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This Is a Laughing Matter

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It does this through three business divisions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting into the Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happier Valley logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grin and Bear It

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

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

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

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

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

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passion Play

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

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

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

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

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

Employment

Shades of Gray

Free Speech in the WorkplaceRecent high-profile issues around free speech in the workplace — from the NFL’s new national-anthem policy to ABC’s blackballing of Roseanne Barr — have elicited much debate in the public square, with the point often made that private-sector employees have no right to free expression. But that’s not exactly true — or, at least, it’s not as black-and-white as some might believe. That fact creates uncertainty for employers, who must balance their own interests with their employees’ very human desire to speak their mind.

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, backed by 31 of 32 owners, announced a new national-anthem policy last month, they hoped it would quell an issue that seemed to be dying down on its own.

They were wrong, to judge by the wave of debate — in the media, online, and among players — that followed, and promises to bleed into the 2018 season. Even President Trump, whom the NFL hoped to placate with the new policy, only intensified his tweeted attacks on players and teams — a tactic he knows plays well to his base.

The new policy removes the existing requirement that players be on the field during the playing of the national anthem, but does require that players who are on the field must stand, and authorizes the NFL to fine teams whose players violate this policy. Supporters of forcing players on the field to stand have repeatedly argued — in internet comment boards and elsewhere — that private employees have no free-speech rights in the workplace.

But is that true?

To a significant degree, it is, area employment lawyers say, but the issue is far more gray than the black-and-white terms on which it’s often debated.

“Obviously, the Bill of Rights is a constraint on government action; clearly, the First Amendment doesn’t restrict what a private-sector employer can do or not do” when it comes to establishing workplace rules, said Timothy Murphy, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser. “And, if you think about it, the vast majority of employees work in the private sector and are at will, and can be terminated for any reason, as long as it’s not illegal.”

However, he went on, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), employees are generally protected when speaking out on issues that impact the workplace. In other words, companies can’t just fire an employer over anything he or she says on social media, even criticism of the company itself — particularly if that criticism specifically targets an employee policy or the workplace environment. In fact, the NLRB has likened such talk to water-cooler chatter, only in a more public forum.

Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy says private-sector workers have far fewer free-speech rights than public-sector workers — but that doesn’t mean they have no rights.

“If you’re taking a knee because you’re concerned about police brutality, are you making a statement on an issue of mutual concern that impacts your workplace?” Murphy asked. “The NLRB does tend to take a broad view of what impacts your workplace. Would something like that be viewed as protected speech under the NLRB? I don’t know.”

Because the NFL’s anthem-policy changes were not collectively bargained with its unionized workforce, they may be susceptible to legal challenge, notes Michael McCann, a sports-law expert who writes for Sports Illustrated. But, intriguingly, free expression of this kind may find even more protection now than before, if a player chooses to file a complaint, because he could argue that kneeling is also a protest against an onerous, hastily implemented workplace policy.

“Players could argue that such a change will impact their wages, hours, and other conditions of employment,” McCann notes. “To that end, a player could insist that, while the new policy does not lead to direct league punishments of players, it nonetheless adversely affects the employment of players who do protest in ways that violate the new policy.”

It’s just one example of many of the ways in which free speech in the workplace is an amorphous beast, pulling in competing issues of discrimination, harassment, and other labor laws.

“That’s why people like me have jobs. The law provides a lot of areas for employers to get in trouble doing things that seem like common sense,” said Daniel Carr, an attorney with Royal, P.C. “It’s entirely reasonable for employers to think employees being critical of them at work are guilty of some egregious conduct, but they may not realize that criticism does contain some protected rights.”

Power to the People

Because the NLRB has established a bit of a record on this front, the issue of speaking out against an employer on social media is a bit clearer right now than other, related situations.

“Generally, if the speech is oriented toward addressing some workplace condition or benefit, if it’s targeted toward concerted activity for the mutual benefit of workers, that can have the largest amount of protection,” Carr said. “But it’s sometimes unclear where the lines are. If you say, ‘company X is awful,’ well, how are they awful? Do they treat their employees badly? That might be protected.”

Daniel Carr

Daniel Carr says employees generally have the right to speak out about work conditions, but it’s sometimes unclear where the lines are.

Even without specifics, he went on, the NLRB has often come down on the side of employees, he noted. For example, saying “the products they sell are terrible” might be protected if someone works on commission, and the product really is terrible, so they don’t sell a lot of them.

“My thinking is, if you work for company X, you couldn’t go online and say, ‘do business with company Y.’ That crosses a line,” he added. “But the NLRB does have a lot of protections for employees criticizing their own companies, and even moreso if the criticism is based on the way employees are treated, or other conditions of employment.”

What to make, then, of the NLRB’s statement in January that Google didn’t violate labor laws last summer when it fired engineer James Damore? He was terminated after distributing a memo criticizing the company’s diversity program.

He filed a complaint, and Jayme Sophir, associate general counsel with the NLRB, concluded that, while some parts of Damore’s memo were legally protected by workplace regulations, “the statements regarding biological differences between the sexes were so harmful, discriminatory, and disruptive as to be unprotected.”

Sophir made it clear that, in this case, an employer’s right to enforce anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies permits it to restrict the kinds of speech that could lead to a hostile workplace.

“Where an employee’s conduct significantly disrupts work processes, creates a hostile work environment, or constitutes racial or sexual discrimination or harassment,” she noted, “the board has found it unprotected even if it involves concerted activities regarding working conditions.”

Indeed, Carr noted, as one example, employers are expected to grant accommodations for religious expression — certain dress codes, or short breaks for prayer — but not necessary for proselytizing to co-workers.

“There’s a lot of gray area where somebody’s religious beliefs may conflict with somebody else’s protected rights,” he said. “For example, if you have a religious belief against gay marriage, you don’t necessarily have the right to advocate for that in the workplace, where you might potentially discriminate against a gay employee. There are a few areas of anti-discrimination law where one person’s right conflicts with another person’s.”

Even clearer are employers’ rights when it comes to online speech by employees that has nothing to do with work conditions but theatens to cause the company embarrassment or reputational harm — such as ABC shutting down its hit show Roseanne last month after its namesake star, Roseanne Barr, fired off a racist tweet comparing Valerie Jarrett, a prominent African-American woman, to an ape.

Barr’s case is muddled by the fact that the public doesn’t know what stipulations she might have agreed to in her contract — and, considering her past tendencies to be controversial, such stipulations would probably be a wise move by the network.

“That certainly deals with a private employer’s ability to sanction speech it doesn’t agree with,” Murphy noted, adding that employers have much more to worry about in this realm than it did a decade or more ago. “These days, reputational damage can go viral at the drop of a hat, and employers want to be able to act to protect their brands.”

To measure the speed at which this can happen, look no further than the Justine Sacco debacle of 2013. A senior corporate communications director for IAC, an international media firm, she began tweeting travel-related jokes from Heathrow Airport while waiting to board a flight from London to South Africa. The last one was a joke intended ironically: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Then she turned off her phone. By the time she turned it back on in Cape Town, she was famous.

Although Sacco had only 170 Twitter followers, tens of thousands of angry responses to her ‘joke’ flooded Twitter, and she even became a trending hashtag, #HasJustineLandedYet — all in the space of a few hours. By day’s end, IAC had fired her. She’s certainly not the only employee to run afoul of an employer’s right to protect its brand through such a termination; Barr is just the latest in a long string of cases.

Public or Private?

It’s clear, Carr said, that private-sector employees need to be more careful about what they say than government employees, who do have greater protections.

“It is true that the First Amendment does not apply to private actors; there has to be a government actor. And there’s even some gray area in terms of what is and what is not a private employer,” he said, citing, for example, the example of a private contractor working on a government project.

“It gets tricky because these free-speech kinds of issues are often less about free speech and the First Amendment and more about labor law,” he said, citing, as one example, anti-discrimination laws that protect employees against being fired for religious reasons. “You don’t have an unfettered right to political speech in a private workplace, but there may be some overlapping and intermingling of, say, political speech with protected speech.”

For example, he noted, “the policies that political figures make do often affect the workplace, and insofar as employees have a right to engage in concerted activity, that can become a gray area. For example, somebody is advocating for a candidate that is proposing to pass anti-union legislation, then you’re clearly intermingling political speech with issues of labor law.”

Murphy noted that these issues tend to proliferate around election time, and employers often handle them on an ad hoc basis as they arise. “Employers want a civil workplace, but they don’t want to seem like heavy-handed censors. I’ve never seen a policy that deals with talking politics or the issues of the day at work; in general, employers say, ‘for everybody’s sanity, let’s try not to ratchet this up too much.’ Because these issues reflect society, and there can be a lot of hard feelings.”

On the matter of off-duty speech, on the other hand, employers are often taken aback by what the law and NLRB rulings actually say, Murphy said. “Is off-duty misconduct something employers have a right to weigh in on or sanction? Most employers say, ‘yes, we do, if it impacts our reputation or customers.’”

Some wrinkles of labor law have decades of case guidance behind them, Carr noted, while others are fairly new — social media being a prime example. “As each successive change in the law occurs, there’s a huge lag in getting guidance from judges. And for every law that’s passed, it’s impossible for us to predict all the possible eventualities. That’s what the judicial system is for — to interpret the law and define those edges.”

That said, he added, there has been a feeling in the legal world that the NLRB under the current administration may be amenable to clawing back some of the speech protections it originally granted employees.

“The pendulum is swinging back a little bit,” Murphy agreed. “They’re actually looking anew at some of those decisions and rules about employers’ handbooks and social-media policies. Generally, under the NLRB, you can speak out about matters of mutual concern among employees. But that’s fluid.”

At the end of the day, he went on, employers simply want a productive workforce and resist anything that might stir the pot, whether it’s a peaceful demonstration in favor of racial justice, an unhinged tweet that promotes racial strife, or something in between.

“There are people who say we’ve become less tolerant as a society and we’re not respectful enough of opposing viewpoints. They say, ‘get out of the bunker and listen to your employees; you don’t necessarily need to be censors,’” Murphy said. “But an employer’s primary responsibility is to protect that business and brand. That’s what they’re up against.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Creative Economy

Art and Commerce

Mary Yun

Mary Yun on the ground floor of Click Workspace’s Market Street location.

Co-working spaces — offices where members share physical work areas and office technology and supplies — have become an increasingly popular model for small, particularly solo, businesses in the region. Mary Yun, executive director of Click Workspace in Northampton, had a broader vision, helping to grow a center that brings economic energy to the city, but also builds on its cultural vibrancy through the arts. A rapidly growing roster of members testifies to the success of that vision.

Mary Yun remembers the days when fax machines were considered modern technology, and so much that has happened since — from e-mail to social media to 24-hour, mobile access to limitless information — has only served to make it easier for people to work pretty much anywhere.

“Remember telecommuting? Everyone was like, ‘that’s amazing; I can work in my pajamas.’ Everyone thought it was great,” said Yun, executive director of Click Workspace in Northampton. “But the further and further technologically advanced we get, the less human contact we have.

“That’s why co-working spaces have become so popular, because people need that,” she went on. “The more technologically advanced we get, the more we need spaces like this for people to physically gather, whether it’s for work or for other reasons.”

Yung has been a key figure in the dramatic expansion of Click, which launched in a 1,000-square-foot facility behind Sylvester’s restaurant back in 2011. An architect by trade, she created Market9.5, LLC in 2012 so she could purchase and develop a 9,000-square-foot building at 9 1/2 Market St., which Click has called home for the past two years.

Remember telecommuting? Everyone was like, ‘that’s amazing; I can work in my pajamas.’ Everyone thought it was great. But the further and further technologically advanced we get, the less human contact we have.”

“We have such a wide range of professionals here, from people who are sole proprietors, like myself, to people who work as consultants to firms in other parts of the United States and the world,” she added, referring to Click’s 98 members, soon to be 100 with two pending additions. “Then we have people of all different age groups. Right now, we have a huge amount of members with small children.”

Those tend to disperse around 4 p.m. each day, she noted, while others may work well into the night; Click is a 24-hour operation.

But why bother being a member at all, with modern communication turning any home into an office? There are a few reasons, said Sofia Nardi, Click’s member advocate.

“A lot of people don’t find themselves productive at home,” she told BusinessWest. “They see laundry, start to do laundry, and stop working. Or their TV is there. A lot of people feel that a shared space is more conducive to working. When you see other people working, you get to work.

Click has cultural force through its promotion of the arts.

Click has become not just a home to small businesses, but a cultural force through its promotion of the arts.

“The second reason,” she went on, “is that a lot of remote workers are looking for a community and looking for co-workers to talk to during the day, even if they don’t interact with them on a daily basis.”

The basic concept behind co-working is simple. It’s a workspace where people can share a table or an office; access fast Internet service and shared resources like a copier, conference rooms, and audio-visual equipment; and make the kinds of connections that inspire further growth and success.

Yun had a broader vision, however, when she came on board — one centered around the arts as an economic driver.

“When Click was founded, it was mostly geared toward entrepreneurs. I knew a couple of the founding members, and they came to me and said, ‘help us grow.’ And this building was on the market, so I said, ‘this is a perfect location. We want to stay downtown,’” she recalled.

“I also said, ‘I want to rebrand Click. I want to open it up not just for entrepreneurship but for all kinds of professionals, a broader group of users. But the bigger thing is that the rebranding involved the ability to do cultural events and welcome the community in.”

That has proved to be a critical factor in Click’s growth, simply by using the arts — gallery shows, music performances, literary events, and the like — to emphasize Northampton’s cultural heritage while exposing new faces to Click’s eclectic space.

For this issue’s focus on the creative economy, BusinessWest visits one of the Valley’s many burgeoning co-working centers to explore why it has grown so quickly in recent years, and why the shared-workspace model is so appealing to the area’s business people who plant roots there.

Out of the Ghetto

Click’s co-founders — Ali Usman, Lisa Papademetriou, and Rocco Falcone — drew inspiration from much larger projects such as the Cambridge Innovation Center and the Innovation Pavilion in Colorado, which Usman also founded. Their original space included a main room with several tables and three small offices, and growth was definitely limited.

That led to some healthy connections between members, Yun said; in fact, they couldn’t be avoided.

“That happened very easily because it was packed,” she said. “It was like a ghetto; everyone was forced to interact. We had people packed in, four to a table, working away, and you knew everyone’s business.”

Looking across Click’s main room during BusinessWest’s visit, as about a dozen members quietly worked, heads in their laptops, she noted that density has certainly decreased, which has its pros and cons.

“When we moved here two years ago, all of a sudden it was like living in the suburbs. Like, you know who lives in that house, but you don’t have to deal with them,” she said by way of analogy. “As we start our third year in this space. I’m hoping we grow in density in the open office space so that we’re an urban community — but not a ghetto. And with our open office-space membership growing, we’ll see more of that happening. The analogy of urbanism is really the best thing to describe what we’re going through as we grow into this space.”

In designing the four-story facility — with its blend of shared workspaces, private offices, and shared offices, with membership options starting at $195 per month and rising from there, depending on how much space and privacy is desired — Yun said it was important to create a place where people would want to gather, and she feels the former antique store on Market Street accomplishes that goal.

“It’s very comfortable, very intimate. We’ve tried to keep the charm of this building, which was built in the ’20s as a warehouse facility. Since then, it’s gone through various changes,” she said, pointing out the glass-walled offices designed to take advantage of the natural light from Click’s storefront.

Sofia Nardi

Sofia Nardi stands in front of the wall of company logos greeting visitors at Click’s entrance.

Nardi explained that the building is locked to outsiders, and members can give visitors a guest code to get in. Several conference rooms of different sizes are available to members for three hours at a time (longer for a small fee), and everyone has access to the shared office equipment, the basement kitchen and lounge, a shower for those who bike to work or visit a gym on the way in, and even a small room with greenscreen paint on the walls for video production.

Meanwhile, members access perks like reduced-rate gym memberships, hotel stays, and airport parking, to name a few, through area partnerships Click has forged, and member events throughout the month range from ‘Chew,’ a community lunch, to weekly yoga sessions to monthly happy hours, explained Nardi, whose roles at Click since coming on board in January include managing administrative functions, accounting, office operations, purchasing, and troubleshooting routine problems with equipment and maintenance, as well as serving as the first point of contact for all inquiries and visitors.

Art of the Matter

But what really has Yun and Nardi excited is the range of activities aimed at bringing in visitors. The space can be rented out for recitals, team-building exercises, and corporate parties, and Click maintains a steady flow of art displays through Arts Night Out events as well as music performances, with much of the ticket and art sales directly benefiting the artist.

“The first floor doubles as event space,” Nardi said. “It’s about getting people into this space and experiencing art and culture in Northampton.”

Yun said the space was designed specifically to facilitate such events.

“When we do art openings for Arts Night Out, we’ll have a guy come in to play the piano, and people walk in, and they’re surprised. It’s something you don’t necessarily expect.”

In addition, she noted, “because we have the rotating art, members that normally would not look at art are looking at art. That was one of my personal missions: trying to get more integration of culture, arts, and music into everyday life for everybody. Because it’s really disappearing.”

She explained that, when she moved to Northampton about 18 years ago, there were more small, “pocket” venues where people gathered to listen to live music. “Now it’s gotten a little more gentrified in Northampton, and those little spaces have kind of disappeared. So, having seen the evolution of that, it’s like, ‘oh my God, I don’t want Northampton to become just another New England tourist town.’”

Avoiding that fate, she said, requires a combination of professionals working downtown, not on the city’s fringes, and creating more vibrancy after hours through cultural events.

“People need that human interaction,” Yun said. “When people come for events, the first time they’re here, they’re like, ‘wow, this is amazing,’ and they might not even see it as a co-working space, since we move all this furniture out.” But when they do realize what the building has to offer an entrepreneur or creative professional, they may return during the day, asking about membership.

“I think what sets us apart from some of the other co-working spaces is that we really do have a mission to become embedded in this community,” she said, noting that renting out the conference rooms to area organizations is another way of bringing people inside. When they do, she noted, they’re immediately met by a wall of names and logos of member businesses, prominently displayed at the entrance.

“That’s the first thing they see because that’s what it’s all about. It’s a great physical space, but it’s really about the community of memberships we have,” Yun said. “If you want to keep Northampton downtown viable for anything, so that it just doesn’t become just another tourist town, you have to keep businesses here. There are towns like Northampton around, but it’s a challenge.

Part of the Whole

Click is a nonprofit organization, Yun said, but more importantly, it’s a collective and a place where professionals can collaborate — or, echoing Nardi’s observation, just hunker down in a place more conducive to working than beside the TV or a load of dirty laundry.

“If you have a membership here, you’re part of this whole community of Click, and you share all the resources. It’s totally convenient,” Yun said. “Plus, you can open a business and put all your energy into growing the business and not have to worry about the facilities. When you’re starting out, who can afford to have all the equipment, all those startup costs?”

Click has made forays into presenting professional-development events, but Yun admitted it’s more difficult these days to draw attendees, since so much information about … well, everything, really, is readily available online. “The best thing that happens here professional-development-wise is members making connections.”

Two years into the new space, Yun is glad she took on the challenge of converting an old building downtown into a bright, modern space — complete with fiber-optic service, a totally new HVAC system, and other amenities — that today’s professionals, whether remote workers, sole proprietors, or road warriors in need of a home base, can feel comfortable working in.

There’s a reason, she said, that co-working spaces — from Colab Design in Easthampton to the Writer’s Mill in Florence; from AmherstWorks to CoWork Springfield — have been popping up across the region, and succeeding. To many, that model simply makes more sense than working alone.

“We don’t compete with them,” Yun told BusinessWest. “We just make ours the best we can.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

The Dream and the Journey

Officials take up ceremonial shovels during the groundbreaking for Hillside Residence on May 18.

Officials take up ceremonial shovels during the groundbreaking for Hillside Residence on May 18.

During their long and sometimes frustrating quest to secure funding for what would eventually be Hillside Residence, the Sisters of Providence never stopped believing the project’s model — blending healthcare and affordable senior housing — was worth fighting for. Now that the development is under way, they are even firmer in that conviction.

As she talked about the long and persistently frustrating quest to secure funding for the project that would come to be called Hillside Residence, Sister Kathleen Popko summed things up by recalling sentiments she expressed at the time — words that blended diplomacy, poignancy, and even a little sarcasm.

“I would tell people, ‘though our progress is slow … I’m making a lot of friends locally, regionally, and nationally,’” she recalled, with a phrase that hinted broadly at how many doors, in a proverbial sense, were knocked on by the Sisters of Providence, which Popko leads as president, as they sought to take a dream off the drawing board.

And also at how important it was to be making those friends.

Indeed, while making all those introductions, Sr. Popko and the other Sisters of Providence were gaining even more resolve as well. And it stemmed from the firm conviction that their unique model for Hillside Residence — the intersection of healthcare and affordable elder housing, if you will — was worth fighting for.

And fight they did, for the better part of eight years, a struggle that was ultimately successful and celebrated, as much as the project itself was, at an elabotate groundbreaking ceremony on May 18.

Fittingly, Sr. Popko, during her turn at the podium that morning, borrowed from St. Francis of Assisi to convey what it took to make that moment a reality.

“The journey is essential to the dream,” she said, invoking St. Francis’s famous quote. “With hindsight, I can see the truth and wisdom in that statement. Our eight-year journey to this moment expanded and sharpened our vision, tested our determination, enlarged our circle of friends, and committed supporters to this initiative. Let us work now to realize the dream.”

That dream, as noted, is to bring innovative, health-integrated, affordable elder housing to a region, and a city (West Springfield) where there is an acknowledged need for it, said Popko.

Elaborating, she said Hillside Residence, a demonstration project, will create 36 affordable rental units to frail elders, who will receive healthcare services from the Mercy LIFE PACE program (program for all-inclusive care for the elderly). Both programs are situated on the same 27-acre campus that was formerly home to Brightside for Families and Children.

And the expectation is that this $10 million project will demonstrate that this is an effective model for bringing needed services to what has historically been an underserved segment of the population, she told BusinessWest, adding that there have attempts to create affordable senior housing, but not in the same, holistic environment that Hillside Residence will create.

“This is innovative in that it will keep frail elders independent,” she explained. “They’ll live in an independent-living facility, but they’ll be supported in a way, on the same campus, that they can access a tremendous array of services and at the same time go home and live independently.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at both the dream and the journey that made Hillside Residence a reality — and why both are worth celebrating.

The Big Picture

When Brightside’s closing was announced in 2009, it left the Sisters of Providence with what amounted to a 27-acre canvas that could be filled in any number of ways, said Sr. Popko.

An architect’s rendering of Hillside Residence.

An architect’s rendering of Hillside Residence.

What made the most sense, she said, was to use the land and existing buildings, part of what’s known collectively as the Hillside at Providence, to help create a broad array of senior-living and senior-care facilities that would complement each other and meet recognized needs within the community.

This was a process that actually started with the conversion of the former Sisters of Providence Mother House into an independent-living and retirement community known as Providence Place in 1999, and it continued with the creation of Mary’s Meadow at Providence, a complex on the Providence Place campus comprised of 10-person houses designed to give elders a place to live in comfort equal to that of a private home. This was the first ‘small-home’ facility, as they have come to be called, in the Bay State.

The process of filling in the canvas at Brightside was accelerated with the creation of Mercy LIFE, a PACE program operated by Mercy Medical Center that provides tightly coordinated care and support designed to help seniors continue to live safely at home and avoid moving into a nursing home, she said.

The 25,000-square-foot facility, located within what was the main administration building for Brightside, includes everything from a medical clinic to a rehab gym to gathering places.

Meanwhile, the remainder of that 78,000-square-foot administration building has been devoted to reuses ranging from hospice care to a home for elder-focused programs administered by the Center for Human Development.

What emerged as a missing piece in the puzzle — and the next dream for the Sisters of Providence — was an affordable senior-living facility, one where the residents could take full advantage of the many programs and services at Mercy LIFE.

Talks for such a facility — and thus that ‘journey’ Sr. Popko described — began in 2011, she said, adding that it took the better of eight years (and work with four different mayors of West Springfield) to secure everything from the proper zoning to the needed funding.

And the latter part of the equation became more difficult when, in 2012, HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, ceased funding for so-called ‘Section 202’ projects, those aimed at expanding the supply of affordable housing with supportive services for the elderly.

“So we had to take a step back and try to look for alternative sources of funding,” said Sr. Popko. “That included private sources and looking at federal grants and so forth.

“And they really weren’t forthcoming at the time,” she went on. “We visited many legislators and congressmen, and we brought in experts to come in and talk about some other concepts we were thinking about. We had people come out here, we visited state offices … we talked to so many people.”

State Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner

State Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner addresses those assembled at the May 18 groundbreaking for Hillside Residence.

Like she said, progress was slow, but she and others were making acquaintances.

“Everybody was very encouraging — they kept saying, ‘go ahead, yes, do this,’” she recalled, adding that the words of encouragement were not backed up with checks.

But the sisters pressed on. They succeeded in getting the property rezoned, and eventually started making progress on funding, thanks in part to a timely visit to Mary’s Meadow by state Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner in April 2016.

“I said, ‘I just need minutes of your time,’” Sr. Popko recalled, adding that she used it to give the secretary a brief overview of the Hillside Residence project and hand her a concept paper of the proposal.

Bonner put the paper in her backpack, but eventually took it out, read it, and became sufficiently intrigued to call Sr. Popko and arrange a meeting to discuss the matter.

“We brainstormed about what could happen,” she recalled, “and also about how we could remove the silos between housing and health services and bring the two closer together.”

Eventually, the sisters were able to cobble funds together for a number of state and federal sources, including the Housing Stabilization Fund, the National Housing Trust Fund, the Housing Innovation Fund program, and the Mass. Rental Voucher Program. Also, private funding was provided by the Sisters of Providence and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and the West Springfield Community Preservation Committee also chipped in toward the price tag, currently pegged at $9.65 million.

The project will focus on serving individuals who are 62 and older, with incomes at 50% of the area median income (AMI) or lower, and whose healthcare needs and housing instability can be optimally addressed by the program, said Sr. Popko, adding that, because the project has secured commitment of state rental subsidies, Hillside Residence participants’ housing costs will be capped at 30% of their income.

And while meeting an immediate need for those twin services — housing and healthcare — the project will be adding to the base of research on the efficiency and effectiveness of the integration of PACE and affordable elder housing.

“This data will assist policy makers, housing developers and managers, and healthcare providers better understand the benefits and operational challenges of an integrated PACE housing model,” said Sr. Popko.

The Next Chapter

As she talked about Hillside Residence, Sr. Popko noted that there is still more of the former Brightside canvas to be filled in.

Indeed, there are several cottages on the property that are roughly 9,000 square feet in size and could be transformed into more housing for the elderly.

“We could have another 50 units on this site, but it will be even more difficult to attain funding for that,” she said, adding that those cottages comprise what would be phase 3 of the work at the Hillside at Providence and the proverbial ‘next dream.’

As for the one currently coming to fruition, she said, again, that St. Francis of Assisi was right.

“Our journey of eight years was probably essential for realizing this dream,” she said in conclusion. “Because we’ve brought together people from the state level, we’ve brought together funders, legislators, and people within the community of West Springfield, to a point where they all want this to happen. That’s what has brought us to this moment.”

That, and a firm determination never to let the dream die.

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

40 Under 40 Class of 2018

Scenes From the June 21 Event

40under40-logo2017aThe class of 2018 was celebrated at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala on Thursday, June 21 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.

More than 700 people converged on the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke on June 21 to welcome another 40 rising stars to one of the most prestigious clubs in the region — the one comprised of 40 Under Forty honorees. The annual gala was marked by perfect weather and high energy — very high energy. After some networking, the first order of business was announcing the winner of the coveted Continued Excellence Award, which this year went to Samalid Hogan, regional director for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network and editor of Innovate413, and a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013. After that, it was time to honor the class of 2018. The event, captured in photo montages over the next several pages — was made possible by its sponsors, especially presenting sponsors Northwestern Mutual and PeoplesBank. Other sponsors this year were Development Associates, Health New England, Isenberg School of Management, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, the MP Group, Renew.Calm, and event partner YPS.


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

 

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Cover Story

Growth Industry

Matt Yee stands outside a room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Branch Office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joint Venture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yield Signs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Law Sections

Not an Arbitrary Decision

John Greaney, who was forced to retire from the state Supreme Judicial Court as he turned 70, is definitely not the retiring type.

John Greaney, who was forced to retire from the state Supreme Judicial Court as he turned 70, is definitely not the retiring type.

John Greaney spent more than four decades behind various benches — everything from this region’s first Housing Court to the state Supreme Judicial Court. Desiring to take advantage of all that judicial experience, the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson, which Greaney joined in 2016, has created an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) group, which he will lead. As arbitration and mediation become ever-more popular methods for resolving disputes, the firm sees this group as a solid business venture.

Peter Barry says it’s a rare opportunity when a small (at least in comparison to outfits in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia) Western Mass. law firm can add a former Massachusetts Supreme Court justice to its team.

Rarer still is an opportunity to add a jurist with the breadth and experience brought to the table by John Greaney, who retired from the SJC in 2008, capping nearly 35 years on various benches, starting with the Hampden County Housing Court (which he started) and time on the Superior Court and then the Appeals Court (more on that remarkable career later).

So it’s incumbent on a firm granted that opportunity to take full advantage of it, said Barry, managing partner with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, adding that the firm is doing just that by launching an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) group.

This is a move that not only capitalizes on Greaney’s deep reservoir of experience, but serves as a logical — and, yes, opportunistic — response to an ongoing trend within the law to settle matters not in the courtroom, but outside it, through mediation and arbitration.

These are routes that are generally quicker and less expensive than litigation, said Greaney, adding that ADR, as it’s known, has become increasingly popular in realms ranging from healthcare to construction; education to sports. Yes, some of Major League Baseball’s biggest rising stars have their salaries determined by arbitrators (after negotiation fails).

Greaney and Barry believe the firm could well become an attractive alternative (there’s that word again) amid a growing number of options for businesses, institutions, and sports leagues desiring to resolve matters through ADR, and for several reasons.

Chief among them is the expertise it offers — from not only Greaney, but also Barry, who has been involved in the mediation and arbitration of several complex matters, and the other lawyers at the firm.

But that expertise also comes at a sticker price well below what Boston and Harford firms would charge, an important consideration, said Barry.

“We’re looking to be selective and get appropriate cases from Northern Connecticut, Central Massachusetts, and the Boston area,” he said, noting that the firm already serves several clients in those markets, in part because of lower hourly rates.

Greaney, who will be teaming with Barry to handle many of the ADR matters that come to the firm, agreed, and said the timing and a host of factors were right for the launch of this venture.

“It’s a natural progression for this law firm to begin an ADR group,” he noted, adding that, apart from the Hampden County Bar Assoc., which has a panel of mediators and arbitrators, the only other mediators and arbitrators in this region are single-practice lawyers; Boston and Hartford have ADR groups, but this woud be the first in this region.

“There appears to be a need here for the right type of mediator and arbitrator,” he said, adding that the firm intends to fill that void.

Barry agreed.

“There are a lot of mediators and arbitrators out there,” he acknowledged. “But what we bring to the field is an expertise — primarily Judge Greaney — that is not available generally and is suitable for certain types of cases in particular.”

Peter Barry says ADR is an area of the law that is growing and will continue to grow as businesses and individuals seek alternatives to litigation.

Peter Barry says ADR is an area of the law that is growing and will continue to grow as businesses and individuals seek alternatives to litigation.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked with Greaney and Barry about Bulkey Richardson’s new ADR group, and also about how arbitration and mediation are becoming increasingly popular — and effective — methods for solving complex legal disputes.

Making Their Case

For those not familiar with Greaney’s background (and many are), it takes more than a few column inches, as they say in the print media, to capture all he’s done during his career.

So we’ll hit the highlights. But even that will take a while.

The Westfield native began his law career with the Springfield-based firm Ely and King in 1964, and was appointed to the Hampden County Housing Court in 1974. That housing court was the second in the state, with the first being in Boston, and was unique in that it served an entire county.

“We decided to innovate considerably,” he recalled. “We designed our own court forms, we changed them to get rid of all the legal language — which cluttered all the forms in the other courts — so people could understand them, and we made them bilingual because we had a large Spanish-speaking population. And, to the dismay of a lot of other courts and judges, we set up a citizen’s advisory council — all to make the court more user-friendly.”

In 1976, Gov. Michael Dukakis appointed Greaney to the Superior Court. This was followed by an appointment to the Appeals Court as an associate justice in 1978. In 1984, he became chief justice of the Appeals Court.

Greaney was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1989 and participated in several landmark cases while serving on the SJC. That list includes Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, in which he wrote the concurrence to the opinion establishing Massachusetts as the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

“We share a common humanity and participate together in a social contract that is the foundation of our Commonwealth,” he wrote, creating language that has been used often by gay couples at their wedding ceremonies. “Simple principles of decency dictate that we extend … full acceptance, tolerance, and respect. We should do so because it is the right thing to do.”

Other significant cases include a 1993 decision upholding the adoption of a child by same-sex cohabitants; a 1997 decision in the Benefit v. City of Cambridge case, affirming the unconstitutionality of a statute prohibiting panhandling; a 2003 decision in the First Justice case addressing, on separation of powers principles, the constitutionality of statutes governing court clerks and probation officers; and a 2007 decision in the Murphy v. Boston Herald case, affirming a judgment based on defamation.

Greaney, famous for taking a Peter Pan bus to and from Boston most days and using that time to get more work done, reached mandatory retirement age (70) in 2008, but he wasn’t, and still isn’t, the retiring type. He joined the faculty of Suffolk University Law School, served as director of the Macaronis Institute for Trial and Appellate Advocacy, and taught constitutional law, criminal law, and appellate practice.

But he became a victim of the financial pressures facing many law schools today, and as Suffolk Law downsized and Greaney’s position was essentially eliminated, the judge looked for something else to do in ‘retirement.’ And as he looked, he remembered that Francis ‘Sandy’ Dibble, a partner at Bulkley Richardson, had long ago told him that, when he was done teaching, he should consider joining the firm.

He did so, in 2016, and thus went back to where he started (well, sort of) — practicing law in downtown Springfield.

But the legal landscape has certainly changed since Greaney first started out as a lawyer more than a half-century ago. Indeed, ADR has become an increasingly popular alternative to the courtroom, one that resolves matters in months, or even weeks, rather than years.

A Strong Case for ADR

There are two basic forms of ADR, mediation and arbitration, and while they are similar in that they are alternatives to traditional litigation, there are important differences.

Mediation is generally conducted with a single mediator who does not judge the case but instead simply helps the parties facilitate discussion and, hopefully, a resolution to a problem. Arbitration, on the other hand, is more judicial in nature (that’s why Greaney said it appeals to him) and involves one or more arbitrators who take on the role of a judge, making decisions about evidence and giving written opinions, which can be binding or non-binding, with the results being final.

“The shift from actual courtroom litigation and the resolution of disputes prior to courtroom litigation has become a fairly active enterprise over the past 12 years or so,” Greaney explained. “When I was a trial judge, no such thing existed.

“But the phenomenon was created by business people and others,” he went on. “And the courts wanted to see a simpler, more efficiently way to deal with the problems they had.”Also, many contracts — for everything from construction projects to employment agreements to the one signed by Stormy Daniels when she received $130,000 from Presisdent Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Choen — have provisions noting that there if problems arise, they will be resolved by private arbitration and not litigation, Greaney told BusinessWest, adding that the Supreme Court, with a few exceptions, has consistently upheld the validity of these arbitration clauses.”

And as a result, and many law firms and individuals, including many retired judges, now specialize in mediation and/or arbitration (mostly the former), creating a somewhat competitive market for those services.

Bulkley Richardson looks to stand out within that playing field and capitalize on the experience of both Greaney and Barry as well as a host of other attorneys within the firm, including Dibble, Daniel Finnegan, Kevin Maynard, David Parke, Melinda Phelps, Jeffrey Poindexter, and John Pucci.

Barry said the firm is not interested in taking on cases that could easily be handled by one of the other mediators in the region, and is instead interested in more complex matters. And, again, they could come from within the 413, or well outside it given the expertise the firm can now bring to bear.

And because of how the pendulum has swung toward ADR, there should be ample opportunity to grow the practice.

“ADR is an area that’s growing and will continue to grow, and there will be a need for the types of services we’ll provide,” he explained. “A lof of big companies have decided, almost across the board as a policy, that they’re not going to litigate — they’re going to do everything possible to settle a case because of the expense and time and misdirection of resources involved in litigation.”

Final Arguments

Getting back to Major League Baseball and those high-profile salary disagreements going to arbitration … and Greaney, an ardent Red Sox fan, noted with a laugh that he would love to get such a matter sent to Bulkley Richardson.

“I love sports; that would be a delight to get something that,” he told BusinessWest. “I understand the statistics and all that goes into those decisions.”

While landing such a case might be a long shot (that’s might), it seems a much safer bet that Bulkley Richardson’s launch of an ADR group will be a winning proposition — for the firm and the region as well.

That’s because of the uniquely high level experience that can brought to the table, especially from a judge that that has made his mark in settings ranging from Hampden County Housing Court to the SJC.

The jury is in — ADR is now the preferred method of resolving a dispute — and Bulkley Richardson appears well-positioned to capitalize on that movement.

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

Education Sections

Art of the Matter

Gabriela Micchia with the multiplication charts created by Holyoke fourth-graders.

Gabriela Micchia with the multiplication charts created by Holyoke fourth-graders.

Forty-two years ago, Enchanted Circle Theater was born as, true to its name, a touring theater company, but its interactions in school classrooms led to a dramatic evolution of its mission. Today, the nonprofit — which works not only in theater arts, but with a whole host of creative endeavors — partners with schools and other organizations on a concept known as arts integration, which uses creativity to make education more impactful — and more fun.

As Gabriela Micchia unfolded a series of multiplication tables in the form of brightly hand-colored diagrams, she explained how they’re much more than mere teaching tools.

“They use these almost like multiplication flash cards,” she said of the Morgan School fourth-graders who created them, pointing out how the numbers connect in straight lines to create a times table for the central digit. “I just made the dots, and they connected the dots, and we talked about how to put the triangles together.”

It’s undoubtedly a more entertaining way to learn math facts than simple recitation. But the real magic happened later, when the students visited another fourth-grade class and excitedly explained how to create the charts and use them to play a math game, said Micchia, a teaching artist with Enchanted Circle Theater in Holyoke. In short, the kids became the teachers.

“It goes back to the idea of the pride they have in the knowledge they gain,” Micchia said. “As much information as they retain from an adult showing them what to do, I think sometimes it’s easier for them to understand it from another student. They see each other doing it.”

That’s a typical story for Enchanted Circle Theater, a 42-year-old, Holyoke-based nonprofit that partners with schools and other organizations to educate through the creative arts.

“It’s an immersion into creative and critical thinking around math concepts,” said Priscilla Kane Hellweg, the long-time executive artistic director. “We hear students telling their friends what they’re working on, and they care about what they’ve created because it’s their creative process. It’s a sense of ownership, so seeing their work, being able to walk by it in the hallway and share it with others, there’s a pride in accomplishment, and a sense of joy.”

It’s a model applicable not just to math, but to all school subjects — with a focus at all times on English-language communication skills.

There’s something about that moment of magic that happens between the audience and the performer during a live performance — there’s this alchemy that happens. And I wanted to follow up on that; I wanted more contact.”

For example, Hellweg said, “we do a lot of work in social studies, where our students will research and write and then perform an original play on the Trail of Tears or immigration or the Civil War or … well, I can give you 42 years worth of content.”

Science is a big focus as well, she added, citing a program for Holyoke fifth-graders called “Where Does Your Water Go?”

“They studied the water cycle, from falling down from the sky into a sewage system into our river right down the street,” she explained. “And then we turned it into an environmental advocacy program, where the students decided what they wanted people to stop and think about, and the impact that humans have on the environment and water.”

The kids then drew pictures — such as a fish swimming amid garbage, or a mallard whose feet are entangled in a plastic six-pack ring — and accompanying slogans, which were then turned into storm-drain art at eight downtown locations. “They created awareness of the water cycle and our role in keeping our world clean.”

Enchanted Circle has, from its beginning, been a working theater, but it has long embraced artistic endeavors of every kind — dance, music, visual arts, literature, even culinary arts — as teaching tools.

“We specialize in what’s called arts integration,” Hellweg said. “And there are three basic components to it. First, it’s about academic understanding — unpacking knowledge and learning concepts and deep critical thinking. The second channel is social-emotional learning and communication and collaboration and all those 21st-century learning skills that prepare us to be engaged in the world.”

The third element, quite simply, is artistry and creativity and examining the world through the filter of creative expression. “We work with people of all ages and all abilities, and it’s about inspiring and engaging and enhancing learning. It’s about connecting people to each other, people to information, people to the world around them, and people to themselves.”

Moment of Magic

Enchanted Circle was launched in 1976 as a touring theater company, but one that had a foothold in education from early on.

“We were traveling to schools, to museums, to fairs, to libraries, bringing folk tales from around the world to life,” Hellweg said. “I’ve been here for 38 of our 42 years, and I love the performing. There’s something about that moment of magic that happens between the audience and the performer during a live performance — there’s this alchemy that happens. And I wanted to follow up on that; I wanted more contact.”

Patricia Kane Hellweg says students who learn through hands-on arts integration retain concepts more effectively because they have more ownership in the process.

Patricia Kane Hellweg says students who learn through hands-on arts integration retain concepts more effectively because they have more ownership in the process.

So the theater started developing workshops related to the performances, which evolved from one-off events to a regular partnership with schools — and an expansion of the organization’s work from drama to arts integration of all kinds.

“I felt that working in the classroom with teachers and students would really bring learning to life,” she told BusinessWest. “So we are still a theater company, and we create original plays on subjects with both cultural and historical relevance. But we really became a teaching institution.”

The theater has a presence in public schools throughout Holyoke, Amherst, Northampton, and parts of Springfield, but also in affordable-housing developments, preschools, universities, and other, perhaps surprising venues.

“We work throughout the community — in the foster-care world, in the mental-health field, with adjudicated youth in detention, in homeless shelters, in housing developments — bringing arts-integrated learning to some of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations in the area,” Hellweg said.

Holyoke’s public schools represent Enchanted Circle’s longest-term and closest partner, as seen in offerings like the visual math programs at Morgan School and a dual-language arts-integration program with grades K-3 at Metcalf School every Friday, which touches on numerous academic subjects. “Whatever they’re working on, we are working on,” she said. “It’s hands-on, project-based, arts-integrated learning.”

And that hands-on element is critical, she noted. Typically, the ideas kids learn at school are stored in their visual memory. “But if we’re doing embodied math — where students become an isosceles triangle, or two people create a parallelogram with their arms — then it’s in your muscle memory. And it brings the joy back to learning because it’s fun, and the laughter in class is huge.”

Micchia agreed. “It becomes this whole-body experience, this holistic experience when we use the arts to create this visual math.”

And students who are having fun are more likely to want to learn, Hellweg added. “What we find is that attendance goes up because students want to be in school, and behavior issues go down because students are engaged.”

That applies even to young people who never considered themselves learners, she said, recalling a bittersweet conversation she had recently with a 15-year-old girl in juvenile detention.

“She said to us, ‘I never thought I would find joy in learning, and I’m loving learning with Enchanted Circle. I never would have dropped out of school had Enchanted Circle been in my classroom.’”

Now working on a poetry-into-performance program through the theater, funded through the National Endowment for the Arts, the girl has a new outlook on why learning can — and should — be so much more than rote memorization. “That engagement, both the physical engagement and the experience of working collaboratively and creatively, changes the learning environment.”

Micchia went further than that, saying Enchanted Circle cultivates an emotionally safe learning space.

“I feel like it creates an acceptance — you’re accepted here. You don’t have to be the best at something,” she said, adding that there’s no one set way to teach a student. “One of the beautiful things is, it’s kind of organic and flexible, and you meet the needs of the child as opposed to the other way around. It’s not a formula.”

Teaching the Teachers

Students aren’t the only ones in need of that confidence, Hellweg noted. Teachers are, too — at least when it comes to the often-unfamiliar territory of arts integration in their classrooms.

“We do a tremendous amount of training of teachers, who don’t necessarily think of themselves as artists, and often feel that they’re not creative. But, within moments of one of our professional-development programs, they realize they’re very creative, and they have a tremendous aptitude for bringing the creative process into the classroom,” she told BusinessWest. “So we’ve been working with teachers on large and small ways to integrate the arts into the classroom, and any time we’re in residence in a classroom, we’re working in partnership with the teacher and students to create something together.”

One innovative initiative, the Honors Arts Academy in Holyoke, is an afterschool program at Donahue School that focuses on rigorous arts training for students. The goal is to secure the funding to place it at Holyoke High School and bring in seventh- and eighth-graders from three city middle schools to work with freshmen at the high school.

“The ninth-grade dropout rate is a big challenge,” Hellweg said, “so it’s good to get seventh- and eighth-graders feeling not just at home in the high school, but that it’s their school, and able to use the resources at the high school, like the television studio and the theater. Most middle schools don’t have those resources.”

In all Enchanted Circle’s programs, she added, students are moving beyond passive learning and generating their own ideas, helping to craft curriculum that means something to them.

While the theater has evolved slowly over the years, Hellweg is excited about a new initiative called the Institute for Arts Integration, which will be a regional hub for training teachers, social-service case workers, administrators, and teaching artists.

“There are a couple programs around the country that are doing this, and because we’ve been pioneers in the field of arts integration, we want to create our own institute,” she said. “Our goal is to make arts integration the norm in every classroom.”

It’s a goal that gets her out of bed each morning, doing a job she has loved for almost four decades.

“You don’t stay in a job that long unless it moves you,” she said. “Every single day, I see that ‘a-ha’ moment where students are able to do something they didn’t think they could. It’s palpable — teachers are seeing their students differently, students are seeing their teachers differently. Learning comes alive, and the creative process means it’s never-ending. That’s where my inspiration comes from.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Travel and Tourism

Hot Tips

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

 

MUSIC, THEATER, AND DANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISTORY AND CULTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAIRS AND FESTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE FUN UNDER THE SUN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Features

Along for the Ride

Anita Bird, now an HR coordinator for MGM Springfield, knocked on the door of the company’s office back in 2012 not knowing what to expect.

Anita Bird, now an HR coordinator for MGM Springfield, knocked on the door of the company’s office back in 2012 not knowing what to expect.

As the final, final countdown begins for MGM Springfield, the opening of the nearly $1 billion project offers a different level of poignancy for a small group of individuals. They are known as first-generation, or first-gen employees. In many cases, they were the boots on the ground, stuffing envelopes and staging letter-writing parties when this was only a concept, not even an architect’s rendering. Today, they’re no longer volunteers; in fact, they’re already casino-industry veterans who have found not only a job but a career.

Anita Bird remembers knocking on the door not knowing who or what might lie on the other side.

She had left Temple University in Philadelphia that fall of 2012, and come home to Springfield looking for … well, she wasn’t exactly sure what. A “restart” was how she phrased it for BusinessWest. She had heard that MGM was looking at Springfield as the possible site for one of the Commonwealth’s first resort casinos and also that the company had opened a small office at 1441 Main St.

“I was trying to figure out what I was going to do,” she recalled, “and I’d heard that MGM was here, and I wanted some more information, mainly because I was surprised and confused and was just looking to see what all this was about.”

So she knocked on the door.

Fast-forwarding considerably, she was met by Brian Bass, manager of the company’s casino-referendum efforts, who would offer her an opportunity to volunteer for the entertainment giant as it sought to clear what would be merely the first of many hurdles it would face to gain a casino license.

That stint as a volunteer would eventually lead to a job and what has all the makings of a career in the casino business. Her business card now declares that she is HR coordinator for MGM Springfield, handling a wide array of responsibilities, from events to make people aware of career opportunities at the casino to birthday parties for those already on the payroll.

What it will read several years, or even several months, from now, she doesn’t know.

“You get a glimpse of every piece, a little of everyone’s world,” she said of her time at MGM to date and her exposure to a wide array of career paths. “I’m open to the many opportunities that MGM has; we have so many great properties and great opportunities.”

Bird is what’s known within the company as a ‘first-generation’ employee of MGM Springfield, which means, in most cases, that she’s been here from the very start, long before the very first architect’s renderings of the $950 million casino now nearing completion in the South End were drawn. Back before Springfield voters had even approved a referendum that would allow a company to build a casino within the city’s borders. Back before anyone around here had ever heard of Mike Mathis or Bill Hornbuckle.

Amanda Gagnon may have lost the battle for Ward 6 in the casino referendum fight, but she’s won not only a job but what has the makings of a career in the gaming industry.

Amanda Gagnon may have lost the battle for Ward 6 in the casino referendum fight, but she’s won not only a job but what has the makings of a career in the gaming industry.

There are several of these first-gen employees, many of whom, like Bird, started as volunteers. Sometimes they knocked on that office door, other times they joined a line at the MGM table at a job fair.

After volunteering, they then earned jobs with a wide array of titles, and now are in what appears to be the early stage of a career in the gaming industry. Many of them tell stories of ‘letter-writing parties’ from the days leading up to the city’s referendum vote and then, a year later, a statewide ballot initiative to undo the Legislature’s approval of casino gambling. And of long days and nights working toward something that was then only a concept. And of doing ‘anything and everything that needed to be done,’ a phrase many of them used.

“We were the feet on the ground — this little army of recent college graduates just knocking on doors, making phone calls, having house parties and letter-writing parties; if there was a way to get the word out, we were going to do it,” said Amanda Gagnon, who, after her time volunteering, wound up serving on the community relations staff, then as exective assistant to both Mathis, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, and Alex Dixon, the general manager, and now, as project coordinator on the operations side.

Some have seen their journey take them to Las Vegas for management training or to MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland, which opened roughly 18 months ago. But they are all in Springfield, or back in Springfield, as the case may be.

And now that it’s reality and just a few months from opening its doors, the casino has become for them not only a place of employment, but a source of pride, something they’ve helped bring to fruition, something that, for those who grew up in and around Springfield, has changed their outlook on the city and its future.

“Back when I was going to college at Western New England, I would never have patronized any of the outlets down here,” said Thuy Nguyen, a first-gen employee now working in HR. “I wouldn’t even think to set foot downtown because you always thought it was too dangerous to be down there. Fast-forward five years, and I’m downtown almost every week — outside of work. It’s a nice, very refreshing change.”

For this issue, and as the opening date for the casino draws ever closer, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on an intriguing group of MGM team members — those first-generation employees who knocked on the door of opportunity, sometimes quite literally, and found a fulfilling career on the other side.

Rolling the Dice

Gagnon can laugh about it now, but, for the most part, she still doesn’t. That’s because, on many levels, it remains a sore subject.

In the run-up to Springfield’s referendum vote on casino gambling in the fall of 2013, Gagnon, an East Longmeadow native, was essentially assigned Ward 6, the Forest Park area. As things turned out, that was the only ward to vote against the casino measure.

“I had a tough community, and I wore that scarlet letter for a while, but they didn’t hold it against me, obviously,” said Gagnon with a laugh. She took those numbers hard, but quickly focused on the much bigger picture — all the work that still lay ahead, including another campaign — the ballot initiative (which was defeated by a wide margin) — and she’s embraced all of it.

Gagnon’s story, like that of all of the first-generation employees, has its unique elements and fate-filled moments; there’s even what is now a husband-and-wife team that went to Las Vegas together for management training and now work on different floors of MGM’s headquarters at 95 State St. (we’ll meet them in a bit).

But there are many common threads as well. Most weren’t looking for a job with MGM per se when they started, just a job, or a restart, like the one Bird described.

Thuy Nguyen says she never skipped school before attending that job fair where she connected with MGM Resorts. She certainly has no regrets now.

Thuy Nguyen says she never skipped school before attending that job fair where she connected with MGM Resorts. She certainly has no regrets now.

Gagnon was certainly looking for one of those after returning from New York — and a short stint on Broadway in company management and casting — as so many do who venture to the Big Apple, with big dreams mostly unfulfilled.

“I was working in entertainment because that’s my strongest passion,” she said. “But New York is expensive, and I came back with my tail between my legs, ready to reassess what my future should be. I felt defeated — but I heard that MGM was interested in coming to the area.”

But at first, the East Longmeadow native disregarded those reports as illogical, based largely on the city’s troubles at the time and her own perceptions of the community. “I said, ‘I know this area, and MGM and Springfield weren’t two words that went together at the time.’”

But she was pushed and prodded by family members to investigate the rumors and, more specifically, show up at a career showcase at the MassMutual Center and report back in detail on what transpired.

She did show up, and she did report back — that MGM had no job openings, per se, but it was looking for interns to help with the campaign.

She interned for about a month and then was brought on full-time to work on the referendum campaign — work that is far removed from the lights of Broadway and also from what most people think about when they sign on to work for MGM Resorts.

Derek and Jennifer Russell arrived at MGM Springfield by way of Las Vegas (management training) and an assignment to help open MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland.

Derek and Jennifer Russell arrived at MGM Springfield by way of Las Vegas (management training) and an assignment to help open MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland.

As noted, these first-gen employees weren’t working for a casino, but for a company with aspirations for building a casino in the City of Homes. In the late spring of 2018, it might be hard for some to remember how all this started — with a grassroots effort to garner support for casino gambling in the city.

Those who were there certainly can’t forget; the images, and memories, are embedded in their minds.

“By October, when I arrived, MGM was just sort of putting the feelers out,” said Bird, who would eventually be appointed manager of that office bearing the door she knocked on, the first of many steps up the ladder. “That’s when we sent out all those mailers asking people what their feelings were on casino gambling and what they thought about a casino here; that’s where we started, with those mailers, and eventually there were house parties, letter-writing efforts, and other things to feel out where the support was and what people thought about the project.

“We would do fireside chats, we would go to hockey games and sign people up, we’d do giveaways — anything we could to get to talk to people,” she went on, adding that the goals back then were to build support but also a large army of people to carry on the fight.

Joining the Army

And the recruitment process for that army was quite involved, and many would join by what could only be called the indirect route. Nguyen enlisted by way of a career fair in 2013 staged not by her school, Western New England University, but UMass Amherst.

“I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and UMass has, historically, one of the largest career fairs in the area,” she recalled. “I was searching on their database to see what companies were going to be represented, and almost fell off my chair when I saw ‘MGM Resorts’ on the list.

“I swear that, prior to that, I had never skipped school,” she went on. “But I skipped on that day, took a chance, stood in line for what felt like hours, and once I got to the table and spoke to a representative, I found they were recruiting for their Las Vegas properties.”

That news left her feeling quite deflated — she remembers almost being in tears as she left the career fair — but the picture changed quickly and dramatically when Bass, who was forwarded her résumé by MGM colleagues at the career fair, gave her a call, inquiring about whether she’d like to join the campaign as an intern.

“He hired me on the spot, and it’s history from there,” she told BusinessWest before offering, when prodded, a much slower version of the story.

That account featured a dramatic shift in scenery as Thuy ventured off to Las Vegas and the MGM Grand, where she took part in the management-associate program, a stint that lasted three years.

For someone who grew up in Springfield and then moved to rural Maine, it was quite a culture shock — “life-changing,” as she called it.

But her goal was always to come back to Springfield and open the MGM property here, and late last year, she did. Her business card declares that she is an HR business partner, handling a wide array of responsibilities, from internal investigations to counseling to workers’ comp claims — “all the fun stuff” — for a workforce now numbering more than 200 and on its way to 3,000.

From left: Derek and Jennifer Russell, Amanda Gagnon, Thuy Nguyen, and Anita Bird.

From left: Derek and Jennifer Russell, Amanda Gagnon, Thuy Nguyen, and Anita Bird.

Among those 200 are Jennifer and Derek Russell. They have different jobs — she’s the manager of Talent and Acquisition, and he’s manager of Financial Planning & Analysis — and they work on different floors, but they took the same basic route here.

The same one Nguyen did.

Indeed, Jennifer, a graduate of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass, was at that very same career fair, also looking for a summer internship. She was thinking about Boston or Hartford as a landing spot, but was mostly focused on just getting some experience and making a little money.

“I talked to 18 companies, and saw this really long line at this last booth that turned out to be MGM,” she recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘this is a hospitality company; I don’t know much about it, but it seems really popular right now.

“I ended up waiting in line for a good 15 minutes just to talk with one person,” she went on. “I was asking if they had any HR positions or project-management roles.”

The person she spoke with was recruiting for Las Vegas, and she handed her over to the vice president of MGM Grand, who took one of Russell’s homemade business cards and dialed the number on it several days later, asking specifically if Russell would be interested in coming out to Las Vegas.

She was, went out for an initial 10 weeks, and “fell in love with all of it,” in her recollection.

She came back home to East Longmeadow and to Derek, whom she had started dating a few months earlier, and essentially talked him into going back out to Vegas with her.

As he recalls, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell.

“I spent the better part of a year in Boston doing something I probably wasn’t enjoying, and was looking for something different,” he said. “Jen decided she wanted to move to Vegas to take part in this management-associate program and wanted me to go with her.

“I said, ‘why not?’ — I wasn’t doing anything all that great for work,” he went on, adding that he applied for the MGM program, also known as MAP, and was accepted. “I told my boss at the time that I was moving to Vegas; he said, ‘you’re young … that’s probably not the craziest thing you’ll ever do.’ And I remember telling him, ‘I’m pretty sure moving to Vegas is one of the greatest things I’ll ever do.’”

Moving the story along, they spent a year in the MAP program, getting a holistic view of how a casino company like MGM operates, choosing a career path — again, his in finance and hers in talent acquisition — and then getting on with those careers.

While doing so, they were ever mindful of a pledge they made to each other that they would eventually return to Massachusetts and the families they left behind. They would do that, but first made a stop at National Harbor to be part of the team that opened that casino.

Today, like many of the other first-gen employees, their travels have taken them well beyond Greater Springfield, but they are happy to be here now at this pivotal moment in the city’s history.

It’s a moment they are part of on many levels. Indeed, the Russells not only work downtown, they live there, literally a few hundred yards from the front door of the casino’s hotel, in Stockbridge Court.

“It’s exciting to see the city come to life and be restored after so long,” said Derek. “The city is changing, and it’s great to be part of all that’s happening here.”

Others shared that sentiment and said they’re proud that the project they’ve been involved with for so much of their young lives is helping to transform the region they knew and make the memories — and sentiments — they had seem very distant.

“The Springfield we see now isn’t the same Springfield I left when I went to New York,” said Gagnon. “There’s new restaurants on Worthington Street, new events in Court Square. Springfield isn’t just a city people drive through anymore; we’ve become a place to stop, not just somewhere on the way.

Nguyen agreed.

“MGM is Springfield’s lifeline,” she told BusinessWest. “And I’m a true believer that, without MGM, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today.”

In the Beginning…

Flashbacks.

All those we spoke with say they have them. Lots of them.

They flash back to selected moments in time that, for obvious reasons, have become indelible — because of the work being done, the time of day, the fatigue they were feeling, the emotions they were expressing, or, very often, the people they were working beside.

Many of those people are now on a different floor or, in some cases, just a few cubicles away. But they’re still ‘beside’ them, wearing MGM nametags and bearing business cards with the company’s logo. And that makes the flashbacks come more easily.

“I can think back on those nights when it was 1 o’clock in the morning and we were counting how many phone calls we had made,” recalled Gagnon with a heavy sigh. “That’s just one of many memories I have — and will always have. And every second of that is worth it to be able to be here today.”

With that, she certainly spoke for all of the first-gen employees.

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

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Amy Cahillane says the DNA strives to promote and build on Northampton’s energy, understanding that it has competition from other area downtowns.

Amy Cahillane says the DNA strives to promote and build on Northampton’s energy, understanding that it has competition from other area downtowns.

Northampton’s downtown, Amy Cahillane says, is nothing if not eclectic.

“We have a great mix of businesses,” said the director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., a two-year-old organization dedicated to boosting vibrancy in the city’s center. “We have a lot of different clothing stores, coffee shops, restaurants and bars — there’s a lot of room to find your niche here.”

She said business owners downtown are very much a network of mom-and-pop outfits that take pride in the district’s economic vibrancy and work hard to welcome new shop owners into the fold as they’re launching their enterprises.

“We’re a community that really works hard to make things attractive and make sure there’s stuff to do downtown, and welcome people in our downtown. We’re not just a Walmart and a Target and a parking lot.”

It’s a place, Cahillane said, where small-business owners, many of them first-time entrepreneurs, have no qualms about asking each other about the smallest details, from the best point-of-sale systems to how to keep customers coming in despite a raft of construction projects making it more difficult than usual to get around and find parking.

“All of our small businesses know it’s tough to take that risk and open your own business,” she said. “Business owners who have been around 30 years have had these conversations a million times — they’re very happy to share information, share stories, and lend support. Nobody wants to see a vacant storefront; people want to support other fellow business owners that are taking that gamble. And a lot of times, these business owners are our neighbors or friends, or kids of our friends.”

Aimee Francaes, who opened Belly of the Beast a year ago with her partner, Jesse Hassinger, can vouch for the support of downtown businesses, adding that such an atmosphere suits a restaurant that has forged some other important relationships — with local farms.

“The concept is ‘comfort food mindfully made,’ she said, noting that all meats are sourced from farms throughout the Northeast — and are smoked and cured on site — and 90% of produce in season comes from the Valley, or just over the border in surrounding states.

“We’re very much focused on being part of the community,” she went on. “And we feel like the community has really welcomed us and brought us into the fold. People tend to be very warm and welcoming, and happy to have us here, and happy to have us so active with local farms. Being on Main Street, right across from Thornes, gives us wonderful visibility.”

Speaking of Thornes Marketplace, which houses its own eclectic range of small businesses, it recently undertook a major renovation of its iconic front entrance, making changes both aesthetic and aimed at preserving the building’s historic elements.

It’s the sort of project that pleases the DNA, a voluntary organization open to property owners, businesses, and city residents, whose members work to improve the business and cultural strength of the downtown area through investments in programming, beautification, and advocacy.

The DNA handles such things as city plantings and holiday lights, and sponsors events that bring visitors to downtown, like the first Summer Stroll and Holiday Stroll, Arts Night Out, and sidewalk sales. The city has also given the DNA a full-time worker who cleans and maintains public property in the downtown business district.

Beyond that, Cahillane said, “we do advocacy, and we make sure the downtown community has a voice at City Hall, that people feel their voice is heard, and that there are public meetings and community forums on issues that will impact downtown, so everybody has a chance to voice their opinions and thoughts.”

The organization rose up after the dissolution of the Northampton Business Improvement District, and has since taken under its umbrella events and projects once handled by the BID and other entities.

“We’re always looking to do new events and create new partnerships,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re open to it all. The focus this year is to tighten up events we already do, but we’re always game to bring new stuff into the fold.”

Positive Trends

Several years into a strong regional economy, indicators such as property taxes, meals-tax revenue, and the number of visitors to the city show plenty of life, and Northampton’s downtown district, home to unique retailers, eclectic dining choices, and active arts organizations, reflects that health.

It can be slightly more difficult to navigate the area, however, thanks to a good reason — the city’s investment in infrastructure on Main and Pleasant streets, which includes ongoing roadwork and utility upgrades, supporting, among other developments, two housing complexes going up on Pleasant Street. Work along that thoroughfare also includes a small park, more parking spaces, and improved sidewalks and bike lanes.

Northampton
at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.04
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.04
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
*Latest information available

Cahillane said new businesses like Belly of the Beast have entered this landscape with aplomb, while occasional special events shine a spotlight on other businesses, like Sutter Meats on King Street, which ran a successful, two-day pop-up event in conjunction with the Little Truc food truck, serving up pho to sellout crowds.

Typically, she added, retail establishments participate enthusiastically in special events downtown — such as a fundraiser for Hampshire County Friends of the Homeless, in which music groups were stationed downtown, performing and passing the hat — but it’s harder for restaurants to do the same.

“The retailers are always game for everything. The restaurants, when we have events, are so busy with the people who come downtown for these events that it’s hard for them to also simultaneously staff a second, separate thing on that same day. So we try to bring the people downtown and then encourage them to eat at the restaurants. But they’re very supportive of our organization.”

Homestead, which set up shop in the former Ibiza Tapas location on Strong Avenue, is another fairly recent addition to the restaurant scene.

“They are doing very well and have made a lot of local relationships to bring products into their restaurant that are locally sourced,” Cahillane said, before adding that such a designation is par for the course in this city.

“I would say just about every restaurant in our downtown does some version of locally sourced,” she noted. “We have thought about ‘let’s do some sort of downtown festival where each restaurant could feature maybe a locally sourced dish,’ but that’s their whole menu at every restaurant. That’s not a Northampton festival; that’s an everyday reality. But some of them have had some really interesting or unique things that they have done with those local partnerships.”

Cahillane added that there should be more news of new businesses on the horizon. “They’re not ready to make it public yet, but I’d say, over the next six months, there will be some exciting storefronts popping up.”

That’s always a welcome development, she said, because even Northampton, known regionally and beyond for its downtown life, does grapple with occasional vacant storefronts. But in context, and relative to the struggles of many other communities, Paradise City is in a good place.

“I think it’s a great downtown,” she said, “and I think people are looking to come downtown.”

Making Contact

To cultivate that spirit, the DNA conducts monthly meetings with downtown businesses on a variety of topics.

“That’s a great opportunity for them do some networking with new businesses — and older businesses, too — and talk about things that might be mundane to the outside person, but are still important,” Cahillane said. “Recently, there was going to be construction, and some of them wanted to know how people dealt with the scaffolding outside and putting a banner on it. Other businesses were able to say, ‘make sure it’s really big, and make sure there’s not a lot of words on it, because no one’s going to stop and read it.’ So, things like that, which would not necessarily occur to me, are real issues, and we’re able to facilitate some of those conversations.”

Thornes Market

These connections are important in the big picture — one in which individual success stories become shared successes, she added.

“There is a feeling that all boats rise with the tide, that having a beautiful downtown can only help encourage people to come downtown, and there’s a recognition that is only going to happen if everybody pitches in.”

After all, Cahillane noted, Northampton isn’t the only downtown destination in the region, and shouldn’t rest on its laurels or take its visitors for granted.

“We’re fortunate to live in the Valley where there are a lot of great communities, and there are some, like Turners Falls and Easthampton, that are becoming up-and-coming, hip, trendy places to go and hang out,” she said. “Then there’s the casino that’s opening in downtown Springfield.

“We love our downtown,” she went on, “but we don’t want to just assume that everybody else knows and loves it, and I think you risk getting stagnant and a little boring if you don’t work to improve or at least maintain what you already have. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Francaes appreciates the effort, as she does the business owners downtown, from the owners of Thornes Marketplace to established restaurateurs, who acted as informal business consultants when she and Hassinger were getting ready to open their doors.

“We haven’t talked to anyone who hasn’t been supportive,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s part of the reason we chose Northampton — that vibe and warm, welcoming spirit.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Restaurants Sections

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

 

 

There’s More Growth on the Menu

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

 

Taste of Italy

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

 

Who’s Cooking

A list of the area’s largest restaurants

Insurance Sections

Matters of Policy

Regina Jasak says local agents can help consumers avoid some “really scary policies.”

Regina Jasak says local agents can help consumers avoid some “really scary policies.”

When Massachusetts opened up its auto-insurance landscape in 2008, switching from a one-price-fits-all approach to the current model known as managed competition, it created more challenges for independent agents, but much more opportunity for customers willing to take the time to examine the many options and credits available to them. The key, these agents say, is putting their expertise to use — a resource not available to those purchasing insurance from direct writers online.

Eileen Bresnahan is always amazed at what people will do for a low insurance rate — like one individual who was covered for $5,000 in property damage for his 2017 Camry.

“If I hit you and do $17,000 worth of damage, my company is going to pay you the five grand, and you’re going to have to try to get the rest out of me,” she said, putting herself in that individual’s shoes for a moment. But such is the world of direct insurance writers — like Progressive and Geico — that market themselves based mainly on price, and wind up skimping on, you know, actual coverage.

“We always say ‘buyer beware,’” Bresnahan, president of Bresnahan Insurance Agency in Holyoke, said of local independent insurance agencies like her own. “We’re all licensed and trained; we can look at a policy and can tell you the things you might not know.”

Regina Jasak, president of Regina Jasak Insurance in Ludlow, has seen the same cases cross her desk.

“Anything you might hit — a guardrail, a car, a house — after that $5,000, you’ll be paying for it as well. You can get a really cheap policy, but you get what you pay for. I’ve seen some really scary policies out there from the direct writers.”

The truth, she added, is that customers can get policies for not much more than the bare-bones pricing of the online marketers, but with much better coverage, explained in detail, simply because of the flexibility Massachusetts insurers have enjoyed over the past decade — flexibility that, for the most part, didn’t exist before.

Indeed, for much of the past century, auto-insurance rates in Massachusetts were set by the state Division of Insurance. Anyone who requested a premium quote for a certain level of coverage would receive the same price from any number of companies, unless they were eligible for a group discount.

Managed competition, which began in 2008, allows insurance companies to offer their own rates. Although these rates may vary, they must still be approved by the Division of Insurance — hence the term ‘managed.’ The result is that Massachusetts drivers are able to compare the different rates, benefits, and services offered by the insurance companies competing for their business.

“There’s a lot of flexibility in auto rates and coverages, and it really needs to be tailored to each client,” Jasak said. “Each company has its own appetites, so we really need to delve into the client to figure out what’s best for them in order to find the best company at the best rates.”

That changed landscape made life more complicated for local agents, but in a good way, Jasak added.

“I find it more entertaining. It used to be that auto insurance was auto insurance, and it didn’t really matter where you were insured, whereas now the consumer can consider things like the company’s billing process, how claims are settled, are their rates good for my circumstances, do they offer me a great bundle option tying the house and car together? Is that the best thing to do, or can I get a better rate if I split things apart?”

Shifting Gears

Trish Vassallo, personal and commercial lines director at Encharter Insurance in Amherst, agreed that managed competition has radically changed the automotive side of the insurance business in Massachusetts.

Trish Vassallo (left, with Tracey Benison) says customers should review their policy every year to make sure they’re taking advantage of all the credits available to them.

Trish Vassallo (left, with Tracey Benison) says customers should review their policy every year to make sure they’re taking advantage of all the credits available to them.

“Carriers have been able to offer add-ons and packages and rider endorsements and enhancements that are specialized per carrier,” she said, “so while the Geicos and Progressives talk about accident forgiveness and gap coverages and reward dollars, those are available with everyone operating in Massachusetts today. Independent agents offer these coverages, but they are an added expense, as they would be with any carrier. As a client, you need to look at your coverage every year to make sure you’re getting the right pricing for the right products.”

That’s where independent agents serve a role the direct writers online cannot, she went on. “Sometimes people aren’t aware of options available or never had them explained to them, or they just don’t care — they want the bottom-line price and don’t understand what they’re missing out on.”

Under the prior, regulated system, insurance providers were required to apply specific surcharges for certain accidents and traffic violations. Now, insurance companies are permitted to develop their own rules, subject to state approval, for imposing surcharges for at-fault accidents and traffic violations.

They can also include a raft of discounts, such as for students who attend school away from home, making it easier for their parents to carry them on their policies year-round, or for bundling auto and home insurance when both policies are bought from the same carrier.

“Different carriers all have their own model customers,” said Tracey Benison, president of Encharter Insurance. “Our job is to really know the carriers and try to find the right fit for the customer.”

For example, Jasak said, some carriers will look back at driving records over three years, some six, and they also vary in how they incorporate accidents — both at-fault and not at-fault — into their pricing.

Then there are the credits, and they are myriad, Bresnahan said. “There are good-student discounts, so if a student gets a 3.0 GPA or higher, that’s one of the credits on there. Let me tell you, it is a big savings — and it’s an incentive to get good grades, and it also pertains to college.”

She also mentioned the discount for students away at college, as well as low-mileage discounts, which can knock anywhere from 2% to 17% off the cost of a policy. “Just think — the lower the mileage you drive, the less chances there are of getting in an accident or having a moving violation.”

From left, Shelly Chantre, Judy Orlen, Nicole Shibley, Janet Fernandez-Santiago, and Eileen Bresnahan of Bresnahan Insurance.

From left, Shelly Chantre, Judy Orlen, Nicole Shibley, Janet Fernandez-Santiago, and Eileen Bresnahan of Bresnahan Insurance.

Carriers may also offer multi-car discounts, a AAA membership credit — with the discount increasing the longer a customer has been a member — and a discount for individuals who enroll in an advanced driver training course. “There’s also a disappearing deductible that wasn’t in effect before either, so if you don’t have an accident for a certain number of years, each year your deductible builds up.”

With each carrier using such incentives to attract their own version of a model customer, agents need to understand all the nuances and how best to match a driver with a policy, Bresnahan added.

“It’s just training your staff to know which credits to offer,” she said. “We have letters go out with renewals, and we highlight discounts and enhancements they currently have and other ones they don’t, and they can call if they’re interested in knowing more about those.”

More Than 15 Minutes

The direct writers have certainly made an impact on Massachusetts auto-insurance scene, but they’ve also brought some controversy, being fined multiple times by the state’s Division of Insurance for various deceptive or confusing practices.

“Some of the direct writers are very coy with prices or hidden deductibles, which the customer is not aware of until a loss comes into play,” Vassallo said. “It can be difficult to understand your coverage when you’re buying off the rack.”

The benefit of an independent agent representing multiple carriers, she said, is that she can work to generate the best product for each individual — and educate customers on various pitfalls, such as the importance of listing all household members as operators, as failure to do so can lead to a claim not being paid.

“It’s very, very important that parents list their children on their auto-insurance policy as soon they get their license,” Jasak added. “If they have no prior insurance, it’ll be very expensive when they need it. Parents say, ‘oh, they never drive my car,’ but if they kids are never insured, if they’re never listed on their parents’ policy, they’ll be paying an exorbitant amount of money when they get their own insurance.”

It’s all about relationships, Bresnahan said, not just a bottom-line dollar figure on a computer screen.

“When you’re a local, independent agent, you have to look people in the eye. With these direct writers, you’re not looking that gecko in the eye,” she said, noting that she has lost clients to the online companies dangling a cheaper rate. “Buyer beware. If it’s too good to be true, there’s usually something up.”

And also beware, she said, when a direct writer promises to produce a quote in 15 minutes.

“We educate our personnel, and we keep up with the changes in this business — because it’s forever changing. There’s so much information that it’s not possible to get a quote in 15 minutes. You’re not getting proper explanation of the coverage. There’s so much involved in getting a quote. It takes a long time.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Policy Shifts

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

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

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

They call it ‘State and Main.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space Exploration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Room for Improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying Dividends

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

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

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

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

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

Especially those in the broad realm of education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Is Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Members Only

Katherine Hutchinson says members expect a credit union to be attuned to their needs.

Katherine Hutchinson says members expect a credit union to be attuned to their needs.

Although myths persist about what credit unions are, their leaders are cheered by statistics showing that 43% of Massachusetts residents belong to one. But they know members aren’t satisfied with mere messaging; they want the high-tech tools available at larger banks, melded with a culture of personal service. It’s a challenge they say they work hard to meet.

Michael Ostrowski has made a career in credit-union leadership, and the numbers startled even him.

Specifically, it’s the statistic that 43% of the population of Massachusetts is a credit-union member, compared to about 33% nationally.

“That’s huge. I was surprised by that,” said Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union. But after considering it, he wondered why that 43% figure should be a shock at all. “I’m surprised more people don’t take advantage of credit unions, from the fees and everything right down the line. We are typically a better deal, and you don’t see any of these credit unions in the newspaper like a Wells Fargo.”

By that, he meant the financial turmoil that many national banks brought upon themselves at the start of the Great Recession — a crisis that actually led to marketing opportunities for credit unions, said Katherine Hutchinson, president and CEO of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union.

“We did see growth throughout the recession,” she told BusinessWest. “We wanted to make sure we were not letting our members down by not lending through that period, but we were also very conscientious about how we were spending our money — all the things good financial institutions do to protect the interests of their shareholders and, in our case, our members. That’s really important to us, and I think it was a time where people were taking a second look and saw credit unions as alternatives.”

The lobby walls at UMassFive’s Hadley headquarters are adorned with messaging touting the member-centric (don’t call them customers) philosophy of credit unions, and, “believe me, we try very hard to follow the philosophy,” Hutchinson went on. “I’ve been at the credit union for 42 years — I’ve kind of grown up in the industry. When I started, we were very focused on the member, and I’ve tried to convey that and live that philosophy as we grew bigger.”

Credit unions are financial institutions that look and feel like a bank in the products and service they offer, she explained, but the difference is their structure as cooperatives.

“Because of a credit union’s non-for-profit status, consumers do expect better rates and lower fees, and I think that’s what they experience,” she said. “But they also want us to be focused on what they need, on how we can help them personally — to listen to their story, hear about why they’re in a certain situation, and what would really help them.”

Glenn Welch says local leadership means credit unions can respond to members’ concerns quickly.

Glenn Welch says local leadership means credit unions can respond to members’ concerns quickly.

Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, said member ownership of the institution is important to those who do business there. “Whether you have $5 in your account of $500,000, it’s one member, one vote,” he said, adding that members of his board of directors must hail from the four western counties. “The board is local, so members know we can make decisions and resolve situations quickly.”

Resolving situations, and writing more success stories, is a point of pride for UMassFive, Hutchinson noted. “I think it’s important that we hear those stories and share those stories to encourage our employees to listen to the members and find ways to help. The stories are important.”

Numbers Don’t Lie

The story for credit unions has been positive in recent years, Ostrowski said, pointing to statistics like a capital-to-assets ratio of 10.4%, on average, for credit unions in Massachusetts. “Over 7 is well-capitalized — we’re over 10. That shows strength in the credit-union industry.”

Meanwhile, the 167 credit unions in Massachusetts employ 6,158 people full-time and another 908 part-time, and boast more than 2.9 million members — again, about 43% of all residents.

Still, myths persist about credit unions, Welch said, sharing four common ones identified by the Credit Union National Assoc.

The first myth: “I can’t join.” CUNA points out that many Americans believe they are ineligible to join a credit union, but membership eligibility today is typically based on geography, he noted. Membership at Freedom Credit Union, for example, is available to anyone who lives, works, or attends college in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire counties.

The second myth: “accessing my money may be hard.” Not true, Welch said, noting that, along with boasting a mobile application for online banking, many credit unions, including Freedom, have joined the Allpoint Network, allowing members surcharge-free ATM access at more than 55,000 retail locations worldwide.

The third myth: “they’re too small.” Rather, he noted, credit unions provide the same security and protection of a larger financial institution, but is accountable to members, rather than shareholders. “This means every customer is treated as an individual, not a number, enjoying personalized service and customized products.”

The final myth: “they’re primarily for those in need.” Based on generational notions, Welch explained, some may believe credit unions mainly serve low-income consumers. In truth, he added, they serve every population, as well as every size and type of business.

Essentially, he told BusinessWest, the CUNA survey demonstrated that many people don’t understand what membership means and how to go about applying to be a member.

“Several things came up; one was that they didn’t feel that credit unions can offer them the level of technology and products of banking institutions. But we had a good year in 2017 and approached the board with quite a few investment upgrades,” he noted, expanding the tasks that can be done online, like electronically signing for loans.

“People don’t want to set foot in a bank or credit union lobby unless they have to,” he continued. “We have the same products available at bigger banks, but at a local level.”

Ostrowski agreed that credit-union members appreciate the institution’s purpose and philosophy, but also demand current technology. In fact, Arrha is in the process of upgrading all its systems to improve electronic communication and its mobile banking platforms.

“I think the credit unions are still filling that void of the banks that had their roots in the small towns, and that really hasn’t changed,” he said. “But I think it’s important that people realize that we have the same systems all the big banks have, and we have the same cybersecurity functionality they do. Clearly, from a systems standpoint, we can compete very well with them.”

Michael Ostrowski says credit-union members expect the same high-tech products they can find at large banks.

Michael Ostrowski says credit-union members expect the same high-tech products they can find at large banks.

Likewise, Hutchinson noted that the area colleges the credit union was built upon still form its core membership group, but it wouldn’t have grown beyond that without a recognition in the region of the credit-union philosophy — and without a commitment on the institution’s side to stay atop trends in products and services and continually invest in technology. “That is important to growth and our sustainability, so we’re proud of that.”

Loan Stars

Ostrowski said messages like this — and a vibrant economy — have helped Arrha grow steadily in recent years, with deposits up, loan delinquency down, and investments in technology helping to attract new members.

Meanwhile, Welch noted that the competitive interest rates Freedom pays on savings accounts and charges for loans have both attracted new business. All that led to growth in 2017 in return on assets and total loans, as well as hiring a second commercial lender and a credit manager, focusing on individuals and small businesses.

“Typically, we don’t lend more than $3.5 million or $4.5 million, although we could, based on capital,” he noted.

But the credit-union presidents BusinessWest spoke with all noted that the model’s philosophy doesn’t stop at dollars and cents, but extends to a robust community outreach, often in the form of educational seminars.

“That goes to the concept of people helping people,” Welch said. “We find, when we’re not able to help someone, it’s usually a credit issue, and often, they haven’t been educated on the value of credit. So we participate with other banking institutions in Credit for Life fairs, reaching out to students when they’re still in high school to talk about good and bad credit, and what that means when they try to buy a car, rent an apartment, or get a credit card.”

Hutchinson said her board believes community education is important to UMassFive’s mission. “So many people need that kind of assistance. It ties back into what is best for our members — educating them on how to make decisions.

“Financial literacy is key,” she went on. “We try to have a variety of topics, from understanding your credit score to budgeting to preparing for retirement and first-time homebuying. We also work with UMass, doing some seminars for students on student debt.”

Ostrowski noted that even recent college graduates don’t understand their credit score and the impact it can have, while others take advantage of a credit-card offer in the mail and quickly wind up thousands of dollars in debt without thinking about the consequences. “All our programs in financial literacy are drivers that we make no money on — they are absolutely out of love of our members and to protect them.”

The credit-union culture runs deep in Massachusetts, the state where such institutions were first chartered way back in 1909, Ostrowski explained. State partnerships are still critical, he added, noting that Gov. Charlie Baker has backed an effort by the state’s credit unions, called CU Senior Safeguard, to fight elder financial abuse and fraud. All frontline credit-union staffers are participating in the program, while a statewide effort is targeting consumers with information about how elders are defrauded — a problem that costs some $10 billion every year nationally.

“I’ve heard wild stories about members getting ripped off by contractors,” he said, or individuals who were ready to send money to an unknown e-mailer on the promise of more in return. “I’ve literally had to argue with individuals not to send their money away.”

Better, he said, to deposit it with a credit union — and join that 43% number that, in an age of constant mergers and acquisitions among area banks, only continues to grow.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Management Sections

Spotlighting Innovation

Matt Bannister says the Innovation Series, by relating stories of entrepreneurship, will hopefully inspire more of them in the years to come. Photo courtesy of PeoplesBank

Matt Bannister says the Innovation Series, by relating stories of entrepreneurship, will hopefully inspire more of them in the years to come.
Photo courtesy of PeoplesBank

Throughout its 133-year history, PeoplesBank has touted innovation as one of its core values. But until very recently, this emphasis on innovation has been focused inward, on products, services, and ways of doing business. With a new program, called, appropriately enough, the Innovation Series, the bank is turning that focus outward, telling stories of entrepreneurship with the broad goal of inspiring more of it.

Matt Bannister sounded more like the producer of a new television sitcom than a bank’s first vice president of Marketing and Innovation.

“If it goes well, it will get renewed for a second season,” he told BusinessWest, laughing as he did so. “Right now, we have a pilot and a handful of episodes — let’s see where it goes from there.”

He was referring not to the latest candidate for binge-watching on HBO or Netflix, but to something PeoplesBank is calling its Innovation Series. And yes, you can binge-watch this, too. Well, eventually.

There are now three ‘episodes’ available for viewing on the bank’s website and on YouTube, including that so-called pilot and an interview with the braintrusts at Valley Venture Mentors, and there will soon be more installments in the can, as they say, as Bannister sits down with more entrepreneurs.

As the name of the series denotes, this is a program about innovation and entrepreneurship.

Or what Bannister, who plays host/interviewer for the series, also simply called ‘it,’ a not-so-casual reference to that collection of qualities, talents, and intangibles it takes to not only have an idea (we all have those) but advance it, hopefully all the way to the marketplace. We’ll talk a lot more about that later, but first, more about this series, how it came about, and why.

Bannister started by saying that innovation has always been one of the bank’s core operating principles. But for just about all of the institution’s 133-year history, this emphasis on innovation has been focused inward — on the development of new products, services, and ways of doing business.

Some Tips for Entrepreneurs
to Stay Sane

Entrepreneurial life has been described as a rollercoaster — incredible highs that can follow take-your-breath-away descents.

Several mentors and startup founders offered the following tips to help smooth out the ride:

• You’re not crazy! Most people would never take the leap into starting their own business, but that’s what makes you different — not crazy. When you have that idea, the one that has been burning inside you for years, and act on it, you’re following the same path as Gates, Jobs, and Edison — and they weren’t crazy.

• Make sure to have clear expectations about ownership and compensation amongst the founding team. Write down your agreement, even if on the back of a Post-it Note, but ideally with the help of an experienced lawyer.

– Scott Foster, attorney and co-founder, Valley Venture Mentors

• Be able to pivot. Having a plan is great, and you certainly need a direction, but as you learn more about your customers and your product, you may find that you need to change the business plan, go-to-market strategy, or even change the product completely. You cannot be myopic in your immediate future, and hard pivots are what separate failed startups from those that succeed.

• Find team members that you can work well with. You will be spending more time with them than your family, so it is important to be able to have a good working relationship with them.

– Barrett Mully, co-founder, Aclarity

• Know what you don’t know, and don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice from others. There are so many resources out there to help; all you have to do is ask.

• Find mentors who have experience and that you can trust. They are the ones who will introduce you to your next investor, help you understand your industry ecosystem, and be there when you just need to talk. Our mentors have been key to our success.

– Julie Mullen, co-founder, Aclarity

• You’d be surprised what you can do on a budget or for free. You don’t need to spend money on everything. In fact, the more you can avoid spending money without needing to, the better. You can get surprisingly good results without breaking the bank, and there is a plethora of free resources for almost anything you can imagine a few Google searches away.

• Resilience and the ability to adapt to change are the name of the game in the world of startups, and being able to effectively recover from problems is the difference between life or death. Never be afraid to ask for help or consult your advisors and mentors for advice on what to do, and always lay everything out on the table for your team to discuss the best course of action.

– Evan Choquette, co-founder, AnyCafé

• Don’t be afraid to share and talk about your idea. This is how you will get feedback and find mentors, customers, and co-founders. Remember the adage “the idea is 1% and the execution is 99% of success.” You have so much more to gain by sharing and collaborating than keeping your great idea locked up.

• Entrepreneurship can be isolating and lonely. Find and build a great support community of peers, mentors, and advisors.

– Liz Roberts, CEO, Valley Venture Mentors

With this new series, the bank is turning that focus outward, Bannister went on, by turning the spotlight on entrepreneurs working to take innovative ideas to the marketplace.

Like the team at AnyCafé. Now graduates of Western New England University (they started this venture while still in school), the team members want to “mobilize your kitchen,” as Logan Carlson, president and CEO of the company, told Bannister in the second installment of the series, with a product that enables someone to brew a cup of coffee just about anywhere.

And the team at New England Breath Technologies, comprised of professors at Western New England, which is developing the first pain-free glucose detector. And also the team at Aclarity, formerly Electropure, a startup launched at UMass Amherst that designs, tests, and develops innovative water-purification devices for various applications. It is the next company to be profiled, with more to follow.

Bannister said the bank has a number of informal goals in mind with this series. The ultimate goal, of course, is to strengthen the region’s economy by increasing the population of startups and next-stage companies — a development that would certainly bring benefits for all the players within the banking community.

More short-term, if you will, the goal is to hopefully inspire others to innovate and motivate them by showing some success stories in the making (these companies certainly aren’t there yet) and what lies on the path to success.

For this issue and its focus on innovation, BusinessWest turned the tables on Bannister and asked him some questions. He and the others we spoke with expressed confidence about the innovation series’ ability to not only spotlight innovation but inspire it — and get picked up for a second season while doing so.

Getting the Idea

As he and Bannister talked with BusinessWest about the innovation series at VVM’s headquarters in Tower Square, Scott Foster, one of the founders of that nonprofit and one of those interviewees in the pilot episode, said one of the program’s goals is to convey the message that anyone — and he meant anyone — really can be an entrepreneur.

It will do that, he went on, by showing the vast diversity of people who have taken advantage of VVM’s array of programs over the years — a demographic that includes college students and college professors, retirees, housewives, and more.

But can anyone really be an entrepreneur? Foster clarified his comments by saying that people from all of those demographic groups can become entrepreneurs, if they have the necessary qualities in the right quantities, a formula (if it’s even a formula) that is hard to put into words.

Foster gave it a try.

“The best description I heard, and I heard it years ago, is this: if you’re in a conference room and there’s a meeting, and the temperature isn’t right, the entrepreneur is the one who gets up, finds out where the thermostat is, and changes it,” he explained. “Because they can see that things aren’t right, they can see that other people aren’t comfortable about it, like them, and they’re going to solve that problem.

“That spirit is the entrepreneurial spirit,” he went on. “It’s seeing a problem, not being content with the status quo, and getting up and doing something about it.”

In a nutshell, the Innovation Series was created to share the stories of some people clearly not content with the status quo and also quite determined to change the equation.

Such a mindset was articulated by Carlson as he related the genesis of AnyCafé for Bannister.

“It was a freezing cold Northeastern day, and I had walked into my Marketing class,” he noted. “I looked around, and everyone had Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, and I said, ‘why can’t I brew a cup of coffee here? We have mobile phones, we’ve got all these crazy travel technologies where we can do everything on the go…”

At that moment, the camera panned to Evan Choquette, the company’s co-founder and chief information officer, who fast-forwarded nicely and took the conversation in a different direction.

Scott Foster says there are no overnight success stories, and the Innovation Series helps articulate the wild rollercoaster ride most entrepreneurs experience.

Scott Foster says there are no overnight success stories, and the Innovation Series helps articulate the wild rollercoaster ride most entrepreneurs experience.

“When Logan came up with the idea for the Travel Brewer, it was like ‘that would be really cool to be an inventor and start your own company and try to make a product,’” he noted, adding that “we basically created our own careers and our own destiny by creating this product and building it up from nothing.”

New England Breath Technologies (NEBT) was born from a similar desire to solve a problem. The company is developing what it calls a ‘breathalyzer’ for diabetics.

“We’re a technology company, and our main goal right now is to try to change the way that diabetes is managed,” said Michael Rust, co-founder and chief technology officer of NEBT. “We’re trying to develop a breathalyzer that would allow the patient to simply breathe into and give the same kind of reading as a blood glucometer, and really take out a lot of the pain and a lot of the cost of managing diabetes.”

His partner, Ronny Priefer, the company’s chief scientific officer, said their journey took a serious turn when he “stumbled” — a word you hear often in entrepreneurship — onto the fact that people with diabetes have elevated acetone in their breath. Through his work in nanotechnology, the company is advancing a product that will essentially measure those acetone levels.

Some clinical trials have been conducted, with considerable success, and more will take place in the near future, he said, adding that, if all goes smoothly — a phrase most entrepreneurs are reluctant to say out loud — the product might be on the market in 2019 or 2020.

The Company Line

‘Pivot.’

Bannister told BusinessWest that he’s never heard that word as much as he has the past several weeks, or since he took up the role of interviewer for the Innovation Series.

It’s a verb put to use extensively by entrepreneurs as they talk about how their original idea is often reshaped on the journey involved with taking an idea to the marketplace. Entrepreneurs do a lot of pivoting, because the path to success is neither smooth nor level. There are a lot of ups and downs, and they are part of the process.

How entrepreneurs cope with the twists and turns, good days and bad days, is what ultimately determines whether they have it, and the Innovation Series succeeds in getting that message across as well.

“It’s very much a rollercoaster,” said Carlson when Bannister asked him what life was like as an entrepreneur. “There are some days when you have this huge win and you’ll feel amazing, and the next day everything will come crashing down. If you don’t have a very good support network of people to back you up as an entrepreneur, things can just get so difficult.”

The team at NEBT offered similar thoughts, but also many others about how the business world, and the life of an entrepreneur, is much different than what they’ve experienced in academia.

“Being in the academic world, we’re trained to be independent researchers and to really dive deep into a particular subject, and mine is engineering,” said Rust. “As an entrepreneur, I’m really trying to make connections with the broader community, networking for the business side to try raise funding for our company, but also to create partnerships that are going to move our technology from our lab into the marketplace.

“It’s really exciting, and it actually kind of changes the way we view our day-to-day life and how we view society in general,” he went on. “Now at the dinner table, I think about new ideas that can really affect people in our community and people around the world.”

Both teams of entrepreneurs talked about the importance of support systems and mentorship, especially for those new to the world of business.

Carlson’s partner, Choquette, may have summed up things best when he related to Bannister — and his audience — what Carlson’s father told the team at AnyCafé a while back.

“He said, ‘life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it,’” Choquette recalled. “Being in business is all about being able to adapt to change and new problems and circumstances; it’s being able to take in new information and then change based on that.”

Foster would agree, and noted that this series was designed to help take the viewer on that rollercoaster ride Carlson described, and show the many emotions, and many aspects, of taking a product or idea to market.

“There are no overnight success stories — that just doesn’t happen,” he told BusinessWest, speaking from considerable experience mentoring entrepreneurs developing everything from beer to apps to wedding dresses. “It’s a long slog, believe me.”

Warming to the Idea

As noted earlier, PeoplesBank leaders had a number of motivations for creating the Innovation Series.

It’s doubtful that anyone in the room when the discussions were going on talked about inspiring those types of people who would be so inclined to get up, find the thermostat, and turn the temperature down if the room was too hot — or words to that effect.

But that’s certainly one of the goals.

And based on early returns, it is meeting that goal and seems well on its way to getting picked up for another season.

 

Go HERE to view the Innovation Series ( bit.ly/pb-innovation)


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

Manufacturing Sections

Doors to Opportunity

Amy Royal

When she started her law career with a firm in Springfield, Amy Royal didn’t consider herself an entrepreneur. But that quality emerged quickly, and she would go on to start her own firm. She soon realized, though, that she was a actually a serial entrepreneur with an appetite for developing and growing companies, the latest of which is a door manufacturer in Ludlow.

Amy Royal says she was given the small ‘Lenox’ sign, complete with that recognizable wolf logo, by officials at that East Longmeadow-based manufacturer soon after it became the first official client of the law firm that bore her last name.

And for years, it was prominently displayed on a wall in her office in Northampton, much like that ceremonial ‘first dollar’ you see under glass or in a frame at small businesses across the region.

Today, it has a new home, and that’s because Royal has one as well, professionally speaking, anyway. That would be 190 Moody St. in Ludlow, the address for West Side Metal Door Corp., a 60-year-old enterprise Royal acquired several months ago, because…

Well, there are many elements that go into that answer, and one of them is that Lenox sign. Sort of. That iconic Western Mass. company is just one of many manufacturers that have become clients of Royal, P.C., an employment-law firm. And over time, while representing many of them, Royal developed more than insight into that sector and much more than a passing interest in someday working within it.

Indeed, when she began a search for a small company to buy a few years ago, manufacturing morphed from one of several sectors being considered to the preferred sector.

“Because of the relationships I’ve had with manufacturers through my law firm, I felt that I had at least a basic understanding of workflow, operations … what it takes to run a manufacturing company,” she explained. “While I certainly explored a number of options, I really wanted to be in manufacturing.”

As she carried out her search, Royal told BusinessWest, the focus was on acquiring an established company, but one with considerable upside potential. And WSMD, as it’s called, certainly fits that description.

Launched in Holyoke in 1958, it has a diverse portfolio of products for commercial customers — diverse enough for Royal to make rebranding a top priority because the ‘MD’ in WSMD doesn’t really work anymore and hasn’t for a while now — and a lengthy list of clients as well.

Indeed, recent deliveries have been made to the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office — the county correctional facility is only a few blocks away — as well as Holyoke Medical Center, the Ludlow Police Department, a casino in Las Vegas, and Wrigley Field in Chicago, among many others.

“We make a lot more than metal doors,” said Royal, also listing custom wooden doors, door frames, distribution of door hardware, and other products, especially tin-clad doors, typically seen in warehouses but now gaining traction in a variety of locations as a retro look.

As evidence, Royal gathered up her phone and scrolled to pictures of tin-clad doors the company recently supplied to an art studio in Hollywood and a condominium tower in Boston. “They look really cool and have a lot of ‘wow’ to them,” she pointed out.

Getting back to that upside potential she saw, Royal said that, unlike her predecessor, an owner who did a little bit of everything for this company, she will focus her efforts on business development, relationship building, and, overall, positioning WSMD (for however long that acronym’s still in use) for continued growth and that proverbial next level.

Amy Royal, seen here with many of the team members at WSMD, says she was drawn by the company’s rich history and strong growth potential.

Amy Royal, seen here with many of the team members at WSMD, says she was drawn by the company’s rich history and strong growth potential.

Borrowing that increasingly popular phrase, she said she’s focused on working on the company, not in it.

“I saw a lot of areas we could build upon, including business development, marketing, and sales,” she explained. “There is brand awareness with this company, but I think we can take that to a higher level.”

As she goes about that assignment, she will borrow at least few pages from the script she wrote with Royal, P.C., which she is still a big part of, even if she and her Lenox sign now consider Ludlow home.

One page in particular involves becoming a certified woman-owned company, a designation that has opened a number of doors (no pun intended) for the law firm, and one she believes can do the same for WSMD.

Elaborating, she said Royal, P.C. is a member of the National Society of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, an organization that forges relationships with large corporations that want to do business with such firms. Corporations like the Macy’s department-store chain, which became a client of the Royal firm just last month.

Institutional clients of that ilk also need metal doors — and wooden doors and tin-clad doors — and Royal’s goal moving forward is to forge such relationships and take the WSMD brand to new heights.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked with Royal about her new venture and how and why she walked through that particular door.

Open to Suggestions

Getting back to that question of why Royal acquired WSMD, as noted there are many components to that answer.

Perhaps the main one is Royal’s realization that she is not merely an entrepreneur — something she really didn’t believe she was when she started practicing law with the Springfield-based firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser in the 1990s — but a serial entrepreneur.

“I sort of caught the bug of developing and building businesses after starting the law firm,” she told BusinessWest. “I knew that, even though I’ve had a lot of different business ideas over the years, I was looking for a company that had an existing structure and wouldn’t have to be built entirely from the ground up, like I did with the law firm.

“I wanted to branch out, diversify, and own another business,” she went on, “and really focus my energies and efforts on strategic planning and growing a company.”

Royal said she started her search for a company to buy probably two years ago, and approached that exercise with patience, an open mind, and a determination to find the proper fit.

She looked at everything from a spice-making outfit in Western Mass. (she didn’t identify which one) to a small cruise-ship line operating out of Boston (again, no specifics). But mostly, she looked at manufacturers, again because she liked that environment and understood a good deal about how such ventures operate.

WSMD came onto her radar screen because it was listed for sale. She was working with an area broker on her search, but essentially found WSMD on her own.

And what she found was a solid enterprise and brand with its owner looking to retire — a scenario being played out all across the region within companies in every sector as business-owning Baby Boomers become sexagenarians and septuagenarians.

She started looking at WSMD in late 2015, and kept on looking, undertaking that proverbial deep dive to determine if the company had the growth potential she desired.

And she goes about taking WSMD to a higher level, Royal said she will borrow lessons from her first experience with developing a growing a company, something she did without any formal training (like most all entrepreneurs) and in a fashion that could be described as ‘learning while doing.’

“When I decided I wanted to grow the law firm, I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she conceded. “I went out on my own and built the firm, and figured out how to network, market, develop, and grow the brand. And that’s when I realized that that’s really my passion — growing a business, creating jobs, creating opportunities.”

There will be many aspects to doing all that at WSMD, including that aforementioned rebranding effort.

“We have a really established presence within our customer base, and they know that we do more than metal doors,” she explained. “But the name doesn’t really capture what we do, so we need to change it.”

Also on her to-do list is obtaining status as a woman-owned manufacturing business, a process already underway.

“That will be a huge lift for us,” she said, adding that the company’s application is currently being reviewed, and certification may come in the next few months. “There is a lot of competition in this field, so I do think the certification will help.

“One of the things that made me interested in this company is that it’s been very successful,” she went on. “But I think, I hope, I can take it to the next level.”

And by ‘next level,’ she meant more partnerships and opportunities with institutional clients, again similar to what’s she done at the law firm — opportunities that will hopefully enable her to grow sales and the workforce, currently at nine.

Closing the Deal

Royal told BusinessWest that she’s still involved with her law firm, obviously, and on a number of levels.

But when she leaves her home in Deerfield now, she keeps going past that exit off I-91 that spills onto downtown Northampton and goes another 20 miles down the interstate.

Like her Lenox sign, she’s taken up residence in a new office, this one just off a manufacturing floor, not a conference room filled lined with law books.

But as disparate as those settings may be, they have many things in common, said Royal, adding that, instead of building a strong case for her clients, she’ll now be building one for her doors.

And to borrow a phrase sometimes used in law, this will be — wait for it — an open-and-shut case.

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

40 Under 40 Class of 2018 Cover Story

Announcing the 12th Annual Cohort of 40 Under Forty Honorees

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

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

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

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


40 Under Forty Class of 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

Presenting Sponsors

nortwestern-mutual peoplesbank-logo

Sponsors

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

Partner

yps


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Features

The Trickle-down Effect

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian, expects Park Cleaners’ contract with MGM to perhaps double the company’s current volume of business.

Rebeca Merigian says the slip was found, and promptly given to her, many years ago by a long-time customer, a description she quickly categorized as an obvious understatement.

Indeed, the date at the top is 1940, and thus this item, now displayed under glass, is a time capsule as much as it is a pick-up slip for a two-piece suit.

Start with the phone number at the top; there are just five digits because that’s all that were needed back then (ask your mother; actually, make that your grandmother). The name of the company was Park Cleaners & Dyers Inc. (the ‘& Dyers’ was dropped a long time ago because those services were discontinued). The address is Kensington Avenue in Springfield (the company moved to Allen Street in 1955). Even the slogan is different; back then it was ‘Dry cleaning as it should be done.’ Now, it’s ‘Family-owned and operated since 1935. We appreciate your business.’

Yes, much has changed since Edward Takorian, an Armenian who somehow escaped the genocide of 1915 and came to this country soon thereafter, went into business for himself.

There have been many ups and downs, said Merigian, Takorian’s great-granddaughter, who started working in the business on Saturdays when she was 9 and bought it from her mother three years ago. She noted that the company was started at the height of the Great Depression and has endured many other downturns over the next eight decades, and also the early death of her father. Not so long ago, there were more than 20 people working here; now there are four, including Merigian’s son and nephew.

But that number will be rising soon, thanks to what would have to be one of the biggest developments since that suit was picked up a year before the U.S. entered World War II — a contract with MGM Springfield, the $960 million resort casino that will open in about four months.

Park Cleaners has been awarded a contract to clean the uniforms for all 3,000 employees at the casino, and for the dry-cleaning of hotel guests and the MGM Springfield management team as well. Merigian couldn’t put a dollar figure on the contract, but she could certainly put it into perspective.

“I’m hoping that this will double our business,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the contract could give her the means to perhaps double the current workforce and pay the kind of benefits that are currently beyond the company’s reach. “My goal from this is to be able to provide health insurance for my employees who have been with through a lot of the challenges; I want to give back to them and provide more benefits and incentives so we can grow.”

Several other area businesses now have contracts with MGM or are in the process of finalizing one. Most will not be as life-changing as the one received by Park Cleaners, but they are all significant in some way.

Nick Noblit

Nick Noblit says the contract with MGM gives Yankee Mattress a new top line for its deep list of clients.

Take Agawam-based Yankee Mattress, for example. The company was originally asked to supply mattresses for all the rooms in MGM’s Springfield hotel, an order that Nick Noblit, the company’s general manager, admitted was too big to handle at this time. But the company will make California kings for the larger, high-roller suites, an assignment that will give the company additional business and some hopefully effective marketing material.

Meanwhile, Holyoke-based Kittredge Equipment Co. has secured one of the bigger contracts — this one to provide kitchen appliances and supplies to the many businesses that will do business at the casino.

There have been other contracts signed, and there will be many more agreements inked in the weeks to come as the countdown to the grand opening continues, said Courtney Wenleder, vice president and chief financial officer for MGM Springfield. She told BusinessWest that, as part of its host-community agreement, the company is required to apportion a percentage of its receivables to local companies.

But the company is striving to do more than just meet that obligation, she said, adding that MGM is looking to take the company’s philosophy regarding diversity and apply it to its vendor list. And this translates into extending opportunities to women (Kittredge is also woman-owned), minorities, and small businesses in general.

“MGM has a commitment to diversity and partnering with local vendors,” she explained. “It’s all about building the community together; there’s a symbiotic relationship — if the community does well, we do well, and vice versa.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how the trickle-down effect from MGM Springfield, which began with local contractors taking part in the construction of the complex, is gathering momentum in the form of contracts to supply everything from knives and forks to marketing services. And while doing that, we’ll also shine a spotlight on some intriguing local businesses that have, by and large, flown under the radar.

The Rest of the Story

Wenleder told BusinessWest that many factors go into MGM’s decisions about which vendors to do business with and what might give a certain enterprise an edge over whatever competition emerges.

They range from quality of service and customer satisfaction, obviously, to whether, as noted, the business is minority- or women-owned. But there are some intangibles, and sometimes a little luck, that comes into play.

To get that point across, she relayed the story about how MGM Springfield now rents several apartments downtown, and they’re used, among other things, to house company executives visiting Springfield for extended stays.

Kittredge Equipment Co. owner Wendy Webber, left, with sales representative Amanda Desautels

Kittredge Equipment Co. owner Wendy Webber, left, with sales representative Amanda Desautels. The company will supply MGM Springfield with everything from appliances to glassware.

MGM CEO William Hornbuckle is one of these executives, and on one of his stays, he slept so soundly and comfortably that he took note of the label on his mattress (Yankee), later commented to those at MGM Springfield’s headquarters about his experience, and essentially initiated steps that would eventually lead to the company getting a contract.

“Bill commented about what a great night’s sleep he had on that mattress, and that pretty much secured their position,” Wenleder recalled with a laugh, adding that it wasn’t all that simple, but that bit of serendipity certainly got the ball rolling.

And the mattress contract serves as a good example of how MGM is trying to do business locally when it can and when it’s appropriate, said MGM Springfield General Manager Alex Dixon.

He noted, as Wenleder did, that there are times when MGM will simply add the Springfield casino to some existing contracts it has in place to provide certain products and services to the company’s existing properties.

Playing cards and dice would be good examples of this, he said, adding that MGM already has manufacturers providing those products. And, for the most part, there is no local company that makes such items.

But even with those products, there may be some opportunities for local businesses, he went on, noting, for example, that most playing cards are destroyed soon after they’re used, and MGM Springfield will use a local company to handle that work.

“We want to recognize what’s available in the local market and then tailor our supply chain to match what is happening in the local community,” he said while describing the company’s broad mindset when it comes to vendors.

Overall, MGM has a process in place when it comes to vendors, said Dixon, adding that the company actively solicits information from companies interested in doing business with it. The owners and managers of such ventures are invited to attend outreach events (they’re posted on the MGM Springfield website, for example), and through such events, companies become part of a database the company refers to when it needs specific products or services.

“Whenever there’s a business need, we want to find out if there are vendors, preferably local, who can help us to fulfill those needs — that’s step one,” he explained. “But informally, being members of the community, you really develop relationships.

“It’s no longer ‘hey there’s this great local brewer,’” he went on, while explaining how these relationships are created. “Now it’s ‘that’s Ray Berry from White Lion; maybe there’s an opportunity there.’”

In other words, familiarity breeds opportunity, and examples abound of how companies ranging from local caterers and computer hardware providers have come onto MGM Springfield’s radar screen — and are now doing business with the company.

The contract with Yankee Mattress is a good example of this phenomenon at work, said Dixon, confirming that the company was first presented with a proposal to furnish every room in its hotel now taking shape on Main Street.

But Noblet said such a large order would have necessitated additional hiring and other steps the company wasn’t ready to take.

But the contract to supply mattresses for the larger suites is a welcome addition and positive development for the Agawam-based company, which has been gaining traction in recent years as word-of-mouth referrals about its products proliferate.

This is another family business, started by Nick’s father, Joe, who is still active in the venture. The elder Noblit worked for a major mattress manufacturer for several years before deciding he could make a better product, and at a lower price, himself. And he did.

Yankee was launched in 1999, and it has grown and evolved other the years, said Noblit, adding that it started with a storefront and adjacent assembly area in Agawam, and now has four stores in the region.

Those outlets carry a host of lines with those huge tags that are supposedly illegal to rip off, including the top-of-line Black Collection, with models including the York, Fairhaven, Merrimac, and Nantucket.

There is a strong residential component to the customer base, obviously, said Noblit, but also many commercial clients as well, including several area B&Bs, hotels, and inns, as well as some healthcare providers, a few private schools, and a host of area fire departments.

“We custom-build those to be stronger than average — because there are some big firefighters out there and it’s important for them to have something durable,” he explained, adding that word of mouth has been the best marketing tool when it comes to adding new lines to the customer list on the company’s website.

If one were to peruse that list, the name now at the very top is MGM Resorts International, an indication of how important this contract is, not size-wise, but from a marketing and branding standpoint.

“Most hotels have a contract with a major manufacturer, and across the board, they do business with this manufacturer, and they make all of their beds,” he explained. “So for MGM to consider someone outside these big manufacturers that are nationwide, that’s significant.”

Buying Power

But if MGM Springfield found Yankee Mattress thanks to Bill Horbuckle’s good night’s sleep, most of the other vendors have had to find the casino giant.

And ‘find’ means going through a process of introducing one’s company to MGM Springfield through one of a number of vendor meet-and-greets, for lack of a better term, that the company has staged, including one at last fall’s Western Mass. Business and Innovation Expo, staged by BusinessWest.

Courtney Wenleder

Courtney Wenleder says there’s a symbiotic relationship between MGM and local vendors; when they do well, the casino operator does well, and vice versa.

Through these outreach sessions, MGM is making it much easier for companies to find it, said Wenleder, adding that MGM Springfield has a three-person purchasing team (a manager and two assistants), and one of their primary responsibilities is to go out into the community and find local vendors.

“Even though we’ve been doing a lot of communication with people when it comes to local purchasing requirements, some people aren’t hearing that message,” she explained. “We have people on the ground physically reaching out to these vendors.”

Merigian said she started attending such outreach sessions not long after MGM was granted the Western Mass. license in 2014, recognizing the casino as a rare business opportunity.

“I had my sights on it from the beginning,” she told BusinessWest. You never know how it’s going to work out with companies renting their own uniforms or owning them, but either way, I knew I would like to be part of it.”

So much so that she took steps to become a certified woman-owned business, understanding from those very first meetings that MGM had a strong interest in doing business with businesses led by women and minorities.

There would be more meetings to come over the next few years, she went on, adding that these sessions were beneficial on many levels.

“It really gets you tuned into your business,” she said, using that phrase to indicate everything from capabilities to long-term goals to what it will take to reach them. “It was an educational experience on many levels.”

The volume of work is large — most all of the 3,000 employees will wear some kind of uniform, and this contract covers all that and more — and thus MGM will likely be the largest customer in Park’s long history, said Merigian, although Park did have a contract with MassMutual for a quarter-century and still has one with the Defense Department (Westover Air Reserve Base).

“We don’t have specific numbers, but know it will be high volume,” she said of the business to start coming her way in a matter of weeks as employees are added to the payroll in waves. “But we’re ready for it, and we can feel the excitement.”

Indeed, after her father’s death, the company had to withdraw from the MassMutual contract, and it downsized considerably, said Merigian, adding quickly, however, that “we’re ready to go; we’re ready to get back to work.”

At Kittredge, meanwhile, the MGM contract is another important step forward for that company, said Amanda Desautels, an outside sales representative now working with MGM to outfit the restaurants that will be doing business at the casino.

“This is a significant contract for us,” she said, noting that Kittredge will be supplying MGM with everything from appliances to bar equipment; glassware to silverware, and adding it to a client list that includes UMass Amherst, the Max restaurant group, and Mount Holyoke College, among many others.

The company, rapidly approaching its centennial (it was launched in 1921), started as a supplier of typewriters and cash registers and has evolved into a $50 million equipment and supply giant that now employs more than 70 people locally.

At its warehouse and retail facility in the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, one can find everything from industrial refrigerators, freezers, and stoves to dishes and glassware to individual carving knives. Desautels joked that the company provides everything that goes on the table, around it (furniture), and even under it. “If you have a wobbly table, we have table levelers.”

It also has certification as a woman-owned business (Wendy Webber succeeds her late husband, Neil, as owner and operator), a designation that has opened many doors for the company and no doubt played a role in securing the contract with MGM.

“Being a woman-owned business has created many opportunities for Kittredge, and MGM is obviously one of those,” said Desautels, noting that the addition of MGM to the client roster is significant in many respects. “It’s exciting to be doing business with a company like MGM that shares the same values we do, such as diversity and the importance of their employees.”

Pressing Engagement

As she posed for a few photos for BusinessWest, Merigian gathered her son, Andrew Takorian, and insisted that he be part of the picture.

Figuratively speaking, he has been for some time now, working at this establishment — like his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him — while still in grade school.

He represents the fifth generation to carry a business card that says ‘Park Cleaners’ — or Park Cleaners & Dyers, as the case may be. The company has gone through a lot of change and evolution after the past eight and half decades, and many important developments.

Perhaps none were as big as the contract inked with MGM Springfield, which comes at a critical time and represents a huge opportunity for growth and security.

It’s just one example of the trickle-down effect that is now underway, and already changing the local business landscape in profound ways.

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

Features

Changing Expectations

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth say they’ve created a ‘retail-tainment district,’ one that is bringing people from across the region to downtown Springfield.

Like most people who grew up in and around Springfield in the ’60s and ’70s, Mikki Lessard has fond memories of getting on a bus and spending an entire Saturday afternoon downtown.

She said most of those visits would start, and a good number would also end, at Johnson’s Bookstore, but there were plenty of other stops as well.

“We would go to Johnson’s, and Steiger’s, and many other stores. There was always something happening; it was positive, and it was fun,” said Lessard, adding that, while she acknowledges that things won’t ever be exactly like that again given changes in how and where many people shop, it can be, well, something like that again.

And she and business partner Nancy Feth are a huge part of that ‘something.’

They are the founders of an intriguing enterprise called Simply Grace, which now operates a growing portfolio of businesses operating under the name the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — almost exactly where Johnson’s Bookstore was operating until it closed 20 years ago.

There are shops, but this is also a gathering place for events ranging from Thunderbird Thursdays to a farmer’s market to a Dress for Success graduation ceremony.

The two partners have a name for what they’ve created — a ‘retail-tainment district,’ blending both retail and entertainment. They didn’t invent the phrase — it’s been in use for a while and is often summoned when the discussion turns to what traditional shopping malls must become if they want to survive — but they believe they have the first in downtown Springfield, arriving ahead of MGM Springfield.

It all started with the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, and ‘the Shops’ has grown to include a yoga studio, a restaurant, a new store that just opened its doors, and another now being built out.

As they tell the story — and they love to tell the story, often finishing one another’s sentences and providing complementary commentary as they do so — these entrepreneurs note that they came to downtown Springfield as one of what was supposed to be several small retailers that agreed to set up shop as part of the initial Springfield Holiday Market in 2015, a strategic initiative designed to put some underutilized space in the Marketplace complex to work in a way that would bring people downtown and generate some momentum as well as foot traffic.

As things turned out, there were only a few pop-up shops, as they were called, on that location, but they did well collectively, and the public responded to this bid to bring some retail back to Main Street.

When the holidays were over, Glenn Edwards, owner of the property, asked Feth and Lessard if they would like to stay on for a while. They said yes, but without giving any real indication of a what ‘a while’ might or should become.

“We said, ‘we’ll stay for a few more months; we’ll stay ’til Valentine’s Day,’” said Feth, before Lessard picked up for her.

“And then, we asked to stay ’til Mother’s Day,” she explained. “And then we decided we wanted to stay for the year.”

But with some conditions, specifically that they could take space one of the retailers was vacating for yoga classes in an effort to attract more people and different constituencies to the downtown.

And, overall, the two entrepreneurs have been continuing that pattern, or mindset, ever since, adding new components to Simply Grace; bringing more events, vitality, and energy to the Marketplace area; and also, for those efforts, earning an award from the Small Business Administration to coincide with Small Business Week (April 29 to May 5).

Indeed, Feth and Lessard will be at the Sheraton Needham Hotel on May 4 to accept the Microenterprise of the Year Award, one of the few enterprises from Western Mass. to win such an honor in recent years.

But before, and after, all their focus will be on Springfield, the Marketplace, and new developments for Simply Grace.

These include a recent addition called Brick & Mortar, what Lessard calls a “mercantile, apothecary, and more,” which actually has some exposed brick for effect. There’s also Alchemy, a manicure and pedicure salon now being built out; Dharma, the yoga studio; and the boutique that got things rolling.

Those four businesses, along with Nosh, an eatery across the way from the boutique, now comprise a critical mass of small, diverse shops that the two partners believe will bring more foot traffic and momentum to an area that was once the pulse of downtown Springfield a generation ago — and can, they believe, take that role again.

“Do we have mall traffic? Heck no,” said Lessard. “But it’s working. It’s always about creating curiosity and then converting that into customers, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The only downside to all this is that the space once devoted to the holiday pop-up markets is now gone, absorbed by what could be called permanent fixtures, said the partners, adding that, in most all ways, this constitutes a very good problem to have.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Feth and Lessard about their venture and how in some ways it constitutes turning back the clock, but in most others, it’s symbolic of the downtown’s future.

What’s in Store

‘Walk. Pause. Browse. Shop. Experience.’

Those are the words the two partners have placed before ‘the Shops at Marketplace’ in their branding of the facility. And both collectively and individuality, those terms speak to what this venture is all about — as well as to some of the elements that have largely been missing from downtown since those days when Lessard and countless others would get on a bus and take it to Main Street.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

There was far less walking, pausing, browsing, and shopping going on, and therefore there was less to experience.

Feth and Lessard weren’t exactly out to change that equation when they were first invited to bring a taste of the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, a shop they opened in Monson, to downtown Springfield for the holidays. But that’s what has happened.

It’s been an intriguing journey, a learning experience on many levels, said the partners, adding that they are still writing new chapters to this story.

That first Holiday Market was so successful that the BID asked the new partners to manage and staff that project moving forward, said Feth, adding that they did so, providing an opportunity for a number of new businesses to become part of the experience and gain some critical visibility. And through that work, the partners came to understand the many layers of significance to their efforts. Indeed, this wasn’t simply retail, it was economic development.

“A lot of what we do is build community and work on economic development,” Feth explained. “These are the value adds we feel we bring to Springfield in addition to our own businesses.”

Lessard agreed, and referred to Simply Grace’s broad efforts as “collaborating and incubating.”

As for their own businesses, the partners say they are doing well and succeeding in their primary mission. That would be to bring people, but especially women, downtown. Or back downtown, as is often the case.

They’re getting that done by providing reasons to do so, said Lessard, adding that these vary and include yoga, the shops — which sell products made by vendors with unique, community-minded stories — and events.

Elaborating, Lessard said the partners will utilize their indoor spaces and walkways during winter and schedule a variety of gatherings for women, and when the weather gets warmer, they will fully “activate” the indoor and outdoor space, using it to host everything from flea markets to White Lion Wednesdays; from farmers markets to live music.

In fact, the space has become a popular venue for fundraising for groups that include Rays of Hope, Unify Against Bullying, Dress for Success, and many more.

“We just want to have this lively, quintessential, unexpected experience in downtown Springfield,” Lessard explained, adding that the key word there, and perhaps unfortunately, is ‘unexpected.’

Indeed, Feth said that many of those who come to the Shops at the Marketplace will offer commentary that makes this point.

“We’ll often hear people say, ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Springfield,’” said Feth. “Or ‘I feel like I’m in New York or San Francisco.’”

Which Lessard followed with, ‘and we gladly say, ‘you’re in this wonderful city called Springfield.’”

The unofficial mission moving forward, for the partners at Simply Grace and the city as a whole, is to generate fewer of these comments and to make a fulfilling trip downtown something that’s expected, not unexpected.

And the partners believe they and the city are moving closer to that goal through their lively mix of retail, events, things to do, and things to experience.

And the retail is a big part of it, said Feth, adding that, contrary to what is becoming popular opinion, traditional retail is not dead, and not everyone wants to buy everything on Amazon and have it shipped to their home.

“What we’re finding is that customers are actually hungry for experiences where they can see the product, talk to people, feel seen and acknowledged, and have a real experience instead of just a virtual experience,” she explained, before Lessard picked up on that ‘feel seen’ comment and ran with it because of its significance.

“We have women who come in here that pause, then browse, then shop, just to be seen,” she told BusinessWest. “They feel like they’re in this hustle and bustle of life and no one’s acknowledging them. So they come in, they share stories, we give them hugs; we actually care about them as people.

“We get a lot of pushback from people from who say, ‘you should be in East Longmeadow’ or ‘you should be in Hampden or somewhere other than downtown Springfield,’” she went on. “But we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be, because the women we’re connecting to that work or live or play downtown are very stressed out, and when they come to our store, it’s a breath of fresh air, an unexpected experience.”

Bottom Line

There’s that word again — unexpected. Soon, perhaps, it can be retired, and downtown Springfield will move closer to the one Lessard remembers from her youth, a time, she recalled, when there was always something positive and fun happening.

The partners at Simply Grace are doing their part to bring those phrases back into use. They’ll soon have an award from the Small Business Administration to show for their efforts, but they’ve already received something perhaps even more significant to them.

That would be all those comments from people who say they don’t believe they’re in downtown Springfield. Such comments tell them they’re doing the right thing and in the right place.

And to think they were only going to stay a month.

Good thing they didn’t.

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

Commercial Real Estate

Making a Move

Two architect’s renderings of the planned new home of Way Finders at the site of the Peter Pan bus station.

Two architect’s renderings of the planned new home of Way Finders at the site of the Peter Pan bus station.

The nonprofit group Way Finders, formerly known as HAPHousing, has released renderings of the new 35,000-square-foot home it intends to build on the site of the soon-to-be abandoned Peter Pan Bus station. The move to the North End will bring benefits for the agency and its many types of clients, but it will also generate momentum — and economic development — at two locations, a trickle-down effect not always seen with relocations of this type.

From the start, Peter Gagliardi said, the goal was to find something on the major bus routes and, preferably, near the bus station.

Turns out, he accomplished all that and then some.

Indeed, the new home for Way Finders, formerly HAPHousing, will be the bus station — or the old bus station, to be more precise, the long-time home to Peter Pan Bus Lines. Which just happens to be across Main Street from the new bus station, the renovated, 90-year-old Union Station.

“I had really hoped that we would have a place near the bus station, but I never expected that we would buy the bus station — you can’t get any closer than that,” said Gagliardi, long-time CEO of the agency, which rebranded to Way Finders last fall in a reflection of its broadened mission.

But this ambitious, $15 million project (that’s the latest estimate) will achieve much more than added convenience for and clients served by Way Finders, many of whom don’t own cars or have reliable transportation, said Gagliardi.

It will also become an important additional component of broad revitalization efforts in downtown Springfield and especially the area just north of the Arch — and a likely catalyst for still more, he noted. It will also bring roughly 200 workers to that area, providing opportunities for service businesses already in that quadrant and those looking to expand into it. And it will give a growing, evolving agency the room and the facilities to better serve clients and continually expand its portfolio of services.

Indeed, a nonprofit that was once focused mostly on securing housing for those who could not afford it has morphed into a truly multi-faceted agency focused on everything from financial education to helping individuals buy a home to assisting them with finding employment so they can rent a home or apartment.

“Because there’s not enough housing to go around, we’re helping people avoid homelessness by becoming employed,” said Gagliardi, obviously proud of the results generated by this relatively new initiative. “We’ve placed about 560 people over the past four and half years, and at the end of 12 months, 80% to 90% of those people are still employed. We don’t have [housing] vouchers for everyone, so we tell people employment might be their best bet.”

But while this relocation will bring many benefits to Way Finders and its many clients, there will be a trickle-down effect as well, and one not always seen when a large employer leaves one home for another.

Peter Gagliardi says the new Way Finders headquarters will be a solid addition to Springfield’s North End.

Peter Gagliardi says the new Way Finders headquarters will be a solid addition to Springfield’s North End.

Indeed, this relocation, announced late last year, is not a case of musical chairs — the commercial real-estate variety, anyway — a phrase that brokers and those involved in economic development like to use when a tenant within a property abandons it for something similar a few miles or even a few blocks away.

Such moves often don’t have a significant net impact on the real-estate market or the economy of the area in question, experts say, because the only thing that’s really changing is the tenant’s street address.

In the case of Way Finders, so much more is changing. It’s soon-to-be-former home in Springfield — the agency also has an office in Holyoke — at 322 Main St. in the South End has been acquired by Balise Motor Sales. And while no plans have been announced, it seems likely that property will be put to new and different use as Balise expands its already considerable footprint in that part of the city.

Meanwhile, Way Finders’ move to the North End, coming as Peter Pan moves its employees into Union Station, provides another shot of adrenaline for a section of the city that had been mostly dormant for years.

To borrow a phrase used often in business and politics, this move would appear to constitute a win-win-win for the South End, the North End — and specifically Union Station — and the nonprofit agency and its clients. Maybe that’s a win-win-win-win.

In any case, for this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes a look at this relocation and its many implications.

Space Exploration

As he talked about how Way Finders arrived at that press conference where its purchase of the Peter Pan property for $2.75 million was announced, Gagliardi said the seeds for that acquisition were planted quite some time ago.

To make a long story somewhat short, the nonprofit has grown significantly over the past several years as its mission has been expanded, he explained, adding that the workforce, or at least those members of it working in Springfield, outgrew the property at 322 Main St. a few years ago.

“We were comfortable at 120 people, but not at 160,” said Gagliardi as he got specific with the numbers of employees working at that site a few years ago. “It really compromised the quality of the space the staff was working in, and it also cramped the quarters we were using to work with clients; our foot traffic just kept increasing, especially with the issue of homelessness and people trying to keep a roof over our heads.

“It was getting to be untenable,” he went on, adding that parking was another issue, especially after MGM acquired the former Orr Cadillac property (Way Finders was leasing 40 parking spaces there) and converted it into the new Springfield Rescue Mission and Balise acquired an adjacent property, eliminating another 25 spaces. “The handwriting was on the wall. It was a 15,000-square-foot parcel with a 13,000-square-foot building; there wasn’t even room to put in a dumpster.”

By that time, “Balise had us surrounded,” said Gagliardi, adding that the car company had acquired several parcels around 322 Main St., and the logical step for Way Finders was to offer that building as the next addition to the portfolio, lease back office space and parking spaces, and commence a search for a new headquarters.

Which it did, while also moving about 40 employees to a large suite of offices on Maple Street, just a few blocks away.

As for that search, a request for proposals yielded several options for buying and especially leasing space, said Gagliardi, acknowledging the obvious — that a stable, growing nonprofit with roughly 200 employees would be a very attractive tenant for a number of landlords in the city.

The bus station became one of those options, he went on, adding that, after careful consideration, it became the best option, for reasons ranging from location — that first consideration in commercial real estate — to the footprint’s size and flexibility, especially with regard to parking (there will be room for 180 spaces).

Being near the new bus station, or transportation center (there is rail service at Union Station as well) was a big factor, he told BusinessWest.

“We needed a place well served by public transportation because a lot of our clients don’t have cars or don’t have reliable vehicles,” he explained. “And we have a lot of staff that live in the city and could use buses if they were convenient.”

Initially, the thought was to renovate the existing facilities at the bus station, said Gagliardi, adding that a detailed review determined that new construction would allow better utilization of the footprint and better service to clients.

“We looked at it closely, but the cost of bringing facilities up to code was substantial,” he said. “It would cost even more to do it as new, but a new building will be far more energy-efficient than we can make the old one; it will be a much more efficient use of space. The end result was that it just made more sense to do this.”

Way Finders, which recently took title to the property, is in the process of putting together financing for the project, said Gagliardi, adding that it will include New Markets Tax Credits, a tax-exempt bond through MassDevelopment, and significant fundraising, perhaps a total of $3 million to $4 million. The goal is to move in by September 2019.

As for that trickle-down effect mentioned earlier, often there isn’t much of that phenomenon with moves such as this, only that musical-chairs outcome seen in this city and many others when new properties are constructed.

“Often, with relocations like this, you’re worried about the place left behind,” said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief Development officer, adding that this thought process went through his mind even on projects like the new federal courthouse on State Street, an initiative he led as an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal. The new facility changed the landscape on State Street and greatly upgraded the facilities for the court — but it also left a huge vacancy at 1550 Main St.

That property rebounded nicely and is now home to a diverse group of new tenants, but such bouncebacks don’t always occur.

With Peter Pan relocating to Union Station, the bus station would be left behind, said Kennedy, adding that Way Finders’ relocation was both a quick and extremely positive reuse of a highly visible piece of property.

“To get a brand new building there with a significant number of employees was a good result,” he said in a voice that certainly conveyed understatement, adding that the second parcel to be left behind, 322 Main St., will likely have an equally positive outcome.

“With a family like Balise that has accumulated a significant amount of property in that area, I expect a that we’re going to see a significant development there that will be good for the city and good for the tax base,” he told BusinessWest.

Room for Improvement

All that certainly constitutes a win-win-win, with maybe a few more wins as well.

It started with a desire to be near the bus station and ended with a purchase of the bus station. That wasn’t the expected route, to borrow a phrase from the transportation business, but this relocation will help several parties get to their desired destinations.

“We could have gone outside the city; we could have done something in an industrial park,” said Gagliardi. “But that wouldn’t have been good for our clients or good for the city. The idea that someone that can hop on a bus in Chicopee, take it to Union Station, and walk across the street is a good thing.

“We’d like to be part of the good stuff that’s happening this city,” he went on, adding that this relocation, not to mention the agency’s many initiatives to improve quality of life for area residents, will certainly make that a reality.

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

Custom Content

Milestones In Business: Celebrating significant accomplishments

Ben Markens calls it simply the “huge business that no one knows about.”

He was referring to association management, a specific niche that the venture he started three decades ago, the one that bears his name, morphed into — and with substantial benefits for not only the company but the city of Springfield and the region as a whole.

Indeed, Springfield is now the home, meaning the physical headquarters and mailing address, for national associations representing everything from the manufacturers of cereal boxes to homeopaths.

As for the Markens Group, or TMG, as it’s called, since taking on management of the Paperboard Packaging Council in 2008, it has continued to grow its portfolio of association clients, add new members to its team of professionals, and become a great place to work — quite literally.

Indeed, TMG was recently named a ‘Great Place to Work’ by Forbes magazine in the small-business category. This is an honor that means a great deal to Ben Markens, who has always been a firm believer in the link between customer loyalty and employee satisfaction, and has managed his company in such a way that people have the chance to do their best, where their opinion matters, and where success can be shared.

This mindset is on display in the company’s reception area, decorated in part with hand-drawn portraits of TMG employees. These works of art convey the personalities of the specific team members, but also how these individuals have come together to make TMG a force within that business no one knows about.

All of this — from those portraits in the front lobby to the growing number of associations calling Springfield, Massachusetts home to the ‘Great Place to Work’ plaque — is what’s being celebrated as TMG marks a milestone: 30 years in business.

Also being celebrated are the many qualities that have made all this possible: Imagination, perseverance, teamwork, and a strong sense of community.

To explain how they got here, Ben Markens turned the clock back to early 1988, when TMG was a consulting firm focused primarily on the packaging industry and providing assistance with everything from costing to pricing to strategy.

“We helped leaders achieve their goals,” noted Markens, adding that many needed such assistance. “They didn’t get into this field because they liked packaging; they got into it because grandpa was in it, and they weren’t professionally trained managers. We tried to take them from being entrepreneurs to being leaders.”

A few decades later, these leaders were looking to TMG for a different kind of assistance, a different bundle of services.

“They were in the ditch,” said Markens, needing just a few words to get his point across, adding that the paperboard packaging industry leaders asked him to run their association.

He told them ‘no,’ noting that he had his own business to run. They went further into the ditch and repeated their request. This time, he said ‘yes,’ and essentially made running associations his business — or his new business, if you like.

Markens jokes that he still believes he invented the association-management-company model, even though he’s been told by many that it existed before TMG took over operations of the Paperboard Packaging Council (PPC) in 2008.

And if he didn’t invent it, he has certainly improved upon it, recognizing that while members of an association may know their industry inside and out, they probably have little, if any, idea how to properly run an association.

So TMG manages it for them. “In the case of the PPC, there was a stunning turnaround; the association went from losing $1 million the year prior to TMG taking over management to an almost immediate turnaround, achieving financial stability through TMG and lowering dues to members.”

Results for other clients have been equally impressive, with TMG, which became an accredited association-management company in 2014, providing a large suite of services, including:

• Event Planning;
• Executive Director Services;
• Association Headquarters;
• Marketing and Communications;
• Speaker Management;
• Competition and Awards Management;
• Financial Management;
• Membership Services;
• Strategic Planning; and
• Website Design and Social Media.

Some associations need TMG to handle many of these services, while some require only a few, said Lou Kornet, vice president and chief of staff, adding that one of the company’s competitive advantages is flexibility and the ability to tailor a package of services to meet the specific needs of a client.

In short, TMG knows that one size doesn’t fit all.

TMG’s contract with the Paperboard Packaging Council stipulates that it could locate the association wherever it wanted, and Ben Markens chose his home — Western Massachusetts, and specifically, Main Street in Springfield. There are now several associations with that mailing address, and he expects that there will be many more in the years to come as word of TMG’s track record with successfully managing a host of associations spreads.

Such growth is expected because the model works, said Markens.

TMG has proven that in recent years, and as the company marks 30 years of growth and prosperity, it is poised to write exciting new chapters to its success story and add more hand-drawn portraits to the reception area.

Becoming a star performer and true leader in this huge business that no one knows about hasn’t come easily, but TMG’s way of doing business has now become a model of success — in a great many ways.

1350 Main Street, Springfield, MA 01103
Phone: 413-686-9199 • markens.com

To feature your company, call 413-781-8600 for rate information.

40 Under 40 Class of 2018 Cover Story

Announcing the 12th Annual Cohort of 40 Under Forty Honorees

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

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

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

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


40 Under Forty Class of 2018

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Presenting Sponsors

nortwestern-mutual peoplesbank-logo

Sponsors

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

Partner

yps


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Features

The Trickle-down Effect

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian, expects Park Cleaners’ contract with MGM to perhaps double the company’s current volume of business.

Rebeca Merigian says the slip was found, and promptly given to her, many years ago by a long-time customer, a description she quickly categorized as an obvious understatement.

Indeed, the date at the top is 1940, and thus this item, now displayed under glass, is a time capsule as much as it is a pick-up slip for a two-piece suit.

Start with the phone number at the top; there are just five digits because that’s all that were needed back then (ask your mother; actually, make that your grandmother). The name of the company was Park Cleaners & Dyers Inc. (the ‘& Dyers’ was dropped a long time ago because those services were discontinued). The address is Kensington Avenue in Springfield (the company moved to Allen Street in 1955). Even the slogan is different; back then it was ‘Dry cleaning as it should be done.’ Now, it’s ‘Family-owned and operated since 1935. We appreciate your business.’

Yes, much has changed since Edward Takorian, an Armenian who somehow escaped the genocide of 1915 and came to this country soon thereafter, went into business for himself.

There have been many ups and downs, said Merigian, Takorian’s great-granddaughter, who started working in the business on Saturdays when she was 9 and bought it from her mother three years ago. She noted that the company was started at the height of the Great Depression and has endured many other downturns over the next eight decades, and also the early death of her father. Not so long ago, there were more than 20 people working here; now there are four, including Merigian’s son and nephew.

But that number will be rising soon, thanks to what would have to be one of the biggest developments since that suit was picked up a year before the U.S. entered World War II — a contract with MGM Springfield, the $960 million resort casino that will open in about four months.

Park Cleaners has been awarded a contract to clean the uniforms for all 3,000 employees at the casino, and for the dry-cleaning of hotel guests and the MGM Springfield management team as well. Merigian couldn’t put a dollar figure on the contract, but she could certainly put it into perspective.

“I’m hoping that this will double our business,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the contract could give her the means to perhaps double the current workforce and pay the kind of benefits that are currently beyond the company’s reach. “My goal from this is to be able to provide health insurance for my employees who have been with through a lot of the challenges; I want to give back to them and provide more benefits and incentives so we can grow.”

Several other area businesses now have contracts with MGM or are in the process of finalizing one. Most will not be as life-changing as the one received by Park Cleaners, but they are all significant in some way.

Nick Noblit

Nick Noblit says the contract with MGM gives Yankee Mattress a new top line for its deep list of clients.

Take Agawam-based Yankee Mattress, for example. The company was originally asked to supply mattresses for all the rooms in MGM’s Springfield hotel, an order that Nick Noblit, the company’s general manager, admitted was too big to handle at this time. But the company will make California kings for the larger, high-roller suites, an assignment that will give the company additional business and some hopefully effective marketing material.

Meanwhile, Holyoke-based Kittredge Equipment Co. has secured one of the bigger contracts — this one to provide kitchen appliances and supplies to the many businesses that will do business at the casino.

There have been other contracts signed, and there will be many more agreements inked in the weeks to come as the countdown to the grand opening continues, said Courtney Wenleder, vice president and chief financial officer for MGM Springfield. She told BusinessWest that, as part of its host-community agreement, the company is required to apportion a percentage of its receivables to local companies.

But the company is striving to do more than just meet that obligation, she said, adding that MGM is looking to take the company’s philosophy regarding diversity and apply it to its vendor list. And this translates into extending opportunities to women (Kittredge is also woman-owned), minorities, and small businesses in general.

“MGM has a commitment to diversity and partnering with local vendors,” she explained. “It’s all about building the community together; there’s a symbiotic relationship — if the community does well, we do well, and vice versa.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how the trickle-down effect from MGM Springfield, which began with local contractors taking part in the construction of the complex, is gathering momentum in the form of contracts to supply everything from knives and forks to marketing services. And while doing that, we’ll also shine a spotlight on some intriguing local businesses that have, by and large, flown under the radar.

The Rest of the Story

Wenleder told BusinessWest that many factors go into MGM’s decisions about which vendors to do business with and what might give a certain enterprise an edge over whatever competition emerges.

They range from quality of service and customer satisfaction, obviously, to whether, as noted, the business is minority- or women-owned. But there are some intangibles, and sometimes a little luck, that comes into play.

To get that point across, she relayed the story about how MGM Springfield now rents several apartments downtown, and they’re used, among other things, to house company executives visiting Springfield for extended stays.

Kittredge Equipment Co. owner Wendy Webber, left, with sales representative Amanda Desautels

Kittredge Equipment Co. owner Wendy Webber, left, with sales representative Amanda Desautels. The company will supply MGM Springfield with everything from appliances to glassware.

MGM CEO William Hornbuckle is one of these executives, and on one of his stays, he slept so soundly and comfortably that he took note of the label on his mattress (Yankee), later commented to those at MGM Springfield’s headquarters about his experience, and essentially initiated steps that would eventually lead to the company getting a contract.

“Bill commented about what a great night’s sleep he had on that mattress, and that pretty much secured their position,” Wenleder recalled with a laugh, adding that it wasn’t all that simple, but that bit of serendipity certainly got the ball rolling.

And the mattress contract serves as a good example of how MGM is trying to do business locally when it can and when it’s appropriate, said MGM Springfield General Manager Alex Dixon.

He noted, as Wenleder did, that there are times when MGM will simply add the Springfield casino to some existing contracts it has in place to provide certain products and services to the company’s existing properties.

Playing cards and dice would be good examples of this, he said, adding that MGM already has manufacturers providing those products. And, for the most part, there is no local company that makes such items.

But even with those products, there may be some opportunities for local businesses, he went on, noting, for example, that most playing cards are destroyed soon after they’re used, and MGM Springfield will use a local company to handle that work.

“We want to recognize what’s available in the local market and then tailor our supply chain to match what is happening in the local community,” he said while describing the company’s broad mindset when it comes to vendors.

Overall, MGM has a process in place when it comes to vendors, said Dixon, adding that the company actively solicits information from companies interested in doing business with it. The owners and managers of such ventures are invited to attend outreach events (they’re posted on the MGM Springfield website, for example), and through such events, companies become part of a database the company refers to when it needs specific products or services.

“Whenever there’s a business need, we want to find out if there are vendors, preferably local, who can help us to fulfill those needs — that’s step one,” he explained. “But informally, being members of the community, you really develop relationships.

“It’s no longer ‘hey there’s this great local brewer,’” he went on, while explaining how these relationships are created. “Now it’s ‘that’s Ray Berry from White Lion; maybe there’s an opportunity there.’”

In other words, familiarity breeds opportunity, and examples abound of how companies ranging from local caterers and computer hardware providers have come onto MGM Springfield’s radar screen — and are now doing business with the company.

The contract with Yankee Mattress is a good example of this phenomenon at work, said Dixon, confirming that the company was first presented with a proposal to furnish every room in its hotel now taking shape on Main Street.

But Noblet said such a large order would have necessitated additional hiring and other steps the company wasn’t ready to take.

But the contract to supply mattresses for the larger suites is a welcome addition and positive development for the Agawam-based company, which has been gaining traction in recent years as word-of-mouth referrals about its products proliferate.

This is another family business, started by Nick’s father, Joe, who is still active in the venture. The elder Noblit worked for a major mattress manufacturer for several years before deciding he could make a better product, and at a lower price, himself. And he did.

Yankee was launched in 1999, and it has grown and evolved other the years, said Noblit, adding that it started with a storefront and adjacent assembly area in Agawam, and now has four stores in the region.

Those outlets carry a host of lines with those huge tags that are supposedly illegal to rip off, including the top-of-line Black Collection, with models including the York, Fairhaven, Merrimac, and Nantucket.

There is a strong residential component to the customer base, obviously, said Noblit, but also many commercial clients as well, including several area B&Bs, hotels, and inns, as well as some healthcare providers, a few private schools, and a host of area fire departments.

“We custom-build those to be stronger than average — because there are some big firefighters out there and it’s important for them to have something durable,” he explained, adding that word of mouth has been the best marketing tool when it comes to adding new lines to the customer list on the company’s website.

If one were to peruse that list, the name now at the very top is MGM Resorts International, an indication of how important this contract is, not size-wise, but from a marketing and branding standpoint.

“Most hotels have a contract with a major manufacturer, and across the board, they do business with this manufacturer, and they make all of their beds,” he explained. “So for MGM to consider someone outside these big manufacturers that are nationwide, that’s significant.”

Buying Power

But if MGM Springfield found Yankee Mattress thanks to Bill Horbuckle’s good night’s sleep, most of the other vendors have had to find the casino giant.

And ‘find’ means going through a process of introducing one’s company to MGM Springfield through one of a number of vendor meet-and-greets, for lack of a better term, that the company has staged, including one at last fall’s Western Mass. Business and Innovation Expo, staged by BusinessWest.

Courtney Wenleder

Courtney Wenleder says there’s a symbiotic relationship between MGM and local vendors; when they do well, the casino operator does well, and vice versa.

Through these outreach sessions, MGM is making it much easier for companies to find it, said Wenleder, adding that MGM Springfield has a three-person purchasing team (a manager and two assistants), and one of their primary responsibilities is to go out into the community and find local vendors.

“Even though we’ve been doing a lot of communication with people when it comes to local purchasing requirements, some people aren’t hearing that message,” she explained. “We have people on the ground physically reaching out to these vendors.”

Merigian said she started attending such outreach sessions not long after MGM was granted the Western Mass. license in 2014, recognizing the casino as a rare business opportunity.

“I had my sights on it from the beginning,” she told BusinessWest. You never know how it’s going to work out with companies renting their own uniforms or owning them, but either way, I knew I would like to be part of it.”

So much so that she took steps to become a certified woman-owned business, understanding from those very first meetings that MGM had a strong interest in doing business with businesses led by women and minorities.

There would be more meetings to come over the next few years, she went on, adding that these sessions were beneficial on many levels.

“It really gets you tuned into your business,” she said, using that phrase to indicate everything from capabilities to long-term goals to what it will take to reach them. “It was an educational experience on many levels.”

The volume of work is large — most all of the 3,000 employees will wear some kind of uniform, and this contract covers all that and more — and thus MGM will likely be the largest customer in Park’s long history, said Merigian, although Park did have a contract with MassMutual for a quarter-century and still has one with the Defense Department (Westover Air Reserve Base).

“We don’t have specific numbers, but know it will be high volume,” she said of the business to start coming her way in a matter of weeks as employees are added to the payroll in waves. “But we’re ready for it, and we can feel the excitement.”

Indeed, after her father’s death, the company had to withdraw from the MassMutual contract, and it downsized considerably, said Merigian, adding quickly, however, that “we’re ready to go; we’re ready to get back to work.”

At Kittredge, meanwhile, the MGM contract is another important step forward for that company, said Amanda Desautels, an outside sales representative now working with MGM to outfit the restaurants that will be doing business at the casino.

“This is a significant contract for us,” she said, noting that Kittredge will be supplying MGM with everything from appliances to bar equipment; glassware to silverware, and adding it to a client list that includes UMass Amherst, the Max restaurant group, and Mount Holyoke College, among many others.

The company, rapidly approaching its centennial (it was launched in 1921), started as a supplier of typewriters and cash registers and has evolved into a $50 million equipment and supply giant that now employs more than 70 people locally.

At its warehouse and retail facility in the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, one can find everything from industrial refrigerators, freezers, and stoves to dishes and glassware to individual carving knives. Desautels joked that the company provides everything that goes on the table, around it (furniture), and even under it. “If you have a wobbly table, we have table levelers.”

It also has certification as a woman-owned business (Wendy Webber succeeds her late husband, Neil, as owner and operator), a designation that has opened many doors for the company and no doubt played a role in securing the contract with MGM.

“Being a woman-owned business has created many opportunities for Kittredge, and MGM is obviously one of those,” said Desautels, noting that the addition of MGM to the client roster is significant in many respects. “It’s exciting to be doing business with a company like MGM that shares the same values we do, such as diversity and the importance of their employees.”

Pressing Engagement

As she posed for a few photos for BusinessWest, Merigian gathered her son, Andrew Takorian, and insisted that he be part of the picture.

Figuratively speaking, he has been for some time now, working at this establishment — like his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him — while still in grade school.

He represents the fifth generation to carry a business card that says ‘Park Cleaners’ — or Park Cleaners & Dyers, as the case may be. The company has gone through a lot of change and evolution after the past eight and half decades, and many important developments.

Perhaps none were as big as the contract inked with MGM Springfield, which comes at a critical time and represents a huge opportunity for growth and security.

It’s just one example of the trickle-down effect that is now underway, and already changing the local business landscape in profound ways.

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

Features

Changing Expectations

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth say they’ve created a ‘retail-tainment district,’ one that is bringing people from across the region to downtown Springfield.

Like most people who grew up in and around Springfield in the ’60s and ’70s, Mikki Lessard has fond memories of getting on a bus and spending an entire Saturday afternoon downtown.

She said most of those visits would start, and a good number would also end, at Johnson’s Bookstore, but there were plenty of other stops as well.

“We would go to Johnson’s, and Steiger’s, and many other stores. There was always something happening; it was positive, and it was fun,” said Lessard, adding that, while she acknowledges that things won’t ever be exactly like that again given changes in how and where many people shop, it can be, well, something like that again.

And she and business partner Nancy Feth are a huge part of that ‘something.’

They are the founders of an intriguing enterprise called Simply Grace, which now operates a growing portfolio of businesses operating under the name the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — almost exactly where Johnson’s Bookstore was operating until it closed 20 years ago.

There are shops, but this is also a gathering place for events ranging from Thunderbird Thursdays to a farmer’s market to a Dress for Success graduation ceremony.

The two partners have a name for what they’ve created — a ‘retail-tainment district,’ blending both retail and entertainment. They didn’t invent the phrase — it’s been in use for a while and is often summoned when the discussion turns to what traditional shopping malls must become if they want to survive — but they believe they have the first in downtown Springfield, arriving ahead of MGM Springfield.

It all started with the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, and ‘the Shops’ has grown to include a yoga studio, a restaurant, a new store that just opened its doors, and another now being built out.

As they tell the story — and they love to tell the story, often finishing one another’s sentences and providing complementary commentary as they do so — these entrepreneurs note that they came to downtown Springfield as one of what was supposed to be several small retailers that agreed to set up shop as part of the initial Springfield Holiday Market in 2015, a strategic initiative designed to put some underutilized space in the Marketplace complex to work in a way that would bring people downtown and generate some momentum as well as foot traffic.

As things turned out, there were only a few pop-up shops, as they were called, on that location, but they did well collectively, and the public responded to this bid to bring some retail back to Main Street.

When the holidays were over, Glenn Edwards, owner of the property, asked Feth and Lessard if they would like to stay on for a while. They said yes, but without giving any real indication of a what ‘a while’ might or should become.

“We said, ‘we’ll stay for a few more months; we’ll stay ’til Valentine’s Day,’” said Feth, before Lessard picked up for her.

“And then, we asked to stay ’til Mother’s Day,” she explained. “And then we decided we wanted to stay for the year.”

But with some conditions, specifically that they could take space one of the retailers was vacating for yoga classes in an effort to attract more people and different constituencies to the downtown.

And, overall, the two entrepreneurs have been continuing that pattern, or mindset, ever since, adding new components to Simply Grace; bringing more events, vitality, and energy to the Marketplace area; and also, for those efforts, earning an award from the Small Business Administration to coincide with Small Business Week (April 29 to May 5).

Indeed, Feth and Lessard will be at the Sheraton Needham Hotel on May 4 to accept the Microenterprise of the Year Award, one of the few enterprises from Western Mass. to win such an honor in recent years.

But before, and after, all their focus will be on Springfield, the Marketplace, and new developments for Simply Grace.

These include a recent addition called Brick & Mortar, what Lessard calls a “mercantile, apothecary, and more,” which actually has some exposed brick for effect. There’s also Alchemy, a manicure and pedicure salon now being built out; Dharma, the yoga studio; and the boutique that got things rolling.

Those four businesses, along with Nosh, an eatery across the way from the boutique, now comprise a critical mass of small, diverse shops that the two partners believe will bring more foot traffic and momentum to an area that was once the pulse of downtown Springfield a generation ago — and can, they believe, take that role again.

“Do we have mall traffic? Heck no,” said Lessard. “But it’s working. It’s always about creating curiosity and then converting that into customers, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The only downside to all this is that the space once devoted to the holiday pop-up markets is now gone, absorbed by what could be called permanent fixtures, said the partners, adding that, in most all ways, this constitutes a very good problem to have.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Feth and Lessard about their venture and how in some ways it constitutes turning back the clock, but in most others, it’s symbolic of the downtown’s future.

What’s in Store

‘Walk. Pause. Browse. Shop. Experience.’

Those are the words the two partners have placed before ‘the Shops at Marketplace’ in their branding of the facility. And both collectively and individuality, those terms speak to what this venture is all about — as well as to some of the elements that have largely been missing from downtown since those days when Lessard and countless others would get on a bus and take it to Main Street.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

There was far less walking, pausing, browsing, and shopping going on, and therefore there was less to experience.

Feth and Lessard weren’t exactly out to change that equation when they were first invited to bring a taste of the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, a shop they opened in Monson, to downtown Springfield for the holidays. But that’s what has happened.

It’s been an intriguing journey, a learning experience on many levels, said the partners, adding that they are still writing new chapters to this story.

That first Holiday Market was so successful that the BID asked the new partners to manage and staff that project moving forward, said Feth, adding that they did so, providing an opportunity for a number of new businesses to become part of the experience and gain some critical visibility. And through that work, the partners came to understand the many layers of significance to their efforts. Indeed, this wasn’t simply retail, it was economic development.

“A lot of what we do is build community and work on economic development,” Feth explained. “These are the value adds we feel we bring to Springfield in addition to our own businesses.”

Lessard agreed, and referred to Simply Grace’s broad efforts as “collaborating and incubating.”

As for their own businesses, the partners say they are doing well and succeeding in their primary mission. That would be to bring people, but especially women, downtown. Or back downtown, as is often the case.

They’re getting that done by providing reasons to do so, said Lessard, adding that these vary and include yoga, the shops — which sell products made by vendors with unique, community-minded stories — and events.

Elaborating, Lessard said the partners will utilize their indoor spaces and walkways during winter and schedule a variety of gatherings for women, and when the weather gets warmer, they will fully “activate” the indoor and outdoor space, using it to host everything from flea markets to White Lion Wednesdays; from farmers markets to live music.

In fact, the space has become a popular venue for fundraising for groups that include Rays of Hope, Unify Against Bullying, Dress for Success, and many more.

“We just want to have this lively, quintessential, unexpected experience in downtown Springfield,” Lessard explained, adding that the key word there, and perhaps unfortunately, is ‘unexpected.’

Indeed, Feth said that many of those who come to the Shops at the Marketplace will offer commentary that makes this point.

“We’ll often hear people say, ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Springfield,’” said Feth. “Or ‘I feel like I’m in New York or San Francisco.’”

Which Lessard followed with, ‘and we gladly say, ‘you’re in this wonderful city called Springfield.’”

The unofficial mission moving forward, for the partners at Simply Grace and the city as a whole, is to generate fewer of these comments and to make a fulfilling trip downtown something that’s expected, not unexpected.

And the partners believe they and the city are moving closer to that goal through their lively mix of retail, events, things to do, and things to experience.

And the retail is a big part of it, said Feth, adding that, contrary to what is becoming popular opinion, traditional retail is not dead, and not everyone wants to buy everything on Amazon and have it shipped to their home.

“What we’re finding is that customers are actually hungry for experiences where they can see the product, talk to people, feel seen and acknowledged, and have a real experience instead of just a virtual experience,” she explained, before Lessard picked up on that ‘feel seen’ comment and ran with it because of its significance.

“We have women who come in here that pause, then browse, then shop, just to be seen,” she told BusinessWest. “They feel like they’re in this hustle and bustle of life and no one’s acknowledging them. So they come in, they share stories, we give them hugs; we actually care about them as people.

“We get a lot of pushback from people from who say, ‘you should be in East Longmeadow’ or ‘you should be in Hampden or somewhere other than downtown Springfield,’” she went on. “But we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be, because the women we’re connecting to that work or live or play downtown are very stressed out, and when they come to our store, it’s a breath of fresh air, an unexpected experience.”

Bottom Line

There’s that word again — unexpected. Soon, perhaps, it can be retired, and downtown Springfield will move closer to the one Lessard remembers from her youth, a time, she recalled, when there was always something positive and fun happening.

The partners at Simply Grace are doing their part to bring those phrases back into use. They’ll soon have an award from the Small Business Administration to show for their efforts, but they’ve already received something perhaps even more significant to them.

That would be all those comments from people who say they don’t believe they’re in downtown Springfield. Such comments tell them they’re doing the right thing and in the right place.

And to think they were only going to stay a month.

Good thing they didn’t.

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

Commercial Real Estate Sections

Making a Move

Two architect’s renderings of the planned new home of Way Finders at the site of the Peter Pan bus station.

Two architect’s renderings of the planned new home of Way Finders at the site of the Peter Pan bus station.

The nonprofit group Way Finders, formerly known as HAPHousing, has released renderings of the new 35,000-square-foot home it intends to build on the site of the soon-to-be abandoned Peter Pan Bus station. The move to the North End will bring benefits for the agency and its many types of clients, but it will also generate momentum — and economic development — at two locations, a trickle-down effect not always seen with relocations of this type.

From the start, Peter Gagliardi said, the goal was to find something on the major bus routes and, preferably, near the bus station.

Turns out, he accomplished all that and then some.

Indeed, the new home for Way Finders, formerly HAPHousing, will be the bus station — or the old bus station, to be more precise, the long-time home to Peter Pan Bus Lines. Which just happens to be across Main Street from the new bus station, the renovated, 90-year-old Union Station.

“I had really hoped that we would have a place near the bus station, but I never expected that we would buy the bus station — you can’t get any closer than that,” said Gagliardi, long-time CEO of the agency, which rebranded to Way Finders last fall in a reflection of its broadened mission.

But this ambitious, $15 million project (that’s the latest estimate) will achieve much more than added convenience for and clients served by Way Finders, many of whom don’t own cars or have reliable transportation, said Gagliardi.

It will also become an important additional component of broad revitalization efforts in downtown Springfield and especially the area just north of the Arch — and a likely catalyst for still more, he noted. It will also bring roughly 200 workers to that area, providing opportunities for service businesses already in that quadrant and those looking to expand into it. And it will give a growing, evolving agency the room and the facilities to better serve clients and continually expand its portfolio of services.

Indeed, a nonprofit that was once focused mostly on securing housing for those who could not afford it has morphed into a truly multi-faceted agency focused on everything from financial education to helping individuals buy a home to assisting them with finding employment so they can rent a home or apartment.

“Because there’s not enough housing to go around, we’re helping people avoid homelessness by becoming employed,” said Gagliardi, obviously proud of the results generated by this relatively new initiative. “We’ve placed about 560 people over the past four and half years, and at the end of 12 months, 80% to 90% of those people are still employed. We don’t have [housing] vouchers for everyone, so we tell people employment might be their best bet.”

But while this relocation will bring many benefits to Way Finders and its many clients, there will be a trickle-down effect as well, and one not always seen when a large employer leaves one home for another.

Peter Gagliardi says the new Way Finders headquarters will be a solid addition to Springfield’s North End.

Peter Gagliardi says the new Way Finders headquarters will be a solid addition to Springfield’s North End.

Indeed, this relocation, announced late last year, is not a case of musical chairs — the commercial real-estate variety, anyway — a phrase that brokers and those involved in economic development like to use when a tenant within a property abandons it for something similar a few miles or even a few blocks away.

Such moves often don’t have a significant net impact on the real-estate market or the economy of the area in question, experts say, because the only thing that’s really changing is the tenant’s street address.

In the case of Way Finders, so much more is changing. It’s soon-to-be-former home in Springfield — the agency also has an office in Holyoke — at 322 Main St. in the South End has been acquired by Balise Motor Sales. And while no plans have been announced, it seems likely that property will be put to new and different use as Balise expands its already considerable footprint in that part of the city.

Meanwhile, Way Finders’ move to the North End, coming as Peter Pan moves its employees into Union Station, provides another shot of adrenaline for a section of the city that had been mostly dormant for years.

To borrow a phrase used often in business and politics, this move would appear to constitute a win-win-win for the South End, the North End — and specifically Union Station — and the nonprofit agency and its clients. Maybe that’s a win-win-win-win.

In any case, for this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes a look at this relocation and its many implications.

Space Exploration

As he talked about how Way Finders arrived at that press conference where its purchase of the Peter Pan property for $2.75 million was announced, Gagliardi said the seeds for that acquisition were planted quite some time ago.

To make a long story somewhat short, the nonprofit has grown significantly over the past several years as its mission has been expanded, he explained, adding that the workforce, or at least those members of it working in Springfield, outgrew the property at 322 Main St. a few years ago.

“We were comfortable at 120 people, but not at 160,” said Gagliardi as he got specific with the numbers of employees working at that site a few years ago. “It really compromised the quality of the space the staff was working in, and it also cramped the quarters we were using to work with clients; our foot traffic just kept increasing, especially with the issue of homelessness and people trying to keep a roof over our heads.

“It was getting to be untenable,” he went on, adding that parking was another issue, especially after MGM acquired the former Orr Cadillac property (Way Finders was leasing 40 parking spaces there) and converted it into the new Springfield Rescue Mission and Balise acquired an adjacent property, eliminating another 25 spaces. “The handwriting was on the wall. It was a 15,000-square-foot parcel with a 13,000-square-foot building; there wasn’t even room to put in a dumpster.”

By that time, “Balise had us surrounded,” said Gagliardi, adding that the car company had acquired several parcels around 322 Main St., and the logical step for Way Finders was to offer that building as the next addition to the portfolio, lease back office space and parking spaces, and commence a search for a new headquarters.

Which it did, while also moving about 40 employees to a large suite of offices on Maple Street, just a few blocks away.

As for that search, a request for proposals yielded several options for buying and especially leasing space, said Gagliardi, acknowledging the obvious — that a stable, growing nonprofit with roughly 200 employees would be a very attractive tenant for a number of landlords in the city.

The bus station became one of those options, he went on, adding that, after careful consideration, it became the best option, for reasons ranging from location — that first consideration in commercial real estate — to the footprint’s size and flexibility, especially with regard to parking (there will be room for 180 spaces).

Being near the new bus station, or transportation center (there is rail service at Union Station as well) was a big factor, he told BusinessWest.

“We needed a place well served by public transportation because a lot of our clients don’t have cars or don’t have reliable vehicles,” he explained. “And we have a lot of staff that live in the city and could use buses if they were convenient.”

Initially, the thought was to renovate the existing facilities at the bus station, said Gagliardi, adding that a detailed review determined that new construction would allow better utilization of the footprint and better service to clients.

“We looked at it closely, but the cost of bringing facilities up to code was substantial,” he said. “It would cost even more to do it as new, but a new building will be far more energy-efficient than we can make the old one; it will be a much more efficient use of space. The end result was that it just made more sense to do this.”

Way Finders, which recently took title to the property, is in the process of putting together financing for the project, said Gagliardi, adding that it will include New Markets Tax Credits, a tax-exempt bond through MassDevelopment, and significant fundraising, perhaps a total of $3 million to $4 million. The goal is to move in by September 2019.

As for that trickle-down effect mentioned earlier, often there isn’t much of that phenomenon with moves such as this, only that musical-chairs outcome seen in this city and many others when new properties are constructed.

“Often, with relocations like this, you’re worried about the place left behind,” said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief Development officer, adding that this thought process went through his mind even on projects like the new federal courthouse on State Street, an initiative he led as an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal. The new facility changed the landscape on State Street and greatly upgraded the facilities for the court — but it also left a huge vacancy at 1550 Main St.

That property rebounded nicely and is now home to a diverse group of new tenants, but such bouncebacks don’t always occur.

With Peter Pan relocating to Union Station, the bus station would be left behind, said Kennedy, adding that Way Finders’ relocation was both a quick and extremely positive reuse of a highly visible piece of property.

“To get a brand new building there with a significant number of employees was a good result,” he said in a voice that certainly conveyed understatement, adding that the second parcel to be left behind, 322 Main St., will likely have an equally positive outcome.

“With a family like Balise that has accumulated a significant amount of property in that area, I expect a that we’re going to see a significant development there that will be good for the city and good for the tax base,” he told BusinessWest.

Room for Improvement

All that certainly constitutes a win-win-win, with maybe a few more wins as well.

It started with a desire to be near the bus station and ended with a purchase of the bus station. That wasn’t the expected route, to borrow a phrase from the transportation business, but this relocation will help several parties get to their desired destinations.

“We could have gone outside the city; we could have done something in an industrial park,” said Gagliardi. “But that wouldn’t have been good for our clients or good for the city. The idea that someone that can hop on a bus in Chicopee, take it to Union Station, and walk across the street is a good thing.

“We’d like to be part of the good stuff that’s happening this city,” he went on, adding that this relocation, not to mention the agency’s many initiatives to improve quality of life for area residents, will certainly make that a reality.

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

Custom Content

Milestones In Business: Celebrating significant accomplishments

Ben Markens calls it simply the “huge business that no one knows about.”

He was referring to association management, a specific niche that the venture he started three decades ago, the one that bears his name, morphed into — and with substantial benefits for not only the company but the city of Springfield and the region as a whole.

Indeed, Springfield is now the home, meaning the physical headquarters and mailing address, for national associations representing everything from the manufacturers of cereal boxes to homeopaths.

As for the Markens Group, or TMG, as it’s called, since taking on management of the Paperboard Packaging Council in 2008, it has continued to grow its portfolio of association clients, add new members to its team of professionals, and become a great place to work — quite literally.

Indeed, TMG was recently named a ‘Great Place to Work’ by Forbes magazine in the small-business category. This is an honor that means a great deal to Ben Markens, who has always been a firm believer in the link between customer loyalty and employee satisfaction, and has managed his company in such a way that people have the chance to do their best, where their opinion matters, and where success can be shared.

This mindset is on display in the company’s reception area, decorated in part with hand-drawn portraits of TMG employees. These works of art convey the personalities of the specific team members, but also how these individuals have come together to make TMG a force within that business no one knows about.

All of this — from those portraits in the front lobby to the growing number of associations calling Springfield, Massachusetts home to the ‘Great Place to Work’ plaque — is what’s being celebrated as TMG marks a milestone: 30 years in business.

Also being celebrated are the many qualities that have made all this possible: Imagination, perseverance, teamwork, and a strong sense of community.

To explain how they got here, Ben Markens turned the clock back to early 1988, when TMG was a consulting firm focused primarily on the packaging industry and providing assistance with everything from costing to pricing to strategy.

“We helped leaders achieve their goals,” noted Markens, adding that many needed such assistance. “They didn’t get into this field because they liked packaging; they got into it because grandpa was in it, and they weren’t professionally trained managers. We tried to take them from being entrepreneurs to being leaders.”

A few decades later, these leaders were looking to TMG for a different kind of assistance, a different bundle of services.

“They were in the ditch,” said Markens, needing just a few words to get his point across, adding that the paperboard packaging industry leaders asked him to run their association.

He told them ‘no,’ noting that he had his own business to run. They went further into the ditch and repeated their request. This time, he said ‘yes,’ and essentially made running associations his business — or his new business, if you like.

Markens jokes that he still believes he invented the association-management-company model, even though he’s been told by many that it existed before TMG took over operations of the Paperboard Packaging Council (PPC) in 2008.

And if he didn’t invent it, he has certainly improved upon it, recognizing that while members of an association may know their industry inside and out, they probably have little, if any, idea how to properly run an association.

So TMG manages it for them. “In the case of the PPC, there was a stunning turnaround; the association went from losing $1 million the year prior to TMG taking over management to an almost immediate turnaround, achieving financial stability through TMG and lowering dues to members.”

Results for other clients have been equally impressive, with TMG, which became an accredited association-management company in 2014, providing a large suite of services, including:

• Event Planning;
• Executive Director Services;
• Association Headquarters;
• Marketing and Communications;
• Speaker Management;
• Competition and Awards Management;
• Financial Management;
• Membership Services;
• Strategic Planning; and
• Website Design and Social Media.

Some associations need TMG to handle many of these services, while some require only a few, said Lou Kornet, vice president and chief of staff, adding that one of the company’s competitive advantages is flexibility and the ability to tailor a package of services to meet the specific needs of a client.

In short, TMG knows that one size doesn’t fit all.

TMG’s contract with the Paperboard Packaging Council stipulates that it could locate the association wherever it wanted, and Ben Markens chose his home — Western Massachusetts, and specifically, Main Street in Springfield. There are now several associations with that mailing address, and he expects that there will be many more in the years to come as word of TMG’s track record with successfully managing a host of associations spreads.

Such growth is expected because the model works, said Markens.

TMG has proven that in recent years, and as the company marks 30 years of growth and prosperity, it is poised to write exciting new chapters to its success story and add more hand-drawn portraits to the reception area.

Becoming a star performer and true leader in this huge business that no one knows about hasn’t come easily, but TMG’s way of doing business has now become a model of success — in a great many ways.

1350 Main Street, Springfield, MA 01103
Phone: 413-686-9199 • markens.com

To feature your company, call 413-781-8600 for rate information.

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Sharing the Gold

Kacey Bellamy

Kacey Bellamy

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

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

And now, she doesn’t have any at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stranglehold on Determination

$577.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Net Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, more lessons for the workplace.

Dream Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environment and Engineering Sections

Making Waves

Stanley Kowalski III, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of FloDesign Sonics.

Stanley Kowalski III, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of FloDesign Sonics.

The “filterless filter company,” as FloDesign Sonics dubs itself, was launched in 2010 in an effort to separate contaminants — particularly anthrax — from the water supply.

There’s nothing trivial about that goal, but the company’s co-founder and CEO, Stanley Kowalski III, and his team have only been thinking bigger ever since.

“We don’t like mediocre challenges; we take on pretty big issues, and we back it with the best thought leaders in this space,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve targeted some of the biggest things mankind could be working on, and it gets people motivated on a different level. You don’t have to yell at people … they’re independently driven because every day, they’re working on something exceptionally meaningful. It’s a mission-based company — and we always like to focus the mission on something that’s pretty grand.”

These days, that ‘something grand’ is cell and gene therapy, an existing technology with promise for batting cancer and other diseases, but which is prohibitively expensive — much too costly, in fact, to be available to the masses.

Kowalski believes FloDesign Sonics’ patented, signature process — which captures, separates, and concentrates particles in fluids through the use of acoustic waves — could eventually bring those costs down. And the 32 people working at the company’s Wilbraham headquarters — geneticists, bioengineers, and biochemists among them — are motivated to make that a reality.

“We’re the ‘filterless filter company,’ but we’re also doing cell handling, so just calling it a filter company doesn’t give it credit,” he said. “Right now we’re in the life-sciences industry, where handling of cells is the next frontier of medicine — personalized medicine, cell and gene therapy, where you use your body’s cells to fight things like cancer, grow organs, or restore organs that are damaged.”

We’re living, he continued, in a time of renaissance in medicine, when scientists are learning how to harness the body’s ability to regenerate and repair itself and fight diseases in new ways.

“And there’s nothing more important, I think, that mankind could be working on right now than this,” he went on. “I tell my staff, if Edison or Tesla were alive today, I’m convinced this is what they’d be working on. I really believe that.”

Going with the Flow

To understand what FloDesign Sonics — an offshoot of FloDesign Inc., which was founded in 1990 and has since spawned several spinoff companies — has accomplished, it’s helpful to go back to 2010, when engineer Bart Lipkens received a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to figure out how to rid reservoirs of anthrax, which was, at that time, a major concern in Washington.

During a process of trial and error, Lipkens’ team at the newly established FloDesign Sonics — including Kowalski, Louis Masi, and Walter Presz — discovered that acoustics could play a vital role in detection.

Kowalski has often explained it by picturing sound waves as an invisible force field that can be used to manipulate and hold things in space. In a chamber filled with fluid, if a consistent flow of sound waves is generated through it, then living cells or debris are introduced into the wave, they will be held there by the invisible force field, and the cells will be gently pushed together and form clumps. When they get big enough, they either fall out of the solution due to gravity or rise to the top due to buoyancy — hence, the ‘filterless filter’ description.

One early assignment came from the National Science Foundation, which issued a challenge — and a series of grant phases — in 2012 to find a way to separate oil and gas contaminants from water. The key, Kowalski told BusinessWest, was to create a process that cost less than the value of the oil being extracted from the water — and let capitalism take over. In 2016, representatives from the company participated in the White House Water Summit to discuss its considerable progress.

The grant, Lipkens said at the event, “resulted in a technology that provides a green, sustainable, and environmentally friendly oil-water separation system for the oil and gas industry.”

Later in 2012, FloDesign Sonics tested a prototype for a life-sciences application that involves harvesting and filtering cells derived from the ovaries of Chinese hamsters that are used to make injectable monoclonal antibody drugs, which are being used to fight cancer, diabetes, and other illnesses. A grant from the National Institute for Health followed in 2014, along with a challenge to devise a better way of filtering blood during bypass surgery.

From left, some the FloDesign Sonics leadership team: Walter Presz, co-founder and senior fellow of fluid dynamics; Richard Grant, chief product officer; and Stanley Kowalski III, co-founder, chairman, and CEO.

From left, some the FloDesign Sonics leadership team: Walter Presz, co-founder and senior fellow of fluid dynamics; Richard Grant, chief product officer; and Stanley Kowalski III, co-founder, chairman, and CEO.

Creating a way to bring cell and gene therapy essentially to the hospital bedside — not unlike dialysis — is an altogether different challenge, however, a holy grail of sorts in the oncology world.

“With all the tools available today, we really need a paradigm shift,” Kowalski said. “Manipulating cells and bringing either a particle or a virus or a genetic payload to these cells is what cell and gene therapy is all about — holding them, washing them, cleaning them, sorting them, separating them, finding that needle in a haystack of cells in your body that have the propensity to repair, restore, rebuild, and make you who you are all over again. That’s what our quest is.

“There’s so much can be done, and it really does rival the Henry Ford challenge, because right now, cell and gene therapy is only available for the few, and it’s exceptionally expensive — off-the-charts expensive, maybe $500,000 per patient, on the low end.”

With more than 250 patents filed in the past decade and more than 50 granted, FloDesign Sonics continues to take steps toward using acoustic filtering to bring down the cost of activating cells and “turning them into the warriors they can be to go compete against cancers,” as Kowalski put it.

Meanwhile, FloDesign Sonics is looking to transform the biopharmaceutical process as well. Many of today’s pharmaceuticals are produced by culturing cells that produce therapeutic proteins or monoclonal antibodies. After the proteins or antibodies are produced, it’s necessary to gently remove the cultured cells as part of the purification process. Current technology requires the use of either a filter, which must be flushed or replaced, or a centrifuge, which requires careful cleaning between each use.

The FloDesign solution permits both cell clarification and perfusion without the need for consumable filters or complex centrifuges. This technology was exclusively licensed to Pall Life Sciences for commercialization and launched in 2016.

Drowning in Opportunity

While medical applications for acoustic filtering may be making the most waves (pun intended) at the moment, they’re far from the only ones.

“One of our board members likes to call it ‘drowning in opportunity’ because every time you turn around, there’s someone else to draw you in,” Kowalski said. “There are industrial applications, food and beverage applications, water purification. People need clean water; it’s still considered one of the major hurdles of mankind.”

Still, he added, “we are maintaining focus around cell and gene therapy until we get these drug costs down.”

That focus on solutions has driven FloDesign since 1990, when Presz created the company while he was an Engineering professor at Western New England College so he could give his students an opportunity to put theory into practice.

FloDesign Sonics is just one of several spinoff companies that have come out of that original entity. Others include FloDesign Wind Turbine, which was founded in 2008, and FloDesign Water Turbine, which was established in 2009. The common thread is that all have something to do with fluid dynamics and acoustic solutions.

Since its founding in 2010, FloDesign has raised $44 million in venture capital and grants from bodies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Its board includes a number of significant lights in the life-sciences world, including Jim Waters and Doug Berthiaume, the founder and former CEO, respectively, of Milford-based Waters Corp., which Berthiaume grew to $2.2 billion in revenue before retiring in November.

They’re drawn, Kowalski said, by the idea that the acoustic-filtering technology pioneered by FloDesign Sonics can change people’s lives. “We believe that, and it’s already happening,” he added.

“Every time there’s a hurdle that mankind hits, we always find a way around it, and we solve problems. We’re very good at that,” he went on. “I think we’re right at that threshold where we’ve had enough of cancer. It’s time to figure this thing out. And the engine behind this is acoustics.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

Leg Up on Life

Michaela Lopez and Danielle Stewart

Michaela Lopez and Danielle Stewart examine a specimen during their internship at Mercy Medical Center’s Pathology Lab.

It’s hardly news that far fewer teenagers work during the summer than they did decades ago, for many reasons. Those who do want to work are often happy to nail down a steady paycheck, while others gain something more — a career-oriented summer job that comes with training, mentorship, and connections. That’s the goal of a state-funded program that will send 900 area teens into the workforce this summer, but its administrators say that number isn’t nearly enough.

Joe Shibley recalls when he was a teenager, washing dishes and weeding for a little extra money, and thinks the young people who come to work for him each summer have it a lot better.

“When I was a kid, I would have loved a job like this,” said Shibley, president of Pilgrim Candle in Westfield, who will participate for the fifth time this year in the regional summer-jobs program administered by the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County (REB).

Previous participants have worked on a historic-renovation project in one of the company’s buildings, a landscaping project that took up most of one summer, and various warehousing tasks, not to mention mixing, pouring, and labeling candles.

“They learn how the process goes, from raw materials to finished goods out on shelves,” he continued. “We’ve trained these young adults to weigh the wax, mix in the colors, pour the products, and wick the candles, start to finish. We’re not building computers, but it’s still a process, and you still have to put out a good product.”

The REB initiative, funded with $1.2 million from the state’s YouthWorks program, will give about 900 young people — ages 14 to 21, but mostly 16 to 18 — the opportunity to work at private-sector businesses and community organizations for six weeks this summer, earning minimum wage. Now in its 12th year, the program also provides 15 hours of workplace-readiness skills and safety training.

“We’re trying to have the youth working in the kind of jobs that could be the start of a career pathway,” said Kathryn Kirby, REB’s manager of Youth Employment and Workforce Programs. “We focus on making sure summer employment will be a quality work experience where they develop skills to lead them to self-sufficiency.”

That includes a wide range of job sites, from day-care centers and summer camps to corporate offices and nonprofits; from landscaping companies and media outlets to, well, a candle manufacturer.

“We’re looking for all kinds of employers to step up and help out a young person. It can’t be any job — it has to be position where the young person is supervised, in a safe working environment, Cruise went on, adding that the 15 hours of training delves into the soft skills employers are looking for, like communication and team-building, and that will help the participants be successful in future workplace environments.

Most of the businesses taking part — at no cost to their own bottom line, thanks to the YouthWorks funds — are in the private sector, REB Executive Director David Cruise said. “We’re not opposed to working with municipalities and nonprofits, but we’re more involved in the private-sector companies, because we think the career pathways are a little clearer.”

Kathryn Kirby says the summer jobs offered through REB and YouthWorks

Kathryn Kirby says the summer jobs offered through REB and YouthWorks are the kinds of opportunities that could be the start of a career pathway.

And make no mistake — these teens are, indeed, getting an up-close look at potential careers, not just summer jobs.

Where Are the Jobs?

For example, Mercy Medical Center took on eight teenage interns last summer who had trained as peer advocates during the school year at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, part of Trinity Health’s Transforming Communities Initiative (TCI).

Ten more from the MLK program will follow this summer, in addition to several coming over as part of the REB program, said Maggie Whitten, TCI program director in the hospital’s Community Health Department.

“They worked in a variety of departments based on their interests and which departments had the greatest availability for interns,” she said of last year’s crop, with the assignments ranging from the Hearing Center to Nursing Education; from the Sister Caritas Cancer Center to Marketing.

The jobs weren’t trivial; in the Pathology Lab, Danielle Stewart and Michaela Lopez attended medical lectures, processed samples, and were given homework each night. The experience was so impactful that one of them decided not to pursue a culinary degree in college and instead is looking into nursing school.

“They all had these interests to begin with, so they were good matches, but their mentors helped them identify what they needed to know to pursue it further,” Whitten said, adding that the summer-jobs program also gave these teens the kind of foot-in-the-door internship often reserved for relatives of employees.

“It also exposes them to careers they may not even know about,” she went on. “When most young people think about a hospital, they think of nurses and doctors, and they don’t realize there are hundreds of jobs here.”

Giving kids exposure to career pathways is one of the REB program’s strong suits, but, in reality, far fewer teenagers are working paid jobs during the summer. According to Census data, the percentage of 16- to 19- year-olds who were employed each July remained relatively stable, around 55% throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. By the mid-2010s, fewer than 35% were.

Part of the change is a shift in demographics in some jobs. Again, according to Census data, in 1992 the median age of a food-service worker was 26, and only 21.5% were older than 40. Currently, the median age is 28, and about 27% are over 40.

According to a report in the Atlantic, the rise of low-skill immigration in the last few decades has created more competition for the sort of jobs that teenagers used to do, like grocery-store cashiers, restaurant servers, and retail salespeople. At the same time, older Americans are staying in the workforce longer than ever, and many of them wind down their careers in the kind of jobs teenagers used to grab during the summer.

Another factor, however, speaks to teenagers getting serious about their future career, just in a different way. The percentage of 16- to-19-year-olds enrolled in summer school — not remedial work, but extra, often college-preparatory work — has tripled in the last 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Whatever the reasons for the decline in youth employment, teenagers who do want to work over the summer often struggle to find jobs; even rarer are the kind of jobs that make them think about their future, rather than just doing busywork between paychecks.

“It has always been our feeling that college kids need this experience as well,” Cruise said, “but for a high-school student, this exposure may be the thing that inspires them to continue their education. Maybe they wouldn’t sense that as clearly if they didn’t have this opportunity.”

In some cases, Kirby said, the teenagers make such a strong impression over the six weeks that the employer wants to bring them back the following summer, or even part-time during the school year.

“That’s why we say to these young people, ‘when you get this opportunity, you really have to seize it. If you do a good job, the employer may hire you, and you’ll have permanent employment and a job to go to after school.”

Just as valuable is the mentoring that the employers in the REB program are asked to provide, Cruise added.

“They might talk about a potential career path with that company, or encourage them to go on to school if that’s what’s required in order to be hired on a full-time basis,” he explained. “This summer job might potentially be that job that triggers where their educational pathway goes. It can have an impact on far beyond the six weeks they’ll be working with them.”

Two-way Street

Conversely, the participating employers say they gain, something, too, in the energy, perspective, and skills (often technological) that young people bring to the table.

Plus, Cruise said, “it really does add value because they can do things that may have fallen to another employee — like filing and basic computer work — so that other employee can make better use of his or her time.”

He admitted, as Whitten noted, that summer openings for young people at various companies are often filled by employees’ sons, daughters, nieces and nephews. But there’s value in that, too, because if the experience opens employers’ eyes to the value of hiring young people, maybe they’ll be willing to look outside for more such help.

In Shibley’s case, he’s interested in what his yearly cohort thinks about potential new products, knowing their age group will eventually be his customers. “Their tastes help us in developing some of the fragrances — what trendy things they would like instead of the traditional country fragrances. Tastes are constantly changing.”

Managing teenagers — both through YouthWorks and another program through which young people with Down syndrome and other special needs work at Pilgrim Candle — has also spurred changes in operations.

Jerry Moore III, another of Mercy Medical Center’s summer interns, leads U.S. Sen. Ed Markey on a tour of the hospital.

Jerry Moore III, another of Mercy Medical Center’s summer interns, leads U.S. Sen. Ed Markey on a tour of the hospital.

“It’s kind of opened up our eyes about how we could streamline some of our processes and make it simpler for some of the workers,” he said. “And it’s been really gratifying to see these kids develop and learn some skills, especially kids with special needs. It’s been a good experience, and I would definitely recommend it to other companies.”

Kirby hopes testimonies like that persuade more employers to get involved in the summer-jobs program, or, better yet, consider hiring young people on their own.

“We definitely need more support,” he said. “We have thousands of applicants, and 900 kids will be the lucky ones to secure work through this program. The rest are left to fend for themselves and find a job on their own.”

Cruise said teenagers who work during the summer reap benefits beyond pay, job skills, and career readiness. “I think the program plays a significant role in increasing young people’s self-confidence and self-esteem. That’s a critical part of the outcome they get from this experience. Over time, it’s good for kids, good for families, and hopefully good for the communities they live in.”

Kirby agreed. “Some are so shy when they come in, but they just blossom under the program. That happens a lot,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to learn about themselves, to be mentored and build skills, and to network in the community and build relationships.”

Relationships that, in many cases, will become the first step toward a career that lasts well beyond the summer.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Addressing a ‘New Norm’

Amy Cuddy

Amy Cuddy addresses the audience of more than 1,400 people at Bay Path University’s Women’s Leadership Conference.

“We’re starting to see civility as a luxury.” That was how social psychologist, author, and educator Amy Cuddy described a changed landscape that has perpetuated a culture of adult bullying, not just on social media but offline as well. As she talked about this subject at Bay Path University’s recent Women’s Leadership Conference, she was speaking from experience — she has been savaged on social media as her research on the broad subject of ‘power posing’ has come into question and doubt. But she said she now has plenty of company, and the trend is disturbing on many levels.

At the point in her talk when the subject turned to the now-famous “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street, Amy Cuddy’s voice started to crack slightly.

It wouldn’t be the last time, either, but we’ll get back to that later.

The images of the statue — and there were many in Cuddy’s presentation that kicked off Bay Path University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference on April 6 — were poignant on many levels. On the surface, they brought a new dimension to Cuddy’s comments — not to mention her substantial volume of research — on the subject of body language (non-verbal communication) and, more specifically, the effects of ‘power posing.’

Indeed, Cuddy became famous in her field, social psychology, for a 2010 study that found that such posing — raising one’s arms above one’s head as a triumphant athlete might, or assuming the ‘Wonder Woman hands on hip look,’ for example — not only elicited feelings of power from those who did so, but they also raised testosterone levels and lowered stress levels as well.

As she placed images of women and especially young girls replicating the “Fearless Girl” stance on the massive screens in the exhibition hall at the MassMutual Center, Cuddy talked about how striking that defiant, ‘staring-down-the-charging-bull’ pose and others designed to convey confidence but not arrogance, can change the course of everything from an upcoming job interview to a career to a life.

But Cuddy has given that talk countless times before. It’s the one where she suggests that going into a bathroom stall prior to an interview or important meeting and power posing might better prepare the individual for what will come next — a talk that has elicited cheers as well as tears.

On this stage and on this morning, however, Cuddy would delve into some new material. And she admitted afterward that it took 18 months, by her estimates, to work up the courage to do so.

“I’ve been avoiding talking about it publicly because when you call out your bullies you’re likely to experience backlash, because they hate that,” said Cuddy as she referenced what has happened to her over the past several years as the results of that 2010 study came under withering public scrutiny and she suffered often very personal attacks on social media. “I’m still terrified.”

Cuddy told her audience that what’s transpired is not a case of a researcher and rising star within the field of social psychology having skin too thin to handle what has become a changed landscape when it comes to challenges to research and published papers. And it’s not an effort to deflect attention away from mounting evidence that there are no hormonal effects from power posing.

Instead, it’s adult bullying in its purest form and an example of what’s going on in many fields and society in general. And those sentiments are backed up by these comments given by one of Cuddy’s peers to the New York Times for a piece published last fall titled “When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy.”

“Amy has been the target of mockery and meanness on Facebook, on Twitter, and blog posts,” Jay Van Bavel, a social psychologist from New York University told the Times. “I feel like, wow, I have never seen that in science … I’ve never seen public humiliation like that.”

The low point, Cuddy said, came when a blogger whom she described as her “main bully” goaded her collaborator on the 2010 study into publicly distancing herself from their work.

“That’s one of the most effective bully moves — to get the people closest to you to turn on you — and that’s when I felt hopeless,” she told BusinessWest after her talk, adding that she no longer has such feelings and is in a better place overall because of a solid support network but also a deep belief in her work and her message.

“I talk often about believing in yourself and buying your own story — and I do,” she said. “I fully, 100% believe in my message, and that kept me afloat.”

And this brings us back to “Fearless Girl,” which is power posing personified. Only Cuddy calls it the “Brave Girl, because no one is fearless.”

And bravery is certainly one of the traits she said will be needed to stem a tide of uncivility and bullying on the Internet and in society in general, and change what has become in many ways a new norm — subject matter that constitutes the main thrust of Cuddy’s latest book, Bullies, Bystanders, and Bravehearts due out in 2020.

“Bravery is not glorious,” she said when asked how society might change the norm. “The first step is recognizing that bravery is not just running into a burning building to save lives; bravery often involves standing up to people in these social situations and putting your own relationships at risk.”

For this issue, BusinessWest took in Cuddy’s presentation and then talked with her about adult bullying and how the current landscape might be changed.

Bully Pulpit

It wasn’t long after the 2010 study on power posing was published that Cuddy started achieving something approaching rock-star status in the field of social psychology, which doesn’t have many of those.

The study was published in the prestigious journal Psychological Science and covered by a host of national news outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the Guardian, Wired, Fast Company, and others.

In 2012, she gave a TED talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” that has been viewed more than 40 million times and is the second-most-viewed TED talk of all time. She was awarded a faculty position at Harvard, and there were countless appearances on television and lucrative speaking appearances around the globe. Her first book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, became a New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and Globe and Mail bestseller.

And then?

Let’s just say that Cuddy became — and probably because of all that fame and everything that came with it — perhaps the most visible target within what’s been called a methodological-reform movement and replication crisis that has shaken up the field as it has raised questions about the reliability of vast amounts of research within the broad realm of social psychology.

Amy Cuddy, center, with Bay Path University President Carol Leary, left, and Bay Path student Kaitlyn Leibowitz

Amy Cuddy, center, with Bay Path University President Carol Leary, left, and Bay Path student Kaitlyn Leibowitz, Cuddy’s assistant for the day.

To make a rather long story somewhat short, the 2010 study on power posing came under intense scrutiny, and its results, specifically those related to hormonal, or ‘downsteam’ effects — evidence that such posing increased testosterone levels and reduced cortisol levels (which are associated with stress) — could not be replicated in many cases.

Cuddy eventually became a punching bag for a number of influential bloggers, including Andrew Gelman, a professor of Statistics and Political Science at Columbia. While Cuddy certainly wasn’t the only researcher to come under scrutiny, she became almost an obsession for him.

Gelman would eventually post a challenge to Dana Carney, Cuddy’s collaborator in the 2010 study, asking her, “when people screw up or cheat in their research, what do their collaborators say?”

Carney would respond, a day or so later, with a post to her website that said, among other things, “I do not believe that power-pose effects are real” and “I discourage others from studying power poses.”

This was that low point Cuddy described earlier, but overall, she endured more than two years of unrelenting scrutiny and criticism that significantly impacted her health — her weight dropped to 100 pounds at one point — and prompted her at times to stop taking phone calls and move almost completely offline.

Things became so bad that Cuddy, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident the summer after her sophomore year in college and wasn’t able to return to school until four years after that mishap, told the audience of more than 1,400 people that she would rather go through that experience again than be subjected to what she went through between 2015 and 2017, and is still experiencing today on some levels.

As she stood on that stage at the MassMutual Center, Cuddy made it clear that she stands by her work on the subject of power posing and reiterated that she doesn’t have any real problem with people questioning or trying to replicate her research.

But she does have a problem with bullying, which is the only way she can describe what she’s been subjected to. And she has taken her own experiences and extrapolated them out over society in general. This new course of study, if you will, led to the book Bullies, Bystanders, and Bravehearts, three constituencies she described in great detail for her audience as part of a call to arms of sorts on the subject of adult bullying.

Taking a Stand

As she talked about her experiences and adult bullying in general, and became emotional at times as she did so, Cuddy, who never identified anyone by name, put up on screen the one- sentence reply that the blogger Gelman gave the New York Times reporter who wrote the aforementioned piece on Cuddy when she asked if Gelman would consider meeting with Cuddy to hash out their differences: “I don’t like interpersonal conflict.”

And she left it there for a while to let it sink in as she intimated that such sentiments are just one of many factors contributing to an environment that is fast becoming untenable and is ruining lives.

“Sticks and stones … we can survive that,” she told her audience. “Name calling in this domain, among adults — we can’t. It’s killing people; it’s leading to all kinds of problems.

“We’re starting to see civility as a luxury,” she went on. “And that means we’re in trouble. We’re seeing this in social media, but what’s happening is that this same social media behavior is being played out offline as well, because it’s become normalized to talk to each other with disgust and contempt and moral outrage.

“It’s so common that now we think that’s the norm,” she continued. “We think it’s OK to treat people that way. And by directing all of our anxieties about bullying to our kids, we avoid talking about the elephant in the room, which is bullying among adults. We are getting it wrong.”

In an interview after her presentation, Cuddy acknowledgd that adult bullying is certainly nothing new — “we’ve been shunning people for thousands of years” — but social media has changed the landscape and perpetuated the practice.

“Social media has given us the perception that bullying is normative,” she explained, “because everyone can see all these interactions, and because bullies are louder and more prolific than non-bullies. They are highly motivated by their sense of outrage and by their sense of resentment.”

Elaborating, she said that, while researchers have not yet been able to put a number to it, anecdotal evidence on moral-outrage triggers suggests that social media has brought out bullying in more people because of the way it makes such behavior appear normal and, in many respects, accepted.

“Our behavior is largely based on what we perceive other people to be doing — it’s based on social norms,” she told BusinessWest. “When you see the Internet littered with this kind of bullying trash, you begin to believe that this is normal behavior, and you start to behave in a way that’s similar.”

She’s not sure when it all started, but she said things turned sharply south just over a decade ago, and the first real wave came in the form of a tsunami crashing down on women in the IT field.

“And it was absolutely brutal,” she noted. “Women left the field because they were receiving death and rape threats all the time. It started there because tech people knew how to use the Internet, so they weaponized it pretty quickly, and I think they were very effective at doing that.

“If that had not happened, I’m not sure we’d be where we are,” she went on. “People started following that; it became a model of how you can bully someone into submission or exile, and it was nasty, and it was effective.”

How can society stop this trend of bullying people into submission?

Perhaps the most important step is for bystanders to become bravehearts and stand up to the bullies, she said, straining to hold back tears as she talked about how the social-psychology community, her peers, essentially stood and watched as she was pilloried on social media, mostly, if not entirely, out of fear that the same would happen to them.

“What hurt me the most was the inaction of bystanders,” she told her audience, stopping for a minute to gather herself. “This was a community I loved; I got e-mails all the time from people saying, ‘I’m really sorry about what’s happening to you — I wish I could do something, but I don’t want them to attack me.’

“Don’t ever say that to someone who’s being bullied,” she went on. “It’s not supportive, and it was horrifying and chilling to see people on the sidelines watching this happen and shutting up and doing nothing. I became the butt of jokes — there was an April Fools Day joke about me that circulated like crazy — and people were talking about me like I wasn’t human. It was vicious and relentless.”

Perhaps even more chilling is that this is happening to growing numbers of people, said Cuddy, adding that, as she researched the subject, she became increasingly alarmed at just how common it was.

Progress will come only when the bystanders find the courage to get off the sidelines, hold bullies accountable, and eventually change the norm.

Posing a Question

Cuddy has reached a point where she has altered her thinking on the hormonal effects of power posing. Those sentiments came after several studies failed to replicate the results of the 2010 study.

But she is still a firm believer in power posing and its ability to positively influence moods and emotions. That was obvious from her comments to those in attendance at the women’s conference.

Also obvious are her views on adult bullying, society’s new norm, and what it means moving forward.

She suspects that maybe the worst is over for her, although what has happened will leave a lasting mark. Meanwhile, she suspects that the bullies will simply move on to a new target, which is equally distressing.

As she wrapped up her talk at the women’s conference, she put on the screen that famous quote from the poet Maya Angelou: “Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.”

She didn’t put it there as an endorsement for power posing. Instead, it was meant to encourage the bystanders, get them off the sidelines, and stare down the bullies.

And that’s another reason the “Fearless Girl” statue carries such importance and poignancy in this presentation.

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

Cover Story Golf Preview Sections

Grinding It Out

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

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

With the accent on ‘at least.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The back wall of Dave Fleury’s office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, there’s diversification.

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

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

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

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

Setting a New Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenic Waubeeka Golf Club in Wlliamstown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until it wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Rough Estimates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Course Correction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education Sections

Screen Test

Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says online education is a natural outgrowth of Bay Path’s efforts to serve non-traditional students.

This year marks the 15th consecutive year of growth in what’s known as online, or distance, learning at U.S. colleges and universities. But a newer trend is seeing students fresh out of high school — not just the working adults that have dominated the online-learning world — logging on as well. At a time of changing demographics in higher education, area schools that have embraced the distance model simply say they’re meeting students where they want to be.

Before online college courses were a thing — heck, before ‘online’ was a thing — attending college was tougher for some than others, and for many, finding a path to a degree while working and raising a family was too high a scheduling hurdle.

Amanda Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College (TAWC) at Bay Path University, said Bay Path has long been responsive to that need — specifically, the Saturday programs it started offering in 1999 for students who had work or family responsibilities during the week.

“It was intended to be an additional entry point to higher education, for students who didn’t enroll right after high school, or tried to go to another college but never actually completed,” she told BusinessWest. “The options at the time — evening programs and traditional semester-based models — were not conducive to working adults supporting a family.”

Around 2007, she went on, the concept of online learning (also known as distance learning) started to gain traction, and when Bay Path made forays in that direction, feedback was positive. The American Women’s College — which offers a host of online degree programs, from accounting to criminal justice; from child psychology to food science and safety — was founded in 2013 with a mission to expand access to higher education to working women who do not have a college degree.

“You can manage your own time and work on your own schedule, as opposed to trying to keep to a certain schedule every week. It gives you that flexibility,” Gould noted.

Online classes allow students to engage in classroom activity — much of which takes place on forums and discussion boards — on their own schedule. And that ‘additional entry point’ isn’t just anecdotal: 70% percent of TAWC students are first-generation college attendees, one-third are single mothers, and more than half are Pell-eligible, which speaks to economic need.

At American International College (AIC), a host of degree programs in the health sciences — a master’s degree in nursing, an RN-to-BSN program, and an occupational therapy doctorate, to name a few — meet similar scheduling needs, particularly for professionals already working in those fields who seek advanced degrees without having take time away from work.

“Obviously, the clinical piece has to be on the ground, but all the didactic coursework occurs online,” said Cesarina Thompson, dean of AIC’s School of Health Sciences.

Karin Moyano Camihort, dean of Online Programs at Holyoke Community College (HCC), said her department understands the importance of work, family, and other commitments, and the college’s online degree and certificate programs make it easier for busy people to earn a degree without sacrificing priorities.

“Our students choose online for a variety of reasons,” she told BusinessWest. “Some are working adults that are looking for flexibility; some are college students from other institutions that join our summer or accelerated courses, and some are high-school students starting their college experience ahead of schedule.”

HCC’s three most popular degrees — business administration, liberal arts, and criminal justice — can all be completed fully online, on campus, or both, by taking some courses online and some on campus. “Plus, our partnerships with four-year colleges and universities make transfer easier,” she noted.

In short, online learning at the college level is expanding at a rapid rate, both locally and nationally — and, increasingly, it’s more than just working adults logging on.

Clicking with the Public

In the 2017 study “Tracking Distance Education in the United States,” the Babson Survey Research Group revealed that online student enrollments increased for the 14th straight year in 2016-17, with more than 31% of all college students taking at least one distance-education course — and all evidence suggests the uptick has continued this year.

“The growth of distance enrollments has been relentless,” wrote study co-author Julia Seaman, research director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “They have gone up when the economy was expanding, when the economy was shrinking, when overall enrollments were growing, and now when overall enrollments are shrinking.”

Public institutions command the largest portion of distance-education students, with 67.8% of all students studying online. And a handful of colleges and universities have broadly embraced the model, with 5% of institutions accounting for almost half of all distance-education students.

The study also showed that distance learning doesn’t necessarily mean actual distance: 52.8% of all students who took at least one online course also took a course on-campus, and 56.1% of those who took only online courses reside in the same state as the institution at which they are enrolled. Fewer than 1% of all distance students are located outside the U.S.

“Online has really grown quite a bit over the years and become very sophisticated in how the whole learning experience is managed,” Thompson said, explaining that AIC uses a platform called Blackboard, one of several management systems in use today, that offers multiple ways for professors and students to interact online, from message boards to videoconferencing. “It can be asynchronous, with students logging in whenever they want to, and can also be arranged as a synchronous experience, with all students online at a certain time.”

Cesarina Thompson

Cesarina Thompson says AIC’s online programs offer opportunities for face-to-face interaction, but enough tools that those meetings aren’t always necessary.

For those who might wonder how engaged students are, that’s something instructors can easily track.

“The technology is advanced nowadays, and you really can engage students much more frequently; in an online learning environment, I might say to a student, ‘I want to see you’re logging in at least twice a week and entering responses to these questions,’” she explained. “In a classroom setting, a student can stand in the shadows and never say a word, but with analytics, we who know who’s logging in, when, and how many times.”

Gould said classes at TAWC are run in a cohort model, meaning the students navigate through the courses together, although they don’t necessarily have to be online at the same time. Often, the lecture-hall experience is replaced by reading offline, while online ‘classroom’ time is spent on projects, group work, active learning, and lab-based activities.

However, this model not always the easiest option, she said.

“What people don’t realize is the time-management piece is actually very tricky,” she noted. “It takes a lot of self-motivation and a certain skill set to be able to block out times. Some folks end up doing a lot of work when they’re exhausted, late in the evening. So, I don’t think it’s easy by any means, but it appeals to people who want to feel in control of when they work.”

Meanwhile, recognizing that person-to-person interaction is a big part of college life, Bay Path has created a series of social-engagement opportunities for its online students, from Facebook communities to support from peer mentors who can answer questions and provide feedback, to national learning communities online, where students learn about organizations in their field, job postings, and area events. “We want to keep them engaged as much as possible both inside and outside the classroom.”

Moyano Camihort said HCC offers fellowship programs for faculty where they enhance their online-instruction skills and share best practices.

“Our online faculty also teach on campus, so there is a real connection to our college,” she went on. “We have a brick-and-mortar building. We also have a dynamic and innovative online learning environment where students connect with instructors and peers, access lectures and materials, submit assignments, work in groups, and learn online.”

The results, she went on, are evident in enrollment figures — one-third of all credits currently available at HCC are online. “Our students prefer online courses, and even though they will tell you that our courses are challenging, they continue to choose online.”

Virtual Revolution

The flip side, of course, is the effect on colleges when it comes to on-campus enrollment, and the long-term impacts remain unclear. According to the Babson study, the number of students studying on a campus dropped by almost 1.2 million, or 6.4%, between 2012 and 2016.

Jeff Seaman, co-director of Babson and a co-author of the study, expects this trend to persist in 2018 and beyond. He also believes the number of students who only take on-campus courses will probably keep dropping, in part because more students are combining online and in-person learning.

Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, says online degree programs in 2018 will increase their use of modern technologies to enhance their curriculums, including a move toward virtual and augmented reality, which can allow students to learn in simulated environments, and remote technologies, such as videoconferencing and robotic telepresence, to allow for more face-to-face interaction among students and instructors.

At the American Women’s College, the demographics still largely favor a mix of working mothers and professionals who want to advance in their careers, but there has also been an increase in students under age 25, who now account for 10% of online enrollment.

“I do think we’re going to see a shift in higher-education enrollment for these types of alternative models, for a number of reasons,” Gould said. “Financially, the residential experience is becoming outpriced for a number of students. I think we’ll see younger working students who are juggling school and life, and as we see future generations becoming college-ready, expectations around technology and virtual engagement will only be on the rise.

“I think,” she went on, “we are only going to see continuous, growing demand for online options.”

Thompson agreed that online courses aren’t limited to working adults, and some younger students prefer a blended model, mixing online with traditional or hybrid courses, the latter being programs that require some physical classroom time amid the online coursework.

“We’re online, but we still draw from a local market, so there’s still the possibility of face-to-face contact between faculty and students,” she said. “If they want to stop by and have a meeting, we can do that, but there are enough tools online that it’s not always necessary.”

One positive for colleges, she noted, is that, at a time when the region’s demographics are shifting older, the ability to capture working adults will be a boon for colleges that embrace online and distance models.

“With an aging population, a decline in birth rates, and an outmigration to other states, it’s going to be a challenge for institutions of higher education going forward,” she said. “With a declining high-school-graduate population, we have to adapt to other populations who may not be able to make it to class as a full-time student — and utilizing online and other flexible modes of delivery is certainly one way to do that.”

It’s all about adapting to a 21st-century student body, Gould said, that is far more comfortable with high-tech solutions than previous generations.

“Students are becoming so dependent on technology to do so much in their lives, but trying to figure out how to fit all those things together is not an easy task,” she said. “It takes time to figure out, and it takes finances. It’s expensive to integrate technology; it’s not a cheap pursuit if you want to do it well. But, from a mission perspective, that’s the only way to do it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Hive of Activity

Mary Winzer Canning, owner of Follow the Honey.

Mary Winzer Canning, owner of Follow the Honey.

The movement toward innovation centers and collaborative maker spaces might be hot right now across Western Mass., but the Orange Innovation Center was on the cutting edge when it opened 20 years ago in this small Franklin County town. Under its current ownership, the complex has doubled its tenant roster over the past five years, in turn boosting perhaps its greatest calling card — the built-in support of a business community invested in seeing each other succeed.

Mary Winzer Canning characterizes her business, Follow the Honey, as a “human-rights honey company” that creates products with honey sourced from beekeepers and small-batch producers around the world. So she knows a little something about bees — and their habitats.

“No bee in isolation is effective because it operates as a superorganism,” she explained. “It’s about what’s best for the whole.”

The same can be said for the Orange Innovation Center (OIC) and the 48 businesses that call the complex — nestled in the woods in this Franklin County town of 4,500 residents — home.

“It’s a hive,” Winzer Canning said. “There’s a sense of egalitarianism here, where everyone is really rolling together. We want this to be a place where people are not in their silos. It’s the whole idea of having an open hive where everyone can learn from each other and help each other. It’s about giving; it’s about problem solving.”

And it’s about community, tenants repeatedly pointed out when BusinessWest spent the better part of a morning at the complex recently.

“I love that fact that I get to pamper the people with businesses here in the community, just building those bonds and really cross-advertising each other,” said Danalynn Stockwood, who owns the Fun Fancy Nails salon, just a quick walk down the hall from other personal-care businesses.

“I tell my customers, ‘hey, if you need your hair done or colored, we have a little salon right around the corner, and if you need a facial or waxing, go down the hall,’ and it’s just nice to have that support amongst each other,” she said. “We’re always saying, ‘hey, have you tried the Valley Farm Café?’ or ‘have you tried the gym?’ and ‘have you seen the honey?’ It’s just such a great family.”

Then-building owner Noel Vincent launched the Orange Innovation Center as a mixed-use destination 20 years ago, but occupancy really began to soar under its current owner, Jack Dunphy, who bought the complex in 2013 and has increased its tenant roster from 26 to 48.

“The mill owners had just left these abandoned buildings in the post-industrial era, so Noel started converting it into offices and multi-purpose suites,” said Brianna Drohen, the center’s development director. “He was actually a visionary; this is one of the first innovation centers in the state, if not the country.”

When Dunphy, who also owns Dunphy Real Estate, purchased the property, about 75,000 of its 128,000 square feet were rented, and he saw plenty of potential in the rest — but, more than that, an investment he could truly enjoy.

Brianna Drohen and Jack Dunphy

Brianna Drohen and Jack Dunphy have seen tenancy surge to nearly 50 businesses at the Orange Innovation Center.

“I met some of the tenants and saw a real sparkle in their eye and realized this could be fun,” he recalled. “And if you can do something fun and maybe make a little money along the way, that’s an exciting business venture — and it has been.”

The tenants, several of whom were enthusiastic about speaking with BusinessWest, range from a clinical psychologist to a photographer; from a career-services center to the Literacy Project, and even the Center for Human Development, which houses a branch on the ground floor.

“The kinds of businesses we concentrate on tend to be in the service industries, so they’re bringing in foot traffic — a brewery, a nail salon, a hair salon, a gym, a massage therapist, and there are also lot of professional offices. There’s a really healthy mix of businesses. And we’re strategic about who we let in here,” Drohen said, noting that she and Dunphy don’t allow competing businesses unless an existing tenant doesn’t mind.

“It’s about revenue,” she went on, “but at the end of the day, it’s more about growing this business community and having all the businesses be able to work with each other and sustain each other and support each other in any way they can.”

They certainly do, and in many ways, as we were quick to discover.

Food for Thought

Matt Buzzell has been in the food-service industry for almost a quarter-century, working in establishments in New York, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. He said he wouldn’t have recognized the potential of the OIC, where he opened Valley Farm Café in July, just by looking at the understated old mill.

“Driving by, you have no idea what’s going on. But this place has a heartbeat — there’s a pulse when you walk in the doors and look around and see these businesses … it’s very energizing.”

He was introduced to the center by Jay Sullivan and Sean Nolan, the proprietors of Honest Weight Artisan Beer, who gave him their spent grain to feed the hogs on his nearby farm. “I found out through them that this opportunity was going to come up — the previous café owner didn’t want to do it anymore — so, long story short, I got together with Bri, had a meeting, and proposed a business plan.”

It turned out to be a successful one; the enterprise — which serves up salads, sandwiches, Tex-Mex fare, smoothies, and more, with ingredients sourced from local farms — draws a long line during the lunch rush, and virtually everyone who spoke with BusinessWest mentioned the café, not just for the food, but for its role as a nexus for making connections and hanging out with other business owners.

“I believe in the economic-development renaissance going on in the area, and that’s what was attractive about coming here,” Buzzell said. “I’m very thankful for the reception I’ve received from the tenants, the sense of community — the support from them is very humbling.”

Carly Mongeau has worked in the hair-salon business all her professional life, mostly in the Worcester and Marlborough areas, but once she settled in Petersham, she fell in love with the Franklin County culture. She stumbled upon the Orange Innovation Center two years ago, and the timing wasn’t right, but when she took a second look last year, she couldn’t stop thinking about the potential. One of the newer tenants, she opened Salon Nouve in January.

“It’s a great opportunity for someone who’s starting a new business to have space versus having to find a whole building — it’s a little more affordable, and a great way to get started,” she explained.

That’s partly because the tenants, especially those in similar fields, not only patronize each other, but also create a one-stop shop of sorts, which they all benefit from.

“Around the corner is a nail salon and a skin-care business, so we’re a good trio,” Mongeau explained, noting that her last client that day, a business owner in Athol, had told her she couldn’t regularly get her nails and hair done if she didn’t have a place to schedule everything at once.

Meanwhile, she added, a handful of women business owners at the OIC meet regularly for lunch. “We all brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other. We’re all different businesses, but we all have common ground in one way or another.”

She also appreciates the way different business owners talk each other up to customers.

“I recommend people to Matt all the time, and Matt recommends people to me. They smell the food as they’re walking up and say, ‘that smells amazing,’ and I say, ‘you have to go check out Matt.’ Or, ‘now that you’re all beautiful, you’ll have to go stop and get a drink at Honest Weight.’ It’s a great one-stop shop, and that’s what most of my clients love — that they can come here and get everything taken care of in a very accessible way.”

Matt Buzzell has seen Valley Farm Café become a hub of sorts

Matt Buzzell has seen Valley Farm Café become a hub of sorts at the OIC, where small-business owners make connections over breakfast or lunch.

Phil Simon is one of the veteran tenants at the OIC, having headquartered his music booking and publicity company, Simon Says Booking, there for a dozen years. Meanwhile, his wife, Angel Simon, and her mother, Lynn England, operate Old 78 Clothing — which makes upcycled and refashioned music-festival wear — elsewhere in the building.

Simon, who previously lived in Oregon, ran his company — which represents about 20 bands doing up to 1,500 shows a year, in addition to representing venues and festivals — from Boston and then Greenfield before moving to Warwick and finding ideal office space in Orange.

“I was an early adopter; it was a matter of convenience for me,” he said, adding that he appreciates the balance between a quiet workspace and the ability to chat with other tenants when he wants to.

“Even though we have our privacy in our office, I could walk down and get something in the café, there’s a gym here, and we can interact with a variety of other local businesses and talk about the things we’re doing. We don’t have to be locked in our box all day long.”

Those neighbors aren’t just friends and sounding boards, however; they’re also resources. For example, he was able to locate a tow-behind generator, to be used at an event this summer, through another OIC tenant. “It’s not surprising; there’s quite a network going on here. We get people knocking on the door all the time.”

Launching an Idea

Like Simon, Alec MacLeod has been at the OIC for a long time; in fact, he was one of Vincent’s earliest tenants, running a wetlands and watershed consultancy. Today, he’s teaming up with Drohen on a project to turn 10,000 square feet in a currently unusable building in the complex into LaunchSpace, a ‘community workshop’ that will provide resources, equipment, training, and support to a broad spectrum of people.

To explain it, MacLeod broke down the endeavor into three tiers. First is a community-based set of shops with three rooms: an arts room for paper arts, fabric arts, pottery, etching, glass blowing, and photography; a large room entirely devoted to robotics and information technology; and a third room divided between metalworking and woodworking.

The second tier is an emphasis on workforce development and education, aimed at improving the employability and salary of members who may, for instance, learn how to operate CNC (computer numeric control) machinery, an important skill in manufacturing. MacLeod has reached out to both local manufacturers about what their workforce needs are, and the region’s colleges and universities about developing courses for the space.

The third tier is entrepreneurial support, he added. “If you would like to be a cabinetmaker or some other type of woodworker, for instance, but you don’t have $30,000 or the room at your own place to set up your own shop, you can buy an entrepreneurial membership here, month to month, and come use our equipment.”

He noted that members will also access storage, marketing services, help with writing a business plan, and the services of board members including two local credit-union representatives and the head of the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce. As small businesses develop, they may incubate into spaces at the OIC or, better yet, need more space out in the community.

Carly Mongeau, who loves the Franklin County lifestyle

Carly Mongeau, who loves the Franklin County lifestyle, found in the OIC an ideal spot to grow Salon Nouve.

“This is economic development at the most basic,” MacLeod said. “This is grass-roots, town-scale economic development without needing to invite Apple to build a big factory.”

Drohen noted that Jay Ash, the state’s secretary of Housing and Economic Development, supported a recent $250,000 MassDevelopment Collaborative Workspace Initiative grant to improve the LaunchSpace site, because Ash is a believer in what’s happening in this corner of Franklin County.

“He sees how one business owner, Jack, can host all these businesses, and the state sees this whole collaborative workspace as the new way of doing business. This is where people can grow and can incubate and collaborate.”

Dunphy envisions LaunchSpace as the sort of environment where a middle-schooler might work alongside an 80-year old on woodworking equipment. “There will be interaction that normally doesn’t happen in a community, where different people who wouldn’t otherwise associate with each other are suddenly working together on a project.”

That also, in a way, describes the entire ecosystem at the Innovation Center.

“We’re all here earning our own livings,” MacLeod said, “but when we meet in the café, we have conversations, and we talk about what’s going on — ‘how is your business going? How are you doing? What are the hard parts?’ — and we help each other out. It’s a business community, and it really does foster innovation.”

Bee Ambitious

In a sense, innovation has been happening at the OIC since it housed Minute Tapioca in the early days of the 20th century. It was a multi-use complex in the middle of the century, hosting a sewing company, a shoemaker, and a retail store, among other businesses, before the Bedroom Company, a furniture manufacturer, set up shop in the 1960s.

Today, it’s back to multi-use, but the original tapioca vat is still in the basement, too expensive to remove. On the roof is a 93-kilowatt solar array, with plans to install another on the building that will house LaunchSpace.

That combination of old and new, historic and cutting-edge, isn’t unlike what Adam Suzor brings to the OIC, running two separate businesses: his own information-technology outfit, Suzor Enterprises, LLC — he also maintains the Innovation Center’s Internet service — and a fitness center, where he has incorporated digital technology into the equipment and is gratified when senior citizens join Snapchat to check out the gym’s activities there.

Some business relationships, however, are strictly old-fashioned, such as the bartering that goes on; for example, the resident photographer recently paid for massage services with a photo session.

Meanwhile, Dunphy is emphasizing the complex’s natural surroundings, planning a shuttle service for people who want to kayak or canoe on Millers River, right outside the OIC’s back door. A system of hiking and bike trails, stretching to New Hampshire, is equally accessible.

“We’re trying to offer more amenities to encourage people to come here,” he said. “We put a shower in just for that reason — if you take a bike ride or go to the gym, and then have to go to a meeting.”

In short, it’s a place to enjoy being at work, grow a business, and, in many cases, outgrow the space and have to find other digs, as North Quabbin Food Co-op, which incubated at the Innovation Center, did when it changed its name to Quabbin Harvest and moved into a building in downtown Orange, a short walk up the road.

Stockwood, on the other hand, who lives in Athol and used to rent a booth at a nail salon in Fitchburg before finding the OIC, believes she’ll thrive there for the foreseeable future.

“I absolutely love being here. It’s a cozy atmosphere for my clients,” she said, adding that she maintains a ‘party room’ one door down, where girls and women can get together for baby showers, birthday parties, or other events.

“Everyone gets to paint their nails and do some artwork and have some fun,” she said, adding that “this is my haven. My 11-year-old says, ‘are you going up to your castle?’ I call it my getaway, my quiet space, and it’s just nice to have.”

Winzer Canning feels that way, too, knowing she can throw open her doors any time to make her quiet space a little more social. She operated a yoga studio at the OIC a decade ago and was happy to return to build her bee-based business.

“There’s definitely beauty in numbers; it builds morale. Just go into the hallway — it’s like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. There’s Matt, smoking his pork out back. There’s Shawn and Jay doing things with their hops, and there’s Brianna talking with the film crew down the hall. She’s the queen bee,” she said with a laugh.

“People are doing their own daily grind, but at the same time, you’re not working in isolation,” she went on. “It really is a hive where you can feel connected to something greater.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Sections

‘A Zealous Advocate’

Western New England University School of Law Dean Sudha Setty

Western New England University School of Law Dean Sudha Setty

Sudha Setty wasn’t sure where her initial interest in law would take her — she simply wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. Her current role as a professor certainly fits that bill, though it’s not a path she expected to take early on. Now, as she prepares to take over the dean’s chair at Western New England University School of Law, she’s ready to navigate a still-challenging climate for law schools and help other young people achieve their world-changing goals.

Sudha Setty entered the field of law wanting to make a difference, and she has — only, in much different ways than she first imagined.

So she understands the passion of students enrolling in law school today with the same passion and desire to change society for the better, but admitted that all lawyers make a difference, even if it’s for that one individual client struggling with a difficult time in their life.

“Most of the applications we’ve seen are focused on the idea of working on issues people really care about, and how being a lawyer will provide them with the tools to make a difference on a national or global scale, or even helping one person,” she told BusinessWest. “This is something you have to believe in if you want to be an effective lawyer — you have to be a zealous advocate, regardless of whom the client is.”

Starting in July, Setty will bring that spirit of advocacy to her new role as dean of the Western New England University School of Law after 12 years as a professor there. She will succeed Eric Gouvin, who is returning to the WNEU faculty after a five-year stint as dean.

“Professor Setty is a fine teacher and scholar who understands fully the challenges we currently face in higher education and those which we will continue to confront in these times of unprecedented change in legal education,” said WNEU President Anthony Caprio. “Her wisdom, intellect, training, experience, and energy will serve the law school — its faculty, staff, students, and alumni — the university, and the legal community very well for many years to come.”

Setty called the appointment an honor, noting that law schools are in a unique position to impact the future of a just society, and she has always seen WNEU as a place that launches the careers of thoughtful lawyers who work for the betterment of both their clients and society as a whole.

“I’m really looking forward to leading a group of faculty so dedicated,” she told BusinessWest. “They impress me on a regular basis, this community of teachers and scholars who really believe in what a law school does. I have mixed feelings cutting back on teaching, which I absolutely love. I’ll miss that aspect of being able to interact with students as a classroom teacher. But I’ll be seeking ways to connect with them and work with them and be an active part of the community that drew me to this law school in the first place.”

Courting Change

Setty planned to be a lawyer from her high-school days, through a combination of extracurricular experiences like mock trials and a deep interest in social justice. But her undergraduate work focused not on pre-law, but on the humanities, with the goal of honing her critical thinking and writing, skills that would serve her well no matter what field she worked in.

After graduating from Stanford University with a history degree, she taught overseas and contemplated different options. When she did return to the States and enrolled in Columbia Law School, it was with the belief that she’d build a career as a civil-rights advocate.

“I recognized the ability of lawyers to speak for people who are powerless, or to work as prosecutors seeking justice for victims. I had some ideas about what I wanted to do, but nothing concrete,” she said, adding that many people enter law school with a different career in mind than the one they eventually pursue.

Graduating with six figures of debt, however, changed Setty’s initial priorities a bit, and she went to work at a corporate firm in New York City, spending seven years at Davis Polk & Wardwell as a litigator in anti-trust disputes, securities fraud, and internal investigations of companies. Meanwhile, she took up extensive pro bono work litigating federal civil-rights cases and mentoring city high-school students.

“I had never envisioned myself doing these various aspects of corporate litigation, but I really appreciated my time at the firm,” she said. “I not only gained tremendous skills, but I was working with people who were really top-notch in terms of demanding critical thinking in representing clients.”

law schools are still challenged by depressed enrollment

Sudha Setty’s promotion comes at a time when law schools are still challenged by depressed enrollment, but there are signs the trend might be turning a corner.

Moreover, she was able to repay her law-school debts, which got her thinking about what the next phase of her career might be, and what options made sense.

“Many friends and mentors at Columbia encouraged me to think about teaching and the idea of an academic career,” she recalled. The interview process for jobs was eye-opening, and during a visit to WNEU, she was impressed with what Gouvin has called “student-centered professional education.”

“During the interview process, you see different approaches to legal education. As a student, you only see where you go to school as evidence of what a law school can be like,” she said, noting that she was struck by how friendly the WNEU professors were and how openly they interacted with students outside of class. “That was not my experience at law school, and I found it very appealing, and a selling point for coming here.”

Setty joined the faculty in 2006, eventually serving as professor of Law and associate dean for Faculty Development and Intellectual Life. In the latter role, one goal has been to improve the law school’s scholarly profile, both by helping colleagues to publicize the research they publish, and through workshop exchanges with other regional law schools to present scholarship to each other and get feedback to improve it. “All these help improve the profile of the law school and add vibrancy to the intellectual life at Western New England.”

As an active scholar herself in the areas of comparative law, rule of law, and national security, she recently published a study called “National Security Secrecy: Comparative Effects on Democracy and the Rule of Law.”

“Through the Bush and Obama administrations, I’ve focused on the notion that we don’t have enough institutional accountability,” she explained. “When it comes to national-security matters, both administrations kept telling us, ‘we know what we’re doing.’ My argument is that we need more accountability measures. Obviously, we don’t want to have classified information thrown out there, but we need the power to push back against the executive branch. We’ve set up a system where the president gets to make all these decisions without oversight, and we’ve been willing to accept that with the last two presidents.”

Some of those same people who accepted that paradigm are worried now that the power rests in the hands of a president who can often seem, well, erratic.

“The thing about setting up systems is they apply to whoever is in office. That’s the situation we’ve created,” she said. “I view many things happening under this administration as unsurprising. But if I can win more people to my views for the long term, and we get better institutional controls in place, that would be great. We’ll see what happens.”

Setty has received numerous awards for her work, including the Tapping Reeve Legal Educator Award from the Connecticut Bar Assoc. and two Western New England University School of Law Professor of the Year honors. She co-founded the School of Law’s Color of Law Roundtable speaker series, bringing attorneys and judges of color to campus to speak about their experiences and career paths. She also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of National Security Law and Policy, the executive committee of the American Society of Comparative Law, and was a Fulbright senior specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law.

Making a Case

Even as she amassed those accomplishments and began taking on more administrative responsibility over the past few years, Setty never thought about a deanship at WNEU, simply because Gouvin was entrenched there and doing a solid job. But when he decided to return to the classroom full-time, Setty was approached by several colleagues about the position.

“They said, ‘we’d really like you to apply for this position; you’d be great.’ I gave it a lot of thought, because taking on the responsibilities of a deanship would be a big shift, but at the same time, taking on this responsibility at a school I know well, a place I love, is an exciting opportunity.”

The school conducted its internal search before looking outward, and Setty found strong support through the entire process. But she knows the job won’t be easy. Nationally, law-school enrollment plummeted by nearly half between 2003 and 2014, due in part to a declining job market for lawyers, one exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis. By 2012, graduates were finding it very difficult to secure positions right out of school, and that impacted interest in the field.

“The last few years have been very challenging for law schools everywhere,” Setty noted. “They’ve had to examine their budgets and think hard about the choices they’ve been making. In some senses, I think Western New England has been fortunate. We’ve been careful with financial stewardship such that we weren’t trying to expand too very quickly, even when we had very large enrollments.”

Part of WNEU’s strategy focused on giving students more return on investment, including a tuition freeze, instituted during the 2013-14 school year and extending through 2017-18. With the lowered revenues, the school had to keep a close eye on expenses, and it was able to shrink staff through retirements, while avoiding debt from costly capital improvements.

“When times were hard, we had the ability to contract our student body and not have the financial hit be as bad as it could have been, because of our fiscal stewardship and a very careful hand on the budget,” Setty explained. “That’s not to say it has been easy — we’ve seen a lot of colleagues, wonderful teachers, retire and not be replaced, but with the student body shrinking, we could give them the same type of education, offer the same courses, with a smaller cohort of faculty.”

However, she said, an uptick in applications nationally — between 8% and 10%, similar to what WNEU is seeing — is spurring some cautious optimism in law-school leaders, she said, that the field may be turning a corner. “The landscape looks much brighter than it has for a number of years.”

Western New England also benefits from its position as the only accredited law school in the Commonwealth west of Greater Boston, which ensures a broad range of opportunities in the form of internships and clerkships.

The law school also continues to expand its use of clinics — in areas such as criminal defense, criminal prosecution, elder law, and family-law mediation — in which students blend classroom instruction with work on real cases, under the guidance of local attorneys. The vast majority of students get involved in clinics and externships, understanding the value of developing not only real-world legal knowledge, but the soft skills that will make them more employable.

They also provide a social benefit, Setty said, as in the case of the immigration clinic, which helps real-world clients navigate what can be a difficult path in today’s climate.

“It’s a win-win,” she told BusinessWest. “These individuals are in dire need of representation, and they get that representation, and the students receive invaluable experience they can take with them from these clinics.”

Closing Statement

Setty recalled her own clinic experiences from Columbia Law School — in landlord-tenant disputes and small-claims court — with gratitude. “The skills you develop from that aren’t necessarily transferable to the corporate-law environment or working as an academic, but it helps build who you are as a lawyer.”

The career Setty has built is, in many ways, different from the one she envisioned as a high-school student with a passion for social justice. But she’s happy to be impacting the lives of hundreds of students preparing to change the world — or, at least, make life a little better for a client in need.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2018 Difference Makers Event Galleries

A Look at the March 22 Event

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More than 375 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House on March 22 to honor BusinessWest’s 2018 Difference Makers. Launched in 2009, the program recognizes groups and individuals across the region that are making a difference in their community. The honorees this year were: Bob Bolduc, CEO of Pride Stores; Bob ‘the Bike Man’ Charland, founder of Pedal Thru Youth; Girls Inc. of Holyoke; Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin; Crystal Senter-Brown, author and adjunct faculty member at Bay Path University; and the WillPower Foundation.

Our 2018 Difference Makers:
Bob Bolduc, CEO of Pride Stores
Bob “The Bike Man” Charland, Founder of Pedal Thru Youth
Girls Inc. of Holyoke
Evan Plotkin, President of NAI Plotkin
Crystal Senter-Brown, Author & Adjunct Faculty at Bay Path University
WillPower Foundation

     

Photography by Leah Martin Photography

From event sponsor Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., from

From event sponsor Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., from left: Adam Kuzdzal, Deborah Penzias, Josh Messer, Julie Quink, Tom Pratt, Carol LaCour, Rebecca Connolly, Stephanie Tobin, and Sarah Lapolice.

From event sponsor Health New England

From event sponsor Health New England, from left: Peggy Garand, Vivian Williams, Brendaliz Torres, Sandra Ruiz, Ashley Allen, Matt Sturgis (guest of HNE), and Jessica Dupont.

Gina Kos (left) and Michelle Depelteau from event sponsor Sunshine Village.

Gina Kos (left) and Michelle Depelteau from event sponsor Sunshine Village.

Sr. Kathleen Popko (left) and Sr. Mary Caritas from the Sisters of Providence, a 2013 Difference Maker.

Sr. Kathleen Popko (left) and Sr. Mary Caritas from the Sisters of Providence, a 2013 Difference Maker.

Bob Bolduc, founder of Pride Stores and a 2018 Difference Maker.

Bob Bolduc, founder of Pride Stores and a 2018 Difference Maker.

From 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation, from left: Sabrina Aasheim, Jeff Palm, and Maria Burke.

From 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation, from left: Sabrina Aasheim, Jeff Palm, and Maria Burke.

From left: Kate Kane of Northwestern Mutual, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Nick LaPier, CPA and BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti.

From left: Kate Kane of Northwestern Mutual, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Nick LaPier, CPA and BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti.

Bill Ward, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Joanne Lyons

Bill Ward, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Joanne Lyons of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County.

Carol Leary, a 2016 Difference Maker, with 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin

Bay Path University President Carol Leary, a 2016 Difference Maker, with 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin.

Tricia Canavan of United Personnel with Scott Foster of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas and also Valley Venture Mentors, a 2016 Difference Maker.

Tricia Canavan of United Personnel with Scott Foster of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas and also Valley Venture Mentors, a 2016 Difference Maker.

Sandra Ruiz, left, and Brendaliz Torres, from event sponsor Health New England.

Sandra Ruiz, left, and Brendaliz Torres, from event sponsor Health New England.

Bob Bolduc, left, with Bob ‘the Bike Man’ Charland, two of 2018’s Difference Makers.

Bob Bolduc, left, with Bob ‘the Bike Man’ Charland, two of 2018’s Difference Makers.

Representing event sponsor Sunshine Village

Representing event sponsor Sunshine Village, front row: Gina Kos (left) and Michelle Depelteau; back row: Peter Benton, Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos, Kelly Chmura, Maria Laflamme, Amie Miarecki, Colleen Brosnan, and Michael Siddal.

Tanzania Cannon-Ecklerle from event sponsor Royal, P.C. with Joe Ecklerle of Pelican Products and Brew Practitioners.

Tanzania Cannon-Ecklerle from event sponsor Royal, P.C. with Joe Ecklerle of Pelican Products and Brew Practitioners.

From 2018 Difference Maker Girls Inc. of Holyoke

From 2018 Difference Maker Girls Inc. of Holyoke, from left: Johana (Stella’s mother), Stella, Haley, Kylie (Haley’s mother), Emhanie, Brandy Wilson, Becky Bouchard, and Suzanne Parker.

Staff from NAI Plotkin turn out to celebrate 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin.

Staff from NAI Plotkin turn out to celebrate 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin.

Patrick O’Neil and Katie O’Neil from 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation.

Patrick O’Neil and Katie O’Neil from 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation.

Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Crystal Senter-Brown, left, and Suzanne Parker

Crystal Senter-Brown, left, and Suzanne Parker of Girls Inc. in Holyoke, both 2018 Difference Makers.

Bob Perry, retired CPA, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Bob Perry, retired CPA, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Kim Lee of the Center for Human Development.

Kim Lee of the Center for Human Development.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, accepts his award as a 2018 Difference Maker.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, accepts his award as a 2018 Difference Maker.

Will Burke, the namesake and inspiration for the WillPower Foundation, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Will Burke, the namesake and inspiration for the WillPower Foundation, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Stella and Emhanie, two of the girls from Girls Inc. of Holyoke, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Stella and Emhanie, two of the girls from Girls Inc. of Holyoke, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Bob Charland celebrates his 2018 Difference Maker award with fiancée Joanne Hansmann.

Bob Charland celebrates his 2018 Difference Maker award with fiancée Joanne Hansmann.

George O’Brien hands the 2018 Difference Maker award to Crystal Senter-Brown

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien hands the 2018 Difference Maker award to Crystal Senter-Brown.

The WillPower Foundation

The WillPower Foundation’s Jeff Palm, Maria Burke, Sarah Aasheim, Will Burke, and Craig Burke accept their 2018 Difference Maker award from BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien (right).

There are no photos with those IDs or post 28004 does not have any attached images!

 

Cover Story

Recipe for Success

Caroline Pam and Tim Waite

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

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

Caroline Pam gave the jar a half-turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Waite

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

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

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

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

Not Lost in the Sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there was a reason for this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stirring Things Up

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

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

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

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

Among those he referenced were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there is a lot that goes into this process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurship Sections

The ‘Connections’ Business

Adam Rodrigues

Adam Rodrigues

Adam Rodrigues, manufacturing fellow with Greentown labs, says his job description can be smashed down to two words: Making matches. That would be matches between startups across the state, and especially those within the 413, and manufacturers in Western Mass. that can help bring a concept to the marketplace. He’s already made several of these matches and plans to make many more, connections that have a number of benefits — for the startups, the manufacturers, the region, and the state.

Adam Rodrigues has a nice, large office in Building 101 at the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College.

But it’s sparse, and, therefore, a little awkward.

“I’ve got about half a basketball court and just this little desk in the back right corner,” he said with an obvious nod to the office’s well-polished hardwood floors, a holdover from the days when this building was part of the Springfield Armory complex. “It’s a little weird.”

But it’s all good, because Rodrigues isn’t in his office or at that desk very much. No, he’s paid to be on the road, actually, and that’s where he spends almost all his time.

As a manufacturing fellow with Greentown Labs — or, to be more specific, Greentown Learning, a spinoff off the Somerville, Mass.-based clean-technology incubator — his job is to make meaningful connections between as many startups and Bay State-based manufacturers, and preferably Western Mass. manufacturers, as possible.

“I’m a matchmaker,” he said, adding that this role cannot be carried out effectively from Suite 32 in Building 101 — although he can do some paperwork there. The real work is carried on in a host of other settings. They range from area manufacturing facilities — he’s visited several dozen by his count — to various programs put on Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), SPARK, and other groups focused on encouraging and mentoring entrepreneurs; from structured meet-and-greet sessions between startups and manufacturers to what amount to organized road trips during which those incubating at Greentown get introduced to manufacturers who might make their concept a reality.

And there is much that goes into that last equation, he said, adding that a manufacturer can help an entrepreneur take an idea, maneuver it through the prototyping stage, make tweaks and improvements, and finally move it to the production phase.

And that’s exactly what’s happening — note the present tense — with a company called Quikcord, its principals, Matt Fioretti and Matt Adams, and East Longmeadow-based Toner Plastics.

Fioretti didn’t want to say much at all about his concept, intended for the military, until it reaches the market — “let’s just say it’s a product designed by a Marine for Marines” — but talked enthusiastically, and at length, about how Greentown’s efforts to match the company with Toner Plastics are helping to propel this venture forward.

“It’s had an unbelievable springboarding effect,” he explained. “Greentown was able to put us in front of the right people, and it just skyrocketed us to the point we’re at.

“And the best part about is that the amount of money we spent is next to nothing when you think of what we’ve accomplished,” he went on. “We’re two guys with an idea and no money, and we’re almost ready to do a short production run.”

Such a scenario, and such commentary, is exactly what several partners had in mind roughly 15 months ago when Greentown’s Western Mass. facility was created, with Rodrigues, a veteran of the industry having worked for several years at Lenox, at the helm.

When the initiative was launched, there were goals and benchmarks set, he said, adding that most all of them have been exceeded. Here are some of the numbers to date:

• More than 50 manufacturers have been identified as interested in working with hardware startups;

• More than 45 startups have received assistance from the initiative;

• More than 80 connections have been made between hardware startups and Western Mass. manufacturers;

• More than 30 east-west connections have been made between Boston-area startups and Western Mass. manufacturers; and

• Perhaps most importantly, five contracts have been signed between startups and Western Mass. manufacturers.

All of this translates into thousands of miles on Rodrigues’ odometer and comparatively few hours sitting behind that small desk. But, as noted, this is how those behind Greentown’s Springfield facility drew up this play, and thus far, it is netting real results for the region.

For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest looks at Rodrigues’ matchmaking work to date and how it has become another key ingredient in the region’s broad economic-development strategy.

Making Introductions

As he flashed back several months and retold the story of how the company that would become Quikcord became matched with Toner Plastics, Fioretti provided a textbook example of how Greentown Learning works and why it was created.

Matt Fioretti, left, and Matt Adams, cofounders of Quikcord, were successfully matched with Toner Plastics, enabling their concept to take big steps forward.

Matt Fioretti, left, and Matt Adams, cofounders of Quikcord, were successfully matched with Toner Plastics, enabling their concept to take big steps forward.

“We were at a VVM event, and we were making a pitch on our basic concept,” he recalled. “We had nothing; we just had a concept. Well, after we made the pitch, there were some breakout sessions where people come and talk with you about what they just heard. And Adam [Rodrigues] came up to us and said, ‘I’m just getting started, I don’t even have business cards, but let me get your names and e-mail addresses, and I’ll get back to you.’

“He then said, ‘this is going to be worth it for you,’” Fioretti went on, remembering that commentary because of its poignancy. “And at that stage, we were ready to try just about anything. So we said, ‘sure.’”

Fast-forwarding a little, he said Rodrigues did, indeed, follow up a few weeks later. They met and talked about their concept and also about Greentown. Later, Rodrigues arranged for the partners to pitch at a manufacturing seminar staged by Greentown and the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

One of the panelists they pitched to was Steve Graham, owner of Toner Plastics. Fast-forwarding some more, he said Graham and the team at Toner took an interest in the product and provided several different kinds of support to move the concept forward.

“They recognized that we were a small business without much capital, but they loved the idea,” said Fioretti. “And they did a lot of work for us pro bono; and they got us from to the point where we could take our concept to CAD [computer-aided design].”

Again, this is exactly the script those behind Greentown Learning had in mind, said Rodrigues, adding that the need for such a matchmaking outfit, if you will, had become increasingly apparent in recent years.

Especially at Greentown Labs, the largest clean-technology incubator in the country, with more than 60 hardware startups under that one large roof.

“As they started to incubate these startups, they realized that, while they had all these awesome ideas coming out of the state, they did not have a good link to manufacturers in the Commonwealth,” he explained, adding that, to address this, a manufacturing initiative was launched to help connect the startups with Bay State manufacturers.

Progress was made, he went on, and it quickly became apparent that attention needed to be focused on the western part of the state, not only the manufacturers that give the region much of its economic heritage, but the ever-increasing number of startups being spawned there as well.

So a position, funded by the Davis Foundation, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and MassDevelopment, was created, and Rodrigues started filling the drawers in that desk in January 2017.

He said he hit the ground running, and hasn’t stopped running. He had a good foundation on which to build, having been part of VVM’s manufacturing accelerator in 2016, serving as a mentor to the participants, passing on knowledge gained while working at Lenox in the supply-chain realm.

“Being a buyer, I was able to tell the manufacturers that were in the accelerator what a buyer is looking for when they’re working for new contracts,” he explained, adding that he had also taken part in several of VVM’s monthly gatherings at which entrepreneurs make pitches, make connections, and hopefully take steps forward.

So he knew both of the constituencies he would be working with in his capacity with Greentown. Sort of, but not as much as he would like. So he sent about making connections of his own.

“My goal was to meet as many manufacturers as I could in this area, and meet as many startups as I could in this area that were developing actual hardware, and try to connect them,” he told BusinessWest.

These connections usually come about, as noted earlier, through organized events, such as a Shark Tank-like gathering involving entrepreneurs pitching to manufacturing experts.

“Each startup would get on stage and say, ‘this is what I’m making, here’s where we’re hung up, here’s where we don’t know how to scale,’” he noted. “And then we’d have the manufacturers from this area there to say, ‘I’ve seen this before; here’s what I think you should do,’ and someone else would chime in with ‘have you considered doing this?’ And the startups walk away with a connection to manufactuters.”

Creating Progress

And the importance of these connections — to the startups, the manufacturers, the region, and the state itself — cannot be overstated, he went on, adding that they add up to potential opportunities that might be otherwise be missed.

Elaborating, he said part of this equation is a simple matter of awareness, or a lack thereof, as the case may be. Indeed, some entrepreneurs simply don’t know what the region’s manufacturers possess when it comes to capabilities and specialties, and often look overseas for someone to make their product.

“We want to raise a flag,” noted Rodrigues, “and say, ‘before you decide to manufacture somewhere else in this country, before you go China to have that prototype made, let me introduce you to a few people here who can help you out.”

But there is another element to these matchmaking efforts, perhaps one that’s even more important, he went on.

“Sometimes, in addition to making a connection, the entrepreneur will walk away with a completely new direction for the company and the design process,” said Rodrigues, adding that this is exactly what has happened with some of the connections he’s helped orchestrate.

Mike Reed, seen here in the Toner Plastics lobby

Mike Reed, seen here in the Toner Plastics lobby with some of the products produced there, including the hula hoop, says the company was able to help Quikcord reach the prototype stage.

Such as the one involving Quik-cord and Toner Plastics. Summing up how that worked out succinctly, and colorfully, Rodrigues noted that, “at the initial event, their prototype was a toilet-paper roll with duct tape on it; a few months later, they had a an actual, fully formed prototype with the logo on it, and they were ready for manufacturing.”

Spearheading that transformation was the team at Toner Plastics, a 25-year-old manufacturer of extruded products and a leader in 3D printer filament products and makers of, among other things, hula hoops. Among its many other specialties is manufacturing filler for wire and cable products.

Mike Reed, the company’s engineering manager, said Steve Graham saw potential in the Quikcord concept and its principals and agreed to work with the entrepreneurs to help move their idea off the proverbial drawing board.

“At that point, they had a good concept, but they really needed some help finalizing the design and getting to manufacturing,” Reed explained, adding that Toner Plastics worked on the project in conjunction with its sister company, Modern Mold and Tool, and especially design engineer Stefan Ogle. “We worked with them for several months on the design; we went back and forth, made several revisions, and did some prototype work as well. And then we optimized that design for manufacturing.”

These were critical steps forward, ones that prompted Fioretti to use that phrase ‘springboarding effect’ to capture how this connection gave the venture some needed lift.

“We should have the final product in hand soon,” he went on, adding that the company is close to moving on to the manufacturing stage, and he expects Toner Plastics to play a big role in that work. “We love what Greentown is doing because we’ve seen first-hand how it works.”

There are other startups that can make that same claim, said Rodrigues, including Kwema, a Cincinnati-based wearable-technology startup that had participated in the VVM accelerator and also in the same ‘rocket pitch’ where Quikcord met Toner Plastics.

“When they got exposed to what’s out here for manufacturing and they started working with Worthington Assembly, they now have plans to relocate their headquarters from Cincinnati to Springfield,” said Rodrigues.

Peerless Precision in Westfield

As part of his matchmaking efforts, Adam Rodrigues has been introducing startups to area manufacturers at tours, such as this one at Peerless Precision in Westfield, led by company president Kristin Carlson.

Still another success story is RiseRobotics, a company incubating at Greentown in Somerville, that has made not one but a few of the east-west connections Rodrigues said he loves to facilitate. Indeed, the company is now working with two Westfield-based manufacturers, Peerless Precision and Manufacturing Technology Group.

The goal moving forward, obviously, is to make more of these connections, said Rodrigues, adding that he’s only 15 months into a three-year contract and is already exploring funding options to extend the life of this important initiative.

“There’s some nice momentum going — the numbers are well beyond anything we could have projected,” he said of the initiative’s track record to date. “What that means to me is that people are excited about this; they’re excited about the whole innovation movement that’s going on in this area.

“The numbers show there’s a lot of potential here,” he went on. “Manufacturers are thinking about the future, and they’re thinking about innovation, and the exposure to what Massachusetts has to offer to innovators is changing the perception that they have to go to China first.”

Prototype for Success

As he talked with BusinessWest in Building 101 and posed for a few photos, Rodrigues admitted he didn’t know too much about what was going on within the facility still known as the Scibelli Enterprise Center, named for the former STCC president who created it.

He did know there are few businesses incubating there, and that there are some economic-development-related agencies leasing space, such as Leadership Pioneer Valley and the Western Mass. Small Business Development Center.

He knows those two because he’s worked directly with the latter as part of his connection-making efforts, and the former occupies the suite next door.

Other than that … he doesn’t know very much, because he’s not there, in his half-basketball court, very much at all.

His job is to be on the road, making connections, building bridges, whatever phrase you want to use. And there is still considerable work to do in that regard.

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

Architecture Sections

Home Makers

KithcenInteriorThe ideas home buyers — and those looking to renovate — bring to the table can morph over time, and a few trends, including an emphasis on open floor plans and sustainable living, not to mention natural surfaces and unobtrusive, smart technology, have come to dominate today’s residential-design world. And when the end result matches the initial vision, well, that’s when a house truly becomes a home.

Something old, something new.

That’s not just the first four words of the ritual brides seek to incorporate on their wedding day — it’s at the heart of another long-time commitment people make: Building a home.

“People in this area are definitely more focused on recognizable regional architecture that draws on arts-and-crafts tradition, farmhouse tradition, or Victorian tradition; they like forms that are familiar to them,” said Charles Roberts, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst.

“People bring to the process their preconceived notions about architecture, from their research and what they’re comfortable with,” he added. “Most people are drawn to a house that’s recognizable in terms of form, something they can relate to.”

The homes on these pages, designed by Kuhn Riddle Architects, are examples of how today’s houses blend traditional ideas with modern space plans.

The homes on these pages, designed by Kuhn Riddle Architects, are examples of how today’s houses blend traditional ideas with modern space plans.

However, he said, when they step inside, they’re definitely not looking for a traditional Victorian layout with many small rooms. “They want more modern, open plans — more light, open space, an integrated way of living with their house. A compartmentalized dining room is one of those components that’s falling more out of favor. They want a kitchen space that opens to living area and the dining area.”

Chris Jacobs, president of Barron & Jacobs Associates in Northampton, a design-build firm with a large residential-renovation portfolio, has witnessed the same trend over the past decade, with many projects focused on creating a more open feel.

“In most of our jobs, we’re opening up living space,” he said. “The traditional dining room is going away; we’re always knocking down walls to open up space.”

It’s a trend the national home-design media has pegged as well; flexible living space ranks among Architect magazine’s top three trends for 2018, driven in part by changing lifestyles and the way families want to interact today. In short, it’s all about flow and compatibility between spaces.

“Dedicated kitchen, living, and dining rooms have largely been replaced by large multi-purpose spaces that can be customized to meet families’ needs,” the magazine noted. “Architects can work with builders to ensure designs offer flexibility in living arrangements by including sliding doors, pocket doors, and other movable dividers in homes to ensure a seamless transition between rooms in the home, as well as between indoor and outdoor living spaces.”

That’s just one way modern home design has shifted in recent years. For this issue’s focus on architecture, BusinessWest takes a look at a few other ways architects and builders are creating spaces that reflect 21st-century tastes.

Lean and Green

Architect’s second big trend in home design is sustainability, and that’s no surprise; ‘green’ building, once a costly outlier in home design, still often comes with a steep cost, but is no longer uncommon.

“Consumers know the importance of reducing their carbon footprints, and want to make sustainable choices that fit with their lifestyles,” the publication noted. “Architects can meet these needs by ensuring the building envelope is well-sealed and insulated and by including sustainable options such as solar panels or energy-efficient appliances.”

That may be even more true in Western Mass., with its reputation as an environmentally-conscious region.

“People are definitely interested in the energy efficiency of building and design right now, moreso than they were as recently as 10 years ago,” Roberts said. “A number of projects I’ve been working on for builders include zero design, really paying attention to the envelope of the building, heat recovery, and ventilation. All the renewable-energy components are in demand.”

Jacobs pointed out that communities in Massachusetts, with its stricter-than-average stretch codes mandating sustainable building elements, already require certain elements, and beyond that, each option comes with a budget hit. “You can definitely surpass [the codes], but most people, when they see the price difference, don’t, for example, use spray-foam insulation through their whole house.”

Beyond energy efficiency, Roberts said, homeowners are trending toward natural materials in the home, like wood floors and stone countertops, and away from plastics and formica. Meanwhile, wall-to-wall carpeting is becoming much less popular as people want to showcase their natural flooring.

They’re also more focused on the kitchen than other areas of the home, he said, not just with natural surfaces, but with high-end appliances. “Kitchen is a place people still focus on, and they want nice refrigerators and ranges and cabinets. The kitchen is still the heart and core of almost every house. Every conversation seems to end up in the kitchen.”

Jacobs said kitchens are probably the number-one target of home renovation projects he’s involved with.

“Everyone wants to go to stone countertops, good appliances, quality cabinets,” he noted, adding that there’s wide range of outcomes depending on the budget. “You can build a kitchen that can last 100 years, or build one that lasts 10.”

Bathrooms are another area where higher-end options like custom shower tile, frameless glass, and heated floors are extremely popular — when the budget allows. Of course, there’s a good reason kitchens and bathrooms get so much attention: they’re important for quality of life.

“The majority of people in Massachusetts live in an older home, so we renovate a lot of bathrooms and kitchens,” he told BusinessWest. “Everyone would love a screen porch, but they don’t necessarily need it. But if your bathroom is leaking, it can’t wait.”

Chris Jacobs

Chris Jacobs says today’s building codes mandate plenty of sustainable and energy-efficient aspects, but some home buyers and remodelers choose to go beyond them.

As for exterior trends, Roberts said, many builders are moving toward fiber cement, a durable, paintable product that replicates many traditional sidings. “It’s nice, because it holds paint forever, and it’s a little less expensive than natural wood, so a lot of housing we’re seeing going up now has that material in the exterior.”

The final top trend on Architect’s list for 2018 is hidden technology, which is becoming more integrated and extensive than ever before. Homeowners enjoy being able to adjust heat and lights, preheat the oven, and perform other tasks from a mobile device.

“Architects,” it noted, “should work with builders to ensure customization is part of the plan from the beginning, and also that new homes are optimized for wi-fi connectivity based on the size and layout of the home.”

Arch2O, an organization that promotes innovative ideas in architecture, also foresees this technology becoming more prevalent. “Smart houses which are entirely automated by an Internet application will prevail,” it notes. “You will be able to heat up the food you left in the oven on your way home and even turn on your coffee machine. This will also apply to lighting, air conditioning, heating, fridges, dishwashers, and windows.”

Home for Life

Bells and whistles are fun, and definitely something 21st-century homeowners crave, but Roberts said the most resonant ideas still revolve around the way people connect. A home can facilitate that in different ways, from an open living plan complemented by a ‘get-away’ room — an office, TV, or game room — in another area of the house, to a move toward moving master suites downstairs.

“As people get up there in life, they’re saying, ‘I want to be here for the rest of my life; I want to age in place.’ With primary suites downstairs, they can live on first floor, with second-floor bedrooms for kids and grandkids, expanded family, and visitors,” he explained. “People are looking for houses that are flexible, that have the ability to absorb extended family.”

In downtown areas, where there aren’t as many buildable lots for single-family homes, other people prefer the community aspects and neighborhood walkability of condominiums and even co-housing projects, he added. “That’s about a lifestyle as much as a style of architecture.”

For those who aren’t in the market for a new home, the past few years, with the recession well in the distance, have proven a fertile time for renovations, Jacobs said.

“People had put a hold on home improvements, and now that the recession is over, we’re seeing more of them scheduling projects. We do a lot of kitchens, and some are adding a level and doubling the size of the house. It’s still cheaper to buy a house and fix it than build it from scratch.”

In all, architects and builders see a positive landscape for turning trendy ideas into something new — often working from something old.

“In this area,” Roberts said, “I’ve have the experience of working with all the various subcontractors putting these elements together, and I really enjoy working with all the great builders on these projects” — in other words, bringing ever-changing visions to life.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Home Builders Sections

Surface Appeal

President Mitch Salomon (center) and some of his team at Salomon Flooring.

President Mitch Salomon (center) and some of his team at Salomon Flooring.

The flooring business has changed in many ways since Mitch Salamon Sr. opened his shop 75 years ago, with an array of products he couldn’t have envisioned. But other elements haven’t changed at all, say today’s second- and third-generation leaders of the company, from the importance of punctuality to helping customers work within their budget, all of which has helped Salamon build a roster of repeat customers in some of the area’s most important industries.

Visit Sarat Ford Lincoln in Agawam, Ford of Greenfield, or Balise Hyundai of Springfield, and chances are you’re walking on a surface installed by Salamon Flooring.

Since 2014, in fact, the West Springfield-based company has completed six-figure jobs at those dealerships, plus Curry Honda in Chicopee, Balise Ford in Wilbraham, Prime Hyundai in Rockland … the list goes on.

“Car dealerships are building now; there’s a lot of growth and consolidation,” said Mark Salamon, a third-generation vice president at the family-owned flooring business, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. “We have a lot of projects going on with car dealerships; the opportunities are enormous.”

Assisted-living centers — which are also seeing a building and renovating boom, thanks to the largest population over age 65 in the nation’s history — are another strong niche for Salamon, with recent flooring jobs including Linda Manor in Leeds and Stonebrook Village in South Windsor, Conn., and several others now underway.

“We’re local contractors from Western Mass., but we do work all the way into Boston and New York and Connecticut,” Salamon said. “We do a lot of school work, assisted-living centers, car dealerships, government work, VAs, Navy work — small to large — as well as residential projects.”

Company President Mitch Salamon told BusinessWest that his father, also named Mitch, launched the company in 1943 in Holyoke, later moving it to West Springfield, where it has been based for more than a half-century. “It just evolved through the years, and when I was old enough to assist, we eventually broadened our scope of work and expanded our operations.”

Today, with 36 installers in the field and an office staff of nine, Salamon Flooring continues to build on its name, and its key niches. Major school projects in the past five years include a half-million dollars worth of work at UMass Amherst, plus jobs at Pioneer Valley Christian School, Baystate Academy, Bay Path College, Chapin School, West Springfield public schools, Wilbraham & Monson Academy, and Springfield Technical Community College.

Then there are the medical facilities — including Riverbend Medical Group, Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, MedExpress, AFC Urgent Care, and other large practices. Meanwhile, recent government projects have included four naval bases around New England and Veterans Administration facilities in Northampton and Bedford.

A Vietnam veteran decorated with the Bronze Star, Mitch Salomon says being a vet qualifies his company for a competitive edge in the bidding process for government work, but added quickly that its track record provides a greater edge. “Our credibility and reputation are so strong that, once we affiliate ourselves with a contractor, we’re invited over and over for anything else they bid.”

Laying It Down

Mark Salamon noted that the company cut its teeth on residential projects, and started to shift more toward commercial work when his father took over. “As the third generation goes on, we do mostly commercial work, with some light residential.”

Popular products these days include broadloom carpet, carpet tile, luxury vinyl tile (LVT), vinyl composite tile (VCT), hardwood flooring, granite, ceramic tile, and sheet vinyls. Products like LVT, VCT, and sheet vinyls, he explained, offer more durability than traditional vinyl products while providing a realistic wood or tile appearance.

The majority of customers today are looking for long-term durability, he added, whether to protect a floor from dog claws and heavy use by kids, or due to a high-traffic location in, say, a retail store or car showroom.

From left, Carol Salomon, Mitch Salomon, Mark Salomon, and Karen Salomon Shouse

From left, Carol Salomon, Mitch Salomon, Mark Salomon, and Karen Salomon Shouse represent the second and third generations of company leadership.

“LVT is becoming very popular and replacing hardwood in a lot of homes,” Salamon went on. “The way they’re constructed these days is a very realistic look that mimics wood, with beveled edges, graining on the surface, and it’s about half the cost of hardwood. Some have lifetime warranties, and some are waterproof.”

Commercial clients are increasingly choosing LVT as well, Mitch said, particularly high-traffic facilities like hospitals, healthcare practices, and assisted-living centers, for its blend of durability and a more pleasing appearance than traditional vinyl tile.

Part of a product’s durability stems from the surface preparation and moisture mitigation Salamon offers. Mark added that ever-expanding options in materials makes it easy to “value engineer” a job that meets the client’s needs within his or her budget.

“A lot of products start with the architect specifying something,” he noted, “but once budgets are set, sometimes value engineering comes into play, and we can make the projects fit their budget. We certainly have some clients with tight budgets, but we can find products that fit their needs and still give them quality and durability.”

Repeat business has been an important element of Salamon’s success, he went on. “Once we jump into a market and complete successful projects, we’re asked to bid a lot of similar projects again. We pride ourselves on giving 100%, doing the project on time, on schedule, and handling whatever obstacles are in the way, which creates repeat business. General contractors like us and trust us on projects.”

That’s partly because of the legwork Salamon completes well before it shows up on a job site, from the products to be used to a list of workers preapproved to work in certain settings — including background checks for military bases and CORI checks for school settings.

“We make sure the paperwork needed is done, so when the project starts, there are no delays,” he said. “General contractors like to see that set up in the system; it makes it very easy for them, which makes the process of completing the job that much quicker.”

Another important element of working with general contractors is making sure punchlist items are resolved immediately, thus preventing delays in the schedule. And he appreciates contractors with a similar emphasis on punctuality.

“We enjoy working with good general contractors that have their jobs well-organized, well-financed, and on schedule,” he said. “It makes our job easier, makes the projects come out nicer, and increases the chance for additional work with them.”

Carol Salamon, Mitch’s wife and the company treasurer, agreed. “The general contractors we work with have pride in their work; they’re not sloppy.”

Stepping Forward

Mark Salamon noted that the company has grown substantially over the past six years, emerging from the post-recession years with a substantial surge in business. “Every year has had strong, positive growth.”

The company has been a community fixture in more ways than installing floors throughout the region. Among its charitable efforts, Salamon Flooring and Salamon Realty, another family business, donated funds last year to the West Springfield Fire Department to purchase a utility task vehicle from Springfield Auto and Truck.

The emergency vehicle was put into use at the Big E in September and made 63 runs there. With its smaller size, it’s able to navigate through large crowds and access areas of the fair that would be challenging to reach with an ambulance. It is also used to reach emergency situations in Mittineague Park, the Bear Hole Watershed, and other places.

As for its flooring business, the Salamon family plans to be a local fixture for the foreseeable future. While Mark and his sister, Vice President Karen Salamon Shouse, represent the third generation of company leadership, they won’t be the last; Mark’s son, Beau Salomon, is a student at UMass Business School, but comes to work during summer vacations and other breaks, and sometimes on the weekend when needed, with every intention of coming on board full-time after graduation.

“He has the leadership ability that my father and grandfather had, that a lot of the guys here look for, Mark said, “and he’s a hard worker — something you don’t see in a lot of kids nowadays.”

He’ll be coming on board at a time when those niches that have driven so many sales, from auto dealerships to schools to assisted living, continue to experience a wave of construction. “The market is strong. We have some quality competition, but we strive every day to be better.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Salamon Shouse added. “With the competition in the area, we have to bring our best to every job.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]