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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]

Cover Story

New Sheriff in Town

Nick Cocchi

Nick Cocchi

Nick Cocchi called him the “Babe Ruth of corrections.” That’s one of the many ways the current sheriff of Hampden County paid respect to the former sheriff, Michael Ashe. Following the Babe Ruth of anything is an extremely daunting task, but Cocchi says he has the experience, the confidence, and, perhaps most importantly, the blueprint Ashe left him to succeed in that assignment.

Nick Cocchi says he can easily understand why someone would be intimidated by the prospect of succeeding Michael Ashe as sheriff of Hampden County.

After all, Ashe held that post for more than four decades, becoming a regional institution in the process. He won accolades on the local, regional, and national levels — including BusinessWest’s Difference Maker award in 2016 — and received phone calls and letters from correctional leaders across the country and around the world seeking to tap into his vast reservoir of knowledge and experience.

Meanwhile, his annual fund-raiser, known colloquially as the ‘clambake,’ drew a veritable who’s who of local and state elected officials — as well as those hoping to join those ranks. The coveted prize at those gatherings was getting one’s picture with the sheriff in the paper the next day.

Yes, Ashe’s tenure represents the quintessential hard (maybe impossible) act to follow.

And yet, Cocchi was more than enthusiastic about the prospect of being the individual to script the next one. In fact, he told BusinessWest during a very candid interview, he was far more intimidated by the possibility of losing the sheriff’s race — and therefore likely losing his job with the department — than he was by the prospect of being the next individual to wear the badge.

“For all the reasons most people wouldn’t want to follow him, I do,” he explained. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with him for 23 years; this is the Babe Ruth of corrections, and I’ve watched his policies, I watched how he carried himself, I saw how he did things. The former sheriff was all about giving people second chances and opportunities; he spent the taxpayers’ money wisely and appropriately, and he gave people the right tools to go back to our communities. I’ve learned from him.”

Nick Cocchi says his department’s goal is to give inmates at the county’s jails (the men’s facility in Ludlow is seen here) the tools they need to contribute to society.

Nick Cocchi says his department’s goal is to give inmates at the county’s jails (the men’s facility in Ludlow is seen here) the tools they need to contribute to society.

Overall, there are many reasons why the new sheriff isn’t fazed by following such a giant in this profession. For starters, Cocchi, who started working for Ashe when he was a student at Western New England College and never left his employ, is certainly not lacking for confidence. Nor does he want for experience in virtually every aspect of corrections, as the résumé we’ll review shortly will make clear. And, perhaps most importantly, he’s also firm in his belief that he’s had more than a little to do with those aforementioned phone calls, letters, and awards.

“I’m excited about the prospect of following the sheriff because I’m prepared to do it,” said Cocchi, who credited Ashe with creating what would have to be called a blueprint for other correctional leaders, including himself, to follow. “When you look at the work the sheriff has done, we’re not a good facility, we’re one of the best facilities, not in the Commonwealth, but in the country. I’m not the one saying that, and it’s not Mike Ashe saying that; the National Institute of Corrections will tell you that, and the Large Jail Network will tell you that.

“The fact that people come from not only this country but around the world to see our correctional operations speaks to the work that we do,” he went on. “I’ve learned 23 years under Mike Ashe; he came in as a social worker from the outside, and look at what he’s done. Look at how much he’s progressed and advanced corrections around the country. Imagine what I can do after working side by side with Sheriff Ashe and being mentored by him.”

Looking forward, Cocchi displayed some of that aforementioned confidence by saying he doesn’t want to merely continue Ashe’s programs — all designed to rehabilitate inmates, not simply warehouse them — but instead intends to build upon them, improve them, and add to the portfolio.

“I see our future being very bright and very progressive,” he said. “We will continue to set benchmarks and continue to set the pace for corrections around the country, not because of me, but because of our staff.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Cocchi about just how he intends to follow Ashe, and why he is not at all intimidated by the huge shadow cast by the man who held the job before him.

Complete Sentences

As mentioned earlier, Cocchi’s path to the sheriff’s office — both the post and his digs at the jail in Ludlow — started when he was a student at WNEC, majoring in government with a minor in criminal justice.

He was approaching the summer break between his junior and senior years and, like most of his classmates, looking for some gainful employment. The rest, as they say, is history in the making.

He applied for a job as a summer correctional officer at the recently opened jail in Ludlow, one of the individuals who would fill in for those on vacation. As you can no doubt gather by now, he was hired, and he came away with a lot more than that summer job.

“I was as low on the totem pole as you can get — I wasn’t even a full-time employee,” he explained. “And as bizarre as it might sound to some people, I absolutely fell in love with the work.”

When asked to elaborate on just what he fell in love with and how, Cocchi started with the teamwork aspects of the assignment.

“At Ludlow High School, I played soccer, hockey, and baseball, and in college, I played fall baseball and then put my focus on hockey; I played for three years,” he explained. “I had always been around teams and embraced the team concept. When you work at the jail as summer relief, you need a team more than ever.

“You went in and you were part of a team,” he went on. “You were told to get out and go home safe, and to make sure the place was safe; you had to act like a team for the eight hours you were there and beyond. That settled well with me. I enjoyed it.”

His specific assignment that summer was working in what’s known as the ‘special operations unit,’ which responded to incidents such as fights, assaults, and shakedowns, where officers go into cells looking for contraband, gang paraphernalia, tattoo guns, homemade weapons and brew, and other items — work he summed up as educational, eye-opening, and “exciting.”

So much so that he was apparently willing to at least suspend his educational pursuits and go to work at the jail full-time. But Ashe wasn’t about to let him do that.

“He said, ‘Nick, if I hire you, you have to graduate from college,’” he explained. “He said, ‘you’ll have two full-time jobs — college and here.’ I agreed, and I held up my end of the deal, going to school during the day and working the 4-12 shift at the jail.”

Thus began a career that would see the title on the business card (when he actually had one) change a number of times. Indeed, after serving as a correctional officer from 1993 to 1996, he was promoted to corporal of that same 4-to-midnight shift, and in 1998 was again promoted to sergeant of the 8 a.m. shift at the Davis Tower living unit.

From there, he went on to serve as a lieutenant in Special Operations, focused on training and staff development, and in 2004, he was named assistant superintendent of Training and Staff Development.

In 2008, he was promoted again, this time to assistant superintendent of Specialized Housing, where he was responsible for the care, custody, and supervision of pre-trial and newly sentenced inmates. And in 2011, he was named assistant superintendent and deputy chief of security, where he was responsible for overseeing the daily inmate operations, the health and safety of all staff and inmates, and the Standards and Compliance Department, as well as the Training and Staff Development Department.

It wasn’t until he was given that assignment in specialized housing, he recalled, that he really allowed himself to think about being Ashe’s successor — about as much as anyone in his department thought about that subject.

“It was at that point in my career that I thought I’d come full circle; I didn’t know it all, but I had an ability to witness and see all or most of what we do,” he said, adding that, while he was progressing through the ranks, as outlined earlier, he understood that he was amassing knowledge and experience, but didn’t feel fully ready until that juncture.

Learning Experience

Thus, when Ashe, who won yet another six-year term as sheriff in 2010, told staff members in February 2014 that it would be his last, Cocchi did some soul-searching and decided that he would, indeed, seek to succeed him.

And from the moment he announced that he was a candidate, Cocchi focused on the depth and diversity of his experience factor and how he understood all aspects of corrections, from day-to-day operations to the many fiscal matters. By doing so, he desired to separate himself from contenders such as former Springfield Mayor Michael Albano.

Nick Cocchi says he will follow Mike Ashe’s blueprint, but he will put his own stamp on programs carried out by his department.

Nick Cocchi says he will follow Mike Ashe’s blueprint, but he will put his own stamp on programs carried out by his department.

When asked about the race, how it unfolded, and the experience of running against politicians with little or no knowledge of corrections, Cocchi paused for a moment as if he was deciding whether to go ahead and say what he wanted to say.

And, in keeping with his character, he did say it.

“It was very frustrating,” he said, referring mostly to Albano (Tom Ashe, the other main primary contender, possesses some experience in corrections). “He was so smooth during those debates, but nothing he said made sense to a corrections professional. It was bad correctional policy, things were fabricated, but man, was he smooth when he was delivering it.”

Cocchi told BusinessWest that he gained both inspiration and even more confidence from others now in what would be considered law-and-order positions who had themselves triumphed over career politicians at the polling booth.

That list includes Laura Gentile, clerk of courts for Hampden County (who also ran against Tom Ashe); Anthony Gulluni, district attorney for the same county; and Suzanne Seguin, who defeated long-time state Sen. Gale Candaras in 2014 to become Hampden County register of probate after serving in that role on an interim basis.

“Laura Gentile runs, and she was getting beat according to the polls four weeks out from the election,” Cocchi recalled. “When all was said and done, the professional in the office doing the job won.

“Then, Anthony Gulluni runs, and he runs against some people who may have more experience in the courtroom,” he went on. “But here was a guy who was in that office as an assistant DA; again, the professional won. And Suzanne Seguin … no one gave her a chance, but she came out on top. Why? Again, she was in the office doing the job, showing up to work every day.

“So when people said to me, ‘you can’t win,’” he continued, “I said, ‘the heck I can’t. I know how to do the job, and I’ll hit the ground running, just like Laura, Anthony, and Suzie.’ These are all county-wide positions, and the voters said, ‘we’re going to stop the politicians from taking soft landings.’ That energized me.’”

 

When you look at the work the sheriff has done, we’re not a good facility, we’re one of the best facilities, not in the Commonwealth, but in the country.”

 

As mentioned earlier, Cocchi said he was basically nonplussed about the prospects of having to follow Ashe, but was certainly concerned about his fate should he happen to lose to one of the politicians running against him and campaigning on a platform that serious change was needed. Indeed, he said he would certainly expect that individual to quietly nudge him out the door, a proposition that certainly motivated him as the Democratic primary race progressed.

“I thought about it every single day of the campaign — my wife never let me forget it,” he said, adding that, even with 23 years in, at his age his pension would be maybe 26% of what he was earning. “I would have been out of a job and out of a career; that was quite a motivator, believe me.”

Coming to Terms

As he talked about the primary role carried out by the Sheriff’s Department, Cocchi said it can be described in many ways, but in most respects, it’s a public-safety function.

Indeed, while the office is charged with incarcerating individuals, the primary assignment is making such individuals ready to return to the communities from which they came, and in a position to contribute, rather than be a detriment — a role Ashe fully understood, and Cocchi does as well.

“We take men and women at the lowest points in their lives, where they’ve proven over and over again that they just can’t get it right — they can’t conform to society’s rules,” he explained. “We take them, and we try to put them back into the community, because if you’re doing time in the county facility, your average stay is probably eight months.

“We take the men and women in, and we try to put them back into the community as better husbands, better brothers and sisters, better sons and daughters,” he went on. “And by doing that, we give them tools to be successful.”

By tools, he meant everything from housing to job skills to the ability to battle and hopefully overcome both addiction (nearly 90% of those who arrive at jail come with some kind of substance-abuse issues) and mental-health disorders (some 37% to 42% of inmates have been diagnosed with one).

“We have to do a lot of work in a very short period of time,” said Cocchi. “Our public-safety efforts are, very simply, taking people who come to us angry, violent, addicted, and mentally unstable at times, and putting them back into the community less violent, less angry, less likely to be dependent on substances, and much more able to make cognizant decisions; we want to return someone to their community far more likely to be productive, and less likely to be disruptive.”

When asked how all this is accomplished, Cocchi said a big part of it comes down to making people accountable — not just while they’re serving time, although that’s certainly part of it, but for what they do with their lives.

And it starts with those eight months, on average, that they spend at the Ludlow facility or the one for women in Chicopee.

“We hold our inmates accountable; they have to answer the bell,” he explained. “They get up in the morning, eat, shower, go to classrooms. It’s a 40-hour work week, for them and for us. We’re challenging them to be busy 40 hours a week — we’re not going to let them sit in a pod and watch Jerry Springer; that we don’t do.”

As for how he will go about doing all this and the style he will bring to the job, Cocchi said that, while he admires Ashe, learned a lot from him, and fully intends to follow the blueprint the now-former sheriff laid down, he will certainly put his own stamp on the Sheriff’s Department and the work it carries out.

“When you look at my overall philosophy and the way I’ll manage the department, I’m going to tweak it; I’m going to put my fingerprint and my thumbprint on it,” he explained. “It’s about refining things and moving things forward, being creative and trying new things.

“We never rested on our laurels here — every year, we’d go through our programming and rip it apart, and we’d all get frustrated,” he went on. “Here we are thinking we’re one of the best, and we are one of the best, and yet we tear ourselves apart from within to make it better. That’s not going to change.”

When asked about how he intends to measure success amid what will inevitably be comparisons to his predecessor, he said there will be many barometers, including everything from the funding to be received from the state (Cocchi said Ashe was “brilliant” when it came to bringing home the bacon, as he called it) to those aforementioned phone calls, letters, and visits from other correctional facilities. He fully expects them to continue at their current pace, and if they do, that will be one sign that things are being done correctly.

But on an even more practical level, he said overall success will be measured by the results to be generated at facilities like the setting for his interview with BusinessWest — the Addiction & Wellness Center.

This is the facility carved out of the former Ring Nursing Home on Mill Street in Springfield, where roughly 150 ‘residents’ are trying to turn around a life turned inside out by addiction, in many cases to the opioids that have become the most pressing public-health issue facing the region and the nation.

“With this issue, where the stigma of ‘addict’ has shifted to ‘disease,’ I think I’m going to be judged on our success rate here,” he noted. “And I know that. We must continue to provide aggressive and progressive substance-abuse education and treatment, coupled with mental-health services. That’s one way I’ll know I’ve touched every family in Hampden County, and hopefully around the Commonwealth.”

Food for Thought

Looking down the road, and not that far down it, actually, Cocchi answered the question that seemingly everyone is putting to him: yes, he will have an annual fund-raising get-together like his predecessor.

“We have a committee, and we’re starting to talk about things now,” he said. “It could be a clambake, it could be a barbecue, it could be a pig roast … we don’t know yet; we’ll do something.”

And although he’s not sure about this, he expects that his event will be like Ashe’s in that it didn’t really raise a significant amount of money, but it did bring people out, including governors and lieutenant governors, senators and congressmen, and a whole host of state officials, thus giving the area’s elected leaders and residents access to such people and, thus, a voice.

“They all come, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, office holders or candidates, and why wouldn’t they?” he asked, before answering his own question. “It’s great exposure for them, and it’s great for the people out here; I think it’s incumbent upon me as sheriff of Hampden County to continue to bring Boston to Western Mass.”

Thus, the clambake appears to be yet another part of the Ashe blueprint that his successor will look to emulate, improve upon if possible, but put his own stamp on.

It’s an assignment that would intimidate most, but not Cocchi.

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

Banking and Financial Services Cover Story Sections
Jim Hickson

Jim Hickson, Berkshire Bank’s Springfield Regional President

Through organic growth and a series of acquisitions, Berkshire Bank has achieved the kind of size ($9 billion in assets at present) that is necessary to succeed in the challenging climate within this industry. But Springfield Regional President Jim Hickson says it blends this size with a small-bank feel and “attitude,” and this is why it has been able to improve its share of the local market.

Jim Hickson says the conference room at Berkshire Bank’s main Springfield offices have become a popular spot lately, seeing far more visitation than would be considered normal — in large part because the bank is certainly encouraging it.

The reason is the room’s windows, which feature northerly and easterly exposures and, more specifically, stunning views of the construction work going on at MGM Springfield, just a few dozen feet away in some cases. Indeed, the massive, 2,000-car parking garage now looms over that conference room — Hickson commented several times on how quickly the structure went up — and the windows at the north end provide views of much of the rest of the construction site.

What visitors obviously see is a casino taking shape, said Hickson, senior vice president and commercial regional president for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut. What he sees — and what others probably see as well — is what the casino represents: regional momentum and additional growth opportunities, which could come in a number of forms, from large corporations coming to Springfield, like CRRC, to smaller businesses that may take advantage of what will be a growing need for services.

“Those cranes that you see … they translate into momentum for the region; it’s a very exciting time,” said Hickson, adding that he believes Berkshire Bank, a.k.a. America’s Most Exciting Bank (or AMEB, as is written on his zip-front fleece jacket), is very well-positioned to take advantage of the momentum that can now be seen out those conference-room windows, and also in some of the other offices in the bank’s large suite at 1259 Columbus Ave.

That’s because the Pittsfield-based institution has the requisite size — achieved through several acquisitions, including that of Springfield-based Hampden Bank early last year — to be a major player, but it doesn’t act like the proverbial ‘big bank’ you read and hear so much about.


List of Banks in Western Mass.


“We have big-bank resources, but with small-bank attention and approach,” he said, adding that, while this might sound like a line from the marketing department, it accurately conveys what goes on across what is now a huge Berkshire footprint, covering much of the Northeast, as we’ll see later.

And also in those offices on East Columbus Avenue, which comprise a regional headquarters, said Hickson, meaning that customers can avail themselves of a full slate of services, including commercial lending, residential lending, cash management, investment services, private banking, and more.

This combination of large-bank resources and small-bank attitude has enabled the bank to significantly grow its market share in the Greater Springfield area across the board, and especially in the highly competitive commercial-lending realm, said Hickson, adding that a variety of factors are spurring activity among area business owners.

“For the first few years after the recession, even up to three or four years ago, no one was really borrowing money; instead, people were paying down their lines of credit and getting rid of debt,” he explained. “But in recent years, many of our customers are finally saying, ‘I do need to invest in that piece of equipment’ or ‘I do need to put an addition on my building.’ People have been saying, ‘maybe we are finally out of this.’”

To effectively capitalize on these sentiments and this movement, banks need to be large, but also versatile, flexible, and ‘local,’ meaning local decision making, not simply lenders with phone numbers starting with ‘413,’ said Hickson, adding that he believes Berkshire is all those things, and thus well-positioned for what might come.

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Hickson about what can be seen out those conference-room windows, and how AMEB is poised to be at the forefront of it all — in every sense of that word.

By All Accounts

As he talked with BusinessWest about the bank, its recent pattern of growth, its growing presence in Greater Springfield, and its large-bank-with-a-small-bank feel, Hickson referred early and often to one ongoing project that underscores seemingly all of the above.

Springfield Innovation Center

Jim Hickson says Berkshire Bank’s involvement with the Springfield Innovation Center is an example of its commitment to the region.

That would be the construction of Springfield’s new Innovation Center on Bridge Street in two buildings acquired by DevelopSpringfield. The $2.7 million project represents a collaborative effort involving a number of partners, including the city, the state, DevelopSpringfield, Valley Venture Mentors, MassDevelopment, the Innovation Hub, and MassMutual. Funding is being provided by the state, through a MassWorks Infrastructure Program grant to MassDevelopment, MassMutual, the Beveridge Foundation, and the Berkshire Bank Foundation.

The bank itself is in the process of underwriting a construction loan to DevelopSpringfield for the renovation work and completion of the innovation center project, said Hickson, adding that final approval is expected within the next several days.

“It’s projects like this that exemplify that we’re here to serve everyone and have a vested interest in Springfield and this region,” he explained. “This a big project in the revitalization of Springfield, and we’re excited to be a part of it.”

Thus, as mentioned, that project checks many boxes when it comes to the bank’s operating philosophy and its goals for being a big part of the progress represented by the view out the back of the company’s offices on East Columbus Avenue.

Hickson arrived there — or back there, to be more precise — last October when he was named to his current post. Indeed, included in his nearly three decades of experience within the banking industry is a stint with Berkshire as senior vice president and asset-based lending relationship manager.

He’s also had tours of duty with People’s United, TD Bank, KPMG Consulting, and Fleet Capital. He is also chairman of the board for Common Capital.

With those accumulated business cards, he’s certainly had a front-row seat from which to witness an era of profound change in the local banking scene, with many new brands ariving, some old ones disappearing from the landscape, and a host of mergers and acquisitions.

Berkshire has been a part of that, he acknowledged, adding that the Pittsfield institution has greatly expanded its footprint in recent years. It now extends all the way from Syracuse, N.Y. in the western corner of the Empire State to Boston — a territory that includes three state capitals (Albany and Hartford are the others). And with the acquisition of New Jersey-based First Choice Bank, it now extends all the way to Philadelphia.

In the current banking climate, size brings a number of advantages — from larger lending limits to all-important economies of scale when it comes to operations in the face of rising technology costs and regulatory burdens — and Berkshire now possesses $9 billion in assets, 96 branches, more than $6.5 billion in loans, $6.6 billion in deposits, and $1.4 billion in wealth assets under management. Such growth has come organically, but also through those acquisitions, the latest of which involved First Choice, a $1.1 billion institution.

The Hampden Bank acquisition, completed in 2015, effectively doubled Berkshire’s presence in the Greater Springfield area, giving it 18 branches, while also doubling its commercial-lending portfolio within the region, said Hickson, adding that this strategic initiative is a good example of how the bank doesn’t simply grow for growth’s sake.

“That acquisition was a key development for the bank; Berkshire has always viewed the Pioneer Valley as a key strategic market,” he explained. “The bank’s not looking to grow to be the biggest in town; it’s looking for key strategic opportunities that fit our core values, and this acquisition was one of them.”

Points of Interest

Hickson said he doesn’t have to look out the conference-room window to know there is more activity in the commercial lending realm these days. He can see it in his office and with everything he sees as a member of the bank’s executive loan committee.

“The economy is better, and with a better economy comes more loan opportunities,” he said while summing up the landscape before getting into more specifics. “It may not be new entrants into the market, but maybe existing companies looking to grow either by diversifying into another product line or acquiring another company in the business sector they’re in.”

As one example, he cited the region’s large core of precision-manufacturing companies (one of Berkshire’s stronger specific niches), many of which are investing in new equipment, expanding facilities or building new ones, and diversifying product lines, largely as a result of greater confidence in the economy.

The next wave, he predicts, with both precision manufacturers and the local business community in general, will come in the form of mergers and acquisitions as smaller firms owned by retiring Baby Boomers face inevitable succession-planning issues.

“There are ways to finance those kinds of transactions,” he explained. “And we obviously want to keep as many of those firms local as we can.”

In the meantime, there is that increased optimism and subsequent lending activity that he mentioned earlier, adding that, to take advantage of it, banks need versatility and the ability to both develop specific niches and be generalists, said Hickson, adding, again, that Berkshire possesses such traits and skills, while some of the larger institutions don’t.

“As banks get bigger, they tend to lose sight of the local community they serve,” he explained, adding that Berkshire hasn’t done that, as evidenced by the Innovation Center and countless others in the portfolio.

This would include the large number of Small Business Assoc.-assisted loans the bank has participated in over the years.

“We’ve been very successful with SBA loans,” he explained, adding that this statement applies to this region, certainly, but also to the wide Berkshire footprint. Indeed, the institution has been top-rated in this realm by the SBA in several of the regions it serves, including the Pioneer Valley, Connecticut, and the Syracuse area.

“We’re very proud of that distinction — the SBA’s a great way to finance things, and we’re a big supporter of the agency,” he went on, adding that the SBA currently ranks the bank among the 100 most active in the country with such loans, with more than 110 transactions totaling more than $21.9 million.

However, those SBA loans are just a tiny fraction of the total portfolio, he went on, adding that, with the size generated by the acquisitions in recent years, Berkshire can make loans of all sizes and serve virtually every customer within the region’s business community, but with a small-bank approach.

Bottom Line

Rising from his chair, Hickson gestured out the conference-room windows and admired the view he and his staff regularly invite visitors to share.

“It’s such a beehive of activity; it’s exciting to take it all in every day and watch things progress,” he said. “It’s mesmerizing.”

He was talking about the MGM project, obviously, but he may as well have been referring to the region’s economy as a whole, although it is probably not worthy of such superlatives — yet.

But those cranes do translate into momentum and, hopefully, more progress and growth for area businesses. And Hickson believes AMEB is ready to be right in the middle of it all, just as it is in the South End.

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

Class of 2017 Cover Story Difference Makers

Difference Makers to Be Honored on March 30

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When BusinessWest launched the Difference Makers program in 2009 (see past winners HERE), it was with the understanding that there were several components to this initiative.

The first is what this special edition has become, a comprehensive effort to shine a light on individuals, agencies, and institutions that are finding profound and often unique ways to improve the quality of life in the community we call Western Mass. These light-shining efforts are profiled with words and pictures that collectively tell some very poignant stories.

The second component of this program, the more fun one, is the event at which the honorees are recognized for their various accomplishments and contributions. Since the beginning, those of us at BusinessWest have struggled with what exactly to call this gathering.

‘Dinner’ doesn’t quite work, because, although the food at the Log Cabin is certainly excellent, the evening’s festivities encompass so much more. ‘Gala’ falls short, too, because this connotes black ties and formality, and there is little of that at this event.

No, we prefer the word ‘celebration,’ because that’s exactly what this is — a celebration of those who stand out and make this region a better place to live, work, and conduct business because of their efforts. And this year, there is much to celebrate:

The region’s community-college presidents

The region’s community-college presidents, from left, Bob Pura, Ellen Kennedy, John Cook, and Christina Royal.

• We start  with a nod to the region’s community colleges. While perhaps not as famous as the region’s many fine private schools or UMass Amherst and other four-year institutions in the state system, these schools — Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College — are playing an absolutely critical role in the development of this region.

They act as both a door of opportunity, especially to those who don’t have many available to them, and a pathway to careers, through both degree and certificate programs that provide job skills and also transfer opportunities to four-year schools. Meanwhile, behind almost every major economic-development initiative in this region, there is a community college playing a significant role.

Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round

Some of the many passionate Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round: from left, Jim Jackowski, Barbara Griffin, Angela Wright, and Joe McGiverin.

• We continue  with the Friends of Holyoke Merry-Go-Round Inc. The story of how this group raised the money to save the carousel at Mountain Park and keep it in the Paper City has been told many times. But there’s a reason for it. This is an epic tale of a community coming together and battling long odds to save a treasure that could very easily have become someone else’s treasure.

But buying the carousel was just the first chapter in the story, really. Keeping it operating amid a host of stiff challenges so that it may be enjoyed by more generations of ‘young’ people (with young in quotation marks for a reason) is an ongoing saga and one certainly worth celebrating.

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon

• As are the contributions of Denis Gagnon Sr. He has improved our lives by dramatically reducing the amount of time we need to spend in the restroom drying our hands with his company’s XLERATOR. But that’s not why he’s being honored. OK, that’s part of it.

The other, much bigger part is how he has devoted generous amounts of time, energy, and imagination to groups and causes ranging from the Boy Scouts to the Children’s Study Home to a host of veterans’ initiatives, and, while doing so, serving as a true inspiration to others.

Jennifer Connolly

Jennifer Connolly stands beside the portrait of JA co-founder Horace Moses at the agency’s offices in Tower Square.

• Also worth celebrating are the contributions of Junior Achievement of Western Mass. This is a group that has been around a long time now (its centennial is coming up in 2018), and it would be easy to take its many programs for granted.

That would be a big mistake. As the story reveals, JA programs run much deeper than showing high-school students how to make and sell lamps (although that’s where it all started, and that solid foundation remains).

The organization begins by teaching vital lessons in financial literacy to kindergarten students, and stays with these young people until they’re ready for college or whatever other path they choose. And because JA stayed with them, the lessons stay with them as well.

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

• Last but certainly not least, there is Joan Kagan, whose career and accomplishments are worth celebrating for many reasons.

She has steered the organization known as Square One (formerly Springfield Day Nursery) through treacherous whitewater in the form of seemingly endless adversity. It has come in waves, literally and figuratively, from a tornado to a natural-gas blast to persistent fiscal challenges.

But her more lasting contribution has been tireless efforts to not only serve children and families, but lobby state and federal leaders for the many kinds of support they need and deserve.

As we said, this year’s honorees offer much to celebrate. And we’ll do it on March 30. Here’s what you need to know:

 

Fast Facts:

What: The 2017 Difference Makers Celebration
When: Thursday, March 30
Where: The Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, Holyoke
COST: Tickets are $65 per person, with tables of 10 available. To order, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.
For More Information: Call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.

Sponsored by:

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Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur

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

Proof Positive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Kozub stands beside his new signage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurial Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaun Dwyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking His Shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth Dimension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glass Act

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

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

Cover Story Sections Sports & Leisure

Plane and Simple

Angela Greco stands by her Cessna 172 SP

Angela Greco stands by her Cessna 172 SP, which she acquired just before Thanksgiving and is now putting through its paces.

Attaining a pilot’s license involves a deep commitment — of time, money, and energy. But for those who persevere, the rewards are many, and include freedom, convenience, and sometimes a career. Meanwhile, there is the simple phenomenon of flight, which continues to captivate and stir the emotions. Said one woman who recently bought her own plane, “it’s almost like magic when that plane lifts off the ground.”

Angela Greco says she first started dreaming about learning to fly and one day owning her own plane when she was a freshman in high school.

Her family had a summer home in Laconia, N.H., she told BusinessWest, and she would become captivated watching the sea planes land and take off, allowing her imagination to take her to a time and place when she might be able to do those things herself.

The dream was put on hold for awhile — OK, a long while, as in more than 40 years. Her mother said ‘no’ when she first raised the prospect of taking flying lessons, and then, well, life got in the way, as it often does. But it has been realized — big time.

Indeed, Greco got her license three years ago, and just last month took possession of a 2005 Cessna 172 SP (price tag: $200,000). She is still in the process of breaking it in and becoming comfortable with its so-called glass cockpit — one that features electronic (digital) flight-instrument displays, rather than the traditional analog dials and gauges — but she’s just about ready to put it through its paces.

Specifically, she’s starting to assemble a list of attractive destinations, and is zeroing in on the state of Tennessee — she recently took in a show on the Smithsonian channel detailing many of its attractions and scenery from the air, and her interest was certainly piqued.

“I love to travel, that’s one of my passions,” she said, adding this pursuit was one of the reasons she pursued a pilot’s license. “There seemed to be a lot of interesting things in Tennessee, and it’s a state I haven’t been to yet.”

Thus, Greco has joined what appears to be a growing number of people making the sizable commitment — in terms of both time and money — it takes to learn how to fly and gain a license.

The numbers of new flyers are not exactly soaring, to use an industry term, noted Rich MacIsaac, manager of Northampton Airport and Northampton Aeronautics Inc., who has been a flight instructor for nearly 20 years. But they are climbing.

And, as has been the case historically, most of those taking to the air are in their 20s and early 30s — before the responsibilities of everyday life really start to pile up — or their 50s and 60s, after those responsibilities have at least started to ease up a bit.

Greco falls in that later category, obviously — she’s an owner and manager of several residential properties and is getting ready to sell them and officially retire — while Shannon O’Leary is among the former.

She’s a 22-year-old senior at Ithaca College in Upstate New York who told BusinessWest that, if all goes well, she might just be handed her diploma and her pilot’s license at roughly the same time.

She said she gained the urge to fly from her father, who flew years ago, put that hobby aside, and then picked it up again a few years ago, or just in time to start flying to Ithaca to hear his daughter, an accomplished French horn player and music teacher in the making, perform at a host of events.

Gaining a pilot’s license, as noted, is an expensive, somewhat time-consuming endeavor, said MacIsaac, noting that, when all is said and done, a license will usually set one back between $8,000 to $10,000, and most will spend 12 to 18 months earning their wings.

Rich MacIsaac

Rich MacIsaac says the sensation of flight continues to attract people of all ages.

Thus, only about half of those who start down this path will reach their destination, he said.

For those who persevere, however, the rewards are considerable, in terms of everything from the convenience that flying provides — one can get from Northampton Airport to Martha’s Vineyard in maybe an hour, a fraction of the time it take to get there via car and the ferry — to the sensation of flying, which can lead those who have experienced it to summon a host of descriptive words and phrases.

Like these.

“It’s almost like magic when that plane lifts off the ground,” said Greco. “That’s the only way I can describe it — magic. It’s exciting, and at the same time very peaceful.”

Added O’Leary, “taking off is probably my favorite part. It’s that moment when you really feel like you can do something so liberating as flying a plane; that feeling that you’re flying is just incredible.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with a number of people who can talk about that experience, what it takes to join those ranks, and why it’s all well worth it.

Working in the Cloud

It was bitterly cold the day Greco talked with BusinessWest, and the wind, while not as strong as the forecasters predicted, was significant, and gusting up to 15 to 20 miles per hour.

Not ideal flying conditions, certainly, and many of the people who were scheduled to head out of Northampton Airport that day or take lessons there decided to scrap those plans.

But not everyone, and eventually Greco decided that the weather was not bad enough to keep her on the ground. When asked what she had in mind for the afternoon, she paused for a moment as if to indicate she was still considering options, before saying she might head up to Keane, N.H. to have lunch and maybe do some shopping. After all, in her Cessna, she could probably do all that in just a few hours — and take a nice, relaxing ride while doing so.

“It is just this convenience and … let’s call it freedom that has always appealed to people with an interest in aviation,” said MacIsaac, adding quickly that, for most, there is much more involved than a desire to chop a commute time in half.

Indeed, the phenomenon of flight still resonates with many individuals, he noted, even at a time in history when being at the controls at cloud level certainly isn’t as, well, mind-blowing as it was a century ago, or even a few decades ago.

“Flying used to be a kind of technical thing, and it was something people could gravitate toward — these were technically advanced pieces of equipment,” he explained. “Now, if you’re interested in technology, there’s lots of other things you can be doing.”

Still, flying continues to capture the imagination, said MacIsaac, who speaks from personal experience. He moved into a house not far from a small airport outside Omaha, Neb. in his early 30s and, after years of watching planes fly over his yard, eventually decided he’d rather do than observe.

Shannon O’Leary, seen here after her first solo flight last summer

If all goes well, Shannon O’Leary, seen here after her first solo flight last summer, will get her college diploma and pilot’s license at about the same time.

 

“I got to the point where financially I could do it and I had the time to do it,” he explained. “So I got my private pilot’s license and flew recreationally. Over time, I added ratings and became a flight instructor, and it slowly morphed into a career.”

In many ways, his story is typical of those who take the plunge and get their license, he said, adding that recreational flying is just part of the equation. Indeed, some are attracted by career opportunities, he went on, noting that, while many airline pilots don’t earn as much as one might think, that’s just one route one can take, and, overall, one can certainly earn a decent (and fun) living with a pilot’s license.

He’s proof of that.

After instructing for several years, he took aviation as a career to a much higher plane, becoming manager of Northampton Airport in 2004, the year it was acquired by local business owner Bob Bacon, who invested heavily in infrastructure and facilities, including several new hangars. He owns his own plane, a four-seat Sirrus SR22.

Today, MacIsaac oversees a multi-faceted business that operates under the name SevenBravoTwo Inc. It includes everything from the flight school to scenic flights; aircraft maintenance to leasing hangar and tie-down space (there are roughly 90 planes based there).

The flight-school operation generally has about 50 people working toward their pilot’s license at an given time, and that translates into roughly 4,000 flights a year, said MacIsaac, noting that 70% of these individuals are doing so for what would be considered personal or recreational flying, with the other 30% harboring aspirations to become a professional pilot of some sort.

One must be 17 to attain a license, he went on, adding that an individual can start the process earlier. He sees a few who choose to balance flying lessons with high-school classes, but most are older and fall in those two categories mentioned earlier — young professionals who still have the time and the means to pursue a license, and older individuals who have paid off the house and put the children through college.

One must have 40 hours of flight time and be able to successfully complete a wide array of maneuvers to get a private pilot’s license, MacIsaac noted, and most will take their time gaining that requisite experience, usually more than a year. And many won’t reach their intended destination, for one of many reasons.

“For many, it’s a financial issue; it becomes more expensive than they thought it was going to be,” he noted. “Or, over a period of time, something happens in their life that puts them in a situation where they can’t afford it anymore and they have to stop.”

As for those who persevere and gain their licenses, only a small percentage, maybe 5%, will actually buy their own plane, he told BusinessWest, adding that many others will join partnerships and clubs that jointly own planes.

And many will simply choose to rent one of the many aircraft the airport has available for such purposes, he went on, adding that they generally lease for about $120 per hour of flight time (that includes fuel).

Considering that one can fly to the Vineyard and back in two hours and skip a considerable amount of time and hassle that are part and parcel to driving to the island, renting a plane has become an attractive option for day trips to that destination and many others.

Winging It

Dave Strassburg’s story is in many ways similar to MacIsaac’s.  A pharmacist by trade, he attained his license more than 20 years ago, and continued to add ratings, moving from private to ‘instrument,’ to commercial.

Becoming an instructor was an objective he put on his bucket list some time ago, and he’s been doing it for 15 years now. While doing that at Northampton Airport on a very part-time basis, he also flies recreationally, and for business — he owns a medical-device-manufacturing company, Strassburg Medical Inc., based just outside Buffalo, N.Y., and takes his twin-engine Cessna there at least once a month.

Business takes him all over the country, and whenever possible, he’ll fly himself, he said, adding that doing so frees him from having to comply with the airlines’ schedules and a host of other inconveniences.

“Besides, if I was sitting in the back of a commercial airliner, I’d just be wishing I was up front anyway,” he said with a laugh.

Strassburg says flying is a passion, and he’s dedicated himself to encouraging others to take up that pursuit and persevere in their quest for a license. He’s convinced a good number, including his wife, who got her license about six months ago, and two Blackhawk helicopter instructor pilots based at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield.

“I’m a big proponent of aviation, and I love getting other people involved in it — I like giving people that little push they need,” he told BusinessWest. “There are so many people who think about it, but they never pursue it. I instruct people for the passion of flying and getting people involved in it and showing them that they can do it.”

That push he described comes in various forms, including Groupons used as incentives to get people who are on the fence to try to get over it.

And it was one of that Groupons that caught Greco’s eye.

“I said to myself, ‘that’s it, it’s sign, time to go do it,” she said, adding that she never actually lost that fascination for flying she acquired while summering in Laconia. She just had to wait till the time was right.

She said the lessons were not easy or inexpensive, but she stuck with it and gained her license in the spring of 2014. Soon thereafter, she rented planes and became a half-share partner in a another Cessna 172, taking trips to a host of destinations, including, Block Island, Niagara Falls, Cape Cod, Maine, and North Carolina.

“My plan now is to take my plane and just fly to destinations all over the United States,” she said, adding that she’ll likely start with Tennessee and move on from there.

O’Leary has some similar ambitions, and some others as well. She plans to teach music for a living, but intends to make flying an important part of her life.

“In an ideal world, I see myself getting a recreational license and being able to have a side gig where I might be able to take people on scenic flights,” she told BusinessWest. “That would be a second source of income for me during the summers, because I’m going to be an educator.

“It would be awesome to be able to fly and also service others,” she went on, adding that she intends to make this a life-long pursuit. “You start doing this because you love it, and when you don’t stop loving it, you get to open up all kinds of possibilities.”

And with that, she spoke for everyone who has had the privilege to enjoy life in what’s known in aviation as the ‘left seat.’

Final Approach

Summing up the pursuit of a pilot’s license and recreational flying in general, MacIsaac said it’s like golf or many other activities one might pursue during their lifetime.

“Some people are naturally going to be better at it than others, some people are going to enjoy it more and it’s going to become a big part of their life forever,” he explained. “And for some, it’s going to be something they tried, and maybe they enjoyed it, but for reason or another, they moved on to something else.”

Perhaps, but not too many of those activities can evoke the same kind of emotions — and the same kind of language used by those who have experienced flight.

As Greco said, “it’s like magic when that plane lifts off the ground.”

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

Cover Story Economic Outlook Sections

Balance Statement

Forecast Is Strong for 2017, but Questions Loom on the Horizon

outlookdpartAfter six years of largely uninterrupted economic growth in both Massachusetts and the U.S. as a whole, questions have arisen as to how long the expansion can last, especially coming on the heels of an unusual election season and amid sluggish economic trends internationally. The consensus seems to be that the present course should hold in 2017, but also that recessions are a regular occurrence in the American economy, and it wouldn’t take much to spark a slowdown. For now, though, cautious optimism reigns.

Rarely, economists note, does the U.S. economy grow for a full decade without hitting a recession. So the continuing strength of the economy — reflected most notably in falling unemployment — is a mixed bag of news. In short, while the growth is welcome, some caution is warranted.

“At the state and national level, the recovery has been going on for six years, and while there are no hard-and-fast rules about this, we could expect some moderation after six years of growth,” said Karl Petrick, assistant professor of Economics at Western New England University. “Every year of growth makes it more likely that the downward part of the business cycle is closer.”

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

Because of both economic and political reasons, I think the state economy is entering into a period of more uncertainty. Luckily, we are doing so after a period of robust economic growth, so, as a state, we have a good foundation to weather this uncertainty.”

 

 

A year ago, Bob Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, called the economic outlook “fuzzy,” but said last week that 2016 solidified into a positive year on many fronts.

“Growth statewide has been somewhat modest, but continuous; we haven’t seen the unemployment rate this low since 16 years ago, the turn of the century,” said Nakosteen, who is also co-editor of MassBenchmarks, the quarterly publication devoted to analysis of the Bay State’s economy. “I don’t think the economy is going gangbusters, but it’s been steady, moderate growth over a long period of time, with higher employment numbers and the total number of workers higher.”

Slowly and steadily, if not spectacularly, he went on, the economic outlook since the low point of the Great Recession has morphed into a remarkable period of expansion. In Massachusetts, the main drivers include the usual suspects, such as information and communications technology, healthcare, and education. “These are industry sectors that are in high demand both nationally and globally, and we have the good luck, at least in the recent past, to have a heavy dose of those sectors. Any time there’s a big demand in the national economy for the services and industries we specialize in, it’s going to help us, and that’s what’s happening.”

PeoplesBank’s Tom Senecal (left) and Mike Oleksak

PeoplesBank’s Tom Senecal (left) and Mike Oleksak say indicators like rising employment and fewer foreclosures point to a strengthening economy.

Massachusetts, Petrick noted, has outpaced the national rate of growth since 2008.  For example, the state’s economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.7% in the third quarter of this year, while the national annualized rate of growth was 2.9% during that same period.

A similar trend holds in the category of unemployment rate. In October 2016, the last month for which state data is available, the Bay State’s unemployment rate was 2.7%, compared to the U.S. unemployment rate of 4.9%.

But is unemployment falling because more people are finding jobs, he asked, or because people are leaving the labor force and aren’t being counted? Comparing October 2016 to Oct 2015, the labor force grew while the unemployment rate fell (from 4.5% in Oct 2015 to 2.7% in Oct. 2016). While that’s a sign of success, one result is a tightening job market.

“The unemployment rate is falling for the right reasons, but it does also signal that it will be harder to keep up the pace of economic growth that we have been experiencing as the labor market gets tighter,” he told BusinessWest. “Effectively, it will be harder for those who are unemployed to find work.”

Meanwhile, the 2.7% number doesn’t tell the whole story. The official (U3) unemployment rate, the one that gets reported, counts anyone who is either working or willing to work, defined as someone who has looked for a job in the past four weeks, he explained. A broader measure of unemployment is the U6 rate, which includes workers who have given up looking for work but would return to the labor force if jobs were available, as well as people who are employed part-time because they can’t find a full-time job. The average U6 number in Massachusetts is 8.8%.

“The difference between that and the state U-3 rate does indicate that there is potentially more room to grow in Massachuetts,” Petrick said. “That’s a lot of potential workers that are on the sidelines who could return to the labor market if things continue to improve.”

Whether the economy will, indeed, continue to improve is the big question.

East and West

Petrick and Nakosteen both noted that breaking the state down by region results in a much more mixed picture for Western Mass.

Specifically, while Hampden County’s U3 rate fell from 6.0% to 3.6% from October 2015 to October 2016 — and similarly decreased from 8.3% to 5.1% in Springfield and 7.4% to 4.3% in Holyoke — those figures trail other metro areas in Massachusetts, including Boston (2.6% in October 2016) and Worcester (3.3%). In fact, Springfield’s 5.1% rate ranks among the highest city unemployment rates in the state.

“The recovery started sooner in Eastern Mass., and it took a while for the effects to be really felt in the western part of the state,” Petrick said. “Over the past year, we have seen a degree of catching up … after lagging in Western Mass. for a few years, the rate of job growth is now pretty consistent across the state.”

One interesting result over the past year, he noted, has been a rebound in the construction industry in Massachusetts, which saw employment grow by almost 38%. But much of that growth — particularly new construction — has been concentrated in the Greater Boston area.  Still, he went on, as construction was hard-hit by the recession, a rebound in this sector is a positive sign.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

I don’t think the economy is going gangbusters, but it’s been steady, moderate growth over a long period of time, with higher employment numbers and the total number of workers higher.”

 

“It’s always been the case that the growth in Boston spreads very unevenly, and it dissipates as it gets farther from Boston,” Nakosteen added. “In Western Massachusetts, our employment numbers have increased, but not dramatically.”

One oft-discussed reason has been the decline of the manufacturing base over the past few decades, with no one industry stepping up to replace it. “We have a smattering of everything, and a number of manufacturing companies, but nothing very big.”

Area economic-development leaders hope the emergence of CRRC USA Rail Corp., a subsidiary of the China-based world leader in rail-car manufacturing — which promises to create more than 150 manufacturing jobs in Springfield when its plant on Page Boulevard opens in 2018 — is a harbinger of more good news for the region’s manufacturing sector. At the same time, downtown projects like Union Station and MGM Springfield, coupled with a surge in entrepreneurial activity in the region, bode well for the future.

So do the continued health of the ‘eds and meds’ sectors in the region. Nakosteen noted that people think of Massachusetts’ world-class hospitals when they think of the state’s healthcare prowess, but in addition to that anchor, companies that perform pharmaceutical research and build medical devices are thriving — although, again, mainly in the eastern part of the state.

Still, he went on, “there has been some convergence of the economic prospects of the eastern and western parts of the state, and that’s a good thing.”

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, said her organization’s members are mainly bullish on the year ahead.

“There’s a lot of optimism. I hear it on the streets and in chamber meetings,” she said. “We’re seeing new business come into the city — small businesses, especially, that want to be part of what’s happening here. And the chamber is growing — chamber members are increasing job growth, increasing spending. I think, overall, people are feeling good about the city of Springfield.”

Nancy Creed says businesses expect to grow in 2017

Nancy Creed says businesses expect to grow in 2017, despite caution over what national events and trends represent.

However, “I would say it’s also tempered with what could potentially happen with the new federal administration,” she added. “Who knows what’s going to happen with healthcare and the ACA? So there’s also some caution overall.”

Indeed, Petrick noted, markets don’t like uncertainty, and they tend to be volatile during an election year in the U.S. — particularly one as unpredictable and unusual as the one that gave rise to President-elect Donald Trump and his aggressive rhetoric regarding trade.

“Certainly two of our biggest trade partners at the national level, China and Mexico, have both responded by letting us know that a trade war is a very bad idea for the U.S. as well as for them,” he said. “They have also both let the incoming administration know that there’s not a whole lot of good will there after a series of inflammatory statements regarding both countries during the campaign.

Those relationships need mending, he said, and it’s in the interest of both the U.S. and Massachusetts economies for that to happen. At the national level, he noted, much uncertainty lingers — more than what is typical after an election — and both companies and consumers want to see what the incoming administration will do, particularly after so many statements, many of them contradictory, regarding potential policy.

“So, because of both economic and political reasons, I think the state economy is entering into a period of more uncertainty,” Petrick said. “Luckily, we are doing so after a period of robust economic growth, so, as a state, we have a good foundation to weather this uncertainty.”

In the financial world, indicators reflect general economic health, said Thomas Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank.


List of Business and Economic Development Resources


“Interest rates, obviously, drive most of what we do,” he said, adding that the Fed is expected to raise rates another 25 basis points this week, and he anticipates further jumps in the spring and perhaps the fourth quarter of 2017. “We see it as a moderate increase in rates that won’t have a huge, detrimental effect.”

In fact, he added, the Fed moves should instead translate into positive consumer confidence, which usually brings positive economic impact.

Meanwhile, Senecal added, “unemployment is significantly down in Western Mass., and we see in the banking industry that foreclosures are down, delinquencies are down — these are all positive signs for the economy.”

Broader Trends

Other fundamentals at the national level remain positive, Petrick said. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the U.S. economy will grow by 2.2% over the next year. That’s a strong rate of growth, although one part of the IMF forecast — higher energy prices — is better for some states (like Texas and North Dakota) than for Massachusetts. The IMF also estimate that the U.S. dollar will weaken over the coming year, which is good news for exports from Massachusetts, as a strong dollar over the past two years has seen state exports to many top trade partners suffer.

While the national economy is still growing, Nakosteen noted, it’s growing at a slightly slower rate than in previous years, and that’s bound to affect Massachusetts. “We can only be healthy to the extent of a strong national economy.”

Meanwhile, globally, China continues its transformation from an export-led economy to one more consumer-driven, and that could be a painful process. “It’s not clear that transition will be successful or happen any time soon,” he said, “and it’s not clear the politics in that country will be able to sustain it.”

As for Europe, “what they consider good news, we’d call stagnant. We’d be lamenting it here, but they’re happy there. There’s not much in the tea leaves to say that will change any time soon,” Nakosteen said, adding that slowdowns in commodities exports — a problem from Asia to Africa to Canada — are proving to impact economies negatively as well.

“The world isn’t on the brink of anything, but it’s certainly challenged in a number of ways, and certainly just slogging along,” he said. “We’re not disconnected from any of that. Even though we have a really dynamic economy, these trends are bound to suppress growth at some point. We’ve managed to keep modest growth continually for a long time, but there are troubling outside signs.”

Petrick agreed. “A generally sluggish world economy doesn’t help the U.S. or the Massachusetts state economy. The weakened Chinese economy, a sluggish European Union, and the continued fallout from the Brexit vote in the UK all bear watching.”

Michael Oleksak, executive vice president, senior lender, and chief credit officer at PeoplesBank, noted, as many analysts have, that Western Mass. is to some degree more shielded from national trends than, say Boston — never reaching the same heights or plumbing the same depths.

“The last few years, we’ve seen positive trends for both our customers and prospective customers,” he said, adding that he sees some staying power in regional trends like rising household incomes, strong commercial occupancy levels, and an uptick in home purchases in the mortgage realm after several years of refinances dominating that sector. Meanwhile, he sees the casino and other large projects causing a trickle-down effect of renewed investment interest in the region.

“I think the casino and CRRC will have an impact on the Western Mass. market; there will be some economic spilloff from that,” Senecal added. “Any time you see cranes in the sky, it makes you feel good about what’s going on in the immediate area.”

Meanwhile, some sectors are dealing with trends that are more cultural than economic, notably retail, which continue to grapple with Internet sales cutting deeply into their bottom line. Nakosteen said he has talked to store owners who say they hear that things are getting better, but they’re not seeing it themselves. “Retailers across the state and nation are struggling to deal with the Internet world.”

Bottom Line

In summary, Petrick expects Massachusetts’ economic growth to remain positive in 2017 but at a slower rate, closer to the U.S. national rate of growth.

“It’s really hard to continually outpace the national rate of growth after so many years of doing so,” he said. “I suspect, for at least part of the year, we will grow faster than the national average, but the gap will get narrower.”

One advantage the Bay State has is a high percentage of educational attainment, as 41.5% of residents in age 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree or higher; the national rate is 30.6%. “That is one of the reasons that Massachusetts is an attractive place for companies to locate.”

On the other hand, they still grapple with skills gaps, trying to match their needs with the available talent. But one of the more positive stories over the past decade in Western Mass. has been the region’s efforts to attack that problem.

“The skills gap is always going to be a concern, as businesses evolve and have different needs,” Creed said, adding, however, that the city has been fortunate to see robust partnerships emerge between its colleges, technical schools, and workforce-development agencies to prime the pump of talent and keep it in the region. “That’s the nature of the beast — businesses evolve, the skills they need evolve, and we’ve got to keep pace with that.”

Those partnerships don’t happen everywhere and shouldn’t be taken for granted, she added — but they are being noticed by both local companies and those looking for a place to plant new roots.

“I hear it from people at my events — they want to be downtown, they want to be part of the excitement. They want to be part of what’s happening here.”

It’s an optimism being felt across Western Mass. — admittedly, more strongly in some communities than others — as the calendar turns to 2017, and all the economic questions a new year brings.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Seeing Through the Smoke

page6marijuanadpOn Nov. 8, voters said ‘yes’ to Question 4, the so-called Massachusetts Marijuana Legalization Initiative. But that’s all they said ‘yes’ to. What happens now, concerning everything from whether marijuana shops can be licensed, to where and how many of them, remain somewhat unsettling question marks that municipalities will need to resolve.

Peter Vickery says ballot questions are, for the most part, “blunt instruments.”

And by that he meant that, generally speaking, these questions are broad in meaning, as opposed to sharp, or specific, and are usually to be considered a starting point, with the details to be colored in later.

And so it is with the Massachusetts Marijuana Legalization Initiative, a.k.a. Question 4 on this month’s election ballot. In simple terms, the question asks the voter whether he or she supports a proposal to legalize marijuana but also regulate it in ways similar to alcoholic beverages. And they can only vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ said Vickery, an employment law attorney based in Amherst, a community where the vast majority of voters — something approaching 70% — did in fact vote ‘yes.’

But that’s all they voted for, he went on, adding that all those ‘yes’ votes do not mean the town will want or support several marijuana shops in its vibrant downtown — or even one of them.

“People change — opinions change,” he explained. “What people were voting on was a ballot question. And what ballot questions do is let you vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You know by the end of the election that the people have spoken, but it’s not always easy to tell what they’ve said.

“What they’ve said in Amherst is ‘yes’ to Question 4,” he went on. “But whether they thought ‘yes’ to Question 4 in terms of wanting several marijuana shops in our downtown — I don’t really know if that’s what they were voting in favor of.”

Peter Vickery

Peter Vickery describes ballot questions as ‘blunt instruments,’ short on needed specifics.

And this sentiment essentially dominates every corner of the state, where the phrase ‘I don’t really know’ is being uttered by all kinds of people concerning all manner of topics related to recreational marijuana and its legalization — from how to license and tax those seeking to set up shops, to how many jobs this industry (and it can certainly be called that now) will create in the Bay State.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, in a published press release and also follow-up remarks to BusinessWest, probably spoke for every elected official in the state when he said, “we’re in uncharted waters, and in such should take a step back, maybe a proper time-limited moratorium, so that we can proceed with extreme caution.”

The mayor, who wasn’t shy in his opposition to the question before the election, went on to say that before municipalities like Springfield do anything with regard to this measure, the state has to come forward and perhaps eliminate or mitigate many of the question marks that now define this matter.

“I do believe that the state must look at a more progressive tax to deal with all the — pardon the pun — headaches of eventual expenses vs. revenues,” said Sarno, citing issues ranging from public safety enforcement to employment and addiction issues, and more, adding that until such specifics are known, the city is in many ways operating in the dark.

And that hardly makes it unique among the state’s 351 municipalties, most of which are trying to shed some light — or at least some conjecture — on the matter.

That was the goal of one presentation in Amherst a few weeks ago, a conversation moderated by Vickery and hosted by the Business Leadership for Amherst Area Strategies (BLAAST).

 

Dominic Sarno

Dominic Sarno

I do believe that the state must look at a more progressive tax to deal with all the — pardon the pun — headaches of eventual expenses vs. revenues.”

 

The program included the city’s police chief, a former marijuana retailer from Colorado, a member of the state’s opioid taskforce, and one of the authors of the ballot question, said Tim O’Brien, president of the Amherst area Chamber of Commerce, adding that it’s a good example of the kind of fact-checking and opinion-taking that all cities and towns should embark upon as they consider how to best live with Question 4.

“Something that was illegal is now legal, and we have to ready to observe some change,” he said. “There may be some unintended consequences, but we’ll have to deal with those. There are a great many unknowns at this point.”

For this issue, BusinessWest tries to answer some of the questions concerning the marijuana law and its implications for municipalities and businesses alike. But, and this will become clear in the course of this discussion, specific answers are difficult to come by.

Joint Concerns

So perhaps it’s best to start with what we do know, which, all things considered, isn’t much apparently.

Here’s how the ballot question’s official summary reads:

The proposed law would permit the possession, use, distribution, and cultivation of marijuana in limited amounts by persons age 21 and older and would remove criminal penalties for such activities. It would provide for the regulation of commerce in marijuana, marijuana accessories, and marijuana products and for the taxation of proceeds from sales of these items.

The proposed law would authorize persons at least 21 years old to possess up to one ounce of marijuana outside of their residences; possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana inside their residences; grow up to six marijuana plants in their residences; give one ounce or less of marijuana to a person at least 21 years old without payment; possess, produce or transfer hemp; or make or transfer items related to marijuana use, storage, cultivation, or processing.

The measure would create a Cannabis Control Commission of three members appointed by the state Treasurer which would generally administer the law governing marijuana use and distribution, promulgate regulations, and be responsible for the licensing of marijuana commercial establishments. The proposed law would also create a Cannabis Advisory Board of 15 members appointed by the governor. The Cannabis Control Commission would adopt regulations governing licensing qualifications; security; record keeping; health and safety standards; packaging and labeling; testing; advertising and displays; required inspections; and such other matters as the Commission considers appropriate. The records of the Commission would be public records.

The proposed law would authorize cities and towns to adopt reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of operating marijuana businesses and to limit the number of marijuana establishments in their communities. A city or town could hold a local vote to determine whether to permit the selling of marijuana and marijuana products for consumption on the premises at commercial establishments.

The proceeds of retail sales of marijuana and marijuana products would be subject to the state sales tax and an additional excise tax of 3.75%. A city or town could impose a separate tax of up to 2%. Revenue received from the additional state excise tax or from license application fees and civil penalties for violations of this law would be deposited in a Marijuana Regulation Fund and would be used subject to appropriation for administration of the proposed law. Marijuana-related activities authorized under this proposed law could not be a basis for adverse orders in child welfare cases absent clear and convincing evidence that such activities had created an unreasonable danger to the safety of a minor child. The proposed law would not affect existing law regarding medical marijuana treatment centers or the operation of motor vehicles while under the influence.

It would permit property owners to prohibit the use, sale, or production of marijuana on their premises (with an exception that landlords cannot prohibit consumption by tenants of marijuana by means other than by smoking); and would permit employers to prohibit the consumption of marijuana by employees in the workplace. State and local governments could continue to restrict uses in public buildings or at or near schools. Supplying marijuana to persons under age 21 would be unlawful.

The proposed law would take effect on Dec. 15, 2016.

So given all that, what do we know? Well, for starters, we know that marijuana use is still forbidden by federal law, a not-so-minor detail that impacts a great many of those question marks moving forward.

And we know that, contrary to what some might believe, the new law does not enable individuals to show up at the workplace stoned — just as they can’t show up drunk. Those basic laws of the business world still exist.

After that, there is mostly just speculation and concern, perhaps in equal quantities. For example:

• Elected officials in border communities are already concerned that people will drive across state lines to buy marijuana products in their municipality — and then drive back to where they came from, perhaps after they’ve consumed some of those products, creating public safety issues;

• Health officials are concerned about the potential impact of the measure on everything from hospital emergency rooms (Colorado, which legalized marijuana four years ago, has experienced a significant jump in patients seeking emergency medical treatment for complications related to suspected marijuana use) to the health of young children, especially with regard to one segment of marijuana products known as ‘chewables;’

• Employers and employer groups are concerned that the new law (while it doesn’t green-light being under the influence on the job) may blur some of the previously sharp lines when it comes to drug testing and other matters.

As Sarno said — and he’s far from the only public official to use the term — these are uncharted and somewhat dangerous waters.

“The people have spoken, so we’ll move forward accordingly,” said the mayor. “What I’m concerned about is that the state has yet to get it in gear and issue any specifics on this.”

Actually, he listed a number of concerns, from employment law matters, to worries about increased drug addiction, to the many hidden costs that may result from this measure.

“I keep hearing that the costs of this program really outweigh the revenues,” he went on. “And who does that fall upon? The municipalities.”

Look West, Young Man

To navigate these uncharted waters, cities, towns, individual elected officials, and some business leaders, are looking for some answers, or at least some help in formulating them.

And for most, this means googling ‘Colorado, legalization of marijuana,’ or words to that effect. And there’s plenty to read, which is good, said O’Brien with a laugh, noting that even if there was money in the budget for a trip to the Centennial State — and there isn’t — he would likely be doing his research with his laptop anyway.

“There’s this thing called the Internet, and along with telephones, it does a pretty good job of providing information,” he said, adding that Massachusetts can, and must learn from Colorado about what has worked, why, what hasn’t worked, and what can be done differently.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

They say they have a $1 billion recreational marijuana industry that creates 18,000 jobs; that’s 1, 8, zero, zero, zero. That’s what they say … and this is from the proponents of legalized marijuana, so maybe that has to be taken with a grain of salt.”

 

Bob Nakosteen, a professor of Management at UMass Amherst, who was approached to discuss some of the business ramifications of Question 4, has also turned his attention to Colorado.

Some of the numbers are intriguing, he said, while wondering out loud just how reliable they are.

“They say they have a $1 billion recreational marijuana industry that creates 18,000 jobs; that’s 1, 8, zero, zero, zero,” he said, using some additional emphasis to get his point across. “That’s what they say … and this is from the proponents of legalized marijuana, so maybe that has to be taken with a grain of salt.

“I’m not expecting that many jobs here,” he went on, adding that there is already an infrastructure in place for medical marijuana (made legal in this state a few years ago) and this may impact the number of ‘new’ jobs to result from Question 4’s passage.

What is generally conceded is that the marijuana business will not sprout up like a weed (pun intended), quickly or easily, and the industry locally is almost certain to be dominated by smaller firms, most of them home-grown (another pun) startups or locally owned partnerships, in large part because of the federal ban on marijuana, which makes it difficult to operate in many states.

As Kris Kane, the Boston-based president of the marijuana investment and consulting firm 4Front Ventures, told the Boston Globe recently, “The notion that there are these gigantic, big-money players running in to take this whole thing over is just fiction.

“There’s no Phillip Morris, no Anheuser Busch, no cannibus division at Bank of America,” he went on. “Even the most successful company is still barely in the growth stage.”

Still to be determined in Springfield, Amherst, and everywhere else in the Bay State for that matter, is just how many of these home-grown enterprises will earn the privilege of growing or selling marijuana products, where (meaning which areas will be zoned for such activity), and under what conditions (meaning the specific terms printed on the licenses), said Nakosteen.

He noted that even Amherst, an extremely liberal community dominated by tens of thousands of college students and known to some as the ‘People’s Republic of Amherst,’ is as big a question mark in this regard as the proverbial ‘next town.’

“While Amherst is, in most all ways, a very liberal community, when it comes to business, it can be quite conservative, and I think there would be some resistance to large numbers of marijuana shops,” said Nakosteen, noting that new ventures must generally endure a comprehensive review of their plans and a long list of conditions, architectural and otherwise, before being able to do business. “It will be very interesting to see how it all plays out.”

This is especially true in the downtown, which is quaint and diverse, and therefore a draw for students, their families, professionals, tourists, retirees, and other constituents, said Nakosteen, adding that it competes in many ways with Northampton’s downtown.

And at this time, no one really knows whether a marijuana shop — or two or three — would become a competitive advantage or disadvantage.

“Amherst has enough trouble competing with Northampton anyway, in terms of the attractiveness of downtown for spending money, other than the students at UMass,” he told BusinessWest. “Downtown Amherst has been challenged for as long I’ve been here, and Northampton, as it’s developed, has become the more attractive destination. What would marijuana shops mean for that equation?”

He asked the question, but didn’t feel qualified to answer it, which means he is not unique.

And while Amherst, because it is a liberal college town, is perceived by many to be a litmus test of sorts on the marijuana matter, or a community to be watched, Vickery hopes ample amounts of attention will also be focused on far-less-affluent cities and towns.

“I expect people to watch Amherst, but I would hope that they would not watch it exclusively, and would also look for the impact on less-affluent communities like Holyoke and Springfield, and also Orange and Athol,” he said. “There is already a huge addiction and substance abuse problem in those communities. I think Amherst will be able to cope, but other communities that are less well-off will bear the brunt of policies designed for the comfort of the middle class.”

Where There’s Smoke …

Returning to his comments about ballot questions being blunt instruments, Vickery said Amherst, and other communities across the state, will find out just how blunt.

“As the implications become more manifest, as the town starts to consider over the next few years what the ramifications might be for the downtown Amherst economy and the impact on the wider community, from the standpoint of public health, public safety, etc., that 70% may be chimerical,” he explained. “It may be 70% in favor of the state-wide law, but in our backyards … that’s a much different question.”

And certainly only one of many hanging over the ballot measure and what will happen because of it.

As Sarno noted, Springfield, like most all communities to be sure, will be taking some steps back before it takes any forward in this uncharted territory.

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

Cover Story Education Sections

Amassing ‘Reputational Capital’

Isenberg School Dean Mark Fuller

Isenberg School Dean Mark Fuller

When Mark Fuller became a candidate for dean of the Isenberg School of Business at UMass Amherst, he saw an institution that was, by his estimation, “solid, but underperforming.” That latter adjective no longer applies. Indeed, Isenberg has made a solid move in the rankings of public schools, reaching No. 1 in BusinessWeek’s compilation of the top public schools in the Northeast. The challenge ahead — and it’s a considerable one, to say the least — is to achieve the additional ‘reputational capital’ to move still higher.

Mark Fuller says he gets asked the question all the time.

It comes in various forms, and is put to him by a host of constituencies, including school administrators, alums, other business-school deans (lots of those), and even the occasional business writer.

They all want to know how Fuller, who arrived as dean of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst in 2009, has been able to orchestrate a steady and quite impressive climb in the rankings of the region’s — and the nation’s — top business schools, especially the public institutions.

To wit, in Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s current undergraduate business-school rankings, Isenberg ranks first among public schools in the Northeast (New England and New York) and 11th in the nation; among all business schools in the nation, it is 33rd. Just six years ago, those last two rankings were 36 and 78, respectively.

The answer to the question comes mostly in a long form — and you need to set aside more than a few minutes if you want that one — but also a short form, or at least a brief overview that identifies the main elements in the equation.

They are, said Fuller, creating a plan and, more importantly, executing it effectively, while also creating a culture laser-focused on student success (much more on that later).

“I’m a shameless borrower of phrases, like the one from a CEO who came to our school. He used to say that it’s 10% strategy and 90% execution, and I believe that,” said Fuller. “We’re very good at execution, and we have to be, because there’s no magical degree program that suddenly elevates you 30 spots in the rankings; it doesn’t work that way.

“Everyone knows what you should be doing — it’s not rocket science,” he went on. “Where the rubber meets the road is how well you execute on all these things.”

To make a long story somewhat shorter, this is essentially what the Isenberg School has done — and this is, in a nutshell, what Fuller tells all those who ask him the question noted above.


List of Colleges with MBA Programs


Getting more specific, Fuller said there are, quite obviously, many components to the school’s plan. They include everything from the creation of new curricular programs to raising the money needed for the endowed chairs and faculty positions needed to recruit some of the best business professors in the world; from greatly escalating efforts to promote and market Isenberg to the scene going on outside Fuller’s office — construction of a $62 million expansion of the school.

He summed up everything that’s been accomplished to date by saying that Isenberg now has a much better story to tell — in terms of everything from faculty to facilities to the success of its graduates — and is doing an exponentially better job of telling that story.

He lumps all of this together in the phrase ‘reputational capital.’ The school has much more of it than it did a decade ago, and the mission is, well, to simply accumulate much more of this precious commodity in the years to come.

That’s the only way to continue moving up in the rankings, said Fuller, who has the specific goal of propelling Isenberg into the top 10 nationally among public schools.

In many respects, moving up several more rungs will be more difficult than attaining the height currently reached, he said, drawing an analogy to golf — sort of. It is not easy, but easier to move from an 18 handicap into the single digits, he acknowledged, than it is to move from a 6 or an 8 to something approaching scratch.

So it is with business schools and climbing in the rankings, he went on, because doing so will take more work, more money, more of everything else listed above, and, overall, more success in transforming Isenberg into what Fuller called a “national brand” when it comes to business schools.

isenbergrankingbw116a

It is not quite there yet, he told BusinessWest, noting that the single word Isenberg, while it certainly resonates regionally, is not yet able to stand alone like other brand names such as Haas (University of California at Berkely); Ross (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor); and McIntire (University of Virginia).

“We want to become an iconic brand,” he said. “So when someone says, ‘I went to Isenberg,’ people know where that is. Iconic brands are one-word brands.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest asked the question seemingly everyone else is asking, but then went further, asking how Isenberg can soar still higher and what it will take for the school to achieve that ‘national brand’ status.

Numbers Game

Fuller said there are myriad ways to both quantitatively and qualitatively measure a business school’s success and level of improvement.

These include everything from the number of undergraduate applications received (up a whopping 49% at Isenberg since 2010) to the average SAT scores of accepted students (up from just over 1,200 in 2011 to nearly 1,280 in 2015; from something called ‘recruiter satisfaction,’ which, as that term suggests, is a measure of recruiter happiness with those they recruit, to comments (and a growing number of them) from alums noting that their children were accepted into many of the top private business schools nationally, but not Isenberg; from the rising number of endowed chairs to that aforementioned construction of a 72,000-square-foot addition.

But rankings continue to drive the train, if you will, in academia these days, he noted, and attaining lower numbers in all kinds of compilations was Fuller’s primary mission when he arrived on the Amherst campus in 2009 after serving for six years as chair of the department of Information Systems in the College of Business at Washington State University.

Actually, he said the more specific goal has been to increase the stores of reputational capital, and that rankings are merely a metric of reputation, or one of many, with others being placement rates at Big-4 accounting firms and penetration into leading financial-services giants such as Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, among others.

“I would like to see us become one of the top 10 public schools in the nation and within the top 20 overall,” he explained, adding that the school is certainly on the right trajectory for those results, but needs to maintain that course and gain more thrust to break those barriers.

And while climbing in the ranks equates to opportunities for the school and the university, he said, the far more important matter is that better rankings and reputation translate into greater opportunities for the students enrolled in the programs.

“Those sorts of universities provide great opportunities for their students,” he said of the schools at or near the top of the rankings. “When you come out of a place with that level of reputational capital, there are simply more job opportunities and higher salaries. And that reputational capital not only allows us to place students better, it allows us to recruit very high-quality students, which builds this sort of perpetual-motion machine that also allows us to recruit very high-quality faculty.”

Backing up a bit, Fuller said he was attracted to the opportunity to lead Isenberg because he saw a solid program that was, in his view, but also that of many others, underperforming.

And he saw an opportunity to change that equation.

“It had a great foundation — I couldn’t have done the things we were collectively able to do without the outstanding faculty we had here,” he explained. “I saw an opportunity to go from high quality to great.”

And while designing and building that perpetual-motion machine he mentioned isn’t the specific wording on his job description, that, in a nutshell, is what he and his team have been doing.

Degrees of Progress

Not to oversimplify things, said Fuller, because there is nothing really simple about all this, attaining more reputational capital, and thus climbing in the ranks, boils down to those two elements mentioned earlier: improving the story a business school has to tell (and there are many elements in this equation) and then telling this story in a louder, more effective voice.

And this brings us back to those main assignments for his team — creating a plan and then executing it.

The plan, Fuller told BusinessWest, has many elements, or building blocks, if you will, all incorporated into the design for a reason — or several of them.

Indeed, at its core, the plan is simple — create programs, hire faculty, and generate quality and results (outcomes) that will:

• Attract top students and enable graduates to succeed in the workplace;

• Generate enthusiasm and financial support among a host of constituencies, but especially alums;

• Enable the school to generate more reputational capital;

• Propel the institution higher in the rankings; and

• Create sufficient momentum to allow each of the above to perpetuate itself and grow in size and strength.

Elaborating, Fuller said everything his team does is student-focused and undertaken with the goal of improving outcomes, meaning everything from job opportunities to salaries.

One of the keys, he said, has been an outside-in look at curriculum, whereby industry leaders provide input on what’s being done and what can be done better.

“We’re trying to find those curricular, programmatic elements that will drive great opportunities for students,” he explained. “And we’re very deliberate in that; we don’t chase just any new majors.”

Instead, the school focuses on where the jobs are and, more importantly, where they will be, in realms such as analytics, business intelligence, and operations and information management.

Meanwhile, the school has also made major strides in the area of professional development, with initiatives aimed at creating internships, generating opportunities to study abroad (a nod toward an increasingly global economy), and helping students improve interviewing skills, network more effectively, and refine their LinkedIn presence, among other things.

“Many of our students will actually say that their peers at other schools and colleges across campus go to them to learn how to refine their résumé or their LinkedIn profile,” he explained. “And we hit the ground running on that; our students will have a résumé and LinkedIn profile by the end of their freshman year.”

Another focus, as mentioned earlier, is that statistic known as recruiter satisfaction, he went on, adding that Isenberg hired a director of organizational metrics, who, among things, garners hard data on just how happy recruiters are with the school’s graduates.

“It’s like flying on an airline,” Fuller explained. “You fly, you get a survey; the airline asks, ‘how did we do?’ We do the same thing.”

isenbergtopschoolsbw116a

And it turns the results, especially those that are not particularly favorable, into action, he went on, noting that one identified problem was with résumés, criticism that eventually led to efforts to improve and standardize those documents, so much so that recruiters can now easily recognize something Fuller called the “Isenberg résumé.”

As for growing support among alums and other groups, Fuller drew an analogy to big-time college sports.

“Attendance for basketball games where a team is losing is less than it is for a school that’s winning,” he explained. “For alumni, there was a real sense that we had to build pride in the brand, because the public business schools across the country are a very competitive set of schools, and we all want to be competitive.”

Story Lines

When it comes to telling the story better, Fuller started by gesturing across the conference room table to Chris Foley Pilsner. Her business card reads ‘Assistant Dean & Chief Marketing Officer,’ and she is the first at Isenberg to have such a title.

More importantly, she leads a growing team of professionals, said Fuller, adding that the school has become much more aggressive in recent years when it comes to promoting its brand.

“We also have a digital strategist and social-media director, among other positions,” he explained. “We’re building up that infrastructure that allows us to tell our story about how good we’ve become.

“Many people know we’ve gotten better, but they’re not cognizant of how much better we’ve gotten,” he went on. “I hear that from alumni, even; they don’t know how good we’ve really become.”

The goal moving forward is to simply have better news to report, said Fuller, meaning continuous improvement. And, as he noted, moving ever-higher becomes more difficult because the competition is more keen, and those ahead of Isenberg in the rankings have every intention of staying where they are or moving higher themselves.

Continued upward movement is made still more challenging by two rankings where Isenberg lies at the very bottom of the chart, at least among the top public schools. These would be ‘operating budgets’ and ‘school endowments.’

Indeed, Isenberg has an operating budget of $38.2 million (less than one-quarter the total registered by the top-ranked public school, Indiana University’s Kelley School), and an endowment of just over $31 million, far less than one-tenth the figure at the University of Virginia’s Darden School, ranked second overall by BusinessWeek.

In many ways, how far UMass has come despite those statistics are serious points of pride, said Fuller, but those factors, and also the lowest total (70) of tenure-stream faculty among the top schools, will represent serious hurdles to moving higher.

“We like to say, affectionately, that we fight above our weight class,” he said while referring specifically to the operating budget and endowment rankings. “But we also know that you can’t continue to do that, so we’re trying to get our alumni to help us figure out how to grow this operating budget.”

Elaborating, he said that financial gifts from alums are not the only way to enlarge the budget. Others include corporate gifts, grants, and foundation support, and alumni can assist with all of the above.

Overall, to move still higher in the rankings, Fuller and his team will have to build what amounts to a bigger, even more effective perpetual-motion machine, and continue their focus on execution.

To elaborate, he moved to the whiteboard in the conference room and drew a rudimentary schematic, in the form of a circle with the word ‘reputation’ in the middle, and references to the three elements that drive it — programs, infrastructure, and image — and the need to focus on all three.

Image, as noted earlier, is a measure of how others perceive your school, and includes everything from the many regional and regional rankings to efforts to tell the story. Programs, meanwhile, as mentioned, include everything from curricular initiatives to professional-development tools. And infrastructure is a broad term used to describe everything from facilities to the faculty, and it is perhaps the biggest area of need going forward.

The construction project going on outside Fuller’s window is a prime example of infrastructure work, he noted, adding that, with rising enrollment, Isenberg had no choice but to expand its footprint in order to provide the highest-quality education.

“We need the facilities that will allow us to hire the faculty to drive the quality of the program,” he explained, “because I can’t grow anymore, either in quality or the number of students we teach, without expanding our infrastructure.”

Another element of infrastructure is the faculty, he said, noting that the school needs to grow its endowment so it can add more endowed chairs and teaching positions and thus enhance recruitment efforts in that realm.

“The big hurdle for us to move into the top rung of the rankings is to continue to build this infrastructure of resources that will enable us to compete,” he said, drawing another analogy to college sports, this time to the elaborate training facilities needed to recruit top players and coaches to athletic programs.

Off-the-charts Improvement

When asked if there was an accepted road map for public business schools to follow to attain growth and reputational capital, Fuller said ‘no,’ but also that this is another question that those other deans put to him.

Specifically, they want to know the route Isenberg followed to become number 1 in the Northeast and reach a status just outside the top 10 nationally.

He tells them it’s a well-marked route, but the key isn’t knowing the directions; it’s in executing them properly.

That’s how a business school gets where it wants to go.

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

Cover Story

Getting Real

MGM Skyline and crane

Twenty-three months. That’s 100 weeks, and more than 700 days. Seems like a long time, and in most respects, it is. But not when you’re constructing a $950 million casino, recruiting, hiring, and training the 3,000 people who will operate and manage it, and building anticipation for all that the casino will bring. Mike Mathis, president of MGM Springfield, says his company will need to make all of the days between now and then count.

Mike Mathis says he and his family, transplants from Las Vegas — a city 2,700 miles, but really several worlds, away — have in most ways settled in here in Western Mass.

He said his children have made themselves and their bicycles at home on Longmeadow’s sidewalks, and are eagerly awaiting their first snow day — something they expected but never got to experience during the non-winter of 2015-16. And he is familiar enough with some of the area’s golf courses to talk about specific holes and their challenges. Meanwhile, he’s getting to know many players within the region’s business community, and has become involved with a few nonprofits.

He told BusinessWest that he’ll try to do as much of the above as possible over the next 12 to 14 months, because he knows (anecdotally and otherwise) that, once the calendar turns to 2018, there simply won’t be time for any of it.

By then, he will be neck-deep in the stretch run toward the opening of MGM Springfield, which he serves as president. He’s never opened a casino before (in this capacity, anyway), but he knows that the final nine months are an intense time devoted to details on a scale that most could not imagine.

“I’ll try to take advantage of all the great weather in Springfield over the next 12 months, because I suspect I won’t be able to play hooky or get out on the golf course very often starting in 2018,” he explained. “Nine months out, it starts to get pretty intense — make that very intense.”

The 14 or so months between now and then won’t feature large amounts of downtime, either, he noted quickly, adding that there is considerable work to do when it comes to building the casino itself, building the workforce that will operate it, building the MGM brand of entertainment, and building anticipation for this $950 million enterprise, which is expected to change the landscape in all sorts of ways.

I’ll try to take advantage of all the great weather in Springfield over the next 12 months, because I suspect I won’t be able to play hooky or get out on the golf course very often starting in 2018. Nine months out, it starts to get pretty intense — make that very intense.”

These various building projects comprised the subject matter for an in-depth interview with Mathis, the latest of several he has provided to BusinessWest since this project became reality more than two years ago.

Late last year, the conversation focused on a somewhat turbulent six months of admitted missteps (specifically when it came to communicating — or not — with Springfield officials and the public at large) about plans for the casino and changes to them, and moving on from those public-relations problems.

This year, with two huge cranes now piercing the sky in Springfield’s South End and a parking garage now becoming part of the skyline, the project is coming into focus both literally and figuratively.

But to hit the ground running in September 2018, the scheduled date for opening, hundreds of puzzle pieces need to come together effectively, said Mathis, who used the phrase ‘best practices’ early and often as he talked about the multi-faceted process of getting MGM ready for opening day and well beyond.

mathiswelcomeemploy16-launch-4-mmm

‘career launches’ to be staged by MGM

Above, Mike Mathis addresses those gathered at the first of several ‘career launches’ to be staged by MGM. Below, interested job seekers register at the event.

He deployed it with reference to everything from recruiting and hiring a workforce of 3,000 to investing in the Western Mass. community, to making the casino part of the community it’s located within.

It’s all part of what he called a template, one already being followed by another of the company’s properties, the $1.2 billion MGM National Harbor in Maryland.

That facility is set to open Dec. 8, and its website asks the question, “we’re almost ready. Are you?” It helps get people ready by hyping everything from career opportunities to upcoming shows (Bruno Mars will open the facility’s theater on Dec. 27); from rewards programs to the eclectic lineup of restaurants.

Such buttons will not be on the MGM Springfield website for maybe another 18 to 20 months, but the process of adding them will be an intriguing spectator sport unto itself.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Mathis about this template for opening a casino and what the region should expect as the calendar turns first to 2017 and then 2018.

Craning Their Necks

As he talked about those aforementioned best practices — or, more specifically, developments that might not be worthy of that descriptive phrase — Mathis referenced a long-established trend within the gaming industry and the hospitality industry in general.

That would be nametags that reveal not only an employee’s name, but where they’re from. Common in casinos and on cruise ships, these nametags and the information they provide often spark conversations and creates connections, he noted, adding that he believes that one mistake most facilities in Atlantic City have made is not having enough nametags with what would be considered ‘local’ cities and towns listed underneath the names.

“A lot of the employees come from outside of the city,” he said. “When you go to Atlantic City, you just don’t see ‘Atlantic City’ on the nametags very much. They’re working on it, but started behind the eight-ball, because there wasn’t that focus early on, and when you do that, the economic benefits don’t stay in the host community.”

That’s one mistake he’s intent on not replicating. “When we open MGM Springfield, we hope a third of workers have a nametag that says ‘Springfield, Mass.’ on it.”

But making that goal reality is an involved process, he explained, one that is already officially underway, a full two years before the casino is set to open its doors.

Indeed, one manifestation of that effort was the recent ‘career-launch’ session staged in one of the ballrooms at the MassMutual Center. As that name suggests, this program, the first of many to be conducted over the next several months, was crafted to inform attendees not so much about the various job opportunities to be created by the casino (although there was some of that), but instead about how to prepare oneself to be qualified for them.

Elaborating somewhat, the session introduced attendees — and there were more than 150 of them — to something called the ‘Skillsmart profile,’ something interested job seekers must build through an online portal. The profile tells them, in essence, what positions they’re already qualified for, if any, what skills they’ll need to be qualified for others, and, perhaps most importantly, how and where to attain those skills they’ll need.

As noted, the room was full of enthusiastic job and information seekers, and Mathis said MGM worked hard, and had some help from area workforce-related agencies and institutions, to make sure the seats and standing areas were fully occupied.

Construction crews are rapidly changing Springfield’s skyline

Construction crews are rapidly changing Springfield’s skyline in the South End, and will continue to do over the next 23 months.

Such efforts were necessary, he told BusinessWest, because too many people are still of the opinion that two years out is too early to start thinking about possible job and career opportunities. The reality is just the opposite, especially if specific training is needed, he went on, adding that, overall, the next 24 months will fly by very quickly.

And to be fully ready for opening day, MGM, the construction crews working in the South End, city officials, and job hopefuls themselves have to start with the September 2018 opening date, work backward, set hard deadlines for getting things done, and even anticipate that all will not go smoothly and build in some cushion — if and where that is even possible.

Indeed, while construction crews certainly benefited from the non-winter that deprived Mathis’s children of a cherished snow day or two, you won’t hear anyone even think of using the phrase ‘ahead of schedule,’ he noted, even if they might be tempted to do so, because much can change quickly. Moreso than in Las Vegas, for example, where high winds can pose a problem, but other than that, weather is not a factor and work continues all year.

“In New England, for us, it’s about the winters and managing to those construction milestones,” he said, referring to a set of deadlines that must be met to keep the project on track, schedule-wise. “And we’re in great shape going into this winter, because the groundwork is done, and now the garage is going up; it’s pre-cast concrete that comes from off-site, and it gets stood up and erected.

“And we’re now putting steel beams down for what we call the podium — the casino area leading to the hotel,” he went on. “Once the garage goes up, we’re all over the site, creating that first- and second-floor podium, and then, in the spring, you’ll start to see the hotel come up on Main Street.”

By the winter of 2017-18, the last one MGM will face, work will have moved indoors, he said. “So, knock on wood, we feel really good about the September 2018 opening, because of how we hit these winter milestones.”

Workforce in Progress

While the construction work is highly visible, especially to those occupying the high-rise office towers with southerly views, the work to build a workforce will be carried out mostly behind the scenes.

But like the construction efforts, the task of recruiting, hiring, and training a workforce faces stern deadlines, and the clock is certainly ticking, said Mathis, adding that, in many ways, staffing this casino will be much different than doing so in Las Vegas or other areas where there is a large hospitality workforce already in place, much of it with casino experience.

“There is no existing casino industry for us to pull from,” he said, adding quickly, however, that there are casinos outside the Hartford-Springfield area, and some individuals working at these venues may be drawn to Springfield by the MGM name and its reputation.

“We have such a great brand, and we don’t have a flag in the region,” he explained. “So I think there is a lot of pent-up excitement with some of the employees with our competitors, waiting for us to open and join the MGM family.

“How many Atlantic City dealers, Connecticut dealers, pit bosses, marketing analysts, and others will be interested in relocating? We don’t know the answer to that yet,” he went on. “But there’s going to be considerable interest, and we’re starting to get a lot of inquiries. Our job is to take some of those people, because you need experienced individuals, but also to remember our commitment, which is to provide opportunities locally, which is why we’re focused on early workforce development.”

Overall, this will be a competitive, detailed, and time-consuming process on many levels, he told BusinessWest, noting that roughly 3,000 jobs will be created, and, on average, at least seven people will be interviewed for each one.

Roughly one-tenth of the workforce, 300 or so jobs at the administration level, will obviously be filled by individuals with considerable casino-industry experience, Mathis noted, adding that most, if not all, of these employees will be moving into the area.

That will create a dynamic of its own, he went on, adding that these individuals and their families will need homes, schools, banks, doctors, country-club memberships, and much more.

“I’m excited by the prospect of a new crop of energetic, highly motivated, civic-minded professionals coming to the area — there will be a huge infusion of energy into the downtown,” he said, noting that many of these professionals will be Millennials, and therefore likely open to the idea of not only working in downtown Springfield, but living there as well.

As for the other 2,700 jobs, ones Mathis said individuals can be “trained into,” one-third of them will be targeted for Springfield residents, with another 55% destined for those living within a larger circle covering Western Mass. and Northern Conn., adding that, across the board, the company is seeking what it calls “best-in-class workers.”

A 200-foot crane

A 200-foot crane now pierces the sky in Springfield’s South End, foreshadowing a new era in the region’s history.

To fit that description, most candidates will require training, some form of certification, or both, he noted, while explaining, again, that those with designs on working for MGM should set those wheels in motion soon, as in now.

Which brings him back to the SkillSmart profile and career launches like the one earlier this month. They are the key, he said, to fulfilling MGM’s commitment to the region and maintaining the company’s high standards for its workforce.

“Our team’s obligation, and our commitment to the shareholders and to the city, is to open a successful facility with best-in-class workers,” Mathis explained. “That we’ll do — there’s no question in my mind we’ll do that.

“The question is, where will those workers come from?” he went on. “If we’re not able to be successful — I believe we will be, but if we’re not — when it comes to sourcing them locally, then more and more we’ll have to tap into those outside markets.”

The workforce will be built gradually, he went on, adding there will likely be at least 50 people drawing paychecks from MGM Springfield in 2017 (many of whom will be those aforementioned managers recruited from outside the area), with that number growing steadily over the first few months of 2018 and then accelerating markedly, especially with dealers in training, security personnel, culinary staff, and others, three to six months out.

Anticipation…

While MGM goes about building the casino complex and its workforce, it will also be building the brand and anticipation for it, said Mathis, adding, once again, that two years out certainly isn’t too early for those efforts, either.

Elaborating, he said the company will do what it can to keep its efforts in the public eye and generate excitement for what is to come. Examples include everything from press gatherings, such as the one staged when the huge, 205-foot construction crane was maneuvered onto the site and then assembled, to the video shown at the career launch, footage depicting a fast-paced, highly energetic environment that had many in the audience ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing.’

Mathis refers to these as opportunities to “wow people,” and there will be plenty of them in the weeks and months to come, such as when retail establishments are inked or restaurants (there will be 10 of them, according to the latest count) are announced.

Like building the complex and creating a workforce, this work to build a brand is also a process, one with its own timeline and milestones, he said. For now, the news is mostly about SkillSmart and career opportunities, as well as developments in construction, but over time, the focus will shift toward the MGM brand itself and what it will bring to the region.

With that, Mathis returned to the Grand Harbor project, its template, and the ‘teaser campaign’ now in what would be considered overdrive.

“This is imagery about what this project is going to mean in terms of entertainment,” he explained, referencing everything from the website to billboards to TV commercials. “Their themes are, ‘this is going to be monumental.’

“This is a teaser campaign with a few representative images of brands within the resort, some of the chefs, some of the people who are going to be working at the resort,” he went on. “Then, 30 days out, we’ll get a lot more specific about restaurant names and shows that are coming and different promotions that will surround the opening. We want to convey the message: ‘this is getting real, here’s a date, start getting excited about it.’”

The same template will be followed in Springfield, Mathis went on, adding that the specific strategy is much different when a property is roughly 700 days out as opposed to 30, 60, or even 90.

Construction of the casino complex

Construction of the casino complex is only part of the challenge facing MGM. The company is also building a workforce — and anticipation for the company’s brand of entertainment.

For now, MGM is content to provide updates, offer limited renderings of what’s being built (not everything the company is doing is ready for public — and the competition’s —consumption), and build anticipation.

And the excitement shouldn’t be limited to simply the casino, he went on, adding that it is simply one of many developments (CRRC’s rail-car manufacturing facility being another) that will bring hundreds of young professionals, additional vibrancy, and greater attention to Springfield and the surrounding region.

‘Catalytic’ was the word Mathis used to describe the impact and its overall influence, which he believes stretches to the decision to open a Mercedes dealership in Chicopee and the city’s recent ranking among the nation’s “most overlooked cities for business opportunities.”

“We’re getting national recognition for the kind of investment we’re making,” said Mathis, referring specifically to that ranking, but also more positive press for Greater Springfield in general. “All that talk about this project as economic development and having ancillary benefits to the surrounding areas … it’s happening; it’s working.”

Date with Destiny

Mathis noted that, once Springfield’s casino opens, it will be like a 7-Eleven, meaning it will always be open.

“There are no locks on the doors because there’s no locking the door,” he said, revealing something else that most in this region probably didn’t know about gaming establishments.

To get this $950 million 7-Eleven ready for prime time will be a huge undertaking, he went on, adding that, while 23 months seems like a long time — 100 weeks, two more baseball seasons (plus the end of this one), and nearly half of someone’s first term as president — it really isn’t.

Not when the assignment is to build a casino complex, build a workforce, and build excitement for the brand. To do all that, time is of the essence.

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

Cover Story

Blast from the Past

Old ChapelBuilt when Chester A. Arthur was patrolling the White House and UMass Amherst was known as the Massachusetts Agricultural College, Old Chapel has witnessed a great deal of history. Yet, much of its own recent history has been one of neglect and disuse. But thanks to the vision and determination of the school’s chancellor, this landmark that has been such a big part of the school’s past will now play an intriguing role in its future.

It’s a story that many within the broad UMass Amherst community have heard already. But if they haven’t, they’re almost certain to hear it over the next few months.

Kumble Subbaswamy, then a candidate to become chancellor of the university, was on site for some interviews and, as part of that process, was being given an elaborate tour.

According to what has become local lore, he was walking through the center of the campus and past the building known colloquially as Old Chapel — although by most accounts it wasn’t really used for religious services — and paused to admire it.

He then asked to go inside for a look at this handsome structure that was opened in 1886, said Ed Blaguszewski, a spokesman for the school, and was told that he couldn’t; the building had been locked and shuttered amid safety concerns. Actually, by that time, 2011, few, if anyone, had been inside Old Chapel in years.

Moving the story along, Blaguszewski said that ‘Swamy,’ as he’s now known to most, made a pledge of sorts. If he were to be named chancellor, he would make it one of his priorities to see to it that the chapel, a rich part of the school’s past, would also be part of its future.

And to make a long story short, he made good on the pledge.

Indeed, Old Chapel, a building few alums can claim to have been in, even though it is considered the iconic, signature building on the flagship campus, is nearly ready to begin its next life. And in that role, few members of future classes will be able to say they never had cause to go inside.

That’s because the building will become a true community center, said Blaguszewski and Jeff Quackenbush, UMass project manager, noting that the spaces on the first and second floors can and will be used for everything from lectures to recitals; from receptions to weddings.

No bridal ceremonies or receptions have been scheduled yet, said Quackenbush, but he noted that calls of inquiry have started to pour in, many from alums looking for a unique location for their special day.

Getting Old Chapel ready for such functions has been an elaborate, 30-month-long effort that has been a blend of new construction and careful restoration and reconstruction of many of the original facilities, said Quackenbush, adding that the project has presented a number of stern tests.

“It’s been a challenge on many levels, with the biggest challenge being the building itself,” he said, noting that, while in the course of giving Old Chapel a makeover, construction manager Barr & Barr and the subcontractors that worked with it uncovered a host of problems and hurdles to be cleared. “We took this building back to the structure, and we found a lot of bad structure.”

The Old Chapel, seen in an undated postcard.

The Old Chapel, seen in an undated postcard.

Jim Alexander, senior principal with Finegold Alexander Architects, which added the chapel to an impressive résumé of work with historic structures, agreed.

He said there were three main challenges to this endeavor: creating suitable access to the building and all its levels, finding space for the mechanicals (heating, air conditioning, etc.) without taking valuable square footage on the ground floor, and determining what the structure could and should be used for moving forward, and designing spaces accordingly.

In each case, creative answers were found, he said, referring to his company as “problem-solving architects.”

The end results are dramatic, Alexander and Quackenbush noted, although few will actually know just how dramatic, because they’ve never seen the ‘old,’ and can only bask in the ‘new.’

And while the $21 million Old Chapel project will restore a landmark to prominence, it is, in many ways, merely part of a larger effort to revitalize and reinvigorate the historic center of the campus, an area that also includes the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, the campus pond, nearby South College, and some recent additions, such as the Honors College, just a few hundred feet from the chapel.

“The chapel is part of a larger investment in the core of the campus,” said Blaguszewski, listing everything from new construction to renovation of the campus center to conversion of the old Blue Wall tavern into a huge dining facility. “The goal is to connect students to the school’s past, honor our history, and build a community.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Old Chapel project, and how a university that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to add new facilities to the landscape has made an equally important investment in preserving the past.

History Lessons

When asked to describe that aforementioned ‘old,’ or what he found when he ventured inside Old Chapel before the restoration project commenced, Quackenbush used a number of words and phrases to convey the picture.

Perhaps none drove the point home better than ‘frightening.’

Jeff Quackenbush inside the renovated great room at the Old Chapel.

Jeff Quackenbush inside the renovated great room at the Old Chapel.

“It was not a safe place, really; I found myself wondering what was around the corner,” he said while referencing some early tours. “It was old, it was dirty … you were wondering if something with four legs might be lurking about.”

This was quite a sad state for a building that has seen all but a few decades of the school’s 153-year history and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places only a year ago.

“It has served many students over many generations,” said Blaguszewski as he explained its important place in the history and psyche of the university. “And it speaks to the history and community of UMass; this building has endured through the transformation of the university through many phases, from small land-grant startup, if you will, to one of the best public research universities in the country today.”

Indeed, positioned just west of the pond, the chapel has seen the school essentially grow up around it. One old postcard, date unknown (page 7), shows the structure on the school’s main thoroughfare with little but trees and a large green around it.

And as that green space was filled in over the ensuing decades, Old Chapel, a two-and-a-half-story Romanesque Revival structure made from Pelham granite with East Longmeadow sandstone trim, assumed a number of roles.

Originally, the first floor functioned as the school library, while the second floor was the college chapel. The library remained there until 1935, when it was renovated and used for classrooms. In subsequent years, the building served as home for the Department of Music and Performing Arts, and, later, the highly acclaimed UMass marching band.

Indeed, all that most students who were on campus during the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s knew of the chapel was the sounds of the band practicing, which permeated its thick walls.

While the chapel’s tower, clock, and bells underwent extensive renovations in 1998 and 1999, the interior was essentially neglected, said Blaguszewski, adding that the school could never seem to find the money for what would certainly be a very involved effort to restore, renovate, and modernize the structure to meet modern building codes.

And that’s where things stood until Subbaswamy’s now-famous tour and his stated commitment to returning Old Chapel to something approximating its former glory.

“After he was appointed,” noted Blaguszewski, “he said that, if the opportunity arises, we really need to restore this building — it’s such a beautiful structure, it’s in the heart of the campus, it’s part of our historic legacy, and it can be a real community builder.”

That opportunity came as the chancellor pushed for the chapel project to be part of a much larger capital campaign, he went on, adding that $21 million, including donations from several thousand individuals, was eventually cobbled together for the project.

The task of blueprinting the renovations and needed structural changes was awarded to Finegold Alexander Architects, which has undertaken a number of similar projects regionally and nationally.

It was a significant player in the massive, $150 million restoration of Ellis Island, for example, as well the extensive renovations to Boston’s iconic Hatch Memorial Shell on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 1990.

Other projects in the portfolio include work on the executive suite at the Massachusetts State House, Worcester’s Union Station, the Wang Performance Center, and, regionally, Holyoke’s Public Library, a project that involved integration of the existing structure, built in 1902, with a large addition, effectively doubling the facility’s space.

“Our interest has been in the reuse of existing buildings, and kind of reimagining or reinterpreting them for contemporary purposes,” Alexander explained, adding that those terms definitely apply to the Old Chapel project.

Designs on a Rebirth

As noted earlier, the Old Chapel project presented a number of challenges, said Alexander, and before any of them could really be addressed, the first order of business was to determine what the structure could and should be used for moving forward.

“There was a lot of back and forth on this, with a number of people involved,” he said. “The chancellor and many others wanted to explore the possibilities, but they knew it had to have a major student component, and there had to be ceremonial aspect to it as well.”

Making this vision reality required a healthy mix of imagination, diligence, and even some science, in the form of microscopic examination of samples from the second-floor space, known to many as the ‘great room,’ to determine the original wall and trim colors.

“It had been painted this unfortunate green color and was in really bad shape,” he recalled. “There had been a paint/stenciling color scheme around the walls, and by doing extensive testing of the original plaster — paint seriation analysis — we were able to figure out what those colors were originally and restore those color bands.”

In some cases, original facilities, including practically everything on the first floor except the support columns, had to be ripped up and replaced, said Quackenbush, adding that other original features, such as the wooden trusses in the great room and most of the elaborate staircases, were refurbished and put back in place.

umasschapelinteriorbefore

The great room in the Old Chapel before (above), and after.

The great room in the Old Chapel before (above), and after.

“More than half the structural elements in the building had to be supplemented with additional structural elements,” he explained, adding that this was necessitated by modern building codes, including those dealing with seismic activity.

To create affective access for all, the architects came up with a unique solution in the form of a new entrance, or pavilion, known as the ‘glass box,’ which is essentially what it is.

This new, modern, handicap-accessible ‘addition to the landscape,’ as Alexander calls it, enables the preservation of the original entrances (no longer suited for that purpose) to be preserved and used only for egress.

“As a result, we didn’t have to change the historic character of those entranceways, one of which was right under the main tower,” he explained.

Another challenge was figuring out what to do with the mechanicals, said Quakenbush, adding that locating them within the existing footprint would be impractical and take up too much space. The solution was a vault, designed to be as inconspicuous as possible, located below grade outside the building. It will make use of excess capacity from the nearby library, said Quackenbush.

Placement of the chapel on the National Register of Historic Places presented still another challenge, said Alexander, adding that, while it doesn’t restrict what can be done to a building’s interior, in most cases, it adds another layer of approvals to the process.

“We had to make sure that our new entry, our new accessibility, the mechanical systems … nothing would really adversely effect the original design of the building,” he explained. “That was a bit of a challenge, but one we readily accepted.”

The renovated structure is now ready to play an exciting new role on the campus, said Quackenbush, adding that the first floor of the chapel will be used for student-related activities, right down to study space. The room can be conjured in a number of ways, he explained, and the giant video screen can be used for myriad academic functions.

The great room upstairs, meanwhile, with its slightly raised stage, stained-glass windows, and elaborate trusses, can be used for a number of different functions, he went on, listing everything from alumni gatherings to awards banquets to guest lectures and speeches.

It can also, as noted, be used for weddings, and he expects there to be many involving individuals who have a special connection to the university — and there are plenty who fall in that category.

Bell-weather Project

As he talked about the Old Chapel project, Alexander relayed a story that speaks volumes about the building, its importance to the campus, and the work to restore it.

Back in 2014, as the work was beginning, he was bringing his granddaughter, then a student at the university, back to the campus. He told BusinessWest that the two eventually ventured to Old Chapel, and she was able to climb into the tower and ring the bell.

Upon descending and moving toward the exit, they came across several students, who, upon seeing the door to the landmark finally open (something they had never seen before), tried to get inside for a look.

“They were very disappointed when I told them they couldn’t,” Alexander recalled. “I had to say, ‘sorry, not yet.’”

Soon, of course, he and others won’t have to utter those words any longer. That will be an historic moment for the school, one of many witnessed by the university’s most recognizable landmark, and the one everyone knew so little about.

Indeed, the school’s past will now be part of its future, and the vision Subbaswamy had years ago will finally become reality.

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

Cover Story

Confidence Builders

LPV Executive Director Lora Wondolowski

LPV Executive Director Lora Wondolowski

Created in response to the impending retirement of the Baby Boomer generation and the leadership void this will create, Leadership Pioneer Valley continues to refine and build upon its multi-faceted mission to groom the next generation of leaders.

Lora Wondolowski says she and her staff at Leadership Pioneer Valley do a lot of measuring.

That’s a broad term she used to describe a number of steps aimed at quantifying the overall impact of this program, now in its fifth year, a key milestone in many respects.

For example, LPV, as it’s known, likes to chart the progress of its graduates, she said, adding that some of the statistics are eye-opening. For example, a good percentage of program participants had received promotions, raises, or both within a few years of graduating. Meanwhile, roughly a third had moved on to new and better jobs with greater responsibility by the time they were polled. Also, 60% had joined a new board as a director, and 80% described themselves as more inclusive when it comes to their leadership style.

But there are other intriguing numbers to chew on, said Wondolowski, the organization’s director since it was conceived, and they speak loudly about what LPV is all about.

“When we ask people about their impression of Springfield at the beginning of our ‘Springfield Day,’ there’s usually about 20% to 30% who have a negative view of the city,” she explained while referring to one specific day of programming in LPV’s 10-month regimen. “And when we ask them at the end of the day … every year, it’s been positive, with no negatives.

I had personal confidence, but I didn’t have confidence that the peers around me had confidence in me. I loved what I was doing and had conviction — maybe that’s a better word to use — but I didn’t have confidence that the people who were senior to me believed in me.”

“And it’s the same with Holyoke and Franklin County,” she went on, adding that LPV also has programs focusing on those areas. “And that’s because there are a lot of perceptions out there, and we want people to look at these places with clear eyes. We don’t want to paper over the challenges, and we don’t, but we want participants to get past the stereotypes and what they think they know.”

Those specific words are not in the LPV mission statement, but they certainly go a long way toward explaining why the program was created and why those who conceived it are even more convinced of the need for it five years later.

The aforementioned numbers clearly show the program’s effectiveness in providing a clearer focus for its participants, and thus greater awareness of the region, its assets, problems, and potential.

Katie Stebbins

Katie Stebbins says she took part in LPV because, while she had confidence in herself, she wasn’t sure other people did.

But the numbers don’t really tell the whole story, or tell it as effectively as words can, and for evidence of that, one need only listen to Katie Stebbins.

A member of LPV’s first class, she is the assistant secretary of innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship for the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. That means she’s definitely among those who moved on to a new job, a new title, and a larger number on the paycheck since graduating from the program.

But she was already, in many respects, already a leader when, after working for several years in Springfield’s Economic Development Department, she hung out her own shingle as a consultant. At the time, she told BusinessWest, she didn’t exactly lack confidence, but instead lacked a certain type of it.

“I had personal confidence, but I didn’t have confidence that the peers around me had confidence in me,” she explained. “I loved what I was doing and had conviction — maybe that’s a better word to use — but I didn’t have confidence that the people who were senior to me believed in me; I didn’t necessarily have confidence that I could take that conviction and bring lots of other people along with me.”

To make a long story short, LPV became a way to first test her theory — that she was actually better at getting people to follow than she thought — and then eventually rid herself of such doubts. Both were essentially accomplished through that rugged, 10-month program (one meeting per month) designed to inform, educate, inspire, create connections, and, yes, build confidence.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at LPV as it reaches the five-year milestone, and at what lies ahead for this important addition to the region’s business landscape.

Lead-certified

Looking back, Stebbins recalls that 2012 was a watershed year for her in many respects.

In addition to taking on LPV’s program, she was accepted into Valley Venture Mentors, started homeschooling her children, launched a civic technology startup called BYO Family, and even started playing on a local roller-derby team.

You can’t really do any of that, let alone all of it, without a good amount of confidence, she acknowledged, adding quickly, and again, that in many respects she needed more of that invaluable commodity, and more affirmation that she had the ability to lead and get others to follow. And she credits the experience for helping her get where she is, with the seal of the state on her business card.

“It was really gratifying to hear people I didn’t know before say things like, ‘you’ve got leadership skills,’ ‘we believe in you,’ and ‘you’re going to go a long way,’” she explained. “It put extra wind in my sails, and it really energized me.”

In a nutshell, this is essentially what LPV was created to do.

Officially, the program was action item 7 in an update of the region’s Plan for Progress, first drafted by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC)  more than two decades ago and revised several times since to reflect changes and new priorities.

Specifically, LPV, which at first was part of the PVPC and is now a standalone nonprofit, was conceived as a response to the overwhelming numbers of Baby Boomers who would be retiring over the next several years and the need to fill the resulting leadership void.

The term ‘silver tsunami’ has come into vogue to describe this phenomenon and the overall aging of the population, and Wondoloski drove home the point that the issue is real and must be addressed.

“The rate of retirement is increasing each year, and that’s going to mean huge turnover at our companies, both at the leadership level and also on our boards of directors,” she explained, adding that, in some rural areas, the average age of the citizenship is at or near retirement age, presenting huge leadership voids.

Looking back on LPV’s first year and what’s transpired since, Wondolowski said that first class was somewhat older than those that have followed, probably because the concept was new and many established business owners and managers wanted to take advantage of an opportunity.

Today, the program is attracting a younger audience — most are now closer to 30 — and a growing number of entrepreneurs, a reflection of this region’s ongoing efforts to promote entrepreneurship and mentor startups.

The classes are also becoming more diverse geographically, and this is another positive development, said Wondolowski, noting that, in the beginning, individuals from Hampden County dominated the ranks, but in recent years, more rural areas, and especially Franklin County, have sent more representatives. This is critical, she noted, because the populations of such areas is aging at an even more pronounced pace as Millennials choose to locate in cities, leaving communities like Greenfield with a strong need for young leaders.

While the makeup of the classes has changed somewhat over the years, the curriculum, if you will, has been more of a constant. It was constructed with three main goals in mind, said Wondolowski, citing LPV’s mission — “to identify, develop, and connect diverse leaders to strengthen the Valley.” These deliverables, if you will, are:

• Increasing participants’ leadership skills through exercises involving everything from cultural competency to communication and critical thinking;

• Increasing participants’ networks, both within their own class and also through programs in and on various cities and regions; and

• Increasing their understanding of the Valley through these programs, which educate participants about the challenges and opportunities facing these geographic areas.

LPV, which has a current tuition of $3,500 with assistance available to those who need it,  accomplishes these goals through a series of monthly programs, including several ‘challenge days’ and ‘field experiences’ staged across the region. The 2016-17 slate is reflective of what’s been done since the beginning.

There will be an opening overnight retreat this coming weekend at the Berkshire Outdoor Center in Becket, followed by the first challenge day, with a focus on collaborative leadership, on Oct. 21. A second challenge day, this one centered on ‘inclusive leadership,’ is set for Nov. 18 at a still-to-be-determined site in Franklin County.

The first field experience, a concentrated program aimed to educate participants about a given region or city, is set for Dec. 16, and will focus on Hampshire County and the Five College area. Others will center on Springfield (Jan. 20), Holyoke and Chicopee (March 17), and Franklin County (April 28).

Other challenge days are slated for Feb. 10, with ‘creativity’ as the theme, and May 19 (‘skilled negotiations’).

Progress Report

As she talked about this milestone year for LPV, Wondolowski said that, in many ways, the organization was at a type of crossroads.

By this, she meant this was a time to revisit the mission, undertake some strategic planning, and devise a blueprint for the organization moving forward. And, in many respects, this work is already underway.

The focus will be on broadening its overall impact and tailoring programs to meet the many challenges facing young professionals, the region, individual communities, and the workplace of today and tomorrow.

As one example, Wondolowski noted, with MGM and rail car builder CRRC MA, and potentially other large employers, coming to the region over the next few years, there will be dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of younger professionals and managers who will need to familiarized with this region and, more importantly, encouraged to be active within it. LPV can, and hopefully will, take a lead role in such efforts.

“There are lots of new executives coming into the area; how do we orient them to what this region has to offer and make sure that they’re connected in with other leaders?” she asked, adding that LPV will work to answer that question. “We have so many who come here for a few years and then leave because they never got connected to the community.”

Meanwhile, there are four generations still active in the workplace (although the so-called Silent Generation is certainly aging out) and a fifth, known as Gen Z or the ‘Boomlets’ (those born after 2000), will be making their presence known within the workforce.

Each of these generations has its own needs, its own character, and even its own nickname, said Wandolowski, noting that hers, Gen X (born 1965-1980), is unaffectionately known as the ‘slacker generation’. And coexistence in the workplace is an issue for virtually every business in the region and a challenge LPV can help address.

“One of the things we’re really interested in at LPV is the new workplace and what it looks like — and it’s not just about Millennials,” she said, acknowledging that many business owners and managers are hard-focused on that group. “It’s about technology, increasing diversity in the workplace, the multiple generations; there are many forces shaping our future workforce and workplaces.”

As part of this focus on generations, LPV will be sharpening its focus on providing assistance to leaders at all stages of their career, she explained, meaning the programming will be appropriate for people of all ages, and, in many respects, always has been.

Meanwhile, it will work to continually increase diversity within its own classes, geographically and otherwise, in an effort to bring more perspectives to the issues confronting the business community and the region.

“If we’re going to solve complex problems, we’re need people with different mindsets coming at things from different directions,” she explained. “We tend to stay in our silos — if you’re a nonprofit person, you tend to reach out to nonprofit folks, and the same in the public sector. We’re really seeing cross-pollination, or interconnectedness, among our graduates, and we’ll need more of that moving forward.”

Leading by Example

Among those who have been accepted into LPV’s class of 2017 is West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt, who was actually turned down when he first applied four years ago.

West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt

West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt, seen here with the city’s terrier mascot for his BusinessWest 40 Under Forty picture, will be among LPV’s class of 2017.

That’s when he was in law school and working part-time, he told BusinessWest, adding that he applied to be part of that first class because he wanted to make connections, learn something, and share what he knew.

He believes this time in his life and career actually works better, because he knows more, can share more, needs to make more connections, and still has a lot to learn about this region and the many aspects of leadership.

“Now that I’ve had more leadership experience, I can speak more from what I’ve done,” he explained. “I thought working with other people from the Valley now would be even more beneficial; I can share a lot, but I can also learn a lot, and I’m looking forward to doing both.”

Such words, as much as those numbers mentioned earlier, explain why LPV has already become a force in the region, and why it will be even more so moving forward.

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

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Bonding Agent

Liz Rappaport

Liz Rappaport says the camaraderie and support she has received from other mothers in the PWC will make leaving her baby daughter Ellie easier when she returns to work.

The Women’s Professional Chamber of Commerce is like most of the organizations with those three words in their title. But it is different in one important respect — the membership shares common challenges, issues, and emotions as they go about trying to balance work and life. This makes the WPC not only unique in character and mission, but also quite effective in providing needed support to members.

Jenny MacKay has not forgotten the first Women’s Professional Chamber (WPC) meeting she attended three years ago in Springfield.

It was a luncheon with a moderator and panel of speakers that included top female executives from Smith & Wesson, Columbia Gas, and Health New England.

An employee-benefits consultant for the Gaudreau Group in Wilbraham, and also a 2016 BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree, MacKay had attended events sponsored by many other local chambers, but this one was decidedly different.

“It was interesting and so inspirational to hear how these women talk about how they learned to balance the same life challenges I was facing or will have to face in the future,” MacKay said, adding that today she is a member of the WPC board of directors. “They talked about their biggest issues, which were things other women could relate to, and it was inspiring to hear that having a family won’t hold you back, that you don’t have to choose between a job or children. I’m afraid of what having kids will do to my career, but being part of the group makes me realize I am not alone.”

Liz Rappaport has also found the personal support she needed in the PWC.

The manager of Century Investment Co. in West Springfield and a 2014 BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree, she joined the group three years ago and said it has taught her invaluable lessons.

“Other women have told me you can never be perfect in your family life or on the job, but if you do your best; you can balance things out,” she noted, adding that she gave birth three months ago to a daughter named Ellie, and the advice she received helped her understand the challenges that will confront her when she returns to work this month.

“I’m eager to return to the PWC and talk to working moms because I have different questions now for my fellow cohorts,” she said, noting that she is the secretary of the group. “It helps knowing that they are juggling multiple roles, and if they can do it, I can do it, too.”

It was interesting and so inspirational to hear how these women talk about how they learned to balance the same life challenges I was facing or will have to face in the future.”

The PWC is a division of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, but is its own entity. Its 300 members are at different stages of life and career, and their jobs encompass a variety of professions in diverse fields. But they share a common theme: trying to balance their work with their personal life and obligations, a task most women struggle with on a daily basis.

Membership makes it easy for them to find other female professionals who can share stories and helpful hints about how to maintain a balance as they strive to fulfill their own expectations about being the best business professional, best mother, best wife, and best daughter, while playing an active role in their community and doing volunteer work.

It is this quality that sets it apart from other chambers. Women tend to network very differently when they are alone with their peers than they do in a mixed-gender group, and personal stories and situations are shared as readily as business cards. Although membership in the PWC can help them succeed in business through connections that are made, the ones they form usually result from bonding through intimate discussions.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we take an inside look at the PWC and the ways in which women benefit from belonging to a group where dealing with personal and professional issues that intertwine is something they all relate to.

Appreciable Differences

The PWC was formed in 1953, and although its name changed from the Women’s Division of the Springfield Regional Chamber to the Women’s Partnership before it was given its current moniker in 2010, the group has always provided services to the community, local businesses, and its members.

Jenny MacKay

Although Jenny MacKay belongs to many local chamber groups, the Professional Women’s Chamber is the place where she gets the most support.

Education has always been paramount, and scholarships have been granted annually to non-traditional women students since 1965. The recipients are often returning to the workforce after years of being at home, and three individuals have each been selected to receive at least $1,000 in recent years.

The calendar runs from September to June, and since the chamber’s officers and members of its board of directors know how difficult it can be for a woman to juggle multiple roles, two meetings feature speakers who share first-hand accounts of the personal struggles and roadblocks they hit along the road to success.

There are also evening events, which are usually held at local retail establishments that allow members to shop while they network in a relaxed setting.

The year begins with a kickoff luncheon in September, which features a compelling speaker, followed by an After Hours Ladies Night in October and a PWC-produced luncheon event at the Western Mass. Business Expo (slated for Nov. 3 this year). A second Ladies Night is held in December.

The new year is heralded with a Tabletop Luncheon; there is a third Ladies Night in February, and the second headline speaker luncheon is held in March. A fourth Ladies Night is scheduled in April, and the year culminates in late May with an event held to honor the Woman of the Year.

“The Ladies Nights are held at local shops; we’ve gone to Cooper’s Gifts in Agawam, Kate Gray in Longmeadow, and Added Attractions in East Longmeadow,” said MacKay, naming a few noteworthy outings and adding that the shops provide wine and hors d’oeurves.

“We try to schedule things that women like to do that can provide them with some stimulus as well a break from the stressors in their lives,” Rappaport said, noting that the evenings help women achieve an effective work/life balance. “Networking can be mundane, but these nights out are a nice distraction, and we realize that if a woman is going to carve out time to attend a meeting, we had better make it worth her while.”

But while networking does occur during the Ladies Nights, business introductions and connections that are formed are secondary to the personal relationships that evolve when women are in an atmosphere they find fun and enjoyable.

“What someone does for business is not as important as the fact that you have made a new friend; we talk to each other and find commonalities,” Rappaport explained.

MacKay concurred. “Our Ladies Nights don’t involve the commitment of a sit-down dinner for two hours every month. We don’t want to add more commitments to a woman’s to-do list because we understand how busy women’s lives are,” she said.

The PWC also has a six-session mentorship program called Reaching Goals, aimed at giving students from Springfield Technical Community College the professional and personal skills they need to succeed in their chosen careers.

Rappaport is a mentor and has worked with women ranging in age from 18 to 38. She has spent time with some outside of the meetings and says that, in some cases, the program has resulted in a student landing a job due to the connections she makes.

Gender Issues

The majority of the group’s members are over the age of 40, so Rappaport and MacKay plan to reach out this year to Millennials who may not know about the PWC and what it has to offer, while continuing to provide programs that interest women of different ages at different stages of their careers.

MacKay says this initiative is important because Millennials are trying to establish themselves in their chosen careers, and many are experiencing conflicting emotions as they struggle to create a healthy work/life balance.

“They’re working hard, planning important events such as weddings, and also trying to figure out if they can handle having a child without fearing that something will suffer,” she said, adding that the benefits of membership are priceless and the relationships women form with each other are much more intimate than those that result from other chamber groups.

MacKay works in a male-dominated occupation, and has gotten valuable advice from PWC members about how to deal with a variety of situations as well as strategies for communicating with male co-workers, since they relate to each other very differently than women.

In addition, the group teaches women that failure isn’t an end and can lead to a new beginning, which became apparent during a luncheon where Tracey Noonan was the keynote speaker.

The founder of Wicked Good Cupcakes, who successfully won her bid for a partnership on the popular TV series Shark Tank, shared her story of how her business evolved after she started baking cupcakes in Mason jars with her daughter Dani in their South Shore kitchen in 2011.

“She was a single mom who took a baking class in order to bond with her daughter,” MacKay said, recounting how Noonan shared the hardships of being a single mom, what is was like to start a business — who she got help from and who refused to help her — and how success has affected her life.

The story resonated with women on a variety of levels, as did the personal tale told by Lisa Ekus of the Lisa Ekus Group LLC. The Hatfield entrepreneur, who represents cookbook authors and food products, spoke to the PWC in March about the struggles of balancing her personal and family life.

Other speakers have addressed issues of equal pay and the lack of qualified candidates to fill jobs in precision manufacturing, and what women can do to help fill the gap, and Rappaport says she has learned many valuable lessons, including the fact that each woman is her own best advocate.

But feeling and projecting confidence is not easily accomplished, because many women are self-deprecating, and even getting a compliment on one’s clothing can lead to an embarrassed answer and insistence that it was purchased on sale.

“Women don’t want to be thought of as pushy or too assertive,” Rappaport noted, adding that, although she has never heard of a man with those traits being referred to in a condescending manner, it’s not uncommon for women to suffer from such labels.

MacKay agreed, and said if she doesn’t smile all the time, people tell her to do so and add, “everything will be all right,” which she finds very frustrating.

Valuable Setting

Rappaport is looking forward to returning to assuming a professional role in the family business when she returns to work following her maternity leave. She knows it won’t be easy and she will worry about her baby daily, but she finds strength in numbers and the knowledge that her peers have learned to effectively juggle responsibilities in different arenas of their life without feeling they have to be perfect in every role.

But women agree that the unrealistic belief is pervasive in society today.

“When did the message, ‘you can have it all’ change to ‘you have to do it all’?” MacKay said. “It used to be inspirational, but it has become exhausting because it’s an unrealistic and impossible goal.”

Which is where the PWC comes in. It helps women understand there are others who share the same feelings and concerns who can provide each other with reassurance that doing their best each day is truly good enough.

Back to School Cover Story Sections

Learning Environment

Not long after arriving on the Hampshire College campus in 2011, President Jonathan Lash asked students how long they believed it would be before the school could accurately declare itself carbon neutral. Upon hearing that they thought it could be done in 25 years, he said, in essence, that this wasn’t nearly good enough. So the school set a new goal — 10 years — and with some dramatic recent developments, it is well on its way to meeting it, and in the process it is writing an exciting new chapter in a history long defined by progressiveness and unique approaches to learning.

President Jonathan Lash in the Kern Center

President Jonathan Lash in the Kern Center

Jonathan Lash noted that Hampshire College — that self-described “experiment” in higher education located on rolling farm land in South Amherst — has been operating for 46 years now.

That’s more than enough time to gather research, look at trends, and develop a composite, or profile, if you will, of the graduates of this small and in many ways unique institution.

And one has emerged, said Lash, the school’s president since 2011, noting quickly that individuality and independent thinking are perhaps the most common traits among students and alums, so it is impossible to paint them with one broad brush. But there are some common traits.

One of them is entrepreneurship. A quarter of the school’s graduates — an eclectic list that includes Stonyfield Farm chairman and former president and CEO President Gary Hirshberg, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, actor Liev Schreiber, and countless others involved in the arts and literature — have started their own business or organization, placing the college on Forbes’ short list of ‘most- entrepreneurial colleges.’

Another is a passion for learning; the school is in the top 1% of colleges nationwide in the percentage of graduates who go on to earn doctorates.

“Our students have such a good time learning that they don’t want to stop,” said Lash with a laugh, noting that the desire to create unique learning experiences for students was one important motivation for two recent sustainability initiatives on the campus — construction of a so-called ‘living building,’ the school’s R.W. Kern Center, which will use zero net energy, and the announcement that the institution would take a huge step toward becoming the first private college in the country to go 100% solar powered.

Hampshire College

Recent initiatives in sustainability have added another intriguing chapter to Hampshire College’s history of progressiveness.

Indeed, professors in several disciplines have incorporated the Kern Center into their curriculum, said Lash, noting also that for a course he was teaching last fall in sustainability, he assigned students the task of reviewing the contract for the solar installation and explaining why the initiative was a sound undertaking for the school and the company building it.

“One of the ideas behind this building is to make sure you learn something every time you walk into it,” Lash said of the Kern Center.

As for the exercise involving the solar installation, he borrowed an industry term of sorts. “You could see the lightbulbs going on,” he said while relating how the students eventually grasped the many aspects of the concept.

But creating such learning opportunities is only one motivating factor. Indeed, this school that has been seemingly defined by that adjective ‘alternative’ since it was first conceived nearly 60 years ago, is adding another dimension to that quality. And in the process, it is living up to its own core beliefs while also taking on the character (and the mission) of its president, hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of 25 “warriors and heroes fighting to stave off the planet-wide catastrophe.”

And it is a dimension that Lash believes will inspire other institutions — both inside and outside the realm of higher education — to follow suit.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest traveled to the Hampshire College campus to talk with Lash — in the Kern Center — about how that building and a broader drive to become carbon neutral is adding another intriguing chapter to the school’s brief but already remarkable history.

Alternative Course

Hampshire’s distinct philosophy and pedagogy assert that: Students learn best when they are given the independence to direct their own learning under the advisement of faculty, and education should not be imposed on students.

Courses are not the only sites of learning for our students; instead they engage in a variety of learning activities and environments that challenge their creativity, problem-solving, and discovery of ideas and meaning, through independent study, internships, community engagement, social action, lab work, and teaching assistantships. Hampshire was founded by the leaders of four venerable colleges in Western Massachusetts to re-examine the assumptions and practices of liberal arts education.

At Hampshire, all students are challenged to perform serious independent work under the mentorship of faculty. The college’s goal is to graduate students who can identify significant questions, devise interesting ways to approach them, and follow through to a solution … we have no majors, each student designs their own program of study, commonly examining questions through the lenses of several disciplines. The student negotiates their studies with faculty advisers in a rigorous environment that supports student intellectual growth. The student learns to be a creator of knowledge, engaging in substantial independent research and self-directed projects as they explore the questions that drive them.


List of Colleges in Western Massachusetts


This language, taken directly from the school’s own literature — a fact sheet describing and explaining its academic program — does an effective and fairly concise job of explaining what this school is, and more importantly, what it isn’t.

It isn’t a college in the traditional sense of that term — as made clear in that passage about majors, grades, and set programs of study, or the distinct lack of them, to be more precise.

These are the foundations upon which the school was founded, and Lash admits that he knew very little, if anything about all that when he came across an e-mail titled ‘Hampshire College’ from a headhunter, one that would eventually lead to the most recent line on a very intriguing resume dominated by work in the environment and sustainable development.

But first, back to that e-mail. Lash wasn’t going to open it; he opened very few of the many he received from search firms looking for candidates for a host of different positions. But something compelled him to click on this one.

“I cannot tell you why I opened it — I just don’t know; but instead of just clicking ‘delete,’ like I did with all the others, I opened it,” he told BusinessWest, adding that upon reading it, he recalled that a friend, Adele Simmons, had served as president of the school in the ’80s. He called her, and she eventually talked him into meeting with the search committee.

Lash needed such prodding, because he didn’t even know where the school was, and also because higher education was somewhat, but not entirely, off the career path he had eventually chosen, with the accent on eventually.

Indeed, Lash, a graduate who earned both his master’s in education and juris doctor from Catholic University, started his career as a federal prosecutor in Washington in the mid-70s.

“At a certain point, it began to be less and less rewarding for me to send people to jail, and I wanted to have a different kind of impact on society,” he explained, adding that he left the prosecutor’s office for the National Environmental Defense Fund, at what turned out to be a poignant time in its history — just as Ronald Reagan was entering the White House.

“There was a period during the Reagan administration when environmental organizations were filing lawsuit after lawsuit to stop things Reagan was doing,” he noted. “It was like shooting at a Budweiser truck — you just couldn’t miss; they just didn’t bother with the law.”

Fast-forwarding a little, Lash eventually left that organization to run environmental programs for the new governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kunin, and later became director of the Environmental Law Center at Vermont Law School.

From there, he went on to lead the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental think tank focusing on issues ranging from low-carbon development to sustainable transportation. Under his leadership, WRI quadrupled its budget and globalized its work, with offices in eight countries and partners in more than 50 nations.

It would take something compelling to leave that for the Hampshire College campus, and he encountered it at his interview before the search committee, a panel of 26, dominated by students.

“They asked very aggressive questions, they argued with all my answers, and they were absolutely passionate about it all,” he recalled. “And about 45 minutes into it, I thought to myself ‘I’ve been working on these environmental issues all my life; I’ve been really successful, and the things I care about are getting worse. If anyone’s going to change that, it’s going to be kids like these, and I should probably help them.’”

Entrepreneurial Energy

Lash said he did some research before he came to Amherst for his interview, and gleaned a general understanding of the school and everything that made it unique. But it didn’t really prepare him for what he found.

And it was only a matter of weeks after arriving that he said he found himself saying, ‘I wish I could have learned this way,’ or words to that effect.

Still, four decades after its doors opened, Hampshire College was facing a number of challenges, especially those that apply to a small school with a tiny endowment — $40 million. In many ways, the school needed to make some kind of statement, a reaffirmation of its core values — social justice and environmental sustainability — and an even stronger commitment to live them.

ground-breaking ceremonies for solar installations

Officials gather for the ground-breaking ceremonies for solar installations expected to save the college $8 million over the next 20 years.

The Kern Center is part of that statement, Lash said, referring to a structure that was carefully designed to make its own energy, harvest its own water, and treat its own waste, and thus become truly carbon neutral.

But that’s just one building, said Lash, who then related a conversation with students concerning the school’s participation in the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, under which institutions commit to implementing a comprehensive plan to achieve a carbon-neutral campus.

“The committee that was working on it came to me and said ‘maybe we can do it in 25 years,’” Lash recalled. “And I said, “I don’t think you understand how urgent this matter is; if Hampshire College says ’25 years,’ what is the world supposed to say?’

“So we switched it to 10 years, and that kind of forced us to think radically,” he went on, adding that such thinking included exploration of solar power.

But at that time, such a proposition was still financially untenable, he went on, adding that since then, the cost of photovoltaic collectors has gone down so much, and the efficiency of units has increased to such a level, that the proposition was not only feasible, but the school would save up to $8 million in electricity costs over the 20-year life of the project.

After months of cost analysis and negotiations with project partner SolarCity, which will construct the PV arrays and sell the electricity back to the college, work began earlier this month on the 15,000 solar panels, an installation that represents the largest known on any campus in New England and one of the largest in the Northeast.

It’s a groundbreaking development in many respects — again, Hampshire is the first residential college in the U.S. to go 100% solar — but it has been, and will continue to be a learning experience on many levels, in keeping with the school’s mission.

“The whole experience of reviewing proposals, shaping the contract, choosing where on our campus we were willing to put solar collectors, affirming the size of it and the ambition to go 100% solar, challenging and re-challenging the question ‘can you really do this in snow country?’ — students were involved in every step of that,” Lash explained, adding that this experience will serve them well.

“Students who have participated in this process and done this analysis, are going to go into the world really well prepared for answering the questions that society will need answered,” he went on. “If you take a highly entrepreneurial group of students who are already independent-minded and you give them this experience, they’re in a very good place.”

And moving forward, the installation can, and should, become both a classroom and an inspiration to those outside the institution who want to learn from it, he went on.

“Over the next 20 years, this is going to become a compelling environmental, but also business and technological question,” he explained. “The question of how we organize ourselves to provide low-carbon electricity will be central to the country.”

Which means he expects even more visitors to find their way to the Amherst campus in the years to come.

Kern20160715_0232-copyAlready, many have come to take in the Kern Center, he explained, adding that he is one of many who will give tours to those representing institutions such as Yale Divinity School, which is contemplating a village of buildings with similar credentials.

“Three or four other universities have come to look, and other nonprofits that were thinking of building something but thought this was out of their reach have toured and realized it’s not out of their reach,” he explained. “You can watch when people come in the building and begin to look around and understand what it says and what it does — it influences them.”

And he expects the same will happen with the solar installations.

Study in Progressive Thinking

As one traverses the long driveway to the campus off Route 116, one sees meadows on both sides of the road — and for a reason; actually several of them.

“We don’t see why we should use the thousands of gallons of gasoline necessary to keep all that as lawn,” Lash explained. “But it also creates a habitat for an incredible number of birds and other creatures, and our science students study that.”

Thus, those meadows become yet another example of the school’s unique approach to learning, as stated earlier — that section in the fact sheet about ‘engaging in a variety of learning activities and environments that challenge their creativity, problem-solving, and discovery of ideas and meaning.’

Today, there are more such environments, with others, especially the solar installations, now taking shape on the campus. They both exemplify and inspire those traits for which the school’s students and alums are noted — entrepreneurship and a desire to not stop learning.

And they are textbook examples, in every sense of the word, of how this experiment in higher education is adding new dimensions to its mission, uniqueness, and commitment to sustainability.

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

Cover Story Sections Travel and Tourism

Instruments of Progress

Peter Salerno

Executive Director Peter Salerno on the steps of Symphony Hall

As it enters its 73rd year, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra does so knowing that, to remain relevant, it must be creative and willing to assume risks as it strives to cultivate new audiences, especially the younger generations. Peter Salerno, who has twice served as interim director of the SSO and took the helm on a permanent basis earlier this year, says the institution is more than up for that challenge.

Peter Salerno said the phone call seemed to come out of left field … or from the 20-yard line, as the case may be.

On the other end was someone from the New England Patriots’ marketing department. She wanted to know if the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, which Salerno was serving then as interim executive director, could have 50 or 60 of its musicians at Gillette Stadium in 24 days for a performance that would celebrate the team’s fourth Super Bowl victory, earned six months earlier, and usher in the 2015 season.

It was an extraordinary request on many levels, and Salerno, who has since dropped the word ‘interim’ from his title, knew he couldn’t say ‘yes’ at that moment, as much as he wanted to, knowing what this opportunity would mean for the venerable institution in terms of invaluable and incalculable exposure. Indeed, he would have to consult with Maestro Kevin Rhodes and other members of the team to see if this was even logistically feasible, and then get approval from the SSO board, because this was a venture far outside the orchestra’s traditional mission — and comfort zone, for that matter.

He got the nod from both parties and promptly called the Patriots back, thus setting the wheels in motion for perhaps the most memorable night in the orchestra’s 73-year history.

It was certainly the biggest stage, at least in a figurative sense. Indeed, while the actual performing area was a trifle snug, more than 70,000 people at the stadium and another 35 million watching NBC’s broadcast of the Thursday-night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers saw and heard the orchestra perform “O Fortuna,” the Patriots’ so-called tunnel song, and eventually shared the stage with the rapper T-Pain.


Go HERE for a list of Tourist Attractions in Western Mass.


“It was quite an upbeat moment for us,” said Salerno, using both wordplay and understatement to get his point across. “I recognized this is an opportunity for us to perform, and be relevant, in an area that we never thought we could before.”

In many respects, that performance at Gillette almost a year ago effectively speaks to the aspirations, goals, and challenges that define the SSO moving forward. It was a dramatic attempt to move beyond what would be considered traditional (in terms of both the venue and performing with a rapper), attract new and larger audiences, and greatly improve visibility beyond the confines of Symphony Hall.

There will be a lot more of that — although certainly on a smaller scale — in the months and years to come, as a look at the 2016-17 calendar reveals.

One of things I’m teaching, but also learning at the same time, is that our orchestra must respond to different genres of music to remain in the forefront of the people’s minds.”

In addition to the classical offerings — a Tchaikovsky Gala on opening night (Sept. 24), Brahms’ “Double Concerto” on Nov. 19, and Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” on Jan. 21 — the SSO will share the stage with the Irish Tenors two weeks before St. Patrick’s Day, and will wrap up the season on May 13 with something called Video Games Live!

As that name suggests, this will be an immersive concert that features the musical scores from the greatest video games of all time — as those games appear on large screens around the hall, with synchronized lighting and other special effects.

Those unique events, and especially the final one, are designed to draw more diverse audiences, particularly young people, a stern challenge now facing all arts institutions.

SSO and its conductor, Kevin Rhodes

Peter Salerno says the main challenge for SSO and its conductor, Kevin Rhodes (pictured), is audience development.

To meet this challenge head-on, the SSO must do something not exactly within its character, historically, and that is to be far more willing to take risks, said Salerno, adding quickly that the board has essentially greenlighted such an approach to business, and so has long-time conductor Rhodes and the rest of the orchestra’s team.

“One of the things I’m teaching, but also learning at the same time, is that our orchestra must respond to different genres of music to remain in the forefront of the people’s minds,” he explained, adding that this is the mindset driving the SSO and forging its schedule for the coming year.

For this issue and its focus on travel and tourism, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the SSO is looking to expand its playing field, in all kinds of ways, and put every definition of the term ‘score’ into play.

Developments of Note

Looking back on the 24 days after that fortuitous phone call came in from Foxborough, Salerno used all kinds of descriptive phases to characterize them — from ‘long’ to ‘exhilarating.’

“Those were 60-hour weeks,” he said, smiling as he did so because, while the work was sometimes tedious — involving everything from drafting contracts with the Patriots and NBC to insurance matters and a mountain of logistics — it was also very exciting.

This was, after all, the proverbial opportunity of a lifetime, and the SSO was going to do everything in its power to seize the moment.

“This was a surreal moment for our orchestra, and it showed the versatility of our people,” said Salerno as he showed a video of the performance, with the SSO clearly visible to fans amid fireworks and low-lying fog, adding that perhaps the biggest obstacle was creating a sheltered performing area for the orchestra, something the Patriots organization pulled together. And demand for it was warranted because it rained in the hours leading up to the performance and stopped only moments before it was set to begin.

In many respects, dealing with cloudy forecasts and unsettled skies — in a figurative sense — has been a part of doing business for the SSO in recent years. Like all arts venues, it has seen its traditional audiences age, and with that demographic shift a need has emerged to embrace change and, as mentioned earlier, risk.

The Patriots performance was, again, a significant manifestation of this trend — this was believed to be the first time a full symphony orchestra had performed at such an NFL ceremony and perhaps the first time an orchestra of this type had appeared with a rapper — but there have been others, with more planned for the year ahead.

“We’re participating in the creation of new horizons for symphonic sound,” he said, adding that orchestras across the country are facing the same challenges. “And we’re going to keep pushing, and bringing world-class talent to the Springfield arena.”

Leading the orchestra through this intriguing period is Salerno, now 75 years old, who brings a wealth of experience in business, work with nonprofit institutions, and the SSO itself, having been a trustee for many years and serving not one, but two stints as interim executive director.

Described by many as a stabilizing influence to the operation, he succeeds Audrey Szychulski, who left the SSO in the spring of 2015 after less than two years at the helm.

Salerno brings a diverse résumé to the post, including everything from stints as COO of Providence Hospital and president and CEO of Brightside to work coordinating new retail stores for Taylor Rental Corp.; from a short stint running an operation that managed college bookstores to his own business, PTS Consulting, launched nearly a decade ago.

Over the years, he’s taught several graduate-level business courses at Bay Path University and Clark University in Worcester, with a focus on business strategies for nonprofit organizations, marketing, and finance.

In his latest role with the SSO, he’ll be applying the lessons that he teaches, especially as they apply to the most pressing challenge facing the institution — audience development.

Drumming up Interest

There are many components to this assignment, he said, listing everything from imaginative artistic events to new and different types of talent that will share the stage with the SSO, to a variety of touches that will make SSO performances true happenings.

With that, he took out a copy of the schedule for the coming year and started running his finger down the listings.

His first stop was the holiday concert, set for Dec. 3, although Salerno said ‘concert’ doesn’t go far enough, so the actual wording on the schedule is Holiday Extravaganza.

It was chosen to encapsulate the theme — “It’s a Wonderful Life” — and describe the sum of the activities and events, including a Christmas tree outside Symphony Hall, a visit from Santa, perhaps a reindeer if one can be secured, and more.

“We want to make coming to the symphony not just an event, but an entire presentation,” he explained. “We don’t want it to just be sitting in the audience for two hours.”

Elaborating, he said the SSO will again coordinate visits whereby ticketholders gather at spots in area communities, are then bused downtown for dinner at various downtown restaurants, and then taken to Symphony Hall.

“We’re trying to make it convenient for people to come to us,” he explained. “And we view this as an opportunity to attract more people to Symphony Hall.”

Kevin Rhodes is seen here with rapper T-Pain

SSO conductor Kevin Rhodes is seen here with rapper T-Pain at the performance last fall at Gillette Stadium to usher in the Patriots’ new season.

His next stop, schedule-wise, was several months later, in early March, when the Irish Tenors, well-known to PBS audiences, will take the stage.

Similar to the holiday performance, this will be more than a concert, said Salerno, adding that it will be more like a celebration of Irish heritage, one featuring many moving parts.

The full itinerary is still a work in progress, he said, but in the days leading up to the performance, there will likely be an Irish-style dinner featuring luminaries and elected officials of Irish descent, and other touches, such as a possible discussion of the 1916 uprising.

“We’re trying to build the activities and the service level to a higher plane than we have in the past,” he explained, adding, again, that the goal is to move beyond the music and create experiences.

That will certainly be the goal for the season finale, Video Games Live!, which is the most dramatic example to date of the orchestra’s efforts to attract young people.

“Some of our donors have expressed interest in efforts to create continuity with younger audiences and thus lower the demographic age of our attendees,” he noted. “And we determined that one of the areas where we could start making an impact was with junior-high and high-school students.”

To that end, the SSO will contract with a California-based organization to bring the music from video games, orchestral sound, and a host of special effects together in the same venue on May 13.

“There are so many opportunities to show off our talents, and this might be a good one,” he said, adding that the show, similar to others staged in other cities in recent years, should prove to be an impactful vehicle for introducing young people to the orchestra and beginning the process of turning them into life-long audience members.

The other performances on the schedule will bring some of these elements to the table, said Salerno, adding, again, that developing new audiences and remaining relevant in the years and decades to come will require the SSO to continue to push the envelope.

“The board has allowed us to take more risk in terms of encouraging us to look at new genres and new methodologies,” he said. “I think it’s essential that we take advantage of the strengths that we have and marry them to the interests of our population, while at the same time preserving the outstanding classical performances that attract people from all over.”

Reaching a Crescendo

Returning to that now-famous phone call one more time, Salerno acknowledged that he allowed himself to think about why the Patriots were calling the SSO, and whether this was the team’s first call.

But only for a brief moment, and not in a deep manner, he told BusinessWest, noting that doing so would be counterproductive at a time when the sentiment should be, ‘why not call the SSO first?’

“One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” he joked, before taking the discussion to a much higher plane.

“If we ask that question — ‘why us?’ — we’re probably not thinking of ourselves as being as good as we really are, so I didn’t ask that question,” he explained. “Instead, I said, ‘let’s just make this happen.’ When they called us, I just assumed they wanted us number one; I believe in this orchestra.”

These sentiments — not to mention the ‘let’s just make this happen’ remark, which refers to far more than a performance at a football game — could only be described as a winning attitude, one where the orchestra is, quite literally, taking the ball and running with it.

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

Cover Story

An Appetite for Entrepreneurship

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen has compiled a quarter-century-long track record of entrepreneurial energy and daring — all of it in the broad realms of food and hospitality. He says it exists partly out of necessity in this highly competitive market, but also because he’s always looking for ways to do things differently — and better. His latest venture, which he describes as the cutting edge of food retail, is no exception.

Peter Rosskothen was at a loss for words. Well, sort of, and not for very long, actually.

He was asked to explain, if he could, the origins of, and inspiration for, his very healthy appetite for entrepreneurial ventures — all of them in the broad realms of food and hospitality, ranging from several franchises of a national chain of eateries, to a banquet facility; from coffee shops to an ambitious catering operation.

And, like many who have made the choice to work for themselves instead of someone else, he struggled with that question.

“I’m not really sure how to explain it; it’s always been there, though,” he said of his entrepreneurial drive after pausing for a few moments of reflection, adding that, in many respects, it exists out of necessity in a highly competitive and always-changing marketplace.

“I think we share this belief that you have to always do something a little different, or find a way to do something a little better, to stay in business today, and I’d like to think that this is what drives us,” he said, referring specifically to business partner Michael Corduff and other members of the team that operates his businesses.

He did much better when it came to putting into plain words why he and his partners over the years have been not only so prolific, but so successful.

“Lots of people have ideas,” he explained. “And they’ll talk about these ideas, and talk about them some more. Taking the idea and doing something about it is what makes us entrepreneurs, and that’s what happened last September, when we decided to stop talking about this and do it.”

It’s a scenario that has played itself out several times over the past quarter-century or so, as Rosskothen — by himself or with different partners — has launched Boston Chicken (later Boston Market) franchises; undertaken a massive renovation of the landmark Log Cabin restaurant in Holyoke into a banquet facility; completed several subsequent expansions of that facility, purchased the Delaney House restaurant in Holyoke and, later, the hotel erected adjacent to it; created a catering operation known as Log Rolling; and opened two coffee-and-sandwich shops called Mt. Joe to Go.

And it is playing itself out again with yet another new venture, this one called Delaney’s Market, which is set to open its doors in the Longmeadow Shops in early August. Rosskothen described this as a “retail store for food,” where patrons can grab a container of chicken marsala and accompanying veggies, a fresh loaf of bread, a bottle of wine or a few microbrews, and dessert, and take it all home to enjoy there.

Which means that, like many of the ventures Rosskothen has launched over the years, this one is somewhat unique and cutting-edge when it comes to understanding what the dining public wants and needs.

“There is nothing else like this in our market — nothing,” he explained, adding that various types of operations offer some of the above, to one extent or another, but certainly not all of the above.

BusinessWest as the magazine’s Top Entrepreneurs

Peter Rosskothen and former business partner Larry Perreault were honored by BusinessWest as the magazine’s Top Entrepreneurs for 1997 for their efforts at the Log Cabin.

He said the concept was born from acknowledgment that today’s consumers — and especially the younger generations — want, by and large, food that is fresh, local, healthy, and of high quality. Meanwhile, they also want convenience and help with cramming all that life throws at them into the 24 hours in a day.

Various business operations address some or many of those needs in various ways, said Rosskothen, noting that supermarkets now offer many prepared foods, some ventures will deliver meals to your door (while others will drop off the ingredients and let you cook them), and restaurants, most of which offer takeout, have put a heavy focus on local and healthy.

But extensive research — another common denominator with all of his previous ventures — told Rosskothen there was a desire for, and room for, another — and, in many ways, better — alternative.

“This concept allows people to take it easy and spend more time with their family,” he explained, adding that it represents the best of many worlds — convenience, affordability, variety, and quality.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Rosskothen about his latest venture, but also about entrepreneurship in general and his desire to remain on the cutting edge of innovation within the world of hospitality.

Another Bite at the Apple

As he talked with BusinessWest at a small table outside the Starbucks just a few doors down from his new storefront, Rosskothen gestured with his hand toward the scene in front and on both sides of him.

“This if the perfect location for this — if we don’t make it here, we’re not going to make it anywhere,” he said. He was referring, in large part, to the packed parking lot at the Longmeadow Shops, a heavily trafficked lifestyle center (now being expanded) featuring an eclectic mix of high-end tenants including Ann Taylor and Chico’s, but also several popular anchors such as a CVS and a few bank branches. But he was also referencing the facility’s spot on the map, in Longmeadow, but only a half-mile or so from East Longmeadow and the Connecticut border and the affluent communities there.

Rosskothen said his research told him that, while there are many attractive geographic options for launching this kind of venture — the Amherst-Northampton area, Westfield, and East Longmeadow itself were also considered — his instincts told him that this was the place to start.

And his instincts have rarely, if ever, been wrong.

They weren’t when he opened a few Boston Chicken franchises in the region in the early ’90s, deciding that area residents had, or would develop, an appetite for the emerging product known as ‘fast casual.’

They were on target again when, in 1996, he and partner Larry Perreault decided to resurrect the Log Cabin as a banquet facility, guessing that, despite a market flooded with competitors, there was room for, well, a room with a view. And they were right; ‘the Cabin,’ as it’s known colloquially, at least in some circles, remains one of the region’s most popular venues for events, because of those views, as well as a location roughly halfway between Springfield and Northampton.

Those instincts were on the money — in all kinds of ways — with subsequent ventures such as the Delaney House restaurant and its more casual, on-site counterpart, the Mick; the D. Hotel on the Delaney House property; Mt. Joe; and Log Rolling.

That last venture is the catering arm that brings ‘rolling kitchens,’ as Rosskothen calls them (hence the name), to venues across Western Mass. and Northern Conn. The venture has done well during the 17-day Big E, for example, as groups look to stage their own functions in a large tent on the grounds, and he’s anticipating big things this fall as the institution celebrates its 100th birthday.

“Log Rolling has become a nice business division for us — it’s for people who are looking for our services, but at a unique site,” he said, adding that these have ranged from Wickham Park in Manchester, Conn. (which also has a log cabin) to Black Birch Vineyard in Southampton, and a wide array of spots in between and beyond.

Mt. Joe to Go

Mt. Joe to Go, with locations at the Log Cabin and downtown Holyoke, is one of a series of entrepreneurial endeavors launched by Peter Rosskothen and various partners.

And Rosskothen believes his instincts (and those of his team) are again sound with a venture that in some ways encapsulates all the ventures that came before it, to one degree or another. In a nutshell, it brings food to customers in a convenient manner and creates another, and potentially solid, revenue stream.

“This is really exciting because it’s a way to utilize a lot of our brainpower and ability and apply it to a new business,” he explained. “And it’s not conflicting with what we do on weekends.”

That last remark was a reference mostly to the events, and especially weddings, at the Log Cabin and also the Delaney House. Not all events come on weekends, but most of them do, he explained, adding quickly that while this business is quite solid, there is a time of the year — January through March — that is sometimes problematically slow.

Some of the other recent entrepreneurial undertakings have been launched in an effort to overcome those slow months — Log Rolling was also created to counter a marked slowdown that followed the onset of the Greater Recession in 2008 — and Delaney’s Market is no exception.

Full Menu of Options

As he offered BusinessWest a quick tour of the storefront in progress, Rosskothen explained the concept in more detail.

He started by pointing to a long row of coolers along one wall, and then grabbing a sturdy, microwavable plastic container, one of several sizes that would be available. The former would be filled with the latter, he said, adding that food prepared at the Log Cabin would be trucked to the Longmeadow Shops in refrigerated trucks daily.

To fully explain the concept, though, he referred back to still another of his team’s entrepreneurial undertakings — the Mt. Joe facilities, located in the lower parking lot of the Log Cabin and at the transit facility in downtown Holyoke.

It specializes in coffee — hence the name — but also sells meals to go, enough of them to prompt thoughts, talk, and then action to take that business to a different, much higher level.

“We’ve always had this dream about what we could do with meals to go,” he told BusinessWest. “For a while, we studied the home-delivery-of-meals (or ingredients) concept, but the problem with them is you have to be disciplined — the food shows up, and you have to cook it, or you waste it. And it’s not cheap.

“It’s a good concept, but I really like what we’re doing here,” he went on. “I’m on my way home … I don’t really know what I want for dinner … I do know that I really don’t want to prep my meal … I stop in Delaney’s Market, I walk around, see what I feel like, pick it up, grab a bottle of wine or a beer, and take it home.”

TV celebrity Ed McMahon

Peter Rosskothen, then operator of Boston Chicken franchises, is seen with TV celebrity Ed McMahon at a promotion at one of the stores.

Rosskothen and his team are betting that this thought process is common enough to create enormous business potential, and he believes it’s a pretty safe bet.

As for what will be in those plastic containers on the store shelves, Rosskothen said there would be a host of entrees, but also salads, desserts, breads, and beverage options made possible by a surprisingly available liquor license.

The menu is still somewhat of a work in progress, he went on, and would always be something flexible and a reflection of what customers wanted. But when pressed for examples of what patrons might expect, he listed items like chicken francaise, beef bourguignon, salmon salad, and stuffed mushroom caps. This will be a restaurant, but in a retail format.

In keeping with current dietary trends and a broader focus on health, each container will let the customer know how many calories they’ll consume per serving, said Rosskothen, adding that there will be low-calorie, vegetarian, and gluten-free offerings, among other things.

“Everyone I’ve talked to about this — and that’s a lot of people — says, ‘I hope you’re going to have healthy items; I’m trying to lose some weight,’ or ‘I’m trying to be good,’” he noted. “I tell them, ‘absolutely — that’s a big part of our thinking.’

“We have a good idea of what we want to bring here, but we’ll adapt to what our guests want,” he explained. “The best way to explain it is that we’ll have the variety of a restaurant, but with a focus that will make us a regular stop for people.”

Salad Days

As he talked about the timing of his latest venture, Rosskothen believes it’s ideal given the way societal trends are changing and the retail sector is trending.

As for the Aug. 3 scheduled soft opening, he said this date is ideal as well. Not because business will be brisk, but because it will likely be rather slow — although there’s a good deal of buzz about this operation — given the large number of families that will be on vacation.

“We’re opening in August on purpose — I like to start in a slow month,” he said, adding that this strategic decision was made with an eye toward getting whatever kinks there might be out, a staff up to speed, and perhaps an even better feeling for what the buying public wants — and doesn’t want.

This thinking is not exactly straight out of most business-success textbooks, but it’s yet another example of how Rosskothen and his team are thinking outside the box, or food container, as the case may be, and expressing their appetite for entrepreneurship in a way that is both scientific and, as history shows, successful.

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

Cover Story

Marking a Milestone

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, with one of the many pieces of memorabilia collected from patrons of the fair.

The Eastern States Exposition turns 100 this year. For organizers of the 17-day fair every fall and a host of other events during the year, planning such a celebration comes easily. But the centennial is in many ways more than a party — it’s an opportunity to reflect on the Big E’s history, its place in the region, and the many challenges that stand in the way of continuing this tradition for the generations to come.

The request went out on various forms of social media a few years ago.

The Eastern States Exposition, long on history but admittedly somewhat short on older archival material and memorabilia concerning its century-long existence, was looking for the public’s help in rectifying that problem — and in telling an important story.

“When we moved here [the Big E fairgrounds] from our offices at 31 Elm St. in Springfield in 1950, we jettisoned a lot of our archives; we have our business records and our meeting notes, but we don’t really have a good archive,” explained Eugene Cassidy, the institution’s president and CEO. “So we spent the past several years collecting Eastern States memorabilia, mostly from people who are fond patrons of the fairgrounds. And a lot of fascinating stuff poured in.”

The donations include dozens of photographs, some of them going as far back as the 1920s, and many chronicling the horrific floods of 1936 and 1955; promotional posters, including one from 1925 that was found behind a wall by two sisters from Ludlow as they were relocating to Alaska; a framed copy of some of the early attempts to answer a request from some journalists to shorten the exposition’s lengthy name (yes, this was the origin of the term ‘Big E’); and a metal sheet detailing the dates of the 1950 exposition that was designed to wrap neatly around street signs.

“People couldn’t tell what street they were on, but they knew the dates for the exposition,” said Cassidy as he held up the well-preserved artifact, marveling at its purpose.

Construction of the coliseum commences in 1916

Construction of the coliseum commences in 1916, just months before the National Dairy Show was to come to West Springfield.

These items and countless others will be put on display during this year’s Big E, the 100th birthday celebration, which will commence Sept. 16. Collectively, they speak to the institution’s place — not only in the region, but in the hearts, and memory banks, of the millions who have visited the fairgrounds over the years.

In many ways, this is what will be celebrated during this milestone year, said Cassidy, adding that Big E administrators want to use the occasion to bring awareness to the institution’s long history, the manner in which it has become part of the social fabric of the region (in a figurative, but also quite literal, sense, as we’ll see) — and the fact that help, in many forms, will certainly be needed to preserve this tradition for future generations.

Indeed, the Big E is facing a number of formidable challenges as it stares down its second century, said Cassidy, now in his fifth year at the helm, listing everything from an ever-growing number of forces competing for the time and energy of families to the inexorable decline of agriculture in Massachusetts and the Northeast (the bedrock on which the exposition was built), and an aging exposition infrastructure that includes several buildings that date to the beginning in 1916, including the venerable coliseum.

“My goal is to raise awareness so that people in the greater community might take a step back and think about what Eastern States means to the region,” he explained. “This is an opportunity for people to refamiliarize themselves with Eastern States at hopefully a different level, and to take note of our resilient ability to remain successful in an environment that becomes increasingly more difficult to survive in.”

Elaborating, he said fairs of this type across the country are struggling mightily, but many have the support of their various states to fall back on.

“Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo recently gave the New York State Fair $55 million to rehabilitate a few buildings on their fairgrounds, and the Indiana State Fair gets 6% of the revenues from gaming in that state,” said Cassidy, adding that the Big E is certainly not likely to receive similar forms of support.

To fund needed capital projects and relieve the exposition of growing amounts of debt, other measures will be required, said Cassidy, noting that a capital campaign for the nonprofit organization is a distinct possibility.

For now, he wants to grow awareness and gain a full appreciation for the institution.

“My personal goal is for as many as possible in our Greater New England region to have a connection to, and a fondness for, the future of this organization, some respect for its history, and a desire to be a part of it moving forward,” he explained. “It’s going to take all of that in order to assure that this organization continues to have its incredible importance on the stage of national agriculture and food production, and to continue to have the economic impact it has.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look at the Big E’s centennial, what is planned from a celebratory standpoint, and especially at what this institution must do after it blows out the candles for its 100th birthday.

Party Animals

Cassidy told BusinessWest that the Big E is used to throwing big parties — in most respects, that’s what it does for 17 days each fall — so a 100th-birthday celebration is, in many respects, no big deal.

Well, at least from a planning and execution perspective; again, this is what they do. From a historical and, yes, public-relations perspective, though, this is a very big deal, an opportunity that exposition officials intend to fully maximize.

the Big E in the 1920s

This panoramic photo shows the Big E in the 1920s, when it was fast becoming a tradition in the region.

There will be a number of special touches, he went on, pointing to everything from the birthday-cake-like signage now adorning the administration building to the flagpoles now affixed to the coliseum (an attempt to recapture the look from 1916 and the ensuing decades); from the display of artifacts collected from the public to a spirited effort to bring back performers from the exposition’s heyday in the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s (the return of the Cowsills falls into that category); from a new/old logo, as well as coasters, buttons, and magnets with the number ‘100’ on them, to a special Big E tartan, a pattern bearing a mix of the primary colors of the Big E, the town of West Springfield, and the six New England states already woven into ties and scarves — the fabric of the community in a literal sense.

There will also be a commemorative book on the centennial, due to be released just before this year’s fair begins (one can already be ordered online).

Wayne Phaneuf, executive editor of the Republican, was the main editor for the book and one of those contributing content and selecting photos, the latter of which essentially tell the story of the past half-century.

Phaneuf told BusinessWest that he did some extensive research for the project and learned a number of things while doing so.

That list includes everything from the full roster of entertainers who appeared over the years — “I never knew Bob Hope came here,” he said — to insight into how the federal government essentially commandeered the fairgrounds during both World War I and World War II for use as a staging area and supply depot.

But mostly, that research merely reinforced what he already knew.

“As a kid growing up in this area, there were only two things kids really looked forward to,” he said while summing things up — “Christmas and the Big E.”

And that sentiment basically applies to people of all ages, he went on, adding that the book — and the 100th anniversary, really — is all about memories.

People from across this area and soon well beyond started collecting them in 1916, when Joshua Brooks, a prominent area businessman and lithographer by trade (his company printed bank notes, among other things), pulled off an unlikely coup and brought the prominent National Dairy Show to a once-muddy flood plain beside the Westfield River.

Actually, when he sold this region to the highly skeptical fair organizers during intense meetings in Chicago, that area was still mostly a swamp — but one for which Brooks had big plans.

Growing Concern

Two years earlier, he and 62 others listed as original incorporators launched the Eastern States Agricultural and Industrial Exposition. Its lengthy purpose was to “to hold agricultural and industrial expositions, and fairs within the county of Hampden, to engage in agricultural and industrial products and in livestock, to conduct races, sports, and general amusements, and to promote the agricultural and industrial development of the eastern states.” (No, there’s nothing in there about cream puffs or deep-fried … anything.)

Brooks’ ambitious plan was to launch the first exposition by bringing the National Dairy Show to the site. And to do that — again, against seemingly all odds — he essentially sold a promise: to build the roads, buildings, facilities, and amenities needed to stage that event, because none existed at the time.

To make a rather long story short, he delivered on that promise, raising more than $500,000 to get it all done.

A year after the successful staging of that event, the Eastern States Exposition and Dairy Show began, only a few months before the U.S. officially entered World War I. The first fair drew 138,000 people, roughly one-tenth what it does today.

BigE-BobHope

the Big E was the undisputed entertainment hub

Until the mid-’70s, the Big E was the undisputed entertainment hub in the region, hosting entertainers such as Bob Hope (top) and sporting events like auto racing.

After the war, the Big E initiated a pattern of continued growth and expansion that would continue for decades — not simply in terms of infrastructure, but also in prestige, attendance, and prominence within the region and also well beyond it.

The Big E, and especially the fair each fall, would find a unique place in the region’s consciousness, while drawing celebrities and politicians, including a sitting president, Dwight Eisenhower, and his sitting vice president, Richard Nixon.

By the middle of the 20th century, the Big E — as it came to be known in 1967 amid complaints from the press that there were just too many syllables in Eastern States Exposition — became the undisputed center of entertainment in Western Mass. and Northern Conn., as well as a place for events of all types, because the coliseum was the largest venue of its kind in the region.

Indeed, the exposition was, for many years, home to professional hockey (the American Hockey League in the form of Springfield’s franchise, but also the parent National Hockey League when the Hartford Civic Center’s roof collapsed in January 1978, leaving the Whalers temporarily homeless). But it was also home to what is now CityStage (then StageWest) starting in 1967, as well as other entertainment facilities, including the Storrowton Dinner Theatre.

The list of those who have appeared in West Springfield is long and prestigious, and includes the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Lionel Barrymore, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Liberace, Arthur Godfrey, and countless others.

“We have a great, storied history for entertainment — we had the biggest names going back to the 1920s,” Cassidy said. “Anybody who was anybody played at the Eastern States. Buddy Hackett played here so many times that, in the late ’60s, the police chief gave him a key to the town of West Springfield. He loved the fair, and he loved his connection to us.”

The exposition also hosted all manner of events, including college and high-school graduations, a wide array of sporting events, and many political gatherings, including the 1964 state Democratic convention. (The state’s junior senator, Edward Kennedy, then campaigning for re-election, was injured and nearly killed as the plane taking him to that convention crashed in Southampton).

Survivor’s Story

But while the exposition’s history is replete with big names, big events, and big crowds, it is, in many respects, a story of survival, of overcoming challenge.

Those challenges have come in a number of forms — from two world wars to the Great Depression, which took a heavy toll in a number of ways, to the building in the early ’70s of the Springfield Civic Center, which took hockey, many school graduations, and scores of other events across the Connecticut River and actually prompted Big E officials to briefly consider a move to the Nutmeg State as a way to counter that threat.

Then there were the natural disasters, the floods, and especially the hurricane that visited Western Mass. in September 1938, just a few days after that year’s fair had begun.

Photos taken in the aftermath of the disaster told a story of complete devastation, with rides, tents, and structures crumpled, a situation compounded by a forced early closing and resulting loss of revenue as well as the lingering effects of the depression, which cast a large shadow over the prospects for recovery.

The situation was summed up poignantly in remarks, included in the centennial book, from Republican reporter Frank Bauer, who attended a meeting convened by Brooks that featured a host of area business leaders curious about what could, and would, happen next for the fair.

“The Eastern States Exposition, even then a venerable 22-year-old institution, was in danger of extinction, down and out from the big blow,” he wrote. “There was no treasury, no funds, and no insurance to begin to cover the damage and loss of revenue.”

Before that meeting ended, Bauer went on, Brooks and ally Harry Fisk asked for and received commitments from those in the room for funds to restore the fair.

While the situation nearly eight decades later is not as dire in most respects, there are some similarities, said Cassidy, noting that the Big E is facing a host of challenges — if it not to its survival, then certainly to its bottom line and many of its traditions, especially its agricultural roots.

Chief among them, perhaps, is the aging infrastructure at the fairgrounds and the ever-rising cost of restoring and modernizing buildings built decades ago.

President Dwight Eisenhower

President Dwight Eisenhower, left, visits the Big E in 1953.

Fair officials have received some estimates, for example, that it would cost at least $40 million, and probably more, to completely restore the coliseum to its former glory and original look and make it suitable for many of the events it can no longer stage, said Cassidy.

“The coliseum is obsolete today — professional hockey moved out in the ’70s, and they stopped playing high-school hockey there in 1991,” he explained, adding that the facility is now used mostly for horse shows and the Shrine Circus. “The building is in need of a $50 million to $60 million investment to make it contemporary in this day and age.”

There are other facilities that need work as well, he said, pegging the total amount of deferred maintenance at more than $140 million.

To capitalize the needed work, the Big E, despite several very successful years recently, would have to revert to its old methods for raising money, he explained. Well, sort of.

“In the old days, when we had a rainy fair and lost money, Mr. Brooks would get on the phone and call everybody up and say, ‘I need you to write me a check for $16,000,’” Cassidy said, adding that those calls went to corporators, board members, and other prominent supporters of the exposition.  “And the money came in; it paid the bills, and it got us through difficult times.”

That model was actually still in place in 1978, when the Big E used it to finance the Young Building, Cassidy said, adding that, when Brooks’ son, J. Loring Brooks, died in 1980, that development strategy was essentially retired.

As a result, to fund its operation, the Big E has taken on increasingly larger amounts of debt, he explained, noting that the number has risen exponentially over the past few decades.

Thus, when the centennial celebration is over, the focus will shift entirely to the next 100 years, said Cassidy, adding that this includes development of a new strategic plan that will specifically address challenges and how to fund them.

“It will have a meaningful and robust development and fund-raising piece to it,” he said, adding that a likely step is a capital campaign, something the fair hasn’t done — at least in the modern sense of that term.

With those thoughts as a backdrop, Cassidy noted, again, that this Big E will, from a production standpoint, be business as usual, but it will also comprise a sincere effort to show just how important that business is for the region, and how challenging it will be to continue it into the future.

Fair Game

As he posed for a few photos with some of the memorabilia collected from area residents, Cassidy stopped at the large conference room in the administration building.

He wanted to show off the renovations to that facility, but also, and more importantly, make a point.

To do so, he started by gesturing to the photos of Joshua and J. Loring Brooks (they were both known as J.L.) at the far end of the room.

“Those used to be out in the hallway, where no one really saw them,” he explained, adding that, now, they’re almost impossible to miss.

In fact, the horseshoe-shaped conference table is set up so that each member of the board of directors will face those pictures, of the founder and the man who continued his work for several decades.

“So, in a way, while addressing the present and the future, we’re always reminded of the past and the need to preserve that history and those traditions,” Cassidy explained.

In many respects, that’s exactly what the 100th-birthday celebration is all about.

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

Cover Story

A New Era

Nate Costa

Nate Costa

After a two-month hiatus, professional hockey is back in Springfield, with a franchise recently named the Thunderbirds. Its executive vice president and large ownership group are confident this team can get over the attendance hump that has plagued previous franchises in the City of Homes, and say this confidence stems from an intense focus on sales coupled with the commitment — and connections — of the 26 owners.

Nate Costa had what most people would consider an attractive position with the American Hockey League — with the operative word being had.

As a member of the AHL’s Team Business Services Department, Costa had a broad job description, but essentially he worked with all 30 of the league’s teams to improve revenues and attendance and deploy best practices to help their organizations run more efficiently and profitably. It was a job that took him across the country, to cities ranging from San Diego to Grand Rapids, Mich., to Utica, N.Y., and provided a host of learning opportunities.

But while Costa, a Springfield native and Cathedral High School graduate, enjoyed that work, he coveted another title and a much different set of job responsibilities.

“I really wanted to run a franchise, and I entered the job with the AHL with that goal in mind,” he told BusinessWest, adding that achieving this career ambition would provide him with an intriguing opportunity to put to work many of the lessons learned while working with and for teams like the Hershey Bears, Syracuse Crunch, Utica Comets, and Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins.

And now, thanks to the dramatic turn of events that brought the Portland (Maine) Pirates franchise to Springfield this spring, he’ll get that chance. Indeed, Costa was recently named executive vice president of the team, recently renamed the Thunderbirds.

It’s been a whirlwind month or so for Costa; he got married just a few weeks ago, and officially started his new job at the same time. He doesn’t have an office yet — a new lease with the MassMutual Center doesn’t begin until July — or even business cards. Meanwhile, most of his time, and that of the new ownership group, has been spent on matters of business, such as franchise agreements, negotiating with the MassMutual Center, and choosing a team name, logo, and colors.

But Costa told BusinessWest that the real work of running this franchise and doing what the previous ownership group could not — move the team out of last place, at least when it comes to attendance — is underway.

When queried about how he intends to improve the numbers at the gate as well as the overall profitability of Springfield’s AHL franchise — a question posed repeatedly and in several different ways — he said, in essence, that it comes down to one word: selling.

He would elaborate, of course, touching on both what is to be sold and, especially, how and to whom.

As for the former, he said the product is much more than hockey, although that’s obviously a big part of it. He preferred to say that the team would be selling “an experience” that could be enjoyed by all members of the family.

TbirdsPrimary(Color)As for the latter, he said the selling would take on a far more aggressive tone than it has historically, with a specific focus on season tickets and group sales, strategic targets that have yielded success for other franchises, as we’ll see later.

Dennis Murphy, owner of the Ventry Group and a member of the ownership group, summed things up this way:

“To compare what’s happened in the past to what this situation looks like would be to compare a shovel to a bulldozer,” he explained. “This is the most powerful sales force ever assembled in any part of Western Mass., bar none.”

Overall, Costa said the Thunderbirds won’t really do anything the previous franchise didn’t do — it will just do it better and more aggressively, with the goal of creating more and stronger connections between the team and the community.

And it will also do it with the backing of 26 local owners, all of whom are committed to hockey, this team, and selling it (there’s that word again), said Paul Picknelly, president of Picknelly Enterprises, who is among that group.

“We now have 26 owners,” he noted, saying that number slowly and with added emphasis to convey strength in numbers. “That, in itself, is a huge positive change in the way we sell hockey across the region.”

Picknelly said the ownership group is diverse — from Tony Caputo, owner of the Red Rose Group, to Peter Martins and Derek Slema, who both own of a number of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises across the region — and they will use these businesses, and their skill sets, to help bring visibility to the team and fans to the MassMutual Center.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Costa and others about the Thunderbirds franchise and how the new ownership group and leadership team plan to take hockey to new heights in Springfield.

Dropping the Puck

Looking ahead, Costa noted, while the AHL’s 2016-17 schedule is not yet official, he knows the Thunderbirds, the affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers, will start the campaign on the road.

That’s good in many respects, he said, because it will give the team another week to get ready for opening night (Oct. 22) — seven days that will certainly be needed.

Indeed, the new ownership group and leadership team will be compressing a process that usually begins the day after the season ends, and actually long before that — Costa said roughly 80% of ticket packages for the ‘next’ season are sold while a team is still playing games — into a much shorter time frame.

But that’s just one more element to an already imposing and multi-faceted challenge, one the energetic 33-year-old certainly embraces.

Costa has taken an interesting path to this point in his career. A journalism major at Northeastern, he found employment opportunities in that field few and far between. While searching for one in the fall of 2006, he instead decided to join a classmate at Cathedral who had recently become one of the first salespeople hired by the new AHL franchise in San Antonio, owned by that city’s hugely successful NBA franchise, the Spurs.

“My original thought was to go down there, cut my teeth, learn some things, and eventually get back to the public-relations or writing side of things,” he explained. “But I ended up loving what we were doing; we were starting a team from scratch in San Antonio, and I got to see that on a day-to-day basis.”

Tasked with selling season tickets, corporate partnerships, and group packages, Costa said he could see momentum build for the sport and the team in a city that could never be described as a hockey hotbed.

“I saw over the course of my three and half years with the club that we were making a real impact,” he said, using that phrase to describe both the efforts of the sales team on the club as they related to the team’s success, and the franchise’s work to become a force within the community. “The hockey piece kind of sells itself, but we had to find a niche to get people out to the building and experience this sport for the first time; we centered on connecting with the community, connecting with kids, showing them experiences at the building and through our games that they couldn’t get from going to a San Antonio Spurs game, and providing them access they couldn’t get with the NBA.

“This opened my eyes to the difference between the, quote, unquote, minor leagues and the professionals,” he went on, “and the cool things you could do from a community-connectivity standpoint with our league.”

Costa’s success in San Antonio — he was one of the top performers on a sales team that won awards from the league for highest group-sales growth — led him to be recruited by the head of the Team Business Services Department formed a few years earlier to help franchises develop and share best practices.

Paul Picknelly

Paul Picknelly says the ability to leverage the talent and resources of 26 local owners is a huge benefit for Thunderbirds management.

“We were sharing revenue streams as a league, so the AHL was able to identify teams that were having success and teams that were doing really good things, and we were able to share that across the league,” he said, adding that he joined that department in 2009 and thoroughly enjoyed his seven years in a role he described as part support system, part consultant.

But, as mentioned earlier, a career goal he set some time ago was to one day manage a team of his own.

“I viewed that opportunity with the American Hockey League as a chance to get my Ph.D. in sports business,” he explained. “I spent the past six and half years working closely with our other owners and presidents, helping them to improve their businesses, while also being completely entrenched in what works from an AHL perspective; it was a great learning ground for me.

“It got to the point where I wanted to see if I could actually enact all the things we talked about on a regular basis and helped our teams with,” he went on. “The ability to do so here in Springfield was very intriguing to me. I had worked with them over the course of time, I’ve seen opportunities, and there were things I wanted to see if I could make a difference with.”

Seeking Net Results

Looking forward, Costa said the challenge facing him, his management team, and the ownership group is not exactly the same as the one he encountered in San Antonio, but there are many similarities.

Professional hockey is certainly not new to Springfield — there has been an AHL team in the city since Calvin Coolidge was in the White House — and the sport of hockey is much more entrenched in the Northeast than it is in the Southwest. But in most respects, this is a new team and a new business, said Costa, adding that, as in San Antonio, he intends to improve attendance and profitability by building season-ticket and group sales and strong connectivity to the community.

He said this is not exactly a new strategy — those managing the former Springfield Falcons used the same words as they discussed their work — but efforts will take on a new sense of urgency and higher level of intensity.

Both will be needed, he acknowledged, to get the team over an attendance hump that has been a formidable obstacle for many years now. Indeed, while he didn’t have the figures at his disposal, Costa knew the Falcons were either last or just ahead of the Portland franchise when it came to average game attendance last season, a statistic that ultimately drove the previous ownership group to sell the team to the parent Arizona Coyotes, which moved it to Tucson.

To bring those numbers up significantly, the management team intends to first create that ‘experience’ mentioned earlier and then sell it to families, groups, the business community, and the region as a whole — the basic road map used in San Antonio and other cities, he noted.

“The game plan is to take pieces of everything I’ve learned over the last six and half years and put those together to form a business plan that’s going to have success here in Springfield,” he explained. “Though there is a rich hockey history in Springfield, with this being a charter member of our league, we’re essentially starting a business from scratch.”

When asked about specific elements of that business plan, Costa said most involve developing what he called a “sales-focused mindset” and a service-oriented approach to everything the team does.

And while all types of sales are important, including season tickets and walk-ups, group sales are usually the prime mover for franchises in this league, and for many reasons.

“What really drives our business and what fuels revenues is the group-ticket side of the business,” he explained. “This involves getting out into the local community and selling tickets to groups that are going to come out on a regular basis and participate in our games, have a good time, and, hopefully, expose new people and new kids to the experience we provide and create fans for a long time moving forward.”

If a sellable experience can be created, he went on, as well as solid connections with the community, then the franchise can succeed whether it is at the top of the standings, the middle, or even the bottom.

“We have markets that are successful even though the team isn’t winning,” he noted, adding that winning is obviously preferable. “That happens because you create an environment that shows that value to people, and there’s an experience that goes well beyond wins and losses on the ice. And that’s going to be the plan — creating a season ticket that people can see value in.”

Model Franchises

Costa said he’s optimistic the new franchise can soar higher than previous teams in Springfield because he’s seen a number of success stories in similar markets — models that can be effectively emulated.

He pointed, for example, to what’s happened in Hartford, with its Wolf Pack, an affiliate of the NHL’s New York Rangers, and a team he worked with extensively in his role with the AHL.

“Since coming back into the market as the Hartford Wolf Pack, they’ve had a great group there that has focused on tickets,” he explained, adding that, while this sounds obvious, it’s actually not. “We laid out a plan for them on where they needed to focus, and on finding more ways for them to connect with their local community at their arena. If you were to visit there, you’d see that they’ve done a great job with their building and with creating an experience and that interconnectivity — and that’s what we’re looking to do.”

The team in Providence, long called the Reds, but more recently the Bruins (because it’s an affiliate of the NHL team in Boston), is another example.

“They’re very driven from a sales perspective, and they’re one of the best at doing that,” Costa explained. “They have a full-on sales force making out-bound connections with their community. If you go to a Providence Bruins game, you see groups connected to their games constantly, from the national anthem through to everything else; they do a great job of utilizing the space that they have to sell tickets.”

Another thing those franchises do well that the Thunderbirds must emulate is getting fans to do much more than turn out for games, said Costa.

Elaborating, he said very successful teams work hard to get their fan base, and especially those who purchase season tickets, engaged, a verb he would explain in some detail.

“Selling season tickets just for the sake of selling season tickets is fantastic, but if people aren’t using those tickets and they’re not going to the games and getting that experience, then you’re not getting full benefit from those sales,” he explained. “You want people who are engaged, who are ambassadors that feel a connection to the organization that they won’t get anywhere else. That’s something I want to create.”

Moving forward, while the team is several months and perhaps a full year behind the schedule it would like to be on with regard to all the initiatives described above, it does have a few things working for it for next season and beyond.

First, it is now the only AHL franchise left in Massachusetts after Worcester lost its team, said Picknelly, noting that the Thunderbirds will attempt to effectively widen their circle of influence and bring in fans from across the state and especially from Worcester west.

Meanwhile, MGM’s $950 million casino is expected to bring several thousand people to Springfield each day, while also providing an attractive incentive to those planning meetings and conventions to take their events to Greater Springfield. Thus, the casino has serious potential to bring more families and groups to the MassMutual Center for individual games, said Picknelly.

But easily the biggest asset the team has moving forward is that large — and local — ownership group, he went on.

It translates into 26 people (all of them successful business owners in their own right) passionate about hockey in this region, committed to making it work, and willing to use their businesses and any other means available to them to promote the team and get fans to the games.

“These owners will be looking upon their local professional hockey team in a different way than they have in the past,” he explained — a natural sentiment when one is making an investment in that franchise. “For example, myself and two other owners own four of the five hotels in downtown Springfield; we’re going to sell hockey differently than how we did it in the past in our hotels.”

The same is true of all the owners, including the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners, he went on, adding that their stores are visited by more than 250,000 people a week, customers who will likely be exposed to the new hockey franchise in some way during those visits.

Murphy agreed, noting that the team will benefit from that new and expanded sales force he described, coupled with that large and local ownership group — a powerful combination, in his estimation.

“This sales force will work hand in glove with 26 of the most successful business owners in the Pioneer Valley,” he went on. “You can’t possibly overstate our ability to leverage these relationships.”

Bottom Line

As he sought to sum up what he described as a “new era” for hockey in this region, Picknelly chose to relate an e-mail he received from an individual who wants to join the new ownership team and likely will.

“He said he spent the last few nights sleepless, thinking about ways to sell hockey,” Picknelly recalled, adding that just about everyone already in this ownership group has probably done the same thing.

Sleepless nights do not directly correspond to success at the box office, he implied, but they do convey energy, commitment, and, most importantly, passion.

Both he and Costa believe those traits, and especially the last one, will enable the Thunderbird franchise to fly as high and fast as its namesake, and reach new heights.

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

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Body of Work

Dani Klein-Williams

Dani Klein-Williams says her soon-to-be released book (inset) will bring more exposure for her company and its unique niche.

When Dani Klein-Williams started her own photo studio, she had only enough confidence to seek a month-to-month lease. Fast-forward nearly 20 years, and she’s occupying 1,300 square feet on the second floor of Thornes Marketplace in Northampton. This sea change has come about through an abundance of confidence forged through a blend of sound business practices, cutting-edge work in the field, and development of intriguing niches, such as the genre known as boudoir.

Dani Klein-Williams was only half-kidding when she joked that photographers don’t even like to look back at work they did a few months or even a few days earlier because of how much they feel their talents have grown since and how they could have done things better.

And that explains why she offered a wry smile and gazed skyward as she thought back to the time she took what would be considered her first boudoir photograph.

That was roughly 12 years ago, she recalled, noting that it came about because a client, a soon-to-be bride, wanted a different kind of wedding present for her fiancé — “beautiful, tasteful, but sexy” photographs.

“She felt that she had been working out harder than at any time in her life, she looked the best she ever had, she’d been getting facials … she felt really beautiful, and said, ‘30 years from now or 50 years from now, I want to have these pictures,’” said Klein-Williams, adding that those last few sentiments comprise a form of common denominator for those who hire her for such work.

Looking back, she said the subject of that first boudoir photo shoot was in some ways more comfortable with what was going on than she was, and that she was certainly learning by doing.

“Photographers don’t even like the work they did the day before,” she said while explaining that sentiment noted above. “Usually, you’re critical, and you improve … thinking about a boudoir session I shot 10 years ago is, well, kind of scary.”

Fast-forward to today, and Klein-Williams has certainly retired ‘scary’ while fashioning boudoir photography into one of the cornerstones of a business she has taken from the ground up.

boudoir photography

Dani Klein-Williams says boudoir photography, misunderstood by many, is now a huge part of her business.

Indeed, her large studio in Northampton’s Thornes Marketplace is outfitted with, yes, a queen-sized bed, among other things, for such photographs. Only it doesn’t get used as much as it used to, because she’s doing much more of this work on location, as they say in this business — at clients’ homes, in hotels in various cities, and even on a farm just outside Boston.

Klein-Williams now shoots several hundred such photos a year, and that number is perhaps not the most surprising thing about this niche. She points out that the average age of the subjects is roughly 45 by her estimate (one of them was 69), and many, if not most, would fit that diplomatic description ‘plus-sized.’

Klein-Williams has become so adept at this art that she’s written the book on it — quite literally. It’s called Real. Sexy. Photography: The Art and Business of Boudoir. This is, as she described it, a cross between a coffee-table book and how-to manual (there are specific instructions on how to replicate each shot). It will be out in August, and she expects it will sell reasonably well, but also, and perhaps more importantly, raise awareness of her business and the niche she has developed.

Just as a recent article about her career in the online version of Forbes has. It came out about a month ago and has already generated some business, as well as a new way to reference her venture.

“It has really helped us secure some jobs,” she said of that exposure. “We had sent a proposal for a big job — shooting 40 attorneys for a Manhattan law firm — and hadn’t heard back. I forwarded them a link and said, ‘you want to go with the Forbes photographer, right?’ And they said ‘yes’ — they called back and booked.”

Between the book, the Forbes piece, and a growing portfolio of clients and assignments, Klein-Williams, who started this business just a year out of high school, feels she’s ready to take the next step (if she hasn’t already taken it) and move into high-end, even very high-end, wedding, corporate, and boudoir photography.

And she feels ready not simply as a photographer, but as a business person, because she works equally hard at both facets of this enterprise.

“I feel like I’m a business owner, and I’m in the business of photography,” she said while noting that most in this profession don’t have quite the same take. “I love photography; it’s a passion of mine. But I’m a business person first and a photographer a close second.”

For this issue and its focus (that’s an industry term) on women in business, we zoom in (there’s another one) on an intriguing business and its body, or bodies, of work.

Learning Curves

As mentioned earlier, Klein-Williams put her name on a business card when she was 19, when most of her peers were deciding which college courses to add or drop or trying to land a summer job.

So one might assume she’s always possessed an abundance of confidence — and assume incorrectly.

“When I rented my first space in the Eastworks building [in Easthampton], I went month-to month,” she said in an effort to make a point. “I said, ‘I think I can make the rent … I’m pretty sure. But I don’t really want to sign anything because I don’t know for real.’”

Dani Klein-Williams

Dani Klein-Williams says one of the goals in her business plan is to add more high-end destination weddings to the portfolio.

But like expertise in boudoir photography, confidence has come with experience, and today, Klein-Williams doesn’t lack for either, especially confidence.

Indeed, consider this comment when she was asked about the competition for boudoir work — she doesn’t believe there is much — and the other types of work she does.

“I think the biggest mistake you can make is caring what someone else does,” she explained, adding that she believes this applies to not only her business, but all others as well. “I think that it’s a waste of energy; if you spend any time thinking about what the competition’s doing, you’re not focused on what you’re doing.

“And I always think that I want to be one step ahead of everyone else, doing the latest, greatest thing,” she went on. “And I want to be constantly reinventing myself and constantly honing my craft. The second I stopped caring about what anyone else was doing … that’s when my business improved.”

Reaching this state hasn’t come easily, though, and it’s been achieved though large amounts of perseverance, entrepreneurial guile, and, yes, some luck, as we’ll see.

Our story begins, more or less, with her decision (made just before the semester was to begin) not to go to college, but instead attend the Hallmark School of Photography in Turners Falls.

That decision didn’t exactly sit well with her parents, but it did with her; she had been intrigued by photography since her youth, and, despite her parents’ reservations, she decided to follow her passion.

The 10-month program offered a quality education, she recalled, adding that it provided her with technical skills and the requisite amount of confidence needed to pursue photography as a career.

She started out working with and for two different — and much older — photographers, one of whom was in his early ’70s and essentially easing his way into retirement. And here’s some of that luck that was mentioned earlier.

“He was just feeling really done, ready to retire,” she recalled. “And he offered me an opportunity. He said, ‘I don’t really feel like being in my studio; do you want to sit here and answer phones? Anyone who calls, and I’m not here, you can take the work.’

“And he went one better — he said I could use his studio,” she went on, adding that she took full advantage of this opportunity to essentially launch her own business. “It was the best-case scenario; I had nothing to lose, I was still working for him photographing weddings, and he would let me take any spillover.”

Eventually, Klein-Williams had enough of her own clients to start her own studio, and set up shop in Eastworks in 2001 — paying month to month, as she noted, while also holding down a few retail jobs and handling jobs for other photographers.

“There was a lot of luck involved, as well as hard work and some really generous people,” she said of her start in business, adding that, in 2003, she and her husband, Keith, got engaged and together decided to devote all their energies to making the photography business work.

“We lived off his salary for a while, and I threw every dollar I made back into the business,” she explained. “It didn’t take long, and once I went full-time, I said, ‘why didn’t I do this years ago?’ Soon after, I hired my first employee and just went for it.”

As with all entrepreneurs, she had to take her talent and meld it with business acumen, something that happened over time and through the requisite trial and error.

“I tried everything, and when it worked, I stuck with it, and when it didn’t work, I moved on, and it worked out,” she said, adding that one of her forays that fell into that first category was boudoir.

Developing Interest

But as she thought back on her first session in that genre, Klein-Williams noted there was really nothing about it that even hinted of everything that was to come over the ensuing dozen years.

“I started to do this this very quietly,” she noted, putting heavy emphasis on the adjective in that sentence. “I was strictly a wedding photographer, a portrait photographer, and here and there I would do a boudoir session or two.”

Things changed, though, when the subject of one of those shoots invited Klein-Williams — or almost dared her — to put one of the shots out in her studio as a way to perhaps intrigue other brides and prompt them to pose.

She did — and, to make a long story short, many brides did as well, and a lucrative niche was born.

“I put out one or two pictures sort of in the background, not the forefront of the studio,” she explained. “People started to notice and ask about it; things started off slowly, to be sure.

“Then, we had a client come in who said, ‘if you’re using her pictures, I want you to use my pictures — you can put them on your website,’” she went on. “Then Facebook came out, and people started to say, ‘put my photos there if you want — I feel good about them, I feel beautiful, I feel powerful.’”

represent more than a third of her annual workload

Dani Klein-Williams says boudoir photographs, like this one, now represent more than a third of her annual workload — and revenues.

It got to the point where some women would call and ask why one of their photos wasn’t displayed on the website.

And those sentiments, not to mention that desire among many women to put their photos out where the public, not merely their fiancé, can see them, helps explain why this niche has grown so much over the years, said Klein-Williams, from 30 sittings a year to more than 300. The women are proud of what the camera has captured, and, in some ways, they find the experience empowering.

As she talked about her niche, Klein-Williams said this is serious business, one many people don’t fully understand, or want to.

“I think people have misconceptions about what boudoir is,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s very beautiful, very tasteful — people are generally more covered than you would see at the beach. Also, many think this is just for the size-2 supermodel, and it’s not.”

While many don’t understand this photograph genre, it’s clear that a growing number do, she went on, adding that, while she still markets herself and this specific niche at trade shows and other venues, many of those whose pictures wind up on her website and her walls find her. Many of them are from well outside the 413 area code, and, in another surprising statistic, some are repeat customers.

“When we started doing this, we thought these would be one-and-dones; we’re not going to do repeat business for boudoir,” she explained. “But people have so much fun that they end up coming back, sometimes by themselves, but often with their sister or their best friend to keep them company, so we see a lot of clients repeatedly.”

But boudoir photography, as healthy and intriguing a niche as it is, is just one component of Klein-Williams’ growing portfolio — and business.

Indeed, she now has eight employees and several photographers on her staff and, as mentioned earlier, appears poised to take that leap to the next level in terms of prominence, the size and price tag of assignments, and sales revenue (she’s looking to crash through the $1 million mark this year).

Weddings comprise a large portion of the business, and Klein-Williams is devoting much of her time and energy to building this segment of the portfolio. Much goes into this, and the actual photos that wind up in an album or on one’s walls are only part of the equation.

Indeed, there is a huge amount of customer service involved with this work, she explained, adding that it involves getting to know the bride and groom (but especially the former), what’s important to them, and what they want captured not only on their wedding day, but the day or two before, in many cases.

“People hire me because they trust I’ll do right by them,” she explained. “I will create beautiful images that will bring back the emotions of their day. It’s not just a recording of what they did — now they cut the cake, now they do the first dance.

“I really get to know my clients; I meet with them a lot,” she went on. “When they choose a florist or someone like that, this vendor is not going to be with them all day. But I’m with them throughout the day, for all their important moments. So when they make the decision to hire us, that has to be something that they’ve really thought through and that they’re comfortable with.”

These sentiments reflect what she said earlier about competition and how she doesn’t dwell on it.

“I don’t think of other photographers as competition at all,” she explained. “I feel that what I offer is unique and what they offer is unique, and when you’re hiring someone for boudoir, a wedding, or anything else, you’re hiring them based on making sure that you have the same artistic vision, but even more than that, that you have the same personality.

“You’re hiring someone for your wedding day that you really get along with and that has the same vision that you do,” she went on. “And it’s the same for boudoir.”

A Shooting Star

As she talked about her soon-to-be released book (one can pre-order it on Amazon), Klein-Williams acknowledged that this how-to could, in some ways, create competition for her down the road within that boudoir niche.

But she shrugged off that potential threat in a manner that shows how far she’s come since those days of not making sure she could make the rent.

“Before we release our secrets, we’re always on to the next thing,” she said. “That’s what a successful business person does; I’m not worried about competition.”

Such confidence shows why she’s moved to the top of the profession locally, and why this business she started when she was only 19 continues to develop and gain an ever sharper focus on growth.

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

Cover Story

Entrepreneurial Drive

Kevin, left, and Devin Murray

Kevin, left, and Devin Murray, the father-and-son co-founders of better.bike.

It was born out of a blend of need and desire. Nevin Murrary wanted something that would get him to high school in a manner that would by healthy, environmentally friendly — and cool. He and his father, Kevin, came up with the PEBL, described as a bridge between a bike and a car. But beyond becoming an effective means for the younger Murray to commute, it is evolving into a business concept with recognized potential.

When Nevin Murray arrives at Greenfield Community College in September, he’ll do so with most of the usual questions and anxieties that most all entering freshmen have. Well … maybe not; he certainly has a lot of poise and confidence for an 18-year-old, and with good reason, as we’ll see in a bit.

One thing’s for certain, though. His arrival will be totally unique in one aspect: he’ll be driving something no one else on that campus (or any other campus, for that matter) has — a PEBL.

That’s technically still an acronym (it stands for Pedal Electric Bike Lifestyle), but Nevin and his father, Kevin, who together conceptualized, designed, built, and soon plan to manufacture this vehicle, consider it more of a model name than anything else.


 

PEBL from GCAi on Vimeo.


As one discusses it, the word ‘vehicle’ is certainly the safest term you can use. But it’s not a car, although it looks like one (sort of, anyway), especially the tiny Smart cars now gaining traction in this country. And it is not technically a bicycle in the strictest sense of the word, although the name the Murrays have chosen for their enterprise is better.bike, which uses the tag line ‘Solutions in Transportation,’ which is quite effective and totally accurate (more on why later).

No, this product is a ‘velomobile.’ That’s a technical term in transportation circles, and one that’s been around for a least a century, by most estimates. It is used to describe, well, a bicycle/car, or a bicycle that is enclosed for aerodynamic advantage and protection from the weather. In those respects, the PEBL is not really unique. But in many others, it certainly is — from the material used to make the body (it’s actually a hemp-and-soy composite, rather than fiberglass) to the lithium-ion battery-powered motor.

In other words, the PEBL is both eco-friendly and human-friendly, said Kevin, an acupuncturist by trade, noting that, in his estimation, fiberglass is one of the most toxic substances used in manufacturing today.

“One of my passions is looking after people’s health,” he said, adding that this mindset explains many aspects of the PEBL, from its conception to the component materials used in making it.

The Murrays say their vehicle was born from need and desire — for a four-season velomobile that could handle the rigors of a Western Mass. winter — and came together over three years of searching junkyards for parts, trial and error, and the maturation of an innovative streak that both men possess.

 The same goes for another trait — entrepreneurship, although the two acknowledged they had a lot to learn about the difficult process of transforming an idea into a business. With that in mind, they applied to become part of Valley Venture Mentors’ second accelerator class, and were accepted.

They didn’t make the list of finalists — honored at ceremonies last week — and thus didn’t win one of the larger monetary prizes distributed to those chosen 12. They both say they came away with something inherently more important, though — invaluable insight into maneuvering the many forms of whitewater facing startups, from identifying potential markets to raising the capital needed to advance the concept.

For this issue, BusinessWest continues its recent efforts to spotlight emerging startups across the region by talking with the Murrays about their concept and why they believe it can be a vehicle for business success, figuratively and quite literally.

Putting the Wheels in Motion

The senior class at Amherst Regional High School recently voted on a number of the usual honors presented at this time of year — to individuals of both sexes deemed the most popular, most likely to succeed, best dressed … the list goes on.

There’s one for ‘best car’ as well. One young woman earned the prize for the Mercedes she parks every morning, while Nevin Murray took the honor with his red PEBL, the second prototype built by the father/son team, which he has been driving for about a year now, and with a purpose.

“I’ve been testing every possible aspect of it,” he explained, “to make sure that we’ve covered everything we need to cover.”

He knows this is technically not a car, but he’s not about to give his award back; he’s rather proud of it. But he and his father are soon hoping their concept will win much more — specifically the attention of the buying public, or at least a decent-sized component of it.

This would be the segment (or segments) that care about the environment, and themselves, and want a healthy alternative, or solution (there’s that word again), for their transportation needs.

Right now, though, the Murrays are also hoping to win some financial support. Indeed, a Kickstarter campaign is being planned  — one that seeks to net at least $50,000 for a mold and tools that will help get production of the vehicles off the ground.

Kevin told BusinessWest that the company is currently searching for manufacturing space, preferably in the Deerfield area, and needs about 2,000 square feet to get started. It took months to build each of the first few prototypes, he went on, but the process has been refined and formalized, and a team can now assemble one in a day or two. They expect that people who want a PEBL can get one as soon as this fall.

Before looking toward the immediate and long-term future, though, this would be a good time to go backward — something else the PEBL can do that a bike can’t — and look at how we arrived here.

Our story begins in the summer of 2013, said Kevin, who started by noting that, while his career has been in healthcare, he minored in engineering in college and has always enjoyed working with his hands and building things — character traits passed down to Nevin.

“Since he could pick up Legos, he’s been a builder,” he said of Nevin, adding that the two have collaborated on many initiatives. “We’ve been in science fairs and all kinds of projects, each one more complex.”

When Nevin turned 15, he went on, conversations within the family began to include talk about how the then-high-school student could, or should, get around. “We didn’t want to get a third car — we’re a very environmentally conscious family, and Nevin is even more so — so we started hunting around for a different kind of alternative vehicle for him that would hopefully include bicycling.”

The two saw some things online that caught their attention, but nothing effectively checked all the boxes they wanted to check. So they decided to design and build something that would.

“We wanted something he could use all year-round,” Kevin explained, “and also something where he wouldn’t be all sweaty when he got to school — we live seven miles from the high school — and that looked cool.”

The process of coming up with something that did all that started with visits to the nearest Home Depot and several area junkyards, said Nevin, adding that, as the concept starting coming together, they eventually realized it had potential as a marketable product, and this realization prompted a far more serious approach to their R&D.

“After we built the first prototype, we realized that to refine it enough to be a product wouldn’t take much more work,” he explained. “From there, it was a year of materials research and figuring out what goes where.”

What they pieced together — quite literally — is something that bridges the gap between a bike and a car. It has a 750-watt motor, powered by a 48-volt, 16-amp lithium-ion battery that on flat roads provides up to 30 miles of continuous riding without using the pedals. (Users can buy additional batteries for longer trips.)

PEBL

The Murrays say that is all goes well, consumers should be able to get their own PEBL this fall.

As for those pedals, PEBL owners can use them for short stretches, but the vehicle weighs 200 pounds or so, meaning one wouldn’t want to pedal uphill or very far. There’s an electric heater to keep the user warm in winter, and the doors come off to create air flow in the summer. The PEBL (sticker price $6,000) can accomodate a rider well over six feet tall, and even has the ability to tow a bicycle.

A license is not required to drive one, and the vehicles themselves are not registered, said Kevin, adding that he keeps expecting to get pulled over by the police while he’s out driving in his PEBL, the first prototype, but hasn’t yet.

While many of those features listed above are unique to one level or another, what makes the PEBL stand alone among vehicles like it is the materials used to assemble it.

“We spent hundreds of hours experimenting and researching different materials,” said Kevin. “We finally developed a combination of hemp cloth, instead of fiberglass cloth, combined with a non-toxic epoxy that’s made from soy and peanut oil.”

These materials, as he noted earlier, are safer for those doing the assembly — one doesn’t need to wear a respirator. But they are also more practical. “We feel they make for a better body for the vehicle,” he explained. “It’s not as brittle as traditional fiberglass.”

Getting Up to Speed

As one reads the list of standard features on the PEBL, one would think it might be for a Honda Civic or even one of the myriad crossovers now flooding the market: ‘expandable cargo space,’ ‘cruise control,’ ‘standard rear suspension, ‘great visibility,’ among others.

It’s the lines at the top of that list, though, that make it readily apparent that this is not a car, or anything else currently on the road: ‘zero emissions,’ ‘pedal and electric,’ ‘hemp-and-soy composite body,’ ‘20 miles per hour top speed,’ ‘removable and stowable doors.’

It is the sum of all the items on that list that the Murrays believe will propel them to success with their venture — a vehicle that is in many ways practical, but also environmentally friendly and, if you get some pedaling in, good exercise.

They believe this product will play in cities and regions populated with individuals who value such things — and that have what they would consider a PEBL-friendly infrastructure. That would largely rule out New York, said Kevin, noting that residents would still have to find parking, which is always a struggle.

But he listed mid-sized, spacious cities such as Portland, Ore., Seattle (especially the sprawling tech-industry campuses there like Microsoft and Amazon), Denver, Austin, San Antonio, and others, as well as most all rural regions, as ideal for their concept. He believes there would be a strong market in Europe, where gas is very expensive, as well.

With an eye toward sharpening their focus on a target audience — and the many other aspects of making their PEBL company a reality — the Murrays sought to become members of VVM’s second accelerator class, were accepted, and found the experience invaluable.

It included use of the so-called ‘Lean Canvas’ to form a business plan, a one-pager that entrepreneurs can use to identify everything from the specific problem they’re trying to solve with their product or service to its unique value proposition; from channels for getting the product to consumers to a list of customer segments.

In the case of those customers, the team at better.bike identified several, including retired individuals, those with physical or fitness limitations, tech-loving Millenials, a parent with one or two small children, and commuters who want to ride in all seasons and all weather. Similarly, for early adopters of this concept, they identified these groups: those who care about the environment, individuals who want to get exercise, those who want to commute or ride in “something that is fun and looks cool,” and people put off by the expenses associated with using a car.

As they talked about the VVM experience, the Murrays used language similar to other participants.

“It was a real kick in the pants,” said Kevin. “It really moved us — it forced us to move quickly and focus. It put us in touch with reality.

‘From the beginning, they said, ‘don’t focus on the prize money, focus on the information and the connections that you’re going to get out of this,’” he went on, adding that they’ve done just that.

Nevin agreed, noting that the process of moving from product conceptualization to starting a company to market that product has been a learning experience on many levels.

“Getting the company going was definitely the most stressful part of this, but it’s also the one I’ve most enjoyed,” he said, adding that the experience has provided lessons in not only business, but life.

“As a teenager, I’ve been growing up as this has been happening,” he explained. “This has definitely shaped my perspective, especially on how I approach things and how I’m going to approach college. This experience has given me a better picture of how an idea transforms into an actual thing. And you can apply that to other things.”

The Ride Stuff

Nevin Murray, who plans to build one of those so-called ‘tiny houses,’ find a plot of land to put it on in Montague, and commute from there to GCC, told BusinessWest that he’s not sure where he’s going to park his PEBL on campus.

He said the school has a few spaces equipped with charging stations, but he’s not sure he wants to — or is even qualified to — take one of those. Wherever it’s parked, though, his velomobile is sure to turn some heads, as it has everywhere else it has appeared.

Whether it evolves into a decent-selling product that becomes part of the landscape in this region or those cities listed earlier remains to be seen. But what is certain is that this father-son team has no shortage of entrepreneurial drive, which should, like the PEBL itself, take them where they want to go.

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

Cover Story Restaurants Sections

Plenty to Chew On

This Year’s Restaurant Guide Reflects a Diverse Dining Scene

RestaurantGuideSecDPBy all accounts, restaurant are flourishing across Western Mass., a region that offers nearly endless choices when it comes to cuisine, atmosphere, price range … you name it. For this special section, the 2016 Restaurant Guide, we venture to three establishments — with calling cards ranging from solar-brewed beer to classic French cuisine to singing servers — that clearly reflect that variety. Bon appetit!

Banking and Financial Services Cover Story Sections

Dollars and Sense

Westfield Bank President and CEO Jim Hagan

Westfield Bank President and CEO Jim Hagan

Westfield Bank and Chicopee Savings Bank will come together in the first merger of locally based institutions in more than two decades. The $2.1 billion entity will have a solid foundation on both sides of the Connecticut River, said Westfield Bank President and CEO Jim Hagan, and the capital with which to undertake further territorial expansion.

He couldn’t pinpoint exactly when they started, but Westfield Bank President and CEO Jim Hagan said the talks he’s had with his counterpart at Chicopee Savings Bank, Bill Wagner — about this marketplace, the changes taking place in it, and a possible merger of their institutions — are not exactly a recent development.

Well, that’s true of those first few subjects of conversation, anyway.

“Bill and I had a number of discussions about this market, what was happening in it, bank consolidations, and the importance of size and scale in the industry,” said Hagan, who took the helm at Westfield in 2005, adding that these talks took a different tone and moved to a much higher level of intensity last fall.

That’s when both men were working together on what could be called the financial institutions’ component of the capital campaign to raise funds for the Sr. Caritas Cancer Center at Mercy Medical Center, and thus seeing much more of each other.

Summing up those discussions in general terms, Hagan said the two presidents agreed that there were many shortcomings — and, yes, risks — to remaining at their respective sizes (roughly $1.4 billion in assets at WB and $650,000 at CSB) given the many changes in the region’s banking community and the growing dominance of larger players.

He and Wagner eventually concluded that a merger of their banks not only made sense, but easily made the most sense of the many options that had presented themselves in recent years.

“We were both well-capitalized institutions, and we both felt strongly that we wanted to have what we considered to be a strong, independent bank headquartered in Western Massachusetts, one that would be locally owned and locally managed,” Hagan explained. “And, together, we felt we had a great opportunity to do just that.”

It took several more months to hammer out the details, but those discussions last fall certainly laid the groundwork for the announcement made early last month — that the two institutions would merge and thus become the second-largest locally managed bank in Hampden County, a $2.1 billion entity (to operate under the name Westfield Bank) with 21 locations in Western Mass. and Northern Conn.

As he elaborated on why this was the most sensible route for the banks, Hagan said this would be a merger of two local institutions with long histories in the region — and with footprints that featured hardly any overlap. (The only community where both banks have a branch is West Springfield, and those facilities are separated by several miles, not several blocks or even yards, as is often the case in a region almost always characterized by the term ‘overbanked.’)

These historical and geographical considerations will translate into fewer redundancies and therefore fewer reductions in workforce when the banks come together later this year, said Hagan, as well as less encroachment in this market by the larger regional banks that had shown interest in acquiring CSB.

Meanwhile, the two institutions have similar philosophies, nearly identical operating systems, and even a common marketing approach — one with the accent on a highly personalized brand of service, said Kevin O’Connor, senior vice president of Retail Banking, Retail Lending, and Marketing for Westfield Bank.

All of this should lead to a smooth transition and greater customer retention when the dust eventually settles, said Hagan, as well as a financial institution that will play a much more significant role in the local economy than the banks could individually.

For this issue and its focus on Banking & Financial Services, BusinessWest looks at this latest merger to reshape the local banking community and what the emerging $2.1 billion institution will bring to the proverbial table.

Points of Interest

As he returned to the subject of when and how this merger started to come together, Hagan said it was born from the knowledge — possessed by everyone conducting banking in this market — that size really does matter.

Elaborating, he said that size, or ‘scale,’ the other term used to convey the same points, amounts to far more than bragging rights or a significantly larger limit on commercial loans (although that certainly is an important factor, as will be discussed in a bit).

WestfieldBankLogoChicopeeSavingsLogoInstead, size is easily the most effective means with which to effectively cope with razor-thin margins and significantly deeper layers of regulation that resulted from the financial crisis — caused in good part by a lack of regulation of financial institutions — of nearly a decade ago.

“Size and scale creates efficiencies in terms of your operating costs,” he explained. “And having that 21-branch network creates efficiencies with products, services, and the delivery network.”

Elaborating, Hagan noted that, while there are few redundancies to result from this merger when it comes to physical locations, there will certainly be some redundancies — which can be reduced or eliminated — that involve operations and the staffing of same.

Meanwhile, the merger will enable the larger institution to spread the costs resulting from greater regulation over a wider footprint, he went on, adding that, in simple terms, the costs for the new, larger Westfield Bank will be significantly less than what the two current institutions are paying together at present.

This phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining much of the recent movement within the market, and why a number of brands have disappeared from the landscape.

Along with these mergers have come some growing pains during the process of transforming two banks into one, Hagan acknowledged, adding quickly that he expects this merger to go rather smoothly because the banks operate on different platforms of the same system and there will be few of what would be called ‘institutional changes.’

Kevin O’Connor

Kevin O’Connor says Westfield Bank and Chicopee Savings Bank have similar cultures and operating systems, which should make for a smooth transition.

“What we found is that the culture of Chicopee Savings Bank is very similar to the culture of Westfield Bank,” he explained. “So we expect that the integration of the systems, the people, and the philosophies will go very smoothly.”

But efficiencies constitute only one of the benefits of size, he went on, adding that the merger with CSB takes the Westfield Bank name to places it has never been (physically, anyway), starting with Chicopee, the second-largest city in Western Mass. and one with a huge business community.

Chicopee also has branches in Ludlow, South Hadley, and Ware, locations that will greatly increase Westfield Bank’s presence on the east side of the Connecticut River, which is limited (if that’s the right term) at present to locations in Springfield, East Longmeadow, and Enfield, Conn.

And while the bank has historically done business with residents and businesses in virtually all communities in Western Mass. and Northern Conn., including those on the east side of the river, having one’s name on buildings in more of those cities and towns is a tremendous benefit, Hagan explained.

“A greater percentage of the businesses we lend to — the machine shops, the universities, healthcare institutions — are on that [east] side of the river,” he explained. “And we think we can increase our loan portfolio, our deposits, and more based on the success we’ve already had with a limited presence in those communities.”

Taking Note

In practical terms, the merger will significantly increase the emerging bank’s lending capacity, said O’Connor, noting that the current limit at WB is $22 million, and for CSB it’s $16 million. The larger Westfield Bank will have a $35 million limit. This will enable it to write more loans and generate more deals without the need to collaborate with other institutions, he explained.

“There would less need to do participations with other banks,” he said of the higher limit. “And it broadens the view of what Westfield Bank can do for people in sectors like manufacturing, healthcare, and others that we do well in, even though we can do a lot now.”

Beyond this greater lending capacity, the merger will enable Westfield Bank to greatly accelerate that process of territorial expansion that has been ongoing for several years now, said Hagan.

Significant milestones include a move into downtown Springfield (Tower Square) in 2000, a move that has paid significant dividends, said Hagan, noting more than $65 million in deposits at that location, as well as the East Longmeadow branch, opened in 1997.

These steps were followed by penetration into the Northern Conn. market with branches in Granby, just a few miles from a location in Southwick, in 2013, and the one in Enfield, opened a year later.

Both moves were common-sense expansions of what is truly a network, he said, adding that both Connecticut branches, and especially the one in Enfield, have done extremely well despite the fact that they have the name of a small Western Mass. city over the door.

When this merger is completed, that name should resonate even more, said Hagan, who anticipates further territorial expansion in the years to come.

When asked where it might take place, he was understandably vague, but did offer some insight, hinting that the institution will likely look south to Connecticut, east toward Quabbin and perhaps Worcester County, and within the city of Springfield for potential opportunities. And the merger greatly increases the list of possibilities.

“With the combined capital we’d have, we’d be able to look at additional acquisitions in different marketplaces where we may have an interest in expanding,” he explained. “We like the Northern Connecticut marketplace, we would look at Central Mass., and I’d like to expand in Springfield; there are many possibilities.

“But first and foremost,” he went on, “we want to make sure this merger is successful.”

Bottom Line

As he talked about Chicopee, the pending loss of the community’s name from the institution that has had a huge presence in its downtown since 1854, and how well the new name would play in that proud community, Hagan acknowledged that all this will constitute a significant change that might take a while for some to digest and accept.

Then again, he told BusinessWest, the reaction he’s seen thus far in that city has been overwhelmingly — but not, in his mind, at least, surprisingly — positive.

“That’s because this is the first in-market merger in more than 25 years, and because we’re a local institution, and because of our reputation of being community leaders and community supporters,” he said by way of explaining his theory.  “It’s gone  very well.”

And he expects things to continue to go well, for all those reasons listed above, but mostly because of what they all verify — that this is the option that makes the most sense for both institutions.

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

 

40 Under 40 Cover Story The Class of 2016

Announcing the 10th Annual Top Young Business and Community Leaders in Western Massachusetts

You might call this a breakthrough year when it comes to the 40 Under Forty program.

Indeed, for the first time, there are more women than men gracing the cover of the magazine that introduces them. What that means is … well, we’ll let you decide what it means, ultimately. What it means to the region, we believe, is that an ongoing trend toward greater diversification — in the workplace and in the communities that comprise the four western counties — is accelerating.

Contributions range from serving as co-chair of the annual campaign for the Hampshire County United Way to finding new and different ways to give back to Link to Libraries, the group that puts books in the hands of area schoolchildren, to using one’s talents in public relations to bring more exposure to the work of the Salvation Army.

The class of 2016, its diversity, and its individual and collective accomplishments will be celebrated at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala on June 16 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House. Tables for this event have been sold out, but a small number of individual seats and standing-room-only tickets are still available, although they will go quickly. Download the flipbook of this year’s 40 Under Forty HERE. Tickets can be ordered by calling (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, for more information go HERE.

The gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the second 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 (see the profiles of the five judge’s HERE).

40 Under Forty Class of 2016

 

Presenting Sponsors:

NorthwesternMutual900pxParagus200x130px

Sponsors:

EMAdental200x130pxHNElogo200x130Isenberg200x130pxMoriartyPrimack200x130pxUnitedBank200x130pxYPS200x130px


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Cover Story Golf Preview Sections

Spring in Their Step

Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy, head professional at Springfield’s municipal courses, Franconia and Veterans.

The region’s beleaguered golf industry, which has been beset with challenges ranging from the recession to a dwindling number of players, to even stiffer competition in the form of additional courses, caught a break from Mother Nature this spring — several weeks of additional revenue. While working to capitalize on that opportunity, courses, and the industry in general, confront the larger task of creating the next generation of golfers.

That sound you might have heard about a month or so ago — if you were listening carefully enough — was cash registers opening and closing at a few of the region’s public golf courses, especially the smaller, family-owned operations.

A few weeks later, though, it was much easier to pick up that noise, as most area municipal courses also opened their doors and greens to players. And by this past weekend, just about every course in the region was seeing play.

In this business, that’s called an early spring, or — in the case of those that opened several weeks ago or stayed open almost throughout the winter — it was a very early spring. And if any sector of the economy needed a break from Mother Nature, it was the golf industry.


Go HERE for a PDF chart of area Golf Courses


Indeed, this industry has been hit hard by a combination of factors ranging from declining play (and there are several reasons for that) to winters like the one in 2014-15 that have kept courses shuttered, for the most part, until at least mid-April.

How much does the extra month or so help? Kevin Kennedy, the long-time pro at Springfield’s two municipal courses, Franconia and Veterans, said it doesn’t guarantee a great or even good year — 2011 saw an early start, and everyone knows what happened that summer and fall — but it does create a positive vibe and some momentum.

“An early start is quite valuable, and much better than a late fall,” he told BusinessWest, on March 17, the official opening of the season at Franconia, adding that this sentiment applies to not only play, but equipment and apparel sales as well. “People are really excited to be out and playing.”

He barely finished that thought when, as if on cue, maybe his 10th customer of the season came through the door, joining playing partners already warming up on the first tee. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day … I’m playing golf and having a couple of beers,” he told those in the clubhouse as Kennedy counted out his change. “How good is that?”

No one had to answer him, because the answer was obvious. And there were plenty of people expressing similar thoughts.

“It’s another three weeks of play, another three weeks of generating revenue,” said Chris Tallman, head golf professional at Cold Spring Country Club in Belchertown as he talked about the club’s slated March 25 opening. “And after the mild winter, people are psyched to get out and play.”

But while the golf industry is getting a series of breaks from the weather — a first-day-of-spring snowstorm conveniently missed the region, and a misty Good Friday was not a total washout — there is still no shortage of challenges confronting this industry, especially in Western Mass.

For starters, the local sector is usually described with the words ‘saturated’ or ‘oversaturated’ — the latter more than the former — and with good reason. There are four courses the public can play in Agawam, for example, three more in Westfield, and three more in Southwick, where’s there’s also an executive par-3 course.

Chris Tallman

Chris Tallman says one big challenge facing all course owners and managers today is creating a large pool of golfers for the future.

“There are a lot of courses in this area, and they’re all working hard to attract players,” said E.J. Altobello, head pro at Tekoa Country Club, a semi-private course. “It’s a very competitive situation.”

Meanwhile, the pool of golfers these courses is trying to attract certainly isn’t getting any bigger. In fact, the consensus is that it’s getting smaller, as Baby Boomers retire and move to warmer climes, and young adults continue to struggle with the sport’s cost and time commitment — more the latter than the former.

The challenge, said Altobello, and one that all courses share together, is to create a bigger pool, especially through a hard focus on young people.

And while Kennedy has some doubts about this young generation — “kids today don’t want to hit a shot, go walk after it, wait five minutes, and then hit another shot; they need instant gratification,” he said — Altobello is more optimistic.

“We’ve been making a big push over the past several years with more junior programs, and they’ve generated some real results,” he said. “That’s going to be our base for the future. And as you get more kids to play, you often get their parents out as well, and their usage is going to go up.”

Thus far, Mother Nature has given the industry a reason to be optimistic. For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at how area courses look to seize whatever momentum they’ve been given and make 2016 a year with lots of round numbers.

Rough Drafts

As he waited for customers on St. Patrick’s Day, Kennedy began the task of filling the racks and shelves in his pro shop, which have been barren since the end of November.

A skilled retailer and keen observer of golfers’ spending habits, he said an early spring doesn’t just help fill the daily sheet of tee times.

“People will buy in the fall, but not as much as in the spring, because they don’t want to buy something and then have to put it in the cellar or garage for four or five months,” he explained. “That’s another way that an early spring helps; if people buy something now, they get a full season’s use out of it.”

Such observations provide insight into how most golfers think and spend. They are creatures of habit, like bargains, and definitely look to get their money’s worth.

Such character traits help delineate the many challenges facing those in the golf industry today. Summing it all up, those we spoke with came back again and again to that word ‘experience’ and the never-ending task of providing one that is meaningful and value-laden.

“You have to take care of people from the minute they arrive to the moment they pull out of the parking lot,” said Tallman, adding that, at Cold Spring, he really means the minute they arrive.

Indeed, visitors to the semi-public course are greeted upon arrival, their clubs are put in a cart, and they’re driven to the pro shop, a perk usually reserved for private courses and expensive resort layouts, although the practice is becoming more common at public facilities, out of sheer necessity.

Such red-carpet service has helped Cold Spring, which opened in 2012, attract steady levels of play and overcome one additional challenge. Actually, two — location and perception of same. Belchertown is not exactly on the beaten path, said Tallman, but the perception is that it’s much further off that path than it actually is.

“I was at the golf expo a few weeks ago, and a number of people came up to me and said, ‘I like your course a lot; if I were closer by, I’d definitely join,’” he said, adding that roughly 160 people have joined, and there is also a steady volume of public play. That comes in form of many first-timers — the course is still new, as courses go — but especially repeat play.

And generating large amounts of that is every club’s goal, said Altobello, adding that customer service, which hasn’t always been a hallmark of this industry, especially when times were much better, courses were full, and tee times were hard to get, is now of paramount importance.

And it involves every aspect of the experience, he added, from the consistency of the greens to the quality of the food; from the availability of tee times to the temperature of the beer being served.

“You need to show people a good time,” he said, speaking for pros and course owners across the region. “If you do, they’re far more likely to come back to your course. If you don’t … there are plenty of other places for them to go.”

Overall, he said the goal for the industry is to generate more play that the region’s bevy of courses can share. And a good, early spring can certainly help.

“What I’m hoping is that the medium-use golfers, those who don’t play a lot, can use this opportunity to play more,” he said. “If they get off to an early start, get a few rounds in during March, that might spur them to play more during the season. If the industry can get that eight- or nine-time-per-year player up to 15 or 16, that really makes a difference.”

But from the bigger-picture perspective, the challenge of creating more rounds for courses to share involves much more than weather.

Tight Lies

That’s why area courses, while keeping one eye on the present and the current legions of players, have the other on the future and the task of generating solid volumes of business for years, even decades, to come.

And here’s where things get a little dicey. In the ’60s, Arnold Palmer and the advent of televised golf combined to give the game a huge boost, one that involved men, women, and children, and as a result, thousands of new courses were built, including dozens in this area. In the late ’90s, Tiger Woods did very much the same thing, inspiring, among other things, the small army of young players from around the world now dominating the tours in the U.S. and Europe — players like Jordan Speith, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, and Rickie Fowler.

Will those dynamic young players spawn another golf boom and inspire large numbers of young people to take up the game? That’s the $64,000 question.

As he answered it, Kennedy said he’d like to be optimistic, but settled for what he considers realism. He noted that Fowler inspires some clothing and shoe sales — he likes bold colors, and is especially partial to orange, the one worn by his alma matter, Oklahoma State. But, overall, Kennedy noted, today’s young people are not turning to golf like the generations before them.

“They’re into other sports and other activities,” he told BusinessWest. “They don’t want to spend four or five hours playing golf.”

Tallman and Altobello, though, were more upbeat. They acknowledged that golf is competing with many things for the time and attention of young people, but believe it is winning some of those contests. And they and most others in his profession are helping by promoting the game, running youth camps, offering attractive rates for play, and other incentives.

“Our job is to create new golfers,” said Tallman. “We run a lot of junior programs, and they’re packed. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen, but we have to keep working hard at encouraging the young people; this is our future, after all.”

Altobello agreed, and voiced more concern about those in their 20s and 30s, a constituency that wasn’t exactly courted heavily when they were young because the game was booming, thanks largely to Woods, and active recruitment of new players wasn’t a real priority.

“They were somewhat ignored when they were young because the industry was very healthy, and there just wasn’t a push to get more players into the game; the golf business was resting on its laurels,” he said, adding that, as a result, many Millennials didn’t get into golf, and now find it difficult to do so as they attempt to balance already-busy schedules dominated by family and career.

This current generation of young people is getting much more attention, with the expectation that this will pay dividends decades down the road, he went on, citing, as one example, a pilot program set up by the PGA of America called the PGA Junior Golf League, what he called a Little League for this sport.

“We’ve taken that to a good level in our area,” he said, adding that the initiative was launched in 2012. “In our Greater Westfield league, we’re probably going to have 75 kids this year. The goal is to get them turned on to the game and get them comfortable with it.”

As for those retiring Baby Boomers, the ones who stay in this market, well, many of them do have the time and resources for the game, said Altobello, and they have the potential to make an impact on the local market.

“That’s another strong segment — there are a lot of people retiring, and they have the time and money to play,” he said. “But golf is a difficult game to take up late in life, and those who do generally struggle with it. We’ll see what happens with that group.”

Finishing Hole

Looking ahead, the pros we spoke with said the early start is certainly a blessing and a chance to create some momentum when the industry certainly needs some.

In the larger scheme of things, though, the golf business will need much more than a few additional weeks of revenue to get its game in significantly better shape.

The focus has to be on customer service and, to the greatest extent possible, generating a solid pipeline of customers for the years to come.

Like the game itself, that assignment comes with no shortage of challenge, frustration, or hope.

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

Cover Story Entrepreneurship Sections

Land of Opportunity

Gokul Budathoki and Mena Tiwari

After years in a Nepalese refugee camp, Gokul Budathoki and Mena Tiwari found a new life — and business — in Springfield.

If all Ascentria Care Alliance did for refugees was help them get established in the U.S. and find jobs, it would be important work. But, thanks to an initiative launched in 2010 called the Microenterprise Development Program, Ascentria is actually putting many of its clients on the road to business ownership, through education, assistance with permitting and other hurdles, and small loans. The result, so far, is a patchwork of intriguing startups across the Pioneer Valley owned by people who truly appreciate their new opportunity, and have their sights set on continued growth.

Mena Tiwari’s story begins much like that of many refugees.

She was born in Bhutan, but, at age 2, her family fled that country’s inter-ethnic conflict, and she wound up in a refugee camp in Nepal, where she spent the next two decades.

While growing up there, owning a business — in the United States, no less — was the furthest thing from her mind.

“Back in the refugee camp, we didn’t get the chance to do anything like that,” Tiwari said, noting that her family ran a little shop in the camp, but it resembled in no way the complexity of opening a store in the U.S.

“Basically, we had a lot of love, but we didn’t have money,” she said, recalling how people would work with their hands — carving sandalwood into sticks for incense, for example — to make a little profit, and if they were able to scrape up enough for, say, a picnic outing, they appreciated it. “I always look for happiness in the little things. They made me happy because I worked for it.”

Tiwari met Gokul Budathoki in the camp, and after they immigrated to the U.S. — she in 2009, staying with family in Buffalo, N.Y., and he to New Hampshire in 2011 — they reconnected, and eventually married in late 2011; a year later, to the day, their son was born.

Tiwari worked in a salon as a hairdresser before moving to New Hampshire after the wedding, and Budathoki had been working at a Walmart, gaining a knowledge of retail he would put to use when the couple started talking about opening a business.

“Nobody was here to support us; her parents were in Buffalo, and my parents were back in country, so we had to support ourselves,” said Budathoki, who eventually enrolled at a community college and landed a new job with a mental-health nonprofit. “We said, ‘why don’t we open our own thing?’ So, after the baby was born, we put him in the carseat and drove around the countryside, looking.”

What they found was a new life in the Pioneer Valley — as proud owners of Interstate Mart near the ‘X’ in Springfield — with the help of the Microenterprise Development Program at Ascentria Care Alliance.

“We’re a resettlement agency,” Emil Farjo said of ACA, which has offices in Westfield and Worcester and was previously known as Lutheran Social Services. “We have refugees come from overseas, and we help them get an apartment, furniture, their first IDs, benefits from welfare and MassHealth, Social Security numbers, and ESL classes.”

Beyond those basic services, however, is the microenterprise program, which was created in partnership with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in 2010, with the goal of helping refugees launch businesses and reach economic self-sufficiency.

Nazar al Khaled

Nazar al Khaled was a famous singer in Iraq; now he hawks his wife’s authentic cuisine in West Springfield.

Farjo was hired to lead the program in 2012, leveraging his education, background in computer science, and experience as a business owner in Iraq, where he’d owned three very different enterprises, in engineering and HVAC, food distribution, and wholesale.

After fleeing Iraq in 2004 for the safety of his family and spending six years in Syria, he immigrated to the U.S. and connected with what was then Lutheran Social Services, working with other refugees on computer classes, vocational training, and other skills before being tapped to lead the business-startup program.

“I was very successful in my business, but when we fled our country, we left everything behind,” he told BusinessWest. “My experiences help me understand how these people think. I can be a bridge from their former country to the American system. This is my passion. I find everyone’s success is my success. I love what I’m doing, and I want to help them make their dreams come true.”

First Steps

The microenterprise program provides business planning, financing, and training to refugees in the Bay State. Applicants receive guidance in budgeting, marketing, finance, and obtaining permits and licenses. Typically, refugees lack sufficient credit history or loan collateral to receive traditional business loans, so the program provides small startup loans, typically in the range of $500 to $15,000.

To date, the program has helped spawn 32 businesses in Greater Springfield and 12 more in Worcester, ranging from child care to cleaning services; web-based services to landscaping and farming; delivery services to auto repair. Most owners are Iraqi or Bhutanese, with a smattering of refugees from Liberia, Lithuania, and Burundi.

“They’re new to the system, so we provide classes in financial literacy and money management, how to write a business plan, how to budget,” Farjo said. “We’re also a microlender; we don’t ask for credit, we just want them to take their first steps in business loans, and prepare them for the next step, which is traditional loans from traditional lenders.”

Mike Garjian, a serial entrepreneur who has been working with Farjo in the program, added that these classes tend to be full. “There’s a thirst for knowledge; they’re fully engaged. And that translates to business success.”

Farjo also works one on one with participants on hurdles such as site selection, licensing, and permitting. “They would be lost without us. We’re dealing with surrounding cities, and each city is different. It’s a hassle for them.”

For Tiwari and Budathoki, the hassles since opening almost 10 months ago have been worth it. Their store sells both American and ethnic food products, as well as an impressive array of Bhutanese clothing. Their customer base has been steadily growing, and they’re looking to establish a space for community gatherings in additional space at the back of the store.

“It began with a little stress,” Tiwari said, “but we can say we are happy.”

Nazar al Khaled is also pleased with his new business. He was a famous Iraqi singer — “very famous, not normal famous,” he noted — whose life, like that of so many countrymen, was turned upside down after the U.S. invasion in 2003. He caught a bit of a break when the New York Times and other sources reported him dead in an airstrike in 2004, as some Muslim groups that rose up after Saddam’s fall were targeting singers and other artists, and the report took some of the pressure off.

In 2009, he arrived in the U.S. with his family and stayed for a couple of years in New York before moving to Western Mass. in 2011 for a quieter lifestyle.

program director at Ascentria

From left, Mohammed Najeeb, program director at Ascentria, with Emil Farjo and Mike Garjian.

Recently — recognizing the culinary skills of his wife, Asmaa Mohammed, and wishing to go into business for himself — al Khaled connected with Farjo and opened Ahalna Foods on Main Street in West Springfield, a multi-ethnic neighborhood where eight of Ascentria’s refugee clients have launched enterprises. To hear him tell it, he definitely needed Farjo’s help.

“In America, there are many ways to start work, but no one tells you the right way,” he said of his earlier dealings with banks and municipal officials. “There are many rules, and nobody answers you, nobody smiles at you, nobody does anything for you. I say, ‘I want to open this business.’ They say, ‘OK, come back next month.’”

Ascentria, on the other hand, “brings us together and teaches us how to work with the banks, how to start a business,” he went on. “Any license or anything else we need, they help us with that.”

Iraqi cuisine, al Khaled said, is based on tradition that extends back 8,000 years, adding that his wife’s creations — which lean heavily on beef, lamb, and chicken — are meant to be savored by all the senses and demand the diner’s entire focus, as opposed to American “technology food” (his term for heavily processed fare) swallowed quickly in front of the TV.

Currently, Ahalna prepares meals for takeout, but also caters events, and aims to eventually move into wholesale distribution. So far, his clientele is mainly people who have already experienced and enjoy Iraqi fare, but he hopes to attract Americans who seek an authentic culinary experience.

“Americans don’t want to change,” he said, “but some Iraqi families have friends and neighbors, and when they bring them our food, they give it a taste and find it’s something different, and after that, they come here to buy it.”

Untapped Potential

Garjian believes Ascentria’s success helping refugees launch businesses should receive more attention than it does.

“This is a sector that’s been really invisible, but it’s a very powerful and interesting component to the region’s economic vitality,” he said. “They are competent, highly energized people.”

He recalled hiring a Vietnamese refugee from Lutheran Services 20 years ago for one of his businesses. She had been a mathematician in her homeland, but had never worked with computers. After he introduced her to one and showed her how to operate Excel, she was quickly running complex equations. What Ascentria’s microenterprise program does, he noted, is help people with these types of skills — or at least the potential to quickly attain them — achieve business success in a very different environment from where they began.

Take the three Iraqi refugees who operate Chicopee Auto Service & Sales Center on Front Street, for example. “We did not want to work for anybody,” said Ahmed Mustafa, who partnered with his brother, Abraheem Mustafa, and a friend, Omar Abdul Razzak, to establish the business early in 2015. They arrived in the U.S. by way of Syria after fleeing their homeland a few years after the invasion.

Chicopee Auto Service & Sales Center

From left, Abraheem Mustafa, Ahmed Mustafa, and Omar Abdul Razzak are partners at Chicopee Auto Service & Sales Center.

“It was the war,” Ahmed Mustafa said when asked why they left. “It’s always the war.”

But he credited Ascentria and Farjo for helping the partners navigate the permitting process to launch the business, on the site of a former, then-closed used-car dealership. They started with 13 cars for sale and now have 25 on the lot, and typically service about 15 cars at any given time. They recently installed a second repair bay to conduct alignments, and do state safety inspections as well.

Mustafa said there are challenges to starting a business, but he welcomes some of them, like the gradually growing presence of other auto-related businesses in the Chicopee Falls neighborhood. “Having more than one dealer is better for the business that has better prices and better quality,” he said, already speaking the language of a businessman who embraces competition.

Growing the business will bring other benefits as well, he added, not the least of which is being able to hire other immigrants, especially those who struggle with the English language and, therefore, find it challenging to land a job.

Farjo has high hopes for all the businesses his agency helps launch, but he always cautions against overly optimistic expectations.

“They need to be patient. They might not be successful right when they open. Taking a risk is not easy. Starting a business is not easy, even for Americans,” he said. “But when they find someone who will speak with them as a person, someone who cares, that makes a difference. I just want to go the extra mile to see these people be successful, and at the end of the day, they thank me for helping them out.”

Credit Where It’s Due

Budathoki and Tiwari say they have qualities that complement each other: his fortitude and her business mind, for starters. But both say Ascentria was a key element in their success.

“I cannot thank them enough,” Tiwari said. “We wanted to find a way to find success and feed our family, but we went to City Hall and and so many places before we met with Emil. Back in my country, I didn’t know the meaning of a business plan.”

But Farjo says his agency is merely helping them open doors. “They have our support, but it’s their skills and ambition and effort that makes them succeed.”

In a country that accepts some 70,000 refugees a year, Garjian said the microenterprise program serves a social purpose even beyond raising the standard of living for its handful of participants and boosting economic development region-wide. At a time when so many Americans look suspiciously at immigrants and refugees, these small-business owners (who are, like anyone who receives Ascentria’s services, thoroughly vetted and screened) might well be changing a few perceptions.

“Many of them are coming from areas of tyranny and loss of hope,” Garjian told BusinessWest. “To them, each breath is a gift. I’ve seen people walk off the elevators here and take their first breath of freedom. That’s so profound to me.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

The Big Picture

Kay Simpson

Kay Simpson

Kay Simpson started working at the Springfield Museums as an intern from Smith College more than 30 years ago, and has subsequently spent her career at the Quadrangle. She’s had many titles on her business card in that time, most recently ‘president,’ after the Museums board dropped the adjective ‘interim’ earlier this month. Simpson arrives at that position at a critical time in the history of the museum complex, one where it will work to use the global popularity of Dr. Seuss to gain recognition and get to the proverbial next level.

Kay Simpson says she was in her office the last Saturday in February, working energetically to clear some paperwork off her desk, when she was told she had a call.

On the other end was a member of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff. He informed Simpson, president of Springfield Museums, that the Democratic frontrunner wanted to stage a rally in Springfield on the eve of the March 1 primary, and that team Hillary would like to place the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History in the mix as a possible site.

Upon hearing from Simpson that such an event was doable, the caller informed her that there was still some scouting work to be done, and that someone would get back to her.

Someone did, thus setting in motion a wild 48 hours that would culminate in more than 600 people jamming their way into the museum’s SIS Center to hear from the candidate and then vie to be one of the lucky ones to press some flesh.

For Simpson and the staff at the Museums, the visit provided a rare and “fascinating” — a word she used early and often to describe the process — look at campaign machinations and how such a detail-laden event comes together quickly and seamlessly.

More importantly, though, it became an effective — although how effective can be debated — and completely unexpected component of a broad and ongoing effort to raise the profile of the four-museum (and soon to be five) complex and take it to the proverbial next level.

Indeed, Matt Longhi, director of public relations & marketing for the Museums, who tracks such things, said the list of news outlets that mentioned the institution by name in their reporting of Clinton’s visit was lengthy. It includes the New York Times, the Globe & Mail of Toronto, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe (although the front-page story in that publication mentioned only a “Springfield history museum”), the Boston Herald, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the International Business Times, in addition to all the local outlets.

What do all those mentions mean? Simpson said it’s difficult to measure it all and quantify how much it helps provide visibility, but she stated the obvious by noting, “it certainly doesn’t hurt.”

And, as mentioned, the Clinton visit is only one out-of-the-blue element of the profile-raising effort, the largest component of which involves a name with much more star power in Springfield than Clinton — Ted Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. The museum that will bear his name and house many of his works — not to mention some of his famous bowties — is now under construction and expected to open in roughly 15 months. (That timetable for opening, one that has been pushed back from the original plan, will coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden).

The Welcome Center at the Quadrangle

The Welcome Center at the Quadrangle is slated for renovation and expansion in anticipation of soaring visitorship to be spawned by the new Dr. Seuss Museum.

The Seuss museum is expected to increase visitorship by a full 25%, to more than a half-million annually, Simpson noted, and attract fans of the children’s author from across the country and around the world.

The Seuss museum represents a key opportunity to introduce, or reintroduce, the Quadrangle to generations of people, she added, and thus she and her staff are ultimately charged with making the very most of that opportunity, a challenge she doesn’t take lightly.

“Marketing is just a constant effort for us,” she noted. “But of all the things you can pull out of your toolbox, Dr. Seuss is something you have to take advantage of, something you need to exploit. This is a really exciting opportunity for us.”

The Seuss museum is obviously the top line on the to-do list for Simpson, who has spent her entire career at the Quadrangle, was named interim president last summer, and was recently told by her board to drop the adjective from her business card, which she has.

She told BusinessWest that her ascendency to president — the latest in a series of career opportunities that have kept her at the Springfield landmark for more than 30 years — coincides with a pivotal moment in the institution’s history.

For this issue, she talked about how that moment is likely to unfold, and what it means for the Museums — and the city of Springfield.

Art and Soul

While it was large in scope and logistically challenging in some ways, Clinton’s visit to the Quadrangle was hardly disruptive, said Simpson.

The rally came on a Monday — the Museums are closed to the public that day — and that meant there were no interruptions to schedules or inconveniences for visitors. And although the Museums’ security staff was quite involved with that aspect of the production, Clinton’s staff brought all its own equipment and handled all aspects of the set-up for the event.

“Everything just came together — it was incredible; once they understood our facility, they really took care of things,” said Simpson, adding that this was fortuitous, because she has enough on her plate already.

A rendering of the new Dr. Seuss museum

A rendering of the new Dr. Seuss museum, slated to open in the summer of 2017.

At the top of that list would be a $7 million capital campaign, now in the so-called ‘quiet phase,’ that will fund not only the Seuss museum (a roughly $3.5 million endeavor) but also improvements to the other museums, especially the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the welcome center, which must be expanded to accommodate the projected rise in visitorship.

As for the Seuss museum, it has a number of moving parts, everything from the finalizing of exhibits to the construction of an elevator in the historic, but not handicap-accessible, William Pynchon Memorial Building, to finding a home for those bowties, which were purchased by Dr. Seuss Enterprises and donated to the Museums.

Overseeing all this, on top of a host of other responsibilities, represents a quantum leap from Simpson’s first job description at the Museums, the very informal one handed to her as an unpaid intern from Smith College, where she was majoring in Art History.

“I was a volunteer, and it was a great experience — I loved what I was doing,” she said. “And I never left; I kept getting opportunities that kept me here.”

Elaborating, she said there were times over the years when she was presented with opportunities at other, sometimes larger and more prestigious institutions, but circumstances kept her feet planted in the complex off Edwards Street.

“Every time I had entered into a discussion or was asked if I would be interested in applying for a position at another museum, something happened here,” she went on. “So it was really serendipity, and I never thought I’d stay as long as I have. But I really love these museums.”

While her business address has never changed, the title on the business card has, many times, and those positions have enabled her to be a part of almost every aspect of museum management, from education initiatives, which is where she started, to outreach programming; from grant writing to fund-raising. The list of titles she has held over the years speaks to the depth of her experience. It includes education assistant, assistant curator of education, curator of education, public programs administrator, director of museum education, director of education and institutional advancement, and vice president.

It was in that last position, which she assumed in 2010, that she played a key role in setting institutional priorities and strategic planning, and also coordinating the organization’s successful application for accreditation by the American Alliance for Museums in 2013, a designation bestowed on only 6% of the nation’s museums.

Following the departure of Holly Smith-Bove last June, Simpson was named interim president, and soon thereafter was asked by the board to prepare a 90-day plan, with the goal of initiating a search in the fall.

However, when the calendar turned to September, board members instead asked for another 90-day plan, she went on, and in December, they called off plans for a search altogether and unofficially dropped ‘interim’ from her title. It was formally removed last week.

Simpson said she has seen a great deal of change at the Quadrangle over the past three and half decades, including the opening of the Wood museum and the sculpture garden, the launching of the Seuss museum, the centralization of the Quadrangle museums, and a great deal of progress in that historic area of Springfield. And she’s excited about the prospects of helping to write the next chapter.

Display of Optimism

As she used that term ‘next level’ and described efforts to reach it, Simpson said this was not necessarily something quantitative, such as a list of top museums nationally, or even qualitative.

Rather, it represents simply marked, and continuous, progress in efforts to make the Quadrangle a true destination and a big part of efforts to revitalize the City of Homes.

“The obvious goal is more national recognition,” she said in defining ‘next level.’ “The more that we are known on a national level, the more we’ll be appreciated — not only here, in our own backyard, but across the region and the country.

“Our collections are extraordinary, and we’re definitely first-class in terms of our exhibitions and our facilities,” she went on. “For us, the challenge is to become better-known in terms of marketing, in terms of people knowing that we’re here.”

And the Seuss museum, which will be the only one of its kind in the world, is at the very heart of those efforts.

Simpson said many of those who have come to the sculpture garden over the years have done so with expectations of visiting a Seuss museum, and some voice both surprise and disappointment when they find out there isn’t one.

This anecdotal evidence, coupled with the truly global reach and popularity of the children’s author — an estimated 60 million of his books have been sold worldwide — lead to those projections of a 25% increase in visitorship, said Simpson, who believes those numbers are realistic.

And they’re impactful as well, she said, adding that the additional visitors attracted by the Seuss museum will hopefully find not only some or all of the other museums at the site, but other attractions in Greater Springfield as well.

“Many who come to the sculpture garden will express surprise and say, ‘I didn’t know you had four museums here,’” she told BusinessWest, adding that a good number will explore those facilities and the city that surrounds it.

Kay Simpson, seen here in the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History

Kay Simpson, seen here in the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, says the Museums, and Springfield, are poised to become greater destinations.

Another 100,000 or more visitors to the Museums would increase that already-significant impact, she went on, adding that the Quadrangle is thus positioned to be a significant role player in a city-wide resurgence she says is unfolding, exciting to watch, and rewarding to be part of.

“I think the Museums are already a destination, but we can’t be an island; we need to be part of the fabric of the city,” she said, adding that ongoing efforts to create a stronger, more cohesive fabric are very encouraging.

“It’s been very exciting to see the culturally related organizations and other businesses come together and establish the cultural district and get state designation for it,” she went on, in a reference to what’s known officially as the Springfield Central Cultural District, or SCCD, as it’s known to some. “And also all the work that the city of Springfield is doing, including Union Station, the innovation district, the work of the Business Improvement District, and more.

“This collective energy is what will really transform Springfield,” she said in conclusion. “And it’s exciting to think that the Springfield Museums are a big part of that, and that Springfield is on the verge of being able to revitalize and re-energize the city as a destination.”

Brush with Fame

As she walked with BusinessWest and posed for a few photographs in the history museum, Simpson marveled at how quickly and completely all traces of Clinton’s visit had vanished.

The only remaining evidence was a Channel 40 news crew getting some footage for the upcoming 5 o’clock news near the front entrance — yet another bit of exposure for the Springfield Museums.

Future steps to raise the profile of the institution will be more elaborate, detailed, and, hopefully, far-reaching, she said, adding that her focus is on the big picture, in every sense of that phrase.

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

Cover Story

Progressive Platforms?

WMass asks for expanded rail service

WMass asks for expanded rail service

Since Amtrak’s Vermonter returned to the so-called Connecticut River Line just over a year ago, bringing back passenger rail service to Northampton, Holyoke, and Greenfield after a nearly 30-year hiatus, officials in those cities say the train has done what they hoped it would — enable people to make connections. But the single train per day has certainly limited the number of those connections, they note, which is why they’re calling for additional north-south service while also pressing the state to make long-dreamed-of plans for an east-west line that would connect Springfield with Worcester and Boston a reality.

Dave Almacy was in a really good mood.

And why not? Ohio Gov. John Kasich, for whom he was doing volunteer work leading up to, and then the day of, the New Hampshire primary, finished second in that closely watched contest, surprising pundits and energizing his candidacy while doing so.

“A definitive second,” offered Almacy, putting heavy stress on that adjective as he typed correspondences on his laptop while riding Amtrak’s Vermonter back to his home in Alexandria, Va. the day after the Granite State voted.

Almacy, a principal with Alexandria-based Engage, a Republican digital-strategy company, has mixed politics with technology for some time now — he was White House Internet director for George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007— and regularly takes the train north out of Washington, D.C.

Dave Almacy passed through Western Mass. on the Vermonter

Dave Almacy passed through Western Mass. on the Vermonter. Area officials want to attract riders who will get on and off in this region.

“I like the comfort. It’s a nice ride; I can be online and do my work, and you don’t have to worry about falling asleep at the wheel,” he joked, adding that he usually doesn’t get past Philadelphia or New York, cities where he has many clients. But his service to Kasich — “we were part of the ground game, going door to door, making phone calls, town halls, you name it” — took him to the northern stretches of the Vermonter and, for these particular remarks, the stretch between Springfield and Greenfield.

Indeed, the train was just south of Northampton, gliding on rails seemingly a few yards from the Connecticut River’s west bank, when he became one of several riders who spoke with BusinessWest about this Amtrak service and why they were using it.

That Northampton train platform became a line on the Vermonter schedule just over a year ago, joining Greenfield and (several months later) Holyoke as new stops for this service amid considerable fanfare from those communities’ elected officials and area economic-development leaders.

Actually, these are new/old stops for the Vermonter, which used to run along what’s known as the Connecticut River Line, or Conn River Line, until 1989, when the deteriorated condition of the track forced the service to move east and run from Springfield to Palmer to Amherst and then Vermont, a far more rural trek that bypassed several of the region’s most populous cities.

With seemingly one voice, area officials say the restored, now-quicker route — coupled with the new stops — is prompting more people like Almacy to grab a seat on the Vermonter, and adding new potency to comments about the seemingly vast potential of the train to bring people, vibrancy, and economic-development opportunities to those four cities and the region as a whole.

But those comments almost always come with, well, a ‘but.’ It’s usually followed by a reminder, twinged with lament, that the Vermonter — which connects Vermont with Washington, D.C. — runs but once a day; the southbound train passes through Springfield at 2:35 p.m., while the northbound version stops there at 3:15.

This schedule certainly limits the train’s potential when it comes to everything from economic-development potential to taking cars off the roads, said Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, noting that anyone getting on the train in his city, and there are many who do just that, can’t return to it on a train for at least 24 hours — unless they get off in Springfield and take the northbound train a half-hour later.

“If you want to go to New York City and come back the same day, you can’t really do that,” he noted, adding that, while the train has in many ways energized his city, the current service is certainly limited in its impact.

Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, and perhaps the greatest champion of rail service in the region, agreed. He and the region’s mayors have taken their case to the state — more specifically, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. In a letter sent a few weeks ago, they seek help in two specific areas: first, with creation of a pilot program that would expand the north-south service to at least five trips a day, through the use of surplus, reconditioned MBTA locomotives and coaches, and second, with development of a business plan for the ongoing operation of the service beyond the initial pilot phase.

Rail proponents want to see more trains

Rail proponents want to see more trains on the schedule at Springfield’s Union Station — and all the other stops in this region.

But as they pursue that option, officials are looking at another one. Indeed, as Connecticut invests heavily in the expansion of rail service between New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield, area officials have begun talks with officials in the Nutmeg State about a partnership that might see some of those trains continue past Springfield and on to Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield.

And, while maintaining a focus on the north-south aspect of rail service, area officials continue to press the case for an east-west route that would connect Springfield, Worcester, and Boston. That’s an expensive proposition, and it may not become reality for a decade or more, but proponents say it will be well worth the wait.

In general, those officials are hoping that rail service as a whole can do what the Vermonter does as it chugs north out of the Northampton station — pick up considerable speed.

Train of Thought

As she stood on the platform just outside the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield, braving a stiff wind and passing snow squall, Carolynne O’Connell found a few people who could do what she couldn’t — speak from experience about riding the Vermonter.

And she had seemingly as many queries as BusinessWest did. ‘Which direction does the train come from?’ ‘How fast does it go?’ ‘How long are the stops?’ ‘How many people get on and off?’ — these were just some of the questions she was asked in rapid succession in the moments before the southbound train arrived, right on time, at 1:35 p.m.

Soon, O’Connell, an environmental health and safety specialist with Turners Falls-based Judd Wire, would be able to answer those questions herself. She and her husband were on their way to an annual conference of safety officials, this time in the Big Apple.

She’s been to similar gatherings in recent years, in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Boston, and other cities where the method of transportation was seemingly obvious. Not so with Manhattan, she explained, adding that several options were considered and mostly discounted for one reason or another.

Flying was deemed rather expensive, while driving seemed impractical given traffic and the cost of parking, she said, adding that some research introduced her to the Vermonter, which was now quite accessible from her home in Orange, roughly 15 miles east of Greenfield, and affordable — $126 per person for a round-trip ticket.

Thus, she became one of a growing number of individuals choosing that train and, in many ways, providing additional motivation for that letter from area mayors to Secretary Pollack.

Indeed, O’Connell is the kind of passenger area officials had in mind when they pressed for the new/old stops for the Vermonter. Or one of the kinds of passengers, to be more precise — individuals across several categories who get on or off the train in Western Mass.instead of merely traveling through it on their way to somewhere else, like Almacy and many others BusinessWest encountered on this Wednesday afternoon.

Other categories include area college students commuting between home and their chosen campus; professionals with clients in Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, or any of the other stops the Vermonter makes; individuals seeking another option for getting to a ski resort; and people visiting friends and relatives north and south of the Pioneer Valley.

And then, there are potential new categories of riders — including those who might choose to live in a particular area because it’s near a convenient rail line, and also those who might want to visit Northampton for dinner and a show and then head back home.

In each case, the categories — real and potential — are limited by that aforementioned ‘but,’ the one train a day. That’s why Brennan and the area’s mayors, while happy for that one train, are making their case for expanded service loud and clear.

The new rail platform in Greenfield

The new rail platform in Greenfield is one of several built with the anticipation that train service will be a game-changer in the region.

Narkewicz noted that Northampton has easily seen the most ridership among the cities that have again become lines on the Vermonter schedule. He’s ridden the train many times himself, and has encountered area college students heading north and south, as well as students from this area returning to various campuses; musicians traveling to New York for performances; and residents heading to various stops along the line for business or pleasure.

“It’s really a broad mix, and it’s very encouraging to see all these people taking the train,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that there would be far more potential for people to get both on and off the train in Paradise City if it came through more often.

“You could have people looking to see someone playing at the Calvin Theatre, or take in a play at the Academy of Music, or see an exhibit at the Smith College art gallery — and take the train to do that,” he explained. “We already are a destination for tourism, and this could be another access mode for people.”

And if the service were regular enough, there might be a much different train of thought — literally, said the mayor.

“If there is enough frequency of trains, you may have people getting off in Northampton and saying, ‘this is a really beautiful city … this would be a great place to live — it’s on a train route, and I can get to Springfield, Hartford, New Haven, or wherever by train; I can live here,’” he said.

Connecting the Dots

Marcos Marrero, director of Planning & Economic Development in Holyoke, said the city built its $3.2 million Depot Square Railroad Station with what he called realistic expectations for its use.

For the most part, he added, they are being realized, with fewer than a dozen people, on average, getting on or off the Vermonter each day in the Paper City.

“We projected that there would not be a lot of riders starting out, which is why we didn’t build a huge parking lot for it,” he explained, adding that the unwritten ambition is to have to construct a bigger one someday, preferably soon.

Marrero said he’s witnessed people getting on the train to go skiing, travel to business appointments, or visit relatives in Connecticut and New York — something they could do previously by train, but only by getting to Springfield first — with more usage on or just before a weekend.

But Holyoke didn’t build that train platform — nor do its officials continue to talk glowingly about its potential to help the city attract residents and businesses — with one train a day in mind.

The focus, as it is in other communities, is on the bigger picture, said Marrero, noting that this means both more north-south travel and, eventually, hopefully, an east-west route.

“The promise of rail is attractive,” he explained. “Having the train station is akin to building an airport … that’s the start, and then you work to populate it with more air service. The train service is similar to that — now we have to work on expanding it.”

Like Brennan and others, Marrero said the train — even one that goes through once a day — allows people to make connections in other Western Mass. communities as well as other cities and towns on the route, especially those to the south. More trains equates to more connections, which is why, throughout history, communities with rail stops have generally fared better than those that lack them, when it comes to being both a destination and a place where people want to live and conduct business.

“For our strategy in the downtown of creating new businesses, homegrown businesses, people from the outside who want to start new ventures, while also creating more opportunities for living here, it’s important to have those connections,” he explained. “They can be with businesses in Springfield or job opportunities in Hartford.”

Narkewicz agreed. “Any time you can make the world a little bit smaller in terms of connecting us to the Valley and the rest of the north-south corridor, that’s important.”

It is the desire to create such connections that prompted a return to the Conn River Line for the Vermonter and, only a few months after it was back in service, a call for more trains.

Just when, and even if, Holyoke will need to build a bigger parking lot is hard to gauge, but Brennan believes there could be some progress by the end of this year or early next. Indeed, expansion of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield service, which will bring another 12 trains a day into the City of Homes, should be completed by year’s end.

Talks are underway with the Connecticut Department of Transportation about taking some of those trains farther north, and the matter is being taken under advisement, he noted.
“They’re interested in doing that. They would want us to pay our fair share, but they are keeping that option open.”

The other option for expanding north-south service — deploying surplus MBTA equipment on that route — was promoted in a Jan. 29 letter to Pollack, which seeks creation of a pilot program that will reveal potential usage.

Obtaining that MBTA equipment is the key, Brennan told BusinessWest, adding that, if and when it can be earmarked and refurbished, a request for proposals will be submitted for those seeking to operate a service several times a day — preferably two runs in the morning and two more in the evening, on top of the Vermonter.

He expects there will be response to such an RFP.

“There would likely be a half-dozen or so operators that would bid on it,” he projected, adding that Amtrak and Pan Am Railways, which moves freight along the Connecticut River Line, could be among those bidders.

Track Meets

Such expansion of rail service, both north-south and (hopefully) east-west, will enable the train to become more than what it is now — essentially another means of getting from here to there, said Brennan.

As he elaborated, he summoned the phrase “transit-oriented development,” terminology that essentially speaks for itself — although Brennan did offer an explanation.

“When you’re able to offer passenger rail service, the places where the train stops tend to become catalysts for economic development within a quarter-mile to a half-mile of the station,” he noted. “It’s like you create a hot spot for development in that area where you can walk to the station — for example, if you get out of Springfield’s Union Station and walk to your office, or get off the platform in Northampton and walk to Smith College.”

Creating such hot spots is really what the push for rail service is all about, he went on.

“We’re trying to get the level of service up so that those communities where the train is going can generate the full rate of return on investment,” he told BusinessWest, referring to both the costs the communities have incurred and the money pumped into rail by the state.

Hopefully, there will be additional investments, in the north-south line, but especially east-west service farther down the line, as they say in this business.

Indeed, it is the potential to connect Springfield with Worcester and Boston via rail that has Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno particularly intrigued about transit-oriented development.

Carolynne O’Connell, who took the train from Greenfield to the Big Apple

Carolynne O’Connell, who took the train from Greenfield to the Big Apple for a conference, represents the type of rider area officials had in mind when they lobbied for an extension of north-south rail service.

He noted that the potential for people to be able to work in Boston, Cambridge, or Worcester and live in Springfield — something that would become much more feasible with fast, reliable, east-west train service — could be one of many sources of economic development in the future.

“An east-west service makes sense with everything we’re doing here in the city, including Union Station, MGM, efforts to generate entrepreneurship, creating market-rate housing such as Silverbrook Lofts, and more,” he explained. “The cost of living out here, whether it’s for residential or running a business, is much more palatable than it is in the eastern part of the state.

“It will take a huge investment, and for that reason some people say this is all pie in the sky,” the mayor went on. “But to have an east-west service that would run all the way to the Berkshires makes a lot of sense.”

Brennan agreed, noting that, if expanded rail service becomes reality, this region, and especially cities like Springfield, Northampton, and Holyoke, could benefit from what he called “re-urbanizing,” a reverse of what occurred 40 years ago, when people and businesses moved out of cities.

“There are two segments of the population that are increasingly interested in living in denser urban centers where they don’t need a car,” he explained. “These are seniors, retirees, and also young workers.

“Young people often don’t have a car and don’t want a car,” he went on. “But they want mobility, so the train is very attractive to them; they’ll live and work in an area if you offer them some type of rail alternative. Conversely, seniors, while they’re healthier, aren’t as interested in maintaining a big home and a lawn, and they’re finding cities more attractive.”

The region can be part of this movement, which is national in scope, said Brennan, but not if there’s only one train a day going in both directions, and not without east-west service.

The Last Stop

Sarah Beers is a costume designer from Queens. As she rode the Vermonter back home from Marlboro College — a liberal-arts school located in a town of that same name just west of Brattleboro, where she teaches three times a semester — she talked of this train service in mostly glowing terms.

“But it could be a little quieter … and definitely faster,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she wishes Amtrak could somehow slice at least an hour off the five-and-a-half-hour trek to Penn Station.

Western Mass. officials have another wish when it comes to the train — they just want more of it.

Getting those additional runs, they say, will take rail service from being a convenient transportation option to being a platform for growth and progress — both literally and figuratively.

Meanwhile, such an expansion will allow them to stop talking about what rail service could be and start discussing what it is.


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

Autos Cover Story Sections

Turbo Charged

Jennifer Cernak

Jennifer Cernak says Buick’s new models, including its first convertible in 30 years, due to arrive in a few eeeks, are just one of many reasons to be optimistic about 2016.

Last year was nearly one for the record books when it came to new-car sales, with more than 17 million transactions recorded nationwide. There were a host of factors that contributed to that stellar performance, from attractive interest rates to low gas prices to an aging fleet of vehicles on the road. As the new year kicks into second gear, little has changed, playing-conditions-wise, so dealers are expecting more high-octane results.

Jennifer Cernak says there’s an intriguing story behind the 1922 Buick, model 22 37, parked in the showroom of the dealership her grandfather, Samuel, opened on Route 10 in Easthampton in 1940.

It turns out the car was a trade-in, a key piece in a deal the elder Cernak clinched in 1962.

“It wasn’t worth a lot of money, but my grandfather really wanted the antique, so he took it in trade,” she explained, adding that it’s been front and center, in one respect or another, ever since.

It’s been driven in various parades over the years, for example, and it’s been put on display at several classic-car shows across the region. But while it still runs fine, it hasn’t been out of the showroom much lately, Cernak told BusinessWest, because it doesn’t easily negotiate the ramp used to bring vehicles in and out of that room.


Go HERE for a PDF chart of area auto dealers


But it might soon have to make that trek and lose the spot it has owned for years, she went on, because Buick has a number of new models coming out over the next few months, and showroom floor space will be at a premium, to say the least.

“We’re already thinking about what to do,” said Cernak, adding that, while the antique holds a special place in this three-generation family business, it may have to go — somewhere — to make room for the Cascada and the Envision.

The former is a convertible, the first one Buick has offered in perhaps 20 years, and it’s due to arrive later this month. The latter, expected by summer, is a mid-sized SUV, smaller than the company’s Enclave and bigger than its Encore. Both are expected to be real assets in the carmaker’s ongoing efforts to convince the buying public that Buick isn’t just a model for your uncle or grandfather.

“There’s a lot of buzz about these cars, and we’re really excited to have a lot of new models,” Cernak explained, adding that the new nameplates are just one of many reasons why she believes the robust performance of 2015 — witnessed across the auto industry — will carry over into this new year.

And she’s not alone in that assessment.

Bill Peffer, COO at West Springfield-based Balise Motor Sales, told BusinessWest that industry analysts are predicting another solid year for sales, perhaps even something approaching the 17.4 million new cars sold in 2015, a total just shy of the record set some 15 years ago.

The reasons for such projections include everything from attractive interest rates (0% is still available, although harder to find), to low gas prices; from a still-strong economy to lingering, pent-up demand in the form of many older cars still on the road that need to be replaced; from decent weather (knock on wood) to an abundance of intriguing, well-made products.

“The stars are certainly aligned,” Peffer said of the current auto-sales sky, adding that, while this is a buyer’s market in every sense of that phrase, it’s an environment in which many constituencies benefit.

This includes consumers, dealers, and auto makers, who are, he said, taking the profits from the surge in sales and plowing them back into research and development, which will in turn lead to innovations and new products, which will continue the current cycle and fuel more growth.

“Forecasts we’re getting from various sources show growth this year,” he told BusinessWest. “Gas prices are lower, consumers have access to credit and low rates, we have a fairly robust economy, we’re seeing demand for vehicles, and there’s adequate supply. It all adds up to a very positive environment for sales.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest talked with several area dealers about what to expect in the months to come, and why all the experts are expecting another year in the fast lane for this industry.

Firing up the Grille

Don Pion calls it “old iron.”

That’s an industry term of sorts that Pion, second-generation president of Bob Pion Buick GMC in Chicopee, summoned to describe the volume of elderly vehicles still on the road.

Don Pion and his son, Rob

Don Pion and his son, Rob, note that many factors point to continued solid sales in 2016, especially all the “old iron” still on the roads.

There are many of them, he said, noting that there are a number of contributing factors to this phenomenon, including better quality, which prolongs a car’s life, and several years of lingering doubts about the economy and the direction in which it was headed, which prompted many consumers to get another year — or two, or three, or four — out of their vehicles.

“The age of the fleet, the cars on the road today, remains at an all-time high,” he said. “It’s almost 12 years, according to the reports I’ve heard, which is pretty remarkable given the number of cars that were sold last year.”

This old iron — and ‘old’ is a relative term, certainly — is one of those aforementioned stars now in alignment and a contributing factor to solid projections for the year ahead, said those we spoke with.

Indeed, the more elderly vehicles — which have kept service departments jammed, providing a different source of revenue — are finally being traded in, spawning sales of new and used cars. Meanwhile, a large amount of younger old iron — especially a huge number of cars coming off leases after 36, 24, or even 12 months — is creating attractive inventory for the used-car market, where profit margins are usually better than those for cars right out of the box.

It’s part of an intriguing cycle, with a number of moving parts, but sales of the new models definitely set the tone.

“The new-car side of the business is kind of the catalyst that makes everything go,” said Pion. “It keeps everything running.”

Peffer agreed, and said that current trends collectively comprise the best news for the industry — the fact that there is plenty of fuel to keep this fire burning through the year and probably well beyond.

Indeed, while more than 50 million cars were sold in 2015 — those 17 million new models and north of 40 million used cars — there is still plenty of demand for both.

“There is a lot of activity out there, and as dealers we sell new and used vehicles,” he explained. “When you take a used vehicle in, you sell a new vehicle, so that helps new-car sales. You recondition and then sell the used car, creating another transaction, creating more service department work, creating another customer that comes back for repeat business and service.”

Meanwhile, in a departure from recent years for some models, there is ample supply of new cars and trucks, although dealers could always use more.

The 1922 Buick at the Cernak dealership

The 1922 Buick at the Cernak dealership may soon have to find a new home to make way for the new models to roll in over the next few months.

“For many years following the recession [in 2008], you had a situation where there was maybe more demand than there was supply,” said Peffer, adding that this scenario was true with some carmakers more than others. “Most manufacturers, though, have caught up, and will, or already have, satisfied demand through additional production.”

As for the nature of that demand he and others mentioned, it comes in a number of flavors, and this is yet another reason for the rosy outlook for the industry.

Much of the focus, of course, is on the huge and seemingly insatiable appetite for SUVs and trucks, and especially the latter. Peffer said these vehicles have always been popular, and become even more so when gas prices fall below $3 a gallon. When they’re below $2, like they are now, it’s hard to keep trucks on the lot, and soaring truck sales, he noted, create a rising tide that, as the saying goes, lifts all boats.

“Low fuel prices generally move people into bigger vehicles, heavier vehicles — truck-based vehicles, so trucks are really hot right now,” he explained, putting additional accent on ‘really.’ “And when people buy more trucks, that’s good for the manufacturers — they take that money and put it into R&D, and that yields new products. The truck business is profitable for the manufacturers, and it’s profitable for dealers as well.”

But while trucks are white hot, so, too, are SUVs, a class of vehicle that has seen its appeal spread well beyond soccer moms.

“They’re attracting people of all ages, including a growing number of older individuals because they’re much easier to get in and out of,” said Rob Pion, Don’s son and a member of the third generation of management at the dealership. “There’s interest across the board.”

So much so that there is now demand for a host of different-sized and variously appointed SUVs to meet the wide variety of needs within that growing market. And that’s why Cernak is so enthusiastic about the Envision.

“Some people find the Enclave too big and the Encore too small,” she explained matter-of-factly, adding that the Goldilocks factor is prompting all makers, including Buick, to respond accordingly. “We really needed a mid-sized SUV, and now we’re getting one.”

And with gas prices low and expected to stay that way for the near future, sales of these vehicles should remain brisk, said the Pions, both noting that the near certainty that these prices won’t last isn’t nearly enough to deter most all buyers of these larger vehicles.

Setting a President

Don Pion’s memories of life in the auto business stretch back more than a half-century, to when his father was a salesperson at the old Boulier Chevrolet in Springfield and he would accompany him to the lot.

He recalls the fall season, when the new models would roll in and the dealership would cover the showroom windows with brown paper to build suspense and draw customers in.

He also remembers Presidents Day and how it was a much bigger deal decades ago, when red, white, and blue balloons would often populate the showroom, dealers would give away cherry pies with sales, and area newspapers would be crammed with full-page ads announcing deals.

Most all of that is gone now, especially the newspaper ads, he said with a hint of lament in his voice, adding that the Presidents Day sales, always a bigger event in the Northeast than other parts of the country for some reason, were designed to break the winter doldrums and give people a reason to get into the showrooms.

Such sentiment still exists, and some dealers continue to mark the holiday with special sales, he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that promotions are now a near-constant in this business, with new incentives on a monthly or quarterly basis. As for February, in many respects it’s just another month, although sometimes a challenging one when winter hits with full fury, as it did in 2015.

This year, of course, it’s expected to be a solid month, as all those aforementioned stars continue to shine an optimistic light on the industry.

“Everything is very favorable right now,” said Don Pion as he surveyed the scene. “All the signs are positive.”

There are always threats to this sector, though, and things could change in a hurry. But most potential stumbling blocks, such as the stock market’s dreadful start to the year, are minor or temporary in nature, said Peffer.

Bill Peffer

Bill Peffer says the “stars are aligned” when it comes to the auto industry and sales projections for 2016.

Still, while most of the arrows are pointing up for this industry, there are challenges in various forms, starting with heightened competition in the form of quality vehicles carrying seemingly every nameplate.

“Where quality was once a market differentiator decades ago, now it’s cost of entry,” said Peffer. “I can’t think of a brand that doesn’t have really good quality.

“There are so many new-product offerings on the market right now that are full of technology, full of safety features, full of performance and styling,” he went on, adding that all this competition is in many ways a positive more than a negative. “All this really piques a customer’s interest; it’s a very good time to be in the market for a new or near-new vehicle.”

Pion agreed. “In the age of consumerism that we have now, bad products don’t survive in any segment, whether we’re talking about automobiles or whatever,” he explained. “You have to build a good product because anyone can go online and read the reviews — and people do that before they buy.”

For the Buick dealers, meanwhile, there’s the almost age-old (no pun intended) challenge of convincing younger audiences that this brand is not just for their father or grandfather.

Rob Pion recalls a recent episode involving a younger individual who test-drove one of the Buick models, liked it, but then offered, ‘I’m not old enough to drive a Buick,’ or words to that effect. And that’s a fairly common refrain.

“We battle that all that time,” said the younger Pion. “If I could just blindfold people until they got in the car and took it for a test drive, I know I could sell more people on these vehicles.”

Super Models

Time will tell whether that 1922 Buick retains its long-held parking space at the Cernak dealership. But at the moment, it looks like the family may well have to find a new home for the antique.

The Cascada will be arriving in a few weeks, and the Envision not long after that. In the meantime, the existing models, including more traditional offerings like the Lacrosse and the Verano, are in solid demand.

Add it all up, and the focus clearly shifts to the present and future, not the past.

And to the stars, which, as Peffer and other dealers said, are certainly aligned.

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

Class of 2016 Cover Story Difference Makers

Their Contributions to Be Honored on March 31

BizDiffMakrsLOGO
The 2016 Honorees:

• Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.

Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales, Philanthropist (1965-2015)

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties

Bay Path University President Carol Leary

John Robison, president, J.E. Robison Service

The old line about pictures and how they’re worth a thousand words has been around seemingly since Mathew Brady poignantly documented the Civil War.

It usually doesn’t work effectively with business journalism, but in the case of this year’s Difference Makers, it certainly rings true.

This year’s special section features a number of pictures that could be called powerful, and that certainly tell the story at least as effectively as the accompanying words.

Start with the image of Homer Street School Principal Kathleen Sullivan standing next to a lone winter jacket hanging in the main hallway of that facility. It doesn’t have an owner, because every student at the school who needs a jacket — and there are many in that category because Homer Street is in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the state — has one because of Mike Balise.

He succumbed to stomach cancer late last month, but not before making sure his annual donation of money for coats, started two years ago, would continue after his death.

Then, there are the many images of big brothers and big sisters with their ‘littles,’ as they’re called. Individually and collectively, they effectively drive home the point of how this organization, and specifically the Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire County chapters, work to create matches that bring stability into the lives of young people and forge friendships that last a lifetime.

Meanwhile, the two images of Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr. convey both the passage of time — he’s been in this post for more than 40 years — and how he’s taken corrections from one era, when inmates were essentially warehoused, to another, in which rehabilitation is the watchword.

There are other impactful images, including several involving Bay Path President Carol Leary. Two depict high-profile speakers who have keynoted the Women’s Professional Development Conference, and another depicts the sign at the front entrance declaring that this former junior college is now a university, one of many huge developments that occurred during her watch.

And then, there’s the image of John Robison posing near a half-million-dollar Italian sports car, a picture that depicts his success in business, as well as his determination to help others within the autism spectrum reach their full potential.


Meet the first seven classes of Difference Makers


Together, these pictures are worth several thousand words, and they collectively help explain some of the many ways in which individuals and groups in this region can make a difference.

The specific ways found and developed by members of the Difference Makers Class of 2016 are explained in far greater detail on the pages of this special section. And these contributions will be celebrated at the annual gala on March 31 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.

The gala has become one of those not-to-be-missed events on the regional calendars. It is a wonderful networking opportunity, but more importantly, it is a chance to recognize those who have made a huge difference in the lives of countless others.

The March 31 gala will feature butlered hors d’oeuvres, lavish food stations, a networking hour, introductions of the Difference Makers, and remarks from the honorees. Tickets cost $60 per person, with tables of 10 available.

For more information about the event or to reserve tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.

Sponsored by:

EMAdental
FirstAmerican
HNEnew
MBK
NorthwesternMutual
PeoplesBanks
RoyalPC
SunshineVillage

Photo portraits by Leah Martin Photography

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur

Big Y Marks 80 Years of Ideas and Innovation

D'Mour Family

From left, Charlie D’Amour, Matt D’Amour, Nicole D’Amour Schneider, Maggie D’Amour, Michael D’Amour, and Claire D’Amour-Daley.

Roughly 80 years ago, Paul D’Amour, a delivery man for Wonder Bread, was told in fairly uncertain terms that he couldn’t advance in that company because of his name and religion. With this knowledge that doors would not open for him, he made his own door in the form of a small market in Chicopee. We know it today as Big Y. It’s now a $1.7 billion enterprise managed by the second and third generations of the family, a company defined by many adjectives, but especially entrepreneurial. To recognize that legacy, BusinessWest has named the members of all three generations its Top Entrepreneurs for 2015.

They call it the ‘Nice Try’ award.

Big Y Foods started presenting it annually a few years ago, said Claire D’Amour-Daley, vice president of Corporate Communications for the soon-to-be-80-year-old company and member of its second generation of leadership.

It goes, she went on, to an individual or group that conceptualized an idea that looked good on paper, as they say, but just didn’t pan out for one reason or another.

“It’s an honor … but you don’t want to win it too often — one’s enough,” said Michael D’Amour, executive vice president of the company and oldest member of the third generation of leadership as he explained its purpose, relevance, and unique place within the company.

Maggie D’Amour, a store manager in training and another member of that third generation, agreed. “They tried changing the recipe for jelly donuts one year, and the customers really didn’t like it at all. Someone won it for that.”

Overall, the ‘Nice Try’ award, as Michael implied, was conceived as something to be proud of, noted D’Amour-Daley, who said Big Y is a company that puts a premium on innovation, entrepreneurship, ideas, and always looking for better, more efficient ways of doing things. And ‘Nice Try’ embodies all of that and more.

“We honor mistakes because that’s how we learn,” she explained, “and it’s important to learn from your mistakes.”

Founders Gerry, left, and Paul D’Amour

Founders Gerry, left, and Paul D’Amour set an entrepreneurial tone that has defined Big Y throughout its 80-year history.

The award and the philosophy behind it explains why Big Y is still here 80 years after Paul D’Amour, with assistance from his much younger brother, Gerry, and, later, sisters Ann Marie, Yvette, and Gertrude, opened the Y Cash Market in Chicopee. They also explain why the company now logs $1.7 billion in annual revenues; how it’s gone from one 30-foot-wide corner market to 63 supermarkets in Massachusetts and Connecticut; why it continues to expand into new business realms, such as convenience stores with its acquisition of several O’Connell Convenience Plus gas stations; and why it was recently named one of the Best Places to Work by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

And also why the members of three generations in this family have been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2015. (See previous BusinessWest Top Entrepreneurs HERE)

“Since this award was conceptualized 20 years ago, it has gone to companies that have made significant strides over the previous year or two,” said BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti, “and also to companies that have displayed a strong entrepreneurial character throughout their existence.

“When it comes to Big Y, it’s a lot of both,” she went on. “This company continues to take bold entrepreneurial steps, such as the purchase of the convenience stores, but it has a legacy of entrepreneurship that goes back eight decades and has been constant throughout this company’s existence.”

Explaining the roots of that legacy, Don D’Amour, CEO of the company and the oldest member of that second generation, again relayed the story of how his father, Paul, a Canadian emigrant, left a decent job delivering Wonder Bread to start his own venture in the middle of the Great Depression.

But this time — he’s told this story often — he provided some keen insight into why.

“At some point, a gentleman at Wonder Bread pulled him aside and said, ‘you’re never going to be promoted in this company — you’ve got the wrong last name, and you’ve got the wrong religion [Catholic],’” he noted. “My dad went home, talked to my mom, and told her pretty much what this guy said. Later, he found there was a small market for sale in Willimansett. He talked to my mom some more and decided to take the plunge.”

His brother would eventually take it with him, after serving in the military, and also after conveying serious doubts about the viability of this business venture in a letter home to his family (more on that in a bit).

In the decades to come, the second generation, and then the second working alongside the third — just as the first worked beside the second — would take plunges of their own, none perhaps as risky as that original leap, but all of them constituting business gambles.

Some have been relatively minor — such as the introduction of in-store floral shops — while others have been considerable in scope, including forays into new markets, new geographic territories, and new ways of doing business.

Summing it all up, Charlie D’Amour, Claire’s brother and the company’s president, said that, despite this company’s proud history, its operating manual has one simple instruction: Look forward, never back.

Marketplace of Ideas

photo of founder Paul D’Amour and co-workers

This photo of founder Paul D’Amour and co-workers in front of the original Y Cash Market is one of a precious few in the archives from the early days.

As they talked about the exploits of their father (Gerry) and uncle, Claire and Charlie decided to move the conversation from inside a replica of the original market at the store’s headquarters on Roosevelt Avenue in Springfield to a nearby wall that holds a photo of Paul D’Amour and a few co-workers standing in front of the Y Cash Market.

They did so to point out, literally, just how tiny that original storefront was. But soon the subject matter shifted to how few items like this one there are in the company’s archives.

In fact, the early history of the venture is so incomplete that the month of the company’s opening in 1936, much less the exact date, is not known. Thus, significant anniversarie tend to be year-long events, and the 80th will be even more so.

Explaining this phenomenon, Charlie D’Amour said it came down to the simple fact that his father and uncle were too busy scripting their story to summon the time or energy needed to record it. As a result, there are few papers and photographs to display or refer back to.

One notable exception is that letter Gerry sent home to his family while in the service. It revealed, in not-so-glowing terms, his thoughts on the prospects for his brother’s entrepreneurial plunge.

“He really had his doubts about the business,” said Charlie while summarizing the missive from memory. “He thought Paul might be wasting his brains and talents on that market.”

Still, Gerry agreed to join the venture after returning from duty, and the rest, is, well, better-recorded history — at least the past half-century or so. And while Gerry was eventually proven wrong in his assessment of the venture’s potential, those first few years amounted to nothing less than a struggle for survival.

“There were a lots of ups and downs — more downs than ups, for sure,” said Don D’Amour. “They almost went bankrupt a few times, but they stuck with it.

“It was a very entrepreneurial start to be sure, and the company has always been entrepreneurial over the years,” he went on. “There’s always been a desire to innovate and try new things.”

Charlie agreed.

“One of the things that Paul and Gerry passed on to all of us was that they were restless in their desire to improve,” he explained. “They were continuously trying to find a better way to do things, and trying to evolve and change as the business evolved. And that continues today; this is a very, very dynamic business. It’s always changing; it’s never the same. We’re certainly not doing business in 2016 the same way were a year ago, let alone five years ago or 80 years ago.”

Being dynamic and entrepreneurial isn’t simply desirable, family members said repeatedly and in different ways, but is quite necessary in a retail landscape that is constantly changing and becoming ever more competitive.

Indeed, while a few decades ago, the company was doing battle largely against other grocery chains, most of them national and international giants, now it is also competing with the likes of Walmart, Costco, online ventures, and pharmacy chains that now have huge frozen-food aisles.

“There’s been a blurring of the channels,” said Charlie as he explained the ongoing shift involving retail outlets. “And that’s made for a much more competitive landscape.”

But, as the timeline above reveals, the company has always been aggressive in seeking new business opportunities and, as Charlie said, better ways of doing things. That chronology highlights everything from the first supermarket to movement into beer and wine sales; from growth through expansion of several smaller grocery chains to expansion into Connecticut and then Eastern Mass.; from the introduction of the World Class Market to expansion into pharmacies.

A common thread with each development has been improving the customer experience, said Charlie, adding that this is another philosophical trait passed down from the first generation.

And while what the company has accomplished is noteworthy, the how is perhaps an even more intriguing story. It comes down, said all those we spoke with, to creating an environment where ideas — including those that wind up earning someone a ‘Nice Try’ award — are encouraged, listened to, and often acted upon.

Making the Sausage

This brings us to the concept of strategic planning, which has greatly evolved itself over the years.

In the beginning — and for several years, actually — this was Paul and Gerry’s assignment, and it was done, in large part, on the fly, Charlie explained. Today, it is much more sophisticated and involves dozens if not hundreds of players.

The mindset is essentially the same, though: looking down the road as far and effectively as one can, anticipating need, envisioning business opportunities to meet those needs, and then making them happen.

This is essentially a 24/7, company-wide activity, but there are organized sessions as well, as two-day corporate retreats, staged every 18 months. These are staged off-site, but instead of exotic locales, the company has opted for local venues such as the Basketball Hall of Fame and downtown Stockbridge.

“We can’t afford a fancy resort — that’s not in the budget,” said Mike, one of several third-generation family members now with a seat at the table at these gatherings.

He noted that these sessions feature lively, open discussions, and egos are, as the saying goes, checked at the door, and titles and last names are not an issue.

“At these meetings, everyone’s basically CEO of the company; everyone’s on the same level,” he explained. “No topic is off-base, there are no sacred cows, and we take a nice, honest check of who we are, what we’re doing, and where we need to be.

“We’ll challenge each other in nice ways,” he went on. “And we’ll sit there, listen, take it all in, and try to understand where everyone’s coming from to make sure that, when we walk out of that room in a day in a half, we’re all in 100% agreement on what we’re doing. We don’t want half the room split or doing something just because my father says we’re going to do it or because Charlie says we’re going to do it. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing for everyone.”

Big Y’s second supermarket

Big Y’s second supermarket, in Northampton, represented one of many entrepreneurial leaps for the company.

Beyond the regular retreats, there are quarterly board meetings and twice-monthly team meetings, said Claire, adding that these and other vehicles are used to help ensure that ideas flow downhill and there is solid follow-up so concepts don’t get left behind.

Charlie agreed, and said there is one more level of management meetings, those involving family members.

“We are a family business, so it’s important that the family understands the role of the family in the business,” he explained. “Another of the things that Paul and Gerry taught is that the business doesn’t serve the family — the family serves the business.”

The various strategic-planning initiatives, as well as a recently penned vision statement, have helped provide the company with another important asset, one often missing at family-run ventures, said Matt D’Amour, another member of the third generation of management and the company’s senior director of Real Estate & Store Development: Alignment.

“One of the benefits of the big meetings is alignment and focus,” he explained. “Everyone is working toward common goals, and having that alignment has been key to our success.”

Mike agreed.

Big Y’s expansion into in-store pharmacies

Big Y’s expansion into in-store pharmacies represented one of many steep learning curves taken on by different generations of the D’Amour family.

“I think we have more alignment now in this company than perhaps we’ve ever had,” he explained. “People understand the vision, they believe in it, and they embrace their role within it. And that’s why I think this is an exciting time for us; we do have that alignment, and we can get a lot accomplished with everyone moving in the same direction.

“People have seen our sales the past few years, which have been stronger than others in the industry, and everyone’s asking what we’re doing,” he went on. “Well, it’s a lot of little things. There’s no silver bullet in this industry; it’s a lot of little things that have worked out over the past several years.”

Seeds of Progress

While Big Y’s story can be summed up as 80 years of entrepreneurial drive, it can also be categorized as the ongoing education of the D’Amour family in the grocery business — all three generations.

“Actually, it’s closer to five, because of the way the generations are staggered,” said Matt, noting the age differences among members of the same generation and how this wide spread of ages represented by family members has helped the company stay relevant.

And generate some humor. Indeed, Paul was 14 years older than Gerry, and subsequently, his son, Don, is significantly older than his cousins, Claire and Charlie — so much so that Charlie likes to joke (although Don certainly doesn’t laugh) that many people think the company’s CEO is his father. Likewise, Don’s daughter, Nicole D’Amour Schneider, says some believe Claire is her sister, not her second cousin.

Whether it’s three or five, there’s been a lot of one generation teaching the next, or older members of one generation teaching younger representatives. And that brings us to Charlie’s often-told story about how one of his many, early, and pointedly unglamorous jobs with the company was delivering produce, specifically watermelons. And as he retold it, he expounded on the philosophy that defined such learning opportunities, and still does, but maybe to a lesser extent.

“I had just gotten my driver’s license; I was 16,” he recalled. “And we needed to have some produce deliveries made. Don said, ‘meet me at our produce warehouse on Avocado Street in Springfield, and be there early.’

“I showed up, Donald put me in the truck, and it was a standard,” he went on. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to drive a standard.’ Then he said, ‘get in, and I’ll show you.’ He drove me around the parking lot once and sent me on me on my way. That was the extent of the training we had back then.”

Big Y’s latest entrepreneurial leap

Big Y’s latest entrepreneurial leap is into the convenience-store realm. This is a rendering of one of the Big Y Express stores in Pittsfield.

Things have changed considerably over the years — Charlie noted that his daughter Maggie’s current training to become a store manager is exponentially more involved than what he experienced in the mid-’70s — but the company’s approach is still grounded in the basic ‘sink-or-swim’ mentality espoused by the company’s founders — or similar phraseology that Charlie summoned.

“You can’t learn to swim by sitting at the side of the pool,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this mindset pertains to not only employees, including (or especially) family members, taking on new responsibilities, but the company taking new plunges, if you will.

As an example of the former, he gestured across the conference room table toward Nicole, who was minding her own business and handling a number of functions for the company, including training of store managers and administration of its formal ideas program, when it was essentially decided four years ago that she would manage the company’s new pharmacy division.

“I knew nothing about running pharmacies, so there was a real learning curve,” she explained. “It was a matter of coming in and running it as a business and taking that perspective, but also breaking down the silos between pharmacy and all the other departments and working more collaboratively together so we were presenting our customers with a one-stop experience.”

When asked what she’s learned over the past four years, Nicole joked that she can now pronounce the names of countless medications she never knew existed. She then turned serious and said that pharmacy, like all other departments in the store, requires a strong customer-service element, as well as an element of entrepreneurship.

“Today, in retail pharmacy, you have to innovate and change in order to survive,” she explained. “We’ve worked hard at getting our folks in the pharmacies to understand that and approach their jobs in a completely different manner. They’re not just pill counters; they really have to engage with our customers and provide unique services.”

As for the latter half of that sink-or-swim mentality, the new-business-opportunities side of the equation, family members cited the expansion into convenience stores and the recent acquisition of the O’Connell facilities.

This represents largely uncharted waters for the company — although the second Big Y supermarket in Northampton had a gas station attached to it in the ’60s, said Charlie — but taking the ship in such directions is certainly nothing new, going back to 1936 and most of the developments that have happened since.

“We took another look at it because a lot of our competitors were getting into it, and as we looked at it, we said, ‘that business has changed,’” he noted, adding that, where once those who frequented such facilities also wanted convenience items, now they’re also interested in eating on the run.

And, given other changes in society, they’re looking to eat healthier than hot dogs turning on a warmer. This plays into one of Big Y’s strengths, Charlie noted, adding that this venture could amount to an opportunity for growth — or the next opportunity, to be more precise.

What’s in Store?

As for what happens next — in the grocery business in general and Big Y in particular — members of both generations offered a collective shrug of the shoulders.

“Where do we see this industry going? It’s going in a few directions, such as to online business, mobile payments, and maybe drones dropping your grocery bags at your front door at some point,” said Mike, adding, as others did, that there will always be a need for the bricks-and-mortar supermarket.

And whatever the future brings, this company will more than likely be ready for it, or out ahead of it, he went on.

One would expect nothing else from an enterprise that honors innovation, ideas, and, yes, those nice tries.

A Big Y Timeline

• 1936: Paul D’Amour, with the help of his younger brother, Gerry, opens the Big Y Cash Market in Chicopee and delivers groceries by bicycle.

• 1947: Paul and Gerry team up as equal partners and incorporate as Y Cash Super Markets.

• 1952: The first Big Y Supermarket opens at 790 Memorial Dr. in Chicopee.

• 1960: Fine wines and beer are added to the supermarket in Northampton, the company’s second.

• 1963: The company buys a second Northampron location and opens Big Y Wines & Liquors.

• 1968: Big Y doubles in size with the acquisition of Jumbo Supermarkets.

• 1970: Big Y expands self-distribution to include everything from bread to bananas.

• 1971: Big Y introduces new technology such as scanning cash registers.

• 1984: The company expands its operations into Connecticut with the acquisition of a supermarket in Stafford Springs. Big Y also purchases the Adams Supermarket chain.

• 1986: As the company turns 50, it boasts 21 stores and 1,600 employees.

• 1990: Express Savings Club program starts, an industry first, to exchange paper coupons with electronic ones.

• 1998: The company’s Store Support Center moves to 2145 Roosevelt Ave. in Springfield, bigy.com is launched, and Big Y Wines & Liquors becomes Table & Vine.

• 2001: The first Big Y Pharmacy & Wellness Center opens in the Longmeadow store.

• 2003: There are now 51 stores, including one in Walpole, the company’s first in the Greater Boston area.

• 2006: Fresh Acres opens in Springfield.

• 2013: Big Y Express opens as the first gas and convenience store.

• 2016: As the company celebrates 80 years, it has grown to 66 locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut and more than 5,600 employees.


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

Cover Story

Assignment: Springfield

Laura Masulis

Laura Masulis says working on initiatives to increase foot traffic downtown is among her goals.

Before last spring, about all Laura Masulis knew of Springfield was what she could see off I-91 as she drove back and forth to Wesleyan. But when she was chosen as one of MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative fellows, and the city was selected to be granted such an individual, she got off the highway, took a much closer look, and became intrigued, to say the least. A match was made, and now she’s heavily involved in all efforts to make downtown a destination.

Laura Masulis grew up in Nashville, which is known worldwide for its music industry and, in recent decades, a burgeoning healthcare sector. But for most of her adult life, she’s had what she called a soft spot for “old industrial cities.”

That sentiment helps explain why she considers her current assignment, as a so-called Transformative Development Initiative (TDI) fellow working in Springfield for MassDevelopment, a “match made in heaven.”

Indeed, Springfield’s long history as a manufacturing hub and current work to reinvent itself certainly resonated with Masulis as she was rating potential landing spots within the statewide TDI program as part of a matching process similar to the one experienced by graduating medical-school students.

“We rate them, and they rate us,” said Masulis, 28, as she talked about how she interviewed in Springfield, Lynn, and Haverhill, and officials in those communities ranked the various candidates as much as the candidates ranked potential destinations. “I ranked Springfield first, and they ranked me first, so it was pretty simple.”

But there was more than an industrial heritage that convinced Masulis that she wanted Springfield to be her home, figuratively and quite literally — she recently purchased a home in the Forest park neighborhood — for at least the three-year duration of her assignment.

There was also its many forms of diversity — Masulis majored in Latin American studies and economics in college — as well as the architecture downtown, cultural attractions, and, most importantly, vast potential for improvement.

“I was amazed by how visually beautiful the city was, in both the downtown and the neighborhoods — that surprised me,” she noted. “I was moved by the architecture, excited about the diversity of the community, and intrigued by all that’s happening; it’s definitely an exciting time for this city.”

Her general assignment is Springfield, but, more specifically, it’s a several-block area downtown that it is now called the Innovation District — a name that is slowly working its way into the lexicon but is still used almost exclusively by elected officials and development leaders. Perhaps more importantly, it has been designated by MassDevelopment as a TDI District, with the focus squarely on the first two words in that acronym — ‘transformative’ and ‘development.’

MassDevelopment literature outlining the TDI initiative defines that phrase this way: “transformative development is redevelopment on a scale and character capable of catalyzing significant follow-on private investment, leading over time to transformation of an entire downtown or urban neighborhood, and consistent with local plans.”

There are 10 TDI projects in various stages of progression across the Commonwealth, including those focused on the so-called TOD District in Holyoke, the Tyler Street District in Pittsfield, the One Lynn District in Lynn, the Merrimac Street Transformative District in Haverhill, the North River Neighborhood in Peabody, Downtown Gateway in Brockton, and the Theater District in Worcester.

In Springfield, the TDI District stretches, for the most part, from Main Street to just east of Chestnut Street, and from Bridge Street to Lyman Street. It includes the city’s entertainment district, Apremont Triangle, Stearns Square, the park located on the former Steiger’s site (now known as Center Square), and the so-called ‘blast zone,’ those blocks heavily damaged by the November 2012 natural-gas explosion.

As part of efforts to transform the identified districts, the Gateway cities can apply for what’s known as a ‘mid-career fellow’ to help develop and implement strategic initiatives. Springfield, Lynn, and Haverhill prevailed in the spirited competition for the first three fellows to be funded by MassDevelopment (three more will be assigned in 2016), and that brings us back to Masulis and that matching process.

Her assignment, which started in May, dictates that she works closely with several local development-focused agencies, including the city’s Economic Development Department, the Springfield Business Improvement District, DevelopSpringfield, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, and others, and thus she’s been involved in a number of recent initiatives.

These include everything from movie nights at Stearns Square over the summer (The Princess Bride was among the films shown) to the recent pop-up Downtown Springfield Holiday Market; from Valley Venture Mentors workshops to public stakeholder meetings (the latest was on Dec. 17); from a project at Market Place involving UMass landscape architecture students (see related story, page 41) to the recent City2City trip to Chattanooga, Tenn. (her thoughts on that excursion later).

She said much has been accomplished, but much more obviously needs to be done to transform the district into a place people will not only want to visit, but also live in and start a business in.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Masulis about her assignment, the TDI District, and her thoughts on what the future might bring for the City of Homes — now her own home.

Developing Story

Masulis did her undergraduate work at Wesleyan University in suburban Middletown, Conn. But she’s spent the past several years working and going to school in Boston (she earned a certificate in nonprofit management and leadership at Boston University), and, as mentioned earlier, she grew up in Nashville.

So she’s used to streets teeming with people, and is thus well-acquainted with the energy — as well as the sense of security — that such a critical mass provides.

And those are two of the things she noticed were largely missing during her visits here early on — and are still missing, for the most part. She noted that the clubs along Worthington Street can be crowded — and parking spots hard to find throughout the entertainment district — on weekend nights, but her impression is that the streets are seemingly, and somewhat alarmingly, empty too much of the time.

“I was moved by the fact that there was so little foot traffic,” she told BusinessWest. “At night, you only feel unsafe because there’s no one around. That was sort of an eerie thing to experience when I first got here.”

It’s not officially written into her job description, but doing something about that quiet on the streets, the lack of foot traffic, is a very big part of why she’s here.

And that goal has been at the forefront of many of those efforts described earlier, from the movies in the park to the holiday market. But there is obviously much more to this assignment than announcing such events with chalk on downtown sidewalks, as Masulis could often be seen doing over the past several months.

Indeed, the work involves strategic planning, developing partnerships to carry out initiatives identified in those plans, meeting with the key stakeholders, and, overall, creating and maintaining a buzz about downtown and, more specifically, the TDI District.

Springfield’s Transformative Development Initiative District

Springfield’s Transformative Development Initiative District encompasses several blocks in the city’s entertainment district and so-called ‘blast zone.’

Masulis brings to these various duties a diverse background that includes work with social-service agencies and small businesses. She’s served as a program assistant for the Center for Women and Enterprise and as a business analyst for the Public Consulting Group, and also co-founded the still-operating Lawrence BiciCocina, a community bike and board workshop in Lawrence (another of those old industrial cities) to promote healthy lifestyles, sustainable and low-cost transportation, youth leadership development, and job training.

Most recently, she’s been a senior project manager for Interise, the Boston-based venture that stimulates economic growth in lower-income communities by helping established small-business owners grow and expand their ventures.

She said this background meshed effectively with what Springfield and its TDI District perhaps most needed — small-business recruitment, retention, and development efforts — and this contributed to those ‘match made in heaven’ sentiments.

Masulis admitted that, prior to last spring, about all she knew of Springfield was what she could see from I-91 as she traveled on that road to get to Wesleyan nearly a decade ago. When the city became one of the finalists to be assigned a fellow, she said she got off the highway for a weekend visit that focused on the downtown and the TDI District itself.

As she mentioned, she was somewhat unnerved by the lack of foot traffic — “sort of creepy” was another of the phrases she used to describe it — but looked past it to its many attributes and considerable growth potential, something she says many of those who live and work in the city have a much harder time doing.

“People from the outside can often appreciate the many assets of a city more than the people who are there every day,” she explained. “And I definitely experienced that with Springfield.”

What’s in Store?

As she talked about her assignment, Masulis said it is unique, in many respects, with regard to others within the broad realms of economic development and urban planning. Getting more specific, she said that, while there are certainly many meetings to attend — she didn’t attempt to guesstimate how many she’s been part of since arriving — her work mostly involves implementation, which is what she likes most about it.

And there is plenty of implementation to do, considering the various initiatives taking place in the city and the many partner agencies she works with. Which means that the calendar is full and each day is different.

“It’s an interesting role because I’m doing 15 things at once,” she explained. “I’m working with projects involving the Pioneer Planning Commission on the walkability of downtown and signage and pedestrian infrastructure. And the next meeting I’m at, we’re talking about recruiting restaurants for the district, and at the next meeting, I’m talking with property owners about improvements that need to be made and how they’re going to finance those.

“I’m meeting with residents who are talking about how they wish there was better lighting on their street,” she went on. “It’s a broad spectrum of issues and initiatives, and every day is a complete mix of things. And while geographically I’m very focused on this one district of downtown, all the issues are interconnected to the city and the region, so I wind up being part of these broader initiatives and conversations.”

As for the TDI District itself, Masulis said the basic mission is to make it a destination — or much more of a destination — for a wide array of constituencies. These include people looking for a place — or places — at which to spend a night out, individuals who want to do some shopping, entrepreneurs looking for a location to launch or relocate a hospitality-related enterprise, and people looking for a place to live. And she’s working with the various partner agencies to anticipate and meet the needs of those and other groups.

“This is an entertaining, dining, innovation district that has seen a couple of major investments made, but a lot of it has yet to be built out,” she said, citing the stunning transformation of the Fuller Block as an example of the type of development that could — and hopefully will — happen at dozens of buildings and vacant lots within the district.

“That’s a perfect model for what could happen to buildings across the district,” she said of the property, which now houses National Public Radio, the Dennis Group (an engineering company), and a host of other tenants. “And there have been others that have not been rehabbed, including those in the blast zone, on the extreme end.”

One of the keys to making such redevelopment happen is successful recruitment of new businesses, she said, adding that such work represents just one component of her work involving small businesses. Another is working with those that are already located within the district, she noted, adding that, while attracting new ventures is critical, so too is making sure existing ventures can thrive and thus serve as models for others.

“I’m doing on-the-ground work with the established businesses there — making sure they know what’s going on and have awareness of the various resources available to them,” she said. “And there’s also the work of recruiting businesses from around the region who could potentially open another location in Springfield.

“But I’m also part of the conversation about building out the small business and entrepreneurship pipeline in the region,” she went on, “and for filling in the gaps and having a more cohesive umbrella regarding all the resources available. We need to pull those together more tightly and in a more user-friendly way than what’s currently in place.”

The Right Place and Time

Still another factor that made Springfield a desirable landing spot, said Masulis, was the fact that her three-year assignment — which could go much longer — coincides with an obviously intriguing chapter in the city’s history and reinvention process.

one of 10 across the state

Springfield’s TDI District is one of 10 across the state identified by MassDevelopment.

Beyond the elephant in the room — the $900 million MGM Springfield, which is scheduled to open its doors around the time Masulis’ three-year tenure wraps up — there are other initiatives, including the redevelopment of Union Station, the construction of a subway-car manufacturing plant in the east side of the city, a wave of entrepreneurial energy that manifests itself in the form of the various Valley Venture Mentors initiatives, the new innovation center downtown, and much more.

And Masulis feels privileged to be in a position to not just watch it happen, but play a role in how events transpire, especially with regard to the entrepreneurial piece of the puzzle.

“I feel very lucky to be coming in at this point,” she told BusinessWest. “I definitely recognize that there’s been a huge amount of work and sweat equity already put in to developing this entrepreneurship culture; I’m just here to provide some additional capacity to help keep it moving forward.”

As for the bigger picture — and where Springfield and its TDI District might be three years from now, or 10, or 20 — Masulis, acknowledging that she was taking that outsider’s perspective, even with eight months of work downtown under her belt, takes a decidedly optimistic view.

“Regardless of what happens with MGM, there is already a lot of positive energy in the city, and that includes the innovation and dining space,” she said, referring to the real estate within the TDI District that comprises her primary focus. “There’s a lot of momentum when it comes to the anchors that are already in place that we really want to build upon; what we want to do is fill storefronts with positive activity.”

The pop-up Downtown Springfield Holiday Market was an example of this, she said, adding that the initiative, based in the ground-floor space of the building most still know as Harrison Place, was designed to increase foot traffic while also giving retailers, who take on temporary, or pop-up space, a chance to try on downtown Springfield and see if the shoe might fit.

“That’s one strategy to get more retailers to come downtown and try it out,” she explained. “For us, the plan is to then transition them into longer-term leases in more permanent locations. In five years, we want to see a lot more foot traffic on the street, not just on workdays, but also at night and on weekends. The goal is fewer vacant storefronts and more people utilizing the green spaces that are already there.”

Masulis said she’s heard all about how vibrant Tower Square was decades ago, and also about Johnson’s Bookstore, Forbes & Wallace, Steiger’s, and all the other retail now relegated to the past tense. She said the goal moving forward isn’t about restoring the past, but creating something different, equally vibrant, and more reflective of the changes that have taken place over the past four decades.

“We have a very different community than we had 30 years ago,” she noted. “What’s going to be in the future is not going to be a perfect replication of what was.”

She acknowledged that the task of getting more people to live and do business downtown is a complicated process — people won’t live in the area until there are things to, and there won’t be things to do unless there are people living in and coming to the area. But she believes progress will come on both fronts, and this will generate continued progress.

“You need to work on both things at the same time,” she said of the commercial and residential aspects of the equation. “And you have to find a couple of risk takers who are willing to come out early before the proven model.”

She said the Chattanooga trip, while energizing, certainly, provided ample evidence of how much work remains to be done, but also how much progress Springfield has already made, especially with regard to creating opportunities and closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, something Chattanooga has not done as well.

When asked if Springfield could host a similar program now, or when it might be able to do so, Masulis said that, in many respects, she believes the city is already there, but that, in a few years, it will have many more success stories to put on display.

“In five years, Springfield will look very different, and I really hope that we’ll be in a position where people want to visit this city and we’re able to show that not only do we have these flashy projects that have been very successful, but we’ve made real strides in reducing inequality as well.”

At Home with the Idea

Those words ‘we’ll’ and ‘we’re,’ while seemingly innocuous, are rather telling when it comes to this fellowship and how Masulis looks upon it.

She’s not just someone working in Springfield on a project funded by MassDevelopment. OK, she is, but rather quickly, she’s become an integral part of the multi-faceted effort to revitalize and reinvent one of the old industrial cities she’s so fond of. And she’s using words like ‘we’re’ and ‘we’ll.’

More than that, she’s already talking about how that house in Forest Park may be home for much longer than three years.

In the meantime, she’s in the middle of something special — a match, as she said, that was seemingly made in heaven.

 

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

Cover Story Economic Outlook Sections

Questions About Sustainability Cloud the Picture for 2016

Outlook 2016

By most accounts, the state’s economy — and area businesses — had a solid 2015. Performance didn’t match pre-recession levels, but it was an improvement over the previous three or four years. The question looming over 2016 is whether that performance can be sustained, and there are enough doubts, or reservations — created by everything from a stronger dollar to still-falling oil prices to uncertainty about who will win the White House next November — to keep confidence in check.

Dan Flynn calls it “soft confidence.”

That simple, two-word phrase goes a long way toward explaining the current state of the local and national economy and the general attitude concerning it among business owners.

Elaborating, Flynn, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Wholesale Banking for West Springfield-based United Bank, said many of the institution’s commercial clients are doing well — not as well as before the so-called Great Recession that started in 2008, but performance has been solid. Some even recorded their proverbial ‘best year ever’ in 2015, he noted, adding that most saw at least improvement over 2014.

Dan Flynn says many area businesses had a solid 2015

Dan Flynn says many area businesses had a solid 2015, but the question moving forward is whether that performance can be sustained.

But — and this is an important ‘but’ — these business owners are not at all sure that such performance is sustainable given a host of factors that are almost all well beyond their control. These range from global and domestic violence to still-spiraling healthcare insurance costs to extreme uncertainty about who will prevail in the 2016 presidential election — and what he or she might do after getting elected.

Thus, existing confidence is, well, soft.

“For most business owners, their inventory backlog or their job backlog is building, but they don’t have the confidence that this will sustain itself in 2016 or 2017,” Flynn explained. “They think it will, but it’s not like that flat-out ‘we’re confident, we’re going to hire a couple of extra people, we’re going to add a second shift.’ They’re not that confident.”

John Patrick agreed. The CEO of Farmington Bank, which recently made a foray into the Western Mass. market with locations in West Springfield and then East Longmeadow, said there is some optimism about the year ahead, but there are also serious doubts, enough to keep confidence from becoming deep or profound.

“The economy, especially the local economy, is all about confidence,” he noted. “And I wouldn’t say there is strong confidence in the marketplace relative to everything that’s happening around them.”

And by ‘everything,’ he meant factors ranging from terrorism in Paris and California to the ever-rising cost of health insurance.

Bob Nakosteen concurred, summoning another word to describe the current picture and outlook for 2016: ‘fuzzy.’

He would go into much greater detail, obviously, but Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst and co-editor of MassBenchmarks, the quarterly publication devoted to analysis of the Bay State economy, said that one word pretty much does the job.

Indeed, the outlook is fuzzy, as in not sharp, not clear, and, for the most part, not predictable.

“The picture is fuzzy, and through the fuzziness, we see a lot of positives, but we also see some risk,” he explained. “There’s a lot of internal strength in the U.S. economy, and it is going to overcome various weaknesses, and that means this state is going to do well. It’s a mixed picture, but the overall trend is positive. But do I have 100% confidence in what I just said? Absolutely not.”

That’s soft confidence personified.

“We’re in the middle of a slowdown … it’s not anywhere near a recession, but we’re definitely seeing some slowing,” Nakosteen went on. “The economy has been growing at 2% or a little less, and that’s not vibrant.”

John Patrick

John Patrick says a number of area manufacturers have seen exports impacted by the weakening of many foreign currencies.

Moving beyond ‘fuzzy,’ Nakosteen, like Flynn and others we spoke with, said there are a number of factors impacting the state and national economy — everything from a weak Canadian dollar, which is hurting exports to that country, to the fact that most Americans are not putting the money they’re saving at the gas pump back into the economy, to impressive job growth in the Commonwealth (if not Greater Springfield). Together, they make predicting what will come next an even more difficult assignment than it generally is.

Most observers are expecting growth to remain right around that 2% level, but it could go higher or lower depending on how matters evolve, especially that critical confidence level among business owners.

Money Matters

As he talked with BusinessWest about 2015 and what will likely happen in the year ahead, Nakosteen said there are certainly plenty of reasons to look at the glass and declare it at least half-full.

“Within the lack of clarity that we’re seeing, there lies a solid core of economic strength,” he explained, adding that the Bay State continues to match or outperform the nation overall, but it is very much dependent on the relative health of this country, as well as international markets, for its success.

As evidence, he cited some recent data showing that Massachusetts is experiencing an economic expansion in many ways reminiscent of the late ’90s, though without the impetus of the tech bubble that drove that cycle, meaning that this one is more well-rounded.

Gross state product is growing robustly, he went on — 7.1% for the second quarter compared to national GDP growth of 3.7% — and employment growth is steady, although limited geographically. The unemployment rate remains low by historical standards, and has been below the national rate since — and even before — the Great Recession.

“The current expansion appears to be on firm footing — the economy in the state has slowed down recently, but it’s still been a really good year,” he said while offering the global view.

“We’re expecting strong growth over the year or so,” he went on, using ‘we’ to mean the editors at MassBenchmarks. “It might be as strong as what we had up to the second quarter of this year, but pretty solid growth. How much of it makes its way out to the western part of the state remains to be seen.”

Flynn agreed.

“Overall, clients performed better over the past 12 months than the previous three to four years,” he said while generalizing the comments of business owners within the bank’s portfolio. “As a whole, they’re not seeing the same rate of return as before the recession, but they’re doing better than they were a year ago.

“And it’s across the board,” he went on. “You can take retail, manufacturing, wholesalers … generally, companies are performing better than they had.”

Given all that, though, the question looming over 2016 is whether that performance — by individual companies and the economy as a whole — can be sustained. And strong doubts about whether it can have led to heavy use of phrases such as ‘soft confidence,’ ‘fuzzy picture,’ ‘mixed signals,’ and the always-popular ‘cautiously optimistic,’ which Flynn said he’s heard repeatedly.

That’s because most all of the factors that will decide the fate of 2016 come complete with ‘ifs,’ ‘buts,’ question marks, and both points and counterpoints.

Take the jobs picture, for example. The nation’s economy added another 211,000 jobs in November after a gain of nearly 300,000 in October, a solid boost by most accounts that exceeded almost all expectations and propelled the stock market to a more than 2% gain the day the figures were released.


Click HERE to download a PDF chart listing the region’s largest employers


But do those numbers and the stated 5% national unemployment rate reflect real progress in what’s happening locally? The short answer is ‘no’ or ‘probably not.’

“I was in New York recently, and I heard a nationally respected economist who said that, if you really take a look at the numbers, unemployment on a normalized basis is closer to 9% when you take into consideration all the people who are unemployed and those working part-time who would prefer to be working full time,” said Patrick.

Like others, he noted that, overall, many employers have not yet reached — and likely won’t reach for some time — that threshold of confidence needed to add back some of those employees trimmed during extensive efforts during and after the recession to become more efficient and rightsize.

“Businesses are a little apprehensive about continuing to make significant investments in people, technology, and franchise, because they’re just unsure about what’s going to happen,” Patrick told BusinessWest. “And there many businesses that, because of the cost of healthcare, don’t want to go over that 50-employee number, and they’re trying to manage their business accordingly.”

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said, despite the start of work on the Springfield casino and a host of other construction projects across Western Mass., the employment needle has “barely budged” in the city of Springfield, meaning the jobless rate is still hovering around 9%, in sharp contrast to what’s happening elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

Bob Nakosteen says the Bay State added jobs at an impressive clip in 2015

Bob Nakosteen says the Bay State added jobs at an impressive clip in 2015, but by and large, those gains did not extend to Western Mass.

“Employment in the state has really grown at an amazingly fast clip over the past year to 18 months, but it’s not the same in Western Mass., as is usually the case,” he explained, adding that the Bay State has added 50,000 to 60,000 jobs over the past year, most of them in technology-related sectors, although healthcare and education remain solid contributors to such growth.

“A different picture emerges out here,” he went on, talking from his office on the UMass Amherst campus. “Springfield has added a few jobs but not many — at least it hasn’t gone down. The picture is better in the larger metropolitan area, but all the construction is in Springfield, so that’s where it should be recorded, but so far we’re not seeing it.”

Dollars and Sense

Another factor that is contributing to uncertainty is the stronger U.S. dollar. It certainly benefits those traveling overseas and has provided a huge boost for airlines and cruise lines, but overall, a strong dollar hurts exporters, including the many precision manufacturers that call the Knowledge Corridor home.

“I think many of the manufacturers in this region got off to a good start in 2015 and had good backlogs,” said Patrick, referring to companies on both sides of the border. “But companies within that corridor are usually producing a product that has export potential, and because of the strong dollar internationally, they’ve seen a lot of the orders slow down and some of them put on hold, with the buyer saying, ‘what we’ll do is wait for the dollar to drive down in value a bit.’”

There was some movement in that direction in early December, he noted, but overall, the dollar remains quite strong against all other currencies, and until a pattern of weakness occurs, exports will continue to suffer.

Nakosteen agreed, and said one country often overlooked when it comes to currency rates is Canada. It is a big trading partner, and at the moment that country’s dollar, also known as the ‘loonie,’ is in a hard spiral fueled by a host of factors, including falling energy prices and questionable monetary policy.

“Canada is our most important trade partner; a year ago, it was about one U.S. dollar to one Canadian dollar; now, a Canadian dollar is worth about 70 cents,” he explained. “What that means is for Candians, U.S. products are much more expensive, and you can see it in the export numbers — they’ve really dropped over the past year.”

As for falling oil prices, which analysts say will remain low for the foreseeable future, they are not producing a surge in consumer spending, as some had predicted, and in the meantime, they are taking a hard toll on the energy industry, which is having a ripple effect, in this country and elsewhere.

“We have not seen the surplus from lower gas prices turn into consumer spending — it’s going into savings or to reduce debt,” Nakosteen said. “It has not created the bump that was expected by everyone, including me.

“From everything I’m reading in the energy industry, low gas prices are here for a while,” he went on. “So it will be interesting to see if, over time, consumers start behaving a little differently and take this surplus and spend it.”

Still another factor is interest rates, which, after that strong November jobs report, are almost certain to rise after roughly seven years of stagnancy. The projected 0.25% increase, though minor, will finally bring some measure of relief to investors who have focused on low-risk options, such as bonds, which have yielded marginal returns. But the hike will also make borrowing more expensive, and this may slow the economy somewhat.

Cliff Noreen, president of Springfield-based Babson Capital, told Bloomberg News Radio recently that he welcomed the U.S. interest rate hike — “I think it’s about time; it’s been seven years, and we’ve been living with manipulated rates for that long, and we should go back to a more normal rate environment.”

“I think the biggest victims today are retirees — they retired with the assumption five or 10 years ago that they would earn a risk-free rate of 4%, 5%, or 6%; now, the risk-free rate is zero,” he told Bloomberg. “So they have to take more risk to make their return to live on, and they’ve been forced to invest in higher-risk assets like high-yield bonds and stocks, and they’ve had to adjust their asset allocation to make up for the zero-percent rate environment we’re in globally.”

CurrenciesChartCommoditiesChartOverall, Noreen said there were several surprises in 2015 — from falling commodities prices to spiraling foreign currencies (see charts) to gasoline prices that could have fallen further than they did — and all signs point to these conditions (and the negative impact and uncertainty they bring) continuing into 2016.

“We expect lower-than-normal investment returns for all asset classes,” he noted, “and slow economic growth globally, although things have been stabilizing, and continued very, very low interest rates that are in the process of rising.”

And there are still other factors to consider looking ahead, said Noreen, listing everything from a slowing of the growth rate in China to slowing corporate-profit growth in this country, and historically low yields on bonds, with many European countries, including Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, gaining status in what Noreen called the “negative-rate club.”

As for the upcoming presidential election, Nakosteen noted that, while elections themselves typically don’t have an impact on the economy and individual presidents don’t often dictate fiscal policy, elections do generate anxiety, which has its own trickle-down effect.

Bottom Line

Speaking from experience, Patrick agreed, noting that the one commodity business owners dislike the most is uncertainty.

And because there is no lack of it at the moment — not just because of the election but all those other issues mentioned above — there is a corresponding shortage of perhaps the most important element for at least the short-term health of the regional and national economy: confidence.

There is confidence that the progress measured in 2015 can be sustained, but, as Flynn noted, it is soft confidence.

And as long as that condition remains, the picture for 2016 will remain fuzzy.

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

Cover Story

Guys and Dolls

Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of stories exploring a surge in entrepreneurial energy across the region and the startup companies that are defining this renaissance.

Laurel Wilder with her son, and ‘Will.’

Laurel Wilder with her son, and ‘Will.’

Laurel Wilder says her entrepreneurial adventure started with the note that came home from preschool with her son nearly two years ago.

“It said, literally, that boys aren’t supposed to cry,” said the Northampton-based psychotherapist, who told BusinessWest she was floored by the missive.

“We’re in Northampton, and we talk all about emotions in our household — it’s a completely OK thing to express them,” she went on, adding quickly that, while she was certainly angered by the message, she was forced to conclude that such sentiments are, unfortunately, pervasive. “It’s out there, no matter what environment you bring your child up in … the message is that boys ought to be strong and self-reliant and not vulnerable.”

Her anger and resignation eventually turned to resolve — entrepreneurial resolve — in the form of Wonder Crew, 15-inch-high, soft-bodied dolls that have been created to help give boys the opportunity to build emotional intelligence and creativity.

In that respect, they meet what Wilder described as a long-unmet need, one that society, and toymakers, either didn’t recognize or weren’t in any hurry to address.

Indeed, for decades, if not longer, society has focused on girls and play as a means to build social skills, responsibility, and creativity, and dolls have certainly been at the forefront of that, Wilder maintains. Boys? Well, not so much with any of the above.

“The feeling’s been that the boys are all right,” she said, using that phrase to refer to the status quo when it comes to toys for them — action figures, cars, trucks, sporting goods, and the like — and the attitude that, when it comes to boys, toys don’t have to help build social and emotional skills, connection, empathy, and nurturing.

Wonder Crew starts with a different attitude about play, she said, describing her product as a cross between, or combination of, American Girl doll, action figure, and favorite stuffed animal.

“Action and adventure meet friendship and teamwork — that’s Wonder Crew,” she explained.

In other words, this is something unique, said Wilder, who believes there is nothing quite like Wonder Crew on the market, and because of that, her concept has enjoyed success on a number of levels this year — everything from sales from virtually every corner of the country to winning $27,500 for her enterprise at Valley Venture Mentors’ first Accelerator Awards last spring; from a ton of press fueled by a surge in interest in boys and dolls to talk of a television cartoon show involving Wonder Crew characters.

“In the toy industry, that’s a pretty incredible opportunity — it gets Wonder Crew’s message out, but it’s also really dynamic marketing,” said Wilder of the TV production, acknowledging that, usually, toys are born from shows, not the other way around, and that this potential development is more evidence of how intriguing the Wonder Crew concept is.

The dolls hit the market earlier this year following a Kickstarter campaign that netted $40,000, enough to create a prototype and commence production.

And as the holiday shopping season enters its final weeks, Wilder is well-positioned to capitalize on the media attention given to her product, and that larger issue of boys, play, and dolls. She’s in several local stores already, and early sales have been positive.

For this issue, BusinessWest continues its intriguing series on the wave of entrepreneurial energy in the region and surge in startups with a look at a unique toy born from a desire to take play to a higher, more important level, and remove the stigma attached to boys and dolls.

Action Plan

Wilder noted that, while the name on the product’s box is ‘Superhero Adventure Crewmate,’ her creation is not at all like action-hero figures — everything from GI Joe to the Caped Crusader — that parents could have purchased for boys over the past many decades.

‘Will’ — that’s his name, and its stems from the character ‘William’ from the book Free to Be … You and Me (who wanted to play with dolls and was ridiculed for it) — is not about guns and muscles. Instead, he’s about … well, whatever the child who opens the box decides he’s about, which is one of his primary reasons for being — to spark imaginative play.

But there are many other motivations as well, chief among them those words and phrases Wilder uttered early and quite often in her interview with BusinessWest: empathy, connectivity, and responsibility, things that just haven’t been emphasized with boys.

“People are wanting more for their kids, and there’s been a lot of focus, and rightfully so, on bringing science, technology, engineering, and math to girls,” she went on. “But no one has really taken a look at boys, and the assumption is they don’t have to. The attitude is, ‘men have the upper hand in the world; why would we look there? That’s not where the problem is.’

“But if you look at happiness studies and depression, men need a lot of help in this area,” she went on. “And we’re not really doing anything for our boys, who then turn into men, if we don’t teach them to connect, nurture, and be empathetic.”

Wonder Crew

Creator Laurel Wilder says Wonder Crew is a combination American Girl doll, action figure, and favorite stuffed animal.

Retelling the story of how ‘Will’ came to populate store shelves in an effort to stem this tide, and will occupy many more in the months and years to come, Wilder said she’s always considered herself entrepreneurial — to maintain a successful psychotherapy practice, one must be, she noted — and has long been interested in creating something beyond that practice.

“I guess I’ve always been interested in building something; I just wasn’t sure what, although I thought it would be something outside the box,” she explained. “Sometimes, if you have this drive to create something different that doesn’t align with everything else out there, you can get pushed into an entrepreneurial endeavor.” And in this case, the push was that infamous note that came from school with her son.

As mentioned earlier, it elicted a range of emotions, including anger and frustration. But it also triggered a desire to do something that would help young boys effectively channel emotions while being masculine at the same time.

And her thoughts soon turned to play as the source of an answer.

“Play actually impacts child development in a fairly significant way — that’s exactly how kids learn,” she told BusinessWest. “I started to look at the toys marketed to boys and found that there were no toys out there that encouraged empathy, kindness, connection, really any kind of emotionality.”

There were plenty of toys that fit that description in what Wilder called the ‘pink aisle,’ the one set aside for dolls and other girls’ toys, but nothing for boys — a situation she soon set about changing, but not before doing some extensive research on what, exactly, was needed, and how that need could best be met.

Indeed, she said she would eventually talk, or consult, with more than 150 people — a constituency that includes parents, educators, children, psychologists, and toy-industry executives — before commencing the work that created a Wonder Crew prototype, if you will.

“I got it in my head that I wanted to somehow merge the adventure of an action figure with the emotional connection of the favorite stuffed animal, and I came up with Wonder Crew,” she explained, adding that she contracted with a few artists to formalize a concept for the marketplace.

From there, she built a prototype and “shot them out” to various schools and families to see how parents and especially children responded.

“Kids loved them — boys, girls, everyone,” she recalled of the initial reaction. “Teachers were like, ‘what is that? This is really awesome.’ It was a very positive response.”

Not Child’s Play

And it generated enough confidence for Wilder to proceed with her Kickstarter campaign last March, a drive that generated more than 500 pre-orders. “This proved that there was a market out there for this, and it essentially launched the product.”

The ‘Superhero Adventure Crewmate’ ($49.95 online) comes complete with superhero cape, mask, and a matching piece of adventure gear for the child to wear. There is also what Wilder calls the ‘builder’ accessory, or adventure package — a hard hat and shirt with a bulldozer and tool belt on it.

In both cases, the child playing with ‘Will’ can really stretch his imagination, which is the general idea, or at least one of the ideas.

Another is to help foster relationship building, something that has always been done with girls, but not with young boys, said Wilder.

“Harvard did a study that followed men for 80 years, a happiness study,” she noted. “I don’t remember the intervals they checked in on, but there were several, and they kept asking, ‘what’s making life most full or happy?’ and at each one, it was relationships. But we don’t foster relationships for our boys like we do for our girls.”

The first shipment of 2,000 Crewmates arrived from the factory in South China in September, said Wilder, and sales, many of them conducted online, have been steady since — more than 700 Crewmates and roughly 300 of the adventure packs.

She has managed to secure shelf space with a number of retailers in time for the holiday shopping season, including A2Z in Northampton, the Gifted Child in Lenox, and the Toy Orchard in Wilbraham, which is an important development and not an easy feat given the scarcity of that shelf space and the rigorous competition for it.

“We made it in about 10 stores pre-holiday, which is tough because most of those stores shop a year or more in advance,” she explained. “It’s start, and a pretty good start; the retail stores have been reporting that they have sold a few and that they feel good about that.”

Looking ahead, Wilder obviously wants to build on that solid start, with more Crewmates and more outlets for the products, and there appear to be many opportunities to do so.

She will have an exhibit at the huge Toy Fair 2016, and has appointments booked with some major retailers, such as Target, Toys R Us, Barnes & Noble, and others.

She is using the $27,500 she won through the VVM Accelerator program — she also won the Pitch Contest at the recent Western Mass. Business Expo, earning a chance at $70,000 infor the first run of the Crewmates, new prototype development, and marketing, the majority of which is being done online, and comes at a time, as Wilder said, when this subject is very much in the news and on the minds of parents, who are thus plugged in.

“Dolls for boys are all over the media right now,” she said, noting that one story that went viral involved a mother who crafted an American Girl doll into something for her son because she couldn’t find a suitable equivalent in the boys aisle.

Meanwhile, she went on, Mattel, the maker of Barbie, recently released the first commercial featuring a boy playing with that iconic toy.

“It’s an interesting time, and I think it’s the right time to be launching this product,” she said, hitting on two of the basics of entrepreneurship — timing, and having the right product for those times.

Boy Toys

Wilder is realistic enough to know that son won’t be the last young boy to be sent home with a note talking about how boys shouldn’t cry. As she said, those sentiments are pervasive.

Wonder Crew

Laurel Wilder says Wonder Crew was created to take the stigma out of boys playing with dolls.

But there is more than hint of a movement that maybe someday they will be far less so, and she wants to be part of that movement.

In Wonder Crew, she believes she has some of the answer, and early results show that, perhaps, she’s right.

Indeed, where there’s a ‘Will,’ there’s a way.


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

Cover Story Education Sections

Building an Education Hub

Downtown Colleges

It all started three years ago, when Cambridge College, after surveying a number of potential sites for its regional campus, settled on some former retail space on the ground floor of Tower Square. Now there are four colleges and universities with what could be called a presence in the central business district. That constitutes a “hub,” according to many we talked to about this development, one that has the ability to bring additional energy and vibrancy to the downtown area.

When Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke at the MassMutual Center on Sept. 9 as part of the 2015 Springfield Public Forum series, there were more than 2,500 people in the hall.

A good number of them represented the area’s many colleges and universities, including students, faculty members, administrators, distinguished alums, and supporters. Springfield College, for example, had roughly 40 people in attendance, and prior to Sotomayor’s talk, most of them were gathered at a reception in unique community space set aside for tenants and their guests on the third floor of 1350 Main St., just across the street from the convention center.

The college wasn’t officially in the building yet, said its president, Mary-Beth Cooper, but lease papers had been signed for space on the second floor just a few days before Sotomayor came to Springfield, so the school took full advantage of a huge opportunity.

Mary-Beth Cooper

Mary-Beth Cooper says Springfield College leaders wanted to be part of the downtown revitalization in the city, so an address in the central business district made sense.

“I called and asked if we could we use that space,” said Cooper. “There’s a deck, it’s right across the street … we had a nice reception.”

Gaining the ability to host such a party wasn’t the reason why Springfield College became the fourth area institution of higher learning to add a downtown Springfield mailing address over the past few years.

But it may well have been one of the reasons.

There are myriad others, said Cooper, who told BusinessWest that, to make a somewhat long story short, the college wanted to support the city it is named after, and, perhaps more importantly, it wanted to be part of what’s happening downtown — be that a revitalization, comeback, renaissance, or whatever term may be deemed appropriate.

Thus, Springfield College is now part of what would have to be called a movement involving higher education and Springfield’s central business district.

It all started in 2012, when Cambridge College, looking for a replacement for tired and insufficient facilities for its Springfield Regional Center in an industrial building on Cottage Street, settled on long-vacant retail space on the ground floor of Tower Square. Two years later, Bay Path College, bursting at the seams on its Longmeadow campus and in search of a home for its American Women’s College, chose the spacious seventh floor of 1350 Main St. from several appealing options.

And in September of 2014, The University of Massachusetts opened the UMass Center at Springfield, a 26,000-square-foot facility on the mezzanine level of Tower Square that is now hosting classes involving roughly 700 students this fall.

By comparison to those other facilities, Springfield College’s investment is small by any measure — its offices total less than 2,000 square feet, and only a few people are actually in those offices at any given time.

But there is room for growth, and in the meantime, this latest addition only adds to what Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno called an infusion of “positive energy and brainpower.”

“Eds and meds are an important part of economic development,” he said, using the term to connote the education and healthcare sectors. “And when you couple what’s happening with the colleges downtown with efforts to promote entrepreneurship, the innovation district we’re building, and the efforts of groups like Valley Venture Mentors, it generates additional momentum.

“Years ago, people laughed at us when we said we were going to bring colleges and universities into the downtown,” he went on, adding that no one is laughing anymore.

Instead, they’re undertaking some speculation and analysis — on the impact of all this proliferation of colleges along Main Street, and about how and in what ways this momentum can be built upon.

Lynn Griesemer, assistant vice president of Economic Development at UMass and executive director of the UMass Donohue Institute, has been doing some analysis herself. She told BusinessWest that what’s developing downtown could certainly be termed an “education hub,” one that has the potential to attract additional businesses, non-profits, people, and vibrancy to the area.

“It’s starting to create a magnet,” she said, emphasizing those words ‘starting to.’ “With patience and ongoing support from the community, the city, and the state, I think that you could see this magnet growing into something that brings a lot more vitality into the downtown.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest looks at how this hub, or magnet, came to be, and also at what its potential forces of attraction might become.

Course of Events

Hot Table restaurant on the ground floor at Tower Square is now open until 8 p.m. on weekdays, several hours later than its old closing time.

Teresa Forte, director of Cambridge College’s Springfield Regional Center, located just a few dozen feet away, knows that prodding from her and many of the students who attend classes into the early evening played a big part in that decision.

Overall, she believes that’s only one relatively small example of the impact that Cambridge and the other colleges are having downtown, an influence she described with the same phrase Greisemer summoned.

“Whether we call it that or not, the downtown is becoming an educational hub for Springfield,” she told BusinessWest. “I’m proud that Cambridge College started the trend; the true benefactors are the students who can now use downtown as a one-stop shopping zone when they are considering educational opportunities.”

Looking back over how this hub came together, it becomes clear that, while the schools involved had somewhat different motivations and goals behind their respective decisions, the common denominator is that they reached a decision that they wanted — and in many respects needed — to be downtown.

Retracing the steps that led to Cambridge becoming urban pioneers, if you will, or at least next-generation pioneers, Forte said the school looked at a number of options as it went about the task of replacing the Cottage Street facilities, which it called home for more than 20 years.

At the time, the school wasn’t really focused on being part of a revitalization effort — although that was certainly part of the equation — as much as it was centered on making a move that simply made sense from the perspectives of visibility and convenience for all constituencies involved, and would enable the school to ultimately grow enrollment, she explained.

“I described us as the best-kept secret in higher education in Springfield — even our sign didn’t light up,” she said of the Cottage Street facility. “Our lease was up, and the decision was made to search for a new, upgraded location. After many months and many visits to locations all over Springfield, it became clear that the best options for us were in downtown.

“It would not only provide us with better transportation options for our students — on a bus line and close to 91 — but also give us an opportunity to become a stronger contributor to the Springfield community,” she went on. “The search was narrowed to three locations in downtown, and Tower Square was chosen for a few very important reasons. First, it had the street-level site available, which was important for signage. Second, it was one of the most secure locations in all of downtown.”

Elaborating, she said Tower Square has a very responsive security staff which conducts patrols on the hour both inside the mall and outside the perimeter of the building, and there are also cameras everywhere, including the garage.  Meanwhile, in terms of parking, students are given the option to park in the Tower Square garage, meaning they can take the elevator to class.

With that package of amenities, Cambridge thought it could grow its Springfield Regional Center, she continued, and in reality, that’s exactly what has happened.

Teresa Forte

Teresa Forte says Cambridge College’s location in Tower Square — which offers students solid security, parking, and transportation amenities — has spurred an increase in enrollment.

“Cambridge College has a very unique mission — we cater to a diverse population of students for whom educational opportunities may have been limited or denied; we were one of the first colleges to specialize in assisting non-traditional students,” she explained. “And the interesting trend that has happened since we moved downtown is that we seem to be attracting a larger number of traditional students who have never been to college before. We’ve been in downtown for almost three years, and our enrollment in Springfield has been steadily rising for the past five years.”

For UMass, meanwhile, its arrival downtown, while certainly part of ongoing efforts to become more of a factor in Greater Springfield economic-development efforts, was actually sparked by a statewide study of potential growth opportunities for the university apart from its five campuses, said Griesemer.

That analysis identified several such locations, she went on, including Brockton, Southeastern Mass., Springfield, and the Marlboro area in the eastern part of the Commonwealth.

“There is a whole wedge in that area that has no higher-ed institutions — it’s between Routes 128, 495, 2, and 90,” she said of what amounts to Greater Marlboro, adding that most of the sites identified were in so-called Gateway cities (many of its existing campuses are in different ones) such as Springfield, and the university decided, after an in-depth market research study, to first pursue a project in the City of Homes.

What eventually emerged was the UMass Center at Springfield, which was announced in the fall if 2013 and opened less than a year later. It now hosts classes for several UMass Amherst programs, including the College of Nursing, the Isenberg School of Management’s part-time MBA program, the University Without Walls, and others. It also hosts programs offered by or in conjunction with UMass Boston, Springfield Technical Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Westfield State University.

Griesemer didn’t have a specific number when asked how many people are at the Springfield facility on a given day, but pegged student enrollment alone at between 600 and 700, a number that has gone up each semester.

Schools of Thought

As for Bay Path, its move downtown in the fall if 2013 was generated by a basic need for additional space for the online American Women’s College, said President Carol Leary.

“We spent a good amount of time looking at various locations, but Springfield was at the top of our list because we have our roots there going back to 1897,” she said, adding that school administrators fell in love with the culture at 1350 Main St.

And by culture, she meant everything from its focus on the arts — there are several galleries there — to its eatery to its eclectic mix of tenants.

“You have a feel, when you enter this place, that it’s more than an office building,” she explained, adding that the 11,805 square feet now in use hosts roughly 40 full-time employees.

And they are certainly contributing to the health of the local economy, said Leary, who attended college in Boston, understands and appreciates how higher education adds vibrancy to a city, and enjoys being part of that equation locally.

“I love the energy of a city, so I’ve enjoyed it, and our staff enjoys it,” she noted. “And we’re definitely pumping some money into the economy.”

Cooper said Springfield College’s ties to the City of Homes obviously run even deeper, and they certainly played a part in the school’s decision to lease some space at 1350 Main St.

She said she was having lunch downtown with trustee vice chair Jim Ross, when the discussion turned to the city, it’s central business district, and the many things happening there. “We talked about MGM, the rebirth of the city, transportation … everything,” she recalled, adding that the conversation eventually evolved into a discussion about if and how to become part of it — or a bigger part.

Actually, Cooper says she’s been asked several times since she arrived in the fall of 2013 about the school establishing a presence downtown. She was intrigued by the questions, in part because, in many ways, she thought the school was already downtown.

It is only a few miles as the crow flies from Main Street, she acknowledged, adding quickly that, through her lunch talk with Ross, she came to the conclusion that a direct presence in the CBD was an appropriate step.

Bay Path University President Carol Leary

Bay Path University President Carol Leary says the school’s space at 1350 Main St. has plenty of room for expansion.

Fast-forwarding a little, Ross and the college are now essentially sharing space on 1350’s second floor. The former conference room for a bank has been converted into a conference room and two offices, one for Cooper and one for Ross.

It’s not a big presence, certainly, and its specific uses have yet to be determined, but the college is now a part of what is becoming an increasingly larger and more impactful whole, said Cooper, who, when asked what she has in mind for the space besides receptions, told BusinessWest the same thing she told her board.

“I want people to think about the possibilities,” she said, listing everything from candidate interviews to leadership team sessions to subcommittee meetings involving the many boards she’s on.

But she wants that’s phrase ‘think about the possibilities’ to extend well beyond how the school’s physical space may be used.

Indeed, she said the expanding higher-ed presence downtown may well inspire and facilitate additional collaborative efforts involving a host of area schools, and eventually generate more opportunities to pair area students with downtown businesses through internships and other programs.

“Part of my agenda is to facilitate a move toward collaboration between the colleges and universities,” she said. “I think that would be good for individual schools, better for all our students, and better for the community.”

Class Acts

As she gave BusinessWest  a quick tour of the Bay Path suite of offices, Leary, who spends two full days a week downtown, stopped at the spacious kitchen. It is very well-stocked and outfitted with every necessary appliance.

There are also several round tables and chairs arranged café-style. They get a decent amount of use, said Leary, but many of those working at the downtown location prefer to eat out, and do so quite regularly.

Many are also members of the gym upstairs, she went on, adding that membership was paid by the landlord the first year (another perk of tenantship), but several employees are staying on even though the cost has shifted to them.

Meanwhile, Hot Table’s hours have expanded; the store that UMass operates on the ground floor at Tower Square, the UMass Marketplace, has expanded its food offerings; and Griesemer said there have been more than a few conversations lately about the lines at most downtown eateries getting longer — and how that’s a good thing.

But the more serious talk is about how the proliferation of colleges downtown will have a much deeper impact than a bottom-line bounce for downtown dining establishments.

Indeed, those we spoke with talked about the potential for more and deeper collaborations and of that aforementioned ‘magnet effect.’

Griesemer relayed some recent discussions that more than suggested that the schools are helping to foster an environment that may draw more draw more employers — and employees — to the central business district.

“We’ve had a few nonprofits say to us, ‘we’re interested in moving into downtown Springfield because you have,’” she said. “There are already several in the tower and room for many more.”

Sarno agreed, and noted that the critical mass of students, employees, and administrators created by the movement of higher education into the downtown area will only facilitate efforts to create more market-rate housing there, which is considered one of the keys to generating more vibrancy and additional retail.

“I think this will help in our push for market-rate housing,” he explained. “And the more pedestrian traffic you can have matriculating from the North End to the South End, the more beneficial it will be to bringing in spin-off businesses.”

When asked if there was a model for a larger, more sophisticated education hub that Springfield could aspire to, she said there are several, including Phoenix.

“There are examples of places where you had a single higher-education institution put down a footprint and others followed, like Arizona State,” Griesemer explained. “There is still room for considerable growth in Springfield when it comes to this hub.”

While the current picture is one defined by enthusiasm, and there is considerable optimism about what might come next, the immediate forecast is at least somewhat clouded by two concurrent, and massive, construction projects that will certainly impact access to the downtown — MGM’s South End casino and reconstruction of the I-91 viaduct.

“We absolutely are concerned about that,” said Forte, noting that accessibility is a key factor in the success of the downtown location. “But we’re also hopeful that the city and highway department will be considerate of our population and create traffic alternatives that will not cause great impact for us.”

Sarno said the city — not to mention the contractor handling the I-91 work — is certainly incentivized to do just that, and also get the project done on time.

“So far, so good — communication has been great, and they’re ahead of schedule … and there are 9 million reasons why this contractor wants to get phase one done ahead of time,” said the mayor, citing the bonus put in place by the state for accomplishing that feat. “This had to be done, and we’re hoping to keep the disruption to a minimum.”

Study in Possibilities

As she wrapped up her tour of Bay Path’s facilities, Leary spent a few moments in the cluttered, currently unused space on the seventh floor into which the school could, and likely will, expand.

“I can see us filling all of this someday,” she said, sweeping her arm across the area. “We’re not done yet down here.”

With those sentiments, she spoke for seemingly everyone that is now part of this education hub in the central business district.

In fact, by almost all accounts, those within this key sector are just getting started.

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

Cover Story Events WMBExpo

Wednesday, November 4, 2015
MassMutual Center, Springfield

WMBExpo 2015 LOGOWMBExpoGuide2015sponsors2

The big day is almost here.

And by big, Kate Campiti, associate publisher of BusinessWest, means big. That’s the easiest and perhaps the best way to describe the fifth edition of the Western Mass. Business Expo, produced by BusinessWest and HCN.

It will be big in terms of size and scope — more than 2,500 attendees are expected, and there will be more than 125 businesses exhibiting — and also in its impact when it comes to showcasing the region’s business community and providing the invaluable insight needed to thrive in an increasingly competitive global economy.

And, as always, it will be very big with regard to creating networking opportunities.

“We like to say this show is all about creating connections,” said Campiti. “And connections come in many forms. People can connect with other business owners, they can connect with local and state agencies that provide needed assistance, and they can connect with concepts about how to become better at what they do.”

WMBExpoGuide2015-1Go HERE to view the 2015 WMBExpo Show Guide

The show, which will kick off with the Springfield Regional Chamber’s November breakfast, featuring keynoter Dan Kenary, CEO and co-founder of Harpoon Brewery, will feature more than eight hours of programs that will be informative, educational, and inspirational, and will bring together popular elements from Expos past and introduce some new ones.

In that first category, will be informative seminars, more than dozen of them, in tracks ranging from sales and marketing to ‘hottest trends’; a popular retail corridor; a pitch contest staged by Valley Venture Mentors; and the event-capping Expo Social, one of the region’s best networking events.

In that latter category will be a multi-faceted focus on the region’s precision manufacturing sector and the workforce challenges facing it. That focus includes robotics and machine tooling demonstrations; exhibits created by area vocational students on the various tools or their trade and ongoing efforts to forge partnerships with area manufacturers; and a luncheon program featuring Alison Lands, senior manager in Deloitte’s Strategy & Operations practice.


Business Expo Looks to Build Momentum for Manufacturing


She served as a co-author and editor of the New England Council and Deloitte’s recently published report, Advanced to Advantageous: The Case for New England’s Manufacturing Revolution, and her talk will be focused on that document.

This year’s pitch contest will have a new and intriguing twist. This year’s event, which represents a partnership between VVM, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., the Small Business Administration, and entrepreneur sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, will feature the debut of the InnovateHER pitch competition.

The InnovateHER Challenge is a national prize competition aimed at unearthing products and services that impact and empower women and families through local business competitions. The winner of the Nov. 4 VVM Pitch Contest will advance to the next round of the national InnovateHER competition, with a chance to compete for $70,000 in prize money.

The five contestants at the VVM competition, who will have booths at what’s known as Startup Row and thus can be visited throughout the day, and will stage a preview of their pitches on the Show Floor Theater from 1 to 1:30 p.m., are:

• AuthenFOOD, which enables customers to order food online and reviews local chefs and bakers;
• Bhlue Publishing, LLC, which provides career guidance for young people that focuses on success without a four-year degree;
• Do+Make Business District, an online community and school for what it calls “solopreneurs escaping the 9-5”;
• Hot Oven Cookies, which promises to “deliver comfort in a cookie”; and
• Wonder Crew, a toy company that “offers boys a more expansive play experience, one where they can be strong and emotionally connected.”

Expo attendees will have the opportunity to choose which of those five they think will prevail in the competition. Those who guess correctly will win a beverage for the social.

The region’s healthcare sector will be prominently displayed at the Expo, with a designated corridor. It will be populated by Holyoke Medical Center, HealthSouth, MedExpress Urgent Care, Porchlight VNA/Home Care (which willk be offering flu shots), Ex Physical Therapy, and many other area companies.

A returning feature will be the Retail Corridor, which made a popular debut in 2014. It will feature a host of area companies featuring holiday gift items in a range of categories, from therapeutic massage to chocolate; cosmetics to jewelry; fruit baskets to Springfield Falcons tickets.

Meanwhile, new this year is the Business Support Center, which, as that name would suggest, features a number of exhibiting economic-development-related agencies that exist to support business owners and managers.

Participating agencies include the Economic Development Counsel of Western Mass., the Mass. Office of Business Development, the Kittredge Center at Holyoke Community College, the Mass. Export Center, the Holyoke Innovation District, and the Mass. Small Business Development Center, among many others.

The Expo will again be presented by Comcast Business, which has been the show’s lead sponsor since HCN and BusinessWest began producing it in 2011. Director-level sponsors are Health New England, Johnson & Hill Staffing Services, MGM Springfield, and Wild Apple Design Group. The Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst is the education sponsor, 94.7 WMAS is the media sponsor, Peerless Precision, Smith & Wesson, the NTMA, and the Larry A. Maier Memorial Educational Fund are the Robotics and Manufacturing sponsors, and Meyers Brothers Kalicka is Entrepreneur sponsor.

WMBExpoEventSchedule2015

Cover Story

Building a Better Mop

Dan Koval

Dan Koval

Dan Koval found inspiration for his latest entrepreneurial venture while sitting in a hotel room, watching a cleaning attendant struggle with back pain. A conversation with that woman led to a question: what solutions exist to reduce such chronic pain — and the employer costs related to worker injury and lost time? Finding none, Koval — the latest subject of BusinessWest’s ongoing series of articles about the region’s growing wave of entrepreneurs — decided to come up with one of his own.

Four years ago, Daniel Koval was working in a London hotel room when the cleaning attendant arrived. Although most people leave while the job is being done, he stayed and continued to work.

“But I could tell that the woman’s back was hurting from the way she was moving,” Koval recalled, adding that it led to a conversation he found profoundly intriguing.

“She told me she had just returned to work after taking nine months off for a back injury incurred on the job,” he said. “When I pushed, she told me the hotel group had paid $40,000 for her surgery, the insurance company had offered her more against further claims, and all of her colleagues had either been injured on the job or were out with similar work-related injuries.”

Koval had spent the majority of his career in product development, and the room attendant’s story presented a challenge he couldn’t forget. “I realized everyone was losing — the woman would suffer back pain the rest of her life, and, in addition to costing the company money, they lost a good employee for nine months. There are other costs associated with hiring a replacement, so, I thought, ‘why not try to crack this?’”

At the time, the serial entrepreneur was running another business, so the idea was relegated to the back burner. But it simmered until it got his full attention and he took steps to determine the scope of the problem.

Koval had a team of product designers and ergonomists visit hotels in London and in the U.S., where they met with union representatives and discussed the incidence of job-related injuries. “We quickly found it was a global problem,” he said.

“Room attendants are the coal miners of the hospitality industry. Their work is taxing and physically demanding; they have to kneel, bend, and put their wrist in positions that can cause carpal-tunnel problems, and they do this eight hours a day, five or six days a week. It can affect their knees, shoulders, wrists, and back,” he explained. “One study found that 91% of room attendants experience pain at work, and 66% take pain medication just to be able to go to work.”

The Duop system

The Duop system employs a ball-and-socket mechanism that allows the mop to pivot 360 degrees.

The next step — which eventually led Koval to leave Europe, move back to the U.S., and start a new business called Worksafe Technology Inc., whose first product is a mop system designed to solve the problem — was to have experts shadow room attendants. However, they also looked at other industries and found that window washers and people who cleaned hospitals, restaurants, office buildings, and homes that provide temporary or long-term care had similar issues with their necks and shoulders.

“We looked at the tools they were using, studied what was wrong, and decided to focus on creating a new mop. Traditional mops are designed to clean floors, but there was no tool that could clean the back of tub walls, baseboards, windows, and mirrors — in other words, both vertical and horizontal surfaces,” Koval told BusinessWest as he demonstrated repetitive body positions required to clean these surfaces in a small space, which include kneeling, squatting, and balling up a rag and repeatedly rubbing it with a bent wrist to clean a mirror. “The problem with traditional mops was the hinge, and they all used the same system.”

At that point, the concept for the Duop system was born.

What’s a Duop?

The name comes from the idea of having a ‘dual mop,’ as the head of the product can be removed and used by hand, which leads to better ergonomic, hygiene, and cleaning results, Koval said.

However, the Duop took time to develop, and many adjustments were made based on feedback culled from London hotel-room attendants who tested a variety of prototypes. Changes were incorporated that included the size of the handle grip and the ability to move it easily from room to room, which Koval said is important, as many upscale hotels are doing away with unsightly cleaning carts, instead having room attendants carry the supplies they need.

“It took five to seven rounds before we got something that worked. But we kept fine-tuning the product with advice from our ergonomists,” he noted.

Today, the mop has been perfected. It employs a telescopic pole that can be adjusted and locked into a three- to five-foot length, depending on the job that needs to be done. “Most mop handles are four feet, but having one that is five feet allows the person to stand up much straighter. Plus, it can be extended to clean the ceiling,” Koval told BusinessWest.

However, the revolutionary part of the tool is found at the end of the pole. It contains a unique ball-and-socket mechanism that can pivot 360 degrees when the ball on the head is snapped into the socket, which allows it to be used for a variety of tasks, such as cleaning shower walls and ceilings or dusting baseboards.

The heads come in three sizes, and a variety of microfiber cloths — one designed for dusting, another for scrubbing, and a third for general mopping — can be attached to them with Velcro, although one type of head allows a cloth to be folded into its edges, then flipped over and reused.

“The room attendants’ biggest considerations were speed and quality of cleaning. What we gave them had to allow them to clean faster and better because they are under such pressure to meet their quotas,” Koval said.

Those goals have been realized, he went on. “Using the wide face to clean a mirror instead of a crumpled cloth allows the job to be done five times faster and is more hygienic, as the microfiber picks up microscopic particles.”

Koval and his associates were surprised by the response to the prototypes. “They told us they wanted to keep them and use them at home. It made us realize the Duop is not just a commercial product, but something that can help the consumer clean easier and faster.”

Dan Koval says the Duop mop

Dan Koval says the Duop mop is the first of what he hopes are many products his company develops to help reduce injuries and promote workplace wellness.

In 2012, Koval created a company known as Worksafe Technology Inc. to market the Duop System. Its goal is to eliminate causes of frequent and recurring workplace injuries by combining expertise in product design, development, and technology.

“We are just rolling the Duop out on the market,” he said, explaining that it took so long partly because he worked on it only part-time. “Our patent was filed about a year ago and is still pending, but we brought the mop to commercial trade shows for professional cleaners, industry shows for housekeepers, and the Chicago Housewares Show, and the response has been amazing.”

Large, professional cleaning organizations have expressed interest, and at the consumer show, companies ranging from QVC to Bed Bath & Beyond and Amazon shared their enthusiasm. “There was also interest by international companies, and we are negotiating an agreement with partners in Japan, Taiwan, Holland, Germany, and the U.S.,” Koval said. “The product was just launched in the past month, and so far, we have sales of more than $100,000 pending.”

The cost of the mop will range from $25 to $40, and getting to that figure was critical, as Koval said ergonomic products are often priced too high to compete with standard products. “But our goal is to help as many people as we can.”

The mops will be marketed to the general public via Worksafe Technology’s website in about two months. “We have developed e-commerce packaging, but still have to develop consumer packaging, and that requires being able to explain what the mop does in about three seconds,” he noted. “But I’m very excited about this. It’s rare to come up with something so simple that has the potential to help so many people.”

All-encompassing Experience

Koval began his career with a degree in marketing. “But I always wanted to be in product development. It excites me,” he said. Although he grew up in Western Mass., after graduating from college he was hired by GE, who sent him to London, then Hungary. He worked in sales and international business development, then as a product manager for GE Lighting.

After earning an MBA from INSEAD in France and working as a consultant, he knew it was time to branch out on his own, and he established a gift company called Heads Up Design that manufactured cuckoo clocks featuring farm animals. He sold that business to a German company, but continued to develop items that ranged from clocks to candles. “We made about 30 different products,” he said.

Koval was living in Budapest when he began conducting the research required to create the Duop mop. When he moved back to the U.S. in 2012, his gift business became secondary, as he felt the potential for the Duop was unlimited and the need for it was greater here than in Europe.

“The U.S. doesn’t have socialized medicine, so our initial belief was the cost of an injured employee was higher to insurance companies and businesses here. But we are finding there is a huge demand for the mop in Europe. It turns out that it’s not only the cost of healthcare, it’s about the cost of losing a good employee, which makes it universal,” he told BusinessWest. “And consumers want anything that will help them clean faster and better. The drudgery of cleaning is the same everywhere in the world.”

Although Koval returned to Western Mass. to establish Worksafe Technology, he thought he would have to relocate again to a larger city like Boston to stay competitive. But he is happy to report he and his family will be able to remain in the Berkshires, thanks to his involvement with Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), an entrepreneurship-mentoring program based in Springfield.

“I had moved to Europe in 1989 and spent almost my entire career there, so I didn’t have any business contacts here,” Koval said. “But I heard that VVM was organizing a bus trip to Boston, and after I met some of the members and got involved, I realized there was an entrepreneurial ecosystem right here in Western Mass.” He added that VVM has been extremely helpful, and co-founder Paul Silva introduced him to the company that will become his partner in the U.S. market.

The Duop system is Worksafe Technology’s first product, but the company will continue to seek ways to reduce injuries in the workplace. “Now that we know what to look for and how to design these products, we will to try to solve other healthcare-related problems,” Koval continued.

No Pain, but Gain

The inspiration for the Duop system came from watching a woman work despite obvious discomfort. But Koval said the pain the mop can prevent is both literal and figurative.

As to the figurative, well, that enters the picture in terms of healthcare expenses and the cost of replacing and training new employees, even if it’s on a temporary basis. “In 2010, workers’ compensation programs cost employers $71.3 billion, and the cost of an average injury is estimated at over $20,000, so the benefits of eliminating them is immense,” Koval said.

But the reward for preventing pain — the ability to work in an occupation known for repetitive stress injuries without fear of incurring one — is priceless, and affects the physical, mental, emotional, and financial realms.

And he has already seen the effects. “I got a big hug when I gave one woman our mop. She had been a housekeeper for 20 years and was so happy with it,” he recalled. “Another said, ‘it’s too late for me because I already have an injury. But this could really help young people from getting hurt on the job.’”

Which is exactly what Koval anticipates the Duop will do.

“It’s great from a design aesthetic,” he said, “but I hope it will bring a smile to people’s faces who work in the cleaning industry, and also cause businesses to smile for a different reason — no more painful costs.”

Cover Story

Cover Story

Bob Cummings, CEO and managing principal

Bob Cummings, CEO and managing principal

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

Bob Cummings calls it his “acronym glossary.”

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

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

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

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

Got it? Of course not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dollars and Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When a Plan Comes Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Benefits Group Benefits Card

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

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

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

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

Letters of the Law

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

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

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

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

 

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

Cover Story

A Cancer Battle Plan

Mike Balise

Mike Balise

Since he was first diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer roughly a year ago, Mike Balise, co-owner of the large family of auto dealerships bearing the family’s name, has fought the disease with determination, creativity, and his indomitable humor. (When told that he had already reached stage 4, he asked the doctor, “can we create a fifth?”) He’s already lived longer than the doctors told him he would, but it’s not longevity that makes this story compelling — it’s the quality of that life and the manner in which he’s become an inspiration to all those around him.

Mike Balise has always been a huge New England Patriots fan.

He’s had season tickets since 1988, but was attending games — the 1985 AFC championship tilt against the Dolphins in Miami that sent the Pats to their first Super Bowl is one he fondly remembers — long before that.

Speaking of Super Bowls, he’s been to four now, including last February’s classic Patriots triumph in Phoenix (more on that adventure later). Meanwhile, through his business — several players and coaches buy or lease cars from the family of dealerships Mike serves as co-owner and vice president — he’s on a first-name basis with several people within the Pats’ organization, including its iconic head coach.

So when Judge Richard Berman freed Tom Brady earlier this month by vacating the four-game suspension imposed by the NFL, Balise was naturally in a celebratory mood.

Well, sort of, but not really.

Mike Balise, seen here with Patriots coach Bill Belichick

Mike Balise, seen here with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, says he’s focused on not letting his stomach cancer dictate his life.

He told BusinessWest that he was very tired of the whole ‘Deflategate’ ordeal by that time, and was candid when he said he thought way too much time, money, and energy was spent on a matter that was taking needed attention from “real issues in this world.”

More to the point, he had just started a new chemotherapy regimen, and he was still dealing with the accompanying physical and emotional issues. Meanwhile, the pain that had retreated for the better part of six months was back with a vengeance and had reached what he considered a new level of severity.

“When that decision came out, I couldn’t have cared less about anything,” he said.

And there were still other, more pressing matters on his mind — such as the nagging question about what to do about his mother if and when that chemotherapy leads to serious hair loss, as the doctors are telling him it probably will.

Indeed, Viola (Vicky) Balise doesn’t know that her 50-year-old son, the youngest of her six children, has been diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer and continuously impresses those same doctors by the simple fact that he’s still alive.

And she’s not about to find out any time soon.

Balise said the news that reaches his bedridden, 88-year-old mother is censored, for lack of a better word, and family members are extraordinarily careful about what they say and do around Vicky to keep the diagnosis from her.

As for the impending hair loss and how to explain it away, Mike has a solution. His plan is to stage a promotion — details of which are emerging — whereby he will auction off one of his two season tickets to raise money for cancer research and treatment, attend the game with the high bidder, shave his head, and paint whatever image that companion wants on his bald scalp.

And if the hair should not grow back quickly or profoundly? “I’ll just tell her I like it that way,” said Balise with a laugh.

Various forms of creativity and humor have been Balise’s best weapons since he was first given his diagnosis in October 2014 and told bluntly that people who get this form of cancer generally don’t live more than nine to 12 months after reaching stage 4, which he already had.

Mike Balise says one of his priorities now is spending time with his family

Mike Balise says one of his priorities now is spending time with his family, including, from left, daughters Nicole and Marisa, a dog named Brady, son David, and wife Maryellen.

“I told the doctor, ‘I could have gone anywhere in the world for this diagnosis. You’re supposed to be good; can’t you think harder?’” he recalled, adding that the joke helped him through that terrible moment somewhat, but couldn’t stem the flow of tears coming from his wife, Maryellen, and brother, Jeb, who were with him in the room — or make the doctor any more at ease.

While making jokes about that diagnosis, Mike has also asked a lot of hard questions. Among them: what’s the longest anyone has ever lived after reaching stage 4 with this cancer? “The doctor checked with some other hospitals, came back, and said, ‘I think 20 months is the longest anyone’s lasted.’”

Doing the quick math in his head, Balise said 20 months for him would be roughly next May. He’s determined to not only get there, but somehow keep going and, through modern science, set a new longevity mark for people with his condition.

More importantly, he’s focused on living life as he would otherwise, and make the very most of whatever time he has left. That means considerable time on his boats, with his family, at Gillette Stadium, at the Balise headquarters taping radio commercials, and bringing attention to the need for more cancer services in this region.

He said 2015 has been both the most difficult year of his life and, in many respects, also the best. “Overall, I found more meaning this past year than at any other time in my life.”

For this issue, he consented to talk with BusinessWest about all that he meant by that statement, and how he copes with a very uncertain future through a “strategy for life” that he and his loved ones created together.

Setting the Stage

Balise told BusinessWest that the first 49 and a half years of his life were marked by very few health concerns of note, with the biggest issue, quite literally, being a bathroom scale that at times posted the number 335 or more when he stepped on it, but generally read between 235 and 245 in recent years.

“I was a gym rat — a weightlifter and a cardio nutcase,” he explained. “I grew up kind of fat, but I never had any real problems.”

So he wasn’t overly concerned when, in July 2014, he started feeling discomfort in his stomach. But anxiety increased as the pain continued and worsened.

When asked to describe it, Balise, who was at the time sipping a Diet Coke, said it would be like consuming an extremely large amount of that product and having it collect without burping.

“It was like an airy, gassy feeling — it’s a little hard to describe,” he recalled. “It started out mild, and then it got uncomfortable pretty quickly.”

Balise eventually went to seek medical attention, thus beginning an odyssey that has summoned every emotion and challenged him in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

And he could imagine plenty, especially after the colorful analysis provided by his local internist as he assessed and explained the information given to him following an endoscopy Balise endured early last October.

“He said, ‘you’re about to step into the ring with Mike Tyson … and you’ve never been to the gym before,’” Balise recalled, adding that doctors would soon tell him, “‘we don’t cure this kind of cancer; we can make it so your quality of life is better and extend your life, but we don’t cure this cancer.’”

As he talked about how this bout has unfolded, and what lies ahead, Balise said he was doing so somewhat reluctantly. He stressed repeatedly that there are many people in this region waging similar fights alone, and there is nothing extraordinary about his other than perhaps the severity of his cancer and the fact that his name, face, and voice are well-known within the community.

He said he consented to do this interview and a few others over the past year or so to shed some light on the myriad physical and emotional issues confronting all those who are battling cancer or will fight it someday, and to drive home the fact that those numbers continue to climb as the population ages and advancing science permits longer and, often, more successful fights against the disease. And more resources will be needed to help people wage those fights.

To get his points across, he summoned memories of visits to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where he was taken aback by the sheer volume of people engaged in their own battles.

“It’s standing room only there all the time,” he said with seriousness in his voice mixed with a strong dose of concern. “You go there for your ‘labs,’ and you get there at 7 in the morning and you won’t leave till 5. There’s elderly people, individuals who are really sick, who don’t have a place to sit while they’re waiting, sometimes for 45 minutes, for their name to get called before their labs are done.

“There are people clamoring to get in that building,” he went on. “And when I talk to people I know who have been treated for cancer here in Springfield … it’s clear there’s a complete lack of capacity to handle the cancers out there.”

His own fight, as well as those images from Dana Farber and other facilities, no doubt played a role in the Balise family’s decision to make a $500,000 donation recently to the capital campaign to expand the Sr. Mary Caritas Cancer Center on the Mercy Medical Center campus.

“We might have done it anyway, but this …” he told BusinessWest, using that word to describe the sum of everything he’s experienced and witnessed since being diagnosed, “made it a no-brainer.”

Mike Balise with his brother, Jeb.

Mike Balise says he hasn’t enjoyed a better, stronger relationship than the one he’s had with his brother, Jeb.

Jeb Balise used that same term to describe the gift. He told BusinessWest that it was, like all donations from the Balise corporation, a decision made by a small team of individuals that field and assess myriad requests for support, and Mike is a member of that team.

He had input in the Caritas Center donation, Jeb went on, but kept what would be considered a low profile, especially with regard to the dollar amount.

“He didn’t want to make it seem that, because he had cancer, we were giving this money,” Jeb explained, adding that, throughout this ordeal, his brother has worked very hard to see to it that things are not about him.

Instead, Mike’s been focused on making a difference, or more of a difference, Jeb continued, adding that, while he’s always been active within the community and with causes such as autism — he recently took a 7-year-old from his neighborhood with that condition to see Pats coach Bill Belichick as he delivered a new car to him — the cancer fight has provided more opportunities to do so.

“His tonic is being able to make a difference,” said Jeb. “Certainly he’s been an inspiration, and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from other cancer survivors and people going through the same thing, and that’s tonic for Mike. He’s not really trying to save himself — he doesn’t have false expectations — but whether it’s raising money for the cancer cause or just helping the individual person with whatever their situation might be, that’s his biggest motivator.”

Body of Evidence

Turning back the clock a little more than a year, Mike Balise recalled that it took doctors some time to figure out what was causing that aforementioned pain in his stomach.

The discomfort started in July, and by September, he had seen a few doctors, who couldn’t find anything. Jeb, who had watched a colleague in the car business succumb to stomach cancer nine months after being diagnosed, grew increasingly concerned and prodded his brother to seek attention.

“I had a terrible feeling — I didn’t like what he was saying,” Jeb recalled.

Mike, meanwhile, was thinking that it was an ulcer, and as his 25th wedding anniversary and a planned weekend on Mount Washington approached, concern mounted.

“I said to Maryellen, ‘I’m going to go up there, and this ulcer’s going to rupture, and I’m going to be six hours away from a crappy hospital,’” he recalled, adding that the trip was eventually canceled amid his vow that he would make it up to her.

A few days later, though, an endoscopy rendered that pledge irrelevant and turned their world on its end.

“The procedure probably lasted about 30 seconds, and when it was over, they knew I was in pretty big trouble,” Mike told BusinessWest. “The guy said, ‘we found a tumor, and you should go to Boston’ — and that’s all he said.”

His internist, Dr. Rodney Larson, provided far deeper insight in the form of that Mike Tyson analogy. But it would be another week before the news became official, for lack of a better word.

“The doctor was looking at a screen, and it looked just like the TV in the movie Poltergeist,” said Balise, using more humor to relate the chain of events. “It had no distinguishable pattern or anything; it was just a fuzzy TV screen.

“He said, ‘do you see this?’ and I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me, doc — I don’t see anything.’ And then he replied, ‘you’re right; I forgot that you didn’t spend 15 years in medical school,’” he went on. “Then he said, ‘if we don’t get you on chemo this week or next week, your odds of survival will go down a lot.’”

There were more inquiries from Balise, and more humor. “My first question was, ‘how many stages are there?’ They said, ‘four.’ I go, ‘can you make a fifth?’” he recalled, adding that, when he asked how long he had to live and the doctor balked at answering, he insisted on knowing and issued what amounted to a threat.

“The doctor said, ‘well, we really don’t like to get to into prognosticating like that; it just confuses the patient more — people can obsess on that,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘cut the bullshit, doc; if you don’t tell me how long I’ve got, I’m going to leave and do whatever I need to do to get an answer.’

“So he looks at his screen, thinks for second, looks at the stage — I was stage 4 — and says, ‘80% of the people who get this will be dead in nine to 12 months.’”

Thus commenced a tortuous period that Balise likened to being a rat in a cage.

“The rat doesn’t accept that he’s in a cage,” he explained. “He wanders around the cage, poking at every nook and cranny repeatedly, looking for a way out. I was the same way.”

On a good night, Balise said, he could muster perhaps a few hours of sleep, a pattern that continued until he and loved ones came up with what he called a “strategy for my life, not just for my illness.”

Life Lessons

On the first page of that figurative document was dealing with the “dirty stuff, the painful stuff, the uncomfortable stuff,” meaning the broad task of putting his affairs in order, an important and challenging process, especially since he has an autistic 18-year-old daughter.

“We made the hard decisions, set up trusts, did all the paperwork,” he said, adding that, for this work and so many other aspects of his fight, he has leaned heavily on Jeb.

“I’ve never had a greater relationship with a human being in my life than the one I’ve had with my brother,” he told BusinessWest. “The trust factor is 100% there; in many of the cases where I would have to think through a lot of details, I just give Jeb durable power of attorney, and he can make any decisions, or my wife can.”

Jeb, deflecting attention away from his own contributions to the process, said simply that such financial work is “one of my strong suits.”

He said his brother has many as well, including the ability to use humor and other elements of his personality to not only navigate the physical and emotional whitewater from this ordeal, but also put others more at ease as they cope with the unfolding developments.

“Mike’s a warrior,” said Jeb. “He’s one part politician, one part Saturday Night Live character … and he’s a pretty smart businessman, too.”

But while Mike’s humor and other sentiments during this battle have been real, Jeb went on, he has used these various defense mechanisms to hide some of the many types of pain he has experienced during the ordeal.

“He really has done well, but he certainly masks much of what he has gone through,” he told BusinessWest. “His seemingly nonchalant attitude about all this is hard to put into words, but I think Mike really has focused on the quality of life every day instead of dwelling on the inevitable — and for all of us. He tries to focus on, ‘hey, what can I do today that’s meaningful and makes a difference?’”

Indeed, with that hard stuff behind him — and even during that challenging process — Balise said he went about, well, living life as he would have and not letting his diagnosis get in the way.

In some respects, that hasn’t been too difficult, because until recently, the pain that triggered this story had been absent from his life. Still, the chemo treatments, although less of an ordeal than he anticipated in some respects, have nonetheless packed a wallop, impacting everything from his energy level to his sense of taste, with the latter causing particular dismay.

“It’s been delightful compared to what I always heard it that would be — it’s been very kind to me,” he noted. “It changes … even though it’s the same medicine, the experience would be different every time I had it.”

Meanwhile, there have been many adjustments to make and new realities to accept when it comes to his body and what he can and can’t do.

“For years, I would bench-press 135 pounds 10 times, 185 pounds 10 times, and then 225 between four and eight times, and that was after doing all kinds of other warmups,” he explained. “Now, I do 100 pounds, one set, and I’m lucky if I can get 15 in.

“I don’t look that much different or worse,” he went on, adding that he currently weighs about 225 and hasn’t drawn too many questions from his mother about his waistline. “But things are different in terms of what my body can do and from a strength standpoint, but not from a flexibility standpoint or a million other standpoints.”

There have been changes in his workload as well, with Balise working a fraction of the 60 to 80 hours he traditionally put in during a work week years ago, with his duties now focused on coaching, mentoring, and continuing to be the voice of the company.

Those changes have resulted in part from his condition, but also due to some needed succession planning and realization that the company is much larger and more complex than it was years ago, said Jeb, adding that the company hired a COO roughly a year ago, and very recently added a vice president of sales, who handles many of Mike’s former responsibilities.

Living Color

For the most part, though, Balise said he has kept cancer from dictating his life, and his fight would be only one of many figurative headlines used to capture the news of the past year.

Indeed, he said the most tears — and they resulted from a hard mix of emotions — came not from anything related to his condition, but rather on the day he and Maryellen took Nicole, their 18-year-old autistic daughter, to a school outside Boston, where she will spend more than 10 months a year.

“Until then, she had never spent a night away from home,” he noted. “On January 5th, she started a residential program in Boston, which is great for her. Still, that was one of the teariest days of my life; she can’t talk, but if she could, that day she would have said, ‘mom and dad, drag your asses out of here — I’ll be fine … I’m so sick of living at home with you.’ She did much better than her father that day, believe me.”

There were also plenty of memories from last February’s Super Bowl, for which Mike, his family, and several of the company’s dealers who prevailed in a competition boarded a leased corporate jet.

Jeb, who admitted to being far less of a Pats fan than his brother — “frankly, I’d rather watch paint dry than a football game” — watched the contest with Mike’s children, and said the Pats’ historic comeback and the game’s unlikely ending took on added significance because of Mike’s condition and thoughts that this might be his last Super Bowl.

Looking back on the past several months, though, Mike said he hasn’t dwelt on his own mortality and has instead been focused on living for the day, and even the moment.

He said there’s been only one occasion when he momentarily allowed himself to think, ‘this might be the last time I do this,’ and that was at Christmas, spent at the family’s home in Florida.

“I had a great Christmas Eve and then woke up Christmas Day with my kids in my house in Florida, and I just felt really despondent, thinking, ‘this is going to be the last Christmas, the last this, that, and the other thing,’” he recalled, adding that this funk was broken by a joke told by Rock 102 personality and close friend John O’Brien, who was visiting him at the time.

“I was in a fit of laughter that lasted three days,” he went on. “I would have wrestled myself out of it anyway, but it took him six seconds, and it was a joke to my wife that I overheard.”

And such negative thoughts have not returned. He doesn’t know if they will, but he’s committed to fighting such urges.

Life has gone on in most all respects, including that recent visit to Gillette Stadium, when Belichick taught the youngster how to grip a football and spent some time hanging with the child.

“He’s always gracious, and even though it was a really busy time, he met with the kid and spent some time with him in the middle of the work day,” said Balise as he grabbed his phone to proudly show some photos from the day. “He’s as real as you can get.”

The trip to Gillette, however, also coincided with a visit to Dana Farber for what Balise believes is the fourth CAT scan he’s had since he was first diagnosed. He didn’t know at the time exactly what the scan revealed, but said this simple fact means there is probably more bad news coming.

“What they’re looking for is not so much the cancer in my stomach, but the cancer in my lymph nodes and how that’s developing and if it’s hit any major organs yet,” he explained. “My doctor, who I think the world of, and he’s bright as hell and a really nice guy … he didn’t bring up the scan. So the kind of guy I am, I’m thinking, ‘you didn’t bring up the scan, so that means we’ve got bad news on the scan.”

Balise didn’t need the scan to tell him something was wrong. The pain that returned in July grew in its intensity, and as the calendar turned to August, it was with him 24 hours a day.

Still, he remains optimistic, notes that he’s never stopping hoping that a cure might be found, and hopes the new chemotherapy and other forms of treatment might buy him some time, meaning quality time — and more.

“This new chemo that I’m on could have the effect that it knocks this thing on its heels for a year, like my doctor said optimistically,” he said. “And when and if this one fails, there’s one other type of chemo that I might try. Doctors could be wrong; there might be a miracle, I might get hit by a bus … who knows what could happen?”

He does know that he plans to keep matters in perspective, and recalled a few of those visits to Dana Farber as he explained how he does that.

“You never see a child there — maybe once in a while, if they get a little slack and they bring me to one of the hospitals next to Dana Farber like Brigham & Women’s, I’ll see a kid with no hair,” he explained. “It’s only happened twice, because they really keep the kids separated, which is a good thing. But let me tell you … if you want to get your head out of your ass real quick, get a look at a 10-year-old kid who’s going through this stuff. That’ll do it.”

Bald Ambition

Looking ahead, Balise said he has a number of wishes and hopes for the future, starting with the Patriots. “I want to see Tom Brady finish the season,” he said, adding that, like many other fans of the team, he believes Deflategate will become a motivating factor for the Pats and their quarterback and possibly inspire another title run.

Meanwhile, he desperately wants to outlive his mother, a sentiment she would share under any circumstances, although he joked that none of his siblings may accomplish that feat at the rate she’s going.

He also wants to bring greater attention to the need for more cancer services — everywhere, but especially here in Western Mass. — and plans to continue using his still-high profile and ongoing fight to be part of that effort.

What he doesn’t want is for anyone to feel sorry him — he’s packed a lot into his 50 years, and has certainly enjoyed the many trappings of wealth — and cites those and many other reasons why.

Overall, he wants to spend as much time on the water and with his family as possible and be relentless in his efforts not to let cancer dictate the terms of his life.

He’s not sure when or how this figurative bout with Mike Tyson will end, but he does know he’s not ready to be counted out yet.

He’s still got plenty of living to do.

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

Cover Story

By Any Measure

Bill Bither, co-founder of MachineMetrics

Bill Bither, co-founder of Machine Metrics, on the shop floor at Valley Steel Stamp in Greenfield.

Western Massachusetts has a rich history of entrepreneurship that dates back more than 300 years. Springfield, but also the entire region surrounding it, has been home to a number of innovations — and also companies that manufactured those products. Now, a new and very strong wave of entrepreneurial energy is sweeping across the region, and it is taking many forms, especially a slew of startups and next-stage companies trying to develop the proverbial next big thing. Over the next several months, BusinessWest will profile some of these emerging companies to provide its readership with deep insight into some of many positive developments taking shape here. We start with a Northampton-based venture that has brought to the market a software system that measures manufacturing productivity. The president of a Greenfield-based company now using it was direct in his assessment: “It’s a game-changer.”

They call it “being in the green.”

And that short, simple phrase has become a huge part of the lexicon at Valley Steel Stamp (VSS) in Greenfield — and with good reason.

To explain why, Rico Traversa, the company’s operating manager and a manufacturing engineer, took BusinessWest to the so-called war room, what those at this rapidly growing precision manufacturer of parts for the aerospace industry, major arms makers, and other customer groups call the operations center, located just off the shop floor.

There, on one wall, are two large, digital display boards, or dashboards, as they’re called, an integral part of a performance-monitoring system created and installed by Northampton-based MachineMetrics. One dashboard shows 11 circular graphs, or rings, that essentially chart the execution of each machine tied into the system and each production shift — in real time.

It is 2:05 p.m., so the second shift has just started, and therefore all but one of the rings are green, meaning the machines are operating at or above the desired performance levels. One is orange, which means it is operating slightly below that level. If one should happen to turn red, it means what that color usually means — trouble.

But because of the dashboards and other elements of this system, that trouble can be identified, and dealt with, much sooner and more effectively than previously possible, said Steve Capshaw, president of VSS, who spoke about Machine Metrics with an enthusiasm that was clearly evident.

“This is an absolute game changer for us,” he said, adding quickly that it could also be considered one for the precision-manufacturing industry as well, a sector that has for years been starving not only for big data, but, more importantly, a way to effectively digest it.

Capshaw said the MachineMetrics system has yielded a roughly 20% increase in efficiency since it was implemented about a year ago, a huge number in this industry. When asked to qualify and quantify what that meant, he said this improvement will not only accelerate the company’s already-ambitious growth projections — Capshaw said VSS has tripled in size, from $3 million to $10 million over the past five years, and expects to reach $20 million in another five years — but enable it to navigate this industry’s most pressing, and perplexing, problem, a deep talent shortage, far more effectively.

“If you can put out 20% more parts per year, that directly lands on your bottom line,” he explained. “MachineMetrics will allow us to negate roughly $2 million in capital expenditures in the next five years as we double the size of the business. If you’re less efficient, you have to buy more machines.”

This simple arithmetic means that Bill Bither, Eric Fogg, and others involved with MachineMetrics seemingly have the right product at absolutely the right time.

Eric Fogg

Eric Fogg says the MachineMetrics system analyzes performance in real time and sends alerts to clients when production falls behind.

A trio of partners — Bither, Fogg, and Jacob Lauzier — came together on the concept roughly two years ago in an effort to capitalize on emerging technology that has essentially created a language that allows shop operators to read how their machines are functioning. And they have brought that concept to a critical stage in its development.

Indeed, with successful stories being scripted at VSS and a handful of other clients, the company is poised to greatly expand its customer base and geographic reach. Fogg, whose business card declares that he is vice president and “chief evangelist” of this venture, was readying for a trip to Colorado when he spoke with BusinessWest, and was expecting to advance and perhaps close a significant deal.

Bither said the company recently closed on a round of venture-capital funding that exceeded $1 million. That infusion will be used to help scale up the venture and “prove out the sales model,” thus broadening the company’s customer portfolio to manufacturers of all sizes.

“Right now, it’s about product development and making sure we have the capability of selling this to many types of manufacturers that have different types of needs,” he said, adding that, while the company has shown it can serve a relatively small shop like VSS, it must shape the model to accommodate corporations with billions in sales and thousands of machines.

Parts of the Whole

As he talked about the MachineMetrics product, Capshaw noted that the precision-machining industry generally runs at least five years behind other sectors when it comes to advances in IT and, especially, the interpretation of big data.

That’s primarily because the equipment being used on shop floors today is quite complex, and IT is generally applied to those machines long after they are up and running.

“We can generate and consolidate vast sums of data,” he explained. “That’s great, unless you can’t do anything with it, which is where this industry was until only a few years ago.”

What was needed, he went on, was a standard language by which the controls of machine tools could export common information for which applications could be written.

The machine-tool industry eventually came together to create that language, called MTConnect, said Capshaw, adding that what has followed could best be described as attempts to harness that language. Overall, advances have come slowly and marginally — until MachineMetrics.

“Five years ago, we went to the International Machine Tool Show in Chicago, a huge show that comes every two years, and looked at machine-monitoring software,” he explained. “There was basically one company there that did it; they didn’t use the MTConnect standard, and the system was clunky. It’s like, if you were looking for a computer today, you knew what you wanted, you went to a store, and all they had was a Commodore 64 or Apple IIe.

“So we decided to wait a few years,” he said, adding that the next Machine Tool Show featured perhaps 20 vendors with monitoring software, with most of the products still lacking in one or more ways.

Machine Metrics wasn’t one of those companies, because it hadn’t yet been incorporated, but the seeds were being sown for a system that could potentially change the landscape.

The principals would bring to the table experience in entrepreneurship, software development, problem solving, and precision machining. Indeed, by that time, both Bither and Fogg could already be considered serial entrepreneurs.

Bither, a member of BusinessWest’s first 40 Under 40 class in 2007, founded the enterprise software company Atalasoft, which he later sold to Kofax, now Lexmark. Prior to that entrepreneurial episode, he worked in aerospace engineering — he was a design engineer at Hamilton Sundstrand for several years — and knew Capshaw from his work in that field.

Fogg, meanwhile, began his career in a machine shop in his hometown of Brattleboro, Vt. He started out packing boxes and washing parts, and eventually worked his way up to programmer.

He later started his own machine shop, Greentech Engineering, in Holyoke, which, as that name suggests, specialized in the engineering and prototyping of green-technology products, including mounts for solar panels and prototype wind turbines.

To make ends meet, he took on some aerospace work at night, he said, adding that the recession that started in 2008 put a rather large dent in both aspects of his business, prompting a shift into consulting work that focused on his strengths in precision manufacturing and ‘green’ product development.

Fogg said he met Bither at a Valley Venture Mentors meeting soon after he sold Altalasoft, and the two began looking at challenges they could undertake together. Their knowledge of the precision-machining field made them keenly aware that there would be a huge opportunity awaiting those who could develop software that could effectively monitor and record the performance of machines and people, and they set out to create it.

Rico Traversa, operating manager at Valley Steel Stamp (left), and MachineMetrics co-founder Bill Bither

Rico Traversa, operating manager at Valley Steel Stamp (left), and MachineMetrics co-founder Bill Bither stand near one of the dashboards on the VSS shop floor.

Soon after founding MachineMetrics, they brought on a third partner, Jacob Lauzier, the company’s chief technology officer, who brings to that post a background as a user-interface designer and web-application developer.

Together, they brought MachineMetrics to the market using VSS as a pilot company — one that has seen results far exceed expectations.

Form and Function

As he discussed what the MachineMetrics product means to manufacturers, Fogg related what sounded like a not-so-hypothetical situation involving that machine shop he worked for years ago.

“My boss would come down and say, ‘I need to ship 300 of these parts, and we’re already a week late,’” he recalled. “I would say, ‘well, there’s only 60 of them complete.’ He would get angry and say, ‘what went wrong?’

“The thing about manufacturing, and probably a lot of other industries, is that I could have given him the top 10 reasons why that job was behind, and it wouldn’t have constituted 5% about why it was actually behind,” Fogg went on. “There’s so much stuff that can happen, so many discrete things that can go on, that there’s really no way you can sit down with your boss and explain why a job is behind. So I would come up with some cop-out answers like ‘we’re having some trouble with second shift’ or ‘maybe there’s trouble with materials,’ and he would nod his head and go upstairs to call a soon-to-be-angry customer and eat crow.”

Machine Metrics was designed to make such discussions a thing of the past, said Fogg, adding that the software can not only pinpoint what what wrong, when, and where, but it can alert supervisors to potential problems before they happen and keep shop owners from having to make phone calls like the one mentioned above.

“There are thousands of pieces of data that can be pulled from any discrete machine tool every minute, and all that data has value,” Fogg explained. “That data can tell you about loads on tools or about problems with any part of the manufacturing process.”

Effective retrieval and analysis of that data has enabled VSS to improve what’s known as OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) from around 70% to roughly 90%.

While visiting the war room at VSS, Bither explained just how the software works.

“Each ring represents a shift,” he explained while motioning toward the dashboard. “As the ring fills in, that’s indicative of how many parts are created; when the ring is completely closed, the goal is met for the shift. There’s a white dot that moves around the ring, and it’s essentially a rabbit that you’re chasing. If you’re ahead of the white dot or on it, it’s green; if you’re behind, then it’s orange or red.”

The system tracks performance in real time, said Traversa, adding that this represents a vast improvement over the conditions that existed before the software was installed.

The MachineMetrics system

The MachineMetrics system has made the phrase ‘being in the green’ — as most all of the machines at the company are at this moment in time — part of the lexicon at VSS.

“You get text alerts and e-mail alerts as soon as a machine starts falling behind,” he explained. “In real time, we know that production is going down and we can try to solve it; we’re not waiting until 6 a.m. the next day to find out that a machine shut down at 8 the night before. You see it, you get alerted, and there’s no operator input — you’re not waiting for them to call you or e-mail you; it does it on its own.”

Making Progress

Capshaw, who spoke with BusinessWest by phone while vacationing on the Cape, said the system allows him to see what’s happening at the shop on a host of devices. He noted that productivity at VSS has increased 10% not from really doing anything with the data specifically, but simply from having it and making sure employees know they have it.

Employees simply have to look up at the dashboards on the shop floor to track how the machines they’re assigned to are performing, he went on, adding that no one wants to see the color red appear, and everyone wants to stay firmly in the green.

Roughly another 10% improvement has come from going back over data, identifying issues, streamlining production, and improving maintenance, he went on.

“We look at how efficient we are shift by shift and product by product, and see where we need to improve,” he explained. “The result is that we can more finely tune our training programs for employees, which is typically the reason for downtime, or improve our maintenance system so we have more uptime on our machines.”

Thus, benefits come in a number of forms, he said, listing everything from enhanced productivity to improved morale, especially among third-shifters, who seemingly toiled in anonymity.

“We had employees come up to us after we put up the boards,” said Capshaw. “They worked third shift, and they said to us that, if they did a great job, they never got a pat on the back. But they said having this is like getting a pat on the back — they work to get back in the green, and we see that, and we e-mail them and congratulate them.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit, though, is some reduction in stress when it comes to the nagging issue of finding enough talent as a result of that improved efficiency.

“Instead of having to recruit and hire 40 employees, we’ll have to hire 30,” he said. “We’ll still have to hire a lot of people, but it will relieve that bottleneck, which allows us to expand quicker.”

Moving forward, the obvious goal for the principals at MachineMetrics is to scale up their venture, and the recent infusion of capital will be used for the many aspects of that assignment.

Fogg said one of the company’s major challenges, not unlike the one confronting its customers, is finding talent.

“We have a lot of customers who are interested in this product, but one of the difficulties is integrating it into the machines,” he explained. “That’s something I know how to do, but it’s very difficult to find people who know machine integration; we’re actively trying to hire people like that, but we can’t even find them, let alone give them offers for jobs.”

Overall, the potential for growth is immense, said Bither, adding that the market for performance-monitoring software in the precision-manufacturing sector will reach into the billions of dollars.

Just how big that number will get, he doesn’t know, but he does know Machine Metrics should be well-positioned to seize considerable market share.

“There are a few competitors, but this is fairly new technology, so there isn’t one company that’s out there dominating,” he explained, adding that a company in Germany and another based in Silicon Valley are gaining some traction in the industry, while others are struggling in their attempts to do so.

“Production-monitoring technology is still in its early stage,” he went on. “But there is a lot of opportunity, because these companies are recognizing that measuring data is critical to staying competitive; they have to be efficient to win these deals.”

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Throughout business history, company owners have made it their mission to both keep out of the red and be in the black. For precision manufacturers, there is now a third mantra — ‘being in the green.’

As mentioned earlier, this is now an informal mission statement and both a spoken and unspoken rallying cry at Valley Steel Stamp.

Just how prevalent that phraseology becomes in this industry remains to be seen, but from all accounts, MachineMetrics seems poised to turn out some solid growth patterns of its own.

And it also appears destined to be part of the wave of entrepreneurial energy sweeping over the region.


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