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Embracing the Future

About 40 area business leaders heard Delcie Bean’s encouragement

About 40 area business leaders heard Delcie Bean’s encouragement to embrace change and think differently if they don’t want to be left behind by coming innovations.

Delcie Bean knows something about innovation, building the company he launched at age 13, Paragus IT, into a nimble, multi-faceted presence in the region’s IT world. He’s also passionate about futurism studies, understanding better than most that several emerging innovations will dramatically alter the way entire industries do business — leaving many companies hopelessly behind. But for those willing to embrace the change, it’s also a time of great excitement.

In 2013, a small team of entrepreneurs birthed a company called Casper Sleep. Two years later, two brothers launched a similar outfit called Purple Innovation.

“Both sell mattresses online. And they totally disrupted that industry,” Delcie Bean, founder of Paragus IT and Tech Foundry, recently told a crowd of 40 area business leaders, explaining that, for generations, mattresses were designed, manufactured, distributed, and sold by, well, designers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, each with a well-defined role.

“That’s how mattresses have been sold for a very, very long time. But they screwed that all up. They designed their own mattress, manufactured the mattress, and sold it online. And they totally changed the ecosystem,” Bean said, noting that the two startups now control 20% of the U.S. mattress market. “And all they did was capitalize on the Internet.”

That last comment might have been the scariest thing Bean said during his wide-ranging discussion, titled “An Unprecedented Technology Disruption,” the first in a four-part series called Future Tense, presented by BusinessWest at Tech Foundry in Springfield.

That’s because disruptions like the one Casper and Purple managed — and other famous examples, such as Blockbuster’s rapid demise in the era of Netflix, Amazon’s recent dominance of the retail sector, and the way digital photography all but erased Kodak from the public consciousness — may become near-constant events in the not-so-distant future, due to several emerging trends (more on those later) that, some analysts say, could have four or five times the impact the Internet and the smartphone have already had on the economic landscape.

“Think about how different life is today; think about all the things that would not have been true before the Internet existed, and then try to imagine what it would be like to have something four to five times bigger than that disrupt our lives,” Bean said.

Perhaps the most daunting development will be the sheer speed of those shifts, he continued. “We are not wired for this. Human beings are struggling just to keep up with the rate of change we experience today, and if you compare that to 20 years ago, then compare it to 100 years ago, we are moving at a pace that is almost hard to compare to earlier generations. And the rate of change we are about to experience in the next 30 years, we’re totally unprepared for.”

To put things in perspective, he noted that it took the telephone 75 years, after its invention, to reach 50 million people. Radio took 38 years, television 13. The Internet, once opened to the general public in the 1990s, took only four.

Less than a decade ago, with smartphones becoming more widely used, the mobile game Angry Birds needed only 35 days to boast 50 million users. Two years ago, Pokémon Go needed less than a tenth of that: just three days.

“That’s the rate of change we’re talking about, where things are going to happen very quickly. What is true today might not be true tomorrow. The business I’m competing with today might not be my competitor tomorrow. My customer might not be the same customer tomorrow. These things are going to happen very quickly.”

The ripple effects, he said, will be massive and unpredictable, the result of doing business in an interconnected world where new advances have the potential of circling the globe in less than a week.

To demonstrate, Bean settled on four emerging technologies — 3D printing, autonomous driving, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented reality — he believes will create the greatest disruptions and most significant ripple effects for the business world over the next couple of decades, and why they are reason for excitement, not fear, for those willing to accept and embrace the change.

Driving Change

Until recently, there was one way for a musician to become famous — get signed to a major record label and trust in its ability and willingness to promote and distribute the music.

“Now, it doesn’t matter,” Bean said, “because it got democratized with the creation of things like iTunes, which built a platform where a musician could take their art and essentially immediately distribute it to a mass market without a label.”

In fact, the broader world of media was also democratized in the Internet age; no longer does an individual need the backing of a newspaper, book publisher, or TV network to deliver a message; anyone can build a website and reach millions of people.

Some people are still thinking of this as a fun hobby or a cool science experiment. But 3D printing is going to have a massive impact.”

3D printing, he explained — with its ability to replicate basically anything, from complex machinery to human tissue — has the potential to do that to manufacturing.

“Anybody could become a manufacturer. The technology is going to get cheaper and cheaper, the raw materials will get more and more available, and the technology needed to create the design and the products will get cheaper and cheaper. You’re going to have high-school students printing their own T-shirts to wear to school instead of having to go and buy them.”

The ripple effects of anyone being able to create anything will be huge, he said, not only for manufacturing, but distribution, retail, and malls — the latter of which, in turn, impacts real-estate development.

“Some people are still thinking of this as a fun hobby or a cool science experiment. But 3D printing is going to have a massive impact,” he explained. “We can design and produce individual items, so everybody’s smartphone could be different. Everyone’s pair of glasses could literally be different. They could all be perfectly shaped, perfectly fit, perfectly cut for you.”

Autonomous driving is another example of the ripple effect Bean returned to several times during his presentation. He posited a world where people won’t have to own cars, but, rather, subscribe to a service that, for a monthly fee, delivers a self-driving vehicle on demand, which transports the user to his or her destination, then drives off.

“Essentially, it’s Uber, but it’s everywhere, and there’s no human being driving the car, which drives the costs down, which changes the economics a lot,” Bean explained.

And what are the ripple effects? Well, convenience stores — which get most of their food sales from people fueling up their cars — would suffer. So would auto dealerships; perhaps some auto groups would move into the realm of managing fleets of self-driving vehicles for a host of subscribers, while others, not so nimble, would fade away like so many Blockbusters. Meanwhile, parking garages and lots could be repurposed for other types of real estate, changing cityscapes in intriguing ways. And Bean didn’t even touch on the potential impact — and loss of jobs — in the trucking industry.

The effects extend further, he said. If people don’t actually have to drive the cars, they could use their commute to do basically anything — eat breakfast, do their hair, answer e-mails, read the news — which lessens the efficiency drain of a long ride to work, which could, in turn, make city living less of a necessity.

“If autonomous driving does what it’s supposed to do, which is to reduce traffic, make my commute much more enjoyable, and arguably also make my commute more productive, faster, and efficient, the need to live in a city changes,” Bean said. “Right now, we’re going through a resurgence of everybody moving back into cities for convenience, to get access to things, for nightlife. What if that starts to shift back out? I don’t care if I’m 20 minutes from work or an hour from work, because it doesn’t really matter.”

What Is Real?

The other two concepts Bean dove into at length — artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual and augmented reality — may bring a higher gee-whiz factor, but both have very down-to-earth implications for business.

He noted that computing has always been based in programming — tell the computer A, it spits out B. “They do what we tell them to do, but faster, better, cleaner, and they make our lives easier.”

AI, on the other hand, is the concept of computers doing the thinking as well. We’re seeing its infancy in anecdotes like Target sending coupons for diapers to a woman who just found out she was pregnant but hadn’t yet told a soul — because Target’s AI basically observed her behavior online and correctly pegged her as an expectant mother.

“That was done by a computer algorithm that’s programmed to look for different things and then weight them,” Bean noted. “That’s how our thinking works. We take inputs, we weight the inputs based on certain things — our biases, our experiences, intelligence, knowledge — and then we formulate a decision.”

For computers to essentially take on that role is a scary concept for some — and it could wind up costing jobs.

“We are used to living in a world where, for the most part, the only work we think of being done by robots is typically labor-intensive and manual,” he said. “We don’t think of the kind of high-level, high-intelligence, high-skilled work being subject to being replaced by robotics and by artificial intelligence, but that’s what we’re approaching.”

For example, Boston Children’s Hospital now has more requests for robot-assisted surgery than human surgery, he noted, meaning parents trust doctors working with robot-controlled instruments than they trust the doctors’ own hands.

Or take the legal field, where the task of, say, poring through thousands of e-mails during the discovery process for a court case, looking for trends and key data, could be performed more quickly, accurately, and efficiently by a program than a human being.

“I think that’s the world we have to start to think about. We’re not just talking about fast-food workers; we’re not just talking about taxicab drivers. We’re talking about doctors and lawyers, jobs that we never would have thought could be subject to automation replacement,” Bean noted. “We’re far away from seeing a robot argue for a defendant in a courtroom, but we’re not far from a lot of the back-office functions being replaced.”

As for virtual and augmented reality, the technology could eventually become ubiquitous, ditching today’s bulky goggles for glasses or contact lenses and, eventually, implanted chips that will blur the lines between real and virtual in what people see and experience around them.

The applications aren’t as clear as those for 3D printing or self-driving cars, but could range from tourism — Bean theorized about a program that lets people walk down a city street but experience it in a different era, populated with the stores and dress styles of the past — to therapy, with a doctor prescribing a virtual ‘buddy’ to follow someone around and give them emotional support.

Virtual reality could also impact the one form of investment that has always been believed to hold its value, because it is limited: real estate.

“At the end of the day, you cannot create more real estate. But what if that wasn’t true?” Bean said. “We will be able to create space. We will be able to manufacture land as we think about it — a place where somebody goes to have an experience, to see something, to buy something, to do something, to meet someone, hear a concert, see a performance. We will be able to manufacture that at a very low cost. The most popular mall in America, in the world, might be an artificially created mall that is owned by a 15-year-old kid. That’s feasibly possible. And it will still have value.”

In short, if a business can draw traffic to a virtual world — if they can get people to ‘visit’ a place, have an experience, and spend money — then that created reality could have value rivaling that of physical real estate.

It’s one way, Bean said, that corporate assets will change in the future, with data and algorithms taking on oversized importance, and companies acquiring other firms not to make more profit, but to add data, technology and innovation.

“Data will be the next gold,” he said. “The next gold rush will be about acquiring data. Good data will be a key asset on your balance sheet.”

Staying Alive

Why is all this important? Because no one wants to become the next Blockbuster or Kodak — and those cautionary tales will occur, with regularity, as the four technologies Bean discussed at Future Tense become more accessible to the masses.

“We’re going to be living in a world where that could be a daily occurrence. It will be very, very common that a major industry is completely innovated in a very short period of time by an entrepreneur, by a new business, taking a new concept and applying it to an old industry.”

Perhaps most frighteningly, the rate of change and innovation will, for the first time, take away more jobs than it creates, he explained. Every major evolution or disruption has displaced jobs, but created more in return. But this will not necessarily be the case going forward.

“There’s no question some of this can feel a little scary, be a little bit alarming,” he said, “but, at the same time, it should be a little bit exciting. And hopefully some of you are seeing this as the opportunity it really, truly is. This is an opportunity for us to do things we’re not doing now, to reinvent ourselves.”

To do that, companies — and entire industries — need to accept that these changes are coming, he argued, and embrace the change, rather than retreating to the comfort of denial. “If that’s still your mindset, well, focus on that last seven years of your career and retire. But if you’re really going to participate in this, be a part of it rather than being lost in it, you need to accept it and then embrace it and try to get excited about it.”

Part of that is thinking differently, even in industries, like manufacturing, that haven’t drastically changed the way they operate in 100 years, aside from automating some of their processes. It also means examining the value a company can offer in the realm of data, and how that can be commercialized. Most of all, it means recognizing the next big shift before someone else does.

Going back to Blockbuster for a moment, Bean noted that the company failed to look beyond its physical DVDs to see itself as a more holistic provider of home entertainment. “If they had, there’s a chance they could have launched an online service 10 years before they did — and when they finally did, it was a joke. But they could have gotten there. Kodak could have gotten there. They didn’t because they weren’t willing to think differently. We have to fundamentally think differently.”

Thinking differently includes a new view of startups, too, seeing them not as threats, but as idea generators and potential partners.

“Businesses should be helping those startups, trying to get on their boards, giving them funding, giving them ideas — they should be opening up their doors and welcoming those startups. Because those are going to be a future acquisition, and that very well may be the company you buy that saves your own company.”

Putting physical value on virtual real estate? Emphasizing acquisition over research and development? Outsourcing skilled jobs to robots? It’s a lot to take in, Bean admitted, and it can be scary. But he’s learned to think … well, differently about his own fears.

“If you embrace it, it’s a massive opportunity, and that’s how we need to view it, because it will help us survive in a lot of ways,” he concluded. “As dire as that sounds, survival also means thriving — and that’s how I see it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Happy Returns

Since taking over as president of Monson Savings Bank seven years ago, Steven Lowell has overseen an impressive growth pattern, including striking success in commercial lending and ever-rising assets. He credits that success to a number of factors, from a willingness to embrace technology to a customer-focused culture to an emphasis on financial literacy aimed at making sure the customers of tomorrow are well-positioned to share in the bank’s success.

Five years ago, Monson Savings Bank opened its fourth branch in Ware, to go along with offices in Monson, Wilbraham, and Hampden.

And that’s where the branch total stands today: Four. Which would be a meager haul in one of the big-bank acquisitions that have become so commonplace.

So why is MSB growing at such a healthy rate? President Steven Lowell has a few ideas.

“A lot of people are saying that small banks can’t survive, that they need to be bigger, they need to merge. And we’ve seen some of that. But Monson Savings Bank isn’t just surviving; it’s thriving,” Lowell said, noting that the institution has grown by 7% to 8% every year since he took the reins seven years ago.

“That’s a strong number,” he added, noting that the bank’s assets have risen from $230 million seven years ago to $365 million today.

“People think a bank needs a certain asset size to afford the expenses that every bank has at this point in time,” Lowell said, specifically citing increased regulatory and compliance demands in an industry that’s increasingly heavily regulated. “But we haven’t merged with anyone or had anyone merge into us; we’ve been successful in attracting new customers and developing new relationships.”

We’re performing better than many billion-dollar banks are. We’re living proof that small banks can do it, and do it well.”

He noted that MSB’s return on assets, or ROA — which measures a bank’s profits in relation to its overall resources — was 0.6 last year, while Massachusetts-based banks in MSB’s asset class — $250 million to $500 million — recorded an average ROA of 0.27. Meanwhile, banks in the $500 to $1 billion range averaged an ROA of 0.53 last year, and banks with more than $1 billion in assets averaged 0.72.

“We’re performing better than many billion-dollar banks are,” at least by the ROA metric, Lowell noted. “We’re living proof that small banks can do it, and do it well.”

A few different factors account for that success, he told BusinessWest. First was the determination made several years ago that the strongest market for the bank is commercial lending, and since then, commercial loans have risen from 40% of the total portfolio to around 65%.

“That’s been a significant driver for us,” he said. “We focus on what we do well; we don’t try to be everything for everyone. At our size, we can’t do that. But we know we’re good at commercial lending — and residential lending — and good at providing high-touch customer service. Everything we do goes back to, ‘is this good for the customer?’ We want to make sure we don’t lose that closeness with the customer.”

With all the mergers that have taken place in recent years, he suggested, business owners are looking for a banking partner they know is going to be around, and don’t like it when their loan officer keeps switching.

“We’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of these mergers,” he went on. “And we’ve developed a reputation as a bank that’s easy to do business with. We’re up front with customers and try to be as fast and efficient as we can, and that reputation starts to get around. Now we’re getting phone calls: ‘I was talking to so-and-so, and he raved about you guys, that you’re easy to do business with.’ That reputation is very important to us and has helped us spread our reach much farther.”

He also praised his team, which hasn’t necessarily grown larger — technology has created efficiencies for all banks, and, as noted earlier, MSB’s branch count is only four — but the team is peppered with long-timers who understand the customer-focused culture, a culture Lowell expects to continue to build more organic growth.

Early Adopters

Speaking of technology, MSB has consistently been an early adopter of innovations that make customers’ lives easier, from mobile banking to remote check capture. “We’re not large enough to be an innovator — we can’t be creating new software — but we’ve been right there, so as soon as a product is proven, we’ve adopted it successfully,” Lowell explained.

Some recent products speak to that success. Mobile check deposit allows far-flung cutomers to make deposits from home or anywhere else, on weekdays or weekends.

“Not only our retail customers, but our commercial customers are very comfortable not having a branch within five miles,” he noted, adding that these capabilities have allowed customers — such as a landscaping company on Cape Cod — to access services without needing a physical branch.

“We’re not marketing ourselves on Cape Cod or in the Boston area,” he noted, “but if someone has ties to Western Mass. and wants to do business in one of these areas, we can accommodate them, and they love that.”

Steve Lowell, Monson Savings

Steve Lowell says customers appreciate MSB’s stability at a time when many other small banks have merged or been acquired.

Another recent product, the CardValet mobile app, gives users complete control of their debit card, so they can essentially shut it off between uses, or if it goes missing. “There’s so much fraud in the world, and cybersecurity is a big concern,” Lowell said. “This is a great product, and we don’t charge for it; I think it’s going to be big.”

A new loan product marries the bank’s well-known financial-responsibility messaging by marrying a deposit account and a secured loan, the latter of which is deposited into an account accessible only when the loan is paid off. “From the bank’s standpoint, there’s no credit risk, and the customer is building credit, whether it’s for a down payment on a car or a first month’s security deposit. It’s a good product for people who are just starting out or running into issues trying to re-establish good credit.”

It slots well into MSB’s continued focus on financial literacy, which ranges from its Dollars & Sense program in elementary schools to workshops for college students and community members. A survey conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling shows that 40% of the public would grade themselves a C or worse when it comes to their financial literacy, and that lack of knowledge can lead to poor financial planning and hurdles when it comes time to seek a loan.

“Financial literacy is really important to us,” Lowell said. “Day in and day out, our staff see people they have to turn down for mortgage loans, and they don’t like doing that; it’s not a fun part of the job.”

With that in mind, he went on “we’ve come up with ways to talk to people and help them improve their financial lives, whether it’s how important it is to build credit or how not to get in trouble with credit-card debt, or the importance of saving for retirement and contributing the most you possibly can to your 401(k), and paying yourself before paying others.”

Lowell feels like today’s parents, for whatever reason, don’t like talking about these matters with their kids, and when the kids grow up, they haven’t developed a comfort level, and may be at the mercy of predatory credit companies that aren’t looking out for their best interest. “It’s important for us to be talking about that so they know how to manage money and get into a good place.”

That Monson Savings Bank puts resources into these educational programs says a lot about its desire to be a complete community resource in the towns it serves, and to continue adding products and services that customers want.

“I believe one of our strengths, because of our size, is that we can be really nimble,” he said. “We’re able to come up with new initiatives and new products a lot quicker than some of the bigger banks. We don’t have quite the amount of red tape most banks have to deal with.”

One example, he noted, is MSB’s newest initiative, a foray into municipal banking. Since appointing an officer to lead that effort six months ago, the bank has posted $10 million in municipal deposits. “That decision was made because somebody very good became available, and we saw it as a growth opportunity that presented itself, and we didn’t want to lose that opportunity.”

Giving Back

Monson Savings Bank has invested in the community in other ways as well, most notably through annual donations to various nonprofits, which totaled more than $130,000 last year.

The year Lowell arrived, MSB launched an initiative to ask the public for help in selecting some of the nonprofits that would receive funding. The bank solicits nominations on Facebook and through other outlets, and the top 10 vote getters receive donations. More than 300 organizations received votes last year, and the top 10 were given grants between $750 and $2,000.

“People get really excited about it,” he said. “And I think community philanthropy is really good for business, and that has helped us be successful. We sponsor sports teams, we’re involved in most of the school systems, giving them money for various programs, we give some scholarships … people appreciate that.”

They also appreciate efforts by bank leadership to be accessible, he went on.

“We send a newsletter to all our customers, and my e-mail is on that newsletter. I give out my direct phone number to customers all the time. I’ve even given out my mobile number on the weekend. I think the accessible reputation of the bank is very important to our commercial customers in particular.”

Lowell said an emphasis on accessibility extends to the employees as well.

“Sometimes the people with the best ideas are the people on the front lines, so I’m talking to them, but I’m also asking what the customers are saying,” he told BusinessWest. “When a customer takes the time to send me an e-mail or give me a call because he’s not happy with us, that’s important for me to hear. Some of the best ideas come from a customer saying, ‘you guys did this, and I didn’t like it,’ and we’ve ended up changing it.

“I’ve had really good input from customers who were unhappy or felt we fell a little short,” he went on. “I’m convinced that’s how you get better. We’re in a competitive environment, so if you’re not getting better all the time, you’re losing ground — and we can’t afford to lose ground.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Workforce Development

Making Some Progress

Elizabeth Ryan

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

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

Gary Masciadrelli said the letters keep coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lineisha Rosario

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

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

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

Breaking the Mold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Vovk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amanda Cyr

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

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

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

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

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

Where Dreams Take Shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Nawrocki

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

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

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

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

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

Part and Parcel

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

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

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

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

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

Sections Tourism & Hospitality

Riding the Seuss Wave

Kay Simpson says the Seuss museum has fueled a surge in attendance

Kay Simpson says the Seuss museum has fueled a surge in attendance at all the museums at the Quadrangle.

Since it opened nine months ago, the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum has sparked a series of attendance records at the Quadrangle and driven visitorship higher at all five museums at the complex. Meanwhile, it is also inspiring museum officials to consider improvements to those other facilities, and plans are in the formative stage for renovations to the science museum.

Kay Simpson couldn’t recall the specific name of the exhibit; she just remembered that it featured what she called “robotic dinosaurs,” which were a huge hit and are still talked about 14 years after they made their appearance at the Springfield Museums.

Simpson, executive director of that venerable institution, brought up the dinosaurs as she talked, on Presidents Day, about the school vacation week ahead, and whether the Museums, buffeted by the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which opened last June, could eclipse the record for winter-school-break attendance the dinosaur exhibit helped set.

“It will be really, really hard to top that mark,” she said. “People came from all over the see the dinosaurs. They roared, they moved, it was really exciting. I’m not sure that record will ever be broken.”

Turns out, she was right. The dinosaurs have kept their place atop the charts, due in part to a sunny day in the ’70s that prompted many families to head outdoors, not inside a museum.

But nearly nine months after the Seuss museum opened its doors, just about every other attendance mark has fallen. That includes the one for Columbus Day. And for the day after Thanksgiving. And for Christmas school vacation week.

Overall, the numbers are stunning. When the museum was being pitched to potential funders years ago, it was thought it would provide a 30% overall boost to attendance, said Simpson, noting, by way of comparison, that when the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History opened in 2009, the bump was roughly 12%.

Instead, attendance from June to August soared 300% above the total for that same period in 2016. In fact, attendance last summer equaled the mark for the entire year in 2016. As for the full year in 2017, attendance doubled the mark of the year previous, with only seven months of Seuss.

Looking ahead, well, officials don’t know just what to expect. They believe that, eventually, as more people take in the new museum, the pace of attendance growth will start to diminish, although it will still be significant, especially with MGM Springfield set to open in the fall. When ‘eventually’ will arrive, though, is a huge question mark, as the new museum continues to draw people from not only across the region but throughout the country and around the world.

Indeed, just a few months ago, surveys of attendees revealed that residents of all 50 states had found Springfield and the Seuss museum. The last one in? Neither Simpson nor Karen Fisk, director of Public Relations & Marketing, could recall exactly, but they believe it was one of the Dakotas.

The Seuss museum has brought many things to the Quadrangle — visitors, revenue, publicity, and momentum come to mind quickly. But also something else: the motivation and inspiration to upgrade other facilities at the site.

And officials would like to start with the still-popular, but often-maligned science museum, which has been described as ‘outdated’ and ‘static’ by many, including Baby Boomers who are bringing children and grandchildren to see the same exhibits they saw a half-century ago.

Simpson, while still proud of the facility and the ornate dioramas that in many ways define the facility, acknowledged that it is not as modern and interactive as this era demands, and the museum is putting preliminary plans on the drawing board to address these shortcomings.

“For the most part, people enjoy coming to the science museum; it’s a beloved institution,” she explained. “They just want it to move forward and be more exciting. They want us to bring it into the 21st century.”

The arch in front of the Seuss museum

The arch in front of the Seuss museum has become a sought-after backdrop for photos involving visitors from around the world.

And there are plans now taking shape to do just that, as we’ll see later. They call for taking many of the displays that have been behind glass for the most part and bringing them to life.

For this issue and its focus on tourism and hospitality, BusinessWest looks at both the incredible boost that the Seuss museum has provided for the Quadrangle and the plans to build on this momentum.

Rhyme and Reason

Simpson recalls that, when the Museums announced plans to put a colorful arch in front of the Seuss museum (the former history museum built like a stately home from the late 18th century), not everyone was pleased with the concept.

Indeed, there were some who thought the feature clashed architecturally with the classical buildings around it and wouldn’t be a good addition to the historic Quadrangle.

But, while some still think in those terms, this arch is rapidly becoming one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks and sought-after photo backdrops. It’s not in the same league as the St. Louis Arch, that iconic ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada’ sign, or the Rialto Bridge in Venice, but … it’s getting there.

“People take pictures there … one woman celebrating her 50th birthday came to Springfield and danced under the arch,” said Simpson. “It’s celebratory; Dr. Seuss is very meaningful for a lot of people, and we see that in all those people taking pictures at the arch.”

The popularity of the arch is just one of many signs of the awesome power of Dr. Seuss, the characters he created, and the attachment people have to his work decades after they first read one of his books.

Others include the variety of license plates in the Museums’ parking lots; the huge increase in sales in the gift shop, where a large percentage of items are Seuss-themed; the vast amount of press the Seuss museum has garnered, from outlets ranging from the Denver Post to Architectural Digest to Condé Nast Traveler; and, of course, all those new attendance records.

But maybe the most intriguing, and also entertaining indicator of the author’s gravitational pull is the collection of comments in the guest books visitors are asked to sign.

Some, especially those penned by the very young, are short and simple, like ‘this is the best museum ever,’ in large, bold letters. Others reveal how far people have traveled to take it all in, like ‘so happy this museum has opened for all of us. Much love from Indiana,’ with a little heart drawn as a form of punctuation.

Some, however, take on the style of the author himself. There’s this one:

Can it be
Is it true
To see the Seuss
The way we do?
We traveled by car
All over the land
Only to find
Our fave childhood man
Thank you to the doc
Who made reading fun around the clock.


— Abigail & Steve, 6/16/17

And this one:

This place is great!
Not a single thing to hate
It was fun. It was silly
We came all the way from Philly!

— Erica & Jonathan, 6/13/17

Overall, the pages are dominated by prose, little hearts, some attempts to draw Seuss characters, and lots and lots of exclamation points.

And then, there was this entry, which no doubt caught the attention of museum administrators.

Hello, I think that
This is the best museum in all of Springfield. You are the
Best ever seriously
I would also like to say
That the Dr. Seuss museum brings life to this

From D.

Indeed it does, as was evident during school-vacation week, when, as noted, a near-record number of people took in not only the Seuss museum, but some of the other four museums on the site.

Most need to do that almost out of necessity, because the Seuss museum is relatively small and exceedingly popular, which means many visits to it are timed — an hour or so on average after arrival.

So visitors are using that time to also take in the history museum, the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, the George Walter Smith Art Museum, and the science museum.

So, while the arch is the gateway to the Seuss museum, that facility has become a gateway to the rest of the Quadrangle.

“We have building counts,” said Simpson. “And they show that every single museum got a bump since we opened the Dr. Seuss museum.”

And with this increased visitation comes recognition of the need to put these facilities on something approaching the Seuss museum in terms of earned hearts and exclamation points. Especially the science museum, originally opened in 1899, and for the reasons stated earlier.

“When we opened the Dr. Seuss Memorial Sculpture Garden [in 2004], the most-often-asked question was ‘where is the Dr. Seuss Museum?’” said Simpson, adding that people logically thought there was one, only to learn, to their great disappointment, there wasn’t. “Then, after we announced creation of the Seuss museum, the most-often-asked question was ‘when is it going to open?’

“Now, the question we hear the most is ‘when are you going to renovate the science museum?’” she went on, adding that she doesn’t have a specific answer to the question. But the hope, and expectation, is that soon, those asked that question will be able to say, well, ‘soon.’

The Next Chapter

As she led BusinessWest on a quick walk-through of the science museum, which has been expanded several times since the 1930s, Simpson engaged in some multi-tasking.

She was pointing out, with discernable pride in her voice, the quality, beauty, and historical significance of those aforementioned dioramas, as well as their ability to bring visitors closer to the animals in question than they could ever get at a zoo or in the wild.

At the same time, though, she was explaining that, in this age of interactivity and digital technology, these displays are certainly static.

“To today’s audience, they’re a little dated, which isn’t to say kids don’t love to come look at them,” she explained. “But our intention is to make it more like the Seuss museum, which is a playful, totally immersive, interactive environment.”

With that in mind, the plan — again, still in the formative stage — is to make what’s behind the glass spill into the middle of the room.

“You can sit on a bench that’s a log,” Simpson explained. “You can play with these creatures that you would find out in the woods. The lamps that come down look like birds.”

Elaborating, she said that today, much can be done with dramatic lighting, and the museum plans to use it to create opportunities to take in a woodland scene, for example, in the morning, afternoon, and evening, just by visitor-activated lighting.

Preliminary plans call for making the science museum more modern and interactive.

Preliminary plans call for making the science museum more modern and interactive.

Meanwhile, the renovated displays will be multi-sensory, she went on, adding that visitors will be able to see, hear, touch, and even smell a number of different settings. The carpeting will be patterned to simulate the floor of the jungle, for example.

The second floor of the museum, meanwhile, will likely feature a Spark!Lab, the only one in the Northeastern U.S. Undertaken in conjunction with the Smithsonian (the Museums are an affiliate), Spark!Lab is a hands-on, STEM invention workspace where visitors can learn about and engage in the process of invention, said Simpson, adding that this addition will bring a new create a new level of interaction at the science museum and bring visitors back repeatedly.

“How perfect is that for Springfield, given its long history of innovation and firsts?” Simpson asked rhetorically, adding that the lab will be an exciting addition aimed at generating interest in the sciences through direct involvement.

All this is ambitious, said Simpson, and the museum will need to aggressively raise funds to make it happen. But initial talks with foundations and other funding sources is underway, and momentum created by the Seuss museum is generating enthusiasm to improve other facilities within the Quadrangle.

The plan is to take on the project in phases, she said, with phase one being lighting, carpeting, and renovation of the bathrooms. If all goes according to plan, these changes could be undertaken late this year or early next year.

Phase two would be the “complete immersion” she described earlier, which would come with a much larger price tag.

But there is a need, and now a commitment, to upgrade the facility.

“We’ve made the science museum a priority because people repeatedly ask us when we’ll update that facility; we’ve heard that on TripAdvisor, and we’ve heard that anecdotally,” said Simpson, adding that, while attendance is up at all the museums, again because of Seuss, the greatest surge has been recorded at the science museum, and to drive attendance higher, and bring people back, changes are needed.

The Last Word

As noted earlier, administrators at the Museums don’t know when — or even if — the power surge from the opening of the Seuss museum will start to lose some of its intensity.

They don’t know when or if the Quadrangle will stop setting attendance records for specific dates, weeks, or months between now and June. (Remember, winter break was an outlier due to those robotic dinosaurs and a summer-like Wednesday afternoon).

What they do know is that the Seuss museum has been inspirational, and not only to those from Philly who take to prose and note that the facility is silly. It is also inspiring those at the Quadrangle, who want to raise the bar across the board — and plan to start with the science museum.

If all goes as planned, it will likely earn some hearts and exclamation points itself. And maybe even some of that prose.

Kay Simpson will settle for people young and old saying they had an enriching learning experience.

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


Storm Surge

Rosa Espinosa

Rosa Espinosa, director of Family Services at the New North Citizens Council

What happens when a family arrives in the Springfield area from far away, with no job, transportation, or living arrangements? What happens when hundreds come? That was the challenge — and certainly still is — wrought by Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island of Puerto Rico last fall and sent a flood of evacuees to the Western Mass. region. Efforts to help them find relief have been inspiring, but the needs remain great, and the path ahead far from clear.

When Holyoke High School opened its Newcomer Academy in August — a program that helps non-English speakers access classes taught in Spanish while getting up to speed on English — administrators had no idea just how timely the launch would be.

“Holyoke, for many years, has looked for alternative types of bilingual-education models, and even before the hurricane, we were seeing a lot of newcomers who needed time to build up their English-language skills,” said Ileana Cintrón, chief of Family and Community Engagement for Holyoke Public Schools.

‘The hurricane,’ of course, is Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island of Puerto Rico in September, prompting a mass exodus of displaced families seeking relief on the U.S. mainland. Western Mass. was a natural landing spot, with Puerto Rican cultural roots running deep in Greater Springfield; Holyoke, is, in fact, home to the largest percentage of Puerto Rican residents of any city outside the island itself.

That’s why 226 students whose families evacuated Puerto Rico in the wake of the hurricane enrolled in Holyoke schools shortly afterward; nearly 200 are still attending, with many families contemplating a permanent relocation to the Pioneer Valley. In Springfield, the number is close to 600.

“It was difficult at the height of it, but in the last few weeks it’s really dwindled down,” Cintrón said, noting that the school district was fortunate that HHS saw the most enrollees of the city’s 11 schools.

Ileana Cintrón

Iileana CintrÓn

“It was beneficial to us that Holyoke High School had opened the Newcomer Academy in late August and is able to provide students coming to the high school with Spanish-speaking support and access to content in Spanish,” she said. “It gives them hope they won’t lose a year. That’s what happened before — try to learn English and see where you’re at by the end of the year. Now they can keep up with math and science while still learning English, where before, it meant lost time and a lot of frustration.”

‘Frustration’ is an understatement when it comes to the needs of hundreds of families that have flocked to Greater Springfield since October, seeking housing, jobs, education, and, in many cases, the basic necessities of life that they suddenly could not access when Maria knocked out power, infrastructure, and key services throughout Puerto Rico.

“Many came with the bare minimum,” said Wilfredo Rivera, a volunteer with Springfield-based New North Citizens Council, one of the regional organizations busy receiving evacuees and connecting them with resources to find temporary relief in Western Mass. or, in some cases, start a new life.

He noted one family with a newborn who had medical records and discharge papers from the hospital, but were unable to procure a birth certificate — which is typically needed to access benefits here — before fleeing. “That’s just one example of what happens when people leave the island but don’t have time to gather their documents, or they don’t know what they’ll need here.”

New North Citizens Council meets advocacy and human-services needs on a daily basis, said Rosa Espinosa, director of Family Services, but its role — along with Enlaces de Familia in Holyoke — as one of two major ‘welcome centers’ for people displaced by the hurricane has been a challenge, albeit a gratifying one.

Wilfredo Rivera says each displaced family has its own story and unique set of needs.

Wilfredo Rivera says each displaced family has its own story and unique set of needs.

“We have our regular clients who come in every day,” she told BusinessWest, “but when the hurricane happened, that was an outrageous number of people coming in. But we were pretty resourceful, and some of the evacuees themselves were pretty resourceful; we learned from them as they learned from us.”

Rivera ticked off some of the more challenging cases, such as children and adults who fled with oxygen supplies, dialysis machines, or chemotherapy needs, and others who landed in an area hotel or motel — paid for by FEMA, but only for a limited time — without much money and no transportation, family in the area, or job prospects.

“The majority of services they needed were services we already provided — SNAP, MassHousing, employment resources, access to computers — so those things were in place,” he said, “but we were suddenly doing it on a much larger scale.”

The way they and others have done so — aided by a flood of donations to area organizations providing some of those resources and attention from local businesses looking to hire evacuees — has been a regional success story of sorts, but the work is far from over.

A Call Goes Out

Jim Ayres, president and CEO of the United Way of Pioneer Valley, said his organization was meeting very early on an evacuee-assistance strategy. Early on, Springfield and Holyoke designated the welcome centers as places to go to find out how to enroll a child in school, meet nutrititional needs, and get immediate health services. “Then there’s the underlying trauma piece and mental-health needs people may have. It takes a lot of coordination, a lot of logistical management.”

Rivera noted that every individual or family that comes to New North is handled on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t group people into categories. Every individual is assessed individually based on what their needs are.”

For example, “there’s a large group of people here for medical reasons — dialysis, cancer treatments, the types of things that require electricity,” he explained. “A lot of families did not want their kids to lose out on education, and that’s why they chose to come. Others lost their jobs. The majority who came have family here or know someone in the area; others were born here but grew up on the island, so they had some connection.”

Many are looking to stay for the long term, if not permanently, he added. That’s especially true of the families with children enrolled in school or those who needed critical medical services and prefer the treatment they’re getting in Western Mass. over what’s available right now on the island. “Those are the two biggest factors keeping people here. And a lot of them are employed already; they’re working and want to keep their jobs.”

Recognizing that critical needs exist both in Western Mass. and back in Puerto Rico, the Western Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico coalition, which came together shortly after the hurricane struck, has collected $180,000, with $80,000 going to the Springfield and Holyoke welcome centers, and $100,000 being divided equally between 10 organizations that do relief work directly on the island.

“My sense is a lot of them want to go back to their own homes,” Ayres said of the displaced families. “Whether that means six months, one year, five years, no one really knows at this point.

“This is in some ways more of a Western Mass. challenge than statewide. The state has been receptive as a whole, but it’s hitting Hampden County more than anywhere else,” he added, noting that the situation poses some unexpected budgetary dilemmas, particularly in the school systems. “The state compensation method is driven by your enrollment in October 1, which was just a few days before people started coming, so they’ve asked the state to look at the formula in a different way.”

Indeed, the Holyoke school system has hired more teachers and paraprofessionals to handle the surge, including five from Puerto Rico.

Jason Randall says many evacuees already have the skill sets MGM Springfield is looking for.

Jason Randall says many evacuees already have the skill sets MGM Springfield is looking for.

One challenge has been the arrival of families without school records in hand — a particular challenge for students with special-education needs, Cintrón said. Another is the requirement that seniors must have passed the MCAS exam to graduate, when the 10 seniors at HHS who transferred in because of the hurricane might been studying a much different curriculum on the island.

“The district is waiting for guidelines from the state about that,” she said, noting that one of those students was already accepted to Harvard while living in Puerto Rico — but will now need to pass the MCAS before enrolling there.

Another challenge is the emotional stress the new students are dealing with — Cintrón said it can take two years, in some cases, for such trauma to manifest outwardly — yet, she suggested school may actually be a bright spot in their lives.

“The major sources of stress deal with the lack of housing and the feeling of impermanence — stay at a hotel for a week, then stay with a grandmother for two weeks in public housing, but then find you can’t stay longer than that, and not always eating three meals a day. School may provide some sense of stability and normalcy — or, at least, we try.”

She was quick to note that the district took in 75 students from Puerto Rico last summer because of non-hurricane factors like economic hardship on the island, “so we’re used to getting those students. It was just more in the fall.”

Some students are also eligible for a dual-language program at the elementary level, said Judy Taylor, director of Communications for Holyoke Public Schools. “When students arrive at school, they’re given a language assessment test, and based on the results of that test, they’re given the supports they need.”

Living Wage

For most families, however, no support is more important than job-finding resources.

With that in mind, New North Citizens Council arranged a meeting in January with human-resources leaders at MGM Springfield, which is in the unique position, among area companies, of currently staffing up a 3,000-employee operation. Attendees were given an introductory presentation (in Spanish) detailing the company’s needs, followed by skills assessments and meetings with HR staff.

“We want to share our message about career opportunities, because 3,000 positions is a lot of roles to fill,” said Jason Randall, director of Talent Acquisition and Development. “So when New North came to us about these displaced families from Puerto Rico due to the hurricane, we wanted to share the opportunities that we have. Puerto Rico has a large hospitality industry, with casinos and resort properties, and a lot of individuals from the area who were displaced have the skill set and the commitment to service that we’re looking to provide here.”

The company is hiring for roles ranging from culinary services to hotel operations to gaming operations, and many evacuees have those skills, or the ability to learn them quickly, Randall added.

“Basic English is a requirement for all our positions — you have to be able to communicate in the event of an emergency — but certainly, through our partners, English as a second language courses are offered to prepare people for that.”

It can be tough to find a job without a car, and nigh impossible to afford a car with no income, but some evacuees are arriving with neither — and often no place to stay. Espinosa said getting them set up with housing and job prospects can be a challenging, step-by-step process, one beset with roadblocks that have the welcome-center staff thinking on their feet.

One client, for example, walked from the South End to the New North Citizens Council — more than two miles — with her children to access resources. But she needed to come back the following day, so the staff dipped in their pockets to buy her bus fare in both directions. The next day, Espinosa reached out to the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority for more passes to give to other families, and the PVTA was happy to donate them.

Employers have heard of the needs, too. Pride Stores had four openings at its West Street location in Springfield. “We were told, ‘I don’t need them to speak English; I just need them to bake,’” Rivera recalled. Other companies, from J. Polep Distribution Services and CNS Wholesale Grocers to businesses needing barbers, mechanics, and caregivers, have reached out with information about openings.

Companies have contributed to the relief cause in other ways as well, such as the 7-Eleven that recently opened at Wilbraham and Parker streets, far from the North End of Springfield, but decided nonetheless to donate raffle proceeds from its grand-opening event to the welcome center. Meanwhile, organizations like the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute are providing free legal services.

In addition, “there’s a huge group of volunteers helping to feed these families dinners,” Cintrón said. “Some are staying in hotels with no access to a fridge or microwave, so there’s a whole network of volunteers, restaurants, and soup kitchens delivering meals to the hotels.”

Espinosa is grateful for all of it. “Throughout this journey, we have met a lot of caring individuals, and it’s refreshing to hear from someone, ‘hey, I heard about the welcome center, and I want to do this for you.’ It’s a good feeling.”

And the clients who need help are grateful in return, she added. “They’re not a number to us; they’re a family in need, with medical needs, or with children with medical needs. And we’ll go the extra step; if we have to pick up furniture and bring it to a family over the weekend, we’ll do that.”

Looking Up

Rivera is clearly passionate about making a difference, in whatever way he and the other volunteers and staff can. “It’s good to know you were one tiny part of getting somebody stable.”

Espinosa takes it all in stride, understanding that New North’s work didn’t dramatically change with the influx of hurricane evacuees — it just got a little (OK, a lot) more hectic. But she knows her team is making a real impact on the lives of Puerto Rico’s evacuees.

“One told me, ‘there is God, and there are angels, and then there are you guys,’” she recalled.

Rivera simply smiled. “I’m good with that,” he said.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Employment Sections

Team-building Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Caratozzolo: Vice President, Food & Beverage

Anthony Caratozzolo: Vice President, Food & Beverage

Anika Gaskins: Vice President, National Marketing

Anika Gaskins: Vice President, National Marketing

Brian Jordan: Director, Surveillance

Brian Jordan: Director, Surveillance

Monique Messier: Executive Director, Sales

Monique Messier: Executive Director, Sales

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

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

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

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

A Strong Hand

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

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

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

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

Sarah Moore: Vice President, Marketing, Advertising & Brand

Sarah Moore: Vice President, Marketing, Advertising & Brand

Marikate Murren: Vice President, Human Resources

Marikate Murren: Vice President, Human Resources

Jason Rosewell: Vice President, Facilities

Jason Rosewell: Vice President, Facilities

Jason Rucker: Executive Director, Security

Jason Rucker: Executive Director, Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Odds ‘Relaxed.’

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

Lynn Segars: Vice President, Slot Operations

Lynn Segars: Vice President, Slot Operations

Gregg Skowronski: Executive Director, Hotel Operations

Gregg Skowronski: Executive Director, Hotel Operations

Talia Spera: Executive Director, Arena Operations

Talia Spera: Executive Director, Arena Operations

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

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

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

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

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

Seth Stratton: Vice President and General Counsel

Seth Stratton: Vice President and General Counsel

Courtney Wenleder: Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Courtney Wenleder: Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Robert Westerfield: Vice President, Table Games

Robert Westerfield: Vice President, Table Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaming with Excitement

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

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

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

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

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

Autos Sections

Driving Forces

The auto market has been in high gear for the past several years, and area dealers expect that pattern to continue, and for several reasons. These range from a solid economy and abundant consumer confidence to quality vehicles and lingering pent-up demand.


In most discussions involving business, that term has a somewhat negative connotation to it. And in many ceases, we can leave out the ‘somewhat.’

But in the case of the auto-sales industry and local dealerships … ‘flat’ has a pretty good sound to it these days. In fact, just about everyone who would use images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in their promotions this week, or tie red, white, and blue balloons to the cars in their showroom come July, would be pretty happy with ‘flat.’

Just as they were last year.

Indeed, since the very dark days during and just after the Great Recession, car sales have rebounded nicely, with the high-water mark, if you will, coming in the 2016 sales year, with nearly 17.5 million light vehicles (cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks) sold nationwide.

Last year was off that pace, but only slightly, with more than 17.1 million light vehicles sold. And the projections for 2018 are for pretty much the same, with maybe another slight decrease of 1% or less.

But, again, 1% off what? Even in the super-solid years leading up to the economic nosedive a decade ago (years 2001 to 2006), total sales were under or just slightly above 17 million.

As we said, ‘flat’ has rarely looked so good.

“Yes, last year was off what it was in 2016, but you’re coming off historic highs — and the drop was minuscule,” said Jeb Balise, CEO of Balise Motor Sales, adding (after checking his phone to make sure he had the numbers right) that sales this January were up 1% over a year ago, this despite some bitterly cold days, a few snow days for many adults, and even that dreaded bomb cyclone thing.

Jeb Balise says projections are for another flat year for auto dealers. But ‘flat’ is more than acceptable given the high volume of sales in recent years.

Jeb Balise says projections are for another flat year for auto dealers. But ‘flat’ is more than acceptable given the high volume of sales in recent years.

And the various forecasts he’s seen project sales of between 16.7 million and 16.9 million light vehicles, which would be another outstanding year.

Other dealers we spoke were equally upbeat and happy with ‘flat’ or something approximating it, and said a host of factors are contributing to solid sales and optimism that this trend will continue. A healthy stock market (until quite recently), a sound economy, still-low interest rates (albeit amid concerns that they will rise), low unemployment, large amounts of consumer confidence, well-made products, lots of inventory, attractive incentives from the manufacturers, some lingering pent-up demand, and the basics of supply and demand are all on that list.

“It’s just a good time to be buying a car,” said Don Pion, president of the Chicopee-based dealership started by his father, Bob Pion Buick GMC. “The product is good — the best I’ve seen since I’ve been in the business. They’re good products, they get good fuel economy, maintenance is pretty inexpensive on these new cars today, the manufacturers have been aggressive with their offers, there are good lease offers … it’s all good.”

Michelle Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, which opened its doors last fall, concurred.

“We have a very optimistic outlook on 2018,” she said. “People are feeling good about the economic outlook, and that allows them the mindset to spend money a little more than they would have in years past.”

Meanwhile, solid sales are not the only trend within the industry on track to continue. Others include the soaring popularity of SUVs and crossovers — Wirth noted that, for the first time last year, Mercedes reported more sales of those types of vehicles than cars — and an ongoing evolution in the role of the dealership.

Indeed, where once that was a place to check out the new models, see what they cost, and explore available options, consumers can now do a lot of that, if not all of that, on the Internet. By the time they come to the dealership, they know what they want, and they know what they expect to pay. Thus, the role for those at that facility is to make the rest of the process as quick and painless as possible.

In response, TommyCar Auto Group, comprised of three dealerships selling Nissan, Hyundai, and Volkswagen, has come up with a new product called Click, Drive, Buy, whereby the consumer can do pretty much the entire buying or leasing process online, and also get a car delivered to their home for a test drive.

“They can fill out a credit application, do the pricing up front, they can go through all the financing options and rebate options and see what they qualify for, all without coming to the dealership,” said Carla Cozenzi, president of the group. “They can even research all of the after-market products like warranties and gap insurance, all of that through our website.

“We’ve evolved because we had to,” she went on, speaking for everyone in the industry. “Customers can literally do it all from their iPhone.”

Fast Times

As he talked about the current market and the forces driving it, Pion referenced one recent vehicle traded in to get some of his points across.

“It had 250,000 miles on it, but it looked like it only had about 50,000 miles on the odometer,” he told BusinessWest. “It was in great shape; you would never know it had a quarter-million miles on it.”

And this was certainly not an isolated incident, he went on, adding that these high-mileage vehicles he’s seeing on a regular basis say a lot about the market today.

They speak to the quality of the cars on the road today and their durability — “you watch the cars drive by every day, and you see a lot of older models,” said Pion — but also to the fact that, eventually, people need, or want, to turn them in.

And this lingering pent-up demand for new models — although there is much less of it than was a few years ago — is just one of many reasons why Pion’s dealership had a 2017 to remember.

Don Pion, seen here with his son, Rob, general manager of the dealership, says the soaring popularity of SUVs and crossovers has helped fuel solid sales for the industry.

Don Pion, seen here with his son, Rob, general manager of the dealership, says the soaring popularity of SUVs and crossovers has helped fuel solid sales for the industry.

Indeed, Buick sales were up 40% over 2016, he said, while GMC sales were up 30%, and used-car sales were up 20%.

Pion attributed these strong numbers to that combination of factors he described above. And while he’s not expecting a repeat, exactly, he’s projecting another very solid year.

“No one’s looking to set a record,” he told BusinessWest. “But I don’t think we’ll see any declines, only more-modest growth, perhaps.”

Consenzi agreed, and told BusinessWest that 2017 was a solid year for all three stores within the group, especially Nissan, and she is expecting improvement on those numbers across the broad in 2018.

Balise was also optimistic, and said that the pent-up demand from several years ago has been replaced by a state of general “equilibrium,” as he called it. Surveying the market now, he sees still-ample demand and considerable inventory, an intriguing mix.

“Business is good, and plenty of cars are being sold,” he explained, “but it’s a little more competitive amongst dealers, which is always good for the consumer.”

As for Wirth, she doesn’t have any numbers from last year to use as the basis for projections, or many of them, anyway.

As noted, the dealership opened its doors in September, and that last quarter or so of 2017 was essentially a time for reintroducing the brand to this region after nearly a decade’s absence, she said, adding that this process is ongoing and has many nuances to it.

Indeed, reminding people that they no longer have to drive to Hartford or Route 128 to buy a Mercedes or get one serviced is just part of the equation, she went on.

Another big part is introducing the region to the people behind that dealership with the huge Mercedes sign in front of it — and they’ve done so in ways ranging from a huge grand opening to a presence on the ice at the MassMutual Center for Thunderbirds games, to various forms of support for several area nonprofits.

Still another is educating people about the brand, how it has evolved in some ways — all those SUVs, for example — and making it clear that, in many cases, and despite popular perception, it is not beyond their reach.

“The brand stands as a symbol of success and the ultimate in luxury, and it’s just a big brand to wear,” Wirth explained. “Mercedes is not just for folks who have made it or are about to retire and end their career; it’s very much for the person who’s still climbing.”

Elaborating, she said the dealership, and Mercedes-Benz in general, are trying to attract people not of a certain age group or income bracket, but people with a certain mindset.

“They’re young at heart, they’re entrepreneurial, they enjoy craftsmanship and brands that stand for something,” said Wirth as she explained this mindset. “As for the brand, they look at it like, ‘this is this best, everyone deserves the best, so reward yourself.’”

Into a Higher Gear

Getting back to the outlook for 2018 and the factors driving those optimistic projections, one of the influencing forces is the quality of the vehicles now parked at dealerships across the region. Indeed, while those cars and SUVs with 100,000 or 200,000 or even 300,000 miles on them are still getting the job done, the products rolling off the assembly line are appealing — enough to prompt some trade-ins.

Michelle Wirth says the role of the dealership continues to evolve, and the focus now is on transparency and making the consumer’s experience as easy and painless as possible.

Michelle Wirth says the role of the dealership continues to evolve, and the focus now is on transparency and making the consumer’s experience as easy and painless as possible.

Especially the crossovers and SUVs. As noted earlier, even brands that have built their heritage on sedans, like Mercedes, are selling more SUVs than cars these days. Buick, known for most of its existence for its sedans, now has a lineup flush with SUVs and crossovers, said Pion, and there’s only one true sedan left — the LaCrosse.

The Balise company counts nearly a dozen makes in its portfolio, including Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Lexus, Mazda, Subaru, Kia, and more, and for nearly all them, SUV and crossover sales now exceed those of sedans, said Jeb Balise.

And there are many reasons for this, everything from relatively low gas prices to the additional room in the SUVs and crossovers; from the added height of such vehicles, and the fact that they’re somewhat easier to get in and out of, to their ability to take someone virtually anywhere they want to go.

“People are more active,” said Wirth. “They want to go more places and do more things, and those vehicles present themselves as being more versatile.”

Cosenzi agreed, and noted that most manufacturers, including those she represents, now have SUVs and crossovers in small, medium, large, and even micro sizes, and they are attracting consumers in all age groups. And for most people trading in a car, she said, the SUV they’re getting into will offer comparable mileage.

Even Volkswagen, which has traditionally lagged well behind in SUV and crossover sales, is making great strides with additions like the Tiguan, a smaller SUV, and the Atlas, a much larger model.

“Volkswagen always lacked in that category, but now it’s catching up,” she said. “We’re seeing it across all brands — the demand is really healthy in the SUV/crossover market.”

All that said, compact and mid-sized cars are still a huge segment of the market, said Balise, using one of the more iconic nameplates, the Toyota Camry, and some numbers off the top of his head to get his point across.

“Let’s just say Camry was selling 400,000 units and now they’re selling 315,000; that’s still a lot of momentum for that segment,” he said. “While the phenomenon is happening and it’s material — it impacts business, and we have to figure out what to do — it’s not a total-sum game. Sometimes you look at these reports and it looks like you’re never going to sell a car again, and it’s all going to be trucks — it’s not that dramatic.”

But it is still a sizable movement within the industry, as is the overall ‘dealer experience’ and the changes that have come to it, and the ever-greater emphasis on transparency and all that phrase implies.

As noted earlier, much goes into this equation, but it comes down to making life as easy as possible for the consumer during and after the buying or leasing process.

Putting it another way, Wirth said, while no one realistically expects to enjoy the car-buying process, dealers, and especially hers, are succeeding in making it far less painful that it was years ago.

How? By being up front and transparent with pricing, putting information in consumers’ hands, and adding convenience when possible, such us applying for financing online.

Balise agreed. “When it comes to the customer, their time is extremely important to them, and they don’t want to waste it,” he explained. “So when they come in, you need to be on your game and give them the information in an easy, transparent way; what you’re really doing is being as helpful as you can to help them make a decision.”

Pion echoed those thoughts, noting that a good number of people who come into a dealership ready to buy want to drive off in their new vehicle the next day — or even later that day — and dealers have to respond to such whims with inventory and an ability to get such deals done.

But these efforts to enhance the customer experience don’t end with the sale, as those in this industry like to say. Indeed, service is a huge part of the equation, especially with cars remaining on the road as long as they are, and emphasis on this part of the experience manifests itself in everything from spacious, well-appointed waiting areas to car washes built into the dealerships.

At the Mercedes dealership, said Wirth, the technician will create a video of the vehicle in for service and text it to the customer so he or she can see what the issue is.

“We’re in it for the long haul, and it’s more valuable to us and more important to us that people feel taken care of and understood,” she went on. “It’s more about how we meet people’s needs at that moment in time and have all the information at that moment.”

Full Throttle

The dealers we spoke with said those Presidents Day sales that once dominated the airwaves and turned Washington and Lincoln into pitch-people are still a part of the landscape, just not on the same scale as years ago.

Those sales were needed to propel the industry out of winter doldrums and create a bridge to spring, said Pion and Balise, both industry veterans. Today, car selling is different, and there is more of a even flow of transactions throughout the year — although a boost in February is always welcome.

That’s just part of a changing landscape in this business, where ‘transparency’ is now the watchword, and where ‘flat’ sounds really good.

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

Health Care Sections

New Name, Evolving Mission

Jessica Collins and Frank Robinson say the organization’s mission to create a healthier community hasn’t changed, but is simply being honed and refocused.

Jessica Collins and Frank Robinson say the organization’s mission to create a healthier community hasn’t changed, but is simply being honed and refocused.

Partners for a Healthier Community recently initiates a rebrand, and is now known as the Public Health Institute of Western Mass., a name that officials say more accurately reflects what this agency has evolved into over the past 22 years and the critical role it plays within the region.

As she talked about a rebranding effort involving the agency now formerly known as Partners for a Healthier Community Inc. (PFHC), Jessica Collins said the project wasn’t initiated because the name chosen in 1996 didn’t convey what the nonprofit is or does.

Rather, it’s because the new name eventually chosen — Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts — and its accompanying logo do the job much better.

Indeed, while the agency is a partner in a number of initiatives to improve overall population health in the region, the original name didn’t convey the full breadth of its portfolio of services, said Collins, its executive director. Nor did it really define just what the ‘community’ in question happens to be.

Most importantly, though, it didn’t fully communicate the agency’s role as a change agent when it comes to the overall health and well-being of the communities it serves and especially those populations that are underserved.

So last fall, PFHC, working in cooperation with the marketing and advertising agency Paul Robbins & Associates, went about coming up something more accurate and specific.

The new name, which was unveiled at an elaborate ceremony at the agency’s offices within the Community Music School building in downtown Springfield, was chosen for several reasons that we’ll get into shortly.

First, though, we need to elaborate on why a rebranding was necessary at this time. Indeed, such initiatives are time-consuming, expensive, and bring change, an always tricky proposition, into the equation.

For starters, PFHC joined the National Network of Public Health Institutes in 2014, Collins said, adding that, as part of the process of joining that organization, the agency needed to identify its core competencies.

And for PFHC, those are research and evaluation, convening and coalition building, and policy and advocacy.

“Given those three core competencies, it felt natural to go with the Public Health Institute of Western Mass., coming from that national perspective,” Collins explained. “Also, there was some confusion about our organization because there are several agencies in the Greater Springfield area that have the word ‘Partners’ already in their title.”

What’s more, a rebrand provides an opportunity for an agency or business re-emphasize its mission, how it is carried out, its history, and its plans for the future. Or “reintroduce itself,” as Collins put it, adding that, for many, the institute needs no introduction, while for many others, it does.

The unveiling of the new name was part of that effort, she said, but there will be other initiatives to build awareness of the overall mission as well as specific projects, such as:

• The Springfield Youth Health Data Project, a health survey among Springfield public-school eighth-graders in 2015 and 2017. The project is part of a larger initiative that includes the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a tool developed by the Centers for Disease Control and administered to 10th- and 12th-graders in Springfield;

• Springfield Complete Streets, funded by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Policies for Action Grant. The initiative involves a study of Springfield’s Complete Streets policy and, specifically, policies that support roadways designed and operated for the safety of everyone using them — whether by car, bike, foot, or bus;

• The Healthy Homes Initiative, which brings together housing and healthcare providers to pay for home improvements in Springfield specifically related to asthma control — mold and moisture remediation, pest control, ventilation and air quality, and removal of carpeting that harbors dust and other allergens — with the goal of keeping asthma sufferers out of the hospital;

• Springfield’s Climate Action & Resilience Plan. The institute is leading the outreach and engagement of residents and key stakeholders around implementation of a plan to make Springfield a resilient, healthy city; and

• Age-friendly City, an initiative that will create a senior leadership program to train older adults to be effective age-friendly community advocates, conduct an environmental scan on housing and transportation, and work toward achieving an age-friendly status for Springfield.

As those projects indicate, the agency has taken even more of that change-agent role, while also becoming more focused on the collection and implementation of the data that is critical when it comes to everything from enacting health-policy changes to winning critical funding for initiatives to improve the health and well-being of neighborhoods, a city, or an entire region.

PFHC needed a new name and logo that brought that message home, and Public Health Institute of Western Mass. does just that.

For this issue, we’ll talk a little about this rebranding effort, and a lot about the institute and the critical work it is undertaking across the region.

Bright Ideas

As mentioned, the new name comes complete with a new logo.

Actually, it’s a remake of the old logo, imagery of a sun. The new look is larger, brighter, and the sun rays, if you will, are aligned to replicate the lines on a bar graph — a nod to the agency’s dual missions to collect data and put that data to use to improve quality of life in the region.

“We had always done the coalition and advocacy building, but over the past few years we’ve really dug deeper into bringing expertise around research and evaluation,” Collins explained. “The new name and logo bring a more academic framing to the work that we’re doing.

“We want people to understand that we’re the place to come to if they want health data — if they want data that is highlighting inequities and, therefore, identifies populations that are in need of more attention and resources and investment,” she went on. “We want people to come to us if they have policy issues and need us to organize and create advocacy strategies, and we want people to come to us, as they always have, if they have new and innovative ideas or if there are gaps and issues that need to be convened around.”

All of this comes across in the new name, where each word or phrase carries some significance: ‘public’ for obvious reasons; ‘health’ (it’s in red while the rest of the words are in black on the letterhead); ‘institute,’ which conveys research and data; and ‘Western Massachusetts,’ because the agency needs to make clear that its work extends well beyond Springfield.

Also, there is a subtitle, ‘Partners for Health Equity,’ which brings home the point that the institute partners with other entities on all of its initiatives, and that its work is focused on making sure that all those in the region have an equal opportunity for a healthy life, regardless of where they live.

While the words and the logo are certainly significant, what’s behind them is what the agency is working to emphasize with this rebranding.

And as we commence that discussion, it’s probably best to go back to the beginning. That was in 1996, when a group of area healthcare leaders, led by Sr. Mary Caritas, then retired from her role as president of Mercy Hospital (now Mercy Medical Center), sought creation of a new public entity focused on improving health and well-being in Greater Springfield.

The goal back then was to create a space where competing health organizations and other entities, including the city of Springfield, could sit at the same table and work together to make the community a healthier place, said Frank Robinson, vice president of Public Health and Community Relations at Baystate Health, who was one of those on the ground floor, if you will.

“With that ambitious agenda, the notion was, ‘what are the things that need to be changed? What’s interfering with a good portion of the Springfield population living healthy lives?’” Robinson explained. “That social-justice framework was at the root of the organization’s inception, and it has maintained that viewpoint.”

The mission has always been to create a measurably healthier community, he continued, putting heavy emphasis on that word. And while the mission hasn’t really shifted, what has happened over the past 21 years is that the focus and the interventions have become more precise, more targeted.

“And with that additional precision and targeting, we’ve become more of a specialist than a generalist,” Robinson explained. “The general work is still occurring, but the specialty work is really taking center stage.”

The agency’s broad role has shifted somewhat as well, he went on, from being merely a supporter of various coalitions to a being a change agent in its own right.

This is reflected in some of the success stories the agency has helped write over the years, including:

• The BEST Oral Health Program, which created a local system of education, screening, and treatment for preschools to decrease instances of oral diseases;

• The Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, created to improve asthma management and indoor air quality (two Springfield schools received national recognition for the program, and Holyoke Public Schools adopted similar policies in 2017);

• A “Health Impact Assessment on the Western Massachusetts Casino,” a 2013 study that highlighted the health impact of vulnerable populations and increased community understanding of these potential impacts;

• Live Well Springfield. Undertaken in partnership with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, the project is designed to improve access to health eating and active living opportunities. Signature projects undertaken as part of the initiative include the formation of the Springfield Food Policy Council, the sucessful, seven-year Go Fresh Mobile Farmer’s Market, and policies such as zoning, community gardens, and Complete Streets ordinances; and

•The YEAH! (Youth Empowerment Adolescent Health) Network, which engages diverse community stakeholders who work together to create a proactive, comprehensive response to adverse adolescent sexual health and adolescent sexuality. Between 2004 and 2015, there were significant reductions in teen birth rates in Springfield and Holyoke, and work continues to address inequities.

Data Driven

But it is in the collection and use of data that the agency has seen the greatest movement when it comes to its mission and how it has evolved over the past decades.

Indeed, as the nation, the region, and area healthcare providers continue a shift toward population health — keeping residents healthy as opposed to simply treating them when they are sick — data becomes critical, said Robinson.

Elaborating, he said providers, advocates, legislators, and, yes, foundations administering grant money use data to identify problems and where, specifically, they are occurring. But they also use it to create responses to the issues identified by this data.

The agency focuses on population data, which often comes from the state Department of Public Health, Collins explained, adding that it also works with the Springfield public schools to generate data on a large, diverse population.

“And we are able to tease out whether issues are at a block level, a neighborhood, a census track, a city, or county,” Collins explained. “We’re able to analyze data and create the story of what is going on in our region; we’re able to localize the data so people here can understand it and take action.”

Perhaps the best recent example of this is the so-called Healthy Hill Initiative, a broad-ranging effort to improve the health and well-being of those in Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood, a program that earned the participating partners (and there were many of them) a Healthcare Heroes award (the new recognition program launched by BusinessWest and HCN) in the category of ‘Collaboration in Healthcare.’

“Their plan of action was driven by data provided to them around block groups within that neighborhood concerning health-status indicators such as asthma, obesity, public safety, and more,” Robinson explained. “Mapping that information helped to target the interventions and support the plan; the community organizing is data-driven in the sense that they’re using the data to inform both the intervention and whether they made a difference.”

Another example would the Springfield Health Equity Report, issued in 2014, said Collins, adding that the agency stratified data by race and ethnicity.

“So when you look at an issue like cardiovascular disease, or obesity, or teen-pregnancy rates, having this stratified data is critical,” she explained. “When you look at state-wide rates for teen pregnancy, for example, everyone’s thrilled because the state rate has come down considerably.

“But if you really look at the data and stratify it by race and ethnicity, you’ll see that the white-girl teen-pregnancy rates have gone down significantly, and so have teens of color,” she went on. “But you still see an incredible inequity and disparity between the two populations, and that’s what we try to lift up and shine a light on, so we’re not all clapping and saying ‘our job is done’ — there are still specific populations that need more resources and investment.”

The only way specific coalitions battling health issues ranging from asthma to obesity to teen pregnancy can determine if they are making an impact — and the desired impact — is through this data, Collins went on, adding that this reality not only explains the new name and logo, but, more importantly, where her agency’s emphasis will be moving forward.

Name of the Game

As Collins noted, there were several motivating forces behind this rebrand.

There was an effort to stem confusion given all the agencies with ‘Partners’ in their name, but also the need to better communicate just how much the agency had evolved into a true change agent since it was created in 1996.

But there was also that desire to reintroduce area residents, officials, and other constituencies to the important work it carries out, and to remind all of them that there is considerable work still to do.

So, to that rhetorical question, ‘what’s in a name?’ or, in this case, a new name? Plenty — and it is, for lack of a better term, a healthy exercise.

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


Something’s Cooking

Chef Warren Leigh in one of the teaching kitchens at the new Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute.

Chef Warren Leigh in one of the teaching kitchens at the new Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute.

The Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute opened its doors to considerable fanfare last month. Officials at the school wore out the phrase ‘state-of-the-art’ as they talked about its five kitchens and other facilities. But that’s only part of the story. The institute is also a key ingredient, as they say in culinary arts, in workforce-development initiatives, as well as efforts to revitalize
downtown Holyoke.

Chef Warren Leigh knew something was up when students arrived for the first class of the semester more than an hour early.

More to the point, he knew exactly what was up, and he didn’t blame those early birds one bit.

Indeed, it seems that people can’t wait to get a look at the $7.5 million Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute, now occupying the first two floors of the building in downtown Holyoke with a name that matches its shape: the Cubit. And that includes the students in Leigh’s classes, specifically the ones a semester or two into their studies within the culinary and hospitality programs who kept hearing about what was being built to replace the aging, insufficient facilities on the HCC campus. And hearing about them. And hearing about them.

So it’s no wonder they altered their schedules and gave themselves what amounted to — wait for it — a cook’s tour. Well, not really. Instead, it was an involved, quite lengthy tour, again for good reasons, as we’ll see when Leigh takes BusinessWest around in a little bit.

Several years in the making, the new, 20,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility boasts five kitchens, a separate bakery, an 80-seat dining facility that will host a variety of events, ultra-modern classrooms, a well-appointed student lounge, an area to change clothes, and much more.

“Aside from Johnson & Wales and the Culinary Institute of America, this is the most current, purpose-built culinary-arts facility in New England, maybe in the Northeast,” said Leigh, chair of the Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts programs at HCC. “It’s truly a regional resource.”

Beyond all that, and those points are noteworthy to be sure, the new center is a significant development, in every sense of that phrase, in many other respects.

First, it represents a huge step forward in the broad realm of workforce development within the culinary-arts field, both locally and regionally, a segment of the economy that was already growing and will now get a huge boost with the arrival in about eight months of MGM Springfield and a host of new restaurants.

The need to hire what will likely be several hundred food-service-related personnel is a big reason why MGM contributed $500,000 to this project and now has its name on the facility.

‘State-of-the-art’ is a phrase that defines all aspects of the new facility in the Cubit Building in downtown Holyoke.

‘State-of-the-art’ is a phrase that defines all aspects of the new facility in the Cubit Building in downtown Holyoke.

But, overall, the food-service and hospitality sectors in Western Mass. are growing, and, as is the case in many fields, finding sufficient numbers of qualified help is becoming an ever-greater challenge.

The Culinary Arts Institute will help close the gap, said Michele Cabral, HCC’s interim dean for Business and Technology, who told BusinessWest that, like other initiatives undertaken at HCC in recent years, the institute is a direct response to recognized needs within the business community and a desire to meet them.

Meanwhile, the institute is both the cornerstone of efforts to renovate the Cubit Building into a mixed-use facility, with apartments on the upper floors, and one of the key ingredients (that’s an industry phrase) in efforts to bring people, businesses, and vibrancy to a surging downtown Holyoke.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a tour of, and an in-depth look at, the Culinary Arts Institute to fully explain its significance to the college, the students who will learn there, and the region as a whole.

Food for Thought

Leigh wears a number of hats in his role as chair of hospitality management and culinary arts, including the traditional chef’s hat.

He’s added another one, but only figuratively.

Indeed, he doesn’t wear any headgear when he’s giving tours, which has become a big part of his job description these days. He’s led walkthroughs taken by constituencies ranging from elected officials to prospective students to media members, and there are many more already on the calendar.

He doesn’t mind this intrusion on his schedule, though, because, like all those at HCC, he’s quite proud of all the hard work that went into designing and building this facility — and obviously with the final product itself.

Before getting one of those tours, BusinessWest first wanted to talk about what brought everyone to this moment.

There has a been a culinary-arts program, in one form or another, at HCC for roughly 30 years, said Leigh, whose tenure covers roughly a third that period. The program, which years ago was more hospitality-related than culinary-focused, has had several homes over the years, none of them large or particularly well-equipped. The most recent was in the Frost Building in what he believes was the old music room.

The need for a larger, better facility was apparent, he went on, but so were the challenges to securing one, including a location and, especially, the funding. Finally, a plan was conceptualized that would make the college — and MGM — partners in the bold plans to revitalize the Cubit Building, which had been underutilized for many years.

This is a true public-private partnership, one that involves the college (and thus the state), the city of Holyoke, the federal government (specifically the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration), MGM, and brothers Denis and Marco Luzuriaga, who purchased the Cubit Building and have invested heavily in its redevelopment.

As the partners in the ambitious initiative came together and plans started to materialize, those involved came to understand what this opportunity meant, and how they needed to take full advantage of it.

“A cross-functional team was put together, and it was told that, if we have the space, we have one chance to get this right — let’s talk about how to build what we actually want,” said Cabral. “Faculty, hospitality, and culinary were part of the team from day one in designing the space and selecting the equipment.”

They certainly did get it right, and the resulting facility enables HCC to greatly expand capacity and thus better serve the region and its culinary- and hospitality-related businesses.

Warren Leigh and Michele Cabral

Warren Leigh and Michele Cabral have devoted considerable time recently to the leading tours of the new Culinary Arts Institute, and there are many more scheduled.

Cabral qualified and quantified what it all means.

“This gives us the capacity to teach multiple sections of our credit programs,” she explained, “while at the same time responding to the needs of the community and teaching workforce development, professional development, and adult basic education related to culinary hospitality. In our old space, we only had one and a half kitchens, so we could only do one thing at a time.”

Leigh agreed, and noted that the institute is a “purpose-built facility” and one of the few in the region, if not the country, when it comes to culinary arts and hospitality centers of study.

“As we grow, we can use every one of these kitchens and classrooms running simultaneously, all day long,” he explained, adding that there is considerable room for expansion as well as expectations that it will be used as demand for workers in these fields escalates.

Five-course Facility

BusinessWest visited the institute on the first day of classes for the spring semester, and, as noted at the top, many of the students were a tad eager — and more than a tad early.

Leigh said he’s been teaching a long time and has never witnessed anything quite like, but, as he said, it’s understandable.

There’s lots to see, and he started the tour where he usually does, with the fully equipped demonstration kitchen, which, as that name suggests, is for demonstrations and teaching exercises.

“In here, we can do any method of cooking,” he said. “And we have three cameras that will put it onto monitors so the students can see close up. We can save it and we can broadcast it over the World Wide Web to anywhere we want.”

From there, he went to the dining room, which can be set up for gatherings of up to 90-100 people, said Leigh, adding that this facility also has cameras and monitors, and students will handle every aspect of events to be staged there, and several have been booked already.

The tour continued in the “production kitchen,” set up European style, as he described it, with the student chefs facing each other (rather than a wall as is the case in most area restaurants) and communicating with each other as they work together to prepare a meal. And then on to two teaching kitchens, a bake shop, classrooms, and that student lounge. Each area is large, open, bathed in natural light thanks to huge windows, and built to enhance the learning process.

The ‘production kitchen’ in the new culinary arts institute is spacious and state-of-the-art.

The ‘production kitchen’ in the new culinary arts institute is spacious and state-of-the-art.

“What I like about our design is that I can stand almost any place in here as a professor and I can see the whole kitchen, I can see all the students, I can talk to all the students,” Leigh explained, adding that it will even be equipped with a microphone because it can get quite noisy in those spaces and even his “kitchen voice” might not suffice.

As noted earlier, these facilities enable a number of classes to be taught at one time, said Leigh, including all segments of HCC’s new associate’s degree program in Culinary Arts, a four-semester program that is now a cornerstone of a program that Cabral described with the term “stackable.”

Elaborating, she said that students could choose a one-year certificate program in Culinary Arts. If they wanted to go further, they could enter the associate’s degree program and essentially build on what they started.

“They can come in and go as far as they want to go; and we’ve made it easy and mapable for them to do that,” she went on, adding that, an individual can start with professional-development classes in mind and segue into the culinary certificate program and then, perhaps, the degree program.

And with that associate’s degree, a student could transfer to Johnson & Wales or another school that offers a four-year program, such as UMass Amerst’s offering in Food Science, said Leigh, adding quickly sending the first two years at a community college and then transferring to a four-year school has become an increasingly popular option for cost-conscious families and individuals.

Meanwhile, that two-year program will certainly open a lot of doors to those who choose that route, he went on, adding that with MGM’s arrival and a host of other additions within the hospitality sector, there are a lot more doors to go through if one is qualified.

Tastefully Done

Helping individuals become qualified was the primary driver behind the new culinary arts institute. Actually, there were several, including a desire among those at the college to play an even more direct role in economic development efforts in Holyoke.

Both of those assignments will play out over coming years as Leigh puts to use his kitchen voice — as well as that microphone — in that demonstration area.

“This is a unique, purpose-built facility that really doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he told BusinessWest, adding that students needed to arrive an hour before the first class started to take it all in.

he was going to say more … but he had to go give yet another tour.

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

Construction Sections

Building Concern

David Fontaine Jr.

David Fontaine Jr. outside one of his company’s current high-profile projects, the new Pope Francis High School.

The good news for area contractors is that construction is humming along in Western Mass. The bad news? A limited talent pool has been stretched even thinner, and companies often struggle to find skilled workers. It’s actually a national problem, as a decades-long emphasis on college degrees has steered young people away from the trades as a viable career option. That needs to change, industry experts say, if they want to keep growing.

Long before the MGM Springfield casino project put hundreds of workers — carpenters, ironworkers, plumbers, electricians, you name it — to work, the region’s construction companies found themselves struggling with a critical element of the business: finding workers.

n some ways, it’s a good problem to have — it means construction activity is up regionally — but it may not be sustainable.

“In Western Mass., it’s a combination of things,” said David Fontaine Jr., president of Fontaine Brothers in Springfield. “Everyone is very busy, with a lot of large projects going on and demanding a lot of labor. And then, you’re seeing a shortage of people entering the trades. Its hard to distinguish which is more the culprit right now, but it’s definitely those two things going on.”

Fran Beaulieu, president of Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement in Chicopee, agrees.

“There is a shortage, and it’s hard to find new help; they just don’t come knocking on your door,” he told BusinessWest. “So we have to create from within. We do have a nice crop of younger guys working for us, under 30, and we’re doing everything we can to retain them — making a better work environment, making it profitable for them, and showing them there is a future in this. That’s how you retain them.”

Attracting new blood to the field? That’s a little more challenging.

“It’s hard work,” he said, perhaps referring to both the actual jobs and convincing people to do them. “When you decide you want to be a carpenter, plumber, or electrician, you know it will be hard work. And there will be days when it’s 28 degrees out — those are the bad days. But then there are a lot of good days — nice, sunny days when it’s 75 degrees out, and people sitting at their desks wish they were outside.”

It doesn’t help, he noted, that some elements of society have looked down at the construction trades over the past quarter-century, pushing hard the idea that young people need to earn a college degree.

Yet, “if you take the job professionally, you can do really, really well,” he said, noting that someone who starts at age 18 may be earning $80,000 to $90,000 by the time they’re 23 or 24, while someone who went to college is just starting out in an entry-level job, often saddled with six-figure debt.

“And that’s working for someone else; never mind venturing out and doing your own projects,” he went on. “I always tell young guys, ‘the carpenter becomes the builder, the builder becomes the developer, and the developer becomes the real-estate owner.’ After five or six years, they’re often no longer wearing a toolbelt, because they’re managing the people working for them. This business can be very lucrative; there’s a lot of opportunity. We all need a plumber from time to time.”

If You Build It…

America needs a lot more than that. Last year, the National Assoc. of Home Builders’ Economics and Housing Policy Group conducted a national online survey of 2,001 young adults (ages 18-25) in response to growing concerns over labor supply in the trades. The current scarcity is all the more concerning, the report noted, given projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the construction sector will add around 790,000 new jobs between 2014 and 2024.

Among respondents who say they want to work in construction, 80% cited good pay as a reason why — the top motivator, in fact. Other reasons include the ability to obtain useful skills (74%), the ability to work outside (53%), the ability to start one’s own business (50%), and the fact that it doesn’t require a college degree (37%).

On the other hand, when respondents who said they were not interested in a construction career were asked why, the top reason was the desire for a less physically demanding job, cited by 48%, followed by the difficulty of the work (32%), the desire for an office job (26%), the desire to open their own business (20%) and, interestingly, the desire to make more money than people in the trades make (19%).

Interesting, because there seems to be a perception gap when it comes to salary. Of the respondents uninterested in a construction career, almost half (44%) think annual salary averages less than $51,000, and only 2% think someone can earn more than $100,000.

Still, the report notes, “most young adults who have yet to make up their minds on a career see very little chance they would join the trades even if the pay was high. This decision is based more on their view that construction work is physically demanding and difficult, and less so on often-repeated presumptions that it is because they prefer ‘new economy’ type jobs, or because the work is seasonal or requires being outside in the elements.

Fran Beaulieu

Fran Beaulieu says recruiting talent is a constant challenge in the industry, which is why he focuses on creating a strong culture of retention and advancement.

“The helpful news for the construction industry is that many 18- to 25-year olds who in theory would not like to work in the trades would reconsider it for an annual salary of $75,000 or more,” it continues. “Although the average annual salary is below this for the trades relevant to the home building industry, $75,000-plus salaries are available for the top 10% to 25% of workers, and it may be worthwhile to make this more widely known.”

Fontaine is doing his part.

“I think this is a great career,” he said. “We have a lot of people here who have had long, successful careers. And certainly, a lot of other contractors in the area have employed a lot of the same people for years and years. A lot of that is the unions, which have great healthcare programs and pension programs that people can take advantage of.”

It’s the other side of the coin, the too-slow trickle of younger workers, that has contractors concerned. Take, for example, these comments published in BusinessWest during 2017 alone:

• From Joe Marois, president of Marois Construction in South Hadley: “Now we’re being faced with a labor shortage, which is always a challenge. That’s the nature of construction — it’s never perfect. I don’t know to what extent the casino is affecting that, but basically, the labor pool for tradespeople is very small.”

• From Laurie Raymaakers, co-owner of J.L. Raymaakers & Sons in Westfield: “What we’re not seeing is qualified or experienced people to hire to grow with us. The need for skilled tradespeople is not going away, and it’s not just us — everyone we talk to within the industry says the same thing. And it’s a field where you can make a very good wage.”

• And from Brian Ruud, owner of Vista Home Improvement in Chicopee, who noted that companies have to be willing to pay competitive wages for good talent: “It’s hard to find good people … We’re happy with where we are now. We could grow more if we had the right people, but we’ll find them.”

Jason Garand

Jason Garand says the local carpenters union has developed programs to introduce young people to well-paying careers in the trade.

Jason Garand, business manager of Carpenters Local Union 336 in Springfield, agreed that the promise of good pay is a must to attract young people, noting that, if an 18-year-old with no plans to go to college can earn $11 an hour at McDonald’s or $13 an hour on a job site, doing hard work in the elements, he might choose fast food, even though there’s a much lower career ceiling in that field — perhaps store management, but no higher.

“He might say, ‘I’ll take the easier path in the short term,’ but in the long term, it’s a dead end,” he noted.

As one of its efforts to raise the profile of its trade, the union recently partnered with Putnam Vocational Technical Academy to bring two students in as apprentices to work on the MGM Springfield project.

“We’re giving them a taste of what construction is all about, and our rate is $16 to start — that’s an apprentice, walking in with no skills,” Garand said, adding that, in the long term, “the union has a wage and benefit package that puts you in the middle class.”

Daily Grind

Fontaine was quick to note that the office side of the business isn’t seeing the same shortage, as the flow of young people graduating from schools like Wentworth Institute of Technology or Worcester Polytechnic Institute with degrees in construction management or engineering has been steady.

“We’re seeing more of a shortage of people going into the trades, the laborers — carpenters, plumbers, pipefitters.”

He added that young people who come from families with construction trades in their background are much more likely to enter the field themselves. Meanwhile, Beaulieu said, immigrants, many from South and Central America or Eastern Europe, are entering the field locally at a higher rate than American-born young people.

“There are some drawbacks,” Fontaine said. “There’s a lot of travel involved, a lot of driving to and from job sites. You’re up and on the road early; some people are averse to that. And there are fluctuations in the construction industry; the market is going to go up and down. It’s not a career where you expect to be employed 52 weeks a year. Especially in the early stage of a career, that can drive some people away, too.”

Beaulieu agreed that it’s not the easiest career. “It’s tough on the body; you have to take care of yourself and stay thin — but the job itself will keep you thin.”

For whatever reason, he went on, “I don’t think a lot of seniors and juniors, when they’re thinking about career opportunities, are necessarily thinking about a trade. But, on the other hand, you don’t have to leave college with huge debt, you’re going to get paid right out of the gate, and five or six years later, you can be a master at the trade.”

With that in mind, Beaulieu says he focuses on training from within, so that his own people can grow in their careers, stay with the firm, and advance to project management and beyond.

The Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry recently conducted its own study on why the construction business struggles to attract new talent, and emerged with five takeaways:

• Young people thrive on regular communication. They enjoy collaborating on teams. Mentoring programs will encourage them to stay on board with a company.

• What matters to a young person about work differs from older generations. Young people enjoy technology, and the construction industry is using more of it. Experts recommend appealing to young people’s interest in technology.

• Company culture is important. Young people want jobs that come with perks and ‘come and go as you like’ atmospheres, which are common among high-tech firms. To be appealing, construction firms need to create ‘good fit’ cultures.

• Companies need to develop new recruitment strategies to meet the long-term employment forecasts, which are positive.

• The construction industry needs to target the right group of young people for field positions — those out of high school but not in college. An older group, attending two-year community-college programs, is an up-and-coming recruitment target as well; they may have tried a career path or two and are ready to settle down.

Like others BusinessWest has spoken with recently about this challenge, Fontaine said there’s no one fix, but added that the tide may be turning when it comes to getting the word out that careers in the construction trades are more stable and lucrative than young people might think.

“I think it’s been a challenge for a while, but the unions have done a good job recruiting people into the trades the last couple of years; they’ve done a good job, especially with some projects like the casino, of reaching into the local market,” he noted. “People are becoming more aware of the opportunities than they were five years ago. But it’s still a constant challenge to get and keep good people.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Sections

Positive Prognosis

healthlaw-184399153The field of law that focuses specifically on healthcare is diverse, challenging, and constantly changing, and that presents growth opportunities at a time when some fields of law are seeing job stagnation. But many law students aren’t aware of these possibilities, which run the gamut from malpractice litigation to end-of-life planning; from medical-records compliance to helping people navigate the complexities of the mental-health system. And those opportunities are only expected to keep expanding.

Barbara Noah says she took a winding path to her career as a law professor, one who specializes in the rapidly changing world of health law.

“When I graduated from law school, I was thinking more of the style of practice and the sort of things I’d like to do,” said Noah, professor of Health Law at Western New England University (WNEU) School of Law, during a recent panel discussion about health-law careers.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1990, she wasn’t interested in litigation, and instead went to work for a Washington, D.C.-based law firm with a strong focus on regulatory compliance.

“Our role was to counsel clients, which were mostly pharmaceutical and medical-device companies, on how to keep in compliance with the regulations issued by the Food and Drug Administration,” she explained. “It wasn’t about getting new drugs approved; these were already-approved products, and we were making sure clients were following appropriate safety rules.”

She found the field so interesting that she eventually transitioned into a long career, first at the University of Florida and since 2005 at WNEU, teaching the many facets of health law.

To name just a few of those, healthcare lawyers interpret the complex healthcare regulations and statutes that govern the administration of health services, advising hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, insurers, and other providers on issues ranging from licensing, reimbursement, and risk management to malpractice litigation and general corporate management.

One panelist at the WNEU event, Judith Feinberg Albright, who works for Devine, Millimet & Branch in Manchester, N.H., started her career as a paramedic before enrolling in law school and taking a particular interest in health law. She developed a secondary interest in litigation through moot-court experiences during those years, and now defends healthcare providers against malpractice claims in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

“I see many people in health law with non-traditional pathways, people with some previous career in healthcare — like you see engineers and architects in intellectual-property law,” she noted. “It’s a pretty diverse group of folks.”

Some jobs are more unique than others. Deb Grossman, another panelist, serves as general counsel with Physician Health Services, an arm of the Massachusetts Medical Society that helps physicians deal with personal and behavioral-health issues and navigate their way back to work.

“Doctors don’t really like lawyers much; they see them as a threat of some kind,” Grossman said. “But I want to be supportive. I’ve been in different roles that were not always supportive, but now I’m in a very conciliatory position.”

After working for a large law firm earlier in her career, she explaned, she went looking for a lifestyle change, and took a job with the state handling the licensure of medical professionals, before taking on her current role.

“I became a much better lawyer,” she said, telling students gathered at the panel discussion that, yes, she made less money working for the state, “but what I gained in experience and autonomy as an attorney, I think was really invaluable.”

It’s just one example, Noah told BusinessWest afterward, of how a shifting healthcare field is cultivating many opportunities for lawyers that students might not hear about on a regular basis during their law-school years — which is why the panel was assembled.

“What’s included in the sweep of healthcare law is broader than people initially think; they think of medical malpractice or something to do with health insurance, but it’s a much broader field than people typically understand,” she said. “And a number of these aspects of health law are in flux right now, and they might be areas of growing demand for the purposes of careers.”

A Different World

One of those changing areas of the law is healthcare compliance — for example, how hospitals are complying with the privacy rules of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

“Although HIPAA has been around for quite a while, every hospital of any size has a compliance office that makes sure medical privacy requirements are being met,” Noah said. “And now with the switch to electronic medical records, it’s created a whole new set of questions for HIPAA in information sharing, and I’m hearing that data security is a big issue which impacts compliance.”

The second growth area concerns the overlap between elder law and health law, driven mostly by the aging of the Baby Boomer population. Not only are older Americans making plans for their estates, Noah said, but they’re becoming more keenly aware of their own mortality, and considering issues like advance care directives, healthcare proxies, and end-of-life preferences, such as do-not-resuscitate orders and decisions on nutrition and breathing assistance.

recent panel discussion at WNEU School of Law

From left, Barbara Noah, Judith Fineberg Albright, Deb Grossman, and Dylan Mawdsley talk about their very different health-law careers at a recent panel discussion at WNEU School of Law.

“There are all sorts of questions, and more attention is being focused on them,” Noah said. “But there’s still a real reluctance to do much advance care planning until faced with a bad diagnosis. That’s an issue that’s going to need more well-trained attorneys in the future to reach this large and aging Baby Boomer population.”

The third big shift that could affect health law is, of course, the ever-changing Affordable Care Act, which has been threatened by the recent federal tax law that repeals its individual mandate.

“We’re keeping on top of how the Affordable Care Act is being changed, amended, and manipulated, and how that impacts the system of healthcare delivery. It’s a moving target,” Noah explained. “Without the individual mandate, if healthy people aren’t buying in anymore, the pool is sicker, and that drives up prices.”

According to Nick Sumski, an LSAT teacher for Kaplan Test Prep, health law is a compelling area of law because everyone has to touch the healthcare system at some point in their lives.

“Health law is such a big growth field with an incredible amount of opportunity, especially in the coming years,” he noted last month on the Kaplan website. “No one knows how it’s all going to work moving forward, and there is going to be a big demand for lawyers to help figure it out.”

Dylan Mawdsley, another panelist at the WNEU event, is assistant general counsel for the state Department of Mental Health, advising DMH staff in their decision making and compliance with laws, and representing the agency before probate and family courts.

He originally went to college as a political science major, but pivoted to law school afterward, starting his career in estate planning — right when the Great Recession hit, which was a bad time for that area of law. The work he does now, often serving as a liaison between doctors, patients, and the court system, is gratifying and presents a great deal of autonomy.

“I really feel like the work we do is good work,” he said, “helping people get treatment and services they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.”

Meaningful Work

When Grossman was in law school, she recalled, she learned a lot about corporate law and litigation, but not much else, and certainly not what she’s doing today.

“This niche of work is very, very satisfying, it’s important work, and the schedule allows me to raise my kids,” she said. “Law students should know there’s a whole world of jobs out there, that aren’t typical law-firm, corporate types of jobs.”

Sumski said students shouldn’t feel like they have to pick any kind of specialization right away.

“Keep an open mind in those first-year classes; you might be surprised by the area of law that ultimately interests you,” he noted. “If you are interested in health law, however, you should take some introductory classes in the subject matter and see if a particular aspect of the field interests you. Health law is an incredibly broad field that touches on many different aspects of law. There’s a lot of opportunity in the area. The job market for lawyers is getting better, but it’s not great, so it makes sense to go into an area that is in demand.”

That demand, Noah said, is driven partly by the fact that health law is so interconnected, with so many moving parts.

“Any student who goes into health law is going to need a deep knowledge of the particular area they’re focusing on,” she noted, “but also a broad, contextual understanding of how the whole healthcare finance and delivery system works in this country — and it’s a very messy, complex, and inefficient system.”

And one that’s constantly changing, presenting plentiful opportunities for law students and career changers willing to think outside the jury box.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2018 Cover Story Difference Makers

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

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

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

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

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

Photography by Leah Martin Photography


005_bolducbob-diff2017Community Pride

Bob Bolduc Cooks Up New Ways to Better the Lives of Young People

032_charlandbobmain-diff2017Pedal to the Mettle

‘Bike Man’ Bob Charland’s Story Has Been a Truly Inspirational Ride

022_girlsincmain-diff2017A Force to Be Reckoned With

Girls Inc. Inspires Members to be Strong, Smart, and Bold

017_plotkinevan-diff2017Portrait of the Artist

Evan Plotkin Works to Fill in the Canvas Known as Springfield

008_crystalcenterbrown-diff2017Write On

Crystal Senter-Brown Enlightens and Empowers Those She Touches

020_willpowermainuse-diff2017Where There’s a Will

The Unique Nonprofit Known as WillPower Meets Some Very Special Needs


Sponsored by



All the News That’s Fit to Hear

Pat Duperre

Pat Duperre, a longtime volunteer with Valley Eye Radio, says she was inspired to read by the challenges of her son, who lost his sight after a heart attack.

For more than 40 years now, a nonprofit known as Valley Eye Radio has been bringing more than news, obituaries, supermarket ads, and Little League scores to those who have lost the ability to read. It has been bringing these individuals hope that their disability will not impact overall quality of life.

Pat Duperre was getting ready to retire. And as she recalls those days and her plans for the ones to come, she remembers thinking — actually knowing — that she would be doing a good deal of volunteer work within her community. In fact, she was already working to find something meaningful to do with her time.

Instead, something meaningful found her, as she put it, and she wound up volunteering in a way she could not have imagined just a few months earlier.

“My son suffered a massive heart attack, and as a result, he lost his sight,” she recalled. “And I saw what he went through, the struggles that he went through to adapt to one day having sight and the next day having nothing.”

These observations coincided with a picture she saw in her local newspaper of Barbara Loh, executive director of Valley Eye Radio (VER), receiving a check from the East Longmeadow Lions Club to help continue that organization’s intriguing mission.

To make a long story a little shorter, Duperre soon become a part of that mission, which is to bring news stories, like the one that inspired her, to the blind, visually impaired, and those not able to read for themselves due to a disability.

These days, she reads the Republican live every Wednesday morning from 9 to 11, delivering all kinds of news — from front-page stories to the obituaries (they have their own time slot, 10 a.m., due to their significance for many readers) to notes on blood drives — and with what she called “a little bit of humor.”

But Loh told BusinessWest — another one of the many publications read on the air — that dozens of volunteers like Duperre bring much more than the day’s news into listeners’ homes.

There are a lot of events going on with some very important information for people, and if you have that kind of disability, you’re reliant on someone to bring you someplace, and it’s often not possible to get to some things.”

“We want to help people, bottom line, to have better lives once they have challenges they never anticipated,” she explained, adding that this assistance begins with the day the special radio that delivers the Valley Eye Radio signal is delivered to one’s home by still another volunteer. “We’re giving people hope that their lives will not be in significant decline because of the impact of this disability.”

VER has been providing this hope for more than 40 years now, said Harold Anderson, programming coordinator for the nonprofit organization, noting that, while the basic mission hasn’t changed over that time, many things have, and VER has adjusted accordingly.

There are new publications, such as BusinessWest’s sister publication, Healthcare News, to read, he said, adding that, in recognition of significant demographic changes within the region, Spanish-language magazines and newspapers are now read as well.

Meanwhile, the need for the program’s services is growing. Indeed, as the population ages, more people are suffering from visual impairment, said Loh, adding that Valley Eye Radio is responding by being more aggressive in its efforts to tell its story and thus gain more of the many forms of support it needs — from financial contributions to additional volunteers — to carry out its mission.

From left, Harold Anderson, programming coordinator for VER; Barbara Loh, executive director; and volunteer reader David Manning.

From left, Harold Anderson, programming coordinator for VER; Barbara Loh, executive director; and volunteer reader David Manning.

As for those volunteers, they are, in most respects, the lifeblood of the organization, said Loh, adding that many, like Duperre, have a personal connection to its mission.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at VER and the vital service it prides to its listeners. This article might be too long to be read over the airwaves — readers prefer stories that can be digested in 10 minutes or less — but that can’t be helped. It takes more than a few column inches to properly convey the importance of this work and especially the passion of those who volunteer and thus make it all happen.

Hear All About It

While growing up in rural Maine, Eileen Richard didn’t get to watch much television.

“My mother didn’t believe in it,” she recalled, adding quickly that she did believe in books, and this was a passion soon shared by her four daughters, who literally couldn’t wait for the next visit from the bookmobile.

And it’s a passion that has never left Richard, who began reading for the blind in various capacities some four decades ago. She has worked and volunteered in many settings since, and actually came back to reading for the blind (at VER) because, in her previous role as a volunteer at Baystate Children’s Hospital, the patients were so absorbed by their electronic devices that there was no call for Richard to read to them.

So she started reading the Daily Hampshire Gazette on VER and thoroughly enjoys every minute of it, especially the small items on animals up for adoption.

“I call it my pet project, and I have a tendency to read them as if I am the animal involved,” she explained. “If it’s a male dog, I might lower my voice and say, ‘hi … boy, you really need to meet me; I’m a wondrous pet, and I’m friendly, but not too friendly — I won’t jump all over you.’

“I really try to put my personality into whatever pet it is, be it a rabbit, a cat, or a dog,” she said, adding that she reads to people as if she were sitting in a room with them. “I like to read with personality.”

And the listeners like that personality, apparently, said Loh, adding that Richard has many fans, especially Larry Humphries, a long-time VER board member who insisted on having Richard attend the gathering marking his retirement from the board because he wanted to meet the woman behind the voice.

“You feel like you are so cared for, even on the radio, when you are listening to Eileen,” said Loh. “It really is amazing.”

The same can be said of the more than 50 people who volunteer in various ways for VER, and especially those who take to the mic to bring the news — and some companionship — home.

It has been this way since 1977, said Anderson, noting that the station is now part of a network of six stations throughout the Bay State operating under the name Talking Information Center (TIC).

Volunteers now read a number of daily weekly and monthly publications that cover Hampden and Hampshire counties, he said, adding that the service is vital because newspapers are usually the only source of what would be considered very local news.

By that, he meant everything from obituaries to church outings; from Little League scores to letters to the editor; from the daily horoscope to service-club gatherings (yes, like that photo of Loh receiving a check from the Lions Club).

That kind of news isn’t available on traditional radio or television, and one couldn’t get it on their cell phone, either, Anderson noted, adding that VER brings it to those who have lost their sight or seen it diminish to the point where they can’t read anymore.

And it delivers much more than the daily or weekly news, he went on, adding that, over the past few years, VER has been taking its act on the road, if you will, and, by doing so, it is taking its listeners to various events through that special radio that sits in their home.

“We’ve been going out into the community more, and I’ve been doing more interviews and recordings at various events to try to bring people even more than just the newspapers,” Anderson explained. “There are a lot of events going on with some very important information for people, and if you have that kind of disability, you’re reliant on someone to bring you someplace, and it’s often not possible to get to some things.

“So I’ve been going out and doing those kinds of things,” he went on, adding that he has taken VER and its listeners to everything from elder-care conferences to the recent Thrive After 55 Fair at Western New England University, to a senior symposium at Greenfield Community College.

When the Wall That Heals, a traveling replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., came to West Springfield, VER was there, with Anderson interviewing a number of veterans to capture their reflections on the experience.

Volunteer Chip Costello has been a long-time reader of BusinessWest.

Volunteer Chip Costello has been a long-time reader of BusinessWest.

Such outreach, as Anderson calls it, is a win-win for VER in that it provides additional services to listeners while also giving the nonprofit invaluable exposure at a time when many still don’t know about the station or its mission.

And that’s critical, because all this programming requires resources, said Anderson and Loh, adding that VER relies on a number of funding sources, including the state (although it hasn’t received any money from the Commonwealth since last summer), grants from area foundations such as the Community Foundation and Beveridge Foundation, individuals, and area businesses and civic groups — for example, the Lions Club underwrites the obituaries, A to Z Movers underwrites sports, and the law firm Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin underwrites elder-law news.

The Latest Word

Chip Costello, another volunteer, also has a personal connection to VER and its mission — actually, several of them.

While he was studying for his MBA at Western New England University, the nonprofit became the subject of a project involving several of the students.

“The point of the exercise was to go over and study it as a nonprofit organization, so we looked at it from that perspective,” he recalled. “I thought their mission was very interesting.”

Much later, while working at MassMutual as a national sales manager for the annuity product line, a different, much deeper connection was formed.

“My mother, who was a voracious reader, developed macular degeneration, and it got to the point where she just couldn’t read anymore,” he explained. “So I would go over there and read things to her. That’s why this is such a natural fit, especially when you can see the kind of impact such a condition can have of someone, when novels or stories or essays are so important to them, and suddenly they don’t have access to that. And it’s so easy to help.”

Costello shows up at the Valley Eye Radio studios on Hampden Street in Springfield (generously donated by WGBY) at 8 a.m. each Wednesday to prerecord the reading of stories in BusinessWest.

With his background in business, he finds that subject matter interesting, and understands that the stories he’s reading resonate with individuals who worked at a specific company or in a certain field. And the work enables him to give back to the community — something his former employer always stressed — in a way that he knows, from personal experience, can improve quality of life.

“I like the idea of working with nonprofits,” said Costello, who also teaches Gaelic and volunteers at his church now that he’s ‘retired.’ “I enjoy this and continue to do it because I feel it’s important.”

David Manning agreed. He’s a very recent addition to the corps of volunteers — he’s only been doing this for roughly two months — but he can already see how he’s changing lives by reading the Chicopee Register and other material.

Eileen Richard reads the Daily Hampshire Gazette live on VER, and will often take the role of an animal up for adoption.

Eileen Richard reads the Daily Hampshire Gazette live on VER, and will often take the role of an animal up for adoption.

Like Richard, he was drawn to the organization by the kind of local news content — in this case an editorial on VER and its mission that appeared in the Gazette and the Amherst Bulletin — that he would later be reading on the air.

“It rang a bell with me because, many years ago, when I started working, my interest was in working with deaf-blind children,” said Manning, adding that he has a deaf son and that the original plan for his career was to train at the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech to work with deaf children and later go on to the Perkins School in Boston to work with deaf-blind children.

However, he liked the work at the Clarke School so much, he stayed there 45 years. He retired and did ‘old-man things,’ as he called them, got sick of that, and decided that he needed to get back to do something meaningful. Those thought patterns coincided with his reading of that editorial on VER.

Today, he reads “anything and everything,” as he put it, a collective that includes everything from the Chicopee paper to the grocery inserts, with the latter running neck and neck with obituaries as perhaps the most popular segments on VER.

“I’ll tell people how much roast beef is a pound,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the service provided by VER resonates with him because he’s seen how his son, now in his 50s, can lose a sense of connectivity through his disability.

“I’ve seen how disabilities can affect people,” he noted. “I’ve seen how my son can sit in the middle of a crowd and not know what’s going on because he can’t hear what they’re talking about. That has helped sensitize me to the position a person with a disability finds themself in.”

Sound Reasoning

Upon wrapping up her interview with BusinessWest, Richard left for the studio and commenced reading some news from the Gazette.

Before long, she was taking the role of a cat up for adoption and putting on what could only be described as a hard sell.

Or maybe it was a soft sell, because, as advertised, she was talking to the audience in a calming voice and as she would if she was sitting with someone in her living room.

As Loh put it earlier, you have to feel like you’re cared for, even on the radio.

This is the magic of Valley Eye Radio, which brings its listeners all the news that’s fit to hear and, more importantly, provides those most precious commodities — companionship and connectivity.

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

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur

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

Front row, from left,

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

An Exercise in Teamwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Sox legend David Ortiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several of the team’s owners and managers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owning the Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunderbirds players wore replica Indians jerseys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Net Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goal Oriented

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

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

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

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
• 2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

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

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

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

Indeed, just about everything has gone exceedingly right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing the Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

He says this group is anything but that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Inspiration Point

Vitek Kruta stands in the Hub at GCA, which hosts concerts almost weekly.

Vitek Kruta stands in the Hub at GCA, which hosts concerts almost weekly.

Gateway City Arts touts itself as “a venue for events, entertainment, dining, art making, teaching, and learning.” That’s quite a mouthful, but the sprawling complex in Holyoke’s growing innovation district, beside its historic canals, has certainly become all that and more. It’s a model, co-owner Vitek Kruta says, that not only raises the profile of local artists and startups, but boosts tourism and raises the city’s economic profile.

Today, the complex known as Gateway City Arts houses artist studios, operates a restaurant, presents concerts on a regular basis, and hosts events of all kinds. But Vitek Kruta says its origins were much more humble than that.

“The whole thing started because I was looking for my studio,” said Kruta, an artist himself, who, along with business partner Lori Divine, bought the facility on Race Street in Holyoke five years ago. “We stumbled upon this space, and we loved the building. Then it took several months to negotiate to get it. Once we did, we asked, ‘now what do we do with all this space?’”

All they knew for sure was that they saw something unique in the empty warehouse along the city’s canals. Now, the facility functions as a co-working space for artists and others during the day and an event space on nights and weekends, one with a decidedly funky vibe.

Kruta and Divine were no strangers to the area arts scene. He had been involved in New City Art in Northampton, and she with the Guild Studio School in Northampton, among other roles. “We were both always interested in building community around art, providing space for artists’ classes and concerts and the interaction of all these disciplines. Now we had this huge building, so what can we do with it?”

Besides housing his own studio — he restores fine art — in the complex as planned, Kruta and Divine slowly began the process of cleaning up the building and making it available for studios and classes — and, eventually, performances, meetings, and events.

“Little by little, we had to find out how can we utilize this place and follow our dream, because we always dreamed about creating a community-based place for artists and musicians,” he explained. His daughter, a tango dancer, brought her group of dancers in house, and they volunteered to help with renovating the rooms and sanding the floors.

The restoration of a large room called the Judd Paper Hall attracted other dance and yoga groups, even while the complex’s future bistro area, where BusinessWest recently sat with Kruta, was still a dark, boarded-up storage area, with two loading docks where big trucks carried away loads of debris throughout the day. Meanwhile, the current concert venue, known as the Hub at GCA, was just a temporary stage, but was selling out shows early on.

“Now it’s growing to the point where we’re starting to attract bigger players in the game,” he noted. The next phase was renovating the upper floors — he eventually moved his studio and office up there — and making the first floor accessible for public use. “Little by little, we started to develop the second-floor cubicles, which is now the maker space.”

Those artists and makers include puppeteers, painters, costume designers, writers, jewelry makers, three nonprofits, a property-management startup, and, soon, a microbrewery. Four tenants are graduates of SPARK, Holyoke’s entrepreneurship-education and mentorship program. Gateway also houses a fully equipped woodworking shop and ceramics studio in the basement, which can be rented to whomever needs them.

The facility’s bistro

The facility’s bistro serves lunch and dinner throughout the week and a popular brunch on Sundays.

“This whole facility is about resources,” he said. “We have an instrument builder who makes guitars downstairs. There was a guy who built 500 beehives. There are small projects — if somebody just needs to come drill some holes, and they need some special piece of equipment, it’s there.”

There’s plenty of ‘there’ at Gateway, and more to come, as Kruta and Divine continue to hone their vision of the facility as a resource not only for its tenants, but for the community as a whole.

Food for Thought

A major step toward fulfilling that vision has been the creation of a fully functional commercial kitchen, which enables Gateway to prepare much more food than before, when Kruta had access only to a tiny kitchen space.

That means the events people book in one of the three large meeting areas — which include weddings, fund-raisers, concerts, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, memorial services, and corporate trainings — now have food service to match. Meanwhile, a restaurant on the site called Gateway City Bistro serves lunch and dinner most days, and a popular brunch on Sundays.

“We realized that, when we have concerts, we need to provide some kind of food,” Kruta said, but the kitchen benefits Gateway in other ways, too. While artist tenants thrive through shared resources and networking, food-related startups can use the kitchen to develop their own enterprises — such as Holyoke Hummus Co., which started at Gateway but now has its own location on High Street.

Race Street warehouse

Vitek Kruta and Lori Divine saw plenty of potential in this Race Street warehouse that has now become a mecca for the arts, performances, and events.

The possibilities are endless, he continued, whether a startup is baking cookies, packaging spices, selling dumplings from a food truck, or launching a microbrewery. But the key word is ‘startup.’

“That’s the whole idea — this is a startup place for everybody. Once you become established or test your product or you can actually take it to the next level, you move out and find some other place.”

It’s often a small step from having a great idea to developing the prototype, he added, arguing that there’s no place quite like Gateway that provides that opportunity to such a wide range of entities.

Meanwhile, the concert venue, which obviously benefits from the expanded food service, now boasts a fully equipped stage with state-of-the-art lighting. A few steps away, an outdoor patio beer garden and grill area provides an opportunity to host events outdoors. And all of it takes place in a complex with a specific vibe that appeals to party bookers looking for something a little different. “Really, anything that you need space for, you can find here,” Kruta said.

Gateway’s many spaces have been used for fund-raisers as well, and some of the artistic endeavors are intended to reflect relavant civic concerns, such as an upcoming exhibit — timed for Black History Month — of 35 paintings by Robert Templeton, known for his presential portraits as well as his civil-rights-themed pieces, including a massive portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. that will be on display for the month. The art show will be complemented by concerts, panels, and discussions centered on social justice.

“This is a tool to move the community forward and address certain issues,” Kruta said. “It is very exciting. When you start to get a little understanding of the complexity of this place … it’s hard to explain, but anything is possible.”

Art and Parcel

Since they purchased the building that would become Gateway City Arts, Kruta and Divine have expanded their team to 20 employees. One of them, Cait Simpson, first arrived as an artist using the space, and now serves as the facility’s director of marketing.

“The environment they set up is so community-based and so devoted to the arts,” she said, “and as an artist coming to work here, you feel that, and you’re inspired to do more here.”

The connections that form among the artists are also valuable, Kruta noted, as they often help each other understand the entrepreneurial aspects of their trades and learn how to make a living selling their work. In return, the artists often take part in events that raise Gateway’s profile while also giving them valuable exposure. “We are fostering and developing these relationships that will only multiply the creative possibilities. That’s the idea of this place.”

In short, Kruta loves the energy he feels when he walks around the building.

“We love Holyoke, and that’s why we’re here,” he said. “You look around, and it’s incredible. We’re bringing 30,000 people here a year. We have concerts almost every week. People come here for a one-of-a-kind experience, and I think that’s what we’ve accomplished.”

Admittedly, plenty of area facilities offer, as Gateway does, a catering program, multiple halls people can rent for weddings and corporate meetings, and state-of-the-art sound equipment. “But we have a specific vibe here,” Kruta told BusinessWest. “We are artists, and we can afford to be quirky, and we want to be. We want people to come here and be like, ‘oh, look at those bricks.’

“That’s the reaction now,” he concluded. “There’s always this factor of ‘wow, I’ve never seen anything like this,’ and they walk away feeling inspired.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate Sections

Vehicle for Growth?

The Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street

The Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street has a proud past, and developers now believe it has an intriguing future as market-rate housing.

Chuck Irving says the property at 151 Chestnut St. in Springfield — known to the well-informed as the Willys-Overland Building because the long-defunct car maker had a showroom on its first floor and a 1,000-car garage above — caught his attention some time ago, after it was damaged and then abandoned after the natural-gas explosion in late 2012.

And he thought it had some potential.

But what really opened his eyes was the rebirth of an almost identical property in Detroit also built by Willys-Overland.

Irving recalled googling ‘Willys-Overland Lofts,’ the name of the housing complex the site was converted into (just as BusinessWest did, and you can) and seeing headlines about relatively small but well-appointed units selling for north of $500,000. And going fast.

“We started reading the articles about the same building in Detroit,” recalled Irving, a principal with Boston-based Davenport Properties. “We went online, looked at the pictures … and it was an incredibly attractive property. And so we started looking at this building, thinking, ‘if it’s structurally sound, this is a great opportunity, because it comes with parking.’”

Indeed, seeing what happened in Detroit and coupling that with what readily appears to be a growing need for market-rate housing as the countdown to MGM Springfield’s opening hits eight, maybe nine months, the Springfield property’s potential soared in Irving’s eyes.

Enough to make the 70,000-square-foot, four-story structure Davenport Property’s latest investment in the City of Homes and the region as a whole. Others include the Springfield Plaza, the Hadley Mall, and the Walmart in Westfield.

“Our company is involved with MGM,” said Irving, noting that the company considers itself MGM’s development partner in Springfield. “And we’ve been watching the employees of the company come into the area, especially the young ones, and looking at their perception of the inventory of available apartments. Through their eyes, it became really clear that there was a need for more market-rate housing in Springfield.”

Whether the Chestnut Street property in Springfield can follow the lead of its twin in Detroit is a huge question mark, one that will hopefully be answered by extensive cost-benefit analysis work in the weeks and months to come, or what Irving called “calibrating Springfield’s market rents with construction costs.”

But he believes the property is certainly a sound investment and that the building will play a key role in the revitalization of the city and especially the area that has come to be known colloquially as the ‘blast zone.’

Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief Development officer, agreed. He said the Willys project, if it develops as Davenport believes it could, might become a catalyst for the blast zone, an area bordered, roughly, by Lyman Street to the north, Dwight Street to the west, Pearl and Hillman streets to the south, and Spring Street to the east.

“There are other investors looking into that area, which we’re calling the ‘next frontier’ in Springfield,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the conditions are favorable for more housing initiatives and related businesses in that zone.

These conditions include everything from MGM and other job-creating ventures in and around downtown to the revitalization of Union Station, just a block or so to the north of the Willys building, to an interest among Millennials and also some retiring Baby Boomers in what Kennedy called “urban living.”

“When you calculate all the jobs that are going to be happening in the downtown and the Springfield area in general, and also take into account the fact that urban living is making a comeback, as well as the growing entertainment options in that area … all these things make this project viable and add up to something good for Springfield,” he said.

A new life as housing would only be the latest chapter in the intriguing history of what has come to be known as the Willys-Overland Block Local Historic District, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Built in 1916 as an automobile sales, service, and garaging area, the property became part of what would later be described as an auto-industry legacy in Springfield. Indeed, the Duryea brothers created the first marketable auto in Springfield — there’s a statue depicting their creation near Stearns Square — and Rolls-Royce located a plant in the city to capitalize on its highly skilled workforce.

But Willys-Overland, like the others, did not enjoy a long history in the city. Indeed, it closed its property here in 1921 due to slumping sales, and it has seen a number of uses since.

It was a primarily a parking garage for some of the downtown hotels before they were converted into condominiums, said Irving, and after that, it served as home to a host of businesses, ranging from Square One to a construction company.

These operations were forced out by the gas explosion in late November 2012, he went on, adding that the building was completely gutted and has been vacant, with most of the windows covered with plywood, ever since.


Above, a news story announces the opening of the Willys-Overland building in 1916. At right, the Willys-Overland property in Detroit, which has been transformed into lofts selling for more than $500,000.

Below, a news story announces the opening of the Willys-Overland building in 1916. At right, the Willys-Overland property in Detroit, which has been transformed into lofts selling for more than $500,000.

The previous owner applied for a demolition permit in January 2015, but the city sought and won a delay of that move due to the property’s historic significance.

It was this delay that essentially gave the property a reprieve — time for more progress to take shape in Springfield, time for a recognized need for more market-rate housing to emerge, and, yes, time for the Willys-Overland Lofts project to catch fire — and catch Davenport’s attention.

As noted, the Springfield Willys-Overland property is an intriguing addition to an already large and diverse portfolio of properties in Western Mass.

Perhaps the most visible is the Springfield Plaza, which has undergone an extensive facelift and added new tenants ranging from a trampoline complex to a new home for Springfield’s Registry of Motor Vehicles office, which, said Irving, has brought a significant surge in traffic to the plaza.

The portfolio also includes a retail complex across the street from the Eastfield Mall and what’s known as Davenport Square in Springfield, at the corner of Union and Main streets across from MGM Springfield. The development will include MGM’s daycare facility as well as some retail.

As for the Willys-Overland building, the next steps in the process of writing the next chapter in its history are finalizing designs, crunching the numbers, as noted earlier, and requesting support for historic tax credits, said Irving, adding that redevelopment is dependent on such tax credits and other forms of assistance.

While the reuse plans are still in their infancy, Irving anticipates perhaps 60 units of relatively small size, with a portion of the building to be used for parking.

“It’s got great bones, and it’s absolutely perfect for apartments with the column spacing,” he noted. “What we’re trying to go after is small — really small units for young professionals who don’t want the price of having a big space.

“Our take on it is that it’s a great investment,” he went on. “We’re not certain that the market rents will support the construction costs, and we’re still verifying that. But in the long run, we think Springfield is on the upswing, so whether it’s this year or next year, we’re convinced that this will be a great residential investment.”

As for the blast zone, or Springfield’s ‘next frontier,’ as Kennedy called it, progress has come slow to that area, with the gas explosion now more than five years in the rear-view mirror.

This can be attributed to several factors, he went on, including the slow pace of insurance settlements on many of the properties in the zone (including the Willys-Overland building) and a desire among investors to see how and in what ways Springfield continued its revitalization.

But Kennedy believes the Willys-Overland project could trigger other developments in that area and other housing initiatives as well. And Irving agreed.

“The Springfield market, in our mind, is about to blossom,” he told BusinessWest. “And so, this is a good place to be on the ground level.

“This is a small project at 60 units,” he went on. “If this tests out and verifies that market rates can support new construction, then this will be a catalyst for that entire area.”

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


Engaging Work

JC Schnabl

JC Schnabl

The UMass Amherst Alumni Assoc. has been in business since 1871. Its informal mission — to engage alums and begin (and continue) a dialogue concerning the importance of giving back to the institution, hasn’t changed over the past 147 years. But like the university itself, the alumni association has been expanding, elevating its game, and developing new strategies for inspiring graduates to invest in their alma mater.

JC Schnabl’s office in Memorial Hall is decorated with something approaching a nautical theme. There are several large framed paintings of sailing ships, including the U.S.S. Constitution.

When asked about it, with the expectation of an acknowledged personal fondness for ships, sailing, or both, Schnabl, assistant vice chancellor of Alumni Relations and executive director of the UMass Amherst Alumni Assoc., said there was some of that. But there was much more to these choices for his walls, he admitted.

Indeed, he was looking for something that said ‘Massachusetts’ or ‘New England’ — sort of … maybe. But he was also looking for something that didn’t just say ‘Massachusetts’ or ‘New England,’ and would appeal to a broader audience.

“I didn’t want to put something up that was Boston-specific,” he explained. “Old Ironsides is kind of a national emblem, and it’s broadly applicable to our alumni audience.”

And in many ways, his job, and his office’s mission, is much the same. There is a local focus to it, obviously, because there are so many graduates of the university living and working in Massachusetts, with the largest concentration (nearly half the total) being inside the Route 128 beltway around Boston. But the reach, and the message, has to be broader, because there are alums — 265,000 of them, according to the latest count — in every state and dozens of countries.

And that message is, in a word, ‘engagement’ with UMass Amherst, with engagement being an immensely broad term that is generally synonymous with ‘involvement,’ which can obviously come in many forms and flavors, said Schnabl.

For These Alums, Engagement Has Become a Passion

Vinnie Daboul remembers how it all started, and he tells the story often, because he says it’s important.

It was back in 1995, when Daboul, now a partner with Sage Benefit Advisers, was working for Phoenix Home Life. He was invited by someone at the Isenberg School of Management, which he attended a decade earlier, to speak to students about his work and his industry. Read More:

Financial support is perhaps the most obvious and important. It is the elephant in the room and the key to almost every one of the university’s ongoing efforts to climb higher in the rankings of the nation’s top institutions, he noted, adding that there is a significant, and in many ways needed, blurring of the lines when it comes to the work done by alumni-relations offices and development offices, as we’ll see later.

But engagement — and involvement — come in many other forms as well, said Schnabl, from support of athletic teams to mentoring of students, soon-to-be-graduates, and alums; from networking to efforts of all kinds to help build the university’s brand.

“We’re the mechanism that the university employs to engage alumni — and students who are going to become alumni  —in the future of the university,” said Schnabl, summing up the overarching mission of his office. “In an environment where universities across the country are trying to turn their alumni associations into a broad fund-raising arm of the university, our chancellor has a belief that our strategy of engagement is equally important.

“We don’t want a scenario where the first time someone hears from the university, we’re asking for money,” he went on, adding, again, that money is vital to the school’s success. “Frequently, it’s ‘how can we help? How can we help with your career goals? How can we reconnect you with the university, a place where you spent four or five years and absolutely loved? How do we engage you with alumni who are doing things you like to do?’”

Put simply, the alumni office wants graduates to become involved in what he called a ‘lifelong relationship’ with the university, and certainly not one that ends when the diploma is received at that huge ceremony in the football stadium.

Schnabl, who came to the university from a similar post at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), said he considered a number of potential landing spots as he commenced a search for jobs on the East Coast in early 2012 to be closer to his daughter as she attended school in North Carolina.

In UMass Amherst, he said, he saw a school on the rise, one that was building new facilities and building momentum at the same time. And he decided he wanted to be part of that.

And since arriving, and partly through his own lobbying efforts, UMass has elevated its game in the broad and ‘quirky’ (Schnabl’s word) world of alumni relations. Indeed, since his arrival, the alumni office has swelled from 16 full-time employees to 25, and has become more aggressive in its efforts to get alums involved in their alma mater.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Schnabl about this quirky business of alumni relations and how the university is committing more resources, and more attention, to the work of engaging its graduates.

School of Thought

There’s a large, framed map on a wall just outside a suite of offices in Memorial Hall. It details just where the university’s alums reside these days, and it’s colored, with dark red identifying the most heavily populated areas, white indicating the least populated regions, and progressively darker shades of pink showing those in between.

As might be expected, the Northeast, and especially Massachusetts, is dark red, as is much of Florida and some pockets of Arizona, the Carolinas, and California — the popular retirement spots, but also, in the case of the Research Triangle and Silicon Valley, where many graduates are finding jobs. Meanwhile, also as expected, huge swaths of the Midwest and South are white. Not many residents of those states go to UMass, and not many graduates go there to live or work.

Such information is obviously valuable, said Schnabl, but knowing where the graduates are is just a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting alums involved or engaged.

Communicating with these individuals is a much bigger piece, as is sending a message that will inspire as much as it keeps the recipient informed.

Other pieces include events such as homecoming and reunions (there’s a large one on campus for each class marking its 50th anniversary, for example), as well as programs to get alums involved in their school, like a job-shadowing initiative in a few weeks that will involve several companies in the Bay State and beyond.

All this and more comes under the purview of the UMass Amherst Alumni Assoc., which operates, as most similar operations do, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency.

JC Schnabl says the broad mission for the alumni association is to engage alumni — and students who are going to become alumni — in the future of the university.

JC Schnabl says the broad mission for the alumni association is to engage alumni — and students who are going to become alumni — in the future of the university.

Around since 1871, nearly as long as the university, the association was created to engage graduates, said Schnabl, and, as he put it, “begin the dialogue concerning the importance giving back — of both their time and their money, and also being advocates for the university.”

That mission hasn’t changed in 147 years, but the manner in which it is carried out, at UMass and elsewhere, and the vehicles for doing so, including LinkedIn and Facebook, certainly have.

Schnabl has been in the alumni business, if you will, for more than 20 years now (after starting his professional career in law enforcement), and he’s seen a number of changes and emerging trends. Mostly, he’s seen forward-thinking colleges and universities become more serious about this business of alumni relations because of its importance to brand building and development.

So serious that schools, especially large public institutions, will now hire the best applicant they can find to lead such efforts, not the best applicant who is also an alum, as has been the case historically. Schnabl is an example — he did undergraduate work at the University of the Redlands just outside Los Angeles, and earned his MBA at the University of California at Irvine.

He stayed in California, and after working in law enforcement, “stumbled” into alumni relations, as he said most people working in this business do, by taking a job in that office at Long Beach State. He later took the lead job at Stanford.

As noted earlier, the UMass job was one of many he was considering when he decided he wanted to work close, but not too close, to his daughter. And it was one that intrigued him on a number of levels.

“UMass Amherst was poised for great things, and the alumni association was as well,” he said, adding that, when he interviewed for the position, he saw a school with considerable momentum and an alumni office with potential and an administration ready to make a bigger commitment to it.

Grade Expectations

As noted, there are several aspects to the work of all alumni offices, including the one at UMass, ranging from the writing, printing, and dissemination of magazines and newsletters to the staging of homecoming and other gatherings, to efforts to bring alumni from various academic programs, regions, and backgrounds together.

But at its core, the office’s primary focus now, more than ever, is to promote the value of philanthropy and thus increase constituent giving, and also to expand and promote available volunteer opportunities to broaden and diversify alumni support of the school’s students and its initiatives.

In other words, the office works to get people involved and — this is important — keep them involved, with involvement meaning writing checks to the university, but also much more.

When private universities graduate students, that’s not the first those students hear that it’s important to give back to the university. They hear it, starting not on the day they show up, but before they’re even thinking about going to that campus. They’re being indoctrinated into the notion that their support of the institution is going to be a lifelong commitment.”

It’s a process that needs to start early, and there must be constant reinforcement, said Schnabl, who talked about the need to instill what he called a “culture of philanthropy,” and notable progress with that assignment.

“When private universities graduate students, that’s not the first those students hear that it’s important to give back to the university,” he explained. “They hear it, starting not on the day they show up, but before they’re even thinking about going to that campus. They’re being indoctrinated into the notion that their support of the institution is going to be a lifelong commitment.

“Being a large public university that hadn’t really had that as part of our DNA, there was a lot of groundwork to lay,” he went on, adding that considerable work has been done in this regard. He started with a reference to the Commencement Ball.

As that name suggests, this is a gathering that takes place in the weeks leading up to commencement. Over the past several years, the event has seen explosive growth, from 700 attendees at the Student Union to more than 2,500 at a packed Mullins Center.

There is a fund-raising component to the ball, said Schnabl, noting that a portion of the ticket price is a donation to the university, hopefully the first of many.

“That makes them a donor to the university, which means we can communicate to those who participated and explain to them the importance of being a donor to the university,” he noted, “and how that money is going to help do everything from boost the rankings of the university to help other students come here and afford their time at UMass.”

There’s also the award-winning Multicolor Mile Run/Walk. This is an annual event at which participants — there’s a solid mix of students, alumni, faculty, and staff — traverse a one-mile loop through the campus while getting sprayed with liquid paint — hence the name. It’s fun event, but there’s a giving component here as well.

“They pay money to participate, and they take a ball that symbolizes their money and drop it in the bucket where they believe it should most effectively go in support of the institution,” he explained. “It usually winds up in the scholarship bucket.”

Yet, while working to stress the importance of philanthropy and giving back financially, the alumni association has also developed programs to engage graduates in other ways that build the brand.

One is the upcoming job-shadowing program, said Schnabl, adding that this is a new initiative designed to involve graduates in various fields with current students with an eye toward introducing them to potential job opportunities and giving them exposure to various business sectors.

“It’s an opportunity for a student to see what it’s like working for that industry in a way that being on campus doesn’t necessarily show them,” he explained, adding that it’s scheduled for January so that students can visit businesses near their homes while on winter break. “They get a day in the life at a particular business, but they also have exposure to an alum, to a professional field, and to a particular company so they can engage and potentially come through with jobs and internship possibilities.”

Several corporations, including Liberty Mutual, Target, Novartis, Genesis Health Care, the Pyramid Hotel Group, and others, are participating, he said, adding that more than 40 businesses, most of them in the Boston area, are hosting students.

Other initiatives include a mentoring program that also matches alums with current students, as well as affinity groups representing everything from various regions to the LGBT community. There’s also something called the Almuni Advisors Network, an online platform similar to LinkedIn.

“If a student or a young alum, or even an alum in transition, were looking to find out more about an industry or a career, they can tap into this wealth of information from people across the country and in a variety of different industries and set up an appointment to talk with them,” Schnabl explained. “They can take those career discussions and turn them into career opportunities.”

Meanwhile, volunteerism comes in many forms, from those in various industries advising the deans of specific schools to professionals advising individual students.

“Yes, their financial contributions are important, but their advocacy on behalf of the university is as important, if not moreso,” he noted, adding that alumni have been invaluable in communicating the importance of the university to economic development in the Bay State to the Legislature and the public at large.

Bottom Line

When asked how to measure success in his business — a question that’s being asked by many in that sector and in college presidents’ offices as well — Schnabl said there are a number of yardsticks.

They include everything from the number of hits on websites and clicks on specific articles in the magazines to attendance at the Commencement Ball, to the number of companies taking part in the job-shadowing program. The most important, obviously, is the level of donations to the school in question.

Ultimately, though, the greatest measures of success involve what is done with the dollars that are donated — new facilities, new programs, new opportunities for students to attend the university, and an upward trajectory in those all-important rankings of universities and individual schools within them.

Thus, some results are not visible, or measurable, for years.

For now, though, Schnabl believes UMass Amherst is making great strides in this business of alumni relations, and with building those lifelong relationships between graduates and the university that lie at its core.

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

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Growth Engine

Tracey Gaylord of Granite State Development Corp. (right) with Shannon Reichelt, who used Granite State’s services to finance a new property for her company, S. Reichelt & Co.

Tracey Gaylord of Granite State Development Corp. (right) with Shannon Reichelt, who used Granite State’s services to finance a new property for her company, S. Reichelt & Co.

Certified development companies, or CDCs, are entities that partner with banks to help small businesses secure financing to grow their operations. But in doing so, they’re also growing the economy by promoting economic development, which is, in fact, a key element of their mission. Since its inception in New Hampshire in 1982 — and its subsequent, ever-expanding work across Massachusetts — Granite State Development Corp. has been executing that mission.

Shannon Reichelt recently purchased a building in Holyoke to consolidate her CPA organization, S. Reichelt & Co.

Meanwhile, Ben LaRoche and Jared Martin purchased a property in Lanesboro to house their technology-integration business, Amenitek; Gordon and Patricia Hubbard bought Hidden Valley Campground in Lanesboro and renamed it Mt. Greylock Campsite Park; and Pat Ononibaku purchased the adult day-care operation known as ThayerCare and renamed it Bakucare.

Then there are Anthony Chojnowski, who is building a new structure for his clothing store, Casablanca, in Lenox, and Frank Muytjens and Scott Cole, who are developing the Inn at Kenmore Hall in Richmond, near the New York line.

While those are six very different businesses, the common thread is how they financed their property purchases: through the certified development company (CDC) called Granite State Development Corp. (GSDC).

“We work with businesses looking to either acquire an existing business that has tangible assets, or take a loan on real estate or piece of equipment,” said Tracey Gaylord, Granite State’s vice president and business development officer.

Specifically, Granite State is a nonprofit lender authorized to process and service Small Business Administration (SBA) loans utilizing the 504 lending program (more on that later). It’s the second active certified development company (CDC) in New England and provide financing in the states of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“The main goal is to promote economic development and job growth,” Gaylord said. “We help banks do loans they might not be able to do otherwise.”

Those loans are spread among a broad range of sectors, she added. “We do anything from manufacturing companies to wineries to restaurants to healthcare facilities to assisted living to campgrounds. And equipment financing for manufacturing — big machines they might buy every 10 or 15 years — we do a lot with those types of projects as well.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and financial services, Gaylord explained why companies find the 504 loan program — and Granite State’s services — an attractive option when financing a purchase or investing in future growth.

Impressive Growth

GSDC President Alan Abraham created the company in 1982 in Portsmouth, N.H., with a geographic territory initially limited to three counties in that state. In 1986, its territory expanded to include the entire state of New Hampshire, and it has since grown to provide statewide coverage for the four northernmost New England states, including Massachusetts.

Granite State Development is one of the largest CDCs nationwide, ranking fifth in both loan volume and dollars, and has been the most active 504 lender in New England for almost a decade. Since 1990, in cooperation with its bank lending partners, the nonprofit has participated in more than 4,000 transactions worth more than $1.5 billion, helping create more than 20,000 jobs in New England in the process, based on borrower growth stemming from the loans.

Meanwhile, 2017 was a banner year for GSDC in Western Mass., where it has poured increasing resources in recent years, as most of its Bay State projects have historically been farther east.

Those projects fall under the SBA’s 504 loan program, which provides approved small businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing to acquire assets for expansion or modernization. These 504 loans are made available through CDCs like Granite State. CDCs — there are more than 260 nationwide — are certified and regulated by the SBA, and work with SBA and participating lenders, typically banks, to provide financing to small businesses.

A typical 504 loan is structured in three parts: 50% is a lien from the bank, 40% is a second lien through the CDC, and 10% is a required down payment from the borrower.

This is an important element in the program, Gaylord noted, as many banks require 20%, 25%, even 30% down for certain loans, simply as a matter of policy, “and this actually allows them to do projects people may need.”

At the same time, it’s a win for the borrower, she added, because a bigger down payment may cut into funds they need to get through a lean time. “Maybe it’s a seasonal business, and they need money to get through the winter, to fill that gap.”

The bank sets its own interest rate and term for its 50% share of the loan, she went on. “If they want to do a fixed five-year rate, they can do that. They do not have to match what we do. That’s the benefit for the bank.”

As for GSDC’s portion, it determines terms based on the type of project, she explained. A real-estate project might come with a 20-year term, while 10 years might be more appropriate when purchasing a piece of equipment with a useful life of 10 to 15 years.

“Whatever the type of project, the bank chooses what to do with the other 50%,” Gaylord said. “People say, ‘why would I use this program?’ My quick response is, ‘it’s a low capital investment and a low fixed rate.’”

There are limits to what 504 loans may be used to purchase, however. They are specifically intended for fixed assets and certain soft costs, including the purchase of existing buildings; the purchase of land and land improvements, including grading, street improvements, utilities, parking lots, and landscaping; the construction of new facilities or modernizing, renovating, or converting existing facilities; the purchase of long-term machinery; or the refinancing of debt in connection with an expansion of the business through new or renovated facilities or equipment.

The 504 program cannot be used for working capital or inventory, consolidating or repaying debt, or refinancing, except for projects with an expansion component.

Bigger Picture

At its heart, the 504 lending program and CDCs like Granite State exist not only to help small businesses, but to boost economic development over an entire region. In short, applicants must demonstrate that their purchase or investment will create jobs.

“That’s one of the primary purposes of this,” Gaylord said. “We have to track the number of jobs the business has at the current time and how many jobs they’re predicting they’ll have in the first year and the next 24 months.”

That calculation incorporates job retention as well, she noted. “If they have only two employees but doing the project means they’ll be able to retain those two, that’s fantastic. If they can create more jobs, that’s even better.”

According to the SBA, community-development goals of the 504 loan program include improving, diversifying, or stabilizing the local economy; stimulating other business development; bringing new income into the community; and assisting manufacturing firms and production facilities located in the U.S.

Public-policy goals include revitalizing a business district of a community with a written revitalization or redevelopment plan; expanding exports; expanding small businesses owned and controlled by women, veterans, and minorities; aiding rural development; increasing productivity and competitiveness; modernizing or upgrading facilities to meet health, safety, and environmental requirements; and assisting businesses in, or moving to, areas affected by federal budget reductions, including base closings; reduction of energy consumption by at least 10%.

There are a few environmental goals as well, including increased use of sustainable design, building design that reduces the use of non-renewable resources and minimizes environmental impact; reduction in the use of greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels; and production of alternative and renewable forms of energy.

These are worthy goals, obviously, but businesses that qualify for 504 loans are typically more concerned with how the program affects their bottom line.

“We see ebbs and flows, just like conventional banks do, but we’re obviously in a good market right now,” Gaylord said. “This is a good opportunity for people to lock in those loan rates before they start to rise. Now is a really good time.”

There have been many of those good times since Granite State Development Corp. took root in New England 35 years ago, with a mission to help small businesses expand and grow, thereby helping the New England economy.

“It’s a very easy process,” Gaylord told BusinessWest. “I think that the bankers are comfortable with it, and look to us for guidance. We’re bankers and want to work with them.

“People ask, ‘are you competing with banks?’” she went on. “No, we don’t compete with banks, we work with them. We look at banks as our partners. And I get excited when I see the jobs and economic growth. That’s the best part.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sales and Marketing Sections

Getting the Message


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


It’s All About Storytelling

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

The Name of the Game

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

By Any Measure

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

Rock Relevance

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

Sections Women in Businesss

Missed Connections

Robin Saunders

Robin Saunders says the job opportunities and flexible working options in the IT field make it an ideal landing spot for talented women.

Despite the fact that women comprise roughly half the workforce and the majority of college enrollment, the world of computers and information technology remains a largely man’s world, with women accounting for just over one-quarter of all professionals. Many reasons have been posited for this disparity, but most industry leaders agree that opportunity abounds for talented women willing to, as one local professor put it, “just jump in.”

The numbers aren’t surprising anymore, but they’re still striking.

According to the National Science Foundation, though women make up roughly half of the college-educated workforce — and well over half of current college students — they comprise just 25% of the nation’s workforce in ‘computer and mathematical sciences,’ the name the Bureau of Labor Statistics gives to the broad industry most people call IT, or information technology.

“When I graduated in the mid-’80s, it wasn’t quite 50-50, but there were more women for sure,” said Brian Candido, associate professor and program chair of Computer Information Technologies at Springfield Technical Community College, noting that the field is slowly diversifying racially, but not along gender lines. “What’s interesting is that colleges are 60-40 female, and the projections are 70-30 in the next five years — but not in IT. It still tends to be white males. We’re seeing more Latinos, which is good, but not as many women as I’d like to see.”

Robin Saunders, director of Graduate Programs in Communications and Information Management at Bay Path University, agrees — even from her perspective at a women’s university.

“It is absolutely a problem,” she said. “If you look at the studies done by Google, women represent less than a third of the people in information-technology fields. They partly attribute that to women not being encouraged in high school to get into computer science. They’re told it’s difficult, it’s boring, it’s technology. When I was in my graduate cybersecurity degree program, I was the only woman. It can be pretty intimidating.”

And that’s unfortunate, she said, considering the opportunity that exists in IT, citing projections that, by 2020, some 1.4 million computer-science jobs will need to be filled, making IT one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. (see table below). It’s that growth, she said — and increased efforts to engage women at a younger age about those opportunities — that will start to shift the trend, she added.


“Many of those jobs will be filled by women,” she said. “It’s a perfect place for women to be; these are jobs that can be done full-time, part-time, or in an entrepreneurial way. If women are looking for something that’s flexible, it’s a perfect field to be in, and the jobs are expanding exponentially.”

In short, now is the time for young women — and older career changers, for that matter — to consider a field that, despite lingering stereotypes, is as promising and diverse as any. And that message is being delivered in myriad ways.

“The Girl Scouts just developed a coding badge, which is wonderful and something that teaches girls computer science is not just for your quintessential computer geeks, guys sitting in the basement with headsets,” Saunders said. “Women say that’s not what they want to be. But they don’t understand what the definition of information technology is. It’s such a broad field.”

She cited examples of applied computer science, which uses computers to examine and solve problems in a variety of industries, from healthcare to finance to precision machining. Meanwhile, professionals in her own specialty, cybersecurity, are increasingly in demand in virtually all types of businesses.

“Women are so sought after when they graduate,” she added. “Employers are looking for women to fill those positions. There’s a big push to equalize the genders in business, so if you’re a women with a degree in computer science, it pretty much guarantees a job.”

Breaking the Code

If that’s the case, why that nagging 25% statistic?

ISACA, a nonprofit that specializes in developing knowledge and practices for the IT industry, recently tried to get at the answer from within, surveying women who currently work in IT about the greatest barriers they face.

The top five were lack of mentors (48%), lack of female role models in the field (42%), gender bias in the workplace (39%), unequal growth opportunities compared to men (36%), and unequal pay for the same skills (35%).

“Women are vastly underrepresented in the global technology workforce. This is not only a societal concern, but also a workforce problem, given the critical shortage of skilled technology professionals faced by many enterprises,” said Jo Stewart-Rattray, board director of ISACA. “The survey findings reinforce that there is much work left to be done. By providing more opportunities, including career-advancement programs, we can make long-overdue progress in ensuring that women are more equitably represented in the technology workforce.”

When asked about opportunities for professional growth, 75% of respondents said their employer lacks a gender leadership development program. Additionally, 80% report that their supervisors are male, and just 8% report never experiencing gender bias in the workplace.

One big takeaway, Stewart-Rattray said, is that women hunger to learn and benefit from the presence of other women in technology.

Brian Candido

Brian Candido says STCC’s female enrollment in computer programs has mirrored national statistics, but the college is taking steps to increase it.

Saunders said it needs to start early, with clubs as young as middle school that get girls together to talk about technology and coding, and organizations like Girls That Code. And those networks need to extend into adulthood; a good example is Saunders’ own participation with the Women in Cybersecurity network, whose national conference she addressed two years ago.

“Women love mentoring and love networking, and they’re good at it. That’s the way to get them interested.”

Candido agreed that outreach and engagement should begin long before college if the industry wants to turn around its drastic general imbalance.

“We see four or five female graduates a year, and the ones that do finish do quite well,” he told BusinessWest. “The companies we partner with, MassMutual, Baystate Health, they want diversity. They want employees that reflect the community at large.”

Everyone uses technology and social media, and some of that is spurring interest in what’s making it tick, what’s behind the software, what makes it happen.”

STCC has made efforts to create that diversity on its own campus, such as the STEM Starter Academy, which financially supports first-year students entering the STEM fields, with a particular emphasis on women and students of color; this year’s cohort is 50% female. Then there’s Candido’s mobile-programming course he teaches at Commerce High School, a project-based course that has teenagers developing apps in an effort to pique their interest in an IT career. Of the 18 current students, six are female.

“Everyone uses technology and social media, and some of that is spurring interest in what’s making it tick, what’s behind the software, what makes it happen,” he said, adding that there’s a meritocracy in the tech world that rewards what someone can do, not necessarily what demographic they are. “Some of these opportunities now, they don’t even meet with people; they work remotely over the Internet, develop apps and deploy them, or work on networks. We’re seeing that people can work everywhere and work virtually.”

Because they’re working in virtually every industry, Saunders noted, Bay Path’s applied computer science degree is especially attractive to students who see technology as a way to create tools and apps that solve real-world problems, rather than as an end in itself. Meanwhile, the school’s master’s degree in applied data science prepares them for an economy that is expected to need an influx of 190,000 big-data experts by 2018.

Meanwhile, Bay Path’s Center of Excellence for Women in STEM provides a number of supportive resources for students pursuing IT and other STEM-related degrees, including professional-development, mentorship, and networking opportunities; guest speakers, workshops, and forums; and honors programs.

It’s enough to make women want to take the plunge into IT, she said, and that’s the point.

“Just jump in, I say,” she told BusinessWest. “You know this industry is going to explode. So get in and see how it feels.”

Shift Key

While colleges are doing their part, the industry itself bears some responsibility for creating a more female-friendly culture, Stewart-Rattray argued.

“There also is much that enterprises can do, such as ensuring they are offering equitable pay for men and women and providing flexible working arrangements,” she noted. “Having ‘keep in touch’ days when women are on maternity leave, in addition to encouraging professional-development opportunities such as webinars and online courses, are other worthwhile ways to ensure that women remain connected to the organization while on leave.”

After all, she added, cultivating a more diverse work culture just makes economic sense.

“In addition to promoting a more just society, enterprises have bottom-line motivation to hire and promote women,” she said, citing research from the Peterson Institute for International Economics suggesting that organizations with at least 30% female leaders add up to 6% to their profit margin, on average. “This does not surprise me. The women I have worked with are highly motivated, focused, and encouraging of their colleagues. They are as knowledgeable — if not moreso — than their male counterparts.”

Saunders knows that to be true, and she tells prospective students as much.

“My recommendation is just to be fearless. We all had to start somewhere. The only problem is, the future doesn’t wait for anybody. If you don’t jump off the diving board, you’re going to be left behind.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Employment Sections

Paws for Effect

Lauren Mendoza

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the benefits extend far beyond that, she added.

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

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

Deb O’Brien

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

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

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

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

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

And the feeling is reciprocal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tails to Tell

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

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

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

Meghan Lynch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet Projects

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

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

Rhyme Digital’s official ambassadors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But most people expect to be welcomed, and look forward to it, said Winans, who called his furry friends “official ambassadors” for the company. “I can’t imagine them not being here. The times when there are no dogs in the office, it is rare, and it feels like something’s missing.”

Lynch takes the same approach to office visitors. “Our dogs are part of the family and the culture here, and it’s something we tell people about in advance. Some clients may have a dog phobia or may be allergic, in which case I schedule meetings elsewhere.

“Overall, it’s a really positive experience,” she went on. “Some people specifically schedule meetings in order to see Dexter or see Quincy. Some of them bring treats and presents; they love them as much as we do.”

Monson-Bishop goes even further, claiming that dogs in the office are doing their small part to make the world a better place.

“It’s a family-based culture here,” she said, “and dogs unify us. At a time when the world is a little more tumultuous than usual, dogs bring humans together, and that feels good.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

An Engaging  Topic

Janice Mazzallo

Janice Mazzallo

Danielle St. Jean

Danielle St. Jean

Elba Houser

Elba Houser

PeoplesBank was in news again recently, bringing more ‘top employer’ honors, this time from both the Boston Globe, again, and the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, also again. While the awards are newsworthy, the real story is what’s behind them, a culture of employee engagement. In a roundtable discussion, some bank leaders talk about this culture and how other businesses can create one of their own.

They might have to start thinking about securing a bigger display case for the front lobby at PeoplesBank’s headquarters at 330 Whitney Ave. in Holyoke.

It was already crowded with various awards and commendations — many of them in the broad realm we’ll call ‘top employers’ — and now, it is even more so, with some recent additions. Indeed, for the sixth year in a row, the bank has been named a ‘top place to work’ by the Boston Globe, and for the second time, the institution has been named an ‘employer of choice’ by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

But while what’s in the trophy case is significant, it’s what’s behind all that ‘best employer’ hardware (and we don’t mean the wall) that is actually more important to the company.

When asked to talk about all that in the form of advice to other business and owners and managers, Janice Mazzallo, executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at the bank, paused for a moment.

It was a poignant pause to be sure, and it essentially said what she was about to say before she even said it — that becoming worthy of these ‘best employers’ awards takes time, patience, energy, imagination, and much more than a flex-time policy and allowing people to wear jeans on Friday, although that helps.

It’s about creating an environment where people feel good to come to work every day; it’s not just a place to make a living, but it’s more of a family environment.”

“It’s sounds cliché, but it’s about walking the walk and talking the talk, and it all starts in the C-suite,” she said. “It’s about creating an environment where people feel good to come to work every day; it’s not just a place to make a living, but it’s more of a family environment.

“It’s a place where people don’t just come to do a job, but get involved in the community, get involved with each other,” she went on. “We have a lot of people here who do more work outside, in the community, than they do in their 9-to-5 work.”

It is impossible to sum all this up with one word, she said, but ‘engagement’ does the job as effectively as any other (see sidebar, page 16). There are many types of engagement, she went on — with others at the company, within the community, with mentors, with new team members, and more — and the bank works hard to ensure that employees have experience with all of them.

And this hard work goes a long way toward explaining not only all those plaques in the display case, said Mazzallo, but the bank’s continued growth and success in the local market.

tptw_logo-smallIn an effort to dive deeper into this discussion of culture and employee engagement, Mazzallo was joined in a broad roundtable discussion on this subject by Danielle St. Jean, Human Resources coordinator and training specialist at the bank, and Elba Houser, commercial banking credit analyst, both fairly recent additions to the team.

The stories about how and why they came to the bank and what they’ve experienced since help drive home the importance of culture to a company’s success — not in winning awards, but in building teams, promoting innovation, attracting and retaining talent, and, yes, gaining market share.

The three stressed that a culture of engagement starts at the top — in this case bank President Tom Senecal — and filters down to all levels, and all locations (the institution has 17 branches scattered across Hampden and Hampshire counties), within the company. And it also encompasses a number of other words and phrases, including communication, listening, connecting, mentoring, empowerment, volunteerism, even fun.

“It’s really a personal experience,” said St. Jean as she sliced through all those words and what they mean collectively. “When people feel supported from day one, they perform better and are more likely to be engaged in what they do.”

Houser agreed. “From day one, there have always been people I could reach out to who have guided me through the ropes,” she explained. “It’s a community here, and it’s a family; these are not only people you work with, but people you can depend on.”

Listen Up

To effectively get many of those talking points and bullet points across, Mazzallo recounted Senecal’s recent decision to visit many of the branches personally with the stated desire to meet with employers and listen to them about their work and any issues or concerns they may have.

She said some of the employees were initially intimidated by the notion of the boss coming for a visit, but soon, most fears evaporated.

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“At first, people were scared and shocked, saying, ‘here’s the CEO coming out to my branch and my department,” she recalled. “But when he came in and genuinely wanted to learn more about what they did, with a mindset of ‘how can I understand your role to make this a better place to work and walk a mile in your shoes?’ the word spread very quickly that not only did he want to understand, he really wanted to hear their ideas.”

Better still, he responded to what he heard.

“He brought some of the ideas to management meetings, and we talked about them,” Mazzallo went on. “And changes were made as a result.”

Senecal’s road trips represent just one of many ways in which the bank’s operating mindset, or culture, has generated benefits in the form of improved communication, idea generation, and continuous improvement.

Others, as noted, include a greater ability to attract and retain talent, which is significant at a time when many in banking can relate their careers through a large stack of business cards they’ve disseminated over the years, and also when individual lenders — and sometimes whole teams of them — are moving from one institution to another with great regularity.

And it’s significant also because, from a big-picture perspective, PeoplesBank is still a relatively small institution (about $2.3 billion in assets) based in Holyoke.

“Were competing with larger banks, and at the end of the day, there are other organizations that can offer more money and probably big bonuses,” said Mazzallo. “And so, I have to be able to answer the question, ‘why should someone be excited work with us? And once they’re here, why should anyone be excited to stay with us?’”

Why indeed? The answer, she said, lies in that fact that, for most people, contentment goes well beyond money and to things that “pull at the heartstrings,” as she put it.

For St. Jean, who was working in Boston before she came to the bank, it was the culture she said was in clear evidence starting with her first interview with the company roughly six months ago.

She and her boyfriend, who is from this area, had made the decision to leave the Hub and relocate to the 413.St. Jean needed a job, but more than that, she needed the “right employer and the right community.” And she found both at the bank.

“The strength of the culture here really does begin before day one; it all begins with the recruitment and onboarding process,” she explained. “For me, personally, leaving behind the city life, I had a lot to do to get ready. When I first started here and accepted the offer, I had to find a car, move all my belongings, and get established. And the team here really helped me with all of that.”

And she said she’s seen that scenario — meaning several layers with assistance with the process of relocating and starting the next chapter in a career — repeat itself several times since she arrived, re-emphasizing that this is the culture at the institution.

“This is a place that can help individuals with that type of transition in their life,” she said, “which speaks greatly to the culture and to what keeps associates engaged.”

Houser tells a somewhat similar story. Her transition involved returning to work after taking some time off to start a family, and, like St. Jean’s, it wasn’t an easy journey, and one for which support was appreciated.

“I started as a management-development trainee, and when I came in, I had a network of colleagues who were management-development trainees prior,” she explained. “That first day, they took me out to lunch, and they discussed what was to be expected of me in that role, and that helped a lot, especially after not being in the workforce for two years and having to build a career again. That help is the reason I succeeded as I did.”

The Not-so-secret Sauce

Returning to the subject of retention, a key ingredient in any company’s success, Mazzallo said one of the main reasons why people leave an organization is a feeling that they’re not being heard, or that their input isn’t entirely welcome or appreciated.

“People get wooed by other companies because they’re getting attention, and often, they don’t feel they’re getting attention from their current employee,” she explained. “So it’s very important, especially with your higher performers, that you’re paying attention, and sometimes it’s just as simple as making time to listen to them and listen to their ideas.”

If that sounds like advice to other business owners and managers, it is. And those we spoke with at the bank had lots of it as they addressed the question of how other companies can become more engaging and, in the process of doing so, become better competition for ‘top employer’ awards.

For starters, they said, repeatedly, that a culture of engagement starts with those at the top setting the tone, walking the walk, and giving employees at all levels a voice.

“Ideas can come from anywhere, and they should be encouraged,” said Mazzallo. “And companies should look to not only implement them when it’s appropriate, but communicate that they’ve been implemented. We do that here, and it takes on a life of its own; people hear about these ideas, they get inspired, and that creates more innovation and involvement.”

But while listening and encouraging ideas and innovation, a company must also take the proper attitude when things don’t go as well as everyone would like. In other words, a company can’t be afraid of — or in any way punish — failure.

“Failure comes with the territory, and you have to be careful with it,”Mazzallo explained. “You don’t want to have too much, obviously, but here, when we work on a project and it runs off course, we take the opportunity to bring the team together, to course-correct, to find out what’s happened, and learn from those experiences.

“You embrace the problem and find out what out what’s happened,” she went on. “That way, people aren’t hesitant or afraid of making a mistake in the future. If you’re in an environment where you’re afraid to make mistakes, that’s where innovation gets squashed.”

Still another big part of the equation, she went on, goes back to that notion of a workplace being more than a place where people go to work.

“Just show people that you care,” Mazzallo said simply. “Show people that they’re more than just there from 9 to 5. Show people you value them as more than just a worker.”

As an example, she said the bank’s leaders, recognizing how stressful the holiday season can be and usually is, scheduled a lunch-and-learn (a healthy lunch) that addressed the many stress-inducing aspects of the holidays and how to deal with them head on.

There’s also that fun factor, which all those we spoke with said cannot be overlooked.

Which brings us to something the bank calls Employee Fest, which is a week, not a day, of what amounts to employee recognition and celebration.

Staged in September to coincide with the United Way’s Day of Caring, Employee Fest involves volunteerism, a luncheon, team games, visits to the branches, and more.

This year, there was a carnival theme, said Houser, adding that activities were designed, many with some assistance from the Internet, to bring the branches and the main office together.

This year’s festival was St. Jean’s first, and she was struck by its ability to connect people, even if they were working in branches separated by miles of asphalt.

“It really strengthens the community,” she told BusinessWest. “It connects different groups within the organization with friendly competition and provides insight into what different people are doing for the institution; it helps keep them productive and engaged.”

Bottom Line

There’s that word again. Engaged.

It’s a simple term, but it covers a lot of ground, said Mazzallo, reiterating that, ideally, employees should be engaged in everything from the community to innovation; from the well-being of their co-workers to the art and science of listening.

Creating such a culture doesn’t happen overnight, and there are absolutely no quick fixes.

But all the hard work that goes into creating and maintaining such a culture and making it part of the company’s DNA pays off in all kinds of ways.

And we’re not even talking about the those plaques in the display case.

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

Construction Sections

Building Momentum

construction-2018artdpAfter years of slow recovery after the recession that struck almost a decade ago, area construction firms are reporting strong volume in 2017 and predicting the same, if not better, in 2018. Whether relying on diverse expertise, a widening geographic footprint, or repeat business from loyal customers, there are plenty of ways to grow in the current economic environment, and contractors are optimistic they will do just that.

Even during good times for the construction industry — which 2017 certainly was, to hear area contractors tell it — everyone still has to keep on their toes.

“We’re optimistic for next year, but there are a lot of smart people working in New England, and everyone’s trying to get their fair share of the pie,” said Jeff Bardell, president of Daniel O’Connell’s Sons. “It’s still very competitive, and it’s been that way for a long time.”

While O’Connell is based in Holyoke, the firm has branched out over the years to develop a significant presence in Eastern Mass., Connecticut, and Rhode Island, particularly with large utility projects, while closer to home, it has maintained strong activity at area colleges and universities, including work at Amherst College and UMass, not to mention Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Marist College in New York.

We’re optimistic for next year, but there are a lot of smart people working in New England, and everyone’s trying to get their fair share of the pie.”

“We’re busy, but not out-of-control busy, in Western Mass. The projects we’re doing now aren’t as big as they were for awhile, but we’re still fairly busy.”

However, the heavy civil side has been a different story, featuring projects like upgrades to the Uxbridge Wastewater Treatment Facility, a runway rehabilitation at Hanscom Airfield in Bedford (one of many projects for MassPort), and a biogas co-generation facility at the Bucklin Point Wastewater Treatment Facility in Rhode Island — not to mention some MassDOT highway work in Worcester and a pedestrian bridge over the Providence River.

“Things are going fairly well for us,” Bardell said. “Everyone is working.”

Kevin Perrier, president of Five Star Building Corp. in Easthampton, had a similar outlook, noting that “2017 has proven to be one of our busiest years, with work from one end of the state to the other. Both public and private work has certainly kept our guys busy, and it looks like next year will be more of the same.”

While margins are still tight, workload has remained busy, including two large mechanical upgrade projects for MassPort and increasing work at Logan International Airport over the past several years.

While those two firms have broadened their reach, Chicopee-based A. Crane Construction recorded a strong 2017 mostly close to home, said partner A.J. Crane. “We do a lot of local, private commercial work, and it seems that sector is booming, with a lot of small to medium-sized businesses either building new facilities or renovating their existing facilities. It’s nice to see. And we’re helping as much as we can with that, which we really like to see.”

Recent projects include a remodel of the Sunshine Village offices in Chicopee, Arrha Credit Union’s new West Springfield branch, a new office for Ameriprise Financial in South Hadley, two renovations for Oasis Shower Doors, an office renovation for Noonan Energy, and ongoing work for Ondrick Natural Earth and AM Lithography.

Five Star Building Corp

Five Star Building Corp. opened its Boston office to handle a growing volume of business from the eastern part of the state.

“We’re in that sweet spot between small firms and huge commercial industrial contractors,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re a good size where we can serve a lot of those people that are upgrading and building new, local businesses. We’ve recently serviced quite a few financial-services offices, some retail, and, obviously, the whole legalization of medical and recreational marijuana is going bananas, and we’re doing quite a bit of that, too.”

Clearly, these are high times for area builders, and they expect to keep rolling in 2018.

Branching Out

Bardell said O’Connell’s broad geographic footprint — and its expertise in many different types of work — are both hedges against shifting economic tides.

“We see it rotate from place to place. I would say from ’09 to ’12 or ’13, we were really busy in Rhode Island, hundreds of millions of work there. Now we have maybe $20 million in work there. When we’re not busy in the Eastern Mass. region, we’re doing a lot of work for MDC in Hartford, redoing their treatment plant. It just rolls from one area to the other.”

As a result, he went on, “we pursue a lot of college work, and then we pursue heavy civil work. We do bridges, water and wastewater plants, drinking-water facilities — those have kind of become the bread and butter of our company.”

From a backlog standpoint, O’Connell is in pretty good shape, he told BusinessWest, but firms need to stay aggressive. “Talk to any contractor, and they’ll say they’re looking for more work; you burn it off quickly. But we’re here working through the holiday, with a lot of projects coming out in all kinds of places. There are projects in the Hudson Valley in New York out to bid right now, projects with Connecticut treatment plants, a very large university job in upstate New York, and some treatment-plant projects in Rhode Island.

Now boasting 50 employees, Five Star has developed a strong presence out east as well, opening a Boston office to support the “booming” seaport and commercial construction happening there. Long-term relationships with airlines like Southwest and Jet Blue have kept the firm busy at Logan, while projects like a new Westborough Town Hall, a library in Sherborn, a new charter school in Plymouth, and the Uxbridge fire station attests to the company’s diversity. Closer to home, major projects have included new life sciences laboratories at Holyoke Communtiy College and an ongoing upgrade of the entry at Noble Hospital in Westfield.

“Between healthcare and the airport and transportation sector, we’ve found ourselves all over, with a lot of long-time clients keeping us very busy this year,” Perrier said. “We’re fortunate enough to have another $30 million on the books for next year, so we’re happy about that.”

One goal has not to become too focused on one particular niche or industry, like some companies that focus almost all their energy on, say, healthcare or auto dealerships, he went on. “We’ve always been somewhat reluctant to do that, because it makes you more susceptible to shifts in the economy. We’ve been lucky to have some diversity and to be spread out across the state.”

That said, he added, “we’ve seen our fair share of the work. It’s safe to say the bad economy is behind us. Everyone has a pretty full plate.”

Crane has diversified in other ways, opening divisions in property management and condominium management, and taking on more and larger commercial jobs. And customer loyalty is important, because a construction job might lead to other jobs down the line. “We’re not just building someone a new, 5,000-square-foot facility. They’ll call us for everything else, which is nice.”

The benefits of a strong local construction market are twofold, Crane went on. “Businesses are spending money on their real estate here, which brings everybody’s property values up, and second, if they’re investing in property here, that means they’re not moving their business anywhere else, which is huge. Everyone knows construction drives the economy.”

Help Wanted

Perrier says contractors remember what the recent recession years were like — and how many years it took to return to something resembling normalcy — so everyone is a little gunshy, but they’re also optimistic that a strong 2017 will spill over into an even better 2018.

“The last two or three years, the economy has been strong,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re fortunate to stay busy. During the recession, most general contractors just wanted to keep people busy, try to see some growth and not lose their key players, and weather the storm. We made it out of that, and we continue to see growth. Last year was one of our best years.”

Bardell added that most operations professionals in construction will say they don’t have enough good, quality workers.

“It seems like things are picking up a little with availability of work to pursue, so we’re pretty optimistic, to be perfectly honest with you,” he said. “The biggest problem is finding people to do the work. That’s not getting any easier, and it’s going to be the biggest issue for us. We actively recruit at a lot of colleges; we’re trying to build a little farm team of guys and gals who can move up the ranks. We’ve been pretty successful doing that, but sometimes you can’t keep up with the volume.”

Not that high volume is a bad thing, of course.

“Things were good last year, and next year is looking great, too,” Crane concluded. “Hopefully it keeps rolling.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging Sections

Support System

hcncover1217Group classes — whether spinning or dancing or core workouts — are all the rage in the fitness world, and it’s easy to see why. Working out in a group provides not only socialization and support, but accountability and motivation to maintain one’s progress. Often, area gym owners say, the biggest challenge is just taking that first step — and learning that fitness classes are, quite simply, a lot of fun.

Maggie Bergin is certified to teach spinning, TRX, and Group X classes, and has, in fact, been teaching fitness in the Valley for the past seven years. As the communications director at Open Square, she thought it would be a natural move to open a fitness facility in that complex overlooking Holyoke’s canals.

So, last month, she launched the Reset, which specializes in group classes, hoping to draw some of the 200 people who work at Open Square, as well as employees of nearby businesses, to take part in ‘nooner’ sessions at lunchtime and classes after work.

“I love leading people through workouts,” she told BusinessWest. “I designed the Reset to accomplish the medical things we are supposed to get done in the most efficient way possible. And what are we supposed to do? Getting our heart rate up on a regular basis, using our muscles so muscle mass doesn’t decrease over time, and stretching, so we’re not tighter than bark on a tree in our 40s and 50s.”

But there’s a difference between understanding the need to work out and actually doing it, she went on.

“I see that people have less and less time; we’re drawn in 20 different directions in the morning and exhausted at night. So things have to be comprehensive and quick. People think, ‘if I can’t get a full-body workout in an hour, I’m not going to do it.’ I created this place to hit those three goals so people can keep moving and stay healthy into their 90s.”

The Reset is equipped with TRX suspension trainers hanging from the ceiling, a popular fitness device designed by a Navy Seal to have intense core workouts with a minimum of equipment. But it’s not equipment that will draw members to Bergin’s new gym, she said; it’s the appeal of working out as a group.

In fact, group training classes have become the most popular element of today’s fitness facilities. Gym owners say people who might initially be reserved about working out around others are quickly taken by the sense of community, mutual support, and socialization these classes offer.

Maggie Bergin

Maggie Bergin says exercise classes are an investment of money and time, and people want to know they’re getting results — and having fun, too.

“Some people, particularly women, feel they have to be perfect immediately, and do it exactly like the instructor immediately. That is a lie,” Bergin said. “You don’t have to do it like anyone else; you can make it your own, within safety precautions, which I’m going to take care of. You have to embrace that you’re on a journey, and in a different place than someone else in the room.”

Marie Ball, owner and group personal-training specialist at the Anytime Fitness franchise in Agawam, agrees.

“The biggest trend we’re responding to is the need for small-group personal training,” she said. “People are more focused today on socialization in fitness, which allows for accountability and motivation. They like to work out in a group.”

However, the smaller groups that Anytime runs typically max out at five to seven participants, so there’s more individualized attention from the trainer, while maintaining that social aspect people desire.

“Some of the participants may not have the same ability, so the trainer is constantly checking and instructing and making sure they’re exercising with proper form, technique, and posture,” she said. “In a large class, the trainer might not have the ability to make sure everyone is doing things properly, so there’s greater potential for injury.”

Justin Killeen, owner of 50/50 Fitness/Nutrition in Hadley, said the trend has been away from commercial, big-box gym environments filled with Nautilus and circuit equipment, and toward a more supportive, community environment. He noted that the technology on today’s group workout equipment gives instant feedback for calories burned and other data, while allowing participants to compete against each other for extra motivation.

Mostly, though, what fitness enthusiasts — especially the younger crowds — are looking for is a fun experience.

“If we have a regular spin class but don’t make it fun and interesting, it’s not as engaging, and people won’t want to come back to it,” he said, adding that people also want a progressive experience, tracking their goals with each workout. “We want to build on each workout and tie it in to your overall health and wellness.”

For this issue’s focus on fitness and nutrition, BusinessWest examines why group fitness classes are growing in popularity and how they motivate people to get — and stay — healthy.

Time and Energy

When she considers where people find that motivation, Bergin agrees with Killeen that it starts with having fun.

“I keep things light. We’re not saving babies here; we’re trying to get stronger and stay healthy,” she explained. “I take my training seriously, but I’m not a yeller. I’m going to encourage, not berate. Some people want to be berated; they respond to that. At places with multiple instructors, you can find one that works best for you.”

Finding time can also be an issue, especially for people with jobs and kids. The 24/7 model at Anytime Fitness is geared toward this issue, Ball said. “In today’s busy world, people have crazy schedules, and it’s hard to fit time in for themselves and make that investment. That’s one of the benefits of our facility. You can do this on your own time.”

She said the overnight hours are beneficial not only for those with those so-called crazy schedules, but first-timers who might be nervous about working out in front of lots of people. Many of them, however, eventually move on to daytime classes and experience the social benefits of exercising as a group.

“Every fitness club or gym has a certain demographic,” she said. “Our club is kind of mixed; some members want to come in the when the gym is quiet, and our 24/7 model lends itself to that. People can work out on their own terms and don’t have to worry about being in an overwhelmingly busy place. Many are just beginning their journey, and they’re not comfortable exercising in front of people.”

Others strictly crave the one-on-one interaction with a personal trainer, which Anytime also offers, but the most popular option continues to be those small-group classes. “People like the socialization aspect. I think some people really need that in their lives to get motivated; they like that engaging atmosphere.”

Besides its popular group classes, 50/50, as its name suggests, helps members with their nutrition plans as well, as a way to bring total wellness under one roof — and save time in the process.

Marie Ball

Marie Ball says small-group classes provide both a sense of community and more individualized attention from the trainer than a larger class.

“We try to integrate a lot of the health and wellness spectrum,” Killeen said. “People might end up going to one place for a gym, then go to nutritionist, then a massage therapist. Our goal here is to pull as many of these together as possible.”

That said, “we try to create a network of people that come together here as part of a community. We bring the whole experience full-circle for them. The nutrition piece is certainly a big part of it. The underlying concept is a balanced approach, thinking more holistically, instead of jumping in on one thing at a time — diet for a while, gym for a while, and so on.”

It helps, he said, that people today are more educated about health and wellness and have options for improving their own.

“For the first time, the younger generation has grown up with it, and they consider it a fun and social thing to do,” he said of group exercise. “If you go out with some friends and go to a spin class and head out afterward, you form friendships. It’s the best of both worlds — the social piece and the feeling that you’re progressing toward something important.”

First Steps

Still, Ball said, it can be difficult for some people to get started.

“I always say, when people walk in our door, that might be the hardest thing they’re going to do this month. That first step is so hard for people,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the sheer variety of fitness modes can be intimidating.

“It’s a good thing there’s a lot of options, but that can also be a bad thing, when they don’t even know what they need. The first step should be to check out a lot of places and find out where you’re comfortable.”

That’s why Anytime offers a seven-day all-access pass so people can get a feel for the center without a long-term, high-cost commitment.

“If people don’t feel comfortable, they’re not going to come back, and they’re not going to progress along their journey,” Ball said. “But it starts with stepping out of your comfort zone and finding like-minded people who support you. A lot of people out there though they couldn’t do it, and then they found they could. Everyone can have a success story.”

And, as Bergin said, success often starts by finding an activity that’s fun, because without that element, people don’t want to invest their money and time.

“It’s not food or shelter. You have to be interested and find joy and be willing to spend money on this thing,” she said, adding that there are always more people to reach with the message that fitness matters. “If we’d figured out how to get people motivated, we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic and a pre-diabetes epidemic. We all know what we need to be doing.”

And she’s eager to help people find their fitness joy.

“I was always the second-to-last picked in gym. I don’t come by this naturally,” she said. “I have a deep empathy for people who haven’t found their thing yet. So, if you don’t like swimming, don’t swim. If you don’t like running, don’t run. If you want to dance in your underwear to Depeche Mode, then do that. And do it again and again and again. If I can find a thing, you can find a thing. And once you’ve found that thing, keep doing it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Economic Outlook Sections

Experts Don’t Foresee Any Rocking of the Economic Boat

economicoutlookartMore of the same. That’s what the experts are predicting for this region, and the country as a whole, when it comes to the economy. And by more of the same, they mean growth that is steady if unspectacular — even with tax reform — and few if any signs of what could amount to real trouble. “Another boring year,” was how one economist put it. But for many businesses, boring is more than acceptable.

As a student — and a professor — of economics, Bob Nakosteen fully understands that the region and the nation as a whole are, as they say, due for a recession.

Maybe even overdue.

Indeed, eight and a half years is a long time to be in an expansion, if history and especially 20th-century history is any guide, and that’s about the length of the run the country has been on, said Nakosteen, a long-time educator at UMass Amherst who pegged the summer of 2009 as when the Great Recession ended and the upswing — as unspectacular as it has been, for the most part, in this region — began.

But he quickly noted that there’s no actual relationship between how long a country has been in an expansion and when it’s due for a recession. Time isn’t officially one of the factors that determine such things, he noted, adding that none of the issues and indicators that do are — at this moment, at least — pointing toward recession.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

The issues in the state economy, especially in Western Massachusetts, are not macro-economic nearly as much as they are structurally micro-economic; there are individual sectors that are really struggling.”

“The expansion is old, certainly, but there’s nothing on the horizon to interrupt the expansion,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that a host of factors will shape what course a continued expansion takes. “The issues in the state economy, especially in Western Massachusetts, are not macro-economic nearly as much as they are structurally micro-economic; there are individual sectors that are really struggling.”

Karl Petrick, an economics professor at Western New England University, agreed, and summoned another word for what he’s projecting for at least one more year: boring.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

Trickle-down doesn’t really come to fruition the way people say it will. It’s been promised for decades and decades, but it’s never really happened.”

“Unless you were on Twitter, last year was pretty boring,” he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek while focusing his remarks on what was happening in this region economically. And that was essentially the same thing that’s been happening for the past several years — steady if unspectacular growth that amounts to a few percentage points on average and not the kind of boom times that traditionally follow a recession, especially like the one of almost a decade ago now.

“Even with the tax break, the projections are for the U.S. economy to grow at 2.5% in 2018, and in 2019, 2.1%,” he said. “And if we did see a big increase in growth, it’s very likely that that the Fed will raise interest rates to slow down inflation. The forecast is for another boring year — I hope.”

Indeed, for many in business, boring translates into a decent year, and that’s what Tom Senecal, president of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, said many of his clients — commercial and residential alike — experienced.

He told BusinessWest that the residential real-estate market is enjoying a surge fueled by low inventories, and that many individual sectors are experiencing steady growth. And he expects tax reform to lift most boats still higher.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

Inventory is extremely low in many area communities, and this is having a big impact on prices. We’re going back to seeing sale prices in excess of asking prices, and that hasn’t happened since the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

“With corporate tax rates projected to decrease from 35% to 20%, that will have a significant impact on most businesses,” he went on. “I expect that to be a determining factor in what our local economy will be like in 2018.”

There are other determining factors, obviously, and some areas of concern, both nationally and locally, including persistently stagnant wages.

Despite steady growth in the economy and soaring corporate profits that have fueled a nearly 20% rise on Wall Street this year, wages have remained flat, said Petrick. And he doesn’t believe — despite what leading supporters say — that tax reform will change that equation. And if wages remain stagnant, that might slow the economy down.

“Trickle-down doesn’t really come to fruition the way people say it will,” he explained. “It’s been promised for decades and decades, but it’s never really happened.”

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said the precipitous decline of traditional retail could pose some problems regionally (more on that later), as could a host of other factors ranging from escalating student debt to tighter immigration laws that could keep some foreign students from landing on area college campuses.

But overall, these concerns are not expected to significantly alter the picture or impact those projections for more of what the region has seen over the past several years.

Onward and Upward


That’s the word Senecal summoned early and often as he talked about the local economy, and it’s another word business owners always like to hear.

He said the region’s economy has historically been fueled by education and healthcare (‘eds and meds’), and that trend continues. And those sectors are, well, stable, to say the least.

“If you think of the spin-off economies in the Western Mass. market, we clearly benefit from those sorts of industries [healthcare and education] that are not recession-proof, but they certainly come through recessionary times much more stable than the rest of the economy,” he said. “And I see this in the numbers from our residential loans and our commercial loans. The stability and continued growth has been there, and we expect it to continue throughout next year.”

Beyond eds and meds, Senecal noted, a number of sectors are doing “pretty well,” as he put it. These include ‘green’ energy businesses, commercial construction (although moreso in the eastern part of the state than this region) and the residential real-estate market, which, as noted earlier, has picked up dramatically over the past few years.

“Inventory is extremely low in many area communities, and this is having a big impact on prices,” he explained. “We’re going back to seeing sale prices in excess of asking prices, and that hasn’t happened since the late ’80s and early ’90s; it’s clearly a seller’s market right now.”

Surveying the scene locally as well as nationally, those we spoke with said there is no indication of anything that will disrupt this stability to any significant degree.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some question marks concerning the year ahead. And perhaps the biggest concerns tax reform and what it will mean.

Petrick and Nakosteen said such reforms — usually measures to be administered during a recession, not an expansion — can’t (or shouldn’t) be expected to trigger the wage hikes and subsequent consumer spending predicted by supporters of the legislation, because … well, because history shows this isn’t what happens, they told BusinessWest.

“Tax cuts really have little effect,” said Nakosteen, “especially when the economy is not in recession and is near full employment.”

Also, early and unofficial polling of business leaders indicates that wage increases for their employees are not in their plans.

“Many big corporations have already said that, whatever tax breaks they get, they’ll use them to buy back stock,” Petrick noted. “That will do wonders for the stock market, but there’s no indication they’ll use that tax break to raise wages.”

But Senecal projected that tax reform might, in fact, provide a real boost for the economy in the form of investments made by business owners.

“Tax reform has a significant impact on corporate spending,” he opined. “I think that, right now, a lot of businesses are waiting and seeing on tax reform to determine how aggressive or reserved businesses are going to be come 2018.”

Economic Indicators

As for other factors that might impact the year ahead, to one degree or another, Petrick put wages, and the stagnancy of same, at the top of that list.

“We see growth, but the foundation for continued growth continues to be a little bit shaky, in terms of wages at the national level and the state level,” he told BusinessWest. “They’re just not growing, even as unemployment comes down.

“And that is a bit of conundrum for us at the state level and the federal level, because that puts more pressure of households, especially with uncertainty with what’s going to happen with the individual mandate and how that might impact insurance rates,” he added. “It also impacts state tax revenue, because if wages don’t go up, the state doesn’t collect more.”

There are many reasons why wages are stagnant, he went on, listing everything from soaring health-insurance costs for employers to the decline of labor unions, to the retirement of Baby Boomers and their replacement by younger workers earning lower salaries. But the bottom line is that, generally, flat wages are not good for the economy.

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said the continued decline of traditional retail would further change the local landscape, and it might impact the economy in some ways.

Giant retailers like Sears, Toys R Us, Kmart, and others are closing stores in huge volumes, leaving malls with large boxes to fill (or not, as the case may be) and worries about their very existence. Meanwhile, many smaller retailers are disappearing from the landscape, for reasons ranging from the intrusion of online shopping to a lack of a succession plan.

All this is creating a number of empty storefronts and a lot of commercial real estate for sale and lease, said Nakosteen, adding that the problem is impacting even the most vibrant of downtowns, including Northampton’s, where tenants are asking, ‘why are lease rates so high if so many storefronts are empty?’

“And that’s a very good question,” he said, adding that the higher rates will impact existing retailers and perhaps dissuade others from coming downtown.

But it’s an issue in nearly every area community.

“There are so many empty storefronts,” Nakosteen went on, “and the retail sector is so important to so many downtown areas.”

Meanwhile, workforce issues might also have an impact on the course and strength of the ongoing expansion, he noted, adding that a lack of qualified workers within some sectors might stifle growth.

“The state, as a whole, has issues with the labor force not growing fast enough to accommodate the economy,” he explained. “And Western Mass. is even worse. We have very slow labor growth here; you can’t grow the economy faster than you can hire people to fill the jobs.”

Interest rates could play a role as well, the experts noted, adding that, if the economy does start heating up, the Fed will likely raise rates to keep it from overheating and sending inflation higher.

“Prime rate effects people’s home-equity loans, and it effects commercial borrowers,” Senecal explained. “And if the Fed increases rates two or three times, and that’s clearly their intent, that could have an impact on spending.”

Bottom Line

‘Stable. ‘Boring.’ ‘Steady.’ Those aren’t exactly headline-generating adjectives when we’re talking about the economy and where it might head in the months to come.

But they represent reality, and for many in this region — which, as has been noted countless times in the past, doesn’t enjoy stunning highs and crippling lows like other regions — those words are welcome, and much better than the alternative.

And if tax reform works, as Senecal and others believe it might, the region just might wind up doing better than ‘more of the same.’


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

Sections Travel and Tourism

‘Time to Step Forward’

An architect’s rendering of the renovated lobby area at the Hall

An architect’s rendering of the renovated lobby area at the Hall, complete with lockers bearing the names of some of the game’s greats.

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will soon commence work on an ambitious, $15 million renovation and expansion that will dramatically change the look and feel of the shrine. While the project represents the future, it also speaks loudly to just how far the Hall has come since the dark days — and years — earlier this century.

John Doleva calls it a “spaceship.”

That’s what he and others at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame have come to call the individual lights that sit atop the dome that defines the shrine on West Columbus Avenue and change color with the seasons and the occasions.

That’s because they look like one, at least that ’50s sci-fi-movie take on what a spaceship looks like, a flat, roundish base with a circular bubble on top. There are 860 of these lights affixed to the dome, and maybe a quarter of them are in a condition approximating that of the one that Doleva has in his office — cracked, with the seals damaged, allowing water to get in and cause serious trouble.

This is the same ‘spaceship’ he takes with him when he talks to gatherings large and small about the planned $15 million to $16 million renovation of the hoop Hall. That’s because these fixtures will be removed and replaced with projection lighting that is, well, light years ahead of the old bulbs in terms of what can be done with the surface of the giant sphere.

“You can do incredible things with projection lighting,” said Doleva. “It will give us so much variability it terms of bringing the building alive, and the maintenance is so much easier.”

But the lights are really just a small, though highly visible, part of the ambitious undertaking at the Hall, noted Doleva, its president for nearly two decades now. Indeed, he said the current facility, opened in 2003, was designed and built just before digital technology was about to explode and change forever the way information is presented and stories, like those of the hall’s inductees and of the history of the game itself, are told.

John Doleva

John Doleva holds up one of the ‘spaceships’ that are soon to be history at the Hall.

“We have a lot of printed word here — exhibits that don’t necessarily interact and entertain, especially when you’re talking to a 12- or a 14- or a 17-year old,” he explained. “With the advent of all the digital content that’s out there now, we can bring Hall of Famers alive, and that’s what we intend to do; instead of a plaque on a wall and two and a half paragraphs of information, we’re going to bring James Naismith alive; we’re going to bring Bob Cousy alive.”

The renovation project will take part in two stages, with the dome lighting, a main lobby area overhaul, and significant renovation of the Hall’s theater comprising stage one. Work on it will start next month (the museum will remain open during construction), and it will all be finished in June, a few important months before MGM Springfield opens its doors in September 2018.

Phase two involves a substantial overhaul of the museum itself, what’s under the dome, said Doleva, noting that state-of-the-art, digitized presentations are currently being blueprinted. Phase two is slated to begin in January 2020, to be finished six months later, with the museum obviously closed for those six months.

And while this project and the campaign that will fund it — called “A Time to Step Forward” — represent the future of the Hall, they also embody just how far it has come in the years since the current building was put on the proverbial drawing board roughly two decades ago.

Indeed, the existing facility was built without a considerable amount of support from what Doleva collectively calls the “basketball community,” and it was opened with a large amount of debt that left the Hall in precarious financial condition for a number of years.

It has ridden out that storm, if you will, and has regrouped on many levels. The Hall has forged much stronger relationships with that basketball community and its many subcomponents, including inductees themselves (as we’ll see), and, as a result, the capital campaign has far exceeded initial expectations. Because of this, goals have been recalibrated.

“The initial goal of the campaign, $20 million, has been exceeded, and it now stands at $26 million,” said Doleva, adding that more than 90% of this total comes from the basketball community. A new goal of $30 million has been established, he went on, to not only fund the renovations to the galleries and visitor area, but also adequately fund an endowment.

For this issue and its focus on travel and tourism, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Hall’s renovation project, and also at the forces that have made it — and a much more secure future for this Springfield landmark — possible.

Net Gains

There are a great deal of numbers associated with the Hall’s renovation project, its capital campaign, and its comeback from those dark years after the new shrine was opened 14 years ago.

And while all of them are significant, from the number of lights to be taken out to the projections on increased visitation — from the improvements, MGM’s opening, and other factors — maybe the place to start is with the number 5.

That’s how many of the Hall’s previous inductees turned out for the enshrinement ceremonies in 2000. (Actually, eight committed to come, and three of them backed out). And in many respects, Hall officials were lucky the number was that high.

That’s because the Hall didn’t pay to fly any of those inductees in, didn’t pay for their hotel rooms, and didn’t pay for anything, really, except their admission to the show — largely because it couldn’t afford to do so.

“We quickly concluded that, if we don’t have Hall of Famers on our side, if they’re not our ambassadors across the country and around the world, then we really don’t have a Hall of Fame,” said Doleva, adding that the Hall now pays such expenses, and the results of such a sea change have been dramatic.

Fast-forward to this past September, and there were 65 former inductees in attendance, a number that certainly helps explain the large number of autograph collectors camping out in front of the downtown Springfield hotels.

These Hall of Famers are now truly ambassadors, said Scott Zuffelato, vice president of Philanthropy for the Hall, adding that they regularly make appearances at Hall-produced events such as fund-raising golf tournaments and basketball events.

“They’ve become our foot soldiers,” he explained. “And this stronger relationship with the Hall of Famers has led us to stronger relationships with others in basketball as well, such as college coaches who take part in our events, and the NBA as well.”

And these improved, much stronger relations, resulting in part from getting coaches and officials in pro and college basketball more engaged in the Hall at many levels, has helped the institution secure a higher placed within the game, Doleva told BusinessWest.

Scott Zuffelato says the Hall has strengthened relationships

Scott Zuffelato says the Hall has strengthened relationships with many constituencies within the basketball community, including the Hall of Famers themselves, which is reflected in giving for the current capital campaign.

“We took the organization from a museum in Springfield where the game was invented,” he said, “to a global basketball brand with the mothership located in Springfield.”

This transformation, if you will, has certainly played a huge role in the enormous — and ongoing — success of the Hall’s capital campaign, which was launched more than two and a half years ago. Those who originally met to plan it did so with the initial mission of retiring lingering debt from construction of the new Hall at the start of this century — the roughly $2 million left from an original figure that approached $12 million.

But soon, the vision — and the campaign — took on new meaning.

“It soon became clear that we had a grander plan — and that was to redo the museum and bring it into the 21st century to again be the world’s finest sports museum,” said Doleva, adding that the campaign will raise far more than is needed for the planned renovations, which will enable the Hall to undertake those projects in a manner that couldn’t have been imagined back in 2000: by paying cash.

“The original goal was $21 million, and we saw that as a big challenge based on where we had been with the 2000 campaign,” he went on. “But very quickly, probably within 14 or 15 months, we hit $21 million. And like any good organization, with so many asks that were out there and so many opportunities that hadn’t been harvested, we decided to raise it to $30 million.”

As noted, the basketball community has responded to the Hall’s bid to step forward in a big way. The donor list is replete with the names of players, coaches, executives, and contributors to the game in various ways.

Zuffelato credited Jerry Colangelo, the Hall’s chairman, former owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, and currently a special adviser to the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, with inspiring many within the basketball community to give to the campaign.

Imagination on Display

What those traveling to the renovated Hall will encounter is a more modern, more visitor-friendly facility and museum that tells stories on a number of levels — both literally and figuratively.

Indeed, the renovated ground-floor lobby, the entry point for visitors, will feature a new, far less imposing ticket area (Doleva has a name for that, too — the ‘tugboat’ — and, more importantly, a number of new displays and attractions.

Overall, the lobby work, a significant portion of phase one, isn’t an expansion in the technical sense, said Doleva. Rather, it is a concerted effort to capture and make much better use of existing space in the lobby area.

“That concourse could really be any retail mall in America — when you walk into it, you don’t know that you’re in the Basketball Hall of Fame; you wouldn’t know until you look through the glass,” he said, adding that the renovations will make it clear to visitors just where they are. “This will be a very high-energy area.”

It will be dominated, he went on, by lockers bearing the names of some of the game’s greats, including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Grant Hill, Jerry West, and others, who have donated to the capital campaign. These lockers — there are 16 planned, with the ability to expand to 24 — will highlight not only achievements on the court, but the work done by these players within their community.

Meanwhile, a renovated theater in the lobby area, complete with digital technology, surround sound, and an actual stage, will play a more prominent role in the typical Hall visit — and in the Hall’s operations in general.

“Many people don’t know there’s a theater there,” he said. One reason for this, he noted, is that the Hall has never had what he and others in this business call a “signature film” to show to visitors upon their arrival. But it will have one soon, and Doleva said this work in progress will set the emotional tone for one’s visit.

As for the museum, it will see all its galleries renovated and modernized. Doleva explained that such work is necessary not only to keep pace with other museums and sports halls, but to set a new, higher bar.

“We want to present Bob Cousy in a way that will enable people in their teens or 20s to know who he was, and know who Oscar Robertson was, or Kareem,” he explained. “We want to make sure we celebrate all the Hall of Famers, whether they played in recent times or way back; we want to make sure they get their fair share of digital education to the fans.”

Another key addition to the Hall’s lineup, if you will, is the 1891 Gallery, so named because that’s the year James Naismith invented the game.

The gallery will provide area companies that donate specified amounts to the campaign with an opportunity to gain visibility in that space, a company statement that links Naismith’s core values to their company’s values, and a host of other benefits.

Many area businesses have already signed on, including MassMutual, Balise Auto Group, Excel Dryer, Florence Savings Bank, the Chicopee Savings Foundation, and the Davis Foundation.

These renovation project, coupled with MGM’s opening and other forms of momentum at the Hall and across Springfield, are inspiring Hall officials to set some ambitious goals for visitorship — for 2018, and especially for 2020 and beyond.

“I would expect a 20% to 25% increase in attendance,” said Doleva, adding that MGM should have a huge influence on the facility simply by introducing it to people who may not have known it was there.

Court of Opinion

The name affixed to the capital campaign — “It’s Time to Step Forward” is simple, yet has meaning on a number of levels.

On one of them, it speaks to potential donors, inviting them to step forward and play a role in modernizing a Springfield landmark and helping it secure a solid future in a way it never really has.

On another, that name speaks directly to what the Hall is doing — stepping forward — in terms of everything from building a facility truly worthy of the phrase ‘state of the art’ to forging stronger, long-lasting relationships with the basketball community.

These are, indeed, big steps forward, and, to borrow a phrase from the game itself, they comprise a winning formula for years and decades to come.

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


Impact Hire

Jim Ayres

Jim Ayres

Jim Ayres, who took the helm at the United Way of Pioneer Valley this past spring, arrived knowing he would be leading the organization through a time of significant change and challenge. His elaborate to-do list includes efforts to increase efficiency, do a better job of telling the United Way’s story to the younger people who probably don’t know it, and continuing the work of building coalitions to take on the many issues confronting the region’s communities and families.

There’s an old map hanging on the wall just inside the door to Jim Ayres’ office within the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s suite at the TD Bank building.

One of many he owns, it depicts Hampden and Hampshire counties and the areas just outside them, which means it covers the territories served by his last two employers — the United Way of Hampshire County was the other.

There’s no visible date on the map, but there are plenty of clues as to how old it may be. For starters, Dana, one of four towns disincorporated in 1938 to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir, is on the map. (Greenwich, Prescott, and Enfield were the others). Also, Holyoke takes what’s known to some as its ‘old’ shape, meaning the one before the area in Northampton known as Smith’s Ferry (that finger-shaped sliver of land so recognizable on today’s maps) became part of the city in 1909.

The map drives home the point that changes to the region’s landscape came about slowly, over several decades.

And that is in sharp contrast, in most respects, to the changes in the landscape for the United Way as a whole, the two that serve the region on the map, and the one based in Springfield in particular.

Indeed, that suite of offices downtown is roughly half the size it was just a few years ago (the Springfield Symphony Orchestra now occupies the other half), and the group working there is also about half the size it was not long ago. And most importantly, its annual fund — the amount it puts to work in the communities it serves — is about half as big (roughly $2 million) as it was.

A decision by MassMutual to no longer run a traditional United Way campaign and instead contribute to groups serving the community through its own foundation played a huge role in those developments, but other factors have contributed as well.

These include everything from changes in the demographic breakdown of the region’s business community (there are far fewer large employers now) to changes in how businesses of all sizes give back to the community — there’s more direct giving now, and also a host of new vehicles such as Valley Gives Day and individual foundations like the one at MassMutual.

“United Ways are in a place where technology, giving practices, and general educational changes have all changed the work that we need to do,” Ayres explained. “And while for a long period of time United Way was a household name and people widely understood what United Ways did, a lot of that has changed.

“There are a lot of other options now for people to give to support organizations in their community,” he went on. “It really behooves our organization to make the case as clearly as possible about what we do and the benefits of giving through this particular option.”

All this adds up to a serious, complicated, even painful period of adjustment that is very much ongoing, said Ayres, who last spring took on the job of leading those efforts for the UWPV.

He did so for a number of reasons, including the fact that he isn’t daunted by stern challenges; in fact, he’s always embraced them. Also, though, he believes he possesses the proper skill set for the multi-faceted task at hand, including the ability to build coalitions, strong communication skills — both within an organization and externally as well — and even achieving success in a region dominated by small (make that very small) businesses, Hampshire County. He also has an MBA, one focused on nonprofit management, and another degree in international relations focused on migration issues.

There are a lot of other options now for people to give to support organizations in their community. It really behooves our organization to make the case as clearly as possible about what we do and the benefits of giving through this particular option.”

“My career in Western Mass. has been about bringing people together in communities to make communities a better place to live and a better place for kids to grow up,” he explained.

Ayres said this adjustment period for the UWPV involves a number of initiatives, from work to become leaner and more efficient to efforts to better tell the agency’s story and relate its still-substantial role in bettering life for residents of area communities, to initiatives that go well beyond merely writing checks.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Ayres about his new assignment with the United Way of Pioneer Valley, and also about the changing landscape for the United Way and philanthropy in general, and how organizations like the one he now leads must adjust to those changes.

Change Agent

As noted earlier, Ayres brings a diverse skill set to his current role, one amassed through nearly 30 years of work in education and nonprofit management, realms he says have more similarities than most would believe.

A graduate of Hampshire College, where he concentrated in “political and social issues in education,” he started his career in Boston’s Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods as co-director and lead classroom teacher for the Boston Catholic Chinese Community Children’s Program.

After relocating to Western Mass., he went to work for the Springfield Public Schools, specifically as education summit coordinator and ‘community involvement coordinator.’ In that role, he said, he built effective coalitions between the school system and community stakeholder groups, including neighborhood associations, human-services providers, parent groups, communities of color, and private industry.

From there, he went to work for the Hampshire County Action Commission, serving as project director of the Hampshire County Family Network. In that role, he developed and administered a multi-agency collaborative that provided comprehensive services for families and children. Later, he became executive director of the Northampton-based Center for New Americans, a regional education, advocacy, and resource center for immigrants and refugees in Western Mass.


His career with the United Way began in 2011, when he became CEO and executive director of the Hampshire County agency. During his tenure there, he was credited with energizing the organization and expanding the donor base, funding diversity, and overall revenue at a time when most United Ways were going in the other direction.

“I had worked in individual organizations, but had been very interested in addressing challenges from a strategic level and from a macro level,” he noted while explaining why he joined the national organization. “And United Ways are organizations very well-suited to do that; we have relationships with the nonprofit service community, and we have relationships throughout the business community and with individuals as well. And United Ways are uniquely positioned to pull those assets together to make a difference, so I was excited to join the United Way and do that work.”

His track record of success in Hampshire County certainly caught the attention of UWPV’s board as it went about the task of finding a successor to the retiring Dora Robinson, and Ayres came on board late last spring.

Since then, he’s been focused on what he called “structural changes,” a broad term used to describe efforts to enable the agency to operate as efficiently as possible while still carrying out its multi-dimensional mission, shore up relationships with existing businesses, and develop ways to recover the donations lost from MassMutual’s decision.

At the same time, he and the agency continue to proactively adjust to that changing landscape described earlier, he said, adding that both assignments obviously constitute work in progress.

As he talked about the assignment he’s assumed — and the situation facing all United Ways across the country — Ayers said the challenges come on many levels, including one that Baby Boomers probably couldn’t fathom — name recognition and awareness.

Indeed, while those who grew up decades ago are well-versed when it comes to the United Way name, mission, and even some of the controversies that have enveloped the agency over the years, Millennials are far less familiar with the organization — and the concept.

“We’re finding more and more young people we approach either in the workplace or in the community who are very open to the idea to the idea of supporting the United Way, but haven’t necessarily heard of it before,” he said. “Or, if they have heard of it, they aren’t necessarily familiar with what it is that the United Way was created to do. So introducing ourselves, or re-introducing ourselves, is very important.”

And in that respect, the United Way has dropped the ball, or at least taken its eye off it, he went on, adding that, in many ways, it failed to realize these generational differences.

“A lot of United Ways didn’t recognize the degree to which generational changes were going to impact our work and have wound up playing catch-up,” he explained, adding that this was a challenge to most all United Ways, including the UWPV.

Forward Progress

Another challenge, obviously, is to maintain the ability to stand out amid the many other ways that individuals and businesses can contribute to nonprofits and causes.

“The history of United Way, and a piece of where we see our impact, is allowing people to give easily through payroll deduction — giving where they work,” he told BusinessWest. “And giving with the trust to know that the dollars they give will have a long and lasting impact. Part of the power of United Ways come from our ability to aggregate those gifts; so, even though roughly 40% of the gifts we receive are from people giving between $1 and $4 per paycheck, we’re able to aggregate those into significant-size grants that really change the capacity of the organizations we work with.”

A lot of United Ways didn’t recognize the degree to which generational changes were going to impact our work and have wound up playing catch-up.”

Overall, the United Way and individual chapters like the UWPV have to do a better job of telling their story, said Ayres, adding that this is just one of the subjects discussed at the regular gatherings of United Way officials.

Part of this ‘telling the story better’ involves making it clear the many ways in which this is still your father’s, or your mother’s, United Way, but one that nonetheless has changed with the times. And these discussions focus on everything from a more results-driven approach to the agency’s giving to the ways it goes beyond awarding grants, to its ongoing ability to bring groups together to tackle larger problems that require such coalition-building efforts.

And Ayres had specific thoughts on all of the above, starting with the coalition-building work, which, he said, is essentially the essence of the United Way.

“This organization is based on the idea that, to create a meaningful and lasting impact in our community, very few of us have the resources, the time, or the volunteer hours to do that on our own,” he said. “But if our businesses, our employees, and our neighbors are able to come together and work on challenging problems together, we’re able to have a much stronger impact than we would alone.”

And this operating philosophy is being put to work, and to the test, with efforts to assist those who have left hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico for communities in Western Mass.

“Many of the funders in Hampden County have been asking the question, ‘what can we do to support those individuals, and what can we do help the organizations that are going to helping those displaced people coming in, and what can we do to shore up the core functions that those organizations already provide so they don’t have to pivot away from their core services?’” he said. “So United Way convened a core group of eight or nine foundations and funding organizations to look at how we can use our dollars collaboratively.”

A fund has been established by the United Way to provide grants to the welcome centers that are assisting those displaced by the hurricane, he went on, adding that this is just one example of the agency’s coalition-building powers, and also an example of how it can and does go well beyond the traditional payroll-deduction method of raising funds for specific causes.

“This was a case of philanthropic organizations putting our heads together and saying, ‘how can we be stronger?’” he went on, adding that, moving forward, the United Way will playing even more of a convening role, as he called it, because this is one of its greatest strengths.

Mapping Out a Course

Getting back to that map on Ayres’ wall, it does a good job of driving home the point that time doesn’t stand still.

Dana, Prescott, Greenwich, and Enfield were erased from the map almost 70 years ago. And the Smith’s Ferry area has played a huge role in Holyoke’s history.

Time doesn’t stand still for the United Way, either. Thus, it is incumbent upon the organization to change with those times in order to be relevant and continue to carry out its important work.

It doesn’t say as much on Ayres’ job description, but that’s essentially what he was hired to do.

And he believes he’s in the right place at the right time.

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

Cover Story

Brush with Fame

Joe Ventura holds the cleat he made for Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch for the ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program.

Joe Ventura holds the cleat he made for Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch for the ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program.

The word ‘artist’ covers a lot of ground when talking about Joe Ventura. The Ludlow-based entrepreneur is lead singer for what’s considered the leading Bon Jovi tribute band in the country, and he custom airbrushes everything from hockey goalie helmets to cars and motorcycles. His latest canvas has become footwear, as in football cleats through the NFL’s ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program. For Ventura, it’s a foothold, in every aspect of that word, into another business opportunity.

Joe Ventura was clearly proud of the colorful shoe he had just created for New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead as part of the NFL’s ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ program.

But he understood that probably the most important touch, and easily the most poignant, would not come via his talented hand.

Indeed, these Nike cleats, size 12½, were to be shipped out to Atkinson, Neb. within a few days. There, they would be signed by Jack Hoffman, a truly inspirational 12-year-old with pediatric brain cancer who developed a special relationship with Burkhead while the latter was toting the rock for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.

That bond remains strong, and Team Jack, an initiative embraced by the Nebraska players to raise money for cancer research, is Burkhead’s choice when it comes to the ‘my cause’ part of the NFL’s popular new program, to be celebrated during the full slate of games set for the first week of December.

As for the cleats part, well, Ventura, a Ludlow-based artist, came to the attention of the Patriots, and eventually Burkhead, in a roundabout way we’ll get to in a minute. Joe V, as he’s known to friends and those who get a close-up look at his work — that’s how he signs his creations — is now working on cleats for a few representatives of the team.

The cleat bound for Rex Burkhead’s locker will first be sent to Nebraska to be signed by the inspirational Jack Hoffman.

The cleat bound for Rex Burkhead’s locker will first be sent to Nebraska to be signed by the inspirational Jack Hoffman.

For Burkhead, he fashioned cleats that feature the words ‘Team Jack,’ a silhouette of the running back with Hoffman, and images of the boy from today and roughly four and half years ago, when, while wearing Burkhead’s number 22, he entered a Nebraska spring game and ran 69 yards for a touchdown.

For defensive lineman Alan Branch, who wears a size-16 shoe, Ventura had a little more real estate to work with, and took full advantage of it, fashioning a likeness of one of Branch’s daughters upon one of the cartoon characters used to promote his cause, FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education).

The cleats represent a new entrepreneurial and artistic beachhead for Ventura, who already had several — both on his résumé and on display in the workshop behind his Ludlow home. In addition to being lead singer for a Bon Jovi tribute band called Bon Jersey (yes, a guy nicknamed Joe V plays in a Bon Jovi tribute band), he is also an amateur dirt-bike racer and artist specializing in custom airbrush painting of everything from hockey goalie helmets to motorcycles to a few cars (including a Ford Mustang for one of the Patriots).

“I’ll paint … just about anything that can be painted,” he said, while scrolling through his phone for the photo of that Mustang, now featuring the famous Patriots logo. “I’m always looking for new opportunities, new things I can do.”

And while he’s certainly not limiting his sights to sports, he has always looked upon that realm as a fairly recession-proof niche for his venture.

“When I started this business, the first thing I thought of was, ‘what can I do if the market crashes so I can still do my job?’” he recalled. “The answer was sports.”

When asked what was in the business plan for Joe V Designs, Ventura gave a shrug of his shoulders as if to indicate that he wasn’t sure, exactly. But he hinted broadly that there would be more of everything already in the portfolio, and hopefully some new wrinkles.

That includes work for MGM Springfield, which is in talks with Ventura to create some murals for the $950 million casino set to open in less than a year. He has already fashioned a preliminary work — a scene, circa 1931, that depicts three Springfield motorcycle police officers with the entrance to the Indian Motocycle manufacturing facility in Mason Square in the background.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Ventura about his many forms of artistic expression — and entrepreneurial spirit — and about what might come next as he continues to fill in the canvas of an already-colorful career.

Signature Works

The orange Nike box declared that the sneakers inside were size 10, and the model was the Air Zoom Vomero 12.

The name on the shoebox tells a big part of the story

The name on the shoebox tells a big part of the story of how Joe Ventura is finding new opportunities to fill in the canvas of an already-colorful career.

But the two words typed on white tape across the side told the real story: Bill Belichick.

Indeed, the legendary coach is the third Patriots representative to engage Ventura in creating some shoes for ‘My Cleats, My Cause,’ only Belichick’s aren’t exactly cleats.

And Ventura wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing with those sneakers when he talked with BusinessWest much earlier this month. He was awaiting further instruction, as they say, and not from the coach himself.

“Bill wants a sketch of the shoe before I do it … he’s a little busy; it would be hard for him to stop what he’s doing to talk about a shoe,” deadpanned Ventura, adding that all he knew at that point was that he would be fashioning something that conveyed the Bill Belichick Foundation (BBF), which strives to provide coaching, mentorship, and financial support to individuals, communities, and organizations, and focuses on football and lacrosse.

And while Ventura is honored to be a client of the only coach to win five Super Bowls, and he did quickly put a picture of that Nike box with Belichick’s name on it up on his Facebook page, he doesn’t exactly get star-struck.

That’s because he’s worked with quite a few lights over the years. These are names that most casual sports fans might not know, but they are stars in their own galaxies nonetheless.

Like Jonathon Quick, goaltender for the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, for whom Ventura has designed a number of masks. And Dwayne Roloson, a long-time NHL netminder who played for a host of teams. And John Muse, who played his college hockey at Boston College and now patrols the net for Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League.

Even less well-known are some of the dirt-bike stars for whom he’s created helmets. That list includes John Dowd, the former professional motocross racer from Chicopee also known as the ‘Junk Yard Dog’; Dowd’s son, Ryan; Robby Marshall; and many others.

Ventura creates several hundred hockey-goalie masks each year, including those for most major college programs — he’s one of only seven certified Bauer painters in the country — and he’s done a great deal of work in the motor-sports helmet realm as well.

And then, there are the Indian motorcycles, now made in Indiana, that he will custom-paint for clients.

“I’m all around, everywhere,” he said of both his work and where it ends up. “The hockey masks go all around the world, and I’ve handled all the custom work from Indian pretty much since they opened.”

Still, it was his other career, more than a quarter-century as lead singer for Bon Jersey, that ultimately paved the way for his work with ‘My Cleats, My Cause.’

“One of my fans from the band is Brad Berlin, the equipment manager for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,” he recalled. “He was so into our music and what we did that he forgot what I did for a living. When they started ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ last year, they were frantic in Tampa trying to find artists; they had to go to California, one guy went to Maryland…

“Then, he remembered what I did for a living, and he sent me two sets of cleats that he wanted me to mock up, one for Tampa and one for New England,” he went on, adding that his mockup for the Pats — one that featured the team’s logo on a shoe that appeared to be made out of steel — obviously turned some heads.

Because, when Ventura went to the Patriots game against the Bucaneers in Tampa on Oct. 5, he got a sideline pass, met some players, and made some connections that turned into assignments.

He garnered the three mentioned above, plus defensive lineman Lawrence Guy and some of the team’s equipment personnel, and may get another for Brian Hoyer, the former Patriots quarterback now back with the team after the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. Also, he’s the unofficial go-to artist for anyone on the team who doesn’t have an artist.

Meanwhile, his contact information somehow got sent to the Buffalo Bills and, eventually, their equipment manager, who asked Ventura to create a few sets of cleats for their quarterback, Tyrod Taylor.

“From what the equipment manager told me, he took one look at them and said, basically, ‘I want this guy,’” said Ventura, adding that he’s awaiting some instructions from the player on what he’s looking for.

Different Strokes

Ventura likes to say that he lives in his backyard.

While that’s an exaggeration, it’s not far from the truth.

Indeed, the artist — that’s a phrase that covers a lot of territory, to be sure — spends large chunks of each day in a studio that can’t be seen from the street, provides no hint of the work going on inside, and is nondescript in almost every way. Except maybe when there’s a Nike box with Bill Belichick’s name on it on the work desk.

But it’s home — again, not literally, but for his growing business. And Ventura likes everything about it, especially the fact that no one knows it’s there.

“If I had a fancy storefront, I’d never get anything done,” he said, he said with a smile, noting that he doesn’t put an address on his colorful (what else would it be?) business card.

“There’s a phone number on there … if they want to find me, they can call me,” he said, adding that many people have, as evidenced by that deep and still-growing portfolio of work.

On the day BusinessWest visited, Ventura was referencing the recently completed left cleat bound for Nebraska, Jack Hoffman’s house, and, eventually, Burkhead’s locker.

This is the one with the image of a younger Hoffman, from when he was 7 or 8 years old. On the work bench was a photograph of the confident-looking 12-year-old, to be transferred onto the right cleat, which at that moment sported its basic white and black from the factory, with tape covering the cleats as Ventura prepared to go to work on it.

As he talked about Burkhead’s cleats, Ventura said that, like almost everything he does, this specific project is customized, and it tells a story — actually, several of them.

The first is the story the client wishes to tell, be it a reference to a nonprofit or something important enough to them to be painted on the chassis of a motorcycle. But there’s also Ventura’s story — specifically his attention to detail and desire to go above and beyond for the client.

Like with Burkhead. While what Ventura has done with the cleats is certainly creative and inspirational, the artist knew the crowning touch had to be a signature from Jack Hoffman.

And so he made those arrangements, with the signing to be videotaped and sent to Burkhead.

He also came up with the other design elements with little, if any, instruction beyond creating something that told the story of Team Jack.

“I had to do some research on it, and then my mind just starts to flow, and I come up with these ideas on how to do things,” he said, while giving ample credit to his partner, Jeff Ottomaniello, whom Ventura says he’s been training for the past 15 years.

The artist’s mindset came through when he was asked how long it took to create a cleat like the one bound for Nebraska.

“When you’re doing a portrait like that for a cleat, which is highly impossible, it could take a day to do that one cleat,” he explained. “But I don’t like to talk about how long it takes, because it’s not how much time it takes, it’s being able to create that image; it’s more of the passion of being able to do it.”

Where this passion will take him in the future is a question without a clear answer. Like the famous coach he’s creating shoes for, Ventura doesn’t get very emotional — or very detailed — when he talks about what comes next.

He didn’t say “on to Cincinnati,” but implied that it was on to whatever work his current portfolio — or even his work with Bon Jersey — might inspire.

“My favorite sport is football, and for me to be involved in this [cleats] program is pretty cool for me,” he told BusinessWest. “Once this is done, we’re going to make a portfolio and send it to each one of the teams in the NFL; knowing that we have some backing from the people we’ve done work for, it will be a little easier for people to see us and maybe get more of these.”

As for MGM, he said he’s now in talks with the company about creating murals depicting scenes from Springfield past and present. If that comes to fruition, he believes that high-profile work may open even more doors down the road.

Getting a Foothold

Ventura said he wasn’t at all sure what happens to the cleats worn during ‘My Cleats, My Cause’ week when those games over.

He suspects some of them may be auctioned off or given to the charities in question for display, but he doesn’t know their exact fate.

He does know that the cleats he created for the Patriots, the ‘steel’ shoes, will be put on display at the Patriots headquarters in Foxboro.

His ‘Joe V’ signature won’t be very visible, but the cleats, like all his work, including that with Bon Jersey, seemingly lead to additional opportunities.

In other words, he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop — literally and figuratively.

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

Entrepreneurship Sections

Planting Seeds

Steve Rosenkrantz

Steve Rosenkrantz

Western Mass. has seen an impressive surge in entrepreneurship over the past decade, but when people think about the successes, they tend to call to mind startups and independent companies. But there is another way to succeed in business ownership, and that’s through franchising. Through a national company called Entrepreneur’s Source, Steve Rosenkrantz has been matching clients with franchises for 17 years — by focusing on what they want not just in a career, but out of life.

Steve Rosenkrantz has a simple way of explaining his job.

“I think of what I do as planting seeds,” he said — and in 17 years as the owner of an Entrepreneur’s Source franchise, he’s planted many of them.

He also fancies himself a matchmaker of sorts, but not the kind who brings two people together. No, he’s making matches between his clients and what will, hopefully, become their ideal lifestyle, in the form of their own franchise business.

“I learned a few things a long time ago, and one is that nobody really wants to buy a business; they just like the benefits of owning one,” he said with a laugh. “I guess I create a safe space for the client to be educated and discover for themselves what types of franchise options match their career goals and expectations.”

In short, he’s helping individuals — usually people with well-established careers who are looking for a change and a measure of autonomy — transition to the realm of entrepreneurship. Rather than launching a startup, however, his clients are investing in a franchise of an established business.

The evidence of how it works began with his own search for a business opportunity in 2001, when his family business — a chain of Serv-U hardware and home-improvement stores — went through a dramatic downsizing. He then commenced a search for what to do next, and turned to the Entrepreneur’s Source for some guidance.

After a lengthy coaching and assessment process, one of the franchise opportunities put in front of him, oddly enough, was the Entrepreneur’s Source itself. Almost two decades later, he remains passionate about his work and the impact it has both regionally and nationally.

I learned a few things a long time ago, and one is that nobody really wants to buy a business; they just like the benefits of owning one.”

Take Antonia Santiago, for instance. She had an idea for a business startup in the senior-care space. When she talked to a local representative at SCORE, the business-mentoring agency, they referred her to Rosenkrantz. Through a series of discussions about what she was looking for in a career and lifestyle, another possibility arose.

“I said, ‘what do you think about working with children?’” he said. “She said, ‘I love children.’ I said, ‘I have a hunch.’”

So he connected her with a company, well-established in New York and New Jersey, called HobbyQuest, an after-school enrichment program that dovetails with local school curriculum to enhance what children are already learning and building on it.

“The match was perfect, and last month, she launched in West Springfield,” Rosenkrantz told BusinessWest. “It shows how, when people have awareness of what I do, like the SCORE counselor did, wonderful things can happen that benefit the community.”

Like his own experience, the process begins with an open mind to think past specific ideas the client may have in mind, and get to the root of their ILWE goals — income, lifestyle, wealth, and equity — to find an opportunity that fulfills them all in the short and long terms.

“I’m always respectful of opportunities people may have in mind when they come to me, but I like to back up the train a bit to get to understand what they really want their ILWE to be,” he explained. “The right franchise should be able to match all those things. My job is to match my clients with the right franchise models that correspond best to their geography, investment level, family dynamics, and the scalability they’re looking for.”

The options are endless, he added. “It could be with employees or without; with a physical storefront or a virtual storefront. I profile clients and, through lots of Q and A, help them determine what path to go on. It’s not a perfect system; there’s no such thing as that. But the program encourages clients to approach the process with an open mind, to determine whether we’re on the right track, or we need to redirect.”

Put Me In, Coach

There is a third term Rosenkrantz uses to describe his role, and that is a coach — in both business and life, with the recognition that the latter has a huge impact on the former.

The discovery process he undertakes with clients covers everything from personal and financial background to the type of business they believe they would be suited for.

He then offers a series of franchise ideas from his database, based on that all-important ILWE, which the client researches to see what might spark an interest.

Some matches have become well-known success stories in Western Mass., such as Jim Brennan and Rick Crews, who wound up starting a Doctor’s Express franchise in West Springfield and now operate more than 20 of them throughout the region. For their success, they were named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2012, and have significantly expanded their footprint since.

Their field of urgent care is, in fact, a good example of finding a niche with serious growth potential, and Brennan and Crews jumped in at the right time. On the flip side, Rosenkrantz said, anyone looking to open a Dunkin’ Donuts these days is about a decade past peak saturation.

On the other hand, “when the frozen-yogurt craze started not long ago, a lot of major players wanted to connect with us, but we chose to stick with a company called Menchie’s, which had a vision that was a little different. They were focusing on frozen desserts, not just froze yogurt, and they had a vision what they want to look like in five to 10 years.”

New England tends to be conservative about new businesses, he added. “We tend to bring in franchises that are already tested and have a strong track record elsewhere in the world. And that’s good for me.”

Indeed, Massachusetts is fertile ground for some nationally successful franchises that have not exploded here yet, such as Sport Clips, three of which were recently launched by Ian Coogan, a commander at Westover Air Reserve Base who was looking for a business opportunity he could transition into while still spending most of his time at the base. “He doesn’t cut hair, and he doesn’t have to go in on a daily basis,” Rosenkrantz said — again, demonstrating that there’s a franchise to match everyone’s schedule.

Speaking of entrepreneurs with a military background, Rosenkrantz pointed out Patrick Walker, a retired senior chief of the U.S. Coast Guard, who had been responsible for the maintenance and quality assurance of its Aviation Department.

He attended a military-recruiting expo in 2014 with an open mind and a taste for entrepreneurship, but also a recollection of other franchise representatives he had talked with before who were heavy on hard-selling their opportunities, but not as interested in what his own goals and needs were.

But the Entrepreneur’s Source coach he met was different, Walker explained in an interview — one of many with military clients — collected in a booklet to tout Entrepreneur Source’s Veteran2Entrepreneur program. Because he was interested in travel and wanted to relocate to his hometown of Frisco, Texas, he opened an Expedia CruiseShipCenter there in 2016, taking advantage of a career option that let him choose where to live after a lifetime of moving around from post to post.

“Most of my friends are getting comfortable jobs; I decided I wanted something I could call my own,” he said. “I have a sense of pride wearing my uniform and driving to my business. It’s the American dream.”

Rosenkrantz said veterans, as a group, especially understand the potential of franchising. “Why? Because they can follow a system, and they know how to add value to a system. They like organization, they like regimen, and a franchise system is their bread and butter. Franchising and the military is a wonderful combination.”

Walker agreed. “As a retiring veteran, I felt I was too old to start a business from scratch. But in a franchise, all I needed was to read and implement the operations and procedures manual.”

Living Proof

Rosenkrantz works with clients across the U.S. and finds them matches from coast to coast, but he said he’s especially gratified performing that task in Western Mass. and Northern Conn. because of the bonus of boosting the region’s economy and bringing intriguing new businesses to the area.

“I never lose sight of the fact that I am a franchise that helps people find the right franchise. I live franchising every day. I’m a testimonial to our process because I was a client myself.”

The Entrepreneur’s Source is paid by franchises for successful matches, and Rosenkrantz said they consider it money well spent.

“The introduction we make between clients and franchises is a much warmer connection because my clients have already been vetted, and I check the territory availability of the franchise model for the client. So, the franchise gets someone with potential synergies right out of the gate, and that is something that’s valuable to them, so they love compensating my company for those warm introductions. We are advocates to make sure everything is in alignment.”

Because of the wide range of opportunities, clients may have to invest as little as $20,000 for a franchise opportunity or as much as millions, and many, like Coogan, keep their current jobs while ramping up their new business. Rosenkrantz also helps clients navigate funding resources like a unique 401(k) rollover program that doesn’t pile on the penalties, as well as Small Business Administration loans and similar programs.

In addition, “I have helped many people who say, ‘I don’t have the liquidity,’ but you do have family and friends. Sometimes people allow pride to get in the way, but they have people who care about them, and good things can happen if you utilize your circle of influence.”

There is a second facet to Rosenkrantz’s role, however — to help small-business owners with a single location find the resources and support to expand into a franchise of their own. One of those, Extra Innings, was a business based in Middleton that specializes in baseball and softball instruction. After connecting with Entrepreneur’s Source, the business has expanded to 27 franchises across the country.

“I love hearing the ideas of independent businesses looking for the next stage of expansion,” he told BusinessWest.

When he’s not helping clients, Rosenkrantz is always looking for opportunities to speak to all kinds of groups — such as laid-off workers and college students — about the opportunities available through the franchise model.

“My mission is to educate anyone who has entrepreneurial curiosity about franchising,” he said. “Not everyone will or should own that path, but it’s my firm belief that, for anyone who has entrepreneurial curiosity, one of the steps in their educational process should be to learn about franchising.”

Simply put, he added, “franchising is an opportunity to be in business for yourself, but not by yourself.”

And it’s crucial, he went on, for both he and the client to feel strongly they’ve made the right match, because failed matches are bound to be discussed on social media. “I’ve never had a bad comment on social media. I stay in touch with a lot of clients years later, and I’m pretty proud of their successes in their respective franchises and industries.”

In the meantime, he said his mission is to create even more awareness. “I want to get onto more college campuses to spread the word about business ownership. It’s not for everyone, but those who want to learn about and explore entrepreneurship, franchising is an important part of that discovery process.”

Never Alone

It’s all about the support, he concluded — not just from the Entrepreneur’s Source, but from the chosen franchise’s parent company, which has a keen interest in each location’s success.

“Statistics say an independent business, within a two-year period, has a high probability of failure,” Rosenkrantz noted. “People don’t have that extra working capital; they don’t plan things beyond the starting phase. Franchises, though, have an exponentially higher level of success, both short- and long-term.

“People should be educated about this when they’re considering business ownership as a career opportunity,” he concluded. “I want to be a piece of that education. I’m making inroads, but it’s a long battle.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care Sections

Screen Pass

socialmediadangerIn a nation where the vast majority of adults have a social-media presence, it’s not surprising that kids are clamoring to get in on the fun. But for teenagers, and especially the middle-school set, social media comes with its own set of additional traps, often magnifying and broadcasting incidents of peer pressure and bullying. There’s no real consensus on when kids should be allowed to use these ubiquitous tools, but experts agree that parents need to be involved in that decision — and well beyond.

Technology moves quickly, Dr. Bruce Waslick said. And young people are much better at keeping up with it than their parents.

“I’ve raised three kids, and the technology changed a lot from the time my first kid became a teenager to the time my third kid became a teenager,” said Waslick, chief of Child Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center. “Things are moving so fast.”

Perhaps the most significant technological shift over the past decade — a seismic cultural shift, really — is the technology that almost 80% of all Americans are carrying in their pockets and purses: the smartphone.

nd make no mistake — it’s a tool that teens and tweens crave, particularly for access to the very public online realm of social media. But should they have that access? It’s a question doctors, parents, and tech experts have been grappling with for years, and still one without a definitive answer.

“So many kids now have access to smartphones and social media, and part of it can be great,” Waslick told BusinessWest. “People get connected to all kinds of information, and social media can be positive, helping kids communicate with each other and make relationships.

“The hard part is, kids are just so young, and they don’t know a lot about the world at that point, and they’re getting involved in very complex kinds of social-media functions they may not fully understand,” he went on, citing pitfalls from magnified self-image issues to cyberbullying. Online predators are another real concern, he said, because of the ease with which they can insinuate themselves into kids’ lives.

“In the old days, friends introduced you to friends, and vouched for them. Now, with a couple clicks, people get connected to people all over the country, and the world, with little filtering or regard for what they actually know about the people they’re connecting with.”

Melanie Hempe, a registered nurse and founder of Families Managing Media, a site that explores the hazards young people face in the online world, told Psychology Today that teenagers and pre-teens have a way of wearing their parents down with their desire to fit in to the Internet culture.

“Maybe because we’re exhausted from their constant begging for a phone, or because we think that all their friends have one, or because we want to upgrade ours to the latest model … we cave. We act on impulse. Our brain seems to regress like theirs, and we give them our old smartphone,” she explained. “And with that one little decision comes the world of social-media access — something we haven’t thought about and something none of us is prepared for.”

And she believes it’s a bad decision to give in, particularly before the high-school years. “Because the midbrain is reorganizing itself and risk-taking is high and impulse control is low, I can’t imagine a worse time in a child’s life to have access to social media than middle school.”

Specifically, she said, a tween’s underdeveloped frontal cortex can’t manage the distraction and temptations that come with social-media use. For example, “a tween’s ‘more is better’ mentality is a dangerous match for social media. Do they really have 1,456 friends? Do they really need to be on it nine hours a day? Social media allows — and encourages — them to overdo their friend connections like they tend to overdo other things in their lives.”

Dr. Bruce Waslick

Dr. Bruce Waslick

It’s a legitimate concern, said Dr. Yolanda Chassiakos, who serves on the executive committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media. She cited a 2016 study showing that three-quarters of teenagers own a smartphone — close to the national average — and 24% of all adolescents report feeling “addicted” to their phone.

“Even parents young enough to be ‘digital natives’ themselves are worried about how to guide their children in this new digital media world and ensure the risks of media use and overuse are avoided,” she wrote, adding that increased sedentary media use usually corresponds to decreased sleep and a greater risk of obesity — as well as the psychological dangers Waslick and others have cited.

“Excessive media use has been associated with challenges such as isolation, victimization, depression, and Internet addiction,” she went on. “Unmonitored media use can leave children and teens vulnerable to online predators or allow them to make unwise decisions such as sharing inappropriate texts, videos, or photos.”

In other words, it’s a minefield. Just like the middle-school years themselves.

Not All Bad News

Waslick was quick to note the ways in which social media can exacerbate the social hazards tweens and teens already face.

“There’s a lot of peer pressure, as well as contacts with people posting inappropriate things online, disclosing personal details, getting into fights, a certain amount of cyberbullying,” he said.

The public nature of social media can take typical embarrassments and more serious incidents like bullying and magnify them, he added. “Sometimes, kids think when they type something, it’s like texting to somebody, but it’s being read by so many people. And one-on-one bullying is horrible enough, but bullying in front of large groups of people at the same time can be worse.”

However, not everyone who studies this issue comes to the same conclusions. Caroline Knorr is the Parenting editor of Common Sense Media, a website that exists to give parents a window into popular media in order to make good decisions for their kids. And she’s not convinced that online networking is the minefield some make it out to be.

“Yes, the risks of social media are real,” she said. “But new research is shedding light on the good things that can happen when kids connect, share, and learn online. As a parent, you can help nurture the positive aspects by accepting how important social media is for kids and helping them find ways for it to add real value to their lives.”

She identified a few ways in which social media can be a positive force, such as strengthening friendships, offering a sense of belonging, providing genuine support, and helping young people express themselves.

“Online acceptance — whether a kid is interested in an unusual subject that isn’t considered ‘cool’ or is grappling with sexual identity — can validate a marginalized kid,” she explained. “Suicidal teens can even get immediate access to quality support online. One example occurred on a Minecraft forum on Reddit when an entire online community used voice-conferencing software to talk a teen out of his decision to commit suicide.”

One other positive is the ability to do good, Knorr said. “Twitter, Facebook, and other large social networks expose kids to important issues and people from all over the world. Kids realize they have a voice they didn’t have before and are doing everything from crowdfunding for people in need to anonymously tweeting positive thoughts.”

One example of positive action using social media is an anti-bullying movement initially launched in Western Mass. that has spread across all 50 states and to more than 50 countries, with celebrities getting into the act. The core of the campaign is using the ubiquitous ‘selfie’ to spread an anti-bullying message on social-media platforms.

“The social-media effort was started by the kids of Unify,” said Edward Zemba, president of Unify Against Bullying, an organization based in East Longmeadow. “It was their way of bringing awareness to the silence of bullying. As parents, we all know that this issue is difficult enough to address when we talk about it. However, when children are left alone to deal with it in silence, things can get far worse.”

In January, the kids of Unify set a goal. By the end of the year, they wanted to have 50 celebrities participate in their selfie challenge. “Bullying is about trying to look cool,” said Zemba’s 14-year-old daughter, Julianna, one of the organization’s founders. “If celebrities send a message that bullying isn’t OK to kids, they’ll listen differently than if it’s from their parents, or even friends.”

With well-known figures such as Chris Evans, Zach Braff, and actors from series such as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things participating, they are well on their way. Even athletes from NASCAR, the WWE, the Boston Bruins, the WNBA, and New England Patriots cheerleaders have posted selfies.

Chassiakos agrees that new media can provide a host of benefits and opportunities to grow in a positive way. “Because these platforms are interactive, children and teens can use them to learn, connect, and communicate with family and friends, and engage in creative activities. The key is moderation and balance; media use should not replace or displace other activities that promote healthy development and wellness.”

Parental Guidance Suggested

Unfortunately, Waslick said, there really is no hard-and-fast age when kids are ready to dive into social media.

“There may be kids who can appropriately use social media at an earlier age, although I don’t recommend that,” he told BusinessWest. “Others may be more fragile and shouldn’t be exposed to social media until they’re older, more mature, and able to handle certain things. I think parents should weigh this on an individual basis and then monitor how it’s going.”

That often includes insisting being a part of the teen’s social-media network — a Facebook friend, for example — even though they may not be crazy about the idea.

“Parents can be valuable ‘media mentors,’ guiding older children and teens on practicing online citizenship and safety, treating others with respect, avoiding cyberbullying and sexting, being wary of online solicitation, and avoiding communications that can compromise personal privacy and safety,” Chassiakos noted. “Parents also should be good role models by balancing their own media use with other activities.”

After all, Waslick said, even the best-intentioned kids end up with bad experiences online — not just bullying, but situations as simple as finding out about a party they weren’t invited to, or seeing a romantic interest cozy up to someone else online.

“These are normal things that happen during the middle-school years, but on social media, it plays out differently — more publicly,” he said. “While it’s an individual, case-by-case thing, parents should have a say in whether their kids are ready for it, and whether they understand what they’re getting involved in.”

He compared parental guidance in social media like learning how to drive. “That’s what a learning permit is for, so parents can supervise them while they learn to drive. I think getting involved in social media is like that; parental supervision is a good idea.”

Hempe insists that social media is an entertainment technology that doesn’t help kids raise their intelligence, develop socially in a healthy way, or prepare them for real life or a future job. She also feels it replaces learning the ‘work’ of dealing face-to-face with their peers, and often frays connections with family and real-world friends.

If they must partake, she suggests a few tips, including delaying access, following their kids’ accounts, allowing computer use only on large screens in the home, setting time limits for use, and planning non-tech family time together — in other words, replacing the screen with something positive and healthy.

“Don’t give that smartphone all the power in your home,” she said. “Help tweens choose healthier forms of entertainment. They have the rest of their life to be entertained by social media, but only a limited time with you.”

That’s advice few parents would argue against — no matter how much they trust their kids.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate Sections

Building Collaboration

The O’Connell Companies has a new home in Holyoke

The O’Connell Companies has a new home in Holyoke (above), replacing the previous headquarters (below) of more than a century.

The O’Connell Companies

The O’Connell Companies traces its history in Holyoke back to 1879, when Daniel O’Connell founded the construction company that eventually branched into property design, management, development, and much more. For more than a century, the company was housed in limited quarters on Hampden Street, but a new headquarters on Kelly Way offers more space, amenities, and opportunities for what one of the firm’s executives called “cross-fertilization.”

In the conference room where Andrew Crystal sat down with BusinessWest recently, the only piece of artwork currently hanging up is a stylized, brightly hued BIM (building information modeling) image of the new headquarters of the O’Connell Companies, located on Kelly Way in Holyoke. On the opposite wall hangs a cutting-edge, multi-screen array for both displaying information during meetings and videoconferencing with other parties.

The room’s long, wooden table, however, is one of the only pieces brought over from the former O’Connell HQ on Hampden Street. The restored table represents some of the connective fiber between old and new that the company wanted its new home to represent, said Crystal, vice president of O’Connell Development Group.

“We’ve managed to incorporate some history,” he said, also referencing a set of century-old, meticulously handwritten balance sheets framed on the wall of another wing, where the accountants work. “The company does have a very long, interesting story, so we tried to preserve some of the history and the culture of the company. That was very important in the design of this.”

Otherwise, the new headquarters, situated on a seven-acre parcel in the woods off Bobala Road, is rife with modern touches, starting with the striking central atrium that connects the wings that house various divisions — O’Connell Development Group, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (construction), Appleton Corp. (property management), and New England Fertilizer Co. (biosolids management).

The atrium is awash in natural light and features tables and chairs toward the back, along with a kitchen and coffee bar. “We wanted to create some space for people to mingle informally, share a meal or coffee break together, with the intent of getting to know each other and, more important, cross-fertilize, because everything we do is related,” Crystal said. “We design, develop, finance, build, and manage buildings, roads, and bridges — it’s all interrelated for me.”

One of the goals of the new building is to bring together all the company’s divisions under one roof; Appleton previously had its own space on Suffolk Street in Holyoke, while the Hampden Street facility that housed the others had long been insufficient.

“It was an old, tired building, and we had looked at renovating it,” Crystal said. “But, to continue to be a great work environment for present employees, but also with an eye toward the future, it made sense to move to a new location and to have everything under one roof. There’s nothing like being in the same building.”

Dennis Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of the O’Connell Companies, said as much when he addressed hundreds of visitors at a recent open house, noting that it’s been more than a century since the firm dedicated a new headquarters.

Andrew Crystal

Andrew Crystal stands on the walkway overlooking the sunlit central atrium and the woods behind the property.

“When we started this project, our hope was that we could create a modern, contemporary office building where we could more effectively carry out our daily work,” he said. “We wanted improved functionality, a higher level of comfort, and we wanted a few more amenities. We hope that our new headquarters will cultivate a work environment that supports and further develops the spirit and cuture that has made this organization as successful as it has been for as long as it has been.”

For this month’s focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest paid a visit to Kelly Way to check out the results of that effort.

Forward Thinking

The intent, Crystal said, was to house the company’s various divisions in a modern, energy-efficient, healthy environment. “We wanted to be conscientious about the environment in terms of energy efficiency and how we treated the land when we sited the building and took the trees down. And we wanted to preserve and enhance the corporate culture that exists here, which is why we created this atrium space in the middle of the building.”

He has heard of multiple incidents recently of long-time O’Connell employees meeting in person for the first time, which means the design is working.

“Part of the design is to create space and an environment that encourages people to collaborate and work together between companies,” he explained. “It was also done with an eye toward creating a great workplace for employees — not just the employees we have, but as an incentive to attract younger employees. Things like the atrium and a shared coffee bar, and a fitness room downstairs with showers — these are things that younger workers want, and it’s a competitive environment to attract talent.”

As for the subdued exterior of the building, Crystal said he had a specific vision for how the dark-bricked façade would interact with the woods around it.

“We wanted a brick building, but we wanted something that was more unique than red brick, that was an elegant blend with the surroundings,” he explained. “We went through quite a few designs, looking at various mixes of bricks. We’re very pleased with the result; whether it’s a bright, sunny day or an overcast, rainy day, the building really fits into the surrounding environment.”

The natural light that pours in from the building’s tall windows brings aesthetic appeal as well, but doubles as an energy-efficient element — one of many, he explained. “We chose not to get LEED-certified, but the criteria in LEED buildings drove a lot of the decisions around energy efficiency, water efficiency, quality of the air people breathe, and the views people have to the exterior.”

Dennis Fitzpatrick, addressing open-house attendees

Dennis Fitzpatrick, addressing open-house attendees, said it was “high time” O’Connell’s own home reflected some of the modern design elements it was using in its clients’ projects.

For instance, he continued, “all the light fixtures are LED, and all are on occupancy sensors. We have a high-efficiency boiler for heating, and we have energy-recovery ventilation, so when air is exhausted from the building, we recover some of the energy from the air and reuse it.”

Crystal added that the environmentally friendly focus extended to the outdoors, where the building was positioned in such a way that preserved the more mature trees around its perimeter. The plan is to develop some walking trails through the wooded surroundings by next summer. For now, a large outdoor patio overlooks the grounds behind the atrium. “So if you’re on your laptop on a beautiful day, why not sit outside with the beautiful woods and do your work?”

A freshly installed bocce court is another way to help employees enjoy the outdoors during the warmer months, he added. “Again, we want to encourage people to stay after work and recreate and get to know each other. One of our goals is to create a sense of community among employees.”

Daily Impact

In short, Crystal and his development team — which included architectural firm Amenta Emma and a host of contractors and subcontractors from Western Mass. — are firm believers that a building’s design and environment affect both productivity and employee behavior.

“One goal was to encourage collaboration, innovation, and cross-fertilization,” he said, referring not only to the shared atrium, but formal conference rooms in each wing and the open layout of each division, with offices ringing a shared bank of workstations. Each wing also features a small, private room with a phone for employees in the shared space to make private calls.

A color palette heavy on light grays and whites, with a bold splash of blue ringing some walls, was designed to promote brightness and productivity, and the rainbows that occasionally appear in the glass and white-ash floors when the sun hits the atrium’s huge rear windows is “one of those unanticipated surprises,” Crystal noted.

“People seem happy,” he said. “I think the employees are happy to be here. Having a fun, modern, efficient environment to work in is an important piece of that.”

As the company’s president, Fitzpatrick certainly understands the importance of keeping everyone happy.

“Part of our culture is our people working together to come up with creative, innovative solutions to the challenges and risks that our company faces in our daily business,” he told the crowd at the open house.

“At the O’Connell Companies, we all care very deeply about the details,” he went on. “We care about what happens when plane X meets plane Y. We care about quality, and we care a lot about the feel, the sense that you have when you’re in a building, and I wanted this building to represent that. I wanted it to reflect the kind of quality that we hold ourselves accountable for when we go out and develop, build, and manage an asset for someone else. It was high time that our home reflected some of the ones that we were building.”

As Crystal walked BusinessWest past what’s called the Founder’s Room — a formal conference space on the second floor with a black walnut table built by Jonah Zuckerman of City Joinery in Holyoke — he reflected again on how the company’s history in the Paper City impacts how it does business today, and how its new headquarters fits into that history going forward.

“The real value this company has is its intellectual capital,” he said. “Yes, we own real estate, and we own equipment, but what makes the company unique is its intellectual capital, and by locating all our employees in the same building and actively promoting interactions and collaboration, I think the company benefits. That’s what we hoped to accomplish by relocating.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

A Huge Opportunity — Clearly

From left, principals Marc Gammell, Yinyong Li, and Kenneth Carter

From left, principals Marc Gammell, Yinyong Li, and Kenneth Carter

There’s no word yet on whether the creators of FogKicker will embrace Johnny Nash’s 1972 reggae hit ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ as their theme song, but it would certainly work. The product, developed in the polymer science lab at UMass Amherst, has proven itself successful in keeping a range of surfaces, from scuba masks to bathroom mirrors, clear of fog. Partners Yinyong Li, Marc Gammell, and Kenneth Carter are scaling up their venture, Treaty Biotech LLC, and while their vision of the future isn’t totally clear, it is certainly coming into focus.

They call it ‘big glass.’

That’s the term the principals at Treaty LLC, developers of the product known as FogKicker, summon as they talk about larger surfaces such as car windshields, bathroom mirrors, and shower doors.

And they foresee a day when their product will be in widespread use on all of the above, and more, to clear away annoying — and sometimes dangerous, especially when it comes to those windshields — fog.

We made a strategic decision to go after this niche market, where we knew there was a problem, where there are anti-fogging products out there that work fairly miserably, and where we knew we could gain a foothold.”

But for now, they’re more focused on what would have to be labeled ‘small glass,’ or at least ‘smaller glass,’ as in the goggles used by scuba divers, snorkelers, swimmers, skiers, mountain climbers, and others. And in this realm — large in its own right by any estimation — those who developed FogKicker in the polymer science lab at UMass Amherst can see some clear opportunities, pun obviously intended.

“There are certainly a number of applications for this product — everyone has a bathroom mirror,” said Yinyong Li, who, along with Kenneth Carter, a professor in the Polymer Science and Engineering Department at UMass Amherst, discovered that nanocellouse, a biological material plants use to help them absorb and circulate water, could also be used to solve one of society’s big problems — keeping glass surfaces free of fog.

Cellulose, of course, is used in the production of a number of paper products, said Yinyong, adding that, in many respects, FogKicker acts like an invisible paper towel to absorb moisture and keep glass surfaces clear of fog.

Yinyong, the company’s chief technology officer, who attained his Ph.D. from UMass in 2016; Carter; and third partner Marc Gammell, who recently earned his undergraduate degree at UMass, are making giant strides forward in the process of taking FogKicker from discovery in the lab to successful business venture.

They have succeeded in raising capital, and also in raising the product’s — and the company’s — profile, through appearances like the one late last month on the CNBC reality program Adventure Capitalists, for example.

The video clip shows Gammell and Carter (an experienced diver himself), both clad in FogKicker pullovers, appearing on a dock somewhere with the ocean in the background, making a pitch for their product — and also for what the two called ‘smart capital,’ as well as individuals to join their team.

The creators of FogKicker are in the process of scaling up their venture, focusing first on sports goggles and other smaller glass surfaces.

The creators of FogKicker are in the process of scaling up their venture, focusing first on sports goggles and other smaller glass surfaces.

“We want someone who has industry-specific connections,” Gammell, the company’s CEO, says in the video, referring specifically to the diving market. “Someone who has some serious marketing clout, someone who knows their way around building a brand; we want a real team player that brings that to the table.”

In a nutshell, that short video, which also goes into some detail about the product and how it works, neatly sums up where this company is right now and what it’s doing to get where it wants to go.

It has a product that works — one that those in the diving industry have been quick to embrace, as we’ll see — and a road map of sorts for getting to the next level with small glass and ambitions for doing the same with big glass.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with the FogKicker team about their vision for their product and their company, and how things have come into focus, in every sense of that word.

Glass Act

As they talked with BusinessWest about FogKicker and their plans for it, Yinyong, Gammell, and Carter were getting ready to travel.

Their destination was Orlando and, more specifically, the week-long Diving Equipment & Marketing Assoc. (DEMA) trade show. Armed with a new and vastly improved show booth, the partners were — wait for it — looking to make a splash with their growing portfolio of products.

Or another splash, to be more precise.

Indeed, it was at the 2016 DEMA show in Las Vegas that the partners first caught the attention of the diving community, and in a big way.

The FogKicker principals, from left, Kenneth Carter, Marc Gammell, and Yinyong Li, display their products at one of the many trade shows they’ve exhibited at recently.

The FogKicker principals, from left, Kenneth Carter, Marc Gammell, and Yinyong Li, display their products at one of the many trade shows they’ve exhibited at recently.

“We were met with huge enthusiasm, and seemingly overnight, our product was available all over the world, because this is a worldwide conference, and people were buying cases and cases of it,” said Carter, the company’s chief scientific officer.

This response came, he went on, because FogKicker established itself as a clear (literally) improvement over other methods of keeping scuba masks clear of fog — from saliva to soaps that were already on the market, both of which eventually wash off and lose their effectiveness. “This is one of the first water-resistant anti-fogging coatings that have been produced.”

But to tell this story, we need to go back further, to earlier this decade, when Yinyong and Carter, using funding from the National Science Foundation, started to look at ways that nanocellulose, derived from paper pulp, could be used in electronics.

“Cellulose is one of the most abundant products in the world; it’s the basis of wood, paper, trees, algae, and plants in general,” said Carter. “Paper makers grind it up into a pasty pulp, and they spread it over wires, and that’s how we make paper — it’s essentially just dried cellulose.

“What was discovered a while ago is that, if you keep breaking that pulp down, mechanically breaking it down and chemically treating it, you can get to what’s known as nanocellulose — nanoscopic particles of cellulose,” he went on. “We were playing around with it, and trying to think of other things we could do with nanocellulose.”

The two discovered they could take many common sources of the material, such as waste paper, cotton, or recycled paper, and convert them into nanocellulose. The bigger discovery, as it turned out, came when they placed this material on various surfaces and, in doing so, created completely transparent coating that did not fog up when exposed to humid air or steam.

“Because it’s paper, it’s very absorbent to water — we all know that paper loves water,” Carter explained. “When things fog up, what’s happening is that water vapor in the air is hitting a cooler surface, and it condenses, forming tiny beads of water, which we see as fog.”

When water hits the nanocellulose films, it gets absorbed, said Yinyong, and doesn’t form those beads, thus eliminating fog.

Fast-forwarding through the all-important discovery phase to ensure that the product is unique and the patent-disclosure process, Yinyong made the concept an entry in the 2015 Innovation Challenge at UMass Amherst, and he came away with the $20,000 grand prize.

He also came away with an eventual partner in this fledgling business venture. Indeed, Gammell was another contestant at the Innovation Challenge. He didn’t fare nearly as well with his entry, but he would also have to be considered a winner, because he was so impressed with what Yinyong brought to the table that he asked if he could be a part of it.

“I was pitching my own crazy business idea, and Yingong was pitching FogKicker,” he recalled. “Yingong wound up going to the finals, and I went just to watch him do his extended pitch, and afterwards, I was so pumped up about FogKicker and his work with nanocellulose that I introduced myself and told him I wanted to help him any way I could.”

Things have accelerated at an impressive pace since then, with FogKicker and Treaty Biotech LLC moving on to more innovation and entrepreneurship competitions, including the Venture Well program in Hadley and Valley Venture Mentors’ Accelerator program, and winning some prize money at nearly all of them.

They also took part in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, as it’s called, a program that prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory and move forward with NSF-funded projects ready for commercialization.

“It’s like a boot camp — they scrutinize everything you do,” said Carter, adding that Treaty LLC won $50,000 to do customer discovery.

And those efforts took the partners to Tek-Divers, a Middle Eastern outfit that offers a wide range of recreational diving and extreme deep diving.

“They dive under some of the most extreme conditions out there — so we went to talk to them, realizing, who better could tell us whether we had something interesting than people who put their lives on the line?” said Carter. “And immediately, they loved us; they said, ‘boy, this stuff is great.’ And they bought a lot of it.”

View to the Future

The partners at Treaty LLC have been putting the capital they’ve attained from competitions and other sources to use in the many specific areas covered by that broad term ‘scaling up.’ That process includes everything from prototype development and production (now taking place at a location in Springfield) to marketing, like the DEMA show; from gaining more capital, through a variety of methods, including that Adventure Capital episode, to adding more team members, something the partners expect will happen over the next several months.

Product development was an exercise in listening to the experts and responding to what they said, Yinyong noted, adding that initial thoughts about possibly creating one-use disposable wipes were discarded amid feedback from divers and environmentalists fearful of the ocean being littered with the packages for those wipes.

What emerged instead was a felt-tip-marker-like device that places drops of FogKicker on a surface to be rubbed in. To date, the company has sold roughly 30,000 small bottles of various solutions.

As noted earlier, Treaty Biotech is, for the most part, focused on that ‘smaller glass’ market, and especially the sports-goggle market and the scuba/snorkeling market.

“We thought really hard about what would be best way to roll this out,” said Carter. “Of course, you would sell more volume and more bulk material if you put it in squirt bottles for home use, but how do you even approach that market?

“So we made a strategic decision to go after this niche market,” he went on, “where we knew there was a problem, where there are anti-fogging products out there that work fairly miserably, and where we knew we could gain a foothold.”

Even within that seemingly small niche, the numbers are impressive and the sales potential considerable, said Yinyong, noting that the business plan estimates that there are 14 million scuba divers and snorkelers in the U.S. alone, and maybe 25 million worldwide.

Educating them about their product is important, he said, because many are firmly convinced that anti-fogging products don’t work, or don’t work any better than their own saliva.

The appearance on Adventure Capitalists, a show billed as the outdoor person’s Shark Tank, is expected to help boost efforts in this regard. Contestants make presentations to a panel of investors — all of them involved in sports, business, and investing — who then put those products through their paces, often in harsh conditions.

But there are, of course, much bigger numbers in the ‘big glass’ market, said Gammell, who did some quick math and estimated that there are more than 250 million car and truck windshields in this country alone.

Meanwhile, there are probably 100 million bathroom mirrors within the residential market alone, he said, adding quickly that the commercial market — hotels, motels, gyms, and other segments — is equally potential-laden.

And there are other markets as well, including the huge healthcare field, Gammell noted, adding that all of these markets and others are potentially within the company’s reach.

To reach them, the company and its principals are moving in a number of directions, from an aggressive push for seed funding from investors to talks with contract manufacturers about scaling up production; from a website makeover to a new trade-show booth for the DEMA event and many others to follow.

“Big glass … we could be there in a year,” said Gammell. “And in a year, hopefully we’ll have big accounts with Dick’s Sporting Goods, CVS, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, and others. And we’ll have some hires — we’ll have a bigger team.”

Bottom Line

If you listen to the lyrics from “I Can See Clearly Now,” they include lines you would never, ever hear from aspiring entrepreneurs, such as “I can see all obstacles in my way,” or “I think I can make it now, the pain is gone,” or “all of the bad feelings have disappeared,” or even (and especially) “look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies … look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies.”

Yinyong, Gammell, and Carter certainly know better. They know there are obstacles they probably can’t see, and there are obviously some clouds within that blue sky.

But overall, the future is certainly bright for FogKicker, and there are enormous opportunities for this venture — clearly.

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

Community Profile Features

‘Something’s Bubbling’

Downtown Greenfield

Downtown Greenfield is becoming a destination, as are other communities in Franklin County.

Franklin County, the state’s most rural county, and also its poorest, faces a host of challenges today — from a declining and aging population to poor broadband service in most of its communities, to statistically lower wages for comparable jobs. But those working to spur economic development and improve quality of life here see progress in many forms and vast opportunities to attract the young people who covet many of things this region can offer them.

John Lunt was looking to make a point about Franklin County in general, and the amount of developable land in and around Greenfield in particular, and to do so effectively, he recalled a recent conversation he had with Jay Ashe, the state’s secretary of Housing and Economic Development.

“We were talking about land that small precision manufacturers could potentially develop on, and he said something like, ‘you’re in Western Mass., Franklin County — you must have a ton of land,’” said Lunt, director of Special Projects and Economic Development in Greenfield, adding quickly that this is not the case at all.

“The land that we have available for those kinds of manufacturing jobs is pretty much gone,” he explained, referring especially to Greenfield. “We have some land that’s zoned ‘planned industrial,’ but there isn’t a business in the world that would build on it because of slope and ledge and things that make it to difficult to prepare.”

John Lunt

John Lunt says collaboration is a necessary quality in rural Franklin County, as is independence and an entrepreneurial approach to progress.

Lunt recalled his conversation with Ashe to make another point — that many of the perceptions about rural Franklin County, like the one about land to develop, are not exactly on the mark.

Others include the widely held belief that families and businesses do not want to locate there, the notion that the region doesn’t have much of what the Millennial generation is looking for, and the perception that manufacturing is all but dead in a region that had been economically dominated by it for centuries.

“Manufacturing is still doing very well here, but it’s changed somewhat; many large companies involved in traditional manufacturing have left,” said Patricia Crosby, executive director of the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board. “Many smaller ones have stayed, and new companies have come here; they’re mostly involved in precision manufacturing or fabricated metals, and they’re doing extremely well, and they’re adding a few employees each year.”

Meanwhile, others we spoke with said Franklin County is, in fact, becoming a landing spot for Millennials — generally older Millennials who are ready to settle down, and especially those who are active and into outdoor sports (much more on that later).

Unfortunately, though, many other perceptions about this region are far more accurate, to the point where they become statistics. These include the fact that this is the poorest county in the state; that wages here are well below the state average for comparable jobs — a real factor in the region’s struggles to attract young people; that broadband service doesn’t exist in many of the communities in the county; that public transportation is sorely lacking; that the age of the population in those communities is rising at almost alarming levels; and that, while unemployment is fairly low at 3%, this is a misleading statistic because many individuals have stopped looking for work, and others are unemployable.

But while rural Franklin County has more than its fair share of challenges, there are a number of signs of progress and abundant hope that there will be many more in the months and years to come.

Start with the Five Eyed Fox, a restaurant and bar in Turners Falls that is making that community just east of Greenfield a destination and what some even called a ‘hot spot,’ a term not used in that community for some time.

“It’s super hip and cool to be in Turners Falls,” said Natalie Blais, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, and also the local tourism board. “It’s the place to be; Turners is sort of leading this whole retro, hip scene.”

It’s super hip and cool to be in Turners Falls. It’s the place to be; Turners is sort of leading this whole retro, hip scene.”

Then there’s the Orange Innovation Center, a co-working space in a community in what’s known as the North Quabbin area, the eastern edge of the county. Created in a factory where General Foods once produced Minute Tapioca pudding for roughly seven decades, the space now hosts an eclectic group of tenants ranging from a music studio and to a fitness club to the Center for Human Development.

And at Greenfield Community College (GCC), the only college in the county, a number of new programs have been created to help provide job seekers with the skills they’ll need to succeed in a changing, information-based economy.

Linda Dunleavy

Linda Dunleavy says Franklin County is becoming an attractive landing spot for what she called ‘older Millennials,’ who are looking for a place to settle down.

Perhaps most importantly, though, an ecosystem is emerging. It’s comprised of a number of nonprofits, the college, government entities, and employers across several sectors, and while it’s still taking shape and finding its bearings, it is addressing the issues and problems facing the region through collaboration and efforts to maximize available resources. And it is also taking a more organized approach to the work of bringing families, businesses, young people, retirees — and opportunity — to the region.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several individuals who are part of this ecosystem about the various forms of progress being recorded — and the considerable work that remains.

Buy the Numbers

Collaboration is needed because the challenges facing Franklin County are numerous, and many of them are complex and defy easy answers — or any answers, for that matter.

Indeed, after talking about how wages in Franklin County are statistically lower than those in other areas and roughly 65% of what is paid statewide, Crosby, who noted that it’s been this way since she came to the REB 16 years ago, was asked the obvious question: why?

She paused for a moment and said simply, “because employers can get away with it.” And they can, because the factors that drive wages higher in other areas — a scarcity of workers and heightened competition for qualified talent — are not in evidence here, with some exceptions, as we’ll see.

That statistic regarding wages is only one of many eye-opening numbers that come to the forefront when talking about Franklin County. Many of the others drive home just how rural this area is: there are 72,000 people living in 26 communities across 725 square miles. In several communities, such as Rowe, Hawley, Heath, and others, stating the total population requires only three digits. In Monroe, one barely needs three; the latest census had 121 people living there.

The people living in those 26 towns are the poorest in the state in terms of per-capita income and, as noted, average wage per job, said Linda Dunleavy, executive director of the Franklin Region Council of Governments.

And, by and large, the population of the county is falling, said Alyce Stiles, dean of Workforce Development & Community Education at GCC. She said the enrollment at the county’s public schools is down significantly in recent years — which doesn’t bode well for the college or the region and its business community.

“That has layers of ramifications for us,” she said. “There are fewer people going into the community-college system, and then fewer people going into the workforce.”

And the population is getting older, said Roseann Martoccia, who should know. She’s the executive director of LifePath Inc., a nonprofit that works to help seniors age in place. She noted that 17% of the county’s residents are over age 65 (the state average is 15%), and in some of the smaller, western communities, the number exceeds 20%.

“And those percentages, in some communities, are expected to double by 2030,” she told BusinessWest. “And that’s not that far away.”

Behind all the numbers is a kind of operating mindset, if you will, one defined by a form of independence that is understandable when one considers how far away this county is from Boston or even Springfield — and not just in terms of geography.

“Collaboration comes from necessity,” said Lunt. “We have to be more independent, and we have to be more entrepreneurial, because whether we want it or not, most people realize that help isn’t really coming from farther east.”

The statistics, as well as this mindset, are just some of the things that Cindy Russo has learned she since became president of Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, the county’s largest employer, roughly 18 months ago.

“I knew absolutely nothing about Franklin County before I came here, and about the only name I recognized was Yankee Candle,” she said, referring to the iconic Deerfield-based manufacturer and retailer. “Everything else, I had to learn.”

Cindy Russo

Cindy Russo, who became president of Baystate Franklin Medical Center in 2016, says she can sense gathering momentum in the region.

She’s learned, among other things, that the region has a strong sense of community spirit, as well as a great deal of natural beauty and a bounty of outdoor recreation to offer, from fishing to hiking; from skiing to whitewater rafting. She’s also learned that a large number of nonprofits operate in the region — often in collaboration with each other to meet a wide variety of missions.

She’s also come to recognize that it’s somewhat difficult to recruit doctors and other medical professionals to this rural area, despite its various amenities and lower lost of housing and living in general.

“That is certainly a challenge,” she said. “One of the biggest ways we’re able to attract people is if there’s a connection — they have family here or their roots are here — but also the beauty of this region and the hiking and other outdoor activity; those are strong selling points.”

Another challenge, meanwhile, is keeping young professionals, she said, adding that more than 50% of Baystate Franklin’s employees have less than five years of experience.

“Many times, we’ll get a new nurse from GCC, and they’ll start their practice at Baystate Franklin,” she explained. “But then they might be looking out for the sexier markets, like Boston. So we have to think of ways to keep them here.”

But since arriving, she’s observed something else — gathering momentum when it comes to the region being a destination for everything from a fun night out to a place to raise a family, to a spot where one can enjoy retirement. “There’s something bubbling here; even in the short time I’ve been here, I’m feeling it,” she said, adding that the region is becoming something it probably doesn’t want to become — a best-kept secret.

Land of Opportunity

There was some general agreement about that notion of something bubbling among those we spoke with. People talked about momentum and the region making strides toward becoming something it’s never really been, or hasn’t been for some time — a destination, on several levels.

Start with a night out — at the Five-Eyed Fox, or a growing number of alternatives.

“There’s great food and drink; there’s much more of a local arts scene than people than people think,” said Lunt. “We actually toured the Mass. Cultural Council around, and they were kind of blown away by what they saw out here.

“There are a lot of artists studios,” he went on. “There’s a lot of local theater, and Greenfield’s gone from having not that many restaurants to having 13 different kinds of cuisine. It’s not uncommon at all to do something you really couldn’t do here 10 or 15 years ago — families go out, have something to eat, and then go to a local show or theater or listen to some music.”

And then, there’s tourism in general. Blais said the region has built a solid infrastructure of attractions that includes ski resorts, ziplining and whitewater-rafting outfits, fishing, boating, and more, and needs to more aggressively promote what it has and build that important sector of the economy.

But those within this ecosystem also talked about destination in a bigger sense — as in a place for a family to settle or a business to put down roots.

And some younger families are moving into Greenfield and other communities, like Turners Falls, because of what they offer, said Blais.

“There’s lots of culture and live music,” she explained. “And with all the breweries and cideries in the region, we’re really seeing young people being interested in coming here.”

Dunleavy agreed, but narrowed the definition of ‘young’ somewhat. She said the region is more attractive to older young people, those with familes, those who might have roots in the region, or those who might have left in search of something else and now value what they left behind.

“It’s Millennials at a different stage of their life,” she said, adding that, despite recognized progress in this realm, there needs to be a large, concerted, and collaborative (there’s that word again) effort to sell the county as an attractive place to live.

“As a group of organizational leaders, we were talking about how we need to have the same mission — attracting young people and young families to Franklin County,” Dunleavy explained. “We should all identify how our organization will do that and work together to implement a region-wide strategy, because we need to bring more people to Franklin County and younger people to Franklin County.”

As for attracting businesses and jobs, the region faces a number of challenges, ranging from those broadband issues to the lack of developable land that Lunt mentioned.

“We never turn anyone away,” he said. “But we struggle when someone says, ‘we want a 40,000-square-foot building and 22 acres’ — we just don’t have that available.”

What is available are smaller lots, some old mill spaces, and office buildings downtown, he noted, adding that all of the above can be used toward something that Millennials, in general, seem to like: co-working space.

Several projects in this realm are already underway or in the planning stages, said Lunt, adding that they will helped by the town’s creation of a municipal broadband network that includes Internet, phone, and data services.

“The goal is to move people into these spaces by offering them more 21st-century infrastructure,” he explained, “because, as manufacturing-driven as we’ve been, we just can’t be in the future, because we just don’t have the space for it; we have to try to develop higher-tech businesses, and those are also businesses that pay well.”

Another challenge for the region involves the workforce. As noted earlier, unemployment is relatively low, but there are many who lack needed skills, have stopped searching for work, or are unemployable.

Stiles said the broad goal is to help individuals gain needed skills and fill positions in growing fields, such as healthcare and precision manufacturing.

She mentioned specific programs created at GGC for the precision-manufacturing and medical-assisting fields, just two of many where jobs exist and will exist in the years to come, and where companies consistently struggle to find good help.

Moving forward, she and others said the primary goal is to make the workforce larger and stronger, an initiative that is, in all ways, a work in progress.

Moving the Needle

Surveying the situation from many different angles, including that of a long-time resident and also someone working to stimulate economic development in the region, Lunt said the path Franklin County is on is the right one.

Elaborating, he said the many groups working to spur economic development and improve quality of life are moving the needle when it comes to generating progress and addressing the overriding challenge facing the county — creating enough good jobs to support the lifestyle that is the primary draw for this region.

“We could all live somewhere else, but we don’t — we choose not to,” Lunt told BusinessWest. Speaking for all those now part of the county’s emerging ecosystem, he said the broad goal is simply to inspire more people to take that same attitude.

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

Sections Women in Businesss

Market Shift

jane-albert-7-of-8From her early days in marketing, Jane Albert had a goal — to work in the field of healthcare, and specifically for Baystate Health, the region’s largest health system. To achieve that goal, and eventually be part of the organization’s senior leadership, she was willing to take risks, welcome new opportunities as they arose, and continually make connections — all the while never losing sight of who her customers are and how to most effectively meet their needs.

When she was 8 years old, Jane Albert was the only one of her friends allowed to ride her bike from her Springfield neighborhood all the way to City Line Pharmacy in East Longmeadow. She immediately saw the money-making possibilities.

“I would buy candy there and set up a table on my front lawn to sell candy to all the kids in my neighborhood, and I’d mark the candy up,” she said. “I evaluated the demand for certain types of candy; at first, I bought what I liked, but then I saw what they were buying.”

When someone would complain about the prices, she’d note they could easily ride to the pharmacy and buy their own. Except that they couldn’t.

What she didn’t realize at the time, she said, was that she was exercising the four ‘Ps’ of marketing that students of the subject learn in college: product, price, place, and promotion. “The candy was the price, and the price was the markup based on the demand. The place was local — my front yard — and promotion was word of mouth; kids rode their bikes around and said, ‘Jane’s selling candy.’”

While Albert didn’t know at the time that marketing and business development would become her career and driving passion, it’s easy now to look back and recognize an early aptitude for it — and the connecting threads between candy and healthcare as she settles into her latest role at Baystate Health, as senior vice president of Marketing, Communications & External Relations.

“It all goes back to that entrepreneurial spirit — even in healthcare, what do people want, and how do we deliver that and make them happy? And how do you determine what people want, or give them something they can’t get somewhere else?”

Her marketing career started in the 1990s with a moment of ‘bartering’ with Braman Chemical owner Jerry Lazarus, who was in her home on a pest-control call. “I shared ideas with him on how he could improve his marketing outreach. He was so taken with the ideas, he didn’t charge me. I thought, ‘oh, this is really valuable. I have good things to offer that I could package.’”

With a baby at the time, and a part-time teaching gig at what was then known as Western New England College, she launched a solo venture as a marketing consultant — something she could do with her skills and still be home with her family at night.

During that time, Albert developed a footprint across the Northeast and partnered with marketing and research firms and ad agencies to increase the value of what they brought clients. Some were more receptive that others — one client didn’t think she brought as much value working from home than someone with a “fancy office.”

“I said he was getting me 24/7 and wasn’t paying for overhead — just paying for brainpower,” she recalled. He challenged her by calling her at 6:45 one evening, when he figured she’d be cooking dinner. She took the call with one hand while stirring food on the stovetop with the other.

I’m always looking to the future and what’s next — I’m a visionary planner. And I knew my next step was not going to be a college president. So I asked, what’s next for me?”

Meanwhile, she was proving her value in other ways as well. While teaching at WNEC, she developed a plan to create a marketing department. Later, “the president called and said, ‘we like what you did. Will you be our first director of marketing?” She took that job, and when current President Anthony Caprio came on board, he promoted Albert to vice president of Advancement and Marketing.

She liked that job, though she missed the classroom culture, that moment of seeing the lights go on for a student who made a connection between the textbook and real life. “But I was able to promote a good school, and that was gratifying as well.”

But it would not be her final career stop. Far from it.

“I’m always looking to the future and what’s next — I’m a visionary planner,” she told BusinessWest. “And I knew my next step was not going to be a college president. So I asked, what’s next for me?”

The answer, she decided, was in healthcare.

“I was born at Baystate and raised in Springfield, and I wasn’t going to relocate anywhere,” Albert said. “I had heard a lot about Baystate’s leadership under [then-President] Mike Daly, and that’s where I had my sights set. You can have so much impact on people in healthcare, and I saw the impact Baystate had on so many people, so I wanted to work there and get involved in healthcare.”

But no opportunities in her field of marketing were available right away, so, as a stepping stone, she went to work for Veritech, a 25-person multi-media company that specialized in healthcare, heading up its business-development arm — a move that baffled friends and family who wondered why she would shed the prestige of being a college’s vice president for something seemingly much less glamorous.

But she had a plan.

“The core of their business was healthcare education,” she explained. “The founder was really a man ahead of his time. He created digital patient-education programs online, but it was too soon; there was no payment model for it. But I loved his company. My thought was that I’d take over his company when he retired, or use that as a launchpad to get to Baystate.”

Two years later, she got a call from the head of Baystate’s Marketing department — a job opportunity had opened up, with the health system looking to install a manager of Medical Practices Marketing. Again, friends wondered whether it had been worth leaving her vice presidency at WNEC to wind up in a managerial role in a massive health system.

“I did it because, looking at the long term, I wanted to be here at Baystate,” she said. “It was a significantly different job, obviously, compared to Western New England, but I said, ‘I’m in it for the long haul, and I’m going to go for it and do the best I can.’”

Fifteen years later, she’s sure that was the right decision.

Up the Ladder

When preparing to take a photo for this article, Albert joked that BusinessWest should take one of all her Baystate business cards. Indeed, it’s an impressive collection.

For instance, Baystate’s physician practices, the focus of her first stop, is an important part of the network, today boasting more than 80 primary- and specialty-care doctors. “My job was to promote the physicians and the practices to the general community, so they would know what we had to offer.”

During her time in that role, Albert presented the first marketing plan to integrate two legacy medical groups to become one organization, known today as Baystate Medical Practices.

But much of the day-to-day work was about building bridges between the doctors and their patients, and between the practices and their communities, she added. “That’s the most important piece, the relationships. That’s what it’s all about. When doctors have good relationships with patients, the patients share that with others. When the doctors have good relationships with other doctors, they refer to one another.”

She was later appointed manager of Corporate Marketing, overseeing Baystate Health’s marketing efforts, loyalty programs, and events, followed by a stint as director of Public Affairs & Internal Communications. She then returned to Baystate Medical Practices, successfully launching the organization’s first physician-referral office, working under the leadership of Mark Keroack, who later became president of Baystate Health.

“That office was really about developing relationships between Baystate doctors and community physicians, and paving a pathway for better access to each other, and for patients to get appointments,” she explained. “I knew so much about Baystate that moving into this operations role was really exciting. It was a place I could grow and have an impact.”

But not long after, a search committee embarked on a nine-month search for a key dual role in the system: vice president of Philanthropy for Baystate Health and executive director of the Baystate Health Foundation. They failed to identify the ideal candidate, however, and turned inward, to someone with a deep understanding of the system’s needs and some experience in fund-raising. That’s right — it was time for Albert to order a new set of business cards.

Among her accomplishments in that role, she led a transformation of the foundation to align philanthropic support with a new strategic plan, and oversaw the completion of a $5 million capital campaign for the new surgical center at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield.

Four years later, though, it was time for another move, this time into the health system’s senior leadership team. As a member of Keroack’s cabinet, she now oversees the functions of marketing and digital strategy, government and public relations, community relations and public health, communications, and philanthropy.

That’s … quite a long list.

And it’s not a job performed in the quiet of her office; with a wry smile, she held up that day’s schedule, an uninterrupted block of meetings with different departments — squeezing in BusinessWest among them — and made it clear most days are like that. But she relishes her raft of new responsibilities.

“There’s been a lot of change over the last few years,” Albert said, referring to both her role and the evolving shape of healthcare as well. “But change brings opportunity. Healthcare is changing every single day, and so is our environment, so we have to be able to change, to meet the needs of our patients, families, donors, and legislators.”

The biggest challenge in healthcare is government changes and reimbursements. You’re dealing with an industry where more than half the revenues are provided by the government. There’s continual change, and that makes it difficult.”

Indeed, that latter group is often the most demanding.

“The biggest challenge in healthcare is government changes and reimbursements. You’re dealing with an industry where more than half the revenues are provided by the government. There’s continual change, and that makes it difficult.”

In addition, Baystate serves a population with high levels of poverty, and Medicaid reimburses only 75% of costs, on average. “We’re losing 25 cents on the dollar for every Medicaid patient. And when you have a charitable mission to take care of everybody — no one gets turned away — it becomes challenging to afford all that we need to do.”

Improving the Prognosis

‘All that’ extends well beyond everyday care, of course, including attracting top talent, investing in innovative technology, providing the teaching resources of an academic medical center, and, now, partnering with UMass Medical School on a Springfield branch.

“That’s why philanthropy is so important,” she added, particularly at a time when hospitals are expected to keep communities healthy, improve the patient experience, and reduce costs — the so-called ‘triple aim.’

“Healthcare used to be based on, the more you did, the more you got paid,” she said. “You’d send a patient for six tests, an X-ray, and three specialists. Now, healthcare is reimbursed based on how healthy you keep patients.”

And preferably not in hospitals. Take asthma, for instance, a particularly pervasive issue in the Pioneer Valley. If a child’s asthma is not controlled and he or she winds up in the hospital, it results in poor school performance, missed work for the parents, and higher costs for the health system — a vicious cycle. The better option? Preventive efforts to keep the child healthy at home.

“Where do you find a business that tries to keep you away from that business, and that’s a success?” Albert asked. “But that’s where we are. Our goal is population health and doing all we can do to keep people healthy. We look at social determinants of health — access to food, incidence of diabetes and obesity, which can lead to heart disease … all those things drive the cost of health way up. It’s a much better picture when people are healthy, and that’s what we want.”

Achieving that goal requires everyone in the health system to align behind a single mission, and that requires a culture change, she explained, from the doctors performing cutting-edge surgery to maintenance staff raking leaves and improving the aesthetic appeal of a building that few customers are really happy about entering.

“There aren’t a lot of businesses where people don’t want to come to your business, so we want to make it as pleasant an experience as possible,” she said. “That is our focus. The world is changing, so we need to understand what the patient wants and how we can best deliver it.”

The bottom line, Albert said, is trying to make a difference and make the world a better place, as cliché as that might sound.

“I’m excited about where I am in this role,” she said, reflecting simultaneously on all the stops along the way. “People can see you can go from a manager up the line. An organization of this size provides those opportunities.”

It’s certainly a long way — figuratively, anyway — from just over the border in East Longmeadow, where an 8-year-old with a knack for marketing first began figuring out what her customers wanted and how to deliver the goods.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business & Innovation Expo of Western Mass. Cover Story Events

Looking Back at an Exciting, Informative Day

expologo2017comcastThe Business & Innovation Expo of Western Mass., the annual show produced by BusinessWest and the Healthcare News and presented by Comcast Business, drew nearly 150 exhibitors and 2,000 visitors to the MassMutual Center on Nov. 2. They enjoyed a series of educational seminars, breakfast and lunch programs, a day-capping Expo Social, and much more. Take a look through the photo gallery below for a recap of all the excitement, insight, and innovation.

Photography by Dani Fine Photography

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Cover Story Features

Star Power


Lenny Recor attends to the second floor at the TD Bank building, a position he secured with the help of Sunshine Village.

Lenny Recor attends to the second floor at the TD Bank building, a position he secured with the help of Sunshine Village.

Back in the mid-’60s, a group of parents, advised by friends, family members, and attorneys alike to put their developmentally disabled children into an institution, collectively rejected that idea and, far more importantly, came up with a much better one. The result of their innovative, forward-thinking outlook was Sunshine Village, which, 50 years later, remains an immensely powerful source of light, warmth, hope, and lives fulfilled.


Lenny Recor was in a good mood — or as good a mood as you might expect someone to be in on a Monday morning.

Actually, the day of the week doesn’t seem to matter much to Recor, who appears to wear a smile on an almost permanent basis. And such was the case as he went about his work vacuuming, mopping, dusting, and cleaning bathrooms at 1441 Main St. in Springfield, a.k.a. the TD Bank Building.

“I like to work … it’s meaningful, and I get to meet people and say hello,” said the 39-year-old. “Besides, it’s good to have money in your pocket — really good.”

The ability to work and put money in one’s pocket is something that many people might take for granted, but not Recor.

He has managed to secure several such opportunities thanks to Sunshine Village, the Chicopee-based nonprofit that this year is celebrating a half-century of doing what it does best — creating ‘great days’ for hundreds of individuals with developmental disabilities and help them lead rich, meaningful (there’s that word again) lives.

And these great days come in many forms, said Gina Kos, long-time executive director at Sunshine Village, noting that, for some, it means a day of working and earning. For others, it might mean volunteering at one of a number of area nonprofits. For still others, it might mean using a computer or practicing yoga. And for some, a great day may involve learning to shake hands or hold a spoon.

“A great day is a collection of small, proud moments,” she told BusinessWest, noting that this simple definition covers a significant amount of ground, to be sure. “What goes into ‘great’ depends on the individual.”

Elaborating, she said the agency’s mission, and its mindset, are neatly summed up with a collection of words — a summary, if you will, of what the agency provides for its participants — now filling one wall inside the agency’s administration building:

“Warm welcomes, new skills, shared laughs, many choices, caring staff, friendships, creativity, new experiences, safe travels, big smiles, helping hands, happy people, kind words, unique opportunities, lifelong learning, fun times, teamwork, dedication, shining moments, celebrations, personal accomplishments, sunshine, great days,” it reads … with those last two words in bold red letters.

Over a half-century, Gina Kos says, Sunshine Village has evolved, but has always remained true to its core mission.

Over a half-century, Gina Kos says, Sunshine Village has evolved, but has always remained true to its core mission.

But it’s not what’s on the wall that defines Sunshine Village, but what goes on inside the walls — and, in Recor’s case and many others, well outside them.

At the hangars and administration buildings at nearby Westover Air Reserve Base, for example, where participants at Sunshine Village have been employed for more than 40 years, handling various cleaning duties. Or at a host of nonprofit agencies such as the Cancer House of Hope, Habitat for Humanity, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and many others. Or at area businesses and office buildings ranging from the Trading Post, a large convenience store just down the street from the agency’s headquarters on Litwin Drive in Chicopee, to the TD Bank building.

And while on the subject of great days, Kos said Sunshine Village strives to provide them for both its participants and the team of employees who serve them.

“We work very hard to be a provider of choice and an employer of choice,” she noted, adding that these are the broad organizational goals outlined in a three-year strategic plan for the agency, one due to be updated in the near future. “And in the third year of our plan, we’ve realized outcomes with both of those goals that have really exceeded our initial expectations.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Village as it marks a key milestone, and at how, as it looks forward to its next half-century of creating great days, it will continue its evolutionary process.

Bright Ideas

When asked about the circumstances that brought her to the corner office at Sunshine Village, Kos quickly flashed back more than 25 years to the agency’s first annual fund-raising golf tournament at Tekoa Country Club in Westfield.

“I was a volunteer — I drove the beer cart,” she recalled, adding that she had such a good time, and was so impressed with the agency’s mission and how it was met, that she volunteered again the next year.

And through those experiences, Kos, who was, at the time, working in the banking sector, decided she wanted to get involved at a much higher level.

Indeed, she joined Sunshine Village in a marketing position, and a few years later rose to director. She told BusinessWest that, early on, her focus was on putting the agency on a stronger financial footing and enabling it to operate more like a business, or a nonprofit business, to be precise.

Kori Cox, a participant in Sunshine Village’s community-based day services, describes herself as an ambassador committed to generating positive thinking.

Kori Cox, a participant in Sunshine Village’s community-based day services, describes herself as an ambassador committed to generating positive thinking.

“When I came here, people in the human-services world didn’t talk about money,” she noted. “But I said, ‘you need to talk about money.’ And today, I think a lot of organizations follow Sunshine Village’s path of talking about money and acting like a business; in order to achieve your mission, you need to have a solid financial base.”

And while that work continues, she said the primary assignment for the team at Sunshine Village has been to continue a 50-year process of evolution and refinement in order to better meet the needs of those the agency serves and create more of those great days.

This is a broad constituency, individuals 22 and over, for the most part, who have one of many types of development disabilities, including, and increasingly, those on the autism spectrum.

To fully understand this evolutionary process, it’s best to start at the beginning, when a small group of parents of children with developmental disabilities set on a course that would change lives for decades to come.

“These parents were told by their physicians, their lawyers, their families, and friends that they needed to put their children into an institution — either Belchertown State School or the Monson Developmental Center,” she said, adding that they had a different, considerably better idea.

“These families were pretty radical at that time — this was the mid-’60s — and they said, ‘no, institutions are not for us; we’re going to keep our children at home with us,’” she went on. “But they also realized that the resources to help them raise their children weren’t there; they couldn’t go through the school system, and just bringing their kids to nursery schools and the local playground didn’t feel right 50 years ago.”

So this group of parents, under the leadership of Joseph Casey, owner of Casey Chevrolet, who had a young daughter with a developmental disability, started a group called Friends of the Retarded Children and set about creating an organization that would become what Sunshine Village is today.

On land donated by the city and local sportsmen’s club, and with money raised through an involved grassroots effort, a playground and the first building (eventually named after Casey) were built and opened in the spring of 1967.

In its early years, the agency served children, said Kos, noting that it had a nursery school and recreational facilities that reflected playgrounds of that era. As those original participants grew older, the roster of programs evolved accordingly, including the addition of employment services as well as a skills center for those who wanted to work, but needed the skills to do so.

It Takes a Village

Today, Sunshine Village, which has a $13 million annual operating budget, serves roughly 450 adults with developmental disabilities across Western Mass. Many stay with the agency for years or decades, and one participant in its programs recently turned 86.

In addition to its facility in Chicopee, there are other locations in Springfield, Three Rivers, and Westfield, added over the years to bring participants closer to the services being offered.

Day programs provided by the agency cover a broad spectrum. They include:

• Community Engagement Services, also known as community-based day services, or CBDS, which offer individuals activities promoting wellness, recreation, community engagement, technology, self-advocacy, and personal development;

• Contemporary Life Engagement Services, a highly structured program specifically designed to support individuals on the autism spectrum. This is a medically based day ‘habilitation’ program with services augmented with clinical supports as necessary, including speech and language, physical, and occupational therapies, and access to a board-certified behavior analyst;

• Traditional Life Engagement Services, a medically based day habilitation program focused on building functional life skills, including social, communication, personal wellness, and independent living; and

• Employment Services, which support participants in obtaining a job or working as a member of a supervised team. It does this through placement services, and also through Village Works, an agency-owned business located just off exit 6 of the Turnpike, as well as Westover Maintenance Systems, a commercial cleaning company operated by Sunshine Village, which, as noted, provides maintenance services for all the buildings and hangars at Westover Air Reserve Base.

Over the years, and on an ongoing basis, the programming at the Village evolves to meet changing needs within society and area school departments and their special-education divisions, said Kos.

“Over the years, we’ve offered different kinds of services — residential services, shared-living services, different kinds of day and employment services — but we’ve always remained true to our mission,” she told BusinessWest. “And that is to serve people with disabilities and to serve them regardless of the level of disability; we’ve served people that other organizations can’t and won’t serve.”

As one example of this evolutionary process, she noted additions and changes undertaken to meet the dramatic rise in the number of individuals on the autism spectrum.

“There are a lot more people graduating from area high schools who are on the autism spectrum,” she explained, adding that the reasons for this are not fully known. “And on the autism spectrum, 40% of the individuals also have an intellectual disability, meaning their IQ is less than 71.

“And one of the things we’re doing at Sunshine Village is redefining and redesigning our services so that we’re able to meet the needs and support people on the autism spectrum who do not have intellectual disabilities,” she went on, “because that is a growing need in the community.”

Denise Simpkins and Bill Denard have been working at Westover Air Reserve Base for several years now through Sunshine Village’s employment-services arm.

Denise Simpkins and Bill Denard have been working at Westover Air Reserve Base for several years now through Sunshine Village’s employment-services arm.

It’s also an example of how the agency is constantly listening to the constituencies it serves when they’re asked about needs and concerns — and responding to what it hears.

These traits have certainly benefited the agency as it works toward that goal of being a provider of choice, said Kos, adding that the same is true when it comes to being an employer of choice.

Elaborating, she said the competition for talent in the nonprofit sector is considerable, and Sunshine Village looks to stand out in this regard by working hard to enable employees to shine as well as those they serve.

“We see our employees as our best asset, and we invest a lot of money in training, recognizing, and thanking them,” she said of her team of more than 250.

Shining Examples

Kos said the official 50th anniversary date for the agency was in April of this year, and in many respects it has been a year-long celebration.

There was a dinner for employees last spring, several outreach events, and a community celebration in September, called, appropriately enough, the ‘Great Days Gala,’ that was attended by more than 250 people.

But in most all ways, Sunshine Village has been celebrating 50 years by doing more of what it’s been doing for 50 years — enabling people with developmental disabilities to shine.

And as BusinessWest talked with some of the clients served by the agency, it became clear that there are many ways for that verb to manifest itself.

For Jonathon Scytkowski, a participant in the CBDS programs who came to Sunshine Village in 2015, there are several components to his great days. He works at the Trading Post, cleaning floors, taking out the recyclables, and other duties. Meanwhile, he also volunteers at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and other nonprofits, and takes visits to the libraries in Chicopee and South Hadley and area malls.

Add it all up, and he’s busy, active, and, most importantly, involved.

“I like volunteering — at the Food Bank I do a lot of volunteering putting food in boxes for those who need it,” he told BusinessWest, noting, like Recor did, that working is important on many levels, from making money to having a sense of purpose.

Those sentiments were echoed by Denise Simpkins and Bill Debord, who have both worked at Westover, through Sunshine Village, for several years.

In fact, for Debord, it’s been almost 30 years, long enough to see a number of personnel come and go, but also long enough to feel like he’s part of that important operation.

“I really like working there — you feel like you’re part of the family,” he said, adding that he knows people by name, and vice versa.

As for Simpkins, who has been doing it for 12 years, she likes the work, the pay, and especially the perks — like the special occasions where she gets to see the planes close up and take some pictures.

“It’s good to have a job because you get to pay you bills and manage your money,” she told BusinessWest.

Meanwhile, for Kori Cox, another participant in the CBDS program, shining, if you will, takes a different form.

Indeed, as part of initiative called Positive Behavior Supports (PBS), she said she has an important role she described this way. “I do a lot of stuff to try to prevent the Village from being negative.”

Elaborating, she said she made a sign that reads “Positive Attitude, Positive Life,” and she works to encourage others, inside and outside Sunshine Village, to not only read the sign, but live by those words. Specifically, she works diligently to prompt people to stop using the ‘R’ word.

“We remind people that’s not nice to use that word — ever,” she said, adding that her efforts in this regard dovetail nicely with her broader mission.

“I love positivity — it really helps life; there’s no negativity,” said Cox, 24, who described herself as an ambassador, advocate, and peer leader.

As for Recor, well, let’s just say he seems to embody the words on Cox’s sign.

A World of Difference

Sunshine Village still stages a golf tournament every year. In fact, it’s the agency’s most successful fund-raising effort.

Its new, permanent home is Chicopee Country Club — only a drive and a wedge away from the Litwin Drive campus — and Kos no longer drives the beer cart, obviously.

Her role has evolved and grown — as has the agency’s.

But the basic goals are still the same — to create great days and enable those with developmental disabilities to shine, however those words are defined.

Half a century later, Sunshine Village is delivering on those promises.

Just ask Lenny Recor. He’s the guy with a smile on his face — on a Monday morning no less.

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

Employment Sections

Hire Degree of Difficulty


The region’s staffing industry has always been a solid barometer of the overall economy, and that is certainly true in this economy. Firms report that demand for qualified workers is high, and the pool of talent is small and in some respects shrinking. Meeting the demands of various sectors, firm owners and managers say, requires a mix of persistence, imagination, and, well, hard work.

Andrea Hill-Cataldo calls it the ‘Perm Division.’

That’s ‘perm,’ as in permanent-hire, or direct-hire, work. The venture she founded nearly 20 years ago, Johnson & Hill Staffing Services, has always provided such services. But they didn’t comprise a division of the company, and there weren’t staff members dedicated directly to them.

Until recently.

Indeed, the Perm Division is now staffed, and it is quite busy, said Hill-Cataldo, helping companies secure everything from administrative assistants to CFOs and CEOs. And it’s busy for several reasons.

They include the fact that many businesses, bolstered by a prolonged recovery that shows few if any signs of slowing down and challenged by everything from retiring Baby Boomers to on-the-move Millennials, are hiring. And also the fact that many of them need some help with that hiring.

“When businesses aren’t sure what they want to do, they might go temp or temp-to-hire, or they might just wait and see,” Hill-Cataldo explained, noting that the third option involves trying to get by without filling a vacancy. “But when they’re hiring on a permanent basis right off the bat, they’re pretty confident, and they know they need that position filled.”

The creation and consistent growth of Johnson & Hill’s Perm Division — and the reasons for both — are clear examples of how the staffing industry, as it’s called, is an effective economic indicator in its own right, and also how its operations essentially reflect, as a mirror would, what is happening with the local economy.

Andrea Hill-Cataldo

Andrea Hill-Cataldo says her company is meeting client clients and creating effective matches — but it is has never had to work harder to do so.

Discussions with Hill-Cataldo and others in this sector reveal that they are busy virtually across the board, meaning nearly all sectors of the economy; that they are handling increasing volumes of work in temp-to-hire and permanent hiring scenarios; and that they are becoming increasingly challenged when it comes to meeting the needs of their clients for qualified, motivated workers.

“Our work becomes more difficult as the pool of candidates gets smaller,” said Jennifer Brown, a certified staffing professional and vice president of Business Development at Springfield-based United Personnel, noting that, despite these challenges, the firm is meeting growing client needs across two main divisions — manufacturing and ‘professional’ positions.

All these developments reflect what is happening regionally, where companies are reasonably confident, need qualified help, and are having trouble finding it. And also where workers are equally confident, not shy about moving on to different challenges seemingly every few years, and are doing so in huge numbers, leaving their employers with the task of somehow replacing them, a situation that will certainly be exacerbated as MGM Springfield goes about filling roughly 3,000 positions over the next 10 months or so.

They also reflect the unemployment numbers and what’s behind them. This area’s jobless rate is higher than the state’s and the nation’s, which might sound beneficial for staffing agencies. But observers say it’s higher for a reason — most of those out of work lack many of the skills (technical and ‘people’ skills alike) to attain work.

The mirror-like quality of the staffing industry even extends to the broad realm of technology.

Jackie Fallon, president of Springfield-based FIT Staffing, which specializes in finding IT personnel for clients large and small, said a growing number of clients want and often desperately need individuals to collect and mine data, keep their systems safe from hackers, and enable computers (and therefore people) to continue working.

But in addition to now knowing how to find and evaluate good candidates (one big reason FIT is extremely busy these days), they are often surprised by and put off by the sticker price of such qualified individuals. They often want help at lower wages than what the market is often dictating, thereby adding a degree of difficulty to the search process.

“Think about a small manufacturer,” said Fallon while offering an example of what she’s running into. “Someone running a plant doesn’t want to pay an IT guy more than he or she is paying the plant manager. But that’s what the market is like out there; that’s what people are getting, and it’s creating challenges for companies.”

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with several staffing-agency executives about what they’re seeing, hearing, and doing, and how all of that reflects the bigger picture that is the region’s economy.

Getting the Job Done

Hill-Cataldo was asked about how challenging it is to meet the needs of various clients and whether she was, in fact, able to keep up with demand. And with her answer, she probably spoke for not only everyone in her specific sector, but almost every business owner in Western Mass.

“It’s much more challenging to find qualified candidates than it probably ever has been, and I’ve been doing it for 25 years,” she explained. “We’ve never had to work this hard to get the right people; we’re getting them, but we’re just putting tremendous amounts of resources into doing that, and more hours. We have to work very hard.”

Jackie Fallon

Jackie Fallon says the need for data and security specialists continues to soar, making her company extremely busy.

Brown and Fallon used similar language, by and large, and collectively, their words speak volumes about the employment situation and this particular cycle that the region and its staffing agencies find themselves in.

And like all businesses, staffing firms see life change considerably with those cycles.

When times are worse, or much worse, as they were during and just after the Great Recession a decade ago, there are large numbers of skilled people looking for work. The problem is, there isn’t much of it to be had as companies, out of necessity, make do with fewer bodies.

During such cycles, more hiring is done on both a temporary and temp-to-hire basis (providing some work for agencies) because companies generally lack the confidence to bring people on permanently.

When times are better, of course, the situation is reversed. There are more positions to fill as companies staff back up, but fewer qualified individuals to fill them. There are still large amounts of temp-to-hire work because companies generally want to try before they buy (and with good reason), but also considerably more permanent hiring, hence Johnson & Hill’s Perm Division.

If it sounds like there are no easy times for staffing agencies, that’s about how it is, although these would obviously be considered better times, or even, for some, the best of times.

“Technology is always in high demand because everyone needs it,” said Fallon. “We’re really busy; we had our best year ever last year, and this year, we’re continuing that trend.”

Both United and Johnson & Hill are also having a very solid year, continuing a recent run of them, and for a variety of reasons that have to do with the economy and a changing environment when it comes to the process of hiring.

Elaborating, Hill said busy managers often lack the time to recruit and interview candidates. Meanwhile, others aren’t fully up on the methods required to reach younger audiences and assemble a strong pool of candidates. Thus, they’re leaving it to the experts.

“The way companies recruit now has become so complex that, if you don’t need to hire on a large scale, you don’t have the time to invest in social-media campaigns and all the things you need to do to build that pipeline of people coming into your organization,” she explained. “That’s what we do all day; we’re building a pipeline of people for the positions we need to fill. That makes it cost-effective for us, and far less so for small companies that can just offload the whole process.”

Brown agreed, and said this helps explain why United’s Professional Division, as it’s called, is quite busy. But there are other factors, and they include the fact that, in most all respects, the market has shifted in favor of the employees and job seekers, who, like employers, have large amounts of confidence.

“With this economy, there are opportunities,” she explained. “People aren’t fearful about moving from one company to another, whether they want to enhance their skill set to get ready for the next step or relocate, or just earn more money.”

Meanwhile, larger numbers of Baby Boomers are making the decision to retire, leaving companies with the often-challenging task of replacing long-time, valued employees.

Pipeline Projects

In this environment, where agencies have to commit more time, energy, and financial resources to the task of creating solid matches (that’s the operative word in this industry), staffing work requires persistence, resourcefulness, imagination, and often working with partners to help individuals gain the skills needed to enter the workplace and succeed there.

“Before, it might take a few days to find someone; now, it might take a few weeks,” said Hill-Cataldo, as she addressed that persistence part of the equation. “Searches are more difficult and time-consuming.”

Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown says the key to making successful matches is to fully understand a company’s culture, and finding individuals who can thrive in that environment.

Brown agreed, but stressed that, while the work is harder and it takes longer, there can be no shortcuts, because a firm can only succeed in this business if client needs are met — that is, if successful matches can be made.

And one key to accomplishing this is understanding not only a firm’s needs, but its culture, and then essentially working in partnership with the client to create what all parties concerned would consider a proverbial good hire.

“We need to make sure that the candidate we’re seeking aligns with what the client is looking to fulfill with the position,” Brown told BusinessWest, adding that this often goes beyond expected technical skill sets and into the realms of teamwork and company culture.

And with both sides of that equation, United is devoting time and resources to many forms of workforce development to help provide candidates with needed skills, she said.

As an example, she said the firm works with Goodwill Industries to present a training program to assist individuals with acquiring the essential skills to succeed in the workplace today.

“We need to make sure that the candidate’s character aligns with what the company is looking for, but also their competency as well,” she explained, adding that this is both an art and a science.

All of these traits are also needed within the broad spectrum of technology, said Fallon, adding that this has proven to be a lucrative, yet still challenging niche for the agency because, as she noted, technology is a critical component in every company’s success quotient, and also because the needs within this realm continue to grow.

This is especially true on the data side of the equation, as evidenced by growing use of the acronym DBA, which still stands for ‘doing business as,’ but increasingly, it also stands for ‘database administrator.’

“These are individuals in high demand,” said Fallon. “Data is a company’s goldmine; they need to protect it, and they need to make sure it’s running smoothly.”

Likewise, system security specialists are in equally high demand, said Fallon, adding that such professionals can and usually do demand a six-figure salary, a number that causes sticker shock in this region, which further complicates that aforementioned process of creating solid matches for both temp-to-hire and, increasingly, permanent-hire scenarios.

Matters are even further complicated by the fact that, increasingly, IT specialists can work remotely, which makes competition for them regional if not national or even international in scope.

“Someone can live here, work for a company in Boston, and maybe go into Boston once a week or maybe even less,” she explained, adding that firms in urban areas not only understand this, but they are generally less intimidated by the salaries such individuals are commanding.

The lesson companies can take from this is to be flexible and, when possible, allow people to work remotely, said Fallon, adding that, for various reasons, including an unwillingness, or inability, to meet those six-figure salaries, FIT has to cast an extremely wide net in its efforts to make matches.

“It’s easier for us to find someone from the Midwest to come here than it is someone from Boston — unless they were originally from this area,” she explained. “There’s more opportunity in Boston and places like it; if something doesn’t work out, they can walk down the street and find something else.”

Body of Work

While there are opportunities for staffing agencies during virtually all economic cycles, it is times like these when firms are particularly busy and when, like FIT, they are likely to record that proverbial ‘best year ever.’

But, as Hill-Cataldo noted, the rewards don’t come easy, and firms like hers must work harder than ever to not only meet the needs of clients, but exceed them.

In this respect, and many others, the staffing industry is reflecting the bigger picture and the economy of this region.

In other words, it’s a work in progress — in all kinds of ways.

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

Law Sections

The Big Picture

businessmansilhouetteartWhile large in scale and scope, the unfolding Harvey Weinstein story nonetheless offers invaluable lessons to employers in every sector about their responsibilities and the steps they must take to protect their employees and themselves. That’s the main takeaway from this matter, according to several employment-law attorneys, who note that the main objective should be zero tolerance.

Kathryn Crouss says that, in many respects, the Harvey Weinsten story — three words that cover a lot of territory, to be sure — is outwardly extraordinary in several respects.

Starting with the individual at the center of it all.

He was (the tense is important here, so please note it) not only the leader of the company in question — Miramax and then the Weinstein Company — but an executive who seemingly had the ability to alternately make or break a career depending on his disposition at a given moment.

Also extraordinary was the extent of the allegations lodged against him by a growing number of women — from random, or not-so-random, as the case may be, acts of sexual harassment all the way up to rape. (Weinstein adamantly denies the latter.)

Other manners in which ‘extraordinary’ fits include everything from the number of alleged victims of harassment (or worse), to the number of people who evidently shirked their responsibilities in this matter (from other officials at the company to board members), to how long it took for this story to break. Indeed, several reporters have come forward to say their efforts to uncover allegations against Weinstein were thwarted for years by everything from alleged victims’ refusal to talk to heavy-handed threats of litigation from Weinstein and his lawyers.

But when you slice through all that, ‘extraordinary’ might not be the most effective adjective after all, said Crouss, an employment-law specialist and associate with the Springfield-based firm Bacon Wilson. She told BusinessWest that, in many respects, what happened at the Weinstein Company still goes on at firms that are exponentially smaller and with individuals who might lack the star power of actresses like Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow, but who nonetheless have the same basic rights.

Kathryn Crouss

Kathryn Crouss

“I’m glad all this has come out, because we really do have to have this conversation,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s not only in Hollywood, it’s everywhere, and this is a good opportunity to have the discussion.”

Specifically, she was referring to sexual harassment in its two most basic and legally identified forms — the presence of what’s known as a “hostile work environment,” and also the quid pro quo variety, where one individual promises something in exchange for something else.

They both go on at companies and institutions large and small and across all sectors of the economy, said Crouss, basing those remarks simply on how much time she’s spent in court and in clients’ boardrooms handling such matters.

Amelia Holstrom, an associate with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, agreed.

Amelia Holstrom

Amelia Holstrom

“Sexual-harassment cases are on the rise, and, more importantly, retaliation cases have increased from 18,000 in 1997 to 42,000 in 2016,” she said, adding that some of those harassment cases involve individuals who reported sexual harassment and allege that some action was taken against them as a result of their complaint.

Thus, the Weinstein story serves up some important lessons, or a wake-up call, if you will, said Crouss and others we spoke with, about employers’ responsibilities under the law, and what is really necessary to keep them from running afoul of those laws.

In short, while the law requires companies with six or more employees to have a formal sexual-harassment policy on the books — meaning in the handbook — having a policy on paper is only the starting point.

Peter Vickery, an employment-law specialist based in Amherst, said employers should be diligent about making employees aware of the policy, provide training to workers at all levels in recognizing and avoiding sexual harassment, and follow through on everything in the policy.

Peter Vickery

Peter Vickery

“When they receive complaints, they have to investigate them immediately, or as promptly as possible, and follow up,” said Vickery as he listed clear takeaways from the Weinstein saga. “And whatever they do, under no circumstances should they retaliate against the employee who brought the complaint. Also, depending on what their investigation uncovers, take remedial action.

“What the Weinstein case is showing is that a lot of powerful people chose not to protect Weinstein’s victims; they had a choice, they were employers, they knew that this was going on, and they chose to do the wrong thing,” he went on. “They chose not just to turn a blind eye, but to become complicit and to be his enabler. It looks like a lot of powerful people chose to put their employees in harm’s way.”

For this issue’s focus on law, BusinessWest looks at the Weinstein case and, more specifically, what employers should take from it.

Action! Items

Getting back to the Weinstein story and that word ‘extraordinary,’ it would also apply to the price that Weinstein and his company will be paying for all that transpired over the past few decades.

Indeed, Weinstein the man and Weinstein the company name would both appear to be highly radioactive at this point and with very uncertain futures. The same can be said for other officials at the company, including Harvey’s brother, Bob. There will likely be criminal charges filed and enormous penalties to pay.

Again, extraordinary. But the price to be paid by small-business owners and managers who run afoul of sexual-harassment laws are equally significant, at least when adjusted for scale.

“There can be damages for back pay if someone lost their job or quit,” Holstrom explained. “There can be damages for emotional distress, which is common in these cases and can range from $50,000 to one I’ve seen at $500,000. There can also be punitive damages, attorney’s fees, the other side’s attorney’s … the list goes on.”

So how do employers protect themselves and their businesses from paying such penalties? The simple answer, said those we spoke with, is by taking the matter seriously, or very seriously, as the case may be.

Most already do, said Holstrom, but the rising number of sexual-harassment and retaliation claims would seem to indicate they’re not taking it seriously enough.

Or, to put it another way, they’re not taking a ‘zero-tolerance’ stance on the matter, a phrase used by all those we spoke with.

There is much that goes into zero tolerance, as we’ll see, starting with the need to go well beyond placing a sexual-harassment policy in the company handbook. Additional steps could and should include yearly training, said Crouss, noting, for example, that this takes place at her firm.

Beyond training, employers looking to protect their interests must take each complaint, investigate it thoroughly, and, when there is harassment between co-workers, take steps to stop it, said Holstrom, adding that when the matter involves a supervisor harassing a co-worker, the employer is automatically liable. And while she acknowledged that ‘thoroughly’ is a subjective term, she said objectivity is required, and she had her own advice for clients on such matters.

“They have to meet with the accuser and get all the facts from that person,” she explained. “And then, they have to meet with the accused and gather information from that individual. And then, they have to meet with any witnesses that are identified by the accused, the accuser, or anyone else. And then, they have to follow up if necessary.

“And then, the employer, using some common-sense principles and some evidence, decide who they believe,” she went on, adding that this is sometimes, if not often, an inexact science.

Beyond acting ‘thoroughly,’ however it might be defined, companies must also act consistently, said Crouss, meaning that all cases are investigated and handled with equal vigor, regardless of who is accused of harassment.

That includes women; top officials at a company, up to and including those who might have the names over the door and on the stationary; and the proverbial ‘golden boy or girl’ — a top producer, for example, or a popular employee, or even someone who has been around a long time and is generally well-respected.

Creating an environment where employees feel they can lodge warranted complaints against anyone and they will be taken seriously and acted upon is inherently difficult, she went on, but this should be the goal for all employers; otherwise, complaints can and will go unreported, as they were in Weinstein’s case.

“What happens if it’s the golden boy?” she asked rhetorically. “This is someone the rest of the company values and likes, but this is going on behind the scenes. The harassed employee is likely to think, ‘they’re never going to come after so and so.’”

One of the most troubling aspects of the Weinstein case, Crouss said, is the alleged perpetrator himself, the boss and power broker, a situation that, in some respects, goes a long way toward explaining why harassment still takes place.

“Those women didn’t feel supported or safe in reporting it,” she said of the Weinstein allegations. “And I think the reason in this case, and in so many cases, why these types of things are able to go on as long as long as they are is because women either don’t understand what’s happened or don’t define it in their heads as sexual harassment, or don’t feel safe in their own jobs and their own employment reporting it.”

And this is why, she went on, at the grassroots level on up, it’s important for employers to be proactive and very clear about just what sexual harassment is and what employees can and must do if they believe they are victims of it.

Cast of Thousands

Zero tolerance and protecting a company and its leadership also means knowing, fully understanding, and taking steps to prevent (through training and other measures) those two main types of sexual harassment mentioned earlier.

The first is the presence of a hostile work environment, which, said Holstrom by way of offering the legal definition, “is unwanted or unwelcome conduct focused on or because of an individual’s protected class that unreasonably interferes with job performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

“Typically, someone must prove that she or he was subject to unwelcome/unwanted, verbal/non-verbal communication or action that was severe and pervasive enough to alter the terms and conditions of employment,” she went on, adding that, in sexual-harassment cases, examples of such conduct or actions include sexual advances, touching, and sexual jokes.

‘Hostile’ is another one of those words that seems laden with subjectivity, and in some respects it is, said Holstrom, who takes this approach on the matter:

“What I always tell my clients is that, when they do these investigations, they’re not necessarily making a legal determination about whether it would constitute a hostile-environment claim to a jury or another decision maker,” she explained. “I tell them, ‘you’re looking at whether it violates your policy and whether it belongs in your workplace.’”

Vickery agreed, and noted that employers should be mindful of the fact that hostile-work-environment claims can, and often are, lodged by those not being directly harassed but who are nonetheless working — or trying to work — in the same environment.

“They also have the right to be free from a hostile work environment,” he noted. “So they can file claims as well.”

As for quid pro quo harassment (the term comes from the Latin and means “this for that”), it occurs when submission to or rejection of conduct is used as the basis for an employment decision, said Holstrom.

“Examples include a supervisor promising an employee a raise if she goes on a date with him,” she noted, “and a supervisor giving an employee a negative performance review because he refused to go on a date with her.”

But safeguarding a company from trouble with regard to sexual harassment extends beyond the walls of a company, said Vickery, adding that this is another possible lesson from the Weinstein story.

Indeed, he said employers must be diligent about protecting employees from what’s known as third-party harassment, that committed by vendors, customers, and other parties employees might interact with.

The key in such matters is employers “sending employees into harm’s way,” said Vickery, meaning that a supervisor likely knows harassment is possible or even likely, and sends the employee into that environment anyway.

“A company’s policy should make it clear that employees can and must report sexual harassment by third parties,” he explained, “because that sexual harassment by a third party, if it occurs in the context of an employee’s job, can be a claim of hostile work environment. So employers need to be mindful of that to possibly avoid liability.”

Roll the Credits

As extraordinary as the Weinstein case is, and despite the fact that it will be in the news for quite some time, this story, like so many others that came before it, has the potential to fade from memory, or fade to black, as they say in the film industry.

Employers can’t afford to let that happen, in any sense of that phrase, said the lawyers we spoke with.

They should acknowledge that this case represents extremes in many, if not all, aspects of sexual harassment and the prices to be paid for such transgressions. But they should also understand that it also represents the basics.

And that there are important lessons to learn and remember.


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