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Community Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Trends

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

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

Northampton
at a glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Contact

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

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

Thornes Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Restaurants Sections

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

 

 

There’s More Growth on the Menu

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

 

Taste of Italy

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

 

Who’s Cooking

A list of the area’s largest restaurants

Insurance Sections

Matters of Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shifting Gears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Than 15 Minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Policy Shifts

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

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

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

They call it ‘State and Main.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space Exploration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Room for Improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying Dividends

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

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

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

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

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

Especially those in the broad realm of education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Is Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Members Only

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbers Don’t Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loan Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Management Sections

Spotlighting Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Tips for Entrepreneurs
to Stay Sane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Barrett Mully, co-founder, Aclarity

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

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

– Julie Mullen, co-founder, Aclarity

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

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

– Evan Choquette, co-founder, AnyCafé

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

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

– Liz Roberts, CEO, Valley Venture Mentors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the Idea

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

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

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

Foster gave it a try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Company Line

‘Pivot.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warming to the Idea

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

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

But that’s certainly one of the goals.

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

 

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


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

Manufacturing Sections

Doors to Opportunity

Amy Royal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open to Suggestions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing the Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

40 Under 40 Class of 2018 Cover Story

Announcing the 12th Annual Cohort of 40 Under Forty Honorees

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

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

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

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


40 Under Forty Class of 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

Presenting Sponsors

nortwestern-mutual peoplesbank-logo

Sponsors

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

Partner

yps


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Features

The Trickle-down Effect

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Noblit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rest of the Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, familiarity breeds opportunity, and examples abound of how companies ranging from local caterers and computer hardware providers have come onto MGM Springfield’s radar screen — and are now doing business with the company.

The contract with Yankee Mattress is a good example of this phenomenon at work, said Dixon, confirming that the company was first presented with a proposal to furnish every room in its hotel now taking shape on Main Street.

But Noblet said such a large order would have necessitated additional hiring and other steps the company wasn’t ready to take.

But the contract to supply mattresses for the larger suites is a welcome addition and positive development for the Agawam-based company, which has been gaining traction in recent years as word-of-mouth referrals about its products proliferate.

This is another family business, started by Nick’s father, Joe, who is still active in the venture. The elder Noblit worked for a major mattress manufacturer for several years before deciding he could make a better product, and at a lower price, himself. And he did.

Yankee was launched in 1999, and it has grown and evolved other the years, said Noblit, adding that it started with a storefront and adjacent assembly area in Agawam, and now has four stores in the region.

Those outlets carry a host of lines with those huge tags that are supposedly illegal to rip off, including the top-of-line Black Collection, with models including the York, Fairhaven, Merrimac, and Nantucket.

There is a strong residential component to the customer base, obviously, said Noblit, but also many commercial clients as well, including several area B&Bs, hotels, and inns, as well as some healthcare providers, a few private schools, and a host of area fire departments.

“We custom-build those to be stronger than average — because there are some big firefighters out there and it’s important for them to have something durable,” he explained, adding that word of mouth has been the best marketing tool when it comes to adding new lines to the customer list on the company’s website.

If one were to peruse that list, the name now at the very top is MGM Resorts International, an indication of how important this contract is, not size-wise, but from a marketing and branding standpoint.

“Most hotels have a contract with a major manufacturer, and across the board, they do business with this manufacturer, and they make all of their beds,” he explained. “So for MGM to consider someone outside these big manufacturers that are nationwide, that’s significant.”

Buying Power

But if MGM Springfield found Yankee Mattress thanks to Bill Horbuckle’s good night’s sleep, most of the other vendors have had to find the casino giant.

And ‘find’ means going through a process of introducing one’s company to MGM Springfield through one of a number of vendor meet-and-greets, for lack of a better term, that the company has staged, including one at last fall’s Western Mass. Business and Innovation Expo, staged by BusinessWest.

Courtney Wenleder

Courtney Wenleder says there’s a symbiotic relationship between MGM and local vendors; when they do well, the casino operator does well, and vice versa.

Through these outreach sessions, MGM is making it much easier for companies to find it, said Wenleder, adding that MGM Springfield has a three-person purchasing team (a manager and two assistants), and one of their primary responsibilities is to go out into the community and find local vendors.

“Even though we’ve been doing a lot of communication with people when it comes to local purchasing requirements, some people aren’t hearing that message,” she explained. “We have people on the ground physically reaching out to these vendors.”

Merigian said she started attending such outreach sessions not long after MGM was granted the Western Mass. license in 2014, recognizing the casino as a rare business opportunity.

“I had my sights on it from the beginning,” she told BusinessWest. You never know how it’s going to work out with companies renting their own uniforms or owning them, but either way, I knew I would like to be part of it.”

So much so that she took steps to become a certified woman-owned business, understanding from those very first meetings that MGM had a strong interest in doing business with businesses led by women and minorities.

There would be more meetings to come over the next few years, she went on, adding that these sessions were beneficial on many levels.

“It really gets you tuned into your business,” she said, using that phrase to indicate everything from capabilities to long-term goals to what it will take to reach them. “It was an educational experience on many levels.”

The volume of work is large — most all of the 3,000 employees will wear some kind of uniform, and this contract covers all that and more — and thus MGM will likely be the largest customer in Park’s long history, said Merigian, although Park did have a contract with MassMutual for a quarter-century and still has one with the Defense Department (Westover Air Reserve Base).

“We don’t have specific numbers, but know it will be high volume,” she said of the business to start coming her way in a matter of weeks as employees are added to the payroll in waves. “But we’re ready for it, and we can feel the excitement.”

Indeed, after her father’s death, the company had to withdraw from the MassMutual contract, and it downsized considerably, said Merigian, adding quickly, however, that “we’re ready to go; we’re ready to get back to work.”

At Kittredge, meanwhile, the MGM contract is another important step forward for that company, said Amanda Desautels, an outside sales representative now working with MGM to outfit the restaurants that will be doing business at the casino.

“This is a significant contract for us,” she said, noting that Kittredge will be supplying MGM with everything from appliances to bar equipment; glassware to silverware, and adding it to a client list that includes UMass Amherst, the Max restaurant group, and Mount Holyoke College, among many others.

The company, rapidly approaching its centennial (it was launched in 1921), started as a supplier of typewriters and cash registers and has evolved into a $50 million equipment and supply giant that now employs more than 70 people locally.

At its warehouse and retail facility in the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, one can find everything from industrial refrigerators, freezers, and stoves to dishes and glassware to individual carving knives. Desautels joked that the company provides everything that goes on the table, around it (furniture), and even under it. “If you have a wobbly table, we have table levelers.”

It also has certification as a woman-owned business (Wendy Webber succeeds her late husband, Neil, as owner and operator), a designation that has opened many doors for the company and no doubt played a role in securing the contract with MGM.

“Being a woman-owned business has created many opportunities for Kittredge, and MGM is obviously one of those,” said Desautels, noting that the addition of MGM to the client roster is significant in many respects. “It’s exciting to be doing business with a company like MGM that shares the same values we do, such as diversity and the importance of their employees.”

Pressing Engagement

As she posed for a few photos for BusinessWest, Merigian gathered her son, Andrew Takorian, and insisted that he be part of the picture.

Figuratively speaking, he has been for some time now, working at this establishment — like his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him — while still in grade school.

He represents the fifth generation to carry a business card that says ‘Park Cleaners’ — or Park Cleaners & Dyers, as the case may be. The company has gone through a lot of change and evolution after the past eight and half decades, and many important developments.

Perhaps none were as big as the contract inked with MGM Springfield, which comes at a critical time and represents a huge opportunity for growth and security.

It’s just one example of the trickle-down effect that is now underway, and already changing the local business landscape in profound ways.

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

Features

Changing Expectations

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth say they’ve created a ‘retail-tainment district,’ one that is bringing people from across the region to downtown Springfield.

Like most people who grew up in and around Springfield in the ’60s and ’70s, Mikki Lessard has fond memories of getting on a bus and spending an entire Saturday afternoon downtown.

She said most of those visits would start, and a good number would also end, at Johnson’s Bookstore, but there were plenty of other stops as well.

“We would go to Johnson’s, and Steiger’s, and many other stores. There was always something happening; it was positive, and it was fun,” said Lessard, adding that, while she acknowledges that things won’t ever be exactly like that again given changes in how and where many people shop, it can be, well, something like that again.

And she and business partner Nancy Feth are a huge part of that ‘something.’

They are the founders of an intriguing enterprise called Simply Grace, which now operates a growing portfolio of businesses operating under the name the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — almost exactly where Johnson’s Bookstore was operating until it closed 20 years ago.

There are shops, but this is also a gathering place for events ranging from Thunderbird Thursdays to a farmer’s market to a Dress for Success graduation ceremony.

The two partners have a name for what they’ve created — a ‘retail-tainment district,’ blending both retail and entertainment. They didn’t invent the phrase — it’s been in use for a while and is often summoned when the discussion turns to what traditional shopping malls must become if they want to survive — but they believe they have the first in downtown Springfield, arriving ahead of MGM Springfield.

It all started with the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, and ‘the Shops’ has grown to include a yoga studio, a restaurant, a new store that just opened its doors, and another now being built out.

As they tell the story — and they love to tell the story, often finishing one another’s sentences and providing complementary commentary as they do so — these entrepreneurs note that they came to downtown Springfield as one of what was supposed to be several small retailers that agreed to set up shop as part of the initial Springfield Holiday Market in 2015, a strategic initiative designed to put some underutilized space in the Marketplace complex to work in a way that would bring people downtown and generate some momentum as well as foot traffic.

As things turned out, there were only a few pop-up shops, as they were called, on that location, but they did well collectively, and the public responded to this bid to bring some retail back to Main Street.

When the holidays were over, Glenn Edwards, owner of the property, asked Feth and Lessard if they would like to stay on for a while. They said yes, but without giving any real indication of a what ‘a while’ might or should become.

“We said, ‘we’ll stay for a few more months; we’ll stay ’til Valentine’s Day,’” said Feth, before Lessard picked up for her.

“And then, we asked to stay ’til Mother’s Day,” she explained. “And then we decided we wanted to stay for the year.”

But with some conditions, specifically that they could take space one of the retailers was vacating for yoga classes in an effort to attract more people and different constituencies to the downtown.

And, overall, the two entrepreneurs have been continuing that pattern, or mindset, ever since, adding new components to Simply Grace; bringing more events, vitality, and energy to the Marketplace area; and also, for those efforts, earning an award from the Small Business Administration to coincide with Small Business Week (April 29 to May 5).

Indeed, Feth and Lessard will be at the Sheraton Needham Hotel on May 4 to accept the Microenterprise of the Year Award, one of the few enterprises from Western Mass. to win such an honor in recent years.

But before, and after, all their focus will be on Springfield, the Marketplace, and new developments for Simply Grace.

These include a recent addition called Brick & Mortar, what Lessard calls a “mercantile, apothecary, and more,” which actually has some exposed brick for effect. There’s also Alchemy, a manicure and pedicure salon now being built out; Dharma, the yoga studio; and the boutique that got things rolling.

Those four businesses, along with Nosh, an eatery across the way from the boutique, now comprise a critical mass of small, diverse shops that the two partners believe will bring more foot traffic and momentum to an area that was once the pulse of downtown Springfield a generation ago — and can, they believe, take that role again.

“Do we have mall traffic? Heck no,” said Lessard. “But it’s working. It’s always about creating curiosity and then converting that into customers, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The only downside to all this is that the space once devoted to the holiday pop-up markets is now gone, absorbed by what could be called permanent fixtures, said the partners, adding that, in most all ways, this constitutes a very good problem to have.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Feth and Lessard about their venture and how in some ways it constitutes turning back the clock, but in most others, it’s symbolic of the downtown’s future.

What’s in Store

‘Walk. Pause. Browse. Shop. Experience.’

Those are the words the two partners have placed before ‘the Shops at Marketplace’ in their branding of the facility. And both collectively and individuality, those terms speak to what this venture is all about — as well as to some of the elements that have largely been missing from downtown since those days when Lessard and countless others would get on a bus and take it to Main Street.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

There was far less walking, pausing, browsing, and shopping going on, and therefore there was less to experience.

Feth and Lessard weren’t exactly out to change that equation when they were first invited to bring a taste of the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, a shop they opened in Monson, to downtown Springfield for the holidays. But that’s what has happened.

It’s been an intriguing journey, a learning experience on many levels, said the partners, adding that they are still writing new chapters to this story.

That first Holiday Market was so successful that the BID asked the new partners to manage and staff that project moving forward, said Feth, adding that they did so, providing an opportunity for a number of new businesses to become part of the experience and gain some critical visibility. And through that work, the partners came to understand the many layers of significance to their efforts. Indeed, this wasn’t simply retail, it was economic development.

“A lot of what we do is build community and work on economic development,” Feth explained. “These are the value adds we feel we bring to Springfield in addition to our own businesses.”

Lessard agreed, and referred to Simply Grace’s broad efforts as “collaborating and incubating.”

As for their own businesses, the partners say they are doing well and succeeding in their primary mission. That would be to bring people, but especially women, downtown. Or back downtown, as is often the case.

They’re getting that done by providing reasons to do so, said Lessard, adding that these vary and include yoga, the shops — which sell products made by vendors with unique, community-minded stories — and events.

Elaborating, Lessard said the partners will utilize their indoor spaces and walkways during winter and schedule a variety of gatherings for women, and when the weather gets warmer, they will fully “activate” the indoor and outdoor space, using it to host everything from flea markets to White Lion Wednesdays; from farmers markets to live music.

In fact, the space has become a popular venue for fundraising for groups that include Rays of Hope, Unify Against Bullying, Dress for Success, and many more.

“We just want to have this lively, quintessential, unexpected experience in downtown Springfield,” Lessard explained, adding that the key word there, and perhaps unfortunately, is ‘unexpected.’

Indeed, Feth said that many of those who come to the Shops at the Marketplace will offer commentary that makes this point.

“We’ll often hear people say, ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Springfield,’” said Feth. “Or ‘I feel like I’m in New York or San Francisco.’”

Which Lessard followed with, ‘and we gladly say, ‘you’re in this wonderful city called Springfield.’”

The unofficial mission moving forward, for the partners at Simply Grace and the city as a whole, is to generate fewer of these comments and to make a fulfilling trip downtown something that’s expected, not unexpected.

And the partners believe they and the city are moving closer to that goal through their lively mix of retail, events, things to do, and things to experience.

And the retail is a big part of it, said Feth, adding that, contrary to what is becoming popular opinion, traditional retail is not dead, and not everyone wants to buy everything on Amazon and have it shipped to their home.

“What we’re finding is that customers are actually hungry for experiences where they can see the product, talk to people, feel seen and acknowledged, and have a real experience instead of just a virtual experience,” she explained, before Lessard picked up on that ‘feel seen’ comment and ran with it because of its significance.

“We have women who come in here that pause, then browse, then shop, just to be seen,” she told BusinessWest. “They feel like they’re in this hustle and bustle of life and no one’s acknowledging them. So they come in, they share stories, we give them hugs; we actually care about them as people.

“We get a lot of pushback from people from who say, ‘you should be in East Longmeadow’ or ‘you should be in Hampden or somewhere other than downtown Springfield,’” she went on. “But we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be, because the women we’re connecting to that work or live or play downtown are very stressed out, and when they come to our store, it’s a breath of fresh air, an unexpected experience.”

Bottom Line

There’s that word again — unexpected. Soon, perhaps, it can be retired, and downtown Springfield will move closer to the one Lessard remembers from her youth, a time, she recalled, when there was always something positive and fun happening.

The partners at Simply Grace are doing their part to bring those phrases back into use. They’ll soon have an award from the Small Business Administration to show for their efforts, but they’ve already received something perhaps even more significant to them.

That would be all those comments from people who say they don’t believe they’re in downtown Springfield. Such comments tell them they’re doing the right thing and in the right place.

And to think they were only going to stay a month.

Good thing they didn’t.

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