizations follow Sunshine Village’s path of talking about money and acting like a business; in order to achieve your mission, you need to have a solid financial base.”

And while that work continues, she said the primary assignment for the team at Sunshine Village has been to continue a 50-year process of evolution and refinement in order to better meet the needs of those the agency serves and create more of those great days.

This is a broad constituency, individuals 22 and over, for the most part, who have one of many types of development disabilities, including, and increasingly, those on the autism spectrum.

To fully understand this evolutionary process, it’s best to start at the beginning, when a small group of parents of children with developmental disabilities set on a course that would change lives for decades to come.

“These parents were told by their physicians, their lawyers, their families, and friends that they needed to put their children into an institution — either Belchertown State School or the Monson Developmental Center,” she said, adding that they had a different, considerably better idea.

“These families were pretty radical at that time — this was the mid-’60s — and they said, ‘no, institutions are not for us; we’re going to keep our children at home with us,’” she went on. “But they also realized that the resources to help them raise their children weren’t there; they couldn’t go through the school system, and just bringing their kids to nursery schools and the local playground didn’t feel right 50 years ago.”

So this group of parents, under the leadership of Joseph Casey, owner of Casey Chevrolet, who had a young daughter with a developmental disability, started a group called Friends of the Retarded Children and set about creating an organization that would become what Sunshine Village is today.

On land donated by the city and local sportsmen’s club, and with money raised through an involved grassroots effort, a playground and the first building (eventually named after Casey) were built and opened in the spring of 1967.

In its early years, the agency served children, said Kos, noting that it had a nursery school and recreational facilities that reflected playgrounds of that era. As those original participants grew older, the roster of programs evolved accordingly, including the addition of employment services as well as a skills center for those who wanted to work, but needed the skills to do so.

It Takes a Village

Today, Sunshine Village, which has a $13 million annual operating budget, serves roughly 450 adults with developmental disabilities across Western Mass. Many stay with the agency for years or decades, and one participant in its programs recently turned 86.

In addition to its facility in Chicopee, there are other locations in Springfield, Three Rivers, and Westfield, added over the years to bring participants closer to the services being offered.

Day programs provided by the agency cover a broad spectrum. They include:

• Community Engagement Services, also known as community-based day services, or CBDS, which offer individuals activities promoting wellness, recreation, community engagement, technology, self-advocacy, and personal development;

• Contemporary Life Engagement Services, a highly structured program specifically designed to support individuals on the autism spectrum. This is a medically based day ‘habilitation’ program with services augmented with clinical supports as necessary, including speech and language, physical, and occupational therapies, and access to a board-certified behavior analyst;

• Traditional Life Engagement Services, a medically based day habilitation program focused on building functional life skills, including social, communication, personal wellness, and independent living; and

• Employment Services, which support participants in obtaining a job or working as a member of a supervised team. It does this through placement services, and also through Village Works, an agency-owned business located just off exit 6 of the Turnpike, as well as Westover Maintenance Systems, a commercial cleaning company operated by Sunshine Village, which, as noted, provides maintenance services for all the buildings and hangars at Westover Air Reserve Base.

Over the years, and on an ongoing basis, the programming at the Village evolves to meet changing needs within society and area school departments and their special-education divisions, said Kos.

“Over the years, we’ve offered different kinds of services — residential services, shared-living services, different kinds of day and employment services — but we’ve always remained true to our mission,” she told BusinessWest. “And that is to serve people with disabilities and to serve them regardless of the level of disability; we’ve served people that other organizations can’t and won’t serve.”

As one example of this evolutionary process, she noted additions and changes undertaken to meet the dramatic rise in the number of individuals on the autism spectrum.

“There are a lot more people graduating from area high schools who are on the autism spectrum,” she explained, adding that the reasons for this are not fully known. “And on the autism spectrum, 40% of the individuals also have an intellectual disability, meaning their IQ is less than 71.

“And one of the things we’re doing at Sunshine Village is redefining and redesigning our services so that we’re able to meet the needs and support people on the autism spectrum who do not have intellectual disabilities,” she went on, “because that is a growing need in the community.”

Denise Simpkins and Bill Denard have been working at Westover Air Reserve Base for several years now through Sunshine Village’s employment-services arm.

Denise Simpkins and Bill Denard have been working at Westover Air Reserve Base for several years now through Sunshine Village’s employment-services arm.

It’s also an example of how the agency is constantly listening to the constituencies it serves when they’re asked about needs and concerns — and responding to what it hears.

These traits have certainly benefited the agency as it works toward that goal of being a provider of choice, said Kos, adding that the same is true when it comes to being an employer of choice.

Elaborating, she said the competition for talent in the nonprofit sector is considerable, and Sunshine Village looks to stand out in this regard by working hard to enable employees to shine as well as those they serve.

“We see our employees as our best asset, and we invest a lot of money in training, recognizing, and thanking them,” she said of her team of more than 250.

Shining Examples

Kos said the official 50th anniversary date for the agency was in April of this year, and in many respects it has been a year-long celebration.

There was a dinner for employees last spring, several outreach events, and a community celebration in September, called, appropriately enough, the ‘Great Days Gala,’ that was attended by more than 250 people.

But in most all ways, Sunshine Village has been celebrating 50 years by doing more of what it’s been doing for 50 years — enabling people with developmental disabilities to shine.

And as BusinessWest talked with some of the clients served by the agency, it became clear that there are many ways for that verb to manifest itself.

For Jonathon Scytkowski, a participant in the CBDS programs who came to Sunshine Village in 2015, there are several components to his great days. He works at the Trading Post, cleaning floors, taking out the recyclables, and other duties. Meanwhile, he also volunteers at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and other nonprofits, and takes visits to the libraries in Chicopee and South Hadley and area malls.

Add it all up, and he’s busy, active, and, most importantly, involved.

“I like volunteering — at the Food Bank I do a lot of volunteering putting food in boxes for those who need it,” he told BusinessWest, noting, like Recor did, that working is important on many levels, from making money to having a sense of purpose.

Those sentiments were echoed by Denise Simpkins and Bill Debord, who have both worked at Westover, through Sunshine Village, for several years.

In fact, for Debord, it’s been almost 30 years, long enough to see a number of personnel come and go, but also long enough to feel like he’s part of that important operation.

“I really like working there — you feel like you’re part of the family,” he said, adding that he knows people by name, and vice versa.

As for Simpkins, who has been doing it for 12 years, she likes the work, the pay, and especially the perks — like the special occasions where she gets to see the planes close up and take some pictures.

“It’s good to have a job because you get to pay you bills and manage your money,” she told BusinessWest.

Meanwhile, for Kori Cox, another participant in the CBDS program, shining, if you will, takes a different form.

Indeed, as part of initiative called Positive Behavior Supports (PBS), she said she has an important role she described this way. “I do a lot of stuff to try to prevent the Village from being negative.”

Elaborating, she said she made a sign that reads “Positive Attitude, Positive Life,” and she works to encourage others, inside and outside Sunshine Village, to not only read the sign, but live by those words. Specifically, she works diligently to prompt people to stop using the ‘R’ word.

“We remind people that’s not nice to use that word — ever,” she said, adding that her efforts in this regard dovetail nicely with her broader mission.

“I love positivity — it really helps life; there’s no negativity,” said Cox, 24, who described herself as an ambassador, advocate, and peer leader.

As for Recor, well, let’s just say he seems to embody the words on Cox’s sign.

A World of Difference

Sunshine Village still stages a golf tournament every year. In fact, it’s the agency’s most successful fund-raising effort.

Its new, permanent home is Chicopee Country Club — only a drive and a wedge away from the Litwin Drive campus — and Kos no longer drives the beer cart, obviously.

Her role has evolved and grown — as has the agency’s.

But the basic goals are still the same — to create great days and enable those with developmental disabilities to shine, however those words are defined.

Half a century later, Sunshine Village is delivering on those promises.

Just ask Lenny Recor. He’s the guy with a smile on his face — on a Monday morning no less.

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

Cover Story Sections Super 60

Saluting Success

super60logoA large technology company that has been a fixture in Western Mass. for decades and a craft-beer startup that has quickly shot from obscurity to a large cult following may boast very different histories, but they have one thing in common: they are the top honorees in this year’s Super 60 awards.

“The success of this year’s winners is a clear indication that our regional economy is strong and reflects the diverse nature of our industries,” said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, which is presenting the Super 60 honors for the 28th year. A celebration event honoring this year’s class will be held Friday, Oct. 27 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Chez Josef in Agawam.

Whalley Computer Associates Inc. of Southwick placed atop this year’s Total Revenue listing, followed by Marcotte Ford Sales Inc. of Holyoke and Commercial Distributing Co. Inc. of Westfield. In the Revenue Growth category, which recognizes the fastest-growing firms in the region, Tree House Brewing of Charlton tops the 2017 list, followed by Five Star Transportation Inc. of Southwick and LavishlyHip, LLC, an online outfit based in Feeding Hills.

“In just two short years of operation, Tree House Brewing, Inc., has moved straight to the top of the Revenue Growth category in its first year as a Super 60 winner,” she said.  “And LavishlyHip, an online retailer that garnered the top honors last year has returned in the top three this year.”

To be considered, companies must be based in Hampden or Hampshire counties or be a member of the Springfield Regional Chamber, have revenues of at least $1 million in the last fiscal year, be an independent and privately owned company, and be in business at least three full years. Companies are selected based on their percentage of revenue growth over a full three-year period or total revenues for the latest fiscal year.

Creed noted that this year’s winners hail from 17 communities across the region and represent all sectors of the economy, including nonprofits, transportation, energy, healthcare, technology, manufacturing, retail, and service. One-quarter of the Total Revenue winners exceeded $30 million in revenues. In the Revenue Growth category, one-quarter of the top 30 companies had growth in excess of 100%.

Four companies in the Total Revenue category also qualified for the Revenue Growth category, while 15 companies in the Revenue Growth category also qualified for the Total Revenue category, although each honoree is listed in only one category.

Tickets to the Oct. 27 event cost $60 for chamber members, $75 for general admission. Reservations may be made for tables of eight or 10. The deadline for reservations is Wednesday, Oct. 18. No cancellations will be accepted after that date, and no walk-ins will be allowed. Reservations must be made in writing, either online at www.springfieldregionalchamber.com or by e-mail to [email protected].

Total Revenue

1. Whalley Computer Associates Inc.
One Whalley Way, Southwick
(413) 569-4200
www.wca.com
John Whalley, president
WCA is a locally owned family business that has evolved from a hardware resale and service group in the ’70s and ’80s into a company that now focuses on lowering the total cost of technology and productivity enhancement for its customers. Boasting nearly 150 employees, Whalley carries name-brand computers as well as low-cost compatibles.

2. Marcotte Ford Sales Inc.
1025 Main St., Holyoke
(800) 923-9810
www.marcotteford.com
Bryan Marcotte, president
The dealership sells new Ford vehicles as well as pre-owned cars, trucks, and SUVs, and features a full service department. Marcotte has achieved the President’s Award, one of the most prestigious honors given to dealerships by Ford Motor Co., on multiple occasions over the past decade. It also operates the Marcotte Commercial Truck Center.

3. Commercial         Distributing Co. Inc.
46 South Broad St., Westfield
(413) 562-9691
www.commercialdist.com
Richard Placek, Chairman
Founded in 1935 by Joseph Placek, Commercial Distributing Co. is a family-owned, family-operated business servicing more than 1,000 bars, restaurants, and clubs, as well as more than 400 package and liquor stores. Now in its third generation, the company continues to grow by building brands and offering new products as the market changes.
A.G. Miller Co. Inc.
57 Batavia St., Springfield
(413) 732-9297
www.agmiller.com
Rick Miller, president
Early in its history, A.G. Miller made a name in automobile enameling. More than 100 years after its founding in 1914, the company now offers precision metal fabrication; design and engineering; assembly; forming, rolling, and bending; laser cutting; punching; precision saw cutting; welding; powder coating and liquid painting; and more.

Aegenco Inc.
55 Jackson St., Springfield
(413) 746-3242
www.aegisenergyservices.com
Spiro Vardakas, president
Aegenco, an energy-conservation consulting firm and the manufacturing arm of Aegis Energy Services, has grown steadily since its inception in 2005.

Aegis Energy Services Inc.
55 Jackson St., Holyoke
(800) 373-3411
www.aegischp.com
Lee Vardakas, owner
Founded in 1985, Aegis Energy Services is a turn-key, full-service provider of combined heat and power systems (CHPs) that generate heat and electricity using clean, efficient, natural-gas-powered engines. These modular CHP systems reduce a facility’s dependence on expensive utility power, reduce energy costs, and reduce one’s carbon footprint.

Baltazar Contractors Inc.
83 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 583-6160
www.baltazarcontractors.com
Frank Baltazar, president
Baltazar Contractors has been a family-owned and operated construction firm for more than 20 years, specializing in roadway construction and reconstruction in Massachusetts and Connecticut; all aspects of site-development work; sewer, water, storm, and utilities; and streetscape improvements.

Braman Pest
147 Almgren Dr., Agawam
(413) 732-9009
www.bramanpest.com
Gerald Lazarus, president
Braman has been serving New England since 1890, using state-of-the-art pest-elimination procedures for commercial and residential customers, and offering humane removal of birds, bats, and other nuisances through its wildlife division. The company has offices in Agawam, Worcester, and Lee, as well as Hartford and New Haven, Conn.

City Enterprises Inc.
38 Berkshire Ave., Springfield
(413) 726-9549
www.cityenterpriseinc.com
Wonderlyn Murphy, president
City Enterprises Inc. offers skilled general-contracting services to the New England region. Priding itself on custom design and construction of affordable, quality homes and the infrastructure surrounding them, the firm executes its mission in a way that supports community empowerment through job opportunities and professional development.

filli, lcc d/b/a con-test                                     analytical laboratory
39 Spruce St., East Longmeadow
(413) 525-2332
www.contestlabs.com
THOMAS VERATTI SR., FOUNDER
Established in 1984, Con-Test provides environmental consulting and testing services to clients throughout Western Mass. The laboratory-testing division originally focused on industrial hygiene analysis, but expanded to include techniques in air analysis, classical (wet) chemistry, metals, and organics, analyzing water, air, soil, and solid materials.

EG Partners, LLC d/b/a Oasis Shower Doors
646 Springfield St., Feeding Hills
(413) 786-8420
www.oasisshowerdoors.com
tom daly, President
Oasis Shower Doors, New England’s largest designer, fabricator, and installer of custom frameless glass shower enclosures and specialty glass, has rapidly expanded its operations in recent years, with showrooms located at Feeding Hills, Weymouth, and Peabody, Mass., as well as Avon, Conn.

Fuel Services Inc.
95 Main St., South Hadley
(413) 532-3500
www.fuelservices.biz
Steve Chase, President and CEO
Full-service home-comfort and energy-solutions firm offering heating oil and propane delivery; plumbing, air-conditioning, and natural-gas services; installation of heating, cooling, water, and indoor-air-quality equipment; and more. The company serves more than 30 communities in Western Mass. and provides 24-hour emergency service.

The Futures Health Group, LLC
136 William St., Springfield
(800) 218-9280
www.discoverfutures.com
Brian Edwards, CEO
Futures provides occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language therapy, special education, nursing, mental health, and other related services to schools and healthcare facilities across the U.S. Founded in 1998, it continues to be managed by expert practitioners in their fields.

The Gaudreau Group
1984 Boston Road, Wilbraham
(413) 543-3534
www.gaudreaugroup.com
Jules Gaudreau, president
A multi-line insurance and financial-service agency established in 1921, the Gaudreau Group helps clients respond to an ever-changing economic environment. The agency offers a broad range of insurance and financial products from basic life, home, and auto insurance to complex corporate services, employee benefits, and retirement plans.

Haluch Water Contracting Inc.
399 Fuller St, Ludlow
(413) 589-1254
Thomas Haluch, president
For more than 30 years, Haluch Water Contracting has served the region as a water-main construction and excavation contractor specializing in water, sewer, pipeline, communications, and power-line construction.

JET Industries Inc.
307 Silver St., Agawam
(413) 786-2010
www.jet.industries
Michael Turrini, president
Jet Industries Inc. is a leading design build electrical, mechanical, communications and fire sprinkler contractor. What began as a small, family-run oil company founded by Aaron Zeeb in 1977 has grown into one of the nation’s largest companies of its type with over 500 employees servicing projects all across the country.

Kittredge Equipment Co. Inc.
100 Bowles Road, Agawam
(413) 304-4100
www.kittredgeequipment.com
Wendy Webber, president
Founded in 1921, Kittredge Equipment Co.is one of the nation’s leading food-service equipment and supply businesses. It boasts 70,000 square feet of showroom in three locations. The company also handles design services, and has designed everything from small restaurants to country clubs to in-plant cafeterias.

Lancer Transportation & Logistics and Sulco Warehousing & Logistics
311 Industry Ave., Springfield
(413) 739-4880
www.sulco-lancer.com
Todd Goodrich, president
In business since 1979, Sulco Warehousing & Logistics specializes in public, contract, and dedicated warehousing. Lancer Transportation & Logistics is a licensed third-party freight-brokerage company that provides full-service transportation-brokerage services throughout North America.

Louis and Clark Drug Inc.
309 East St., Springfield
(413) 737-7456
www.lcdrug.com
Skip Matthews, president
Since 1965, Louis & Clark has been a recognized name in Western Mass., first as a pharmacy and later as a resource for people who need home medical equipment and supplies. Today, the company provides professional pharmacy and compounding services, medical equipment, independent-living services, and healthcare programs.

Maybury Associates Inc.
90 Denslow Road, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-4216
www.maybury.com
John Maybury, president
Since 1976, Maybury Associates Inc. has been designing, supplying, and servicing all types of material-handling equipment throughout New England. Maybury provides customers in a wide range of industries with solutions to move, lift, and store their parts and products.

Notch Mechanical Constructors
85 Lemay St., Chicopee
(413) 534-3440
www.notch.com
Steven Neveu, president
A family-owned business since 1972, Notch Mechanical Constructors provides piping installation and repair services to facilities throughout southern New England. Its team has the capacity to address process and utility piping challenges at any business within 100 miles of its locations in Chicopee and Hudson, Mass.

O’Connell Care at Home
One Federal St., Bldg. 103-1, Springfield
(413) 533-1030
www.opns.com
Francis O’Connell, president
For more than two decades, O’Connell Care at Home, formerly O’Connell Professional Nurse Service, has grown to deliver a range of home-health and staffing services across the Pioneer Valley. Services range from nursing care and geriatric healthcare management to advocacy and transportation.

PC Enterprises Inc. d/b/a Entre Computer
138 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
(413) 736-2112
www.pc-enterprises.com
Norman Fiedler, CEO
PC Enterprises, d/b/a Entre Computer, assists organizations with procuring, installing, troubleshooting, servicing, and maximizing the value of technology. In business since 1983, it continues to evolve and grow as a lead provider for many businesses, healthcare providers, retailers, and state, local, and education entities.

Rediker Software Inc.
2 Wilbraham Road, Hampden
(800) 213-9860
www.rediker.com
Andrew Anderlonis, president
Rediker software is used by school administrators across the U.S. and in more than 100 countries, and is designed to meet the student-information-management needs of all types of schools and districts. For example, 100,000 teachers use the TeacherPlus web gradebook, and the ParentPlus and StudentPlus web portals boast 2 million users.

Specialty Bolt & Screw Inc.
235 Bowles Road, Agawam
(413) 789-6700
www.specialtybolt.com
Kevin Queenin, president
Founded in 1977, Specialty Bolt & Screw (SBS) is a full-service solutions provider of fasteners, vendor-managed inventory (VMI) programs, and C-class commodities. Based in Agawam, it has locations in Valcourt, Quebec; Juarez, Mexico; Queretaro, Mexico; Rovaniemi, Finland; and Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Troy Industries Inc.
151 Capital Dr., West Springfield
(413) 788-4288
www.troyind.com
Steve Troy, CEO
Troy Industries was founded on the principle of making reliable, innovative, over-engineered products that function without question when lives are on the line. Troy is a leading U.S. government contractor that designs and manufactures innovative, top-quality small-arms components and accessories and complete weapon upgrades.

United Personnel Services Inc.
1331 Main St., Springfield
(413) 736-0800
www.unitedpersonnel.com
Patricia Canavan, president
United provides a full range of staffing services, including temporary staffing and full-time placement, on-site project management, and strategic recruitment in the Springfield, Hartford, and Northampton areas, specializing in administrative, professional, medical, and light-industrial staff.

W.F. Young Inc.
302 Benton Dr., East Longmeadow
(800) 628-9653
www.absorbine.com
Tyler Young, CEO
This family-run business prides itself on offering a variety of high-quality products that can effectively improve the well-being of both people and horses with its Absorbine brands.

Webber & Grinnell Insurance Agency Inc.
8 North King St., #1, Northampton
(413) 586-0111
www.webberandgrinnell.com
Bill Grinnell, president
Webber and Grinnell’s roots can be traced back to 1849, when A.W. Thayer opened an insurance agency on Pleasant Street in Northampton. The agency, which offers automotive, business, homeowners, employee benefit, and other types of products, serves more than 5,000 households and 900 businesses throughout Western Mass.

WestMass ElderCare Inc.
4 Valley Mill Road, Holyoke
(413) 538-9020
www.wmeldercare.org
Priscilla Chalmers, Executive Director
WestMass ElderCare is a private, nonprofit agency with a mission to preserve the dignity, independence, and quality of life of elders and disabled persons desiring to remain within their own community. Programs include supportive housing, home care, options counseling, adult family care, nutrition programs, and adult foster care.

Revenue Growth

1. Tree House Brewing Company Inc.
129 Sturbridge Road, Charlton
(413) 523-2367
www.treehousebrew.com
Nate Lanier, Damien Goudreau, Dean Rohan, Owners
The opening of a 45,000-square-foot facility in Charlton speaks to the recent growth of this brewery. Tree House was founded in Monson 2011, but in 2015 counted just one employee and 55 barrels of cellar space. The new facility can accommodate 50,000 barrels of cellar space, which will enable the brewery to produce up to 125,000 barrels a year.

2. Five Star Transportation Inc.
809 College Highway, Southwick
(413) 789-4789
www.firestarbus.com
Nathan Lecrenski, president
Five Star provides school-bus transportation services to school districts and charter schools throughout Western Mass. From its launch a half-century ago with a single bus route, the company currently services more than 12 school districts and operates a fleet of more than 175 vehicles.

3. Lavishlyhip, LLC
Feeding Hills
www.lavishlyhip.com
Rika Woyan, owner
This online retailer of jewelry and accessories offers accessory collections from the latest top designers. By meeting with the designers in their showrooms and at industry events, it stays on top of what is trending. Shoppers will find hip and classic jewelry for women and men, cashmere, silk and blend scarves, and hair accessories.

Adam Quenneville Roofing and Siding Inc.
160 Old Lyman Road, South Hadley
(413) 525-0025
www.1800newroof.net
Adam Quenneville, CEO
Adam Quenneville offers a wide range of residential and commercial services, including new roofs, retrofitting, roof repair, roof cleaning, vinyl siding, replacement windows, and the no-clog Gutter Shutter system. The company has earned the BBB Torch Award for trust, performance, and integrity.

Alliance Home Improvement Inc.
375 Chicopee St., Chicopee
(413) 331-4357
www.alliancehomeinc.com
sergiy suprunchuk, president
Alliance is a professional local contractor providing quality and reliable residential services. Its products are Energy Star certified, and most of them have lifetime warranty provided by the manufacturer. Services include siding, windows, doors, roofs, gutters, faux stone siding, and custom-built homes.

Baystate Blasting Inc.
36 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 583-4440
www.baystateblasting.com
Paul Baltazar, president
Baystate Blasting, Inc. is a local family owned and operated drilling and blasting firm located in Ludlow, Massachusetts that began in 2003.   Sitework, heavy highway construction, residential, quarry, portable crushing and recycling, ATF licensed dealer of explosives as well as rental of individual magazines.

Center Square Grill
84 Center Square, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-0055
www.centersquaregrill.com
Michael Sakey, Bill Collins, Proprietors
Center Square Grill serves up eclectic American fare for lunch and dinner, as well as an extensive wine and cocktail selection and a kids’ menu. The facility also has a catering service and hosts events of all kinds.

Charter Oak Insurance &                        Financial Services Co.
330 Whitney Ave., Holyoke
(413) 374-5430
www.charteroakfinancial.com
Peter Novak, General Agent
A member of the MassMutual Financial Group, Charter Oak been servicing clients for more than 125 years. The team of professionals serves individuals, families, and businesses with risk-management products, business planning and protection, retirement planning and investment services, and fee-based financial planning.

Chicopee Industrial Contractors Inc.
107 North Chicopee St., Chicopee
(413) 538-7279
www.chicopeeindustrial.com
Carol Campbell, president
Founded in 1992, Chicopee Industrial Contractors is an industrial contracting firm specializing in all types of rigging, heavy lifting, machinery moving, machine installation, millwrighting, machine repair, heavy hauling, plant relocations, concrete pads, foundations, and structural steel installations.

Community Transportation Services
288 Verge St., Springfield
(413) 732-1500
Houshang Ansari, president
Community transportation is a locally owned medical, elderly, and VIP transportation service founded in 1991. Its goal is to provide the community with safe and affordable transportation services. It is especially committed to meeting the transportation needs of senior citizens and the physically and mentally challenged.

Courier Express Inc.
20 Oakdale St., Springfield
(413) 730-6620
www.courierexp.com
Eric Devine, president
Courier Express is committed to providing custom, same-day delivery solutions for any shipment. Its focal point is New England, but its reach is nationwide. The company strives to utilize the latest technologies, on-time delivery, customer service, and attention to detail to separate itself from its competitors.

Court Square Group Inc.
1350 Main St., Springfield
(413) 731-5294
www.courtsquaregroup.com
Keith Parent, president
Court Square is a technical strategic advisor to the life-science and biotech industries. Consulting services include business analysis and consulting, information security and disaster recovery, SharePoint and document management, long-term archiving, project management, and much more.
FIT Staffing Inc.
25 Bremen St., Springfield
(413) 363-0204
www.fitstaffingsolutions.com
Jackie Fallon, president
FIT Staffing, founded in 2005, provides a personal approach to connecting companies to the right IT professionals. FIT takes the time to meet the hiring manager to determine the exact qualifications, skills, and personality traits for the client’s ideal candidates. Meanwhile, FIT’s extensive listing of local IT openings is continuously updated.

Fletcher Sewer & Drain Inc.
824A Perimeter Road, Ludlow
(413) 547-8180
www.fletcherseweranddrain.com
Teri Marinello, president
Since 1985, Fletcher Sewer & Drain has provided service to homeowners as well as municipalities and construction companies for large pipeline jobs. From unblocking kitchen sinks to replacing sewer lines, Fletcher keeps up to date with all the latest technology, from high-pressure sewer jetters to the newest camera-inspection equipment.

Gleason Johndrow Landscaping Inc.
44 Rose St., Springfield
(413) 727-8820
www.gleasonjohndrowlandscaping.com
Anthony Gleason II, David Johndrow, Owners
Gleason Johndrow Landscape & Snow Management offers a wide range of commercial and residential services, including lawn mowing, snow removal, salting options, fertilization programs, landscape installations, bark-mulch application, creative plantings, seeding options, pruning, irrigation installation, maintenance, and much more.

Kelley & Katzer Real Estate, LLC
632 Westfield St., West Springfield
(413) 209-9933
www.kelleyandkatzerrealestate.com
Joe Kelley, Christine Katzer, Co-owners
Kelley & Katzer combines more than 40 years of real-estate experience with a modern approach. It is involved every step of the way of the real-estate process, guiding clients with a hands-on approach and knowledge of the real-estate market, blended with a genuine understanding of clients’ needs.

Knight Machine & Tool Company Inc.
11 Industrial Dr., South Hadley
(413) 532-2507
Gary O’Brien, owner
Knight Machine & Tool Co. is a metalworking and welding company that offers blacksmithing, metal roofing, and other services from its 11,000-square-foot facility.

Market Mentors, LLC
30 Capital Dr., Suite C, West Springfield
(413) 787-1133
www.marketmentors.com
Michelle Abdow, principal
A full-service marketing firm, Market Mentors handles all forms of marketing, including advertising in all mediums, media buying, graphic design, public relations, and event planning.

Martinelli, Martini & Gallagher Real Estate Inc.
1763 Northampton St., Holyoke
(413) 736-7232
www.buywesternmass.com
Paul Gallagher, president
Gallagher Real Estate boasts four locations in Holyoke, Agawam, South Hadley, and Springfield, offering commercial and residential sales and leasing services, as well as a real estate school and a separate division devoted to handling property-management needs.

North Atlantic Trucking Inc.
100 Progress Ave., Springfield
(413) 455-3981
www.northatlantictrucking.com
James Vieu, Director of Fleet Services & Financials
North Atlantic Trucking began by hauling a variety of products, including paper, plastic, metal, and more. The company is rapidly growing with a current fleet of 15 vehicles providing transportation services for miscellaneous products throughout the U.S.

Northeast IT Systems Inc.
777 Riverdale St., West Springfield
(413) 736-6348
www.northeastit.net
Joel Mollison, president
Northeast is a full-service IT company providing business services, managed IT services, backup and disaster recovery, and cloud services, as well as a full-service repair shop for residential customers, including file recovery, laptop screen replacement, PC setups and tuneups, printer installation, virus protection and removal, and wireless installation.

Paragus Strategic IT
112 Russell St., Hadley
(413) 587-2666
www.paragusit.com
Delcie Bean IV, president
While still in high school, Delcie Bean founded Paragus IT in 1999, first under the name Vertical Horizons and then Valley ComputerWorks. Under the Paragus name, it has grown dramatically as an outsourced IT solution, providing business computer service, computer consulting, information-technology support, and other services to businesses of all sizes.

Rock Valley Tool, LLC
54 O’Neil St., Easthampton
(413) 527-2350
www.rockvalleytool.com
Elizabeth Paquette, president
Rock Valley Tool is a 17,000-square-foot facility housing a variety of both CNC and conventional machining equipment, along with a state-of-the-art inspection lab. With more than 40 years of experience, the company provides manufactured parts to customers in the aerospace, commercial/industrial, and plastic blow-molding industries.

Rodrigues Inc.
782 Center St., Ludlow
(413) 547-6443
Antonio Rodrigues, president
Rodrigues Inc. operates Europa Restaurant in Ludlow, specializing in Mediterranean cuisine with an interactive dining experience, presenting meals cooked on volcanic rocks at tableside. Europa also offers full-service catering and banquet space.

Royal, P.C.
270 Pleasant St., Northampton
(413) 586-2288
www.theroyallawfirm.com
Amy Royal, owner
Royal, P.C. is a woman-owned law firm that exclusively represents and counsels businesses on all aspects of labor and employment law. It represents a wide range of businesses throughout the New England states and nationally, and is an approved panel counsel for insurance companies that provide employment-practices liability insurance to employers.

Safe & Sound Inc.
428 East St., Chicopee
(413) 594-6460
www.safeandsoundhq.com
Michael Laventure, owner
Since 1983, Safe and Sound Inc., a family-owned company, has been providing customers with a wide selection of quality components such as home theater speakers, audio/video receivers, amplifiers, subwoofers, as well as car audio, remote starters, and security.

Taplin Yard, Pump & Power
120 Interstate Dr., West Springfield
(413) 781-4352
www.fctaplin.com
Martin Jagodowski, president
Taplin has been servicing the local area since 1892, and is an authorized dealer for parts, equipment, service, and accessories for a wide range of brands. It boasts a large inventory of zero-turn mowers, commercial lawn equipment, lawnmowers, lawn tractors, trimmers, blowers, generators, pressure washers, pole saws, sprayers, chainsaws, and more.

Valley Home Improvement Inc.
340 Riverside Dr.,
Florence
(413) 517-0158
www.valleyhomeimprovement.com
Steven Silverman, owner
Valley Home Improvement has specialized in home improvement, renovations, and remodeling service since 1991. Home-improvement and remodeling services include kitchen design, bathrooms, additions, sunrooms, screen porches, basement finishing, weatherization/insulation services, garages, and custom cabinetry and countertops.
VertitechIT
4 Open Square Way, #310, Holyoke
(413) 268-1600
www.vertitechit.com
Michael Feld, CEO
Calling itself a group of advisors, confidantes, strategists, and innovators for hire, Vertitech has, in its own words, created a new path to IT transformation, aiming not just to solve technical problems, but to develop the strategic solutions that make an organization or healthcare institution thrive.

Western Mass  Demolition Corp.
50 Summit Lock Road, Westfield
(413) 579-5254
www.wmdemocorp.com
Dale Unsderfer, president
Western Mass Demolition Corp. has a wide range of services to meet clients’ demolition and recycling needs, including complete structure removal, selective works, emergency and fire on call, lowboy and equipment hauling, building separation, abatement and remediation, concrete cutting and breaking, oil-tank removal, recycling, reuse, and salvage.

Cover Story

Mission Control

Mark Fulco

Mark Fulco

Roughly 21 months ago, Mark Fulco left Mercy Medical Center for a position with the hospital’s parent company, Trinity Health, one that would groom him for a leadership role somewhere within the vast Trinity system. As it turned out, somewhere became Mercy Medical Center.

Mark Fulco called it the “president track.”

Formally, he was carrying out a role within the Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health system, specifically that of ‘vice president, Health Ministries & System Office Communications Interface.’ While doing that, though, he was learning and essentially being groomed for a leadership position in one of the system’s many hospitals and medical centers.

“The idea behind this role was to bring in what they considered a high-potential executive for advancement to come here, work for the system office, learn some new things about how the system worked, and help set the operating model and the agenda for some of what the organization was going to do moving forward,” he explained, “and then return back to the regional help ministries at a level higher than they left the field at.”

He called it providential — a word he chose very carefully because of the significant meaning it carries — that the later stages of his 18- to 24-month tenure on this president track coincided with a presidential search at his former place of employment, Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, part of the Sisters of Providence Health System.

He became a candidate and prevailed in what became a nationwide search. Thus, he’s essentially coming home, as he put it, to a hospital and a system with a somewhat unique mission, one he came to fully appreciate during his tenure there, which included work in everything from fund development to marketing; new-business development to operations of the accountable-care organization and clinically integrated network.

Fulco said the Mercy presidency was essentially the first job at that level that he applied for, and it’s one he sought enthusiastically, because of what he experienced there and was part of.

Mercy Medical Center

Mark Fulco says one of the items at the top of his to-do list is to make Mercy Medical Center’s high-quality care far less of a best-kept secret.

“In this role [at Trinity], I’ve had the opportunity to see how healthcare is delivered across the country,” he told  BusinessWest. “And from that, I can say that the people of Western Mass. are really lucky to have such a talented and caring team at Mercy. And this is what really called me back to Springfield.

“It’s a great community,” he went on, referring to the Greater Springfield area. “But the real driving factor for me was the Mercy team; I’ve seen 94 or 95 different hospitals in our system, and I’ve met great caregivers from across the country, but Mercy has among the best I’ve seen, and the legacy of the Sisters of Providence … that’s a calling, it’s an honor, and it’s also a big responsibility to carry on that healing legacy.”

Fulco returns to Mercy at what he acknowledged was an ultra-challenging — and uncertain — time for the hospital, the system, and seemingly every healthcare provider in the country, with the uncertainty coming in many forms but especially the unknown fate of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

Fulco said all providers are operating in an environment where reimbursements from most payers, and especially Medicare and Medicaid, do not fully cover the cost of providing care. This is not a recent phenomenon, but the situation has grown steadily more precarious in recent years.

In response, systems and individual providers must become ever-more efficient, he said, and, in a word, they must innovate.

To do to that effectively, he said he intends to take full advantage of the know-how, resources, and, yes, buying power of the Trinity Health system and its New England region. As an example, he cited a project that is in some respects already underway — conversion to a new electric medical record (EMR) system known as EPIC.

“This is something Mercy would not be able to do on its own,” he said of the EMR conversion. “If we weren’t able to rely on our colleagues in the region, this is something we couldn’t afford to do, and that’s just one example of taking full advantage of our regional resources.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Fulco just days before his formal return to Springfield about his new role and that big responsibility he accepted to carry on the work of the Sisters of Providence.

Back to the Future

It’s not listed on his résumé, but Fulco still considers it one of his more important career stops.

He was referring to his time as an advanced-life-support EMT roughly 30 years ago, while he was in graduate school.

“That was my first job in healthcare,” he recalled, adding that, like all those that followed and especially his most recent assignment in Michigan, it was quite a learning experience. “That time as an EMT gave me some unique experience as a caregiver, and it gave me an appreciation for the clinical side of healthcare and incredible respect for physicians and nurses and the work they do.”

Mark Fulco, seen here with team members at Mercy Medical Center

Mark Fulco, seen here with team members at Mercy Medical Center, says that, in this challenging time, Mercy, and all healthcare providers, must be focused on innovation.

Over the next three decades, Fulco would move off the front lines in healthcare and take a series of management positions, with each one bringing new and different responsibilities.

After a stint as president of Masonic Management Services Corp. in Wallingford, Conn., a nonprofit affiliate of Masonicare, he became senior vice president of Cardium Health Services in Simsbury, Conn. From there, he took the role of vice president of Strategic Marketing and Business Development at Saint Francis Care in Hartford, another member of the Trinity Health system.

In 2005, he took the position of ‘chief transformation officer’ for the Sisters of Providence Health System. This was a broad role with a host of responsibilities that included strategy formation, accountable-care organization and clinically integrated network operations, and business-development activities, including marketing, communications, and fund development.

And as transformation officer, he helped oversee a good deal of, well, transformation in many areas, including formation and operation of an accountablecare organization, one of many areas where Mercy was out front and in many ways ahead of other providers within the Trinity Health system.

It was roughly 21 months ago that he joined Trinity Health in that aforementioned ‘interface’ role, and he described his time in Michigan as invaluable when it comes to meeting the challenges he will face as he leads Mercy Medical Center.

But as much as he enjoyed working behind the scenes, if you will, he was anxious to get back to a hospital setting.

“Healthcare is not necessarily delivered in the boardroom,” he told  BusinessWest. “Here in Michigan, I have an opportunity to see how the large healthcare system boardroom works, and how the large healthcare system team works in support of what’s delivered at the local level. But care is delivered at the bedside, and while this work here at the system office was exciting and invigorating, and it was wonderful to work with some of the best and brightest in healthcare, the hospital is where hope and healing occurs, and I wanted to be part of that again.”

He said he will bring to that role a management style grounded in the fundamentals of servant leadership, something he says comes to him naturally, because it has been his style throughout his career. And it’s also something that fits nicely with the missions of SPHS and Trinity.

“It dovetails with being a people-centered healthcare organization,” he explained. “And a lot of this was my upbringing — my father was a career public servant, and I was taught to be of service to others. It’s ingrained in me; it’s part of my DNA.”

Bringing it Home

As he talked some more about what made a return to Mercy so attractive to him, Fulco got his message across by relating the reactions he got from others when he would talk about the system.

“People here [in Michigan] are impressed when they hear about what the sisters have done, how they’ve served that community, and what that legacy is,” he explained. “But it’s interesting … they also tell me that me that, when I talked about the Sisters of Providence Health System and Mercy Medical Center, I had a twinkle in my eye that told them there was something special there. And I told them that you couldn’t help but have that if you spent any amount of time within that organization.”

mercy-exterior-front

Fulco will now get to spend considerably more time within that system, and he is already compiling a to-do list of sorts, or what he called a game plan for his first 100 days, one that came together through input gathered during the interviewing process, discussions with Interim President Beth O’Brien, and his decade of experience in the system.

And at or near the top of that list is doing a better job of telling Mercy’s story, he told BusinessWest.

“When I look at the challenges at Mercy, I think the care provided there is one of the best-kept secrets in Western Massachusetts,” he explained, adding that no business or organization, especially a hospital, needs or wants that particular quality, if that’s what a best-kept secret is.

“It’s been the organization’s culture to serve and be humble — that’s how the sisters taught us to be,” he went on. “But I think the community needs a better understanding of the physicians, the nurses, and the comprehensive services that are provided at Mercy and through the Mercy network.”

As he goes about working with those providers to better communicate Mercy’s services and mission, Fulco said he will put a heightened focus system-wide on the need to innovate, especially amid reimbursements that do not cover the full costs of providing care.

“Anyone who manages a household budget knows that you can’t spend more than you earn,” said Fulco. “So Mercy and Trinity Health New England are continuing to innovate with some of these approaches to deliver the absolute best and highest-quality care, but also deliver that care at the highest possible efficiency.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “But no matter where it goes, we’ll need to continue providing the very best care we can for people, and it needs to be done in a more efficient way at a lower cost year over year.”

There will be several initiatives in this broad realm, and some are already underway, he said, putting the EMR project in this category.

Improved EMR makes a system more efficient, he explained, because it allows for improved communication between providers across the region, giving physicians and nurses immediate access to information, an ability that often eliminates redundancies and mistakes in treatment, thus enabling Mercy, and the healthcare system as a whole, to reduce costs.

“When a test is done, other specialists don’t necessarily have to redo that test, so we’re able to save the system and, ultimately, all of us, as the payers for care, quite a bit of money,” he explained. “If a lab test is done, another physician isn’t redoing that lab test; when an X-ray is done or an MRI, you don’t necessarily have to redo that.”

Putting in the new EMR system is a massive undertaking with a lot of moving parts, said Fulco, adding that such enhancements have been undertaken at several facilities under the Trinity umbrella, and he intends to take full advantage of this accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.

“We have a great team on the ground both at Hartford that has had experience implementing these systems, and the incredible team at Mercy that will help with the heavy lifting done,” he said. “It will be a process, and a big process, for us to undertake, but we’ll do that and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

“One of the best things about being part of a system like this is that we’ve done this several times before,” he went on. “And with each one, you do you learn some things; we can now avoid the bumps in the road that others have encountered.”

Mission: Statement ‘Providential.’

That adjective, which Webster defines, variously, as ‘destined,’ ‘divine,’ and even ‘preordained,’ certainly works when Mark Fulco talks about coming home and all that goes with that territory.

He told BusinessWest that carrying on the work of the Sisters of Providence is an honor, but also a very big responsibility. It is all of that and more.

But it’s an assignment he’s looking forward to — as much as he is having still more people recognize that twinkle in his eye when he talks about not just where he works, but where he carries out the sisters’ mission.

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

Cover Story Manufacturing Sections

A New Spin

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds stands by the Truvis V machine with one of the products of the same name.

Over the past century or so, golf balls — and golf-ball history — have been made in Chicopee. Indeed, the sprawling plant on Meadow Street that once bore the name ‘Spalding’ and now ‘Callaway’ has been home to a number of innovations and new products. In recent years, though, that tradition — not to mention the number of workers at the plant — has been in decline. However, a new and exciting golf-ball design is changing the landscape, in all kinds of ways.

They’re calling it the Truvis V.

That’s the name given to a large, sophisticated piece of machinery recently installed at the sprawling Callaway plant in Chicopee. It was built to carefully place the 12 pentagons that have become the distinctive design pattern for the Truvis golf ball, as well as the Callaway name and the player number, all in accordance with USGA rules and regulations.

This machine is cutting-edge when it comes to such work, said Vince Simonds, senior director of Global Golf Ball Operations for Callaway, adding that it packs as much symbolism as it does science and technology.

Indeed, the Truvis V is perhaps the most visible evidence — except for perhaps the soccer-ball-like product the company has developed — of a compelling turnaround in the history of golf-ball manufacturing in Chicopee.

It’s a long history, to be sure, one that dates back to the late 1800s, but recent chapters have certainly not been as glorious. Decades ago, the talk about this plant was mostly reserved to the tens of millions of golf balls produced there annually. Lately, though, it’s been about the dwindling numbers of men and women working inside; decades ago, more than 1,000 people were employed at the plant, and only a few years ago that number dipped below the century mark.

It’s now at or near 200 and steadily climbing, and there were essentially two catalysts for that growth. The first was the arrival of Chip Brewer as the company’s president and CEO in 2012, a move that energized Callaway in many ways, Simonds noted. The second was the development of the Chrome Soft golf ball, or the “ball that changed the ball,” as the company says in its marketing materials.

This became the ball that essentially changed the fortunes of the Chicopee plant as well, Simonds went on, adding that the product has helped Callaway become the number-two ballmaker in the world (well behind the leader, Titleist), and it has also spurred those growing employment numbers in Chicopee.

The ‘Made in Chicopee’ banner at the Callaway plant

The ‘Made in Chicopee’ banner at the Callaway plant has new meaning these days.

And the Truvis model of the Chrome Soft is a very big part of this improved and still-changing picture.

It is still relatively new — it’s been on the market for a few years now — and no one on the PGA Tour is using it yet (more on that later), although Tom Watson is using it on the Champions Tour for players over age 50. But it is certainly catching on among amateurs.

As the name implies, the ball’s claim to fame is that is it is easier to see and enables players to focus better. The product has won some supporters among older players, said Dan Gomez, director of Golf Ball Supply Chain at the Chicopee operation, and among the younger clientele as well, who see is as a break from golf’s staid (some would say stuffy) image.

“It’s something new and different, and some would argue that’s just what’s needed in golf right now,” said Simonds.

The response has been so good that Callaway is having a hard time keeping up with demand. In fact, it isn’t keeping up.

“We’re capacity-constrained right now,”Gomez said with a laugh. “We’ve been sold out on this product for two years; everything we make goes right out — we can’t make enough of them.”

This development explains the Truvis V, but also the fact that space has cleared on the production floor for several more of these machines, and the company plans to add 30 to 40 more workers to operate them.

Indeed, Callaway is quite convinced that the strong interest in the Truvis ball does not represent a fad, like colored golf balls were when first introduced 40 years ago, but rather a business it can build on for years to come. And it is investing heavily in new equipment and plant reconfiguration.

It is also taking very necessary steps to ensure that it will have workers to staff those machines in the years to come. Like all manufacturers, Callaway is having a difficult time finding qualified help, and it is forging (that’s an industry term) relationships with area technical schools to help create a better pipeline.

Part of this relationship building involves tours — officials at Springfield Technical Community College recently visited, for example — designed to impress upon schools and the young people they educate that golf-ball making is alive and well in Chicopee.

And that’s something that really couldn’t have been said just a few years ago.

Round Numbers

Speaking of history, there is quite a bit of it on display, literally, in a row of cases in the hallway leading from the executive offices to the main production floor at the Callaway plant.

There’s more than two centuries of golf-ball technology and product developments behind the glass, including a reproduction of a ‘feathery,’ an 18th-century product that, as the name might suggest, was essentially leather-covered feathers. There’s also some gutta percha balls, or ‘gutties,’ as they were called — products used in the 1800s that were made from dried gum resin from guttiferous trees — as well as dozens of balls from the 20th and 21st centuries with the Spalding name on them, as well as those of several subsidiaries acquired over the years.

There’s even a ball that commemorates the historic moon shot, or moon golf shot, taken by Alan Shepard during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. (Simonds said there is some ambiguity as to just which brand of ball Shepard used for his famous lunar 6-iron, but he signed a promotional deal with Spalding soon after his return from that mission.)

Dan Gomez, left, and Vince Simonds show off some of the Chrome Soft products that have changed the dynamic at the Chicopee plant.

Dan Gomez, left, and Vince Simonds show off some of the Chrome Soft products that have changed the dynamic at the Chicopee plant.

Further down the hall, there is another display case. Its top rows are currently populated with a number of variations on the Truvis theme — meaning a host of color schemes and a few speciality balls, such as one produced for Australian pro Mark Leishman that has the shape of Australia printed inside the pentagons.

There are rows of empty racks waiting to be filled, as well as the confidence that they will be — something that probably didn’t exist just a few years ago.

Indeed, as he talked about Callaway’s acquisition of Spalding’s assets, including the Chicopee plant, in 2003, Simonds said the ensuing years were certainly not what the leaders at that company hoped they would be.

The company’s consistently sluggish performance in the golf-ball business was coupled with the fact that it was overcapitalized — actually, way overcapitalized — especially with regard to the sprawling Chicopee plant, which was much too big for the company’s needs.

Out of necessity, Callaway downsized and rightsized, said Simonds, adding that it sold the Chicopee plant and is currently leasing back roughly 275,000 square feet, maybe one-quarter the footprint of the original facility.

The rightsizing coincided with Brewer’s arrival as president and CEO of the company and the introduction of new products, especially the Chrome Soft, which is essentially technology that enables lower-compression golf balls to perform as well as higher-compression balls years ago.

These developments led to a dramatic increase in market share — from just over 7% in 2013 to more than 14% at present — which has in turn fueled investments in new product development, and especially the Truvis.

Today, the company is making 200,000 to 250,000 balls a day, and the workforce has steadily grown over the past few years to roughly the 200 mark, about a 50% increase, with more hiring planned, primarily in response to the strong early performance of the Truvis.

“It’s been a phenomenal success,” said Simonds, adding quickly that the company has taken steps, patent-wise (from both a manufacturing and design standpoint), in efforts to protect itself from competitors developing something similar, something he believes they’ll try to do.

At present, there are black pentagons on yellow (popular with fans of the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Steelers) and red-on-white options in this country, and a blue-on-white model sold in Japan, he went on, adding that there have been a number of custom orders as well, including green on white for Dick’s Sporting Goods, white on pink for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Mother’s Day, and red maple leaves to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Canada.

The response has been so strong — those balls shipped to Canada sold out quickly — that Callaway has mapped out an ambitious, three-year capital expansion plan to produce the balls.

The Truvis V, as noted, is merely the first of many that will be installed at the Chicopee plant.

And this is very specialized, and expensive, equipment.

“This is an involved process,” Simonds explained. “When you think about stamping such a large design on a spherical object … you have to distort the artwork so that it doesn’t look distorted on the ball. And we’ve developed some techniques to purposefully and mathematically distort the artwork so that, when it’s placed on the ball, it looks normal.”

Another challenge will be finding qualified individuals to operate these machines, he said, adding that this is why the company is reaching out to STCC and the technical high schools in the area, with the goal of establishing relationships and putting Callaway back on the radar screen for young people looking for career opportunities.

In the meantime, Callaway officials look forward to the day — and they predict it will come — when a PGA tour regular starts playing the Truvis, a development that would give the ball a huge boost in terms of both exposure and credibility.

“Most of the tour pros have them, and they use them for chipping and practicing,” Simonds explained. “But most PGA tour pros are too traditionalist to put those in play. But I think it will happen someday.”

Growth Patterns

There’s another item of interest on the shop floor to the administrative offices at the Callaway plant.

It’s a large banner hanging from a utility duct that features images of the Chrome Soft ball, with the Truvis product well-represented. Above those images, in large white letters, are the words ‘Made in Chicopee, MA.’

Such banners and such words have been seen at the plant for decades, obviously, but today, there is more meaning behind them, more optimism, and more promise, if you will.

A plant that has made a good deal of golf balls — and a great deal of golf-ball history — is entering a new era in which it will produce more of both.

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

Healthcare Heroes

Healthcare Heroes 2017

healthcareheroeslogo021517-pingThere were more than 70 nominations for the inaugural Healthcare Heroes class, and each one of them was truly worthy of that word ‘hero.’ Each one is to be considered a winner in some respect.

On Oct. 19, BusinessWest recognized those who stood out the most in the hearts and minds of an esteemed panel of judges. Collectively, they are pioneers, and they will continue in that vein at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden as they become the first individuals and organizations in the region to accept the Healthcare Heroes award.

Their stories reveal large quantities of energy, imagination, innovation, compassion, entrepreneurship, forward thinking, and dedication to the community.

There are eight winners in this first class, with two in the category of ‘Innovation in Health/Wellness,’ because two candidates were tied with the top score. The Heroes for 2017 are:

Lifetime Achievement: Sister Mary Caritas, SP;

Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider: Dr. Michael Willers, owner of the Children’s Heart Center of Western Massachusetts;

Emerging Leader: Erin Daley, RN, BSN, director of the Emergency Department at Mercy Medical Center;

Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration: Holly Chaffee, RN, BSN, MSN, president and CEO of Porchlight VNA/Home Care;

Community Health: Molly Senn-McNally, Continuity Clinic director for the Baystate Pediatric Residency Program;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Dr. Andrew Doben, director of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Baystate Medical Center;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Genevieve Chandler, associate professor of Nursing at UMass Amherst; and

Collaboration in Healthcare: The Healthy Hill Initiative.

American International College and Trinity Health are the presenting sponsors of Healthcare Heroes. Partner Sponsors are Achieve TMS, HUB International New England, and Health New England. Additional sponsors are Bay Path University, Baystate Health, Cooley Dickinson Health Care, Elms College, and Renew.Calm. Tickets to the event are $85 each, with tables available for purchase. For more information or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600.

healthcareheroeslogos-9

Autos Cover Story Sections

Awaiting the ‘Autohaus’

Michelle and Peter Wirth

Michelle and Peter Wirth

Michelle Wirth started her career with Mercedes-Benz as a mechanical engineer. Early on, after only a few visits to Stuttgart, Germany, where the cars are designed and manufactured, she learned that the company doesn’t build to industry standards — it creates an environment where engineers can design to their own, higher standards. These are lessons she and her husband, Peter, apply to their life and how they do business, especially with their new venture, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, set to open next month.

Peter Wirth doesn’t know exactly how long it’s been since Mercedes Benz has had a presence in Western Mass. with a dealership.

He does know that it’s been … well, long enough.

As in, long enough that he knows he and his wife, Michelle, and fellow partner Rich Hesse have a lot of work to do in many different realms as they prepare to open Mercedes-Benz of Springfield on the site of the old Plantation Inn across from Mass. Turnpike exit 6 in Chicopee.

For starters, the partners in this nearly $12 million enterprise have to let people know that Mercedes is, indeed, back in the 413 more than a decade after a small dealership on Riverdale Street, this region’s auto mile, if you will, closed its doors, leaving area consumers to travel to Hartford or just east of Worcester to do business.

And they intend to get that job done in a number of ways, from intensive, targeted marketing to a grand-opening celebration (date to be determined), to some work within the community even before the doors open, to show that they are not just here to sell cars (more on that later).

But there is other work to do, and most of it falls in the category of showing just how much Mercedes-Benz — the company, the cars, and the brand — have all changed since the last time someone had the opportunity to buy or lease a new one in Western Mass.

“What I recognized is that we have to — and we love to — reacquaint people in our area of influence with the Mercedes-Benz brand; a lot has changed in 10 years,” said Michelle Wirth, who will oversee marketing efforts and other duties for the company, but started her career with Mercedes as a mechanical engineer. “There are something like 3,000 to 4,000 Mercedes cars in Western Massachusetts currently in operation. I don’t have exact figures, but I’m sure most of them are older, because people haven’t made the trek to Hartford or Shrewsbury or Albany pick up a new car.

“We want to make sure that those folks who are already convinced about the brand know we exist, and then reacquaint them with the new cars,” she went on. “The vehicles themselves have just transformed in the past 10 years.”

An architect’s rendering of the new Mercedes dealership

An architect’s rendering of the new Mercedes dealership, which will emphasize transparency.

By that, she was referring to everything from the number of models to the depth of the price range. For example, she pointed to the CLA, a Mercedes model that retails for under $33,000, a number that would likely surprise many people, including some who know cars — and Mercedes.

Other things that have changed since Mercedes models were last sold in this region include the carmaker’s focus on safety, and not merely luxury and style (although those are still points of emphasis, to be sure), as well as the dealerships in which the cars are sold and, especially, serviced.

Indeed, dealerships today are well-appointed, convenience-focused, customer-friendly facilities that exist not so much to showcase cars, although they still do that, certainly, but pamper those who buy them.

So much so that Michelle Wirth, as she described the process of designing, outfitting, and operating the facility in Chicopee, said the mindset is that she and her husband are not competing with other dealerships, necessarily, but against hotels, restaurants, and even the new $950 million MGM Springfield casino due to open in about a year, in the manner in which they are all focused on hospitality and taking care of the customer.

“When they walk away from a fine hotel establishment, people say ‘man, they did everything right’ — it’s just a feeling they have,” she explained. “When they walk away, they’re going to feel it, they’re going to feel, ‘wow, they care about me, and they took care of me. That’s the feeling we’re going to create.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest visited the dealership a few weeks before its doors are due to officially open to gain some insight into what the partners in this venture are anticipating as Mercedes makes its much anticipated return to the area.

A Major Coup

By now, most in the region’s business community are at least somewhat familiar with the story behind Mercedes-Benz of Springfield.

Back in late 2014, Peter Wirth and Hesse, owners of a Mercedes dealership in Nanuet, N.Y., were approached by the carmaker about bringing the brand back to Western Mass. with a dealership after that aforementioned lengthy absence, and after some extensive research, the two concluded that this region was, indeed, underserved, and that a facility here had considerable potential.

Especially at the site they eventually chose, two turnpike exits east of Riverdale Street, at the old Plantation Inn site. This location is literally across the street from where the tollbooth once stood, and at the eastern end of Route 291, giving the location great accessibility.

And it will be needed, because this dealership will have a huge coverage area, one that includes parts of four states: Western Mass., Northern Conn., Southern Vermont, and Southern New Hampshire.

That large swath of territory will bring some challenges, said the Wirths as they talked about their business venture — especially the large number of markets they must advertise in — but also a great deal of opportunity to better serve thousands of Mercedes customers.

“It’s a big area, and it’s a big task,” said Peter. “But it’s a huge opportunity for people in the Springfield metro area, who have to drive 45 minutes to Hartford, or almost an hour to Shrewsbury, the next-closest dealership, or an hour and a half to Albany.”

More than three years after those initial talks between Mercedes, Wirth, and Hesse began, the Western Mass. Mercedes dealership, or ‘autohaus,’ as such facilities are called in Germany, is nearly ready for prime time.

When BusinessWest toured the site in mid-August, the exterior of the dealership had been completed, and work was continuing inside. The projected opening date will be late September.

Like most of the dealerships being built, many of them replacing facilities 30 or 40 years old, this one will be spacious, well-appointed, modern-looking, and heavy on glass and metal.

There is a corporate identity and design standards for these dealerships, and they make them easily recognizable as Mercedes-Benz dealerships. There are certain kinds of columns, tiles, paint colors, and furniture that are pretty standard across the dealer network. But at the same time, we, together with Mercedes-Benz, worked on laying out the dealership in the way we know it’s going to work.”

And while the Mercedes corporation has a desired look and feel in mind that its dealers must create, there is plenty of room to personalize one’s autohaus, said Peter, citing, as just one example, the dealership’s car wash; Mercedes doesn’t require one, but the partners considered it a key part of the “experience.”

“There is a corporate identity and design standards for these dealerships, and they make them easily recognizable as Mercedes-Benz dealerships,” he explained. “There are certain kinds of columns, tiles, paint colors, and furniture that are pretty standard across the dealer network. But at the same time, we, together with Mercedes-Benz, worked on laying out the dealership in the way we know it’s going to work.

“That’s something that has now become specific to this site,” he went on. “Mercedes-Benz has ideas, but they will also take our input, and we’ve been very vocal in that process and made it our own. While we’ve been using their design cues, the feel and flow of the dealership is what we know works and will serve our customers best.”

Asked to elaborate, he said this dealership isn’t just open, it’s incredibly open.

Wirth said his office has four glass walls, and from it, he can see the front desk, the sales office, the lounge, and the service drive. In many ways, that office embodies the intended feeling of openness, ease of transition from one department another, and a word that’s becoming ever more prominent in business and politics today — transparency.

“It’s easy for customers to not just find their way around, but to transition from one department to another — we’re not compartmentalized,” he explained. “We don’t think of a dealership as a sales, service, and parts department; it’s one unit to us.”

Driving Force

As she talked about the new dealership, plans for it, and the level of service she and her partners plan to create, Michelle Wirth thought this was the time to discuss her career with Mercedes-Benz, which began soon after she graduated from Lehigh University with a mechanical engineering degree.

Peter and Michelle Wirth say much has changed in the decade since Mercedes had a presence in the area

Peter and Michelle Wirth say much has changed in the decade since Mercedes had a presence in the area, and they intend to reacquaint the region with the brand.

“I got hired right out of school and worked in environmental and safety engineering,” she told BusinessWest. “I went to Germany a number of times a year, and actually got to go to the design center in Stuttgart, where they design and build these vehicles. I got to learn — I didn’t know this when I walked in the door — that Mercedes doesn’t just build to standards. They rise above those standards, and they have a holistic approach to safety and a holistic approach to design.

“It’s more about ‘what’s the best solution for the customer,’ and that’s impressive,” she went on, “because it creates a space where engineers get to design to the best possible standard, not just the least common denominator. And that translated over to me. As a young person, eyes wide open, I learned a lot from that. It’s like a standard you set for yourself, and it’s the highest one around.”

This attitude, or mindset, permeates everything the couple does in life and in business, Michelle explained, adding that it shapes everything from how they’ll do in business in Chicopee to how they’re already getting involved in the community that will soon be home — to them and their business.

That involvement has taken the form of support for organizations ranging from Square One to Baystate Children’s Hospital, said Peter, adding that these endeavors are part of a culture the company wants to instill. In other words, rather than doing something that might be expected, such as simply meeting auto industry design and performance standards, they’re setting the bar much higher.

“It’s not just checking a box for us,” he explained. “If you can be involved with the children’s hospital, and you have four healthy children; that comes naturally to us. Yes, you’re getting your name out, but it’s also a natural contact point for us; we can help and do good at the same time.”

Meanwhile, back in the realm of car sales, the Wirths believe they have the right brand at the right time to go along with the right location and the right culture.

Indeed, while some luxury brands have struggled with making all-important connections with younger audiences, Mercedes has made inroads, if you will, by creating lower price points and getting younger people into its vehicles.

And once that happens, they often become customers for life, said Michelle, noting that Mercedes not only has one of the highest loyalty rates in the business, but one of the highest conquest rates (winning over the drivers of other brands) as well.

At the same time, the company has adjusted its marketing messages, said Michelle, to appeal not only to the young, but to those who want to think, act, and, yes, drive like the young.

“Now, the marketing focus is more on ‘young at heart,’” she explained. “That’s how we describe people; it’s ‘do you have that Millennial mindset? You may not be that age, but you have that mindset. By doing that, you broaden the audience that you’re speaking to.”

Getting in Gear

Given the huge geographic area it will be serving, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield will already be speaking to a very broad audience.

The initial message will be that Mercedes is back in Western Mass. after a decade’s hiatus. But soon — in fact, almost immediately — there will be much more to communicate: that Mercedes is back, and that this is a brand for both the young and the young at heart.

Also to be communicated, especially through a visit to the new dealership, is that this venture fully embraces that corporate culture of not merely meeting standards, but setting higher ones.

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

Cover Story Sections Tourism & Hospitality

Art of the Deal

By Kathleen Mellen

Crowds at Paradise City Arts Festival

Crowds at Paradise City Arts Festival

Linda and Geoffrey Post

Linda and Geoffrey Post say the festival’s early success snowballed and took on a life of its own.

It’s tough to make a living as an artist, and no one knows that better than Linda and Geoffrey Post, who made a go of it for 20 years, much of it on the art-show circuit, before deciding, in 1994, to switch gears. That’s when they founded the Paradise City Arts Festival.

Geoffrey Post, a fiber artist, and Linda Post, a painter, say they took an enormous leap of faith when they started the festival at the Three County Fairgrounds in Northampton. They gathered work from fellow artists, put notices in local newspapers, and set up in the Fair’s largest building, the Arena, whose lopsided dirt floor was better designed to show horses, pigs, and sheep than sculpture, ceramics, and fine jewelry.

And they wondered if anyone would come.

Well, people did. Now, 22 years later, the festival is one of the premier such events in the nation, with 250 artists and craftspeople and some 10,000 customers flocking to the site twice a year, in May and October, to immerse themselves in works by some of the nation’s finest craft makers and independent artists, along with a sculpture garden, fund-raisers for local charities, and a wide array of victuals from local restaurants — all to the accompaniment of lively jazz melodies.

Visitors to the award-winning festival have come from all 50 states, and five continents, to partake of what Boston Magazine calls “a unique visual arts institution.”

How it all came to be this institution, and how it continues to grow and prosper, is an intriguing story, one in which the Posts and a number of other players have remained focused on the big picture — figuratively, and quite literally.

Brush with Fame

The very first thing the Posts had to do, back in 1995, was to establish a working relationship with the fair, which was established in 1817 for the purpose of promoting agriculture, agricultural education, and agricultural science in the Commonwealth — a far cry from what the Posts were proposing.

Even with the fair’s blessing, which they received, there was much to be done before a single artist could set up — including making significant investments in the site so it could support such a venture. First up was the installation of an electrical system big enough to power the festival. Plus, they added, when it rained, the whole place, which sits in a floodplain, turned to mud, so they had to fix that.

“It was really an experience trying to transform that space,” Linda Post said. “It took a lot of time, effort, money, planning, faith, and hope.”

But, once they got started, things began to cook.

“In ’95, we were successful enough so that we could have a ’96, and ’96 was a little better than ’95,” Geoffrey said. Then, in 1997, things really took off, when they attracted the attention of the New York Times and the Boston Globe, which wrote features about the event.

“Things just exploded. It was one of those Woodstock-type scenarios, where they’re backed up on Route 91, all the way to Hartford,” Post said. “After that, it kind of had a life of its own.”

Terry Evans

Terry Evans

That success signaled to the city and the fairgrounds that there might be uses for the site other than traditional agricultural events. In 2010, a committee was formed, which included representatives of the fair, the city, and the festival, to consider improvements to the site, with an eye toward expanding its use as a year-round venue for events like the Paradise City Arts Festival. A consulting firm was hired to analyze potential economic gains of an upgrade to the fairgrounds, and the results were impressive: it was projected that such a shift would add 500 jobs and result in an economic output of nearly $63 million, up from $25.9 million.

That got the ball rolling. A $42 million expansion was planned for the 55-acre site, which would include two phases: first, the demolition of old stables and the construction of three new horse barns, and, second, the construction of an 80,000-square-foot exhibition hall, as well improvements to the stormwater drainage, roads, and sidewalks.

Phase one was completed in 2011, when the fair was awarded $4 million by the state to build the new barns and to improve drainage on the site. But then, things stalled, and plans for the exhibition hall were put on hold, says the fair’s general manager, Bruce Shallcross, especially in light of a changed local market, including the addition of a new casino in Springfield and a still-recovering economy.

“We’re not sure, now, that we can support an 80,000-square-foot hall, but the Redevelopment Committee is still looking at alternatives,” he said.

All the while, the festival has stepped up, Shallcross told BusinessWest, sharing expenses for infrastructure improvement, including paving part of the grounds to deal with the mud problem.

Nnamdi Okonkwo

Nnamdi Okonkwo

“They’ve been very good partners over the years,” he said. “They are our anchor event in the spring and the fall, and we have an excellent working relationship with them.”

The Posts also say they have a good relationship with the city of Northampton, and while there’s no official, fiscal partnership, they do enjoy a symbiotic relationship. For example, it is common for the city’s mayor to write a welcome letter for the festival’s catalogue, and the Posts hire police and fire details for security and traffic control. They also bring tens of thousands of patrons from around the region, and across the country, to Northampton.

Indeed, a marketing survey the festival requisitioned about 10 years ago showed that some 70% of the people who attend the show come from outside the Pioneer Valley.

“The restaurants are full, the hotels are full. We think it’s good for the fairgrounds, good for the festival, and good for Northampton,” Shallcross said.

In a gesture of thanks for the city’s support, the Posts offer the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce space at the festival each year, where they can promote the city, its restaurants, events, and tourist attractions. That’s a boon for Northampton and the chamber, says its executive director, Suzanne Beck.

“The festival draws thousands of people to Northampton, and once they’re here, people are naturally curious about the area,” Beck said. “By having a pop-up visitor center at the festival, we can share everything about cultural events, dining offerings —what to see and do in the area — and fulfill that curiosity.

In a Different Mold

Fast-forward to 2017.

Not content to rest on their laurels, in May, the Posts decided to “redo everything.” They moved out the 23-year-old Arena building into the three relatively new barns, which are better equipped to house artists’ display booths — although they are still mainly intended for agricultural use.

“At least they have concrete floors,” Linda Post said.

The festival also utilizes more of the surrounding, outdoor areas, for its sculpture promenade, a dining tent, and entertainment.

It’s a move that has paid off.

“Whenever you make a big change like that, it makes you nervous, but we got great feedback from the exhibitors and the customers,” Linda Post said. “People stayed longer, and they really enjoyed the new layout.”

After more than two decades, the Posts say, they have to work diligently to keep the festival fresh. Each year, they combine new artists with the old, always with an eye toward curating an event that includes different price points and aesthetics, and new trends.

“If we don’t get fresh new artists to every show, it gets stale,” Geoffrey Post said.

Turns out, that’s not a problem: Far more artists and craftspeople apply to the festival than the Posts can accept.

“Every year, we’re getting new generations of artists and new generations of patrons,” he noted. “It has a life of its own.”

Looking to the future, the Posts say, they are finding ways to use the Internet to their advantage. They recently developed the Paradise City Membership Program, a partnership which allows artists to market their work year-round, through the festival’s website.

They produce a glossy magazine that gets mailed out to 60,000 households, and they are developing email newsletters and other promotions that go out to patrons on their email list, which is more than 40,000 strong.

Finally, while they don’t have a Paradise City Arts Festival app, they’ve made sure their website is optimized for cellphone use.

“We’re trying to figure out the right model for using all the new technologies.” Linda Post said.

The next Paradise City Arts Festival in Northampton will be Oct. 7-9, when artists and craftspeople will have on the display, and for sale, a wide variety of mixed-media art, ceramics, furniture, jewelry, photography, works on paper, wearable fiber art, and much more.

As is their tradition, there will be a “show within a show,” which invites participating artists to create work related to a special theme: This year, it’s “Life of the Party.”

And, in keeping with another annual tradition, the Posts will invite participating artists to donate a piece for an auction to raise money for a local non-profit organization. Since 1996, more than $400,000 has been raised in support of such causes as the Cancer Connection, the International Language Institute, and the Breast Form Fund. This year, the money will go to WGBY Public Television for Western New England.

Nice Work, If You Can Get It

As the Posts prepare for the next show in Northampton (they also produce a smaller, sister festival in Marlborough), things are heating up at their offices in Northampton’s Industrial Park.

“People don’t realize how much work goes into the shows; we start preparing months in advance,” Linda Post said. But she doesn’t mind. “Every day, we’re surrounded by all these beautiful objects and creative people. That’s a really good way to have to work.”

If one were to call it work. The Posts prefer to call it their passion.

Cover Story

A Matter of Speculation

towersquaredpartSince it opened nearly a half-century ago, Tower Square has been both a prominent part of the Springfield skyline and a barometer of sorts for the health and vitality of the city and its downtown. And this explains why there is so much anticipation and speculation accompanying the announcement that the property is being put on the market by owner MassMutual. Experts agree that this will be more than a real-estate transaction — it will likely also be a referendum on Springfield and its apparent resurgence.

Ever since the news broke that Tower Square, the downtown Springfield office tower, hotel, and retail complex, would be put on the market by owner MassMutual, there has been seemingly no end to the speculation about this local landmark.

And it has come in many forms, from questions about why the property is on the block — and why now — to conjecture about who might acquire it and at what price, what the new owner might attempt to do with it, and what role the complex might play in a changing City of Homes.

It was that last question that Bob Greeley found the most vexing.

“What will downtown Springfield look like in 10 or 15 years … I couldn’t answer that one, and I don’t think anyone can — the city can go in one of many directions,” said Greeley, president of RJ Greeley Co. in Springfield and a player in the local commercial real-estate market for four decades.

Most of those other questions were a bit easier to handle, for Greeley and others they were put to. Indeed, there seemed to be general consensus that there will be a healthy market for the property — and for a number of reasons, including its location (much more on that later), Springfield’s ongoing resurgence, the opening of MGM Springfield in 15 months or so, and the solid, consistent performance of the complex’s office tower over the past several decades.

It certainly seems like a good time for MassMutual to explore this option. Not only because of all the recent positive activity in the city, but also because of the large number of regional and national investors looking to acquire long-term strategic assets right now.”

There also seemed to be general sentiment that there would be strong diversity among potential buyers, with interested local parties as well as national and international bidders.

“It certainly seems like a good time for MassMutual to explore this option,” said Ken Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates. “Not only because of all the recent positive activity in the city, but also because of the large number of regional and national investors looking to acquire long-term strategic assets right now.”

As for the role Tower Square will play in the future and the shape that property will take … here there was far less certainty in the experts’ voices and only conjecture — except when the subject of conversation was the approximately 180,000 square feet of retail space in the complex.

Moving forward, and even now, for that matter, said Greeley, the term ‘retail space’ should probably be replaced by the phrase ‘commercial space,’ because retail, at least in the traditional sense of the word, almost certainly won’t be a big part of Tower Square’s future.

Indeed, urban retail centers, or malls, if you will, which is what Tower Square was 40 years ago, are fast becoming a thing of the past, and, in most ways, they conflict strongly with most cities’ strategies for revitalizing their downtown centers, said Evan Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, who has spent considerable time and energy studying that subject.

Bob Greeley

Bob Greeley is among those who believe the sale of Tower Square should be an effective barometer for Springfield’s resurgence and its prospects for the future.

“I think downtown malls are inappropriate in this day and age,” he explained. “Urban malls take people off the sidewalk, and that’s not what you want; you want that hustle and bustle of people going up and down streets.”

So what can and should happen at Tower Square in the years to come? Plotkin envisions a future with more of what is there now — meaning educational institutions such as UMass Amherst, which has a considerable presence in the complex with its UMass Center at Springfield, and Cambridge College.

If nothing else, the sale of Tower Square should serve as a fairly intriguing barometer regarding the relative health of the city, its worthiness in the eyes of the development community, and its prospects for the future.

“I’m hoping that there will be a strong market for this property because, if there is, that will be a clear indication of where we think Springfield is and where it’s going,” said Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer. “Everyone seems to be in agreement that things are going quite well for us here and our future is pretty good; this sale, or potential sale, will go a long way toward validating all that.”

For this issue, BusinessWest presents a snapshot, or summation, of the conjecture surrounding Tower Square, which will be the biggest commercial real-estate deal (outside of the casino, of course) in nearly a quarter-century, but also much more than that. In many ways, as Kennedy noted, it could be a referendum on Springfield — both its present and future.

Right Place, Right Time?

Plotkin often talks about his grandfather, Samuel D. Plotkin, whose full name was over the company’s door for decades, and the real-estate maps he created for not only Springfield, but a host of other cities as well.

The maps were essentially grids that assigned scores, or values, to blocks and individual properties based on location and other factors.

In Springfield, the block of Main Street between what is now Boland Way (years ago, it was Vernon Street) and Bridge Street, has always been what Samuel Plotkin called a ‘100% property,’ said his grandson.

“My grandfather counted how many people walked by a street corner at 12 noon,” Plotkin explained. “And he had some kind of logarithm or formula, and plotted these numbers on these months. The corner of Main and Boland was called a 100% location, and as you go down the blocks, it was 90%, 80%, or 70%; when you were looking for a site for a business, you always wanted to know the areas that had the heaviest foot traffic.”

Springfield’s resurgence

Area brokers say Springfield’s resurgence, the arrival of MGM in 2018, and the office tower’s historically strong performance should create a solid market for Tower Square.

So historically — and into the future, by most all accounts — Tower Square has that first axiom of commercial real estate — ‘location, location, location’ — well-covered.

But that’s only one of the factors that go into the sentiments of general optimism with regard to the sale of the property, the interest it will generate, the price it will command, and the speculation (there’s that word again) that this will be anything but the fire sale that was the acquisition of Monarch Place by Peter Picknelly in 1994 for $25 million, roughly a quarter of what that complex was built for less than a decade earlier.

Others include the generally high-performing, 370,000-square-foot office tower, said Greeley, adding that location certainly plays a role in that success. And while there is some debate about just how much office space will be needed in the future and where it will be needed, the consensus is that 1500 Main St. will long be a business address in considerable demand.

“The office tower has a low vacancy rate, and it’s almost always been that way,” he noted. “It’s a good location and a good facility.”

Meanwhile, the city’s resurgence and the opening of MGM in the fall of 2018 are forces that are projected to make the Tower Square property — and others, for that matter — more valuable and saleable.

“That property is probably worth more today than it has been for a long time,” said Greeley. “This is a good time to be doing this.”

But the question of what the eventual buyer will do with the balance of the property outside the office tower — meaning the Marriott hotel and the 180,000 square feet of retail space — remains the biggest unknown and a question without an easy answer.

Indeed, while several new tenants, including UMass, Cambridge College, Hot Table, and Valley Venture Mentors (soon to vacate its space and relocate to the Innovation Center) have moved in over the past decade, the vacancy rate in the retail component of the building remains high, so much so that it might become a drag on the property during the sale process, said Plotkin.

“Retail is the piece of Tower Square that has been slow to come back,” said Plotkin, noting that, decades ago — or until the construction of suburban malls like Eastfield and Ingleside, according to many observers — it thrived at that location. “The office tower has always done pretty well, and the hotel has always done pretty well. But you’re saddled with a large amount of retail vacancies; it’s been repurposed, and wisely, with the colleges and a few restaurants, but there are still a lot of vacancies.”

Elaborating, Plotkin and others said the retail scene has changed dramatically over the past several years, with Internet sales taking a huge toll on national chains ranging from Sears to Staples, and also on shopping facilities, including urban and suburban malls.

“Retail has been a struggle across the country,” said Greeley, noting that many suburban malls, including Eastfield, are losing anchors and struggling. “Society is changing, and the boxes of retail are going away — not just downtown, but everywhere.”

Space Exploration

This brings Greeley back to his comment earlier about how the retail space in Tower Square should probably be classified as ‘commercial’ moving forward, a term that has a much broader meaning and one that hints at the wide range of possibilities for that space.

Elaborating, Greeley said that eventual uses for those spaces will still have to be synergistic with the office tower and the hundreds of people working there, a consideration that will in some ways limit what can be done.

“You’re not going to put a Chuck E. Cheese in there,” he said with a laugh, adding that many other forms of entertainment and hospitality, especially those focused on children and families, which are now populating suburban malls, may be similarly inappropriate.

Main Street is going to come back, I think, and the city is poised for a resurgence, but a lot of things have to happen before that can take place. And there’s much more to it than what happens with Tower Square. It has to do with how we think about cities and the automobile.”

Plotkin said some urban malls and properties resembling Tower Square in some ways (it is fairly unique in its overall composition) have been repurposed for housing and other uses, such as higher education, but overall, such assignments require imagination and capital — and in large amounts.

He suggests that more of the “college campus” components, as he called them, might be appropriate and, more importantly, viable.

“Education is one of the directions I would be looking at when it comes to redeveloping the property,” he explained. “It could be a law school, it could be a research facility — there are a number of possibilities.

“We should have something happening there that is going to draw young people to the facility,” he went on, adding that educational facilities could in many ways feed off, and contribute to, the growing entrepreneurial ecosystem in downtown Springfield.

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin says the retail component in Tower Square remains a challenge, and that more education-related facilities may be the most viable option for that space.

Elaborating, he said the Marriott hotel and its 260 rooms could possibly be retrofitted into a dormitory, bringing a residential campus into the realm of possibility and also the prospect of several hundred young people living in the downtown area, which could fuel further growth of hospitality and service-related businesses.

And with the office tower and its broad mix of tenants in sectors ranging from law and marketing to accounting and financial services, there would be ample opportunities for internships and other learning experiences.

“If someone wanted to be right downtown, there are many amenities there,” said Plotkin, in reference to a college or university. “I’ve always looked upon what UMass is doing there as a start. It’s a good start, but it should just be the beginning.”

And from a big-picture perspective, Tower Square will be just one piece of the puzzle, he went on.

“Main Street is going to come back, I think, and the city is poised for a resurgence, but a lot of things have to happen before that can take place,” Plotkin told BusinessWest. “And there’s much more to it than what happens with Tower Square. It has to do with how we think about cities and the automobile.”

Overall, Kennedy said Springfield’s resurgence and a host of additions to the business and cultural landscape — from MGM to CRRC; from a renovated Union Station to the Innovation Center taking shape on Bridge Street — are creating more interest in the City of Homes, and Tower Square could play a role in bringing more businesses here, either through the office tower or its other available spaces.

“I continue to meet with companies that are interested in expanding into Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “I have my fingers crossed, but I think things are going to work out.”

New Lease on Life?

That last bit of commentary was offered in reference to the city as a whole, but also to the pending sale of Tower Square.

This will be a real-estate transaction, but also much more than that. As Kennedy and others noted, it will be a referendum or bellwether of sorts on Springfield’s ongoing resurgence and prospects for the future.

And it may also be one of the larger determining factors when it comes to what that future might be — for the downtown and the city as a whole.

That’s why all that speculation is going on, and also why this will be a very closely watched real-estate transaction.

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

Cover Story

The ‘Pulse’ of MGM Springfield

Alex Dixon

Alex Dixon

Alex Dixon, a self-described third-generation casino worker, has assumed the duties of general manager of the $950 million MGM Springfield resort casino complex. This is a large job with a broad set of responsibilities that he boils down to creating a winning culture. Roughly 15 months out from the grand opening, his work is focused mainly on assembling a team — and especially the corps of senior leaders — and essentially bringing this facility to life.

When Alex Dixon was assistant general manager at the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, he went to great lengths to fully understand all aspects of virtually every job at the sprawling complex and what it was like to perform such duties.

In fact, he performed them himself.

“I put on a valet’s uniform and parked cars — that’s the best way to learn valet,” he told BusinessWest. “I put on an environmental-services uniform and learned how to clean toilets. I put on the uniform of many of the positions, if not all the positions, in the facility to spend three or four hours with that group to really understand how I, as a leader, can impact the day-to-day lives of my front-line team members.”

And he plans to do the same in his new role, as general manager of MGM Springfield, both before that $950 million facility opens its doors in the fall of 2018, and after. So visitors should keep their eyes peeled, because they might just spot him dealing them in at blackjack, greeting them at the front door, or parking their car.

That happened quite often in Baltimore, actually.

“It’s amazing the reaction you’ll get from customers when they see you on the floor in a security uniform welcoming guests alongside those team members,” said Dixon, 36, who described himself as a third-generation casino worker (more on that later). “But that’s how you fully understand the challenges with each job; in many cases there are very small things we can do to make things easier, and we need to do those things.”

This is the textbook definition of a servant leader, which is the phrase Dixon summoned when asked to describe his management style and what he will bring to Springfield’s South End.

“There’s not a job in our facility that I would not do myself,” he said. “And we really need to understand the day-to-day life of our employees, because that’s who our customers interact with.”

And that’s clearly why, as he talked with BusinessWest a few months after his arrival in Springfield, Dixon turned the discussion early and often to the people, an estimated 3,000 of them, who will be working at the casino complex — on the front lines and behind the scenes — to present visitors with an experience.

MGM Springfield

Fifteen months or so out, the assignment for Alex Dixon and the team he’s assembling is to bring MGM Springfield, seen in this rendering, to life.

He went on at length about how he will not only play a lead role in hiring team members — especially the eight to 10 people who will comprise the senior management team — but also create the environment in which they will work and the culture that will pervade not only the casino floor but every component of this facility, from the shops to the movie theater to the bowling alley.

This is the very essence of casino operations, he explained, adding that such facilities are not about slot machines and restaurants, ornate hotels, and elaborate shows. They’re about the people providing a brand of service that will draw in visitors — and then bring them back.

With that as a backdrop, Dixon noted that if Mike Mathis, president of MGM Springfield, is the face of the operation, as most would say he is, then he is the “pulse,” or “heartbeat.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Dixon to fully grasp everything he meant by that statement.

Background — Check

Before sitting down with BusinessWest, Dixon offered a quick tour of what amounts to MGM’s new, temporary nerve center on the 20th floor at Monarch Place.

The company, which will eventually settle in at 95 State St., adjacent to the casino complex, was operating out of a smaller suite of offices on the ninth floor at Monarch, but with its leadership team starting to come together, more space was deemed necessary.

There is a good deal of it on the 20th floor, where Dixon gestured to a succession of small offices, almost all of them vacant at that time, which will be occupied by seasoned individuals who will have, in some cases, business cards with titles never before seen in Western Mass.

Like ‘vice president of Slots’ and ‘vice president of Table Games,’ for example, two of the positions mentioned by Dixon as he noted who will be occupying some of the offices he passed. There will be other, more traditional roles, such as vice president of Facilities and vice president of Marketing, he went on, adding that he will be spending a good amount of his time in the next several weeks deciding who will take on such responsibilities.

How Dixon came to occupy what amounts to the corner office on the 20th floor, complete with a window from which he can see the casino complex taking shape, is an intriguing story.

Indeed, while he grew up in and around casinos, Dixon didn’t seem in any way destined for work in that industry. But fate and a few chance encounters would change the trajectory of his career path and ultimately put him on a course for the City of Homes.

Our story really begins … well, where you might expect it would when we’re talking about someone with casino work in his blood — Las Vegas — but, as noted, the tome didn’t develop exactly according to script.

“My family moved from the deep south out to Las Vegas to be the porters, the maids, the cooks, the housekeepers, and then, eventually, dealers, in the casinos,” he explained. “My grandmother was a housekeeper, and my dad was a bartender, and I’ve been fortunate to rise in the ranks to general manager.

Alex Dixon

Alex Dixon, seen here in MGM’s nerve center in Monarch Place, says that if Mike Mathis is the face of the company and its casino, he is the ‘pulse’ or ‘heartbeat.’

“I remember the burgeoning of the casino industry before my eyes,” he went on. “In 1990, the Mirage was the first really big facility built with institutional capital. You can imagine what it’s like growing up in Las Vegas as a young boy and seeing this great volcano coming up in the middle of the Las Vegas desert; I thought that was really cool.”

When he was a senior in high school, and student body president, he recalls the theme for his senior year being “Viva Las Vegas,” with each class decorating its hallway in the theme of one of the resorts operating at the time.

But while casinos were in most ways the backdrop for his childhood, his passions were business and government, and he went east, to Washington, D.C., to pursue a degree in Finance at Howard University’s School of Business.

There, he caught what he called the “investment banking bug,” and did his first internship at J.P. Morgan, gaining an introduction to Wall Street and the world of mergers and acquisitions.

He had a second internship at Goldman Sachs and its Energy & Power group, and took a job there upon graduation in 2003. Later, he had the opportunity to join the company’s international operation and spent the better part of 2005 in London, before moving on to the Los Angeles office, where, still focused on M&A, he was a member of the team that advised Disney on its $7.5 billion acquisition of Pixar.

He and his wife would gravitate to Las Vegas to raise a family, though, and upon returning, he made a number of phone calls as he pursued various opportunities. One of them was to Bill Hornbuckle, currently president of MGM Resorts International, who at the time was president and COO of Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.

“Bill put the sell on,” Dixon recalled. “I don’t even remember what the role was, but at the time it just wasn’t the right fit; it was too steep of a financial decline after Wall Street and with the new family and everything else.”

I was very fortunate to learn the business by sitting at the feet of people who had built some of these great facilities in Las Vegas. I had a great number of mentors — people who were able to coach me and inspire me, really.”

Instead, he joined Silver Pacific Advisors, LLC, a boutique investment bank in Vegas that raised capital for developers seeking to build casinos. And it was in that setting that he gained what he considers his first real exposure to general management.

“The developers would put together a management team, the head of slots, the head of table games, and so on,” he recalled. “And in working on the deal as a financial associate, I said, ‘hmmm … that’s what I want to be when I grow up.’”

Odds and Ends

That epiphany, if you will, compelled him to leave Silver Pacific and join Caesars Entertainment, starting as a director of Planning & Analysis and eventually rising in the ranks to vice president and executive associate in Enterprise Shared Services. Along the way, he said, he had the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business.

“I was very fortunate to learn the business by sitting at the feet of people who had built some of these great facilities in Las Vegas,” he told BusinessWest. “I had a great number of mentors — people who were able to coach me and inspire me, really.”

In 2013, he became assistant general manager of the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, developed by a group that includes Caesars Entertainment. Like MGM Springfield, the Baltimore operation is an urban casino, one with roughly 1,500 employees, 2,200 slots, and 150 tables.

There, he was in charge of day-to-day activities, and doing pretty much what he will be doing in Springfield, an opportunity that came about by happenstance and, more specifically, a dinner meeting with Mathis.

Dixon interviewed for the position last fall, prevailed over what he assumes was a large field of candidates — he believes his experience with an urban casino on the East Coast certainly helped his cause — and officially joined the team in February.

But he didn’t really put his boots on the ground in Springfield until several weeks later, because there was first a substantial learning curve involving MGM and how it ran its facilities.

“I spent a lot of time getting to know MGM,” he explained. “I was coming from outside the company, and before coming here, I spent a lot of time in Detroit, in Las Vegas, in National Harbor [Maryland], really making sure I got the ethos of the company before coming here to Springfield.”

When asked for a quick synopsis of his job description as general manager, Dixon said it comes down to essentially replicating what he saw at those MGM locations, while also giving the company’s newest casino its own, unique flavor, or culture.

At the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, Dixon joined the management team roughly two years before the facility opened, a timeline similar to that unfolding in Springfield. And as he talked about what will happen between now and the fall of 2018, he said there is a series of formal and informal timelines, with many of them involving the formation of a team.

Indeed, while there a number of strategic initiatives taking place at once — from the actual buildout of the various facilities to bringing together components of the retail piece, including the restaurants, to the critical work in marketing to get the message out about this facility — the process of assembling a team is paramount.

“In this pre-opening phase, we’re responsible for bringing the facility to life, and that is done by people, so we are going through the interview process for all the roles here,” Dixon said, noting he was on a tight schedule that morning, with several of those interviews also on his calendar.

Much of the focus now is on that senior management team, Dixon went on, using some of those new-to-the-region job titles to explain who might eventually earn them, what goes into those top posts, and how he goes about selecting a candidate.

The vice president of Table Games, for example, is a big job, one to be held down by an individual who will eventually lead a team of several hundred people, he said. Candidates will need to bring an extensive résumé to the table, one that reflects experience at all levels of this gaming division, if you will, as well as leadership abilities.

There will be candidates from within the MGM family, and from across the industry — what Dixon called a “very small world,” despite its seemingly large size — as well, common denominators for each of these top-level jobs.

“You have a new facility that you’re opening in a new town … I had the opportunity to interview for a role, and through a meritocratic process, that’s where I landed,” he said. “So I’m committed to making sure that we give our internal MGM team members a great opportunity, but that we’re also willing to look to the outside to get a great benchmark of how we can infuse talent.

“The VP of Table Games … this is an individual who started at the ground level, as a table-games dealer, and worked their way up,” he explained. “From a game-protection standpoint, as well as how you teach and how you coach — it’s such a technical job that you pretty much have to have done it at all levels to take on this job.”

The table-games employees will comprise the single largest group on the property, Dixon said, adding that there are several layers of administration within that sphere, and the individual at the very top will have a number of responsibilities.

These include working with the area community colleges and other partners to establish a so-called ‘dealers school.’

“He or she will need to identify the location, work with the community colleges on the curriculum, find the instructors who will teach people how to not only count to 21, but ultimately do it with a smile,” Dixon explained. “He or she will be supported by several layers of people — shift managers, assistant shift managers, pit bosses, table-games supervisors, and more.

“The table-games operation will employ upwards of 500 people,” he went on. “And there will be an entire organization, from the people in suits helping to oversee the games to the actual dealers.”

Team-building Exercises

As for the positions several levels down, the ‘front-facing’ team members, as Dixon called them, as opposed to those working behind the scenes, strategies will be put in place for those mass hirings.

When asked about them and the philosophies that will drive the hiring process, Dixon summed it all up by saying, “overall, we hire for attitude, but we train for aptitude,” before elaborating.

“When we go to market and we try to find people, we’re really looking for people who want to smile, who want to learn, who have a great hustle about them to be able to serve guests,” he explained. “We can teach you how to deal cards, we can teach you how to fix a slot machine, we can teach you how to make a great meal, but you have to have that desire on day one, and our hiring process is geared toward finding those people, cultivating them, and getting them into the right roles.”

Dixon acknowledged that he won’t be involved with interviewing and selecting each of the 3,000 people who will eventually wear an MGM Springfield name tag. But he did say that he will “touch” them in some respect, which was his way of saying that he will get to know them whenever possible, and at the very least come to understand every nuance and challenge of the job they perform.

And this brings him back to his track record of donning various uniforms and taking on the corresponding roles for several hours at a time, but also taking the time to listen whenever and wherever he can.

“A big part of my role is to help facilitate and build a culture,” he explained. “And the only way you can do that is by touching people and having an opportunity to not only impart the vision, but listen.

“Part of my job is to understand what impacts the day-to-day role of the front-line employee,” he explained. “So if they’re having trouble getting to work because of a bus drop-off, or if they want to talk about the uniforms they wear or the food in the cafeteria, or about how they can grow and develop outside of work, we need to listen, and we need to provide a workplace that’s best in class.”

As he elaborated, he went all the way back to high school in Las Vegas and his experiences as student body president.

“I had to get to know the nerds, the geeks, the freaks, the jocks, the cheerleaders, and everyone else,” he explained. “And in many respects, it’s the same in this role. “You have the dealers who sit at this table, you have the slot attendants there, and they come in at different times, and because we’re open 24 hours, it’s important to get to know people on all those different shifts; it’s not a Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 kind of job.”

And once the doors open at MGM Springfield, they won’t ever close, said Dixon, which is why the next 15 months are so critical to this operation in terms of everything from hiring the right people to putting that culture in place.

“Once we flip on our lights, it’s not like we go home on the weekends,” he explained. “When we flip on to welcome our guests, we don’t close our doors. So once you get on that hamster wheel, you need to be a well-oiled machine.”

Elaborating, he drew an analogy to a marathon, which is what operating a casino is — a long race that, in this case, never really ends.

“If you look at it from the standpoint of a long-distance runner, we’re getting ready for the marathon,” he told BusinessWest. “At this point in the process, we’re in training for this big race that we’re going to run.”

Bottom Line

As part of that training, Dixon is willing to put on — and probably will put on — almost every uniform that will be worn by someone working for MGM Springfield.

He’ll probably have his ‘Alex Dixon’ name tag on, too, complete with his hometown listed underneath — a factoid designed to generate conversation and make connections.

That’s all part of the culture that Dixon was essentially hired to create. It’s a huge job, one that will come with a host of challenges and rewards.

He’s looking forward to all of it — especially the part about being the ‘pulse,’ or the ‘heartbeat,’ of this billion-dollar operation.

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

Cover Story Sections Tourism & Hospitality

Fun in the Sun

summertimedpartSummertime is a great time to get away, but in Western Mass., it’s also a great time to stick around and enjoy the many events on the calendar. Whether you’re craving fair food or craft beer, live music or arts and crafts, historical experiences or small-town pride, the region boasts plenty of ways to celebrate the summer months. Here are 35 ideas to get you started, in a region that’s home to many more.

July

Pioneer Valley Beer & Wine Festival
300 North Main St., Florence
www.lookpark.org
Admission: $35 in advance, $40 at the door
July 1: Hungry — or thirsty — for something to do as the summer months take hold? Look Park presents its second annual Beer & Wine Festival at the Pines Theater from noon to 5 p.m. Attendees will get to sample local beer and wine from the Pioneer Valley, live music, and a host of local food vendors. Non-drinkers (designated drivers and under 21) may purchase tickets for $10 in advance, $15 at the door.

Berkshires Arts Festival
380 State Road, Great Barrington
www.berkshiresartsfestival.com
Admission: $7-$14; free for children under 10
July 1-3, Aug. 17-20: Ski Butternut may be best-known for … well, skiing, of course. But the property also plays host to the Berkshires Arts Festival, a regional tradition now in its 16th year. Thousands of art lovers and collectors are expected to stop by to check out and purchase the creations of more than 200 artists and designers, inclouding more than 40 exhibiting for the first time.1berkshiresartsfestival

Fireworks Shows
Various Locations
July 1-4: The days surrounding Independence Day are brimming with nighttime pageantry throughout the Pioneer Valley. Holyoke Community College kicks things off on June 30. July 1 brings a display at Beacon Field in Greenfield and Szot Park in Chicopee, while on July 3, Michael Smith Middle School in South Hadley and East Longmeadow High School get into the act. July 4 will bring the spectacle to Riverfront Park in Springfield, McGuirk Stadium at UMass Amherst, and Six Flags New England in Agawam.

Old Sturbridge Village Independence Weekend Celebration
1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge
www.osv.org
Admission: $14-$28; free for children under 4
July 1-4: At this celebration of America, visitors can take part in a citizens’ parade, play 19th-century-style ‘base ball,’ march with the militia, make a tri-cornered hat, and sign a giant copy of the Declaration of Independence. Children and families will enjoy the friendly competition of the Farm Yard Games, and a reproduction cannon will be fired. On July 4, a citizen naturalization ceremony will take place on the Village Common.

2monsonsummerfestMonson Summerfest
Main Street, Monson
www.monsonsummerfestinc.com
Admission: Free
July 4: In 1979, a group of parishioners from the town’s Methodist church wanted to start an Independence Day celebration focused on family and community, The first Summerfest featured food, games, and fun activities. With the addition of a parade, along with booths, bands, rides, and activities, the event has evolved into an attraction drawing more than 10,000 people every year.

Dog Shows
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
www.thebige.com
Admission: Free
July 5-9, Aug. 24-27: The Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds certainly haven’t gone to the dogs, but it will seem that way for five days in July, when Yankee Classic Cluster Dog Shows shows take over the Better Living Center. On tap are dog shows from the Kenilworth, Holyoke, Farmington, and Naugatuck Kennel Clubs. Then, in August, the fairgrounds will host dog shows from the Newtown, Ox Ridge, and Elm City Kennel Clubs.

Made in Massachusetts Festival
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
www.madeinmassfest.com
Admission: $20 general admission, $35 for admission plus tasting combo ticket
July 8-9: The Eastern States Exposition will host this festival featuring craft vendors and products unique to Massachusetts. The event will showcase the state’s top breweries, wineries, local food, live entertainment, specialty crafts, and much more. In addition, kids will enjoy a mobile arcade full of games, a laser-tag arena, huge obstacle courses, bounce houses, an inflated soccer ball arena, face painting, and more.

Brimfield Outdoor Antiques Show
Route 20, Brimfield
www.brimfieldshow.com
Admission: Free
July 11-16, Sept. 5-10: After expanding steadily through the decades, the Brimfield Antique Show now encompasses six miles of Route 20 and has become a nationally known destination for people to value antiques, collectibles, and flea-market finds. Some 6,000 dealers and close to 1 million total visitors show up at the three annual, week-long events; the first was in May.

Yidstock
1021 West St., Amherst
www.yiddishbookcenter.org/yidstock
Admission: Festival pass, $236; tickets may be purchased for individual events
July 13-16: Boasting an array of concerts, lectures, and workshops, Yidstock 2017: The Festival of New Yiddish Music brings the best in klezmer and new Yiddish music to the stage at the Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College. The sixth annual event offers an intriguing glimpse into Jewish roots, music, and culture.

Post #351 Catfish Derby
50 Kolbe Dr., Holyoke
www.post351catfishderby.com
Admission: $10 entry fee
July 14: The American Legion Post #351 touts its 37th annual Catfish Derby as the biggest catfish tournament in the Northeast. Fishing is open to the Connecticut River and all its tributaries. The derby headquarters and weigh-in station are located at Post #351. A total of $1,425 in prize money is being offered, with a first prize of $300. Three trophies are available in the junior division (age 14 and younger).

Green River Festival
One College Dr., Greenfield
www.greenriverfestival.com
Admission: Weekend, $119.99; Friday, $34.99; Saturday, $64.99; Sunday, $64.99
July 14-16: For one weekend every July, Greenfield Community College hosts a high-energy celebration of music; local food, beer, and wine; handmade crafts; and games and activities for families and children — all topped off with four hot-air-balloon launches and a spectacular Saturday-night ‘balloon glow.’ The music is continuous on three stages, with more than 40 bands slated to perform.

Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival
300 North Main St., Florence
www.glasgowlands.org
Admission: $5-$16, free for children under 6
July 15: Staged at Look Park, this 23nd annual festival celebrating all things Scottish features Highland dancers, pipe bands, a pipe and drum competition, animals, spinners, weavers, harpists, Celtic music, athletic contests, activities for children, and the authentically dressed Historic Highlanders recreating everyday life in that society from the 14th through 18th centuries.

Positively Holyoke Summer Concerts
221 Appleton St., Holyoke
www.holyokerotary.com
Admission: Free
July 19, July 26, Aug. 2, Aug. 9: The Holyoke Rotary Club  will present a series of four Wednesday night concerts at Holyoke Heritage State Park, featuring, in order, Darik & the Funbags, Out of the Blue, Union Jack, and Trailer Trash. The concerts begin at 6 p.m., but a beer garden and grill will open at 5:30. Parking is free, and the rain date for each concert is the following day.

Franklin County Beer Fest
66 Thunder Mountain Road, Charlemont
www.berkshireeast.com
Admission: $25 in advance, $30 at the door
July 22: Join fellow brew enthusiasts for an afternoon of food, music, and drink. The second annual Franklin County Beer Fest will be held at Berkshire East Mountain Resort and will feature beer from several local breweries, local ciders, and local mead and libations. ID required. Online ticket buyers before July will receive a souvenir glass.

3oldsturbridgecraftbeerOld Sturbridge Village Craft Beer & Roots Music Festival
1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA
www.osv.org
Admission: $14-$28; free for children under 4
July 23: OSV’s craft beer festival is back, with more brews, bands, and bites than ever before. More than 30 craft breweries from across New England will offer an opportunity to sample and purchase some of the region’s top beers, ciders, and ales, while local chefs prepare farm-to-table fare. At five indoor and outdoor stages, more than a dozen musical artists will bring the sounds of Americana, bluegrass, country, folk, and roots music.

Hampden County 4-H Fair
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
www.easternstatesexposition.com
Admission: Free
July 29: More than 200 young people from Hampden County, and 4-H members from Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, and Worcester counties, will showcase projects they have made, grown, or raised during the past year. Events include a horse show and other animal exhibitions, a fun run, a talent show, a fashion revue, a lead line and wool competition, and more.

August

West Side Taste of the Valley
Town Common, West Springfield
www.westsidetaste.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 10-13: This community event annually draws over 30,000 people from all over the Pioneer Valley to sample various dishes from a diverse mix of restaurants. The weekend is also highlighted by family-friendly entertainment, live musical acts, a midway of rides and games for kids and teens, animal rides, a petting zoo, and Saturday’s class car cruise, a display of classic, antique, and special-interest cars owned by local residents.

Middlefield Fair
7 Bell Road, Middlefield
www.middlefieldfair.org
Admission: TBA
Aug. 11-13: The Highland Agricultural Society was established in 1856 for the purpose of holding the agricultural fair in Middlefield. In those days, it was known as the Cattle Show, and the grounds were filled with local farmers’ prized cattle. Although the fair has changed in its 150-plus years, it retains that tradition, adding food, a truck pull, a petting zoo, animal exhibits, rides, games, and live including Ray Guillemette Jr.’s Elvis tribute, “A-Ray of Elvis.”

4springfieldjazzrootsSpringfield Jazz and Roots Festival
Court Square, Springfield
www.springfieldjazzfest.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 12: The fourth annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival will offer a festive atmosphere featuring locally and internationally acclaimed musical artists. More than 10,000 people are expected to attend and enjoy featured performers including Lizz Wright, Miles Mosley, Rebirth Brass Band, Sarah Elizabeth Charles, Christian Scott, Zaccai Curtis & Insight, Natalie Fernandez, and Community Grooves.

5westfieldairshowWestfield International Airshow
175 Falcon Dr., Westfield
www.westfieldairshow.org
Admission: Free; upgraded paid seating available
Aug. 12-13: The first airshow at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport in seven years will feature the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, a team of F-16 fighter jets that fly in close proximity. Other displays include the Geico Skytypers, a team of six pilots who create aerial smoke messages in the sky, as well as the Third Strike wingwalking act, the the Black Daggers U.S. Army Parachute Team, and a host of others.

Westfield Fair
137 Russellville Road, Westfield
www.thewestfieldfair.com
Admission: $6-$8, free for children under 12
Aug. 18-20: One of the earlier late-summer agricultural fairs that proliferate across Western Mass., the 90th edition of the Westfield Fair promises traditional fare like livestock shows, an antique tractor pull, live music, rides and games, an animal auction, a craft barn, a petting zoo, midway rides, and, of course, lots of food.

Cummington Fair
97 Fairgrounds Road, Cummington
www.cummingtonfair.com
Admission: $5-$12, free for children under 10
Aug. 24-27: The Cummington Fair was initiated in 1883 as the Hillside Agricultural Society. Today, it lives on as a showcase for agriculture and livestock in the region, in addition to a robust schedule of entertainment, featuring live music, magic, a demolition derby, a lumberjack show, the Kenya Acrobats, a square dance, crafts, games, food, and much more.

Downtown Get Down
Exchange Street, Chicopee
www.chicopeegetdown.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 25-26: Now in its third year, Chicopee’s downtown block party, which drew 15,000 people to the streets around City Hall last year, will feature live music from nine bands, as well as attractions for children, local food vendors, live art demonstrations, and, for the first time, a 5K race.

Celebrate Holyoke
Downtown Holyoke
www.celebrateholyokemass.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 25-27: Celebrate Holyoke is a three-day festival that made its return in 2015 after a 10-year hiatus, drawing an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people downtown over the course of the weekend. This year’s festival will include live musical performances, food and beverages from local restaurants, activities for children, and goods from local artists and makers.

September

Stone Soul Festival
1780 Roosevelt Ave., Springfield
www.ssfestival.weebly.com
Admission: Free
Sept. 1-3: New England’s largest African-American festival offers family-oriented activities, entertainment, and cultural enrichment, and is a vehicle for minority-owned businesses to display their wares and crafts. Entertainment at Blunt Park includes gospel, jazz, R&B, and dance. Sunday’s free picnic includes ribs and chicken cooked by talented pitmasters, backed by live gospel music performed by local and regional choirs.

Three County Fair
41 Fair St., Northampton
www.threecountyfair.com
Admission: $8-$10
Sept. 1-4: For almost 200 years, the Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden Agricultural Society has promoted agriculture, agricultural education, and agricultural science in the Commonwealth. The purpose remains the umbrella under which the Three County Fair is presented to the public. But the fair also includes carnival rides and games, thoroughbred horse racing, crafts, and, of course, plenty of food.

Blandford Fair
10 North St., Blandford
www.theblandfordfair.com
Admission: $5-$10, free for children under 6
Sept. 1-4:
Not much has changed in almost 150 years of the Blandford Fair, but that’s what makes it so charming. Fairgoers can witness the classic rituals of the giant pumpkin display, the pony draw, and the horseshoe tournament, plus more modern additions, like the fantastically loud chainsaw-carving demonstration and the windshield-smashing demolition derby.

Franklin County Fair
89 Wisdom Way, Greenfield
www.fcas.com
Admission: $7-$10, free for children under 9
Sept. 7-10: Named one of the “10 Great New England Fairs” in 2015 by Globe magazine, the 169th edition of the Franklin County Fair will roll into the Franklin County Fairgrounds with every type of fair food imaginable, midway rides, and entertainment ranging from bands and roaming clowns to a ventriloquist, demotion derby, livestock shows, horse draws, a truck pull, and much more.

Glendi
22 St. George Road, Springfield
www.stgeorgecath.org/glendi
Admission: Free
Sept. 8-10: Every year, St. George Cathedral offers thousands of visitors the best in traditional Greek foods, pastries, music, dancing, and old-fashioned Greek hospitality. In addition, the festival offers activities for children, tours of the historic St. George Cathedral and Byzantine Chapel, vendors from across the East Coast, icon workshops, movies in the Glendi Theatre, cooking demonstrations, and more.

Hilltown Brewfest
837 Daniel Shays Highway, New Salem
www.hilltownbrewfest.com
Admission: $35 in advance, $40 at the door
Sept. 9: The ninth annual Hilltown Brewfest is a fund-raiser for local fire departments. The event at Cooleyville Junction promises a relaxing afternoon featuring some 30 brands and 100 brews of beer, wine, cider, and Berkshire Distillery products. Selections include products by both local craft brewers, winemakers, and distillers in the Quabbin and Pioneer Valley regions as well as similar craft producers across New England.

8mattoonstreetMattoon Street Arts Festival
Mattoon Street, Springfield
www.mattoonfestival.org
Admission: Free
Sept. 9-10: Now in its 45th year, the Mattoon Street Arts Festival is the longest-running arts festival in the Pioneer Valley, featuring about 100 exhibitors, including artists that work in ceramics, fibers, glass, jewelry, painting and printmaking, photography, wood, metal, and mixed media. Food vendors and strolling musicians help to make the event a true late-summer destination.

FreshGrass Festival
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams
www.freshgrass.com
Admission: $48-$110 for three-day pass
Sept. 15-17: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is known for its musical events, and the Fresh Grass festival is among the highlights, showcasing more than 50 bluegrass artists and bands over three days. This year, the lineup includes Brandi Carlile, Railroad Earth, the Del McCoury Band with David Grisman, Shovels & Rope, Del & Dawg, Bill Frisell, and many more.

9bigeThe Big E
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
www.easternstatesexposition.com
Admission: $8-$12; 17-day pass $20-$40
Sept. 15 to Oct. 1: It’s still the big one, and there’s something for everyone, whether it’s the copious fair food or the livestock shows, the Avenue of States houses or the parades, the local vendors and crafters or the live music — this year featuring Cole Swindell, the Village People, Martin Sexton, Sheila E., the Sugarhill Gang, Fastball, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and many more.

Belchertown Fair
Main Street, Belchertown
www.belchertownfair.com
Admission: Free
Sept. 22-24: This community fair, which draws more than 30,000 visitors every year, celebrates the town’s agricultural roots as well as its active growing community. The weekend features a wide variety of family-friendly activities, from an exhibit hall and animal exhibitions to a parade, plenty of live music, pumpkin decorating for kids, a balloon twister, and an old-time beautiful baby show.

Old Deerfield Craft Fair
10 Memorial St., Deerfield
www.deerfield-craft.org
Admission: $7, free for children under 12
Sep. 23-24: This award-winning show has been recognized for its traditional crafts and fine-arts categories and offers a great variety of items, from furniture to pottery. And while in town, check out all of Historic Deerfield, featuring restored, 18th-century museum houses with period furnishings, demonstrations of Colonial-era trades, and a collection of Early American crafts, ceramics, furniture, textiles, and metalwork.

Cover Story

A World of Imagination

seusinterior

By Kathleen Mellen

It’s called the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, and that pretty much says it all. One of Springfield’s favorite sons, the good doctor actually created dozens of amazing worlds through his timeless books. The museum that opened on June 3 pays tribute to many of them, but also to the city that inspired Theodor Geisel to dream, create, and delight generations of children and adults.

 

There’s so much to tell, and so much to see,
Put your thinking cap on and let yourself be.
Amazed by the world of the good Dr. Seuss,
Keep your eyelids up, and your brainy cells loose.

From murals to statues to wordplay and more,
There are things to delight, and stories galore.
His table, his Emmys, and his bright pencils, too,
Are there to peruse in displays just for you.

It’s all on view now, in a museum, brand-new,
For kids of all ages, and, yes, parents, too.
It’s right here in Springfield, a real downtown treat,
And to think you can see it on old Edwards Street!

Eight years ago, the president of Springfield Museums, Kay Simpson, had the germ of an idea: Why not create a permanent, indoor display featuring the work of the wildly popular Dr. Seuss, author of 44 children’s books that have sold hundreds of millions of copies, and have been translated into more than 20 languages?

After all, the Museums already unveiled an outdoor exhibit in 2002, the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, to honor the Springfield native, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel. The sculptures — created by Seuss’ stepdaughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates — proved to be so popular, Simpson said, that they helped put the Museums on the map; all of a sudden, there were cars in the parking lot from states across the U.S.

“That was really exciting,” she recalled. “It increased our visitation and changed the demographics. It made us a national attraction.”

As popular as the sculpture garden proved to be, however, 80% of the visitors surveyed indicated they’d like to see an indoor exhibit as well, Simpson said. And she agreed.

Kay Simpson

Kay Simpson says the Dr. Seuss sculpture garden raised the profile of the Springfield Museums nationally, and a full museum dedicated to all things Geisel was the next logical step.

“We began our thinking about creating a museum based on the response we got from the sculpture garden,” Simpson told BusinessWest just days before the June 3 opening of the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, as workers put the finishing touches on the museum — painting walls, waxing floors, and mounting displays. “People loved the sculptures, but everyone wanted an indoor museum experience.”

So, after eight years of planning, refurbishing the former Connecticut Valley Historical Museum (its holdings were moved to the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, also part of the Springfield Museums), fund-raising to the tune of nearly $7 million, and collaborating with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, artists, educators, and members of the Seuss family, the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss opened this month as a three-story, permanent homage to one of Springfield’s icons.

The museum was funded through contributions from area investors, including MassMutual, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, and the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, as well as through a capital campaign. To date, the museum has raised $6.5 million of its $7 million goal. It was designed by artist John Simpson, Kay’s husband, who teaches art at the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst.

The first floor uses colorful, three-dimensional displays with interactive components to explore Geisel’s childhood in Springfield, as well as the characters and stories that sprang from his imagination.

Dr. Seuss’ most famous characters

Museum planners envisioned an educational experience populated with Dr. Seuss’ most famous characters.

The second floor features the collections of Geisel’s stepdaughters, Leagrey Dimond and Lake Grey Dimond-Cates, and Ted Owens, Geisel’s grandnephew, and is curated by the family members under the guidance of Springfield Museums Vice President Heather Haskell, and curatorial staff.

On the lower level is “Cat’s Corner,” a Dr. Seuss-themed educational space for ongoing art and literacy activities, overseen by a full-time Seuss educator.

In short, the world’s only museum dedicated to the life and work of Dr. Seuss is packed with wonders to discover.

Oh, the places he’d go! At life he was winning.
His birthplace in Springfield was just the beginning.
There were points to be scored. There were games to be won.
And now he’s our fair city’s favorite son.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in 1904 on Howard Street in Springfield’s South End, the grandson of Theodor Geisel, a German immigrant who owned Springfield Brewing Co., and his wife, Christine, and George and Margaretha Seuss, also immigrants from Germany, who ran a bakery on Howard Street, where Ted’s mother, Henrietta, worked.

Ted’s father, Theodor Robert Geisel, was the superintendent of Forest Park, including the zoo, and when Ted was 2, the family moved to a three-story house at 74 Fairfield St. in the Forest Park neighborhood; he lived there until 1921, when he left to attend Dartmouth College.

“We were interested, from the beginning, in really telling the Springfield story. Ted Geisel grew up in this city, spent his boyhood here. That was something Springfield could be proud of.”

The young Geisel visited the zoo often, sometimes bringing along a sketchbook in which to draw fantastical versions of the animals he saw there (his sister Marnie teased her brother because his animal drawings had “mismatched features and were curiously exaggerated,” according to the museum’s website), some of which might well have inspired the illustrations in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo.

“We were interested, from the beginning, in really telling the Springfield story,” Simpson said. “Ted Geisel grew up in this city, spent his boyhood here. That was something Springfield could be proud of.”

Indeed, many of the exhibits refer to what Simpson calls “the Springfield Cycle” — books that were inspired by the sights and sounds of the city. Geisel’s first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), is based on a real street in Springfield: beer trucks used to barrel along it on their way to his grandfather’s brewery. The heavily traveled road was part of Ted’s stomping grounds, Simpson said, and might have inspired the young dreamer to imagine the likes of a “gold and blue chariot … rumbling like thunder down Mulberry Street.”

Geisel was also inspired by some of the more dramatic buildings in Springfield, like the Howard Street Armory, which resembles a castle, and the Barney Mausoleum in Forest Park, replete with its sphinxes and winding staircases, both of which show up in fantastical form in books like The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938).

“He said that growing up in Springfield had an imprint on him and his creative imagination,” Simpson said.  “He drew his impressions from growing up in a city with a lot of industrial buildings, and Victorian and post-Victorian monuments.”

If the sun starts to shine, or rain’s on the way,
The brand-new museum’s a good place to play.
It’s great to be there. You will like it a lot,
If the outside is cold, or exceedingly hot.

With its vibrant primary colors and murals depicting scenes from And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and The Cat in the Hat, the entryway sets the stage for this museum about all things Seuss. There to greet visitors just inside the front door is a life-size policeman from Mulberry Street, uniformed in bright blue, sitting astride his motorcycle, perhaps modeled on Springfield’s own Indian brand. Emblazoned on his cap are the words “Police 304, Springfield, Massachusetts.”

Kids are invited to crawl aboard. In fact, every Seussian structure in the museum, like the seven-humped Wump of Gump from 1960’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, for example, was fabricated by Symmetry International Inc. in Rhode Island, using a special foam that has been treated for strength and resilience, and is virtually indestructible. “Kids can touch them all,” said museum spokeswoman Karen Fisk. “We can just wash them at the end of the day.”

Other first-floor exhibits include Young Ted in Springfield, which features a replica of the author’s childhood home, where visitors can use a touchscreen to “draw” on the bedroom wall, as Ted famously did as a child. In the Seuss Bakery, tiny visitors can pretend to bake their own pies; at McElligot’s Pool, inspired by the 1947 book by that name, they can play a digital fishing game; and in the Moose Juice and Goose Juice Factory, with its whimsical piping and artisan glasswork, they’ll explore gears and gadgets. In a replica of the Forest Park Zoo, children are invited to construct their own fantastical creatures using Lego blocks, as Seuss’ characters from the fictional McGrew Zoo peek at them from the windows.

The sculptures inside the museum

The sculptures inside the museum are crafted from a virtually indestructible foam substance, so kids can feel free to handle and climb on them.

Also on the first floor is Readingville, devoted to developing reading skills through rhyming, the alphabet, and story games.

“We really tie the museum to literacy,” Simpson said. “Readingville is an homage to all those books he wrote that were about getting kids excited to read. Starting with The Cat in the Hat, he’s using limited vocabulary, rhymes. He’s connecting letters and words with illustrations in a way that helps kids to understand the association between pictures and the words and letters. He’s making reading fun; that’s really what it’s all about.”

From the inception, Simpson said, the museum has worked closely on the content and design of the reading-related exhibits with the Davis Foundation, whose “Read! Reading Success by 4th Grade” initiative promotes literacy in schools in Hampden County, as well as with reading specialists from Springfield schools and experts from Square One, which provides early-childhood education and support services in Springfield and Holyoke.

“We feel that’s especially important for the city of Springfield, where children have a demonstrated challenge with reading,” she said. “We want to help kids overcome that struggle and to become proficient readers, because it’s so important for them in terms of their own achievement, and for the future of Springfield.”

Related exhibits include the museum’s ABC Wall, an interactive, larger-than-life version of Dr. Seuss’s ABC (1963); when children touch a letter, they will hear its phonetic sound, and related artwork from the book will appear on the wall. In Green Eggs and Ham WordPlay, children enter the railroad cave from Green Eggs and Ham (1960) to find word-game stations, based on the rhyming vocabulary of the story. (Think: “I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.”)

Treasures await on the second floor as well, where memorabilia, gifted to the museum by Geisel’s stepdaughters and grandnephew, are on display, including items that have never been displayed publicly, like the quirky, illustrated notes Geisel wrote to his stepdaughters, whom he nicknamed Snunny and La Groo.

Visitors can imagine the beloved author at work in his studio, recreated here with his drawing table and chair, and the red rotary telephone he used to talk daily to his publisher, Random House, in New York City.

“We even have colored pencils he actually used,” Simpson said. “When I walk in here, it sends a shiver down my spine.”

Next door, guests will see living-room furniture from Geisel’s home in La Jolla, California, where he lived for many years until his death in 1991. Displayed alongside a collection of his books and fanciful hats are his two Emmy Awards (for Halloween Is Grinch Night in 1978 and The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat in 1982) — just a couple of the many honors bestowed upon him, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his lifetime contribution to children’s literature.

Don’t sit in the house and do nothing at all.
It’s open in winter, spring, summer, and fall.
So pack up the kids if it’s rainy or sunny.
To the museum you’ll go, for fun that is funny!

Springfield’s leaders welcomed the opening of the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss with much fanfare. On May 30, Mayor Domenic Sarno read a proclamation on the steps of City Hall, declaring it Dr. Seuss Week, and the museum’s opening was heralded with a parade, called Cavalcade of Conveyances, down Mulberry Street.

Now open to the public, the museum is part of the seven-acre Springfield Museums complex at 21 Edwards St. in Springfield, which also includes the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, the Springfield Science Museum, the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, and the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden. One admission offers visitors access to all the sites. The cost is $25 for adults, $16.50 for students and seniors, $13 for ages 3 to 17, and free for children under 3.

“As a museum, we want to celebrate the artistic and literary achievements of Theodor Geisel, but we really want people to come and have a great time,” Simpson said. “It’s a joy to share all of this with our visitors.”

Cover Story Features

Hire Expectations

employeesartfinal

The job market in the region has tightened considerably in recent years, approaching, if not reaching, that state known as full employment. In this environment, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to find good help — at least among the ranks of the unemployed — and many are responding to the situation proactively and creatively.

It was almost 17 years ago, but Kevin Lynn can still remember the sense of urgency in the employer’s voice and the impassioned plea for help — any kind of help.

“He just said, ‘get me someone with a beating heart,’” said Lynn, then (and still) director of FutureWorks, the one-stop career center based in Springfield. “That was his lone qualification; he was desperate, to be sure.”

That was in 2000, just before the recession prompted by the bursting of the tech bubble, he told BusinessWest, when the nation, and this region, were pretty much at full employment and companies were struggling mightily to find talented help.

Things are not quite that bad (for employers) or that good (for job seekers) at this moment in time, he added quickly, before offering a very intriguing, if not menacing, qualifier.

“If the economy keeps going the way it’s going, could we be there in a year? Maybe,” he said.

For now, Lynn, like others, would say merely that the job market is as tight as it’s been in a while, maybe since 2000, and certainly since the height of the last recession in 2009.

Kevin Lynn says the tightening of the job market has put many employers in a situation where they need to ‘grow their own’ talent.

Kevin Lynn says the tightening of the job market has put many employers in a situation where they need to ‘grow their own’ talent.

At that time, he noted, there was a very large pool of talented, skilled people looking for work. Now, the pool is seriously depleted, comprised mostly of people with fewer skills, both technical and ‘people,’ and less experience than employers would prefer.

This is the main byproduct of  ‘full employment.’ That’s a term used by economists and others, and it has a definition — actually several of them. The one that prevails goes something like this: ‘a state of the economy in which all eligible people who want to work can find employment at prevailing wages.’

Most economists believe full employment occurs when the unemployment rate is at or just above 4%, which, according to the latest figures, just happens to be the rate nationwide.

But from a practical standpoint, and for the purposes of this discussion, parties are more interested in what full employment, or something close to that, means figuratively, not literally.

For employers, it means challenges — everything from finding and retaining qualified help to rising wages, said Meredith Wise, executive director of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

“Employers are beginning to get frustrated with the lack of quality out there, the lack of skills out there,” said Wise, adding that this situation will, in all likelihood (meaning unless there is a dramatic downturn in the economy) become more exacerbated when MGM Springfield begins hiring people in large numbers. That should start happening about a year from now, and there should be quite an impact on the local employment picture (much more on this later).

Nearly full employment also means that many employers are becoming more creative when it comes to such matters as searching for help and developing employees’ skill sets once they arrive, Wise went on, which, overall, is a good thing.

“Employers are looking at the situation and saying, ‘well, if the regular methods for getting employees aren’t working — if I can’t just go out to the employed market — what else can I do?’” she explained. “We’re seeing employers that are trying to get more involved with the schools, trying to get more involved with interns, and other steps. Employers are sensing that, if the regular methods aren’t working, instead of just throwing their hands up and trying to steal people from others, they’re looking at what else they can do.”


Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise

Employers are telling me that the people who are walking through their doors don’t have the skills that they’re looking for.”


Lynn agreed, noting that, in many cases, employers are adopting what he called a ‘grow your own’ philosophy, whereby, instead of holding out for individuals who have the requisite skills upon arrival, they’re opting for taking rawer talent, if you will, and developing it.

He cited the staffing company Snapchef, which recently opened a location in downtown Springfield, as one that embraces a model others will likely have to follow.

“They provide a five-week training course for people who want to get into the food-service business,” he explained. “Individuals learn all the basics, and Snapchef gets people into a job; this is probably the model that more employers are going to have to embrace.”

As for the region as a whole, full or nearly full employment means working harder with those who are still in the labor pool — including some who might have given up on their efforts to re-enter the workforce and are now giving it another go — to help them attain and retain work, said Dave Cruise, executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County.

“We’re working hard with those individuals looking to re-enter the market to address barriers that might have prohibited them from getting back in,” he said. “And as we do that, we’re focused not only on identifying candidates for employers, but also on the issue of retention, and dealing with issues now, as opposed to when someone is five or six weeks on a job.”

Work Orders

Lynn calls it the ‘recruiting corner.’

That’s an area at the FutureWorks complex — a table near the main entrance, actually — where area employers will, as that name, suggests, do actual one-on-one recruiting with those who come to the agency for help attaining employment.

At the height of the recession, and in the years after it, for that matter, the recruiting corner wasn’t used much because most companies weren’t hiring, and if they were, job hopefuls were coming to them.

The situation is much different now, obviously, Lynn went on.

“We’re seeing increased demand among employers who want to come and sit there during times of high foot traffic and get some face time in front of potential employees,” he said, adding that the economy is, for the most part, solid, and many companies across a host of economic sectors, are hiring — or at least thinking about it.

Dave Cruise

Dave Cruise says many of those who remain unemployed face one or more barriers to re-entering the workforce.

And what they’re finding as they go about hiring is that the pool of talent is shallow, that most of the individuals they would prefer to hire are already gainfully employed, and that they’re going to have to work harder and be more creative in their efforts to find and retain talent.

The resulting challenges for employers manifest themselves in many ways, from the recruiting corner to the strong interest shown in a job expo to be staged early next month at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“We recently opened registration,” said Lynn. “And as soon as we put that out, we got three or four companies to sign up.”

Locally, as noted, the employment situation is not as tight, or robust, as it is nationally, or certainly in the eastern part of this state.

Larry Martin, director of Employer Services & Engagement with the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, said the unemployment rate in Hampden County is just over 5%, compared to roughly 3.6% for the Commonwealth. In Springfield, meanwhile, still one of the poorest communities in the state, unemployment is at roughly 6.8%.

Both that number and the 5% for the county represent significant improvement over just a few years ago, said Martin, noting that unemployment in Springfield was well above 10% at the height of the recession.

As for the current situation and what it all means, those we talked with started by assessing the constituency that remains unemployed. This is where Cruise made repeated use of that word ‘barriers,’ adding that most all of those out of work and looking for work (some are not) generally face at least one, and perhaps several.

Wise agreed, and summoned that well-worn phrase ‘skills gap’ to describe what employers generally see or perceive from the current workforce, meaning those who are presently unemployed.

“Employers are telling me that the people who are walking through their doors don’t have the skills that they’re looking for,” she explained. “Sometimes this is in manufacturing, when people are looking for someone specific, like machine operators or maintenance people, or other roles. But other times, it’s just the general market — people walking through the doors for receptionist positions or accounting clerk, positions where you don’t need a lot of technical skills, but you need the customer-service skills and people with good work histories.

“A lot of the people who currently make up that 4% are people whose work history is maybe not that great,” she went on. “They may have moved around a lot, or they may have been out of the workforce for a while, so therefore employers are hesitant to bring them back in.”

Work in Progress

Some of those who remain unemployed are older individuals (a term usually used to describe those over 55, although the age varies), who were downsized during the recession and have often struggled to re-enter the workforce or given up altogether.

The tightening of the job market has given some of these older workers the impetus to get back in the hunt for work, said Martin, noting that some face a steep climb because their skills are outdated.

“There were a lot of older individuals who may have been in a particular industry and didn’t have the updated skills, and got discouraged,” he explained.

Wise agreed, but opined that she believes some employers are making a mistake by overlooking or perhaps underestimating some older workers and, more specifically, their desire to return to the workforce at a salary (and rung on the ladder) lower than where they were when they left.

“Employers look at some of those older workers and look at what they had been making and also at what their job responsibilities may have been,” she noted. “And they’re hesitant to bring them into their workforce now, because they’re concerned that the individual may not be satisfied — this person may have been in a managerial position or a position with some responsibility, and is now looking for a lower-level position.

“I think employers are doing themselves a bit of a disservice, because they’re bypassing those people,” she went on. “A lot of those older workers that have been in a position of responsibility … they’re done with that; they don’t want those responsibilities anymore. They want to keep working, and they’re ready to take that step back and do the 9-to-5. And many employers are overlooking those people.”

Others among the unemployed have different barriers, including everything from language to basic skills to transportation, said Cruise, adding that one of the REB’s main focal points at this juncture is working to remove some of those barriers — not just to gaining a job, but to succeeding in one and staying in it.

Elaborating, he said many individuals come to the REB looking for employment, but before they are ready to attain it, they need one or more of the other services provided by the agency — training, education, and various forms of support.

“What we’re finding is that fewer and fewer of the people coming to us are ready, based on our assessment of them, for that top bucket — employment,” he explained. “They may come in looking for employment, but we’re finding that in many cases they need training, and prior to that, they need education, such as basic mathematical skills.”

They also need some of those softer ‘people’ skills, he added, adding that the workforce of today is different from the ones years ago in that teamwork and the ability to work in tandem with others, as well as the ability to perform many different tasks, are far more important.

“It’s no longer a situation where you park your car, punch in, and go to your workstation and stay there, in isolation, until your lunch break,” he explained. “That doesn’t exist anymore, and for a lot of people trying to re-enter the workforce, it’s a matter of educating them to a different work culture and the necessity of them working in team-type situations and having the skills to move from task to task.”

Rolling the Dice

As the pool of unemployed workers shrinks and become less qualified, several forces come into play, said Wise, adding that employers must be focused not only on attaining new help, but retaining existing help.

Indeed, in such cycles, competition for those with skills and good work habits naturally intensifies as the advantage clearly shifts from employees to workers, she went on, adding that this dynamic is reflected in rising wages and benefits.

They’re not going up dramatically in this region, but they are rising, she said, noting that, while most companies weren’t giving any raises at all during the recession and the year or two after it (in fact, wage cuts were common) and then giving increases of only a percentage point or two, most are giving raises averaging 2.5% to 3%.

“That’s been pretty consistent for the past few years,” Wise said. “And in many industries, it’s closer to 2.8% or 3% than 2% or 2.5%.”

These wage hikes reflect the heightened competition for good help, said Lynn, adding, again, that in this environment, most people who are seeking employment and have desired skills are already gainfully employed.

“If you talk about people who have solid work histories and skill sets … if companies want what we’ll call a ‘fully formed’ employee, they’re pretty much looking at stealing from other employers,” he told BusinessWest. “Those who are still looking for work are facing barriers to employment, and in general, we have to train that group up to a point where they’re attractive to an employer.”

This brings him back to that notion of companies having to ‘grow their own,’ as he put it, and get someone in the door and do more training, rather than hope to find someone who already has all the requisite skills.

“I think we’re at a point where companies need to reconsider how they bring people in,” he explained. “We’re coming into a period where companies who are successful at attracting people are going to have to do more training; they’re going to have to look at people and say, ‘this person has the raw material — they may not have everything, but they have the ability to learn, and we’re going to have to grow our own.”

This situation should become more exacerbated within the next 12 to 15 months as MGM Springfield, scheduled to open in the fall of 2018, begins to assemble a workforce projected to number 3,000, said Lynn.

He said several sectors, especially financial services (bank tellers and others), food service, and the broad hospitality industry are certainly vulnerable to losing valuable employees to the casino.

And if the current trends with regard to the job market continue, backfilling those individuals lost to MGM could prove quite challenging.

“The backfill is the most crucial thing — how are we going to deal with those vacancies?” he asked. “Banks have something to worry about, based on what we’ve seen when other casinos have opened — tellers have left for those jobs because of the flexibility; you can give someone an off shift. And anything involving food and restaurants — because they’re having trouble finding people now.

“If you add another major player into the mix, and their wages are more than competitive, that will be problematic for employers,” he said, adding that their woes could be further compounded by another casino slated to open in Northern Conn.

Wise agreed, and noted that, while the casino’s opening is more than a year away, it certainly isn’t too early for employers to start thinking about what might happen and reacting in a proactive manner. Some are doing just that, she went on, but others, caught up in today, tomorrow, next week, and maybe next month, aren’t able or willing to focus on the fall of 2018 just yet.

“There are still organizations thinking, ‘I need to get through this month,’ or ‘I need to get through this year, and the casino’s not coming for another year,’” she told BusinessWest. “They’re thinking they’ll worry about that down the road, and that may be short-sighted.”

Bottom Line

Lynn said that, to the best of his knowledge, no one has called FutureWorks recently putting in an order for someone possessing only a beating heart.

The market has, indeed, tightened, but conditions are not yet approximating those of 2000 and the years that followed.

But as the steady use of the recruiting corner and the early registration for that job expo clearly show, employers are facing challenges, and they’re responding, in many cases, with creativity and maybe a mild dose of desperation.

No one really knows what will happen in the months to come, but it appears likely that conditions will only worsen — for employers, anyway — before they improve.

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

Cover Story Restaurants Sections

Your Annual Guide to Eating Out


restaurantguidedpThe Western Mass. region is well-known for its culinary diversity, offering nearly endless choices when it comes to cuisine, atmosphere, price range, and overall experience. For our 2017 Restaurant Guide, we made our way to four restaurants — from a 40-year-old icon to newer establishments well on their way to becoming household names. There’s plenty on the menu, so read on.

SEE: List of Restaurants in Western Mass.

 

‘Accommodating Cuisine

At Sierra Grille, they’re not fixing what isn’t broken

Upwardly Mobile

Cima is making more history at a long-time dining destination

Pop On Over

Judie’s continues to draw a crowd 40 years after its opening

Taking a Simple Approach

The Alvah Stone offers a view — and much, much more

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Words to Live By

lussierbooksIt took just nine words to change Angela Lussier’s life: “you’ll never be ready; you just have to start.” That’s good advice for entrepreneurs of all kinds, but it was especially relevant for a shy, self-conscious, but creative and ambitious woman who decided her path to leadership was learning to overcome her fear of public speaking. Today, through the Speaker Sisterhood, she’s helping women around the world do the same — and, in the process, discover who they really are and what they were meant to do.

Angela Lussier has a surprising entrepreneurial bent — surprising to herself, that is.

It began at UMass, where she studied a VHS tape to learn how to cut her boyfriend’s hair. “My neighbor walked by and said, ‘can I have a haircut too?’ I said, ‘why not?’ Then his roommate walked in and said, ‘can I have a haircut?’ I said, ‘sure.’ Soon a whole bunch of guys on the floor wanted haircuts.”

Soon, she was setting up shop in a back room and charging for haircuts, which she did until the dorm shut her down. It wasn’t until later that she realized she had been an entrepreneur, if only for a short time.

It never occurred to me that it was a business,” she said. “I just wanted to make some money to put gas in the car and buy clothes.”

Lussier tells the story to demonstrate how opportunities cross our paths all the time, and sometimes what seems to be the least likely possibility can become a successful business.

Which explains why someone who was terrified of speaking now runs a business teaching women how to find their voice.

It’s called the Speaker Sisterhood, and it helps women become more effective public speakers. But it’s much more than that, she said. “It creates a safe space for women trying to find out who they are and what they’re meant to do.”

It’s a winding story that can be told only from the beginning, after college, when Lussier went to work in marketing for Rock 102 and Lazer 99.3, a job where her natural creativity was encouraged and rewarded. But she soon learned not every job was like that; an executive at her next employer, an executive recruiting firm, eventually told her, “we knew your creativity would be an issue when we hired you.”

So, in 2009, she started out on her own, initially as a career consultant, helping people figure out what jobs were the best matches for their skills and passions. Her grounding philosophy? “You have to work in a place that respects your talents and gifts and uniqueness.”

Lussier knows something about that, having had to overcome her own physical uniqueness. She stood six feet tall at age 12 and had to endure barbs like “ogre” and “jolly green giant” — experiences which led, she realized years later, to an intense shyness and anxiety about public speaking.

“At the recruiting firm, I realized that being shy was not a great attribute to have. Looking back to the radio station, the people who were the most respected, the most followed, were people who were excellent communicators, and even better public speakers. I had this fear of being seen, being made fun of, but I wanted to be a leader. So I signed up for Toastmasters.”

It didn’t go exactly as planned at first. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to tackle this fear of speaking because I want to be a leader.’ Six months later, I’d never said a word.” That’s when the club’s leader told her she was on the agenda for the next meeting, where she would deliver a four-minute speech about her job. “I said I wasn’t ready, but she said something that changed my life: ‘you’ll never be ready; you just have to start.’”

It wasn’t easy. In fact, she sat in her car outside that next meeting, petrified of going in, wondering if people would make fun of her or think she sounded stupid. But she took that first step, even though she read completely from notes, never looking up at the audience.

“The important thing was, I didn’t die,” Lussier said with a laugh. “So I continued to go back and give more speeches, and every time I gave a speech, not only did I not die, but I learned something about myself. I learned why I was so shy; I was able to connect it to my adolescent years, feeling so different, feeling like people didn’t understand my creativity, feeling like the black sheep in the family, like I didn’t relate to other people. Public speaking gave me not only a voice, but insight into who I am.”

That recognition would eventually form the basis of the Speaker Sisterhood, though the story would take a few more turns first.

First Steps

Lussier’s first step was recognizing she needed public-speaking skills to advance her career-consulting business, so she developed a free workshop series on how to find a job in a tough economy (remember, this was right after the recession peaked), interviewing skills, self-marketing, résumé writing, and other topics.

She pitched the idea to area public libraries without success, until Forbes Library took her up on it, allowing her to stage two separate eight-week series, a daytime series for unemployed job seekers, and an evening series for people with jobs looking for a change. After that first booking, other libraries came on board.

But she still needed to write the material. And deliver it. And she was still far from fearless on that front.

“When the first workshop came around, I drove there thinking to myself, ‘who do I think I am? No one’s going to come to this. I’m not a business owner. I’m only 28 years old; why would anyone take career advice from me?’ I sat there in the library parking lot, and a voice told me, ‘maybe you should do this because you want to be a leader.’”

Not only was the workshop a success, but Lussier gained a paid booking through it, and people kept showing up at the free library events, leading to more exposure and more paid bookings, including, eventually, one for a local Fortune 500 company. She had no idea of her worth at that point — the firm seemed surprised when she came up with a fee of $200, and she realized later she should have charged 10 times that — but she started to recognize that speaking about careers, which originally was a way to boost her consulting business, had potential as a revenue stream in itself.

“That was a huge turning point for me,” she said. “I had become a professional speaker; I’d built this skill, and people like hearing me speak. I thought, ‘I’m actually a leader; I actually did this. I can’t believe it’s happening.’”

So, while she continued her career-coaching business, she started asking herself a few questions: “where have I been most successful? What do I enjoy doing? What do people always ask me about?”

She sat down one night in front of a fire, coffee at the ready, and filled a journal with the answers to those three questions. And the one common denominator to all three was public speaking, her former nemesis. “It was like a neon sign blinking from the highway. I thought, ‘why did I not see this until right now?’”

She had already enrolled in the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator program, but decided to switch gears midstream and morph into something different, to build an online school to teach women how to be professional speakers.

Angela Lussier

Angela Lussier addresses a Washington, D.C. audience at a TEDx event in 2010.

“We need more women on stages, more women getting paid what they’re worth, more women leading conferences,” Lussier told BusinessWest. “It took me a long time to see there should be a Toastmasters for women — a place where women can get together and share their voices and be honest and say the things they don’t get to say in the world.”

As an experiment, she co-hosted an open house for her first speaking club to see who would respond. About 10 women showed up, all strangers. At first.

“Each woman shared her story about fear of speaking up, being belitted at work, being told their opinions don’t matter, feeling like they don’t have any idea how to say what they’re thinking. Or, they’re working in a job now where they have to train people, and they’re terrified, but they don’t want to lose their job.”

Something happened that day that surprised Lussier.

“As we went around the circle, it was like each woman was giving the next woman permission to tell the truth. They came as strangers, but they left as sisters. I had never experienced that kind of transformation; I had chills for two hours. I knew this was not just a public-speaking club, but an opportunity for women to walk in the door and shed their role as wife, mother, boss — to show up as themselves and say what’s on their mind.”

She knew she had something special, and the e-mails that followed proved it — e-mails from women who didn’t attend the meeting, but knew someone who did, and wanted to join. So she built waiting lists and eventually launched clubs in Springfield, Northampton, Amherst, and South Hadley, training the women who would lead each one. Recently, a Greenfield club opened its doors, as well as a second club in Northampton.

Gaining Momentum

But Lussier saw potential for the Speaker Sisterhood clubs well beyond Western Mass., creating a curriculum and licensing model to take the concept nationwide and even international. Lehigh, Pa. and Portland, Maine were the first club sites outside the Commonwealth, and a New Zealand club marked the first overseas expansion.

“You don’t have to be a public-speaking expert to start a club, but you do need to have leadership experience and meeting-facilitation experience, and a sincere interest in helping women build this skill set,” she said, reiterating what she considers the heart of the clubs’ popularity.

“Yes, we’re running speaking clubs that teach skills, but these clubs also use public speaking as a tool for self-discovery,” she went on. “What I say to members is, ‘this is your public-speaking journey, and the more you learn, the more you’ll find out how little you know.’”

And they are learning about themselves, she noted. One woman, who works in a healing field, signed up because she wanted to build her skills to teach workshops, and after a few months, she remarked that, when she spoke before a group, she felt like a floating head, disconnected from her body. What she came to realize was that she spent so much time talking to people one on one, in a spirit of empathy, that she started to take on the energy of each person she spoke with.

“She said, ‘I become them, so in front of a group of people, I have no idea who I am. That teaches me I’ve spent my whole life being other people, and now I have to discover who I am.’ To hear someone say that is transformative — not just for the speaker, but for the audience. We’re all learning from each other’s journeys.”

Those journeys vary, she said, from business owners who want to get better at promoting their services, to teachers who interact with kids all day, only to freeze up when they meet with parents. “One has experienced several tragic deaths over the past few years and felt she’s lost herself in grieving those deaths, and she wants to discover herself again.”

The curriculum takes the form of an ‘adventure guide,’ with chapter titles like “Adventures in Storytelling,” “Adventures in Humor,” “Adventures in Audience Interaction,” and so on.

“It was a thoughtful decision to call it an adventure because anything can happen. It’s not about perfection; it’s not about doing it right. The emphasis is not on trying to be a perfectionist, but enjoying the journey. It helps a lot to reframe public speaking that way.”

By prioritizing sharing experiences over perfection, she added, participants feel less alone as they realize so many others feel the same way they do. “And that helps them build confidence in themselves.”

The meetings include prepared speeches, but also a lot of improv games, which challenges club members to be present in the moment while stretching their creativity. She knows it’s a lot to ask from new members, many of whom are approaching the club from a place of anxiety.

“The first day, there’s a lot of fear. Their voices are trembling; they’re looking around the room, thinking, ‘do I belong here?’ Then they speak again at the end, and there’s a transformation over two hours. They go, ‘wow, I’ve never been able to speak like this. This is what I need.’ I feel like the biggest step you take on your public-speaking journey is the first step. Every single step after that gets easier. So I always applaud the guests for showing up. That’s not easy.”

By the Book

Amid her transformation into the leader she’d long wanted to be, Lussier has also shared her words with the world through her books. The first, The Anti-Résumé Revolution, was a direct result of that first eight-week workshop, inspired by one attendee asking her for her notes — which totaled 120 pages. So she combined them with her own story, interviewed others who had followed her advice, and self-published in 2009.

“The whole concept is not just waiting for opportunities to show up on a job board or the newspaper, but to go out and create your own future and taking action on your ideas,” she explained.

She managed to get the book into the hands of Seth Godin, one of her heroes and the author of Purple Cow, which drives home the importance of being different and standing out fron the crowd. He recommended Lussier’s book on his blog, broadening her visibility immensely.

“That changed my whole perspective on what’s possible,” she said. “I wrote a book in my basement which was now being shared with millions of readers, being taught in colleges, and being read by people all over the world. It helped me see that, even if you think what you’re doing is only for a small audience, you never know what could happen.”

Two more books followed. She published Who’s with Us? in 2015 — sporting the subtitle From Wondering to Knowing If You Should Start a Business in 21 Days. It was the result of talking to hundreds of people about their business ideas, and takes the form of 10 self-assessments potential entrepreneurs can use to gauge their next move. She recently followed that with Do + Make: The Handbook for Starting Your Very Own Business, which progresses beyond the assessment phase and dives into practical action.

Clearly, Lussier has found multiple outlets for her entrepreneurial bent and her passion for writing. But her heart lies mostly in the work she’s doing with women — not to give them a voice, but to help them discover their own.

“It’s the most amazing work I’ve ever done. I know I was born for this reason — to start the Speaker Sisterhood and build clubs around the world,” she told BusinessWest. “I want to help thousands, if not millions, of women discover who they are, and how amazing they are, so they can go out and do what they were put here to do. Ever since I was 5 years old, even when I was a teenager and felt like an outcast, I knew I would do something important someday.”

That’s the voice that echoed in her head the night she sat in her car, stricken with anxiety, ready to drive away and abandon her dream of becoming a better speaker.

However, “I thought, ‘I’m not going to do something important if I go home.’ And even when I started my business, that was just the road to the thing; it wasn’t the thing. Now, every meeting I go to, I can’t believe I get to do this; I can’t believe this woman is discovering things about herself because, years ago, I sat in a car and said, ‘you’re going to go in and give a speech.’ That blows my mind.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

40 Under 40 Cover Story The Class of 2017

Announcing the 11th Annual Top Young Business and Community Leaders in Western Massachusetts

40under40-logo2017aA year ago it was a first; now, it would have to be called a trend.

Women again outnumber men within the 40 Under Forty class of 2017, as the photos will reveal, although it’s quite close, actually. But who’s counting?

What people should be counting are the years and the numbers of area residents now in this special club, if you will. That would be 11 and 440, to be exact.

As the profiles (list of links to profiles below) reveal, each story of a 40 Under Forty winner is different and in some way unique, hailing from industries ranging from law to banking; from education to transportation; from media to healthcare — not to mention many others. Many are advancing the work of long-established businesses, while others, with an entrepreneurial bent, created their own opportunities instead of waiting for them to emerge.


40 Under Forty Class of 2017


But there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on ‘what else’ they do in each of those realms.

The class of 2017 (go HERE for the PDF flipbook), its diversity, and its and individual and collective accomplishments will be celebrated at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala on June 22 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. A limited number of tables are available, but a number of individual seats and standing-room-only tickets are still available.

The gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the third annual Continued Excellence Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their résumé of accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges.

Speaking of judges, we thank those who scored the more than 150 nominations for this year’s 40 Under Forty competition (see story HERE). They are:

Ken Albano, managing partner of the Springfield-based law firm Bacon Wilson;
Jean Deliso, CFP, president and owner of Deliso Financial Services;
Samalid Hogan, director of the western regional office of the Mass. Small Business Development Center Network and member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2013;
Patrick Leary, partner at the Springfield-based accounting firm Moriarty & Primack and member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2017; and
Matt Sosik, president and CEO of bankESB.

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Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Cover Story Sections Sports & Leisure

Polishing a Gem

Camile Hannoush

Camile Hannoush on the soon-to-be-renovated front porch at Springfield Country Club, which has a commanding view of downtown Springfield.

Camile Hannoush, managing partner for a group of new owners at Springfield Country Club, doesn’t buy into that argument that the younger generations don’t necessarily want to join a private club. He believes they will join if they’re given enough good reasons to do so. His group’s broad assignment, then — and they’re already hard at work on it — is to create more of those reasons at this venerable landmark.

Camile Hannoush says he’s been a member, and, therefore, a co-owner, of Springfield Country Club (SCC) for more than 25 years now.

“So nothing’s really changed,” he told BusinessWest as he talked about what he and a group of partners who acquired the 120-year-old club last month for $2.8 million intend to do with it, and for it.

He was saying that tongue in cheek, of course, because with this new ownership model — from member-owned to private control — and Hannoush’s new business card identifying him as managing partner, a great deal has changed.

And this is exactly the message that Hannoush and his fellow partners — his brothers Tony, Norman, Peter, and George, as well as Raipher and Joe Pellegrino — want to get across to members and prospective members: change — for the better.

It is coming, and will continue to come, in the areas where it is most needed, especially in the broad realm of financial stability, said Camile, who noted that SCC, like many private clubs, has struggled in recent years with membership and everything that comes with that challenge, especially cash flow, or lack thereof.

As we improve the situation here, once the remodeling is complete and members start coming and bringing friends and guests … once we bring that customer-service level up to five-star, I believe word of mouth will bring us the additional members we need.”

“Our first goal, obviously, is to increase membership,” he explained. “And one key to that is achieving confidence among the community that the club is a solid business and a solid place to be a member.

“One of the reasons we’ve struggled to bring in new members in recent years has been assessments,” he said, referring to the charges imposed upon members to cover everything from cash shortfalls to capital projects to course improvements. “And people don’t want to join a club where they’re not sure what their bottom line is going to be at the end of the year and how much it’s going to cost them.”

Change is also coming to the facilities — everything from improvements to the pool area to a broad renovation of the front-porch area, with its dramatic view of the Connecticut River and the Springfield skyline, to a new fine-dining restaurant now under construction (more on all this later).

What will also change is Hannoush’s typical workday. Also a partner with his brothers in Hannoush Jewelers and Giftology, a gift boutique with several locations including Longmeadow and Springfield, Camile says the country club will be his main focus for the foreseeable future. To prove it, he has taken over what used to be the “ladies card room” on the second floor of the massive clubhouse and created an office there (a new card room for women will be created elsewhere).

“I’ll be running the club this year — this is where I’ll be,” he said, adding that all the partners will be involved, but he’ll be leading the various efforts to return the club to the prominence it has enjoyed through most of its history.


SEE: Chart of Golf Courses in the the area


 

Hannoush said there is already a good deal of momentum at the club — roughly 25 new members (some of which are former members returning to SCC) have signed on since the change in ownership was announced, and he expects more in the coming weeks as the golf season, delayed by that massive March 14 blizzard, gets underway.

And once these new members bring their friends to the facility, and as word gets out about the many improvements and new amenities, he expects momentum to continue building.

“I believe in word of mouth,” he explained. “And I think that, as we improve the situation here, once the remodeling is complete and members start coming and bringing friends and guests … once we bring that customer-service level up to five-star, I believe word of mouth will bring us the additional members we need.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with the Springfield Country Club’s new managing partner about how the facility intends to refine its game, build membership, and become the region’s club of choice.

Course of Action

Hannoush said he’s heard all that talk and conjecture about how the younger generations simply are not into the country-club scene as much as their predecessors, and this is one of the big reasons why many area clubs are struggling to find members.

He doesn’t exactly buy into that argument, and adds that a quick demographic breakdown of those new members he mentioned earlier helps him state his case.

the younger generations will join a country club

Camile Hannoush says the younger generations will join a country club if they’re given enough good reasons to do so, and that’s his mission at SCC.

“Many of them— in fact, most of them — are under 40,” he said of those new recruits, adding that he’s firmly of the opinion that the younger generations, or any constituency, for that matter, will join a private club if they have the wherewithal, and if you give them enough good reasons to do so.

In a nutshell, this new ownership group has taken on the singular mission of creating more of those good reasons.

There were already many to begin with, said Hannoush, listing the club’s location — just off Riverdale Street in West Springfield and, therefore, easily accessible to downtown Springfield and a host of area communities — as one of its best assets. Others include the stately, well-appointed clubhouse, diverse membership, and a course known for its impeccable condition.

Lately, though, this mix hasn’t been quite enough, he went on, noting that membership had dipped to around 240, down considerably from pre-recession days, and just over half the high-water mark of more than 400 around the start of this century.

To get those numbers back up, the new ownership team has commenced creating more reasons to join, starting with perhaps the biggest — financial stability and far less uncertainty about what members’ financial obligations will be to the club, as he noted earlier.

Of course, this stability can only come through greatly increasing membership, he went on, but not only getting members, but convincing them to spend time and money at the club.

“There’s a lot of overhead — this is a big, big business,” he said while essentially outlining the basic strategy in the business plan moving forward. “That’s why you need a certain number of members to be here, and why you need the members to dine here and spend time here.”

This simple fact explains the current emphasis on amenities with a strong focus on families, and meeting their specific needs, said Hannoush, who said the improvements to the pool area, including a new pool house and cabana, are a good example.

“What we’re going to try to do is bring back more family-focused events,” he explained. “We want to give them more reasons to come to the club. Improving the pool area and giving them more services there will bring them back.”

The extensive renovations to the porch area are another example, he said, as he took out his phone to show pictures of a planned 50-foot ‘fire wall’ that will replace a row of hedges, a new patio, new ceiling, tiling, and other improvements that will make that space more liveable and much more popular with members.

Another big step forward, he said, is creation of a fine-dining restaurant. The club has a grille room and a banquet room that can sit more than 200 people, said Hannoush, but it has long lacked the fine-dining facility that many clubs have and that most current and potential members relish.

One is being created in the former ‘19th hole’ just off the banquet room, he said, adding that the new facility, now walled off from the main room, will seat roughly 40 and have its own bar. Meanwhile, another room, the Brooks Room, with stunning views of the first and 10th holes and the setting sun, will also be renovated and used for small parties and receptions.

“So we’ll be more aggressive with social and dining memberships,” he explained, adding that another focus of change at the club will be its menu of memberships. It will be lengthened and diversified, with corporate offerings, a weekday membership, and other options, to accommodate different constituencies, create value, and, therefore, help bring in new members.

And, as he mentioned earlier, as those new members begin to talk about the club, and as their friends and guests get to experience what they’re talking about, he expects momentum to build.

Diamond in the Rough

As he completed his quick tour of the facilities and posed for a few photos before returning to his new office, Hannoush paused on the porch, gestured toward the Springfield skyline in the distance, and then back toward the clubhouse.

“This club is a gem — it’s always been a gem,” he said. “It just needed to be polished a little.”

Spoken like someone who’s been in the jewelry business his whole life.

Actually, it was spoken like someone who has been a member, and therefore an owner, of the club for 25 years. As he said, in one respect, nothing’s changing.

But in most all others, everything is changing — and for the better.

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

Cover Story

Game On

Bob Adams

Bob Adams says one of the unofficial goals at Cartamundi East Longmeadow is to diversify the list of products made there, and thus the showroom in the front lobby as well.

Since Cartamundi acquired the Hasbro plant in East Longmeadow in 2015, the two companies have been closely linked — in news accounts and everywhere else. And that’s understandable, because the toy and game developer is easily the biggest customer for the East Longmeadow plant. But those managing that facility are working hard to make it clear that this facility can do much more than make games for Hasbro.

Bob Adams acknowledged there are many benefits to the recent announcement that Play-Doh — that curious, multi-colored molding compound that has been part of American culture for more than 60 years — will again be made at the massive manufacturing facility in East Longmeadow now owned and operated by Cartamundi.

They begin with what will likely be, by most estimates, an additional 20 jobs at the plant, which previously had the household names Milton Bradley and Hasbro (producers of Play-Doh) on the sign out front. But there is more to this than employment opportunities, said Adams, manager of sales and new business development for Cartamundi East Longmeadow LLC, who has worked at that plant, off and mostly on, for nearly 40 years.

Indeed, there is the publicity that came with the announcement, obviously — the Wall Street Journal and a host of other media outlets covered the story — and also the fact that the plant, the largest games-manufacturing facility in North America, now has what amounts to another huge identifying product, with the board game Monopoly long being the other.

“That brings visibility to this plant,” he said of the Play-Doh contract, which extends over several years. “When I talk to people about having Cartamundi East Longmeadow do some business with them, they have a much better chance of knowing who Cartamundi East Longmeadow is.”

About the only thing this announcement doesn’t do — and this is not exactly an insignificant development, either — is let the world know that Cartamundi, and this plant, are about much more than Hasbro and, well, fun and games.

Indeed, while Hasbro is easily the most dominant client, and games of all kinds serve as the primary stock and trade for Belgium-based Cartamundi, the company can do much more — and it wants to get this message out.

“We’re not only still making many of Hasbro’s products, but we’re out soliciting business from other customers,” he said, explaining that Cartamundi is, for the most part, a contract manufacturer and generally doesn’t put its own name on what rolls off the assembly line. “And while the customer base is centered on games, because that’s our specialty, we’re also looking to use our core competencies to support other businesses.”

With that, Adams got up from his chair, reached to a high shelf on the credenza behind him, and grabbed a box, which, if it wasn’t occupying space in his office, would otherwise be holding an assortment of Lindt chocolates.

We want to be less reliant on Hasbro and leverage our competencies to build our contract business. And to do that, we’re developing our own sales organization and building our own identity in this region.”

“This is just one of the things we can do here — we started last June, and last year we made more than 1.7 million boxes for Lindt,” he said, holding the gold-toned item aloft, adding that the company has, for example, injection-molding machines with additional capacity, and can also take on thermoforming work, box making, die cutting, assembly, and much more.

“We want to get the word out that we’re open for business,” he went on, adding that, in his new capacity, he is essentially leading the efforts to bring new business to the plant — the immediate goal is to increase non-Hasbro contract manufacturing by 30% — and diversify the list of products manufactured there.

Jeffrey Lombard, CEO of both the East Longmeadow facility and a sister facility in Waterford, Ireland, also purchased by Cartamundi, told BusinessWest that Hasbro projects (not including Play-Doh, which will start rolling off the lines during the first half of 2018) amount to roughly 90% of the production in East Longmeadow.

He would like to see that volume of work rise still higher, but the percentage rate go down as the plant takes on other work, such as games for other developers, as well as Lindt boxes and similar projects.

“We want to be less reliant on Hasbro and leverage our competencies to build our contract business,” said Lombard, who held a succession of operations positions for Hasbro and was serving as senior vice president of Domestic Manufacturing when it sold the East Longmeadow plant. “And to do that, we’re developing our own sales organization and building our own identity in this region.”

While the company is mostly ready to do that, it will be challenged to greatly increase capacity by the same issue facing virtually every other manufacturer in this region — finding skilled help.

“Short-term, like every other manufacturer in the Northeast, and probably in the U.S., we’re not limited by equipment capacity, per se,” he explained. “The problem in this region is the hiring of skilled employees; that’s the biggest inhibitor to short-term growth.”

Jeffrey Lombard

Jeffrey Lombard says Cartamundi East Longmeadow has the potential to increase capacity by 30%, but is challenged in that assignment by the task of finding qualified help.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Adams and Lombard about what’s happening at Cartamundi’s East Longmeadow plant today — and what could happen there in the years to come if all goes according to plan. You might sum it up neatly and effectively by simply saying ‘game on’ — although, as noted, that’s certainly not the whole story.

Pieces to the Puzzle

Adams and Lombard can easily trace the history of the East Longmeadow facility, because they’ve both witnessed most of it first-hand.

Adams was just out of high school in 1978 when he applied for a job at the plant, which Milton Bradley opened roughly a decade earlier, and landed a position in the warehouse.

He probably couldn’t have known then he would still be coming to work there — except for a stint in Rhode Island and a subsequent brief retirement and work as a consultant to game manufacturers, including Hasbro — nearly 40 years later. But, then again, maybe he did.

“It was a great place to work,” he explained. “It was a very well-run company, and family-oriented. My mother worked here, as did my aunt and my uncle. People came here, and they stayed here.”

Over those ensuing decades, he put a number of titles on his business card and wore a number of hats. Starting in 1985, for example, he moved into an office job as a production planner. He then moved on to work in industrial engineering, delving into everything from efforts to improve efficiency to early — and in many ways groundbreaking — initiatives in ergonomics.

Later, he became new-business coordinator, working in tandem with development teams that had been based in East Longmeadow, were later moved to Hasbro’s facilities in Beverly, and then moved back. Subsequently, he went into project management and then became leader of Hasbro’s boys’ toys project-management organization in Pawtucket, R.I., essentially to bring the best practices of the East Longmeadow operation to that unit.

After doing that for three years, and amid changes to those operations, he decided to take a retirement package at age 52 and do consulting work, primarily for Hasbro, and did that until Cartamundi bought the East Longmeadow plant.

Summing things up, Adams said he saw long ago what Cartamundi saw when it researched and ultimately decided to acquire the East Longmeadow plant in 2015 — highly skilled workers and an operation that could do so much more than manufacture some of the games that bore the Hasbro name.

“When Cartamundi bought the facility, I was very happy for the people who worked here,” he told BusinessWest, “because I knew there were tons of opportunities to grow the business and bring back manufacturing expertise to this area; there were a lot of positives.

“This was a really good fit for both sides — with Hasbro wanting to be out of the manufacturing business, and Cartamundi wanting to be in the manufacturing business,” Adams went on. “This was an opportunity for both companies to grow their business the way they wanted to grow their business, and so they made it happen.”

His current title, director of sales and new business development, is one that no one has ever had at the plant before (again, it was always an in-house manufacturer for Hasbro, and thus sales were not part of the equation). And, as noted earlier, these new assignments come down to attracting both more work in games — and there is plenty of it out there — and work that falls well outside that realm.

Marketing to potential clients through the website 360manufacturingservices.com, Adams said he’s receiving three or four inquiries a day, on average, many of them from small game-development companies looking to outsource manufacturing operations.

With the acquisition of Hasbro’s plants, Cartamundi is now the largest games manufacturer in the world, he went on, and it is well known for its production of playing cards, most of them made at the company’s plant in Texas (cards for specific games, like Monopoly, are also made at the East Longmeadow plant), so it is often a go-to source for companies seeking such services.

But, overall, Cartamundi is looking for new clients with high volumes of work, and has provided quotes on everything from boxes to plastic snow shovels.

“It has to make sense for both of us,” he said of the contract work. “It usually doesn’t make sense for low-volume manufacturing.”

Board Meetings

Without actually saying as much, Adams said Cartamundi’s primary mission at the moment — and his as well — is to broaden and diversify the shelves in the front lobby of the East Longmeadow plant.

There, on display, is a random sampling of what is produced on the factory floor. And at the moment, the shelves are crammed with all kinds of games, from stalwarts like Clue, Scrabble, and Yahtzee to speciality items, such as Star Wars versions of everything from Monopoly to Sorry, and even Operation.

There is expertise and capacity to add new items and greatly diversify what’s on those shelves, said Adams, adding that the two immediate goals are to generate new business from existing clients and add new customers to the portfolio.

“We want to work with existing customers to provide them with exceptional customer service and support so that we can grow our business with those existing customers,” he explained. “We’re also looking to grow our customer base in the main game aisle, meaning new lines of products from other game distributors, and we’re looking for local companies that can take advantage of our core competencies.

“There are a lot of opportunities out there, and that’s why I’m back,” he said, adding that there are many pieces to the puzzle, to use an industry term, when it comes to achieving the plans for growth the company has laid out.

These include everything from marketing — something else that was never really undertaken at the East Longmeadow plant — to raising the company’s profile, in part by making the 360 Manufacturing website much more integrated into the Cartamundi site, to building an infrastructure for new-business development, said Adams, whose hiring was one of the first major steps in this direction.

Other steps have been taken as well, said Lombard, referring to that sales organization he mentioned earlier. They include the hiring of a customer account representative and the planned hiring of a customer project manager to create an even sharper focus on price, customer service, and quality.

“That’s all new; everything we’re doing along these lines is new,” he said, again noting that, as an in-house manufacturer for Hasbro, such matters were not priorities, so there will definitely be a learning curve.

Injection molding

Injection molding, undertaken by machines like this one, is one of many core competencies that Cartamundi East Longmeadow is looking to sell to new customers.

Speaking of learning curves, though, perhaps the biggest challenge facing the company as it pursues those goals is finding enough qualified help.

“We don’t need more equipment to increase our capacity; we need more skilled labor,” said Lombard, adding that, like other manufacturers in the region, Cartamundi will work to make itself and its various career opportunities highly visible.

Long-term, he believes the company has the ability to grow capacity by that 30% goal stated earlier.

“We’re in the process of growing what I call our efficiently flexible capacity, and that’s really a function of getting some skilled employees in the door and trained, and we’re aggressively pursuing that,” he explained, adding that one of the keys to success in such efforts is to build the brand and establish an identity.

“One of things that inhibits us is that people in this region don’t know who Cartamundi is,” he said, adding that, through a variety of steps, including a stronger web presence, he’ll look to stem this identity problem.

The Shape of Things to Come

As every Baby Boomer — and every member of all the subsequent generations, for that matter — can tell you, Play-Doh can be molded into just about anything the user can think of. The only real limit is the imagination.

In many respects, the same is true when it comes to contract manufacturing at Cartamundi’s East Longmeadow facility. It will always be known as the place where memory-inducing game pieces — like Sorry! pawns and Monopoly houses and hotels — are manufactured. And soon, it will again be known for Play-Doh.

But as Adams and Lombard made clear, it can become a resource to make a host of products that are perhaps less famous but no less important to the companies relying on them.

So it’s a whole new game at the landmark plant, one that officials there certainly believe it can win.

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

Cover Story Sections Tourism & Hospitality

Everyone’s Living Room

Main Street Hospitality Group CEO Sarah Eustis

Main Street Hospitality Group CEO Sarah Eustis

Sarah Eustis says the core mission of the Main Street Hospitality Group is to “create places that will enable people to connect in meaningful ways — not just to provide hospitality excellence.” The group is now doing that on a few Main Streets, with further expansion of the portfolio always on its mind.

The barstools in the Red Lion Inn’s rustic tavern creak a little, but Sarah Eustis says that’s part of the charm in a building that dates back to the late 18th century. The guests who crowded the place on a late weekday afternoon, as Eustis sat with BusinessWest and told the story of her family’s growing hospitality business, didn’t seem to mind.

It’s a story that actually begins almost 50 years ago, when Eustis’s grandmother, Jane Fitzpatrick, bought the Stockbridge hotel in 1969 with a couple of motivations in mind — to find a home for her growing curtain business, known today as Country Curtains, and to save the Red Lion from becoming a “parking lot.”

“It was a seasonal property — at the time, it was closed in the winter — and it was at risk of being taken down,” said Eustis, CEO of the Main Street Hospitality Group (MSHG). “She reopened the hotel and brought it to full operation, year-round, and the family has been running it ever since.”

Fitzpatrick had a specific vision for the 1773 landmark, Eustis added. “My grandmother set the standard of hospitality, maintaining the place as the ‘living room of the Berkshires.’ All our hotels have that identity and that spirit, meaning a place where all are welcome, a place where people can connect in meaningful ways, with the place and with each other.”

Those places now include four hotels around the Berkshires the MSHG currently owns or manages: the Red Lion Inn, Porches Inn in North Adams, Williams Inn in Williamstown, and, most recently, Hotel on North in Pittsfield, which collectively boast 350 rooms and almost as many employees.

Hotel on North was designed, like all of Main Street’s properties, to be the ‘living room’ of its community.

Hotel on North was designed, like all of Main Street’s properties, to be the ‘living room’ of its community.

“People are coming through the doors with an entire range of human emotions,” Eustis went on, “and they’re wearing invisible signs around their necks, and we have to figure out what they say: ‘I’m in the middle of a divorce.’ ‘I have to impress my girlfriend.’ ‘I’m here with my first big client.’ ‘I’m worried about my child.’ ‘I’m exhausted and hungry.’ We have to figure that out; it’s our job to connect with people in a way that makes the experience good for them, where they are, in that particular moment. We’re not perfect, but it’s what we work toward.”

When they succeed in that task, downtown hotels can be the lifeblood of a town center, she said. “They are the heartbeat that pumps blood to the arteries of cities. Hotels are always there; the lights are always on, and someone is always there.”

Independent hotels, with their unique charms that aren’t based on a corporate template, are even better, she went on. “The Marriotts and Hiltons are great, but I do think there’s something about an independently designed hotel that is unique and that people are willing to pay for.”

Third Generation

Fitzpatrick passed the business to her daughter, Nancy Fitzpatrick — Eustis’s stepmother — who has overseen the operation for the past 20 years.

“I grew up around this place and started working here as a housekeeper when I was 14,” said Eustis, who lived with her mother in Philadelphia but spent plenty of time in the Berkshires as well. “I will always stand behind hospitality training early in one’s career is a great way to start. We have so many young people come through our hotels and go into all kinds of things. If they want a hospitality career, that’s great, too. I was here every summer growing up, getting experience in every aspect of the operation. I’ve cleaned every toilet in the place, and I make a mean hospital corner.”

But she didn’t see it as her career at first, moving instead to New York City to pursue a career in retail operations, marketing, design, and brand development for big clothing labels like Polo Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, and Limited Brands. “I got good experience working for family businesses, because that’s what those companies are. And that was appealing to me.”

mainstreetporches

Two of MSHG’s properties, Porches Inn opened in North Adams a decade and a half ago, followed by Hotel on North in Pittsfield in 2015.

Two of MSHG’s properties, Porches Inn opened in North Adams a decade and a half ago, followed by Hotel on North in Pittsfield in 2015.

When her father, Jack Fitzpatrick, passed away in 2010, Eustis started thinking about the family business, and decided to move back to Massachusetts in the summer of 2012, a time that unofficially began the family’s most recent chapter, with Eustis eventually setting in as CEO, and Nancy Fitzpatrick continuing as owner and chairman.

“The Main Street Hospitality Group did not exist before that point,” Eustis said. “My aim was to explore how we could evolve and take the resources we already had on the team and deploy them further — to take the ‘special sauce’ that happens here at the Red Lion, in terms of hospitality and graciousness, and spread it around, and also develop new revenue streams.”

The first expansion had already occurred a decade earlier in North Adams. Nancy Fitzpatrick and Jack Wadsworth were both founding board members of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and decided to strike a deal.

“As the story goes, they were in the main gallery of MassMoCA, looking out across the street at these derelict houses originally designed for workers at the Sprague Electric factory. Nancy is a really creative visionary, and she said to Jack, ‘why don’t we do a hotel there?’ He said, ‘that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.’ But they signed on a napkin and did the project.”

The result was Porches Inn,  seven renovated Victorian-era buildings. Reflecting its artsy surroundings, the guest rooms and public spaces employ a synthesis of retro and contemporary designs, reflecting everything from the Mohawk Trail to paint-by-numbers art. Boston magazine praised its “hipster sensibility with downtown charm.”

“It’s been a remarkably successful venture,” Eustis said. “We wanted to instill part of our DNA into something that adds value to its landscape. It has to reflect the feeling of the place. It’s elegant, but with a sense of humor. Guests just rave about the place. We really haven’t changed it in 15 years; we just keep it polished and updated and fresh.”

City Life

Williams Inn came next, a 125-room hotel owned by Williams College that MSHG has managed for the past several years.

“The college bought it, but they don’t run hotels,” Eustis said. “They gave us our first big break as a management company. We provided return to the college on what I would call a tired asset.”

But that project, along with the Porches, gave Main Street experience working in educational and art settings, a niche it aims to further explore in the future. Hotel on North, on the other hand, became the company’s first foray into the city setting.

Around 2013, Eustis began talking with the family that owns Tierney Construction in Pittsfield, which had purchased the former Bessie Clark clothing store in the heart of that city. She’s intrigued by Pittsfield’s story as an industrial city that has struggled to reinvent itself but has launched a sort of renaissance over the past couple of decades.

“We’re very, very committed to Pittsfield. It’s right in the middle of our region — this urban center in this bucolic place — and it needs to thrive.”

A city’s renaissance is typically a 20-year process, she said, a cycle she believes Pittsfield is well into, starting with the Colonial Theatre renovation a decade ago.

“A lot has happened on North Street. We felt the momentum was there. Our partners bought the building and invited us to do a hotel with them; we worked on every aspect of the hotel together. We led the design, we staffed the hotel, we run the hotel … we’re accountable to the owners for agreed-upon results.”

Hotel on North was opened using historic tax credits in June 2015, with an eye toward being one of the key anchors downtown. Developers sought the same blend of local character, historical design flourishes, and modern amenities showcased at other MSHG properties, creating a place where, as Main Street’s marketing materials put it, “lightning-fast wi-fi beams through exposed brick from the 1880s.”


List of Airlines serving Bradley Aiport


Eustis said first-year projections may have been optimistic. “We really had to engage the community, engage the city, do a grass-roots sales campaign.” But, at the same time, the hospitality group was growing as an organization as well, and the family was learning how to leverage its economies of scale across the properties, including in Pittsfield. “We got stronger and stronger, and the hotel started to get its legs, too. Now it’s really thriving and making a lot of people happy.”

In fact, 15,000 people checked into the hotel last year as their home base to explore Pittsfield. “It’s a well-designed, thoughtful, genuinely hospitable face — it’s become the living room of Pittsfield,” she went on, again echoing her grandmother’s original vision for the Red Lion 15 miles south on Route 7. “You have to overcome the doubters and keep going and show them the positive outcomes that come from a project like this.

“Our core purpose, as we’ve developed it as a leadership group,” she went on, “is to create places that will enable people to connect in meaningful ways — not just to provide hospitality excellence, which we do anyway.”

What’s Next?

Beyond physical expansion, the company is branching out in other ways as well. Take food service, led by Brian Alberg, vice president of Culinary Development. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has been with MSHG for about a dozen years, he was at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement in the Berkshires and created a culture around that philosophy at all the group’s properties, as well as a growing niche in event catering.

In addition, Main Street recently formalized a partnership with Hancock Shaker Village — and its new director, Jennifer Trainer, herself a MASSMoCA veteran with a rich culinary background — to establish a café (opening April 15) and manage it, along with working with her on all the facility’s culinary events.

“We’re also expanding the retail piece here at the Red Lion, which is my background,” Eustis added. While the hotel has a gift shop, she envisions creating a line of tasteful logo items — think the Black Dog on Martha’s Vineyard as an example — that will expand the Red Lion brand beyond the Berkshires. “We’re thinking of things that reflect the warmth and genuine feeling of being at the hotel, whether it’s food, accessories, or home-related things. This is a part of our business that’s growing slowly this year and will grow further in 2018.”

After almost 50 years in the Fitzpatrick family, the Red Lion Inn remains the heart of Main Street Hospitality Group’s operations.

After almost 50 years in the Fitzpatrick family, the Red Lion Inn remains the heart of Main Street Hospitality Group’s operations.

As for the next big property, the company is looking at a number of projects, representing both ownership and management models.

“A new project has to pass certain fundamental criteria for us — geography, size and scope, who are the people involved, is it a new build or a conversion,” Eustis said. “It’s not necessarily about rolling out the Hotel on North or Porches concept into different markets. I’m interested in responding to the needs of the community, the fact that there may be existing hotels that need to be refreshed or revitalized.”

Still, she went on, “the way Porches and Hotel on North, not to mention Red Lion, have resonated has led us to conclude that kind of hotel can be relevant in other places and can be successful and add value to landscapes like Springfield, like Buffalo, like Albany — cities that are re-emerging as secondary or tertiary cities and benefiting from migration out of big cities.”

Yes, Springfield is a possibility, reflected by the fact that Eustis has had conversations with planning leaders there.

“Springfield is right in our backyard, and the Pioneer Valley has been interesting to us for a number of years. There’s good stuff going on there, a lot of like-minded people collaborating. We’re looking for opportunities where we can add value and the city’s ready for it.

“It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme,” she added. “You do need patient investors that have some psychic investment in a place. You can make money; it just takes a while.”

In other words, Eustis noted, MSHG is not looking to become a 200-hotel group.

“Let’s be honest — we value our lifestyle and like to see our children from time to time. Our vision is to grow thoughtfully,” she said. “Hotels always used to be on Main Street. And we want to be the heart of a place.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]