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Aging in Place

Suzanne McElroy

Suzanne McElroy says it’s important to match a family with the right caregiver to ensure there’s a comfort level on both sides.

As the Baby Boom generation continues to advance into the golden years, the demand for home care continues to rise, as families embrace a model that keeps seniors stay in their homes while helping them with everyday needs. That means the need for qualified caregivers is rising, too — and it’s not always easy to find them.

Home care is a far cry from, say, plumbing, Suzanne McElroy says. Sure, both careers require specialized skills, but not a lot of plumbers are turned away because they just don’t … feel right.

“I’ve often tried to compare this to other industries, and you can’t,” said McElroy, owner of Home Instead Senior Care in Springfield. “A plumber can come in and fix your pipes, and you don’t have to worry about what they look like or smell like, or how they talk; they just come in and fix your pipes. But I’ve had caregivers rejected for silly things, like a tattoo in the wrong place, or things I’m not legally able to consider, like age, race, or religion.”

Paul Hillsburg, owner and president of Amada Senior Care in West Springfield — who left financial services for a career in this fast-growing field — has observed similar difficulties matching caregivers to families, starting with his own life.

“I saw the challenges we had with my mom in finding qualified caregivers,” he said, noting that she utilized home care in the early stages of her dementia. “My dad fired the first seven. I realized that was an important part of providing care in the home — the personalities need to match. So we take a personalized care approach.”

After all, McElroy said, she has to consider things from the family’s perspective, and why they need a certain comfort level with someone who will be spending lots of time in the home. “It’s not like fixing pipes and leaving; they’re going to be staying and sitting with your mom.”

SEE: List of Home Care Options

The problem, both she and Hillsburg, noted, is that the challenge of making those matches, plus the surge of Baby Boomers into their senior years — around 10,000 are turning 65 every day, on average — are ratcheting up the pressure on home-care agencies to find and retain talent.

“More and more people want to stay at home, and hospitals are actually suggesting home care during discharge,” Hillsburg said. “People want to age in place, to be at home, where their family can come and visit, and where they feel more comfortable.”

Home-care services run the gamut from companionship and household help to assistance with ambulation and medical needs, and the popularity of this option continues to grow, creating worries that demand will eventually outstrip the number of qualified caregivers. That means competition among agencies, which are bringing myriad tools to bear with the goal of helping seniors live as independently as possible.

The Right Choice?

McElroy, who has lectured many times on the topic of choosing a senior housing plan, outlined several considerations that families must discuss, including:

• Physical needs, including activities of daily living — from shopping, cleaning, cooking, and pet care to more intensive help with bathing, ambulating, and eating — and medical needs, which could arise from a sudden condition, such as a heart attack or stroke, or a more gradual condition that slowly needs more care, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

• Home maintenance. “If you’re living alone, your current home may become too difficult or too expensive to maintain,” she noted. “You may have health problems that make it hard to manage tasks such as housework and yard maintenance that you once took for granted.”

• Social and emotional needs. As people age, their social networks may change, with family and long-time friends no longer close by, and neighbors moving away or passing on. At the same time, they may no longer be able to drive and have no access to public transportation. The desire to be around a community of friends and take part in social activities may be paramount.

• Financial needs. “Modifying your home and long-term care can both be expensive, so balancing the care you need with where you want to live requires careful evaluation of your budget.”

The answers to these questions may very well point to assisted living as a better option than home care, but others may be able to age in place, accessing home-care services to better manage activities of daily living, while still enjoying the comfort and security of a residence they have lived in for years or decades.

Aging in place is a less effective senior-housing option once your mobility is limited. Being unable to leave your home frequently and socialize with others can lead to isolation, loneliness, and depression. So, even if you select to age in place today, it’s important to have a plan for the future when your needs may change and staying at home may no longer be the best option.”

“You may also be able to make home repairs or modifications to make your life easier and safer, such as installing a wheelchair ramp, bathtub railings, or emergency response system,” McElroy said.

Home care is a good option, then, for people who can access transportation; live in a safe neighborhood and in a home that can be modified to reflect changing physical needs; don’t have an overwhelming burden of home or yard maintenance; have physical or medical needs that don’t require a high or specialized level of care; and, perhaps most important, have a network of nearby family, friends, or neighbors.

“Aging in place is a less effective senior-housing option once your mobility is limited,” she added. “Being unable to leave your home frequently and socialize with others can lead to isolation, loneliness, and depression. So, even if you select to age in place today, it’s important to have a plan for the future when your needs may change and staying at home may no longer be the best option.”

Individuals and families who do choose home care, Hillsburg said, still have to overcome that initial reluctance to invite a stranger into their home.

“When I meet clients, I do my own personal assessment, trying to link their personalities with the personality of the caregiver,” he explained. “And when the caregiver goes to the family’s home for the first time, I meet them there and introduce them to the family, make sure there’s a comfort level there.”

Hillsburg said his company, part of a national network of Amada franchises, also performs extensive background screening — credit history, DMV records, criminal records, sex-offender registries — to ensure client safety, and also assists people trying to figure out how to pay for care, whether that’s a long-term care policy, veterans’ benefits, reverse mortgages, even life-insurance policies that can be sold back, swapping death benefits for current care.

Paul Hillsburg

Paul Hillsburg says the biggest challenge for home-care companies is finding and retaining quality caregivers in an increasingly competitive arena.

But to build a team of reliable caregivers at a time when the competition for talent is becoming fiercer by the month, a company has to make sure they’re paid well and happy in their jobs, he told BusinessWest.

“It’s a very, very competitive field. The biggest challenge going forward is going to be finding and retaining good, quality caregivers. That’s why we provide 20 hours of free training, or more, if they want it, to all our caregivers, and we pay them while they’re in that training,” he explained. “They want to be treated like a person and respected.”

Cost is still a major consideration for families, McElroy said, especially when agencies have to pay their caregivers competitively. While lower-income services are available through Medicaid and MassHealth, home care still isn’t within reach of everyone who needs it. “That’s only going to change in importance when enough people feel this pain, or the right people feel this pain.”

High-tech, High-touch

At the same time, Hillsburg said, home care continues to absorb technological advances that make it easier for families and companies to assess results, from an online portal Amada offers called Transparent — which allows families to see which duties a caregiver has performed — to a GPS system that lets the company know whether caregivers show up at the right place and time.

Meanwhile, the company’s Discharge Admissions Reduction Team (DART) works with care managers to negotiate transitions between hospital and home care with the goal of reducing hospital readmissions.

“The need for care is going to continue to increase for the next 30 years before we hit the end of the Baby Boom generation,” Hillsburg said by way of explaining the ways companies are honing their services to meet the needs of this population.

Still, at the end of the day, McElroy said, families are most concerned with whether the caregiver increased their loved one’s quality of life. She recalled one client who requested someone versed in quilting, to help her thread needles and otherwise allow her to continue enjoying her favorite pastime.

“That’s the heart of what we’re doing. Yes, we’re helping them out of bed and into the shower, but if we can help someone live the live they want, that’s what’s driving the spirit of our business,” she explained. “It’s hospitality; it’s customer service. You have to love what you’re doing. You have to love the mission and love the work.”

After all, “whenever I have someone raving about a caregiver, it’s not because they came in for a few hours and got the job done; it’s because they made a difference in someone’s life,” McElroy said. “They can be doing the grossest thing ever, but when they leave, if the person takes their hand and says, ‘I don’t know what I would do without you,’ they’re flying. They can’t wait to go back.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Sections

Winning Attitude

Raipher Pellegrino

Raipher Pellegrino

Its marketing materials are emblazoned with the phrase ‘for the win.’ But at Raipher, P.C. — the law firm Raipher Pellegrino founded in 1994 and put on the map with a series of high-profile victories — the end result is only part of a successful case. Just as important, Pellegrino notes, is helping clients, who are often suffering through the worst crisis of their lives, navigate the legal system and get back to some semblance of normalcy. That, in itself, he says, is also a win.

Raipher Pellegrino may be best-known for winning a handful of high-profile court cases. There was his defense in 2002 of a man accused of breaking into a UMass dorm room with attempt to rape, arguing — successfully — that the defendant was sleepwalking. Then, as a plaintiff’s attorney, he secured a $6 million settlement for the family of a woman killed when a Big Dig tunnel collapsed on her car in 2006.

Such cases may not represent the day-to-day work of Pellegrino and his team of attorneys at Raipher, P.C. in Springfield, but they did help raise his profile, which is why he works on cases for clients nationally.

“It’s a matter of being able to prove results year in and year out, on complex, oftentimes high-profile cases, which can be more difficult to handle because you’re worried about not just the legal aspect, but the public-relations aspect of the case,” Pellegrino told BusinessWest.

Perhaps most recognized as a personal-injury firm, Raipher also focuses on criminal defense, family law, and general business law, from commercial transactions to business litigation and everything in between. Pellegrino also has a special interest in charter schools, a model he supports, and has represented them in matters ranging from financing to litigation.

When he launched his firm in 1994, “the original concept was personal injury and criminal litigation, but not so much on the transactional side. We’ve evolved since then,” he said, noting that the firm currently boasts 12 attorneys.

In any case, success isn’t measured only in decisions and settlements, he explained, but in meeting the myriad needs of clients who are often dealing with life-changing situations.

“When someone is in a circumstance where they need a lawyer, it’s a moment of anxiety. Our goal here is that they should feel less anxious after they contact us,” said Sean O’Connor, who joined the firm 18 months ago in a management capacity, overseeing the case loads of each attorney and handling marketing and other non-legal aspects of the business, in an effort to modernize the practice.

SEE: List of Law Firms

“We go up against some of the largest forms in the U.S. and the world, with over 1,000 attorneys,” Pellegrino added. “They’ll attempt to bury you with process, putting five or six lawyers on the case and sending documents 24/7. The modernization of the practice on the intellectual side and also in workflow is important; it allows us to take on large firms from right here in Western Mass.”

For this issue’s focus on law, BusinessWest sat down for a candid chat with Pellegrino and O’Connor about how they take on those challenges — and why the process of resolving each case is as important as the end result.

Sean O’Connor

Sean O’Connor says much of the firm’s business comes from client referrals, which he considers “a real compliment to an attorney.”

Sweet Relief

Personal injury is a broad field in itself, encompassing car accidents, product liability, medical malpractice, slip-and-fall injuries, and workplace injuries, just to name a few. Pellegrino cited a recent, complex case with multiple defendants, in which the plaintiff was killed in a manufacturing plant.

“We brought suit against the company that designed the machine and the employer, and we were able to settle that for several million dollars despite having serious legal obstacles which could have precluded an award to the plaintiff,” Pellegrino said, including a state workers’ compensation statute that throws up barriers to suing employers. “We were able to navigate around those issues and resolve that case.”

The defendant was a Boston-based company, and his sole heir lived in Puerto Rico, but despite the presence of many large personal-injury firms in the Boston area, the plaintiff sought out Raipher, an example of the firm’s reputation for handling difficult cases — work that begins with the first meeting with the client.

“We don’t try to sell the firm; we try to educate people. We believe education is the building block of what we do,” he explained, likening it to a different kind of major life event. “If you’re going in for surgery and have no concept what the surgery is about, what the process is, it can be frightening to go through it because of the fear of the unknown. Well, nobody prepares for an accident; you don’t wake up and say, ‘I might have an accident today.’ But if you have a law firm in mind, and you know they’ve been through it time and time again, and they can walk you through the process, it takes some of the fear away.”

The firm uses the motto ‘for the win,’ but Raipher Pellegrino emphasizes that the process of finding relief, restitution, or justice is as important as the end result.

The firm uses the motto ‘for the win,’ but Raipher Pellegrino emphasizes that the process of finding relief, restitution, or justice is as important as the end result.

And monetary restitution isn’t the sole goal, he added. “We also want to let them get on with their lives. They may be out of work, have loss of income, physical pain; that’s what they should be focused on, getting better and back to life as quickly as they can. We routinely tell clients, ‘let us do our job and make your life easier.’ And if we can make the process more understandable, that’s part of our job — not just getting a monetary settlement.”

Pellegrino said his firm has built its client base organically. “We have generational clients, we’ve been referred by clients’ family and friends, and we’ve had referrals from attorneys, not just in Western Mass., but around the country. I’ve had jurors hire me.”

That makes sense, he added, since jurors have a front-row seat to how an attorney works. If one is impressed and, down the road, has a need for a lawyer, they’ll remember what they saw in court. “That feels good, when people appreciate you and want to hire you. We take pride in our work and in delivering a good product.”

Added O’Connor, “the greatest complement we get here is client referrals. Raipher has clients he’s known for 20 years who still refer people to us. That’s a real compliment to an attorney, to have the confidence of past and current clients.”

To earn that confidence, Pellegrino said, his team is dedicated to staying educated on all facets of the law they handle. “A doctor doesn’t stop reading about new surgeries. We’re constantly adapting to changes in the law, whether regulatory or statutory.”

When asked whether the regulatory landscape has become more burdensome over the past decade or so, he said many lawyers would say yes. “And that certainly requires a broader spectrum of knowledge to litigate a claim.”

But some changes have been beneficial for attorneys, he added. For instance, only recently have lawyers in Massachusetts been allowed to ask potential jurors specific questions during the voir dire process, allowing them to dig into biases — whether conscious or subconscious — and establish their best opportunity to ensure a level playing field. In addition, lawyers can now demand a specific award amount at trial, which can make it easier to demonstrate the value of an injury, loss, and suffering to a jury.

And jurors take these matters seriously, Pellegrino said, noting that, while people often feel hesitant when summoned to jury duty, once they’re empaneled, they tend to embrace their responsibility. In fact, he noted, jurors are often frustrated they can’t get more information, though there are good reasons behind the rules for which pieces of evidence can be entered into the record and which can’t.

He recalled one criminal-defense case that fell apart for the prosecution during cross-examination and was quickly settled. “The jury waited for me outside the court to talk to me; they wanted to ask about more underlying facts of the case. It shows how they’re engaged, and they take it seriously.”

For the Win

Pellegrino certainly takes his work seriously, even though personal-injury law often suffers from negative perceptions in society.

“The only way our society knows how to compensate someone for a civil loss is monetarily,” he said. “One of the best mediators in the country likes to ask, ‘if I could give you your leg back or offer you $100 million, which would you take?’ Inevitably, the person says, ‘I’d want my leg back.’ So it’s clear no amount of money can adequately compensate for your leg.”

I tell everyone, ‘don’t go into the practice of law for money. It serves society in many ways, and if you put your heart and soul into it, it’s one of the most gratifying professions you can have.”

As a result, he went on, it can be difficult to put the value of a death, injury, or physical loss in financial terms. “It’s constantly evolving, and so many factors go into it. In every case, those factors change. There are different ways to value it and monetize it. It’s not simply, someone gets in an accident and makes a demand, and you give them that money. It’s far more complex.”

O’Connor said he often finds himself explaining this concept at dinner parties. “People often don’t want to bring a lawsuit because there’s a stigma. But there is literally no other way to compensate you for someone else’s wrong. It’s not your stigma. Someone else’s negligence caused you harm. So the stigma is unfortunate.”

But Pellegrino sees the value of his work in the lives of his clients, and doesn’t worry about public perception.

“I tell everyone, ‘don’t go into the practice of law for money,’” he told BusinessWest. “It serves society in many ways, and if you put your heart and soul into it, it’s one of the most gratifying professions you can have.”

The emotions cut deep in both wins and losses, he added. In the Big Dig case, he recalled being happy for the plaintiff, who wouldn’t get his wife back, but could at least move on with his life having received some compensation and an assurance that it wouldn’t happen to someone else.

Then, in a criminal-defense case, “you can lose the case, and the client is going away to be incarcerated for 10 years, and they’re thanking you and hugging you and telling you how appreciative they are of your effort,” he said. “That’s an odd feeling. But at the end of the day, you’re not going to win every case, but if you put your heart and soul into it, the client knows that. They know you can’t guarantee an outcome.”

O’Connor agreed, adding, “you feel like you disappointed them, even though they’re clearly expressing gratitude. Clients can tell whether you’re phoning it in or doing the best you can for them.”

Still, every lawyer wants to win — which is why Raipher, P.C. uses the phrase ‘for the win’ in its marketing materials.

“I tell people, ‘you almost have to hate losing more than you like winning,’” Pellegrino said. “And if I lose, I’ve got to know that I did everything I could for the client.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Human Touch

NetLogix President Marco Liquori

NetLogix President Marco Liquori

Information-technology solutions providers can easily get lost in a maze of technical jargon, but that’s the last thing Marco Liquori wants to throw at customers. Instead, the technicians at his 13-year-old company, NetLogix, are trained to communicate clearly with clients about their network needs — and then meet those needs, in the background, so businesses can focus on growth, not computer issues. A recent customer-satisfaction report suggests the Westfield-based firm is doing something right.

When Marco Liquori talks about how his IT company, NetLogix, sets itself apart, he doesn’t go right into technical jargon. In fact, he tries to avoid it.

“We have some business savvy; we’re a small business ourselves,” he told BusinessWest. “We take that knowledge to our clients, and, when we do talk to them, it’s not geek-speak, but business recommendations in plain English.”

That’s actually one of the points on a list he’s prepared called “10 Things We Do Better.” Some of them — delving into areas like network security, budgeting for IT services, and the difference between proactive maintenance and reactive response — get into the nitty-gritty of NetLogix’s services, but many are common-sense goals that wouldn’t be out of place in companies in myriad industries.

Take phone calls, for instance. “We answer our phones live and respond quickly,” he said, noting that callers will always get a human being, not a recording or voice mail, and those calls are followed up by a technician within the hour — actually, the average is 12 minutes.

Those touches are part of the reason why a third-party monitoring system, SmileBack, which tracks customer satisfaction for companies, reported that NetLogix scored a 99.4% favorable rating from clients in 2016 — the highest customer-satisfaction score it recorded last year.

netlogixbuilding

“That’s unheard-of in our industry; our competitors are unable to say that,” Liquori said. But it’s not a surprise, he added; it’s a goal the company works toward. “Our techs are incentivized to get high satisfaction scores; they’re compensated not on billable hours, but on efficiency and customer satisfaction.”

Of course, part of achieving high satisfaction scores is actually getting the job done, and this is where a shift in the company’s strategy several years ago has paid dividends and grown the Westfield-based firm — which Liquori describes as a network-management, cloud, and systems-technology integrator providing end-to-end solutions for clients — to a 12-employee operation, and why his plans to keep expanding the company look promising indeed.

Entrepreneurial Itch

Liquori had worked for several other computer and IT companies — “value-added resellers was what we called them back in the day” — but business wasn’t great in the years following the dot-com bust. In 2004, the firm he was working for decided to take his business in a different direction, focusing more on application development. In the transition, Liquori decided to set out on his own — even in that tough economic climate.

“I was on my own for a year, but we grew, slowly and steadily, and we’ve been growing ever since,” he told BusinessWest. “We were originally a break-fix service — when people had issues, they would call us, and we’d go out and fix them.”

During that time, he was developing a book of business focusing on a handful of industries in which NetLogix still specializes today, including insurance agencies, law firms, medical and dental practices, and professional services like accounting firms. But the business model needed tweaking.

We try to understand each client’s business need for technology and address it. We help them overcome challenges they may have with some new technology or new processes.”

“It was a more reactive model. As an issue occurred, we’d go out and fix the problem, and we’d bill for the time we worked,” he explained. “Over the past few years, we transitioned to a managed-services model that’s more proactive in nature. We’re constantly monitoring every system out there for our clients.”

That encompases everything from preventing cyberattacks and monitoring for malicious activity to installing Windows and third-party application updates to managing firewalls and developing disaster-recovery strategies.

“We try to understand each client’s business need for technology and address it,” he said. “We help them overcome challenges they may have with some new technology or new processes.”

Under the old system, the more hours NetLogix’s technicians worked, the more money the company made. But a managed-services model is a win-win for both sides on multiple levels, he explained. “With this, the overall objective is to make IT spending predictable for the client, which helps them them budget accurately. They pay a fee for unlimited support.”

That’s an advantage over many companies that hold fast to a more reactive model, he said, adding that clients like knowing exactly what they’ll be spending — no surprises — and can focus their energies outside the IT realm, on growing the core functions of their business.

defendingagainstcyberattacks

In fact, the fixed price, all-inclusive support plan includes a commitment to resolve any issues that arise in an expeditious manner. Since everything is included in one price, Liquori explained, NetLogix is highly motivated to use its time wisely and bring each situation to a successful completion — and clients aren’t nickel-and-dimed just at the time they need the most help.

“Our goal is to resolve issues as quickly as possible, and make sure their computers are back up fully and functioning normally as soon as possible,” he said.

But he kept coming back to the firm’s security-first approach. NetLogix’s first task is to evaluate a client’s network and explain any potential risks and exposures, and recommend adjustments to protect the network and client data — which is of massive importance for companies that store patient records or financial information, for example.

“With our full suite of multi-layered security in place, none of our clients were affected by the WannaCry ransomware attack — or any other ransomware,” Liquori said, referring to last month’s worldwide attack targeting computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system, encrypting data and demanding ransom payments to free it. Within a day of the attack, more than 230,000 computers in 150 countries were affected.

“We keep all our engineers constantly trained in the latest technology that’s out there, and constantly go to security seminars and network-security training events,” he went on. “Security is the biggest thing, and we stay on top of it.”

Growth Pattern

At the heart of NetLogix’s services, though, is its strategic IT planning. Liquori said he considers himself a strategic partner with clients, listening first and offering solutions second.

“I really enjoy a challenging technical issue and being able to provide a solution that meets a business objective and saves the customer money by improving efficiencies and improving security,” he told BusinessWest. “Customers may be losing sleep over these things. I enjoy the fact that we can take that burden off them so they can focus on their business.”

Liquori said he’s certainly looking to grow beyond 12 employees, and geography isn’t the barrier it used to be in the IT world. “Most of what we do is remote, so we can work in almost any geographic area,” he explained, adding that the firm covers most of the Northeast. But face time is important, too.

“For our managed-services clients, we will engage with them proactively — quarterly or semiannually, depending on the size of the organization. We will sit with the business owner or office manager for strategic IT planning. We’ll talk about areas where they’re weak or vulnerable, get those adjusted and up to speed. It may be making sure they have a backup recovery solution, or a computer may be out of date, so we plan together for updating their computers to help them stay atop the curve.”

And sleep better at night.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Features

Hire Expectations

employeesartfinal

The job market in the region has tightened considerably in recent years, approaching, if not reaching, that state known as full employment. In this environment, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to find good help — at least among the ranks of the unemployed — and many are responding to the situation proactively and creatively.

It was almost 17 years ago, but Kevin Lynn can still remember the sense of urgency in the employer’s voice and the impassioned plea for help — any kind of help.

“He just said, ‘get me someone with a beating heart,’” said Lynn, then (and still) director of FutureWorks, the one-stop career center based in Springfield. “That was his lone qualification; he was desperate, to be sure.”

That was in 2000, just before the recession prompted by the bursting of the tech bubble, he told BusinessWest, when the nation, and this region, were pretty much at full employment and companies were struggling mightily to find talented help.

Things are not quite that bad (for employers) or that good (for job seekers) at this moment in time, he added quickly, before offering a very intriguing, if not menacing, qualifier.

“If the economy keeps going the way it’s going, could we be there in a year? Maybe,” he said.

For now, Lynn, like others, would say merely that the job market is as tight as it’s been in a while, maybe since 2000, and certainly since the height of the last recession in 2009.

Kevin Lynn says the tightening of the job market has put many employers in a situation where they need to ‘grow their own’ talent.

Kevin Lynn says the tightening of the job market has put many employers in a situation where they need to ‘grow their own’ talent.

At that time, he noted, there was a very large pool of talented, skilled people looking for work. Now, the pool is seriously depleted, comprised mostly of people with fewer skills, both technical and ‘people,’ and less experience than employers would prefer.

This is the main byproduct of  ‘full employment.’ That’s a term used by economists and others, and it has a definition — actually several of them. The one that prevails goes something like this: ‘a state of the economy in which all eligible people who want to work can find employment at prevailing wages.’

Most economists believe full employment occurs when the unemployment rate is at or just above 4%, which, according to the latest figures, just happens to be the rate nationwide.

But from a practical standpoint, and for the purposes of this discussion, parties are more interested in what full employment, or something close to that, means figuratively, not literally.

For employers, it means challenges — everything from finding and retaining qualified help to rising wages, said Meredith Wise, executive director of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

“Employers are beginning to get frustrated with the lack of quality out there, the lack of skills out there,” said Wise, adding that this situation will, in all likelihood (meaning unless there is a dramatic downturn in the economy) become more exacerbated when MGM Springfield begins hiring people in large numbers. That should start happening about a year from now, and there should be quite an impact on the local employment picture (much more on this later).

Nearly full employment also means that many employers are becoming more creative when it comes to such matters as searching for help and developing employees’ skill sets once they arrive, Wise went on, which, overall, is a good thing.

“Employers are looking at the situation and saying, ‘well, if the regular methods for getting employees aren’t working — if I can’t just go out to the employed market — what else can I do?’” she explained. “We’re seeing employers that are trying to get more involved with the schools, trying to get more involved with interns, and other steps. Employers are sensing that, if the regular methods aren’t working, instead of just throwing their hands up and trying to steal people from others, they’re looking at what else they can do.”


Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise

Employers are telling me that the people who are walking through their doors don’t have the skills that they’re looking for.”


Lynn agreed, noting that, in many cases, employers are adopting what he called a ‘grow your own’ philosophy, whereby, instead of holding out for individuals who have the requisite skills upon arrival, they’re opting for taking rawer talent, if you will, and developing it.

He cited the staffing company Snapchef, which recently opened a location in downtown Springfield, as one that embraces a model others will likely have to follow.

“They provide a five-week training course for people who want to get into the food-service business,” he explained. “Individuals learn all the basics, and Snapchef gets people into a job; this is probably the model that more employers are going to have to embrace.”

As for the region as a whole, full or nearly full employment means working harder with those who are still in the labor pool — including some who might have given up on their efforts to re-enter the workforce and are now giving it another go — to help them attain and retain work, said Dave Cruise, executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County.

“We’re working hard with those individuals looking to re-enter the market to address barriers that might have prohibited them from getting back in,” he said. “And as we do that, we’re focused not only on identifying candidates for employers, but also on the issue of retention, and dealing with issues now, as opposed to when someone is five or six weeks on a job.”

Work Orders

Lynn calls it the ‘recruiting corner.’

That’s an area at the FutureWorks complex — a table near the main entrance, actually — where area employers will, as that name, suggests, do actual one-on-one recruiting with those who come to the agency for help attaining employment.

At the height of the recession, and in the years after it, for that matter, the recruiting corner wasn’t used much because most companies weren’t hiring, and if they were, job hopefuls were coming to them.

The situation is much different now, obviously, Lynn went on.

“We’re seeing increased demand among employers who want to come and sit there during times of high foot traffic and get some face time in front of potential employees,” he said, adding that the economy is, for the most part, solid, and many companies across a host of economic sectors, are hiring — or at least thinking about it.

Dave Cruise

Dave Cruise says many of those who remain unemployed face one or more barriers to re-entering the workforce.

And what they’re finding as they go about hiring is that the pool of talent is shallow, that most of the individuals they would prefer to hire are already gainfully employed, and that they’re going to have to work harder and be more creative in their efforts to find and retain talent.

The resulting challenges for employers manifest themselves in many ways, from the recruiting corner to the strong interest shown in a job expo to be staged early next month at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“We recently opened registration,” said Lynn. “And as soon as we put that out, we got three or four companies to sign up.”

Locally, as noted, the employment situation is not as tight, or robust, as it is nationally, or certainly in the eastern part of this state.

Larry Martin, director of Employer Services & Engagement with the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, said the unemployment rate in Hampden County is just over 5%, compared to roughly 3.6% for the Commonwealth. In Springfield, meanwhile, still one of the poorest communities in the state, unemployment is at roughly 6.8%.

Both that number and the 5% for the county represent significant improvement over just a few years ago, said Martin, noting that unemployment in Springfield was well above 10% at the height of the recession.

As for the current situation and what it all means, those we talked with started by assessing the constituency that remains unemployed. This is where Cruise made repeated use of that word ‘barriers,’ adding that most all of those out of work and looking for work (some are not) generally face at least one, and perhaps several.

Wise agreed, and summoned that well-worn phrase ‘skills gap’ to describe what employers generally see or perceive from the current workforce, meaning those who are presently unemployed.

“Employers are telling me that the people who are walking through their doors don’t have the skills that they’re looking for,” she explained. “Sometimes this is in manufacturing, when people are looking for someone specific, like machine operators or maintenance people, or other roles. But other times, it’s just the general market — people walking through the doors for receptionist positions or accounting clerk, positions where you don’t need a lot of technical skills, but you need the customer-service skills and people with good work histories.

“A lot of the people who currently make up that 4% are people whose work history is maybe not that great,” she went on. “They may have moved around a lot, or they may have been out of the workforce for a while, so therefore employers are hesitant to bring them back in.”

Work in Progress

Some of those who remain unemployed are older individuals (a term usually used to describe those over 55, although the age varies), who were downsized during the recession and have often struggled to re-enter the workforce or given up altogether.

The tightening of the job market has given some of these older workers the impetus to get back in the hunt for work, said Martin, noting that some face a steep climb because their skills are outdated.

“There were a lot of older individuals who may have been in a particular industry and didn’t have the updated skills, and got discouraged,” he explained.

Wise agreed, but opined that she believes some employers are making a mistake by overlooking or perhaps underestimating some older workers and, more specifically, their desire to return to the workforce at a salary (and rung on the ladder) lower than where they were when they left.

“Employers look at some of those older workers and look at what they had been making and also at what their job responsibilities may have been,” she noted. “And they’re hesitant to bring them into their workforce now, because they’re concerned that the individual may not be satisfied — this person may have been in a managerial position or a position with some responsibility, and is now looking for a lower-level position.

“I think employers are doing themselves a bit of a disservice, because they’re bypassing those people,” she went on. “A lot of those older workers that have been in a position of responsibility … they’re done with that; they don’t want those responsibilities anymore. They want to keep working, and they’re ready to take that step back and do the 9-to-5. And many employers are overlooking those people.”

Others among the unemployed have different barriers, including everything from language to basic skills to transportation, said Cruise, adding that one of the REB’s main focal points at this juncture is working to remove some of those barriers — not just to gaining a job, but to succeeding in one and staying in it.

Elaborating, he said many individuals come to the REB looking for employment, but before they are ready to attain it, they need one or more of the other services provided by the agency — training, education, and various forms of support.

“What we’re finding is that fewer and fewer of the people coming to us are ready, based on our assessment of them, for that top bucket — employment,” he explained. “They may come in looking for employment, but we’re finding that in many cases they need training, and prior to that, they need education, such as basic mathematical skills.”

They also need some of those softer ‘people’ skills, he added, adding that the workforce of today is different from the ones years ago in that teamwork and the ability to work in tandem with others, as well as the ability to perform many different tasks, are far more important.

“It’s no longer a situation where you park your car, punch in, and go to your workstation and stay there, in isolation, until your lunch break,” he explained. “That doesn’t exist anymore, and for a lot of people trying to re-enter the workforce, it’s a matter of educating them to a different work culture and the necessity of them working in team-type situations and having the skills to move from task to task.”

Rolling the Dice

As the pool of unemployed workers shrinks and become less qualified, several forces come into play, said Wise, adding that employers must be focused not only on attaining new help, but retaining existing help.

Indeed, in such cycles, competition for those with skills and good work habits naturally intensifies as the advantage clearly shifts from employees to workers, she went on, adding that this dynamic is reflected in rising wages and benefits.

They’re not going up dramatically in this region, but they are rising, she said, noting that, while most companies weren’t giving any raises at all during the recession and the year or two after it (in fact, wage cuts were common) and then giving increases of only a percentage point or two, most are giving raises averaging 2.5% to 3%.

“That’s been pretty consistent for the past few years,” Wise said. “And in many industries, it’s closer to 2.8% or 3% than 2% or 2.5%.”

These wage hikes reflect the heightened competition for good help, said Lynn, adding, again, that in this environment, most people who are seeking employment and have desired skills are already gainfully employed.

“If you talk about people who have solid work histories and skill sets … if companies want what we’ll call a ‘fully formed’ employee, they’re pretty much looking at stealing from other employers,” he told BusinessWest. “Those who are still looking for work are facing barriers to employment, and in general, we have to train that group up to a point where they’re attractive to an employer.”

This brings him back to that notion of companies having to ‘grow their own,’ as he put it, and get someone in the door and do more training, rather than hope to find someone who already has all the requisite skills.

“I think we’re at a point where companies need to reconsider how they bring people in,” he explained. “We’re coming into a period where companies who are successful at attracting people are going to have to do more training; they’re going to have to look at people and say, ‘this person has the raw material — they may not have everything, but they have the ability to learn, and we’re going to have to grow our own.”

This situation should become more exacerbated within the next 12 to 15 months as MGM Springfield, scheduled to open in the fall of 2018, begins to assemble a workforce projected to number 3,000, said Lynn.

He said several sectors, especially financial services (bank tellers and others), food service, and the broad hospitality industry are certainly vulnerable to losing valuable employees to the casino.

And if the current trends with regard to the job market continue, backfilling those individuals lost to MGM could prove quite challenging.

“The backfill is the most crucial thing — how are we going to deal with those vacancies?” he asked. “Banks have something to worry about, based on what we’ve seen when other casinos have opened — tellers have left for those jobs because of the flexibility; you can give someone an off shift. And anything involving food and restaurants — because they’re having trouble finding people now.

“If you add another major player into the mix, and their wages are more than competitive, that will be problematic for employers,” he said, adding that their woes could be further compounded by another casino slated to open in Northern Conn.

Wise agreed, and noted that, while the casino’s opening is more than a year away, it certainly isn’t too early for employers to start thinking about what might happen and reacting in a proactive manner. Some are doing just that, she went on, but others, caught up in today, tomorrow, next week, and maybe next month, aren’t able or willing to focus on the fall of 2018 just yet.

“There are still organizations thinking, ‘I need to get through this month,’ or ‘I need to get through this year, and the casino’s not coming for another year,’” she told BusinessWest. “They’re thinking they’ll worry about that down the road, and that may be short-sighted.”

Bottom Line

Lynn said that, to the best of his knowledge, no one has called FutureWorks recently putting in an order for someone possessing only a beating heart.

The market has, indeed, tightened, but conditions are not yet approximating those of 2000 and the years that followed.

But as the steady use of the recruiting corner and the early registration for that job expo clearly show, employers are facing challenges, and they’re responding, in many cases, with creativity and maybe a mild dose of desperation.

No one really knows what will happen in the months to come, but it appears likely that conditions will only worsen — for employers, anyway — before they improve.

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

Education Sections

Bringing Classrooms to Life

By Alta J. Stark

Steven O’Brien emceed Western New England University

Steven O’Brien emceed Western New England University’s Student Media Festival, part of his spring internship as chair of the festival.

Today’s college graduates understand it takes much more than book learning to compete in the job market; employers are looking for real-world experience. Students gain that experience through internships in their field, but they gain more than that. BusinessWest spoke with a few from this year’s graduating class who said their internships gave them confidence, inspiration, connections, and, in one case, a whole new career focus.

As thousands of new graduates from the region’s colleges and universities prepare to start their careers in a competitive labor market, the range of their majors is as varied as their diverse backgrounds and talents. But they’re finding it often takes more than a degree to prepare for the work world.

Increasingly, who gets the plum jobs comes down to the work experience students accrue well before they graduate.

“As students transition out of the university into the real world, employers are looking for students with experience,” said Andrea St. James, director of the Career Development Center at Western New England University. “College internships are now a major component in providing students with on-the-job skill sets they need to succeed. We encourage students to get that experience early and often.”

All colleges boast active career centers that help cultivate meaningful and practical experiences for students, but a unique consortium of career-center professionals is bringing it all together in the Pioneer Valley. Comprised of career directors from American International College, Bay Path University, Elms College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield College, Springfield Technical Community College, Western New England University, and Westfield State University, College Career Centers of Western Mass (CCCWM) provides companies and organizations a central venue in which to connect with a pool of potential interns and entry-level candidates located in Western Mass.

“We meet monthly to learn from each other. We want to help students not only build their résumés, but help direct where they may want to take their education when they leave,” said St. James.

CCCWM cross-posts job and internship opportunities, participates in career fairs throughout the year, and educates and empowers students through special events and focus groups, she added. “It’s a great resource to add to the specialized career preparation that’s available to students in their schools’ career centers. We encourage students to start exploring opportunities in their first year because an effective combination of education and career programs is a valuable complement to the academic experience.”

Laurie Cirillo

Laurie Cirillo says her department at Bay Path empowers women to take charge of their own career path.

In addition, career counselors help internship-seeking students make and maintain connections with friends, peers, professors, and alumni who may be helpful in their search. To hear the students tell it, those efforts are paying off.

The Right Channels

As a communications major at Western New England University, Steven O’Brien is learning how to tell stories creatively and effectively. He’s an incoming senior who’s spent the past three years studying mass media, television, radio, online media, and media production. This past spring, he jumped at the chance to turn his academic learning into real-life, hands-on experience.

“Ask anybody who has anything remotely to do with finding a job after college — anybody from the career development center, any of my professors — and they’ll tell you internships are critical because more and more employers, even for entry-level positions, are looking for people who have experience in the field,” he said.

O’Brien chaired WNEU’s 15th annual Student Media Festival, which celebrates student-produced music videos, news reports, newspaper articles, radio programming, commercials, public-service announcements, and digital photography.

“The Media Festival is a huge part of the spring semester for everyone who enters WNE. My focus was to make this the best it could be and do my job well because a lot of people were counting on me to do that,” he said.


SEE: List of Colleges in Western Mass.


He worked closely with Professor Brenda Garton-Sjoberg, who told BusinessWest that internships place students in the driver’s seat to navigate through career options, as well as providing outstanding networking opportunities.

“They allow students to experience a job through academic credit to determine if that’s the best path for their future down the road,” she explained. “I believe internships are essential for anyone, especially students interested in careers in communications.”

Simply put, O’Brien added, “being in the internship environment forces you to either sink or swim. It puts you in a position that, if you don’t have these skills, you have to find them quickly. If you’re not familiar with something, you need to know about it, and you need to learn about it.”


We encourage students to start exploring opportunities in their first year because an effective combination of education and career programs is a valuable complement to the academic experience.”


What O’Brien liked best about the internship was wearing many hats. “It was really a multi-faceted internship that went beyond the norm. It dealt with myriad skills and disciplines from public speaking and PR to marketing, media production, event planning, social-media marketing, and e-mail marketing. To get a taste of each of those, I think, was incredible.”

St. James agreed. “It’s the soft skills that he’s building that all employers value; yes, it’s the networking, the résumé building, but knowing how to manage personalities, the critical thinking, the teamwork, the motivation, communication, the small talk that has to occur to bring this people together — that’s really invaluable.”

O’Brien aced the internship in more ways than his grade. He also networked himself into a paid summer internship with the festival’s media sponsor, Cloud 9 Marketing Group, a fairly new startup founded by a recent WNE graduate.

“I worked with him throughout the entire process, and got to know him,” he said. “After the festival, I e-mailed him to ask if he was looking for interns this summer. We met, and now it looks like I’ll have an internship this summer that grew from my spring internship.”

Gaining Empowerment

Alison Hudson has been performing since she was 3 years old. She says she’s always known she wanted a career that would include her love of the creative arts and her passion for psychology. She graduated from Bay Path University in May, majoring in forensic psychology, with a minor in performing arts. In the fall, she’s going to Lesley University to seek a master’s degree in mental health counseling with a focus on drama therapy.

Hudson said her senior-year internship was critical because it showed her she was on the right path for her future. Specifically, she interned as a residential assistant at Berkshire Hills Music Academy, a live-in community for young adults with developmental disabilities, who gain communication skills through music therapy.

“The students are really wonderful,” she said. “They welcome you into their lives, and it’s very rewarding.”

Tori Bouchard, certified trainer and 2017 Springfield College graduate (left), with Sue Guyer, chair of Exercise Science and Sport Studies at the college.

Tori Bouchard, certified trainer and 2017 Springfield College graduate (left), with Sue Guyer, chair of Exercise Science and Sport Studies at the college.

Prior to her internship, Hudson wanted to work with veterans and rehabilitated criminals, but her work at the academy pointed her in a different direction. “This internship gave me the confidence to take on the challenge of grad school and follow a career path of working with people using performing arts as therapy,” she said.

In fact, helping students build confidence helps them graduate, move on to graduate school, and get a job, said Laurie Cirillo, assistant dean of Student Success at Bay Path’s Sullivan Career & Life Planning Center. “We’re trying to empower women to be in power over their own destiny.”

To help students grow and develop self-reliance, Bay Path has adopted a unique take on the internship experience, which has become a hallmark of the university. “We don’t place our students; they work with a career coach to match themselves,” Cirillo said. “We provide a solid support system and strategies for success, but we’ve found multiple benefits to having students open the doors to the next steps of their lives and careers.”

When Delmarina Lopez entered Bay Path as a freshman, she didn’t think she could do that. The young Latina woman with a love for the public sector recalls that she was ready to transfer out.

“College was a rude awakening for me, academically, culturally, and financially, but President [Carol] Leary wasn’t going to let me go. I received amazing support, guidance, and mentoring. I stayed, and I do not regret it.”

Lopez, who’d already achieved success in her young life as the first high-school-age, community-based intern for former Gov. Deval Patrick, became more active on campus, serving as Leary’s presidential ambassador, as well as president of the Student Government Assoc. She started as a criminal justice major, then switched to legal studies after interning with attorney Elizabeth Rodriguez-Ross of Springfield.

“I knew her as one of a handful of Latina leaders in our community. It was good to work with someone who looked like me and has a similar background,” Lopez said. “She taught me the importance of mentoring and bringing someone up with you, not just focusing on yourself. I learned that law isn’t about competition; it’s about justice.”

Lopez applied to multiple law schools across the country and was accepted at 12; she chose to stay close to home, entering Western New England University Law School this fall on a full scholarship.

Cirillo says helping build a woman’s self-efficacy is one of the most rewarding parts of her job. “Many students come here with a lot of self-doubt, but by the end of their college experience, they’re able to stand back and see what they’ve achieved, and what lies ahead as they realize their potential.”

Trainers in Training

Springfield College is well-known for its athletic programs. “We’re preparing students for careers in the fitness and health industry, providing them with classroom and hands-on training from day one,” said Sue Guyer, chair of the school’s Exercise Science and Sport Studies program. “Undergrads and grads work with varying populations, from top-level athletes to still-developing high-school athletes and the elderly, and they’re influencing their lives for the better.”

Tori Bouchard completed six internships during her studies to become a certified athletic trainer. It’s a program requirement to complete a clinical rotation each semester, starting sophomore year.

“Through these rotations, we’re able to connect to patients, coaches, other athletic trainers, and other healthcare professionals, and athletic directors. We’re able to grow as athletic trainers,” Bouchard said. “We’re able to see and meet all sorts of different people. No case is the same. No patient is the same patient. So you take the theories you’re learning in the classroom, and you apply them to the setting, and not everything is always textbook. Nothing is ever textbook, actually. So, sometimes you’re learning one thing, but you realize  — under supervision of the preceptor — ‘oh, this isn’t necessarily going to work for this case, but I also know about this technique.’”

Guyer said it’s impossible to measure the true value of the experiential learning. “It’s invaluable to have the opportunity to mentor into the profession,” she told BusinessWest, noting that the rotations can also have a positive impact at understaffed schools, which may have large populations of student athletes, but just one athletic trainer on staff.

“If Springfield College sends two interns to that high school, they’ve added two qualified people to help maintain the health and well-being of students,” she went on. “What we’ve learned is, if a student is able to see, feel, experience, treat, and rehabilitate athletes, that it really brings the classroom to life.”

Bouchard agreed. “The connections with people are unbelievable,” she said.
“You learn so much just by talking to other people, learning what they’ve learned, and you grow as a person.”

Bouchard has passed her certification exam and is presently looking for a paid internship before heading back to graduate school. “I think I still have more to learn in the clinic,” she said. “I think you’re always learning something new, and I want to learn who I really am when I’m working on my own team without another athletic trainer.”

That is, after all, what the college experience is really about — young people learning who they are, what they can do, and how to realize their potential.

Construction Sections

Home Makers

An example of Laplante Construction’s work

An example of Laplante Construction’s work creating both indoor and outdoor spaces.

When it comes to custom homes, trends come and go, but buyers are always looking for the next big thing — or, to be more accurate, the next not-so-big thing, as one of those trends favors downsizing in favor of easier maintenance and more energy-efficient touches. But high-end homebuyers aren’t shorting themselves on the interior; they still want the best floors, trims, and technology money can buy. And many are turning to Laplante Construction to get the job done.

Ray and Bill Laplante both grew up around the construction business, so it’s not surprising they’ve made a name among the region’s top luxury home builders.

“My dad was a builder, and my older brother was a builder,” said Ray Laplante, who launched East Longmeadow-based R.E. Laplante Construction — since shortened to Laplante Construction — in the early 1970s. “I started out doing a lot of work for them, and after a few years, there wasn’t enough for me, so I went out on my own, doing remodeling and framing and building.”

At the time, duplexes were in vogue in Springfield, and he cut his teeth there, but soon started building custom homes in Longmeadow, Wilbraham, East Longmeadow, and surrounding towns. “Business just took off from there,” he said, and soon he was developing entire subdivisions of high-end residences in those communities.

His son, Bill, grew up in the business too, helping on job sites when he was only 13 years old.


SEE: List of Home Builders


“I would clean out houses, do final cleanings upon completion of houses,” he told BusinessWest. “Then I started in the framing crew, working as a mason tender and doing some finish work. I basically worked through all the way through high school and college, through the summer breaks and vacations.”

He graduated from Trinity College in 1992 with a degree in economics, but a few days after graduation, he was back out on job sites, where he worked for about five years, framing houses and performing myriad other tasks. But, though the experience was invaluable, his heart wasn’t in the field.

“So I started working in the office,” he said, “in project management and then in financial management and sales and marketing, touching virtually all aspects of contruction and understanding how everything goes together — all facets of building.”

Company founder Ray Laplante (left) and President Bill Laplante

Company founder Ray Laplante (left) and President Bill Laplante say a healthy mix of residential and commercial building and remodeling keeps their business thriving.

That’s the part of the business he enjoyed most, Bill said — working with clients on the big picture, and shepherding their vision to reality.

“Growing up, I always liked the idea of seeing something built,” he continued, “but I knew pretty early on, after getting out of college, that I didn’t want to stay in the field; I wanted to work with people, helping design and build what is, in many cases, their largest investment: a new home. That’s really what I’ve enjoyed. My passion is in working with the people and selling our services.”

Today, Bill Laplante serves as the company’s president, working alongside its founder to bring those visions to life — including, in 2014, a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s famed Monticello estate in Somers, Conn.

But luxury homes are only one staple of this family business, as it expands its reach in commercial construction as well, delivering a range of building and remodeling services with the diversity to weather economic cycles and record continued growth.

Estate of Mind

In fact, Ray said, Laplante takes on many different types of jobs, from single bathroom remodels up to large commercial buildings. “And every once in a while, you get a Monticello thrown in there.”

That’s not quite true, of course, as both he and Bill acknowledged that Monticello Somers, built at the behest of Friendly’s co-founder S. Prestley Blake, was a once-in-a-generation project. Ray and Bill Laplante designed the project themselves based on copious research into the original Virginia estate, creating a ‘modernized replica’ that’s historically accurate in the façade, yet decked out in 21st-century amenities inside.

“It was extremely interesting trying to recreate a building like that,” Bill said. “One of the most challenging aspects was trying to create a modernized interior within a very old exterior. And there were code issues that didn’t exist in the original Monticello.”

To be sure, custom finishes, modern touches, and code compliance have long been facets of Laplante Construction’s work building and renovating high-end homes in the Greater Springfield region. But, contrary to a Monticello-scale project, Bill said the trend in luxury homes today is moving away from massive floor plans and toward spaces that are smaller, but still pack all the bells and whistles.

While many homeowners are looking to downsize, Bill Laplante says, the company still puts up plenty of large homes.

While many homeowners are looking to downsize, Bill Laplante says, the company still puts up plenty of large homes.

“We’re seeing people generally downsize. There has been an increased demand for single-family living, low maintenance, and high energy efficiency. Many people are selling their 4,000-square-foot, two-story, inefficient colonial and want a 2,500-square-foot, very well-appointed, single-family house that’s very low-maintenance, which they can shut down and head to Florida over the winter and really reduce their operating expenses.”

He credits a desire for a simpler lifestyle; people are staying home more and enjoying the space they have, but don’t necessarily want to maintain a sprawling estate.

“It’s amazing — 15 years ago, we built one or two ranches. Nowadays, we’re building, six, eight, 10 ranches a year,” he went on. “That’s because of downsizing. Everyone used to want a colonial, but now focus on ranches and other things. It’s becoming desirable to buy those smaller homes and put money into them.”

And they are investing plenty of money into them, he added. “They want all the amenities — granite countertops, expensive finishes, Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances. They want those outdoor spaces, the screen porches, the outdoor kitchens, all very well-appointed.”

That goes for remodeling as well, Bill added, which has long been a critical part of the business — which was fortuitous when the market for custom homes dried up in the years following the financial crash in 2008.

“People weren’t building homes, but they were still trying to renovate their homes,” he noted. “What served us well was, we never abandoned the remodeling. Other builders at the time wouldn’t take on smaller remodeling projects; they were busy with bigger housing projects. We always maintained smaller remodeling jobs. Then, when the new-construction market dried up, we were well-positioned to respond to demand for remodeling as well.”

Those home remodels, which are often aimed at creating a getaway without actually having to get away, often include outdoor elements, particularly features that blur the lines between inside and outside living, Ray noted. “We’re starting to see a lot of outdoor-living projects — carriage houses, pool cabanas, outdoor kitchens, things of that sort.”

These can all carry hefty price tags, but, interestingly, other home costs have come down in recent years, notably whole-home technology — the devices that control heat, cooling, lights, security cameras, and irrigation remotely.

“The old ‘smart house’ was very expensive, but nowadays, with technology and with the iPhones and apps available, virtually every manufacturer has a product or an app that can be controlled on a cell phone from anywhere in the United States,” Bill explained. “That goes for heating, lighting, security cameras, you name it — and people are really embracing that. I mentioned people closing up the house and going down to Florida for the winter; they can check in with their phones, see what the temperature reading is in the house, or turn the lights on and off.”

clients want the interior well-appointed with high-end flooring, tile, trims, and technology.

No matter the size of the home, Bill and Ray Laplante say, clients want the interior well-appointed with high-end flooring, tile, trims, and technology.

Homeowners appreciate the cost reductions in that area, as they do the savings they realize from energy-efficient investments.

“Because of the spike in energy costs a few years ago, everyone became much more concerned with energy efficiency,” Bill said. “When people move from 4,000-square-foot homes into smaller, higher-energy-efficiency houses, they’re shocked by the savings in operating costs. We’re doing a lot with spray-foam insulation, energy-efficient windows, air sealing, and super-energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment. Then there are people who want to go even further, into geothermal heating as well as photovoltaic and solar.

“Some of these technologies, there’s not a great payback on, but there are some tax credits available to explore alternative energies,” he added. “And it makes people feel good to reduce their carbon footprint and be energy-conscious.”

Down to Business

Laplante Construction is widely recognized as a custom home builder, but its commercial roster is deep and far-reaching — and has been expanding over the past decade.

“Going back to the ’80s, when my father did a lot of Jiffy Lubes in the area, that type of work has always been there,” Bill said, “but I would say there’s been a resurgence over the past eight to 10 years in commercial. We’ve done a wide range of things, from banks to an eye-care office to a behavioral health clinic to Kringle Candle Country Barn in Bernardston to a school in West Springfield. We have a pretty good diversity of commercial construction.”

That mix of expertise promises to keep Laplante growing as it moves forward with what has been one of its best years in the past decade.

“Maintaining that diversity, and keeping the commercial work going as we do our residential new construction and remodeling, allows us to be flexible and weather turns in one or two sectors,” he told BusinessWest. “With the increase in commercial work, we feel very comfortable and confident moving forward.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Sections

Move Along

Mike Morin says sales of adjustable sit-stand desks are soaring

Mike Morin says sales of adjustable sit-stand desks are soaring as employers discover their health and wellness benefits.

It’s no secret that workers who struggle to stay healthy and fit can cost employers in myriad ways, from absenteeism to lowered productivity. That’s why more forward-thinking companies are launching wellness initiatives aimed at boosting their staff’s health and — by extension — their morale and job satisfaction. While they can take many forms, these efforts often start with a simple goal: get moving.

Attention, desk jockeys stuck at uncomfortable workstations: Mike Morin feels your pain.

“I’ve had jobs before where you get hired, go to the office and sit down at the computer, and you realize, geez, this is not how I naturally work,” said Morin, marketing and communications coordinator at Conklin Office Furniture in Holyoke. “I’ve had that moment where you step back and realize you’ve been hunched over the desk, staring at a computer screen for two hours.”

Many employers, however, are giving desk workers some relief by installing adjustable sit-stand desks, so employees have the option of working on their feet, which can improve blood flow, reduce tiredness, and avoid the long-term drawbacks of being largely sedentary for eight hours a day.

“People are definitely more concerned about health nowadays, in general and in the workplace,” Morin said. “We offer a sit-stand, height-adjustable desk, and sales are going through the roof with those. People are spending more time at the office — not just at their workplace, but at the home office as well. And they want desks they can stand at.”

One selling point, he said, is giving employees a choice, convincing employers they don’t have to go with a one-size-fits-all mentality. Sit-stand desks can often be incorporated right alongside traditional desks and tables, and can be designed to match the existing décor and furniture in the office.

Lisa Bowler says Baystate takes a holistic approach to employee wellness, as reflected by its wide range of programs to that end.

Lisa Bowler says Baystate takes a holistic approach to employee wellness, as reflected by its wide range of programs to that end.

It’s one way employers are taking a harder look at workplace wellness, incorporating not just equipment, but programs and incentives to keep their workers healthy, reduce absenteeism, and, in theory, lower costs in the long term.

Lisa Bowler, manager of Wellness and WorkLife at Baystate Health, says her employer has offered a raft of wellness benefits for many years, and sit-stand desks are an option many workers have chosen — but emphasized that they’re a very small part of the equation in a system where 60% of employees are clinical staff who are on their feet all day, not behind desks.

“It’s such a vast array of roles and types of jobs … the challenge is, how do we deliver wellness programs that make the most sense?” Bowler noted. “We offer a whole host of programs — a great variety — and we provide those resources to support our employees’ health and well-being because we know, in many ways, that contributes to a healthy organizational culture and also makes for a great place to work.”

Lisa Verville would agree. As Human Resources director for the O’Connell Companies in Holyoke, she has overseen a formal wellness committee launched two years ago that partners with Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) to offer wellness-related apps, challenges, and incentive progams where not only employees, but their spouses can earn money for reaching activity and fitness goals. Employees are also reimbursed up to 75% for annual gym memberships.

The O’Connell Companies have always had a culture of caring about their employees,” Verville said. “This is another facet of that — making employees aware of things they can do and listening to what they want, and trying to provide resources that make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Culture of Health

Mary Ellen Shea, Marketing manager at O’Connell, told BusinessWest that wellness efforts at the firm stretch back well before the formal committee. “There’s always been a culture of health,” she said, “but now I feel it’s been ramped up.”


SEE: List of Office Furniture Dealers in the Area


Employees earn points through the BCBS partnership for walking, hydration, and nutrition challenges, as well as completing online workshops, scheduling wellness visits, and other tasks.

“It encourages a holistic approach,” Verville said, noting that employees were surveyed on the types of programs they wanted to see. “It’s actually been a lot of fun. We also had our health fair last November, and it was fun to see people from all our companies get together. We provided incentives — gift cards, gift baskets — to get people to come, and we had a great turnout, and got a lot of good feedback; we’re looking forward to doing it again this year, with hopefully an even bigger event.”

While many employees try to participate in many wellness activities, one challenge for O’Connell is that it’s a geographically dispersed company, with several affiliate companies spread across the Valley. “So it’s hard to get everyone to participate in a lunch and learn, with so many employees out in the field,” she went on. “But the committee has representatives from every subsidiary, we get direct feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. Not every program is tailored to the same group; we try to offer a lot of variety while still focusing on what the needs and interests are.”

This fall, it will be easier to bring employees together for wellness activities when O’Connell moves into a newly built headquarters on Kelly Way in Holyoke, consolidating more of its operations under one roof. The project allows the company to incorporate wellness initiatives right into the building design.

“We have a great opportunity there,” Verville said. “When we move, the plan is to install, for those who want them, the adjustable workstations. We’re also thinking about walking paths and things of that nature, a fitness room with equipment in it, and there will be an area dedicated to the wellness seminars.

“It’ll bring more people together,” she went on. “The new building will provide a lot of new opportunities, and having more employees in one location will help encourage more collaboration and cohesiveness, and get more people involved.”

Bowler said Baystate has built a similar emphasis on wellness into its operations, which are even more spread out than O’Connell’s.

Lisa Verville

Lisa Verville says employees at the O’Connell Companies have taken enthusiastically to the wellness programs launched two years ago.

“We would define a culture of health as a work environment where our employees have the resources and tools and support that empowers them and motivates them to take steps to benefit their health,” she said. “We’ve evolved the program over the years, and we think it’s important to view health holistically. Programs are designed in such a way to help our team members learn how to make healthy lifestyle choices and help them manage their responsibilities at work and at home.”

The effort includes access to a WebMD portal that provides not only health information but access to fitness challenges. In addition, “we have walking clubs, mindfulness classes, two or three educational webinars each month, confidential counseling for employees and family members, Weight Watchers memberships free of charge, and a whole host of resources for parents,” Bowler said, not to mention smoke-free facilities since 2007.

Rising Tide

Many of the initiatives at Baystate and O’Connell mesh with the top workplace-wellness trends recently outlined by the Corporate Health & Wellness Assoc. These include:

• Lifestyle management, which may include cholesterol screenings, flu shots, sleep-management programs, and incentives (like gift cards or insurance-premium discounts) for participating in corporate wellness programs;

• Weight-loss programs, from yoga and Zumba classes on site to gym and Weight Watchers memberships, to offering healthy sbacks in the office;

• Redesigned workspaces, which include standing or treadmill desks, ergonomic chairs and headsets, and FitBit trainers and pedometers;

• Smoking bans in the office and accompanying smoking-cessation programs to help employees kick the habit for good; and

• Stress-management programs, including meditation instruction and guidance in everything from personal finance to parenting.

And programs don’t have to be tied to specific company initiatives, Shea said. “Usually twice a day, team members or employees meet in the lobby, go out, and walk together around the block.”

She and Verville said wellness programs conceivably lower costs for companies by reducing absenteeism — or presenteeism, where tired or ailing employees show up but are far from productive.

“We certainly have seen that,” Bowler added, noting that Baystate has won recognition from national business groups for its wellness policies. “Employees who regularly participate are more engaged, healthier, and more productive. Beyond that, having these programs available is the right thing to do. As an organization, we’ve taken the view that achieving a culture of health is not something that occurs overnight. We are in this for the long term and are committed to it.”

From talking to Conklin’s clients, Morin can tell interest is rising.

“Nowadays, people are obsessed with health, and for good reasons,” he said. “People are paying more attention to what they’re eating, so it’s natural they’re noticing how much time they’re sitting at a desk each day. Studies have come out claiming that sitting down for long periods of time is as unhealthy as smoking.”

That’s why he’s gratified that employers are increasingly tailoring office design to individual worker needs through flexible workstations. “In the past, offices were set up a certain way, but not everyone works like that. There’s a new focus in ergonomics where it’s more customizable.”

Bowler said companies of any size can make changes to improve employees’ health, and some — from walking clubs to lunch-and-learn sessions — don’t take much financial investment. “But to really get that return and change the culture, there needs to be a comprehensive approach.”

And it’s happening more and more, she told BusinessWest. “The concept of worker wellness has been around a long time. It just seems to be gaining more energy and visibility the last several years.”

And it can begin with something as simple as standing up.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Reclaiming the Past

Armory Superintendent James Woolsey

Armory Superintendent James Woolsey with the skyline of Springfield behind him, something that wasn’t visible from that site just a few weeks ago

While steeped in history, the Springfield Armory property — now a National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service, has become somewhat of a forgotten, or overlooked, part of the city’s past. But James Woolsey, superintendent of the site since 2012, has aggressively worked to shift that equation by changing the landscape at the facility — in all kinds of ways.

James Woolsey walked to the crest of a hill near the northwest corner of the Springfield Armory property and paused for some reflection and commentary.

He started by gesturing toward the skyline of Springfield less than a half-mile away, something that would not have been as visible from that spot just a few months ago because it would have been obscured by small, scruffy trees and bushes.

Woolsey, superintendent of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, as well as the Coltsville National Historic Park in Hartford that is being readied for its opening, then pointed down the hill to a spot that, 40 or so years ago, was used by area Springfield high schools for gym classes, specifically track and field events.

“They used to throw the shot put and javelin down there,” he said, pointing to an area that will, like most of the rest of the 50-acre Armory site, be restored to the way things looked in the late ’50s, only a half-decade before then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara would initiate the process of decommissioning the facility, which had opened near the end of the 18th century.

A shot of the Armory from roughly 60 years ago

A shot of the Armory from roughly 60 years ago. Current initiatives aim to recreate that look.

The Armory has called this comprehensive construction and renovation effort “Reclaiming the Past,” and that’s a sentiment that also fits much broader efforts undertaken by Woolsey since he arrived at the facility five years ago to reconnect it to the area, improve visitation, and, overall, make more area residents aware of the Armory’s story and its broad significance to the region in terms of employment, innovation, and culture.

There is no turning back the clock and making the Armory as prominent as it was throughout most of its history and especially during World War II, when more than 12,000 people were employed there. But Woolsey said it can gain greater visibility, respect, and visitorship, and in many respects it already has.

Indeed, annual visitation, stagnant and hovering around 16,000 when Woolsey arrived after stints at many historic sites here and abroad (more on that later), has risen steadily and is now at or above 25,000.

Woolsey credits this rise to everything from new exhibits such as the current offering on this country’s entry in World War I (nearly a century ago) and the Armory’s role in that effort, to new signs — on area highways and at the Armory itself.

The road signs feature the easily recognizable National Park Service (NPS) logo, said Woolsey, and thus they attract people drawn to the more than 400 individual sites managed by that agency.

“People are very passionate about the National Park Service,” he explained. “And when people see that logo on the sign, they will want to get off the highway and see that national park.”

Springfield Armory has taken a number of steps to be more “welcoming

Over the past several years, James Woolsey says, the Springfield Armory has taken a number of steps to be more “welcoming.”

Overall, Woolsey said the mission is to make the Armory, in a word, more “welcoming,” an assignment that has manifested itself in everything from new exhibits to the new signs, to the reopening of the large gate at the entrance to Byers Street, enabling easier public access to the facility masterminded by George Washington more than two centuries ago.

“What I wanted to do was make it more welcoming,” he explained. “This is a national park; it’s a park for all the American people. We want people to be able to find us, and we want to provide a great experience when they come here.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Woolsey about his efforts to reclaim the past and thus make the Armory a more visible, more relevant part of the city’s present and future.

History Lessons

Woolsey’s office speaks loudly and effectively to his career and his passion for historic sites and the national parks.

His screen saver features a photo from Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, where he served as ‘chief of interpretation’ from 2000 to 2003, and there are many photos depicting his various career stops over the years.

As he was talking with BusinessWest, he grabbed one of them, a photo depicting the grand opening of the visitors center at the Normandy American Museum on the bluffs overlooking the famous battlefield at Colleville-sur-mer in France, a project he oversaw as director of visitor services.

That assignment represented the lone departure from a career spent with the National Park Service. He started as a park ranger working on the National Mall in Washington, and later worked at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park in Maryland, the Lowell (Mass.) National Historic Park, the Mohave National Preserve in California (there were two stints there), and Bryce Canyon, before six years of service in France.

It was a desire to run his own park that brought him to Springfield in the spring of 2012. And that assignment was broadened shortly upon his arrival with the creation of the Coltsville National Park in Hartford, a facility that will commemorate the contributions of both Samuel and Elizabeth Colt, specifically creation of the village of Coltsville, the complex where guns were made and the workers who built them lived.

Current landscaping efforts at the Armory

Current landscaping efforts at the Armory include restoration of some of the gardens on the site, including these, seen nearly 60 years ago, adjacent to the commander’s quarters.

While Coltsville is one of the 50 National Historic Parks (the facility in Lowell is another), the Armory is a National Historic Site. There are 90 of them, and the list includes everything from Ford’s Theater, site of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, to the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah, where the first transcontinental railroad was completed, to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama.

Most all of the historic sites are managed by the NPS, but some, including the Armory, are what are known as ‘partnership’ sites, said Woolsey, meaning they’re managed in partnership with another entity. In the case of the Armory, that entity is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which owns much of the land and operates Springfield Technical Community College in a mix of old Armory structures and new facilities built in the ’80s and ’90s.

Woolsey now splits his time between the Armory and Coltsville — he says he’s figured out the traffic patterns to minimize the commute time when possible — but has been in Springfield quite a bit this spring to oversee a project that has captured the public’s attention.

As he discussed it, he would gesture out his west-facing window, because that is where most of the work is taking place. Indeed, as he talked, earth-moving machines were humming as part of a project that blends landscaping with much-needed infrastructure work.

“The drainage and sewer system was installed in the 19th century, and the entire system is failing,” Woolsey explained, adding that, while securing funds for this necessary work, he is using this opportunity to restore the historic contouring of the land and undertake other initiatives to essentially turn back the clock.

These include everything from a $500,000 project to repair and paint the many windows on the Armory building (known technically as the ‘Main Arsenal’ because large supplies of guns were stored there) to restoration of gardens around the commanding officer’s quarters adjacent to the main arsenal, to repaving roads and sidewalks.

As for the contouring, Woosley said the city, needing ballfields, trucked in tons of fill and leveled the gentle slope of the Armory property behind the main arsenal; these changes also altered the natural drainage of the site, creating bogs and flooding hazards.

Overall, $1.2 million will be spent on this project, which won’t just recreate the look of 1959, but perhaps some of the feel as well, he said.

Blasts from the Past

But the landscaping work is only part of a larger effort to reclaim the past, said Woolsey, who, soon after arriving at the Armory, put together a multi-faceted strategic plan for addressing a host of needs he soon recognized at the facility.

The first of these needs was to improve what he called “community outreach,” a broad term he used to describe efforts to build visibility, relevance, and involvement within the city and region.

“We’ve really worked to build better relationships with Springfield and Greater Springfield,” he explained, “and become involved in the cultural district downtown and other institutions.”

byers-st-gate_c1967_spfld-magazine-dated-1967

Above, the gate at the Byers Street entrance, seen here in a postcard, will soon be open to pedestrians. Below, one of the gardens to be restored through current landscaping initiatives.

Above, the gate at the Byers Street entrance, seen here in a postcard, will soon be open to pedestrians. Below, one of the gardens to be restored through current landscaping initiatives.

Overall, the Armory had to do considerable work to make its story — and its historical importance — known, said Woolsey, adding that it’s among the less-well-known National Historic Sites across the country and even in this region, and correcting this awareness problem is still a work in progress.

“This is something we’re trying to rectify,” he noted. “I’m often surprised at how many local people don’t know this is a national park.”

What’s more, he said there has historically been what he called “less enthusiasm” for this site among local residents, at least when compared to others in the NPS portfolio, such as the park dedicated to Thomas Edison and his work in New Jersey and the park in Lowell, focused on that city’s rich industrial heritage.

“When you compare the enthusiasm of the local population and their involvement with those sites … people here are less involved with their site,” he noted, adding that one theory for this is that the closing of the Armory was a huge blow to the city, not merely from an employment standpoint, but from a pride standpoint as well.

“During World War II, 12,000 people worked here, so this was a central part of the local economy,” he went on. “And when the federal government decided to close it down, I think a lot of people had a bad feeling about that in their gut, and it lasted for years.”

Thus, much of the Armory’s recent efforts aim to get the local population more involved, he said, adding that part of this equation is creating more awareness and making the visitor experience more powerful. Stagnant visitation numbers for the better part of three decades provided ample evidence that work was needed in this realm.

Visitation has improved roughly 5% a year since he arrived, said Woolsey, who attributed this steady climb to several factors, including those new signs and also a new low-power radio station (105.5 AM) that tells those within a 15-mile radius what’s happening at the Armory and how to get there.

“People can find us now,” said Woolsey, adding that the Armory is hampered in this regard not only by the fact that it’s not directly off a main highway, but also because it is at the far end of a complex now dominated by the college.

But getting people to the Armory was only part of the solution, he noted, adding that the facility needed to improve the experience people would find upon arrival.

To this end, Woolsey and his staff worked to create more and better programming, including rotating exhibits and temporary exhibits.

“The exhibitry here had been stale for several decades,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the centennial of this country’s entry into that conflict (April 6, 1917 is the exact date) provided an opportunity to not only mark that occasion (considered a turning point in the war) but also spotlight the Armory’s contributions to the quick and massive rearmament efforts that followed years of isolationism.

old-house409-sa

Two views of what are known as Buildings 5 and 6; the one at top is from the 1930s, and the other is recent, after significant restoration efforts.

Two views of what are known as Buildings 5 and 6; the one at top is from the 1930s, and the other is recent, after significant restoration efforts.

Thus, among the exhibits is one featuring the M1903 Springfield, nicknamed the ‘03’ for the year it was adopted by the military.

There have been many other initiatives involving exhibits and programming at the Armory, including a collection of movie clips shown in the facility’s theater featuring weapons made there, including the climax scene in Jaws (yes, that was an M1 Garand used by Chief Brody to obliterate the shark).

The landscaping and infrastructure improvements are among the elements in the strategic plan, said Woolsey, adding that they include an ongoing collaborative effort with the state to renovate and preserve what are known are as Buildings 5 and 6, directly across the main road through the Armory property.

While technically on state property, the buildings, which had fallen into a state of advanced disrepair in recent years, are highly visible and historically important — the large duplex was used as junior officers’ quarters.

Arsenal of Democracy

In 2016, the Armory was chosen as the winner of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Spotlight Award, part of its Howdy Awards for Hospitality Excellence. The spotlight award recognizes individuals or organizations that have made a significant contribution to the tourism industry in Western Mass.

Woolsey said that honor speaks to the many ways the Armory has worked to improve visitation and bring visitors to the area, and he’s very proud of it.

Overall, though, he has his eyes on a much bigger prize — bringing ever more attention and relevance to a historic landmark and the cradle of the region’s precision-manufacturing industry.

He calls the effort ‘Reclaiming the Past,’ and he’s well on his way to doing just that.

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

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Beyond the Numbers

Managing Principal Julie Quink, left, and Principal Deborah Penzias

Managing Principal Julie Quink, left, and Principal Deborah Penzias

The two youngest partners at Burkhart Pizzanelli say they’ve learned well from the accounting firm’s founders, who have long cultivated a relationship-driven culture that builds not only business, but, more importantly, trust. It’s a model they hope to build upon in the coming decades, with the goal of helping clients navigate the many facets of growing a successful enterprise.

To those outside the accounting industry, it may seem like a dry, numbers-driven game.

But that’s not the case at West Springfield-based Burkhart Pizzanelli, said Managing Principal Julie Quink, noting that each of those numbers tells a story, and it’s a story she and her team want to hear and understand.

“We’re very relationship-driven in terms of our clients, and also with our team — we’re a very close-knit team; that’s how we function,” Quink said. “We don’t want to be one-and-done, where we prepare your tax return and don’t hear from you until next year. We want to reach out often to see how things are going. We want to hear when positive things are happening.”

That leads to new business opportunities, said Partner Deborah Penzias, but also a deepening of trust between Burkhart Pizzanelli and its clients that often results in decades-long business relationships.

“We stress the relationship aspect of it; that’s really important to us,” Quink added. “Our topmost priority here is quality, and building relationships is second.”

The company dates back to 1986, when Richard Burkhart and Salvatore Pizzanelli, still partners with the company today, went into business together as an accounting, tax, and consulting firm. A third partner, Thomas Pratt, joined them soon after, and the three steadily grew the firm. Penzias came on board in 1998, followed by Quink in 2011, and today, the five partners are among 18 total employees, performing services in a variety of areas.

“We provide your traditional tax and accounting services, and we also do a lot of things other firms don’t do,” Quink said. “We have a forensic accounting practice, we have our own bookkeeping group in house, and we have access to a third-party administrator on site who can help with defined-contribution plans and plan design.”

 

We don’t want to be one-and-done, where we prepare your tax return and don’t hear from you until next year. We want to reach out often to see how things are going. We want to hear when positive things are happening.”

 

The firm specializes in a number of industry groups, including healthcare, construction, affordable housing, auto dealers, manufacturing, nonprofits, professional services, real estate, restaurants, and wholesale and distribution. “It’s a good mix,” Quink said.

In all those areas, she and Penzias stressed that the company’s culture is one of collaboration, honesty, mutual respect, and trust, and that means forging relationships with all the members of a client’s financial-advisory team, which may include an attorney, an investment adviser, a bank, and an insurance agent. “We’re all part of the financial team advising the business,” Penzias noted.

Whether dealing with a small-business client with $100,000 in revenues or a $100 million entity, that philosophy stays the same, Quink added.

“We like to function as a team. If we find something is not in our bailiwick to deal with, we refer it out. We feel that we should be advising on our core competencies, and if something is outside that realm, we’ll refer it to one of the others on the team. There’s a lot of crossover with legal counsel in terms of estate planning, divorce situations, and business planning. That’s why it’s important for us to work as a team.”

Current Events

It’s equally important to stay on the cutting edge of the accounting and business-advisory world, which Burkhart Pizzanelli does in two critical ways.

“We recently rolled out to the team what our financial picture looks like, where we spend our money,” Quink said. “If you look at it as a pie graph, clearly the biggest piece is our human capital, our people. But the next-biggest buckets where we spend our resources are education and technology.”

“The industry has changed so much since I started in business, when we were preparing tax returns by hand with pen and paper,” Penzias said by way of explaining the commitment to current technology. “That has evolved over the years. Now, we replace our computers on a three-year cycle, whether they need it or not. We’re constantly adding new programs, new tools, so we can delegate the calculation tasks to computers and focus on what’s really important to a business.”

Julie Quink

Julie Quink says she sees Burkhart Pizzanelli as a critical part of a client’s financial team.

Quink added that clients are encouraged to use as much technology as possible, both because it creates an electronic trail, and to make their operations as convenient as possible for them. “We’re conscious of the security piece of it, and we’re very secure,” she added.

Burkhart Pizzanelli also invests substantial resources into continuing education, far beyond the minimum requirements of licensing authorities, the partners explained. This includes industry-specific and technical training in the areas in which they operate and want to expand.

Most team members require at least 80 hours of education every two years to retain their certifications, which they usually split into 40 hours each year. But those industry-specific certifications require additional education and may push them well past 60 hours annually.

“The firm pays for this education and makes sure they’re current with what’s happening in different industries, and that we have appropriate knowledge to work in these areas,” said Quink, who became a certified fraud examiner last year. “We should have a working knowledge of any business we’re serving.”

She reiterated that continuing education isn’t just beneficial, but an integral part of the business. “There are certain educational criteria we need to meet. Some folks here have their insurance licenses and are able to help underwrite policies. On the tax side, we need specialized tax knowledge; most of our people here can do tax returns, so the majority of our people get tax training every year to make sure they’re up on their education. We don’t ever want to be in a situation where we’re serving industries we don’t have expertise in.”

Penzias agreed. “We would refer away before doing something we couldn’t handle,” she said, noting that expertise combined with candor helps build trust with clients. “The best referral sources are happy customers.”

The company’s culture is producing happy employees, too, Quink said, noting that more than half of them have been with the firm more than 10 years.

Community Ties

That kind of retention bolsters a relationship-oriented culture that also manifests itself in the community. Many Burkhart Pizzanelli employees volunteer with local organizations in various capacities, including board membership, advising, and other forms of service.

“One thing we stress here is community service,” Quink said. “We encourage the team and provide time during the day or evening to attend events or be involved. We feel like we make a difference in the West Springfield area — both with clients and in our community. We feel it’s important to be a good community partner.”

“We want to give back,” Penzias added, “and we encourage that in our team.”

Meanwhile, the firm continues to expand its reach in professional areas as well. Take Quink’s certification as a forensic accountant, which allows her to work with legal counsel — sometimes on the plaintiff side, sometimes the defense — to help build a case in matters ranging from divorce to business disputes.

“What we don’t do is come up with an opinion on innocence or guilt — just a pattern of facts to help with the case,” she explained. “It’s not just hard numbers; you see what causes people to do things, what motivates them, and it’s often not pleasant for clients because there’s a level of trust that’s been violated, or it may be a marital situation where one spouse is hiding assets from the other. It’s a little more interesting than just doing a tax return.”

The company continues to expand its traditional services as well, now boasting 10 CPAs but also strengthening client relationships on matters from transactional needs to succession planning.

SEE: List of Banks in Western Mass.

“Tom has one client who’s been with him more than 40 years,” Quink said. “They may not need the same level of service anymore, but they stay because of the relationship aspect. They feel comfortable that we’re giving them the best advice for their situation. Clients look to us for advice, and we provide that. If we’re not able to help them with some particular aspect, we refer them to one of the trusted people we deal with.”

As the youngest partners, and the ones who will eventually be fully in charge, Quink and Penzias want that culture to spur the next 30 years of growth at Burkhart Pizzanelli. As a professor at Elms College, Quink has access to a pipeline of talent she can observe and evaluate in the early stages; four of the firm’s employees are Elms graduates.

Counting on Them

In such a diverse business, they added, everything comes back to those relationships they touted multiple times — those real people, with real issues, behind the numbers.

“We’ve seen companies start from seedlings and grow and watch the next generation take over,” Penzias said. “I’ve worked with the parents, and then the kids take over, and we have to foster those relationships as well. It is very gratifying to see our clients succeed.”

But even when they struggle, Burkhart & Pizzanelli has a place — perhaps an even more important one, Quink said.

“When clients aren’t doing so well, I think we shine there,” she said. “We can provide a lot of insight, alternatives, and strategies. At some point in each business’ life cycle, they’ve had some struggles. Most of our clients are closely held, family-run, not publicly traded companies. Family businesses have their own dynamic — and we understand the dynamics of a family business.”

Being there for all aspects of a clients’ business also creates a personal bond as well, Quink said, recalling a client who lost his spouse, and one of the very first calls he made was to Burkhart. “We have so much impact on people’s lives; it’s impressive,” she said. “But, likewise, so is the impact our clients have on our lives.

“As we evolve as a firm, Debbie and I are the future owners; ultimately, she and I will own the firm,” she went on. “With that happening, we are also grooming the next wave. We’re always forward thinking; we’re finding our replacements, too. We’ll be here awhile, but it takes awhile to build referral networks and understand how the business works and really gain experience in the industry. We’re grooming our next leadership team.”

That grooming and training goes far beyond the technical aspects of the accounting industry, Penzias said, but extends to soft skills and relationship building, which are as much art as science, but are critical to continuing the culture first cultivated by the firm’s original partners.

“Trust is important, and relationships are important,” Quink said — much more important, in fact, than the dry numbers on a computer screen.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance Sections

Culture of Safety

riskmanagementMention insurance to someone, and chances are they’ll think of buying a certain level of coverage against loss, damage, or other adverse events. But when it comes to business insurance, that’s just one aspect of protecting a company. Just as important is risk management, which is essentially the process of implementing steps to reduce the probability of such dangers. It’s a win-win effort that saves money for both insurance companies and their clients — and often saves lives, too.

Insurance, Bill Grinnell noted, is a transfer of risk, an investment a business makes in protecting itself from the costs of accidents, fraud, theft, and any number of other occurrences.

“You can manage risk in different ways,” said Grinnell, president of Webber & Grinnell Insurance in Northampton. “You can buy insurance to protect against exposures, but you can also reduce the risk of exposures — and your costs will be lower.”

He was talking about risk management, which can take many shapes, but typically refers to the mitigation of risk to avoid an accident or other incident that could trigger a costly insurance claim.

Risk management is big business for insurance carriers, who employ professionals with industry-specific expertise to help businesses cut down on their exposure to risk, thereby saving both the insurer and client money.

Bill Grinnell

Bill Grinnell says reducing risks is the best way to lower the cost of insuring against exposures.

“Some of it is common sense. But sometimes it takes paid professionals to come in and make recommendations to help devise solutions,” said Timm Marini, president of HUB International New England in East Longmeadow. “The larger employers have their own safety officers and risk-management officers, but even they often rely on people like us.”

He said one of HUB’s calling cards is its network of individuals around the country who develop and help implement industry-specific workplace strategies to reduce risk, from driver training to hazardous-materials edcuation. “Within each discipline, there are very specific types of expertise available.”

Shellye Archambeau, CEO of MetricStream, a provider of governance, risk, and compliance software solutions, recently wrote that the hallmark of a good risk-management program is a pervasive risk-assessment culture that starts at the top, and is built on sound policies, training programs, and incentives.

“For organizations to not only survive, but thrive in this new landscape, they will need to build better resilience. That means gathering, analyzing, and learning from the past, so that decision makers can take measured steps to deal with the next major volatility or stress,” Archambeau noted. “It also means having the right risk data at the right time to understand how to diversify or disperse risks, so that no single risk has a major impact.”

The exposures that HUB works with companies to mitigate, Marini told BusinessWest, are diverse and always changing. For instance, while many accident-prevention strategies in manufacturing have been around for decades, now employers must deal with a demographic shift: Americans working longer in life than before, leading to higher-than-ever instances of joint deterioration and a subsequent boost in workers’ compensation claims related to joint injury and replacement.

Then there’s the new high-tech culture as it intersects with driving, a concern for companies with employees who work on the road. “With new technology in vehicles, we’re seeing more distracted drivers,” Marini said. “That creates increased exposure; when drivers get distracted, it’s very similar to drunk or impaired driving.”

SEE: List of Insurance Agencies in Western Mass.

Grinnell agrees, saying, his agency insures many firms in trucking, fuel-oil transport, and other fields where driver safety is a concern. “So we’re seeing more webcam technology, GPS technology, and technology that tracks the speed of the vehicle, sudden starts and stops, swerves … all that gets recorded.”

It’s a way to both incentivize driver safety and to record the true facts of an accident, both of which affect a company’s bottom line. But another high-tech concern is causing an even greater stir these days in the world of risk management.

Breach Combers

That would be cybersecurity, an area of interest for just about every company, large or small. Not every breach causes exposure on the level of a Target or Home Depot, but any avoidable damage can harm a company’s bottom line and reputation.

“Those companies that keep medical records, Social Security numbers, and credit cards are expected to be more diligent in protecting their data than businesses that don’t have so much of that exposure,” Grinnell said. “You need to be sure you’re not only protected, but in compliance with some pretty stringent laws.”

More and more, Marini added, insurance agencies are working with clients to control cyber privacy and protect information. “It runs the gamut from healthcare to manufacturing. If people get in, they can disrupt your business and hold you hostage. We’re spending a whole lot of time developing capabilities to help our customers protect themselves from cyber exposure and risk.”

Timm Marini

Timm Marini says technology is posing new risks, from data breaches to drivers distracted by their devices.

 

One way it has done that is through the use of certified friendly hackers. “We’ve actually put on some seminars with the FBI, where our friendly hacker goes in and shows how easy it is to permeate your firewalls. For 97% of businesses, it’s not a matter of if, but when something of this nature will happen.”

But he also returned to that concept of creating a culture of safety where each employee understands the risks of, say, leaving a laptop open, neglecting strong password protection, or falling for phishing e-mails. “Those moments of carelessness may be having the same password for everyone, or keeping printed materials of a private nature in your vehicle.”

After all, employee negligence may limit insurance protection, noted Lorelle Masters,  a partner at the international law firm Perkins Coie, in Risk Management Monitor. “Although many businesses have crime insurance that covers ‘computer-systems fraud,’ ambiguous provisions or liability limits may restrict coverage,” she noted. “Some courts have held that fraud coverage applies only when intrusions are unauthorized, but not when an unwitting employee falls prey to an online scam.”

For other types of risk exposure, insurance companies rely on the guidelines laid out by the National Fire Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and other work-related protection agencies — as well as their own, industry-specific expertise — to determine exposure to loss and help companies reduce it.

For instance, manufacturers need to train employees in handling hazardous chemicals and working around dangerous machinery and sharp cutting edges. Much like the friendly-hacker concept, many risk managers conduct mock OSHA inspections, so companies can locate and iron out safety issues before the real thing — when mistakes can lead to hefty fines. Businesses may also choose to make structural changes to their buildings if they’re located in a flood zone, near a faultline, or otherwise geographically vunerable.

Once risk is mitigated to whatever degree is possible, an insurance carrier can then assume the remainder of the risk.

“Risk management boils down to the owner and management of a business making safety a priority and really instilling in their managers to preach safety — and hold them accountable for the safety of their workers,” Grinnell said. “It’s amazing how much common sense can protect a business. On the other hand, if it’s all about profit and productivity and squeezing as much business as you can into one day, then safety falls to the side, then accidents are going to happen. When businesses get the culture of safety right, the rest kind of falls into place.”

Stepping Up

Grinnell noted, however, that many insurance companies do a mediocre job helping companies reduce risk. “Most insurance companies go out for the first visit and make sure companies have their act together, but they don’t repeat that visit or check up on them,” he said. “Some companies do offer more comprehensive risk-management services, but they’re few and far between, so companies are left to rely on their own devices to figure out their risk-management steps. We do offer a fair amount of those services.”

With the risk-management and regulatory-compliance worlds intersecting in a more complex way for businesses these days, Marini said HUB’s emphasis on providing resources to help clients navigate their risks is a definite benefit. “We have all of that available for our customers. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s part of the arrangement.”

Some risk-management startegies are simply common sense, from not leaving customer data lying around to shredding rather than throwing away sensitive documents; from maintaining eye-wash stations where chemicals are handled to installing cameras in parking lots and entryways to record the verity of slip-and-fall accidents that often lead to costly lawsuits.

“Those types of controls have been around for a long time,” Grinnell added. “You basically do an assessment of the business, whether you’re trying to prevent hands getting caught in machines or exposure to hazardous materials or fall exposure, whatever. There are safe practices to follow to protect yourself against all those hazards.”

Although no company can ever say it’s totally safe from the myriad events that cause disruption, financial loss, and injury — or worse — it’s clear that developing that culture of safety, with all the details that go into it, can significantly reduce exposures and help employers sleep better at night.

“You may think you’re running the best operation in the world,” Grinnell said, “but if you’re not thinking about these exposures, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Restaurants Sections

Your Annual Guide to Eating Out


restaurantguidedpThe Western Mass. region is well-known for its culinary diversity, offering nearly endless choices when it comes to cuisine, atmosphere, price range, and overall experience. For our 2017 Restaurant Guide, we made our way to four restaurants — from a 40-year-old icon to newer establishments well on their way to becoming household names. There’s plenty on the menu, so read on.

SEE: List of Restaurants in Western Mass.

 

‘Accommodating Cuisine

At Sierra Grille, they’re not fixing what isn’t broken

Upwardly Mobile

Cima is making more history at a long-time dining destination

Pop On Over

Judie’s continues to draw a crowd 40 years after its opening

Taking a Simple Approach

The Alvah Stone offers a view — and much, much more

Features

Real-world Education

Valley Venture Mentors co-founder Paul Silva

Valley Venture Mentors co-founder Paul Silva

Valley Venture Mentors has long cultivated entrepreneurship in the Pioneer Valley through programs like its signature Accelerator, which provides education and support for aspiring business owners to hone their ideas. VVM’s Collegiate Accelerator, set to begin in June, is a different beast, focusing on a younger group with startup ideas and tossing them into a more demanding, time-intensive experience than the traditional Accelerator. But they do have something in common with their older peers: they don’t know anything. Yet.

Paul Silva recalls how Valley Venture Mentors was born out of entrepreneurship classes he and his fellow co-founders, Scott Foster and Jay Leonard, were teaching at UMass. But the vast majority of participants in VVM’s programs have been past their college years.

“But the student demand was there all along,” Silva said. “College students needed this.”

Which is why the Springfield-based nonprofit — which aims to build, support, and maintain an entrepreneurial renaissance in Western Mass. — launched a Collegiate Accelerator program this summer for college students and recent graduates. Twenty startups have been chosen to participate in the eight-week program, which was funded by multiple sources, including an anonymous donor who made a significant contribution.

“The donors agreed with us: ‘hey, we have great kids in our schools, or great kids are born here and go somewhere else to school. What they need is a great reason to stay,’” Silva told BusinessWest. “We want to show them that, if they want to create a startup, this is the place you can do it, and there’s no better time in their lives.”

There are some important differences between VVM’s traditional Accelerator and the collegiate version. While the adults in the former program dedicate one long weekend a month, the college students are essentially working a 40-hour schedule for eight weeks, with 20 hours per week spent in the classroom and another 20 in the field, meeting potential customers and honing their idea into a workable business plan. The accelerator will run weekdays from mid-June through August, and participants will receive a $2,000 stipend.

“We can run the program over the summer and not conflict with their studies,” Silva said. “Local kids can participate over the summer, and kids who come here for school can stay here over the summer. So we’re keeping all these great kids here; we give them our intensive program, and we get those great minds to stay local.”

We’re giving them an internship at their own startup, and they’re getting paid. We’re taking eight weeks of their summer, leaving time at the beginning and end, and we make it intense.”

Silva noted that participants will learn how to pitch their startup and how to raise capital, and will benefit from successful entrepreneurs and business leaders who will serve as speakers and mentors.

It is in some ways the best job of their lives so far, he added. “We’re giving them an internship at their own startup, and they’re getting paid. We’re taking eight weeks of their summer, leaving time at the beginning and end, and we make it intense. It’s a full-time job.”

VVM worked with a variety of partners, from the Grinspoon Charitable Foundation to area colleges, to publicize the Collegiate Accelerator and attract applications. Being chosen for one of the 20 slots was a two-part process. In the first, the applicants judged each other’s ideas blindly — no name, age, gender, or race information was attached. From that peer review, a number of startups were chosen to attend a screening party where they made their elevator pitch before at least 10 different VVM members, who grilled them about their ideas.

It’s an intense process, Silva said, but superior to coming before, say, a three-member panel and needing unanimous approval. With that model, if someone has an idea involving video games and one of three judges simply hates video games, it’s over. With 10 or more judges, there’s more leeway for those biases to be filtered out. And applicants who were not chosen were given plenty of practical feedback that might make them more likely to be chosen next summer.

Knowing Nothing

For those taking the plunge this June, the first lesson is a mantra that has been used often at Valley Venture Mentors.

“The foundation of our program is, you don’t know anything, and neither does your business partner,” Silva said. “All you have is a good idea.”

That idea requires testing through actual field work, he said. “Maybe I want to make video games for blind people. And it turns out that blind people are mostly older and don’t give a darn about video games, but they do miss socializing. So now I’ve learned more about them, and about social isolation.”

Perhaps that leads to a different idea for a video-game company, or a completely different type of company focusing on the needs of blind people. Those crossroads pop up all the time for young entrepreneurs, he explained. In fact, Silva said most entrepreneurs at the idea stage are 90% wrong, and the idea is to discover where they’re 10% right, and build on that.

VVM’s overarching goal is to catalyze the entrepreneurial renaissance in the Pioneer Valley.

VVM’s overarching goal is to catalyze the entrepreneurial renaissance in the Pioneer Valley.

A few of the 20 participants in the Collegiate Accelerator have actually received money in exchange for products, but most have not gotten that far, nor should that be expected at this stage of the game, Silva said.

“I tell them a startup is not a job where you make money; it’s where you figure out how to make money. A business is a job where you make money. The goal is to grow your startup into a business. If people are already giving you money, that’s a great signal, but it’s not the goal.”

The students participating in the 2017 Collegiate Accelerator include:

• Boman Container Homes, Springfield Technical Community College (STCC): offers a variety of customizable container homes, offices, and cabins for sale, ranging from economic to luxurious;

• Bystand, Hampshire College: connects certified bystanders, who rarely use their skills, with people nearby who are in need of immediate medical assistance;

• CognitEyes, UMass Amherst: makes affordable, comfortable, eye-tracking glasses, helping identify diseases, assess fatigue, and understand consumer behavior;

• DetraPel, Babson College: a super-hydrophobic liquid repellent that repels any liquid from almost any surface;

• El Cherufe Chile Paste, Greenfield Community College: offers a unique hot flavor profile to lovers of all things spicy in a versatile paste form;

• In Case Audio, UMass Amherst: installs speaker systems into vintage suitcases to create a stylish yet portable speaker and amp;

• Love Jones Renaissance Café & Lounge, STCC: a cozy, sophisticated lounge and café that provides customers with an ambiance that fosters individual and group creativity and networking;

• Lymph + Honey, Hampshire College: provides access to healthful, wholesome, and sustainable natural hair- and body-care products;

• Mitho MoMo, Mount Holyoke College: brings authentic Nepalese foods back to their people in the U.S. at affordable prices with the convenience of a microwave;

• Peace of Mind Home Inventory, STCC: personal asset inventory for insurance and estate planning;

• Redflowers, Smith College: promotes, empowers, and engages black identities and black women;

• Salad Express, Elms College: an inexpensive healthy fast-food experience;

• Shesabelle Chandeliears, Smith College: adds versatility and variety to modern jewelry owners’ earring selection;

• Socialopolis, UMass Amherst: a virtual and augmented reality software and hardware development firm;

• STEAMporio, STCC: STEAM education marketplace with a focus on the maker and DIY communities;

• Studio 26, Holyoke Community College: an inspiring network that strengthens the community and encourages growth and self-expression through the arts;

• The Schwa Company, Smith College: provides on-demand, real-life translators through an app 24/7, eliminating language barriers;

• The Travel Unicorn, Mount Holyoke College: an LGBTQ+ travel guide dedicated to sharing stories of love and travel, connecting LGBTQ+ travelers to safe and fun travel destinations;

• Vidvision, Babson College: offers a suite of interactive lead-generation tools to help SMBs drive ROI on their video content; and

• Zirui Collective, Mount Holyoke College: a beauty tech company that builds a compact, modular, customizable makeup kit that is space-efficient and travel-friendly.

Catalyzing the Valley

When asked what the end goal of the Collegiate Accelerator should be, Silva said it’s similar to VVM’s overarching goal of catalyzing the entrepreneurial renaissance in the Valley.

“One of the most underutilized assets in the Valley is our college students,” he said. “We know from personal experience, and from the experience of others around the country, that if you shower young entrepreneurs with love and support, they’ll be more likely to find success, to remember you, and to stay here. Not everyone is going to stay, of course, and not everyone should stay; if what you’re doing is perfect for Silicon Valley, then you should go to Silicon Valley. But this is a great region for all kinds of startups.”

Besides, he added, startups that leave the area often become ambassadors of sorts, or allies, of the Pioneer Valley. One team from London that took part in a VVM Accelerator has since helped three other teams expand their business in the United Kingdom.

“We are dedicated to helping entrepreneurs launch and thrive. Students are one of the most high-potential populations our region has, and with a bit more help, they could really have an impact here,” Silva said. “We can’t wait to learn about their ventures and help them take the next steps to launch.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Words to Live By

lussierbooksIt took just nine words to change Angela Lussier’s life: “you’ll never be ready; you just have to start.” That’s good advice for entrepreneurs of all kinds, but it was especially relevant for a shy, self-conscious, but creative and ambitious woman who decided her path to leadership was learning to overcome her fear of public speaking. Today, through the Speaker Sisterhood, she’s helping women around the world do the same — and, in the process, discover who they really are and what they were meant to do.

Angela Lussier has a surprising entrepreneurial bent — surprising to herself, that is.

It began at UMass, where she studied a VHS tape to learn how to cut her boyfriend’s hair. “My neighbor walked by and said, ‘can I have a haircut too?’ I said, ‘why not?’ Then his roommate walked in and said, ‘can I have a haircut?’ I said, ‘sure.’ Soon a whole bunch of guys on the floor wanted haircuts.”

Soon, she was setting up shop in a back room and charging for haircuts, which she did until the dorm shut her down. It wasn’t until later that she realized she had been an entrepreneur, if only for a short time.

It never occurred to me that it was a business,” she said. “I just wanted to make some money to put gas in the car and buy clothes.”

Lussier tells the story to demonstrate how opportunities cross our paths all the time, and sometimes what seems to be the least likely possibility can become a successful business.

Which explains why someone who was terrified of speaking now runs a business teaching women how to find their voice.

It’s called the Speaker Sisterhood, and it helps women become more effective public speakers. But it’s much more than that, she said. “It creates a safe space for women trying to find out who they are and what they’re meant to do.”

It’s a winding story that can be told only from the beginning, after college, when Lussier went to work in marketing for Rock 102 and Lazer 99.3, a job where her natural creativity was encouraged and rewarded. But she soon learned not every job was like that; an executive at her next employer, an executive recruiting firm, eventually told her, “we knew your creativity would be an issue when we hired you.”

So, in 2009, she started out on her own, initially as a career consultant, helping people figure out what jobs were the best matches for their skills and passions. Her grounding philosophy? “You have to work in a place that respects your talents and gifts and uniqueness.”

Lussier knows something about that, having had to overcome her own physical uniqueness. She stood six feet tall at age 12 and had to endure barbs like “ogre” and “jolly green giant” — experiences which led, she realized years later, to an intense shyness and anxiety about public speaking.

“At the recruiting firm, I realized that being shy was not a great attribute to have. Looking back to the radio station, the people who were the most respected, the most followed, were people who were excellent communicators, and even better public speakers. I had this fear of being seen, being made fun of, but I wanted to be a leader. So I signed up for Toastmasters.”

It didn’t go exactly as planned at first. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to tackle this fear of speaking because I want to be a leader.’ Six months later, I’d never said a word.” That’s when the club’s leader told her she was on the agenda for the next meeting, where she would deliver a four-minute speech about her job. “I said I wasn’t ready, but she said something that changed my life: ‘you’ll never be ready; you just have to start.’”

It wasn’t easy. In fact, she sat in her car outside that next meeting, petrified of going in, wondering if people would make fun of her or think she sounded stupid. But she took that first step, even though she read completely from notes, never looking up at the audience.

“The important thing was, I didn’t die,” Lussier said with a laugh. “So I continued to go back and give more speeches, and every time I gave a speech, not only did I not die, but I learned something about myself. I learned why I was so shy; I was able to connect it to my adolescent years, feeling so different, feeling like people didn’t understand my creativity, feeling like the black sheep in the family, like I didn’t relate to other people. Public speaking gave me not only a voice, but insight into who I am.”

That recognition would eventually form the basis of the Speaker Sisterhood, though the story would take a few more turns first.

First Steps

Lussier’s first step was recognizing she needed public-speaking skills to advance her career-consulting business, so she developed a free workshop series on how to find a job in a tough economy (remember, this was right after the recession peaked), interviewing skills, self-marketing, résumé writing, and other topics.

She pitched the idea to area public libraries without success, until Forbes Library took her up on it, allowing her to stage two separate eight-week series, a daytime series for unemployed job seekers, and an evening series for people with jobs looking for a change. After that first booking, other libraries came on board.

But she still needed to write the material. And deliver it. And she was still far from fearless on that front.

“When the first workshop came around, I drove there thinking to myself, ‘who do I think I am? No one’s going to come to this. I’m not a business owner. I’m only 28 years old; why would anyone take career advice from me?’ I sat there in the library parking lot, and a voice told me, ‘maybe you should do this because you want to be a leader.’”

Not only was the workshop a success, but Lussier gained a paid booking through it, and people kept showing up at the free library events, leading to more exposure and more paid bookings, including, eventually, one for a local Fortune 500 company. She had no idea of her worth at that point — the firm seemed surprised when she came up with a fee of $200, and she realized later she should have charged 10 times that — but she started to recognize that speaking about careers, which originally was a way to boost her consulting business, had potential as a revenue stream in itself.

“That was a huge turning point for me,” she said. “I had become a professional speaker; I’d built this skill, and people like hearing me speak. I thought, ‘I’m actually a leader; I actually did this. I can’t believe it’s happening.’”

So, while she continued her career-coaching business, she started asking herself a few questions: “where have I been most successful? What do I enjoy doing? What do people always ask me about?”

She sat down one night in front of a fire, coffee at the ready, and filled a journal with the answers to those three questions. And the one common denominator to all three was public speaking, her former nemesis. “It was like a neon sign blinking from the highway. I thought, ‘why did I not see this until right now?’”

She had already enrolled in the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator program, but decided to switch gears midstream and morph into something different, to build an online school to teach women how to be professional speakers.

Angela Lussier

Angela Lussier addresses a Washington, D.C. audience at a TEDx event in 2010.

“We need more women on stages, more women getting paid what they’re worth, more women leading conferences,” Lussier told BusinessWest. “It took me a long time to see there should be a Toastmasters for women — a place where women can get together and share their voices and be honest and say the things they don’t get to say in the world.”

As an experiment, she co-hosted an open house for her first speaking club to see who would respond. About 10 women showed up, all strangers. At first.

“Each woman shared her story about fear of speaking up, being belitted at work, being told their opinions don’t matter, feeling like they don’t have any idea how to say what they’re thinking. Or, they’re working in a job now where they have to train people, and they’re terrified, but they don’t want to lose their job.”

Something happened that day that surprised Lussier.

“As we went around the circle, it was like each woman was giving the next woman permission to tell the truth. They came as strangers, but they left as sisters. I had never experienced that kind of transformation; I had chills for two hours. I knew this was not just a public-speaking club, but an opportunity for women to walk in the door and shed their role as wife, mother, boss — to show up as themselves and say what’s on their mind.”

She knew she had something special, and the e-mails that followed proved it — e-mails from women who didn’t attend the meeting, but knew someone who did, and wanted to join. So she built waiting lists and eventually launched clubs in Springfield, Northampton, Amherst, and South Hadley, training the women who would lead each one. Recently, a Greenfield club opened its doors, as well as a second club in Northampton.

Gaining Momentum

But Lussier saw potential for the Speaker Sisterhood clubs well beyond Western Mass., creating a curriculum and licensing model to take the concept nationwide and even international. Lehigh, Pa. and Portland, Maine were the first club sites outside the Commonwealth, and a New Zealand club marked the first overseas expansion.

“You don’t have to be a public-speaking expert to start a club, but you do need to have leadership experience and meeting-facilitation experience, and a sincere interest in helping women build this skill set,” she said, reiterating what she considers the heart of the clubs’ popularity.

“Yes, we’re running speaking clubs that teach skills, but these clubs also use public speaking as a tool for self-discovery,” she went on. “What I say to members is, ‘this is your public-speaking journey, and the more you learn, the more you’ll find out how little you know.’”

And they are learning about themselves, she noted. One woman, who works in a healing field, signed up because she wanted to build her skills to teach workshops, and after a few months, she remarked that, when she spoke before a group, she felt like a floating head, disconnected from her body. What she came to realize was that she spent so much time talking to people one on one, in a spirit of empathy, that she started to take on the energy of each person she spoke with.

“She said, ‘I become them, so in front of a group of people, I have no idea who I am. That teaches me I’ve spent my whole life being other people, and now I have to discover who I am.’ To hear someone say that is transformative — not just for the speaker, but for the audience. We’re all learning from each other’s journeys.”

Those journeys vary, she said, from business owners who want to get better at promoting their services, to teachers who interact with kids all day, only to freeze up when they meet with parents. “One has experienced several tragic deaths over the past few years and felt she’s lost herself in grieving those deaths, and she wants to discover herself again.”

The curriculum takes the form of an ‘adventure guide,’ with chapter titles like “Adventures in Storytelling,” “Adventures in Humor,” “Adventures in Audience Interaction,” and so on.

“It was a thoughtful decision to call it an adventure because anything can happen. It’s not about perfection; it’s not about doing it right. The emphasis is not on trying to be a perfectionist, but enjoying the journey. It helps a lot to reframe public speaking that way.”

By prioritizing sharing experiences over perfection, she added, participants feel less alone as they realize so many others feel the same way they do. “And that helps them build confidence in themselves.”

The meetings include prepared speeches, but also a lot of improv games, which challenges club members to be present in the moment while stretching their creativity. She knows it’s a lot to ask from new members, many of whom are approaching the club from a place of anxiety.

“The first day, there’s a lot of fear. Their voices are trembling; they’re looking around the room, thinking, ‘do I belong here?’ Then they speak again at the end, and there’s a transformation over two hours. They go, ‘wow, I’ve never been able to speak like this. This is what I need.’ I feel like the biggest step you take on your public-speaking journey is the first step. Every single step after that gets easier. So I always applaud the guests for showing up. That’s not easy.”

By the Book

Amid her transformation into the leader she’d long wanted to be, Lussier has also shared her words with the world through her books. The first, The Anti-Résumé Revolution, was a direct result of that first eight-week workshop, inspired by one attendee asking her for her notes — which totaled 120 pages. So she combined them with her own story, interviewed others who had followed her advice, and self-published in 2009.

“The whole concept is not just waiting for opportunities to show up on a job board or the newspaper, but to go out and create your own future and taking action on your ideas,” she explained.

She managed to get the book into the hands of Seth Godin, one of her heroes and the author of Purple Cow, which drives home the importance of being different and standing out fron the crowd. He recommended Lussier’s book on his blog, broadening her visibility immensely.

“That changed my whole perspective on what’s possible,” she said. “I wrote a book in my basement which was now being shared with millions of readers, being taught in colleges, and being read by people all over the world. It helped me see that, even if you think what you’re doing is only for a small audience, you never know what could happen.”

Two more books followed. She published Who’s with Us? in 2015 — sporting the subtitle From Wondering to Knowing If You Should Start a Business in 21 Days. It was the result of talking to hundreds of people about their business ideas, and takes the form of 10 self-assessments potential entrepreneurs can use to gauge their next move. She recently followed that with Do + Make: The Handbook for Starting Your Very Own Business, which progresses beyond the assessment phase and dives into practical action.

Clearly, Lussier has found multiple outlets for her entrepreneurial bent and her passion for writing. But her heart lies mostly in the work she’s doing with women — not to give them a voice, but to help them discover their own.

“It’s the most amazing work I’ve ever done. I know I was born for this reason — to start the Speaker Sisterhood and build clubs around the world,” she told BusinessWest. “I want to help thousands, if not millions, of women discover who they are, and how amazing they are, so they can go out and do what they were put here to do. Ever since I was 5 years old, even when I was a teenager and felt like an outcast, I knew I would do something important someday.”

That’s the voice that echoed in her head the night she sat in her car, stricken with anxiety, ready to drive away and abandon her dream of becoming a better speaker.

However, “I thought, ‘I’m not going to do something important if I go home.’ And even when I started my business, that was just the road to the thing; it wasn’t the thing. Now, every meeting I go to, I can’t believe I get to do this; I can’t believe this woman is discovering things about herself because, years ago, I sat in a car and said, ‘you’re going to go in and give a speech.’ That blows my mind.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Virtual Breakthrough

Dr. Glen Brooks

Dr. Glen Brooks demonstrates how patients can adjust specifications on a screen before viewing themselves with virtual-reality goggles.

Dr. Glen Brooks, who runs a cosmetic-surgery practice in Longmeadow, says he was initially “awed” by a virtual-reality device that allows breast-surgery patients, using 3D goggles, to view their own post-surgery bodies — before the actual surgery — in a virtual-reality space. He says Crixalix, as the technology is known, has helped ease patients’ anxieties, while assuring him they’re getting exactly what they want.

Dr. Glen Brooks understands that preparing for cosmetic surgery can be an anxious time, especially for women unsure of what the end result will look like. Take breast augmentation, for example.

“The biggest fear of the patient is that she’s going too big. But the biggest fear of the doctor is that I have to reoperate because she’s gone too small,” Brooks said, explaining that, while the fear of choosing too large an implant is a common concern, the patient typically discovers she had nothing to worry about.

Still, he added, “I don’t want to do a revision, and the patient wants to get it right the first time. A revision costs someone money, takes time, and has risks. If we can avoid a revision, that’s an excellent outcome.”

If only there were a way for a woman to see the end result, on her own body, before the surgery.

Now there is.

Five months ago, Brooks, who owns Aesthetic Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, P.C. in Longmeadow, started using Crisalix, a virtual-reality technology developed in Switzerland that allows patients, using 3D goggles, to view their own bodies — not just on a screen, but in a virtual space, as if they were looking down at themselves — exactly how they will look after the breast surgery.

“I was really awed when I watched a demonstration,” Brooks said of his first exposure to the device. “What it allows us to do is create a 3D image of someone’s chest. Then, we can image every single breast manufacturer, any size, any shape implant, and using 3D goggles, the patient can view herself from all angles.”

The result, he said, is a true ‘a-ha moment.’

“The first time they look down and see they have cleavage, they’re like, ‘oh my God.’ It’s an a-ha moment because they’re seeing themselves; it’s a real view of what they look like, not like in a mirror.”

Indeed, Crisalix markets itself as a way for doctors and patients to answer the common question, ‘how might I look after the procedure?’ The goal is to increase patient satisfaction and decrease anxiety, both during the consultation and post surgery.

brooksscreen1art

Crisalix markets itself as a leader in web-based, three-dimensional, virtual-reality simulations for plastic surgery and aesthetic procedures. The company is a spin-off from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a fast-growing life-science cluster, and the Institute of Surgical Technology and Biomechanics at the University of Bern.

“It gives the patient a chance to see herself,” Brooks said, “and know precisely what she’s going to look like afterward.”

First Steps

But first, the patient sees herself on a screen. Brooks scans her chest and uploads the image to a tablet, where he can help the woman decide on which implant manufacturer to use and which volume and shape to use. They can test out myriad options on the screen, rotating the image to see the change from multiple perspectives.

When both doctor and patient are comfortable with a particular option, the patient dons goggles and enters a 3D, virtual-reality world where she can view herself with the new breast size and shape, and either approve the specifications or go back to the tablet for something else.

Brooks told BusinessWest that breast augmentation, reduction, and reconstruction — Crisalix is effective on all three — are more science than art, a matter of delivering precisely what the patient is asking for. What the VR technology does is help the patient clearly communicate that decision.

“The patient predetermines beforehand what volume they want to have — ‘this is what I am, and this is what I want to be,’” he noted. “It’s a very different type of technological advance because so much of the surgery is objective, but showing patients their size in advance in this way is more powerful than a verbal discussion.

“Most of the other technological advances in this field tend to be things like lasers and non-surgical devices to either remove fat or tighten skin,” he went on. “This is more on the side of patient awareness of outcomes than the actual outcome. It’s the first device that helps on the awareness side so well. There are other imaging systems out there, but this is the first true VR system, and it’s so simple to use.”

The reasons women ask for augmentations varies greatly, Brooks said, but there are a few common categories: early-20-somethings whose breasts are mismatched in size; women in their late 30s or early 40s who want a “mommy makeover,” feeling they’ve lose some volume and gained some sag after having kids; and women of any age who feel more attractive or confident with a different look, to name a few.

“This gives them a really great education in what I need to correct,” he said, adding that the technology is just as effective with reconstructions, typically after mastectomies with cancer patients, in that it can formulate a completely symmetrical look to the patient’s specifications.

According to data from the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among U.S. women after skin cancer, representing nearly one in three cases. Furthermore, the ACS notes, seven out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer who are candidates for breast reconstruction are not aware of their options. As a result, fewer than one in five American women who undergo a mastectomy go on to have breast reconstruction.

“Many women are able to get an immediate breast reconstruction performed at the same time as the mastectomy, but that option depends on what treatment is necessary after surgery,” Brooks said. “Patients with breast cancer have numerous options to help them restore a breast to near-normal shape, appearance, and size following mastectomy or lumpectomy.”

Seeing the Future

Crisalix is only the latest option to reach that goal, and Brooks said patients have been pleasantly surprised at what the virtual images tell them. The technology to convert 2D images to 3D virtual reality is currently being used on five continents.

Dr. Glen Brooks says he was “awed” the first time he used the Crisalix technology.

Dr. Glen Brooks says he was “awed” the first time he used the Crisalix technology.

“Months ago, they asked whether I would re-up next year for the software license, and I said ‘absolutely,’” he told BusinessWest. “It makes what I do so much more precise, putting together the right outcome by showing exactly what we’ll provide to patient. It’s absolutely a home run.”

And it’s far from the only potential use of VR in the surgical world. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on others, such as GE’s early-stage testing of technology that will allow a doctor wearing a Rift headset to take a virtual tour of a patient’s brain and perhaps determine how surgery might affect various parts of it, and pediatric surgeons at Stanford University Medical Center who have used a virtual-reality platform from EchoPixel, a California startup, to plan surgeries on newborns missing pulmonary arteries. Another promising use of VR may be in medical training, as universities that can’t afford to store cadavers for education may be able to rely on virtual reality instead.

Even in cosmetic surgery, Crisalix isn’t limited to breast surgeries; the company also touts its use for eyelids, faces, and other body parts, though Brooks says the impact on patients’ expectations isn’t as dramatic.

“For breast surgeries, it’s absolutely fantastic,” he said. “It’s a great feeling, seeing the change for themselves.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Landscape Design Sections

Weighty Business

Joseph AlexopoulosTrees serve both practical and aesthetic functions, and people can become quite attached to them. But work to maintain, trim, and even remove trees should be left to the professionals, who say their profession is often dangerous, but in all ways rewarding.

Joseph Alexopoulos has given many customers quotes for taking down a tree. But he will never forget the day he arrived at a house, saw a rope hanging from the tree the homeowner wanted removed, and asked about it.

“I was told the man they hired before me died trying to fell it,” said the president of Tree 413 in Longmeadow, adding that the tragedy is an example of how dangerous the work can be.

Local experts agree it’s critically important to hire professionals with the knowledge, training, proper equipment, and insurance to prevent homeowners from being sued if an accident occurs on their property.

The Tree Care Industry Assoc. says successfully felling a tree requires knowledge of tree physics, biology, dangerous tools, and advanced cutting techniques, and homeowners who attempt their own tree removal may be injured by falling limbs, malfunctioning equipment, or the tree itself.

The work is hazardous by nature, and professionals are completely outfitted in protective gear and trained to climb trees, operate cranes, and use chainsaws, ropes, wood chippers, and stump grinders safely.

Manager Randy Sample of Arbortech Tree Service LLC in Springfield says the company holds weekly meetings led by employees to discuss situations they encounter and the safest way to deal with them.

“Unforeseen scenarios can occur, but we go to great lengths to eliminate the possibility of accidents,” he said, adding that employees use a wide range of equipment, adhere to OSHA standards, and are certified annually in electrical hazard and prevention, which ensures they are familiar with equipment utility companies use to provide electricity and the dangers associated with tree care and utility lines.

Tree pruning and felling is a major source of income for most local tree-service companies, but many have branched out, and the scope of their work includes a wide variety of jobs.

Arbortech created a Plant Healthcare Division five years ago to keep trees healthy, because problems almost always begin in the root system.

Randy Sample

Randy Sample says Arbortech employees meet weekly to discuss potentially dangerous situations and how to handle them.

“By the time they are noticeable, it may be too late to save the tree,” Sample said, adding that he has heard countless stories from families about their emotional attachment to a particular tree, and, therefore, the company strives to prevent damage that can threaten the health of these woody plants.

Tree 413, meanwhile, specializes in difficult tree removal that typically requires cranes, special equipment, and skilled climbers. “Many trees literally need to be lifted over the house with a crane as a whole or in pieces; it’s not a job where you can cut corners,” said Alexopoulos, adding that the company’s business has doubled every year for the last three years and workers do everything possible to ensure that limbs don’t fall on a roof, power line, vehicle, or anywhere else that could cause damage.

The company also does excavation and demolition, plans to start selling colored mulch, and recently opened a store in Southwick that carries equipment for professionals and homeowners that can be rented or purchased. It ranges from heavy-duty machinery to chainsaws and leaf blowers and includes clothing appropriate for tree work, because professionals are outfitted from head to toe to ensure safety.

Northern Tree Service Inc. in Palmer does a wide range of residential, industrial, and commercial work in three divisions that include tree service, land clearing, and construction. Its work ranges from felling trees to identifying potential hazards such as overhanging branches, dead limbs, or diseased trees for municipalities, golf courses, and other venues, as well as providing access for utilities.

For this issue and its focus on landscape design, BusinessWest looks at the scope of work that tree service companies do and the reasons they are called upon for help.

Diverse Services

Local tree-service companies say homeowners should never hire anyone without asking for proof they have liability and workers’ compensation insurance.

Nick Powers

Nick Powers says Northern identifies problems like weak limbs for its clients before they cause damage or injury.

“Many small contractors let their insurance lapse, so even if the person hands you a copy of a policy, you should call the phone number on it to ensure they are paid up to date,” Alexopoulos told BusinessWest.

Sample concurred. “People need to do their homework; the level of danger is very real, and there are many companies that are not qualified to do this type of work,” he said, adding that homeowners should also ask for referrals, make sure the company adheres to industry standards, and check if its arborists are certified through websites such as www.treesaregood.com, which offer educational materials and links to helpful information.

In addition to tree trimming and removal, Tree 413 performs excavation and demolition ranging from removing a sidewalk to an entire garage and foundation, or a Gunite pool made entirely of concrete. When the demolition is complete, workers fill in the cavity, spread topsoil over it, then seed it.

The company recently took down three trees for a homeowner in a project that was similar to a major demolition project, because they weighed a total of 60,000 pounds.

“The job was very involved and required skilled tree climbers, a crane, and a police officer in the road near our groundsmen who were cutting and chipping sections and putting logs in a truck to be taken away,” Alexopoulos said.

He added that dead trees are very difficult to take down, and the job often has to be done in sections. “If a cut branch slams into a dead tree, it can shatter,” he explained, noting that a small limb can weigh 600 pounds.

Arbortech also does a large amount of residential work, but its slogan is “more than just tree removal.” The company employs certified arborists who evaluate trees, shrubs, and woody plants and diagnose and treat disease, insect problems, and the type and amount of fertilizer needed for optimal growth.


SEE: List of Landscape Design Companies


“We try to care for trees from the roots up; we focus on tree preservation rather than removal,” Sample said, adding that indications that a tree is in trouble include problems such as leaves that fall too early.

He told BusinessWest that most problems stem from improper planting. Trees can be too close to a driveway, home, or power line, and choosing the right location for a specific species and its future growth is critical.

“The root system is the foundation of a tree and is typically as large as its crown or the drip line from the farthest branch,” Sample said.

The company’s arborists uncover roots, which are usually buried a foot or two beneath the ground, take soil samples, and inspect the root collar to make sure roots aren’t choking each other, which can affect the nutrients the tree is able to absorb.

Arbortech also plants trees and maintains orchards for customers that include apple, pear, and peach trees, as well as raspberry and blueberry bushes.

In addition, it sells mulch, loam, topsoil, and both green and 100% seasoned firewood.

“It can be a frustrating endeavor to buy firewood that is dirty, not properly seasoned, and doesn’t give the heat people are looking for,” Sample said, noting that the company purchases wood from logging contractors that has been specially cut to fit their machines, tests it with a moisture meter, rotates it so it will dry properly, then puts it through another screening process after it is purchased to ensure the delivered product doesn’t include any loose bark or chunks of wood.

Northern Tree Services performs jobs in many settings. It builds roads and work pads for utility companies, and has cleared sections of land that range from a half-acre to 550 acres to make way for power lines, solar fields, gas and oil pipelines — including the Keystone Pipeline — and large commercial contractors.

The company has 220 employees across the U.S., but the majority of its work is done in New England, and it also has contracts with colleges, golf courses, apartment and condominium complexes, 40 airports, the cities of Springfield and Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the state Department of Transportation, and Eversource. It has also developed a Google Earth program to identify trees that need to be pruned, thinned, or felled.

“It’s our job to identify hazards before they happen,” said company spokesman Nick Powers, noting that Northern also has a contract with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which is responsible for monitoring and maintaining vegetation on its roads, including the well-traveled Storrow Drive in Boston.

The company also does residential and commercial plantings and tree removal and pruning, which is especially important for utility companies because falling limbs can cause power outages.

Kevin Ferguson, project manager and estimator, told BusinessWest that arborists identify weak limbs that need to be supported or removed so they don’t fall during a windstorm or from the weight of snow.

“It doesn’t take much wind to knock deadwood out of a tree,” he said, explaining that, when they are called to a home, they examine the entire property and point out potential dangers. Some trees can be thinned to eliminate shade and the growth of moss on a roof, while helping prevent gutters from getting clogged with leaves, while others need low-hanging or dead limbs removed.

Safety First

Local tree companies do everything in their power to prevent accidents, but tree work is a risky business and can lead to damage or injury when unqualified people are hired to do a job.

It all comes down to respecting the power of nature and checking a company’s credentials, but anyone who hires licensed professionals to plant, prune, or fell trees can rest assured that every possible safety precaution will be taken, and their trees will add beauty and life to their property and be enjoyed by generations to come.

40 Under 40 Cover Story The Class of 2017

Announcing the 11th Annual Top Young Business and Community Leaders in Western Massachusetts

40under40-logo2017aA year ago it was a first; now, it would have to be called a trend.

Women again outnumber men within the 40 Under Forty class of 2017, as the photos will reveal, although it’s quite close, actually. But who’s counting?

What people should be counting are the years and the numbers of area residents now in this special club, if you will. That would be 11 and 440, to be exact.

As the profiles (list of links to profiles below) reveal, each story of a 40 Under Forty winner is different and in some way unique, hailing from industries ranging from law to banking; from education to transportation; from media to healthcare — not to mention many others. Many are advancing the work of long-established businesses, while others, with an entrepreneurial bent, created their own opportunities instead of waiting for them to emerge.


40 Under Forty Class of 2017


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

The class of 2017 (go HERE for the PDF flipbook), its diversity, and its and individual and collective accomplishments will be celebrated at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala on June 22 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. A limited number of tables are available, but a number of individual seats and standing-room-only tickets are still available.

The gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the third annual Continued Excellence Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their résumé of accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges.

Speaking of judges, we thank those who scored the more than 150 nominations for this year’s 40 Under Forty competition (see story HERE). They are:

Ken Albano, managing partner of the Springfield-based law firm Bacon Wilson;
Jean Deliso, CFP, president and owner of Deliso Financial Services;
Samalid Hogan, director of the western regional office of the Mass. Small Business Development Center Network and member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2013;
Patrick Leary, partner at the Springfield-based accounting firm Moriarty & Primack and member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2017; and
Matt Sosik, president and CEO of bankESB.

Presenting Sponsors

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Sponsors


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Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Features

Square Deal

Jay Minkarah

Jay Minkarah stands inside the innovation center now under construction on Bridge Street.

Webster defines momentum this way, among others: ‘capacity for progressive development’ and ‘forward movement.’ Those phrases certainly describe what’s being seen and heard in the Stearns Square area of Springfield, where a project blueprinted to be catalytic in nature, the Innovation Center now taking shape on Bridge Street, has been exactly that.

 

Katie Allan Zobel was talking about life on the 25th floor of Tower Square, and comparing and contrasting it with that in the new offices for the Community Foundation of Western Mass., which she serves as executive director, on the first floor on Bridge Street.

She was qualifying the dramatic change from being more than 250 feet above what’s going on and looking down upon it, literally speaking, to being a big part of what’s going on.

“The views from up in the tower … they’re incredible, but it’s like looking at a postcard of the city,” she explained, while being courteous and quite respectful to her long-time landlord, MassMutual. “Here on Bridge Street, we’re actually in the picture; we’re in the middle of the picture.”

And with that, knowingly or unknowingly, she summed up perfectly the broad strategy — putting more people and businesses in the picture — behind ongoing and quite ambitious plans to revitalize the area the Community Foundation is now in the middle of and can see so clearly out the huge windows facing north from its suite of offices.

It used to be called the Entertainment District, and some still call it that, although the goal is to make it much more. It’s also called Stearns Square, because that 130-year-old park and gathering spot sits in the middle of it and in many ways defines it. And it has another name these days — the TDI District. That’s short for Transformative Development Initiative district, a name contrived by MassDevelopment to describe what this particular program within its portfolio is and does. (We’ll get to that shortly.)

Katie Allan Zobel

Katie Allan Zobel’s office within the Community Foundation’s suite on Bridge Street offers a commanding view of Stearns Square.

It had another name, too. Well, sort of. This area was considered part of what was sometimes referred to as the ‘blast zone’ — the area impacted by the November 2012 natural-gas explosion. And that’s where, in many respects, this story begins, or at least where it gained a huge amount of momentum.

Indeed, in the wake of that blast, a study was commissioned to identify paths to recovery and progress. One of the key components of that document was a revitalization strategy for the Entertainment District, and thankfully, this plan had a different fate than many that came before it.

“It’s a cliché to say it, but many plans were created to sit on a shelf,” said Jay Minkarah, executive director of DevelopSpringfield, another huge player in this saga. “This is actually one of the best examples I’ve seen of a plan really advancing a strategy.”

In broad terms, the plan called for a catalytic project to spur other investments, and it got one when DevelopSpringfield, Valley Venture Mentors, MassMutual, MassDevelopment, and other players came together around plans to create an ambitious innovation center in a group of tired, long-neglected properties in the Bridge Street area known collectively as the Trinity Block.

The plan also called for a number of public and quasi-public entities to make investments in the area to stimulate activity, and several are doing just that:

•  The city will undertake significant improvements to both Stearns Square and nearby Duryea Way, named after brothers Charles and Frank, who built what is considered the first successful gas-engine vehicle on that very spot 125 years ago. And it has also created a restaurant loan program;

• MassDevelopment acquired the former Skyplex property that faces Stearns Square and is moving aggressively toward revitalizing it into a mixed-use facility; and

• The Springfield Business Improvement District is, among other things, building upon a portfolio of events and programming designed to bring people into the downtown and the TDI District.

According to the plan, these investments would eventually encourage the private sector to make similar investments and create still more momentum. And that’s happening as well. In addition to the Community Foundation, the staffing agency United Personnel, which had moved into space on Bridge Street, is said to be looking for more. Meanwhile, serial entrepreneur Delcie Bean will create a café, Ground Up, in the Innovation Center, and the Women’s Fund of Western Mass. has already moved into space there.

“We’re trying to create a truly vibrant mixed-use urban district that supports the development of an entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem for the purpose of advancing Springfield’s economy,” Minkarah said. “That’s what this is all about.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the scene unfolding within the TDI District, how an ambitious plan came together, and what can likely happen next in this historic section of Springfield.

Center of Attention

Evan Plotkin says his travels have taken him all across Europe, and they’ve given some insight into what the Stearns Square area can become, and some inspiration as well — not that he really needed more.

Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, doesn’t expect that district to even approach what St. Mark’s Square and Plaza Mayor are to Venice and Madrid, respectively — millions visit those attractions each year — but he told BusinessWest that it can emulate those landmarks in the sense that they are the very heart of those cities and centers for dining, tourism, business, and pride.

Skyplex building on Stearns Square

MassDevelopment acquired the former Skyplex building on Stearns Square with the expectation that it will spur additional investments in that area.

“In those cities, you have these beautiful plazas surrounded by businesses and residences; you have the outdoor cafés where people gather, socialize, eat, and drink,” he said. “We can have that right here. Stearns Square can be that; it’s been that.”

Plotkin’s offices are now on the 14th floor at 1350 Main St., also known as One Financial Plaza, where he and some partners own the top 12 floors. But for decades, his business — and, in many ways, his mind — were always on Taylor Street and the Stearns Square area.

His former business address, 41 Taylor St. (now home to a dental office), is where the Duryeas built their motorcar, and Plotkin was the catalyst behind the statue depicting that vehicle that now sits in Duryea Way.

Thus, Plotkin has had a front row seat to more than five decades of change and development in the Stearns Square area, and he and his dog, George, still walk through it almost every day.

“My earliest memories of Stearns Square were from when the fountain was working and this was very well-maintained public space,” he recalled. “There was retail, business, and residential space, and in that respect, it was very much like those European cities.”

In the ’90s, the neighborhood evolved into an entertainment district dominated by a number of nightclubs. Those clubs created a great deal of vibrancy — Plotkin recalls a time when Northampton leaders feared losing visitors to the City of Homes — but, eventually, not the kind that the city was really looking for, he went on, adding that, over the past decade or so, the area has been in general decline, with the population falling and crime rising.

The gas blast was a contributing factor in all this, but it also, as noted earlier, eventually provided the blueprint for a turnaround campaign of the highest order.

And this brings us back to that catalytic project that Minkarah talked about, the innovation center.

In most all respects, the Trinity Block fits squarely into the profile, and the mission of DevelopSpringfield, which acquires somewhat low-profile properties described with that hard-hitting adjective ‘blighted,’ with the goal of giving them new life.

The row of buildings along Bridge Street certainly fits that description. Once home to everything from a church to a boxing gym, and almost everything in between, the Trinity Block had been mostly vacant and neglected for years, as evidenced by the many holes in the floor and cracks in the marble stairs that Minkarah pointed out as he offered a tour.

In a matter of a few months, though, there will be several dozen people working in the building and many more arriving for various functions or a cup of coffee in the café, said Minkarah, who used the phrase ‘purpose-built space’ to describe what’s happening at the Trinity Block.

And ‘purpose’ comes at many levels. On one, the purpose is to give Valley Venture Mentors larger space with more flexibility, including co-working space for entrepreneurs. On another, level, though, the purpose is to help the area evolve into a dining district through the café’. On still another level, the purpose is to generate foot traffic, vibrancy, and momentum in that section of the city.

“This will be a very active place, and that’s a big part of the goal,” he explained, adding, again, that the goal is to create that mixed-use urban district, with the mix including places to work, start or grow a business, gather, dine, visit, and, yes, live.

This urban lifestyle, or urbanization, if you will, is a growing movement nationwide, said Minkarah, adding that it’s being fueled by the younger generations and especially Millennials, who are attracted to cities and especially walkable ones.

For Springfield to become part of this trend rather than act as spectator while the phenomenon plays out in several other communities, it is critical that it provides what Minkarah calls, alternately, “the experience” and “the opportunity” of attractive urban life.

Stearns Square and Duryea Way

Public improvements to Stearns Square and Duryea Way (seen here) are designed to stimulate additional private-sector investments in that district.

He was referring specifically to young people looking for a place to launch a business, but he was also talking about individuals seeking a place to live, as well.

“It’s important that you provide an environment that has the kinds of qualities that the younger entrepreneurs are looking for,” he explained, adding that this list includes everything from co-working space to plenty of dining opportunities, to the proverbial ‘things to do.’

And this is virtually the same list that will also attract visitors to this urban district as well.

Motion Science

All this helps explain why, while the innovation center is the centerpiece of progress in the Stearns Square area, it is, as noted, just one of many such pieces.

Indeed, there is a type of symphony of motion, said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer, and it is creating an upbeat tempo that is certainly necessary.

Union Station is nearly ready to begin the intriguing next act in its nearly 90-year history, following a roughly $90 million renovation. MGM Springfield will be opening its doors in about 16 months. The City Council will soon vote on improvements to Stearns Square and Duryea Way, the Springfield Museums will soon open the new Seuss Museum, and the Springfield Central Cultural District is creating new strategies to connect people to downtown through art. Meanwhile, the BID is building and refining a deep roster of programs and events to bring people into Springfield and compel those who work there to stay well past 5 p.m. (see related story, page 11).

The broad strategy that has emerged, he went on, is to essentially build a bridge, if you will, between the development in the South End (MGM) and the development in the North End (Union Station).

But more than a bridge, the new urban district would be, as Minkarah and others have noted, an innovation and dining district with its own identity.

“The deal was, and this is a very simple deal, to have the folks on the private side make some investments here and do the right things with those investments,” he told BusinessWest. “And those of us on the public side will make some investments as well.”

Those public investments include work within the park and Duryea Way, which should commence later this year. These include new grass, new pavement, sidewalk work, lighting, and more — “everything that can make the area appealing and comfortable.”

They also include an aggressive, $1.5 million loan fund to help prospective restaurateurs, who often struggle with gaining conventional financing, to get initiatives off the ground.

And there are other momentum-building initiatives as well, especially MassDevelopment’s purchase of the former Skyplex property at 8-12 Bridge St., with intentions to inspire further investments in that district.

As Laura Masulis, a TDI fellow assigned by MassDevelopment to the city of Springfield, explained, the equity investment undertaken by the agency is, like the innovation center itself, designed to be a catalyst.

“The point of this program is to identify properties that could act as game changers in these TDI districts across the state,” she said. “And this property could be just that — a game changer in that neighborhood. It’s not just one of eight storefronts in the middle of a block; it’s something that really defines that district.”

Home to a number of clubs over the years, the property has been mostly vacant for years, she went on, adding that, because it was highly unlikely a private developer would step in and undertake the massive renovations needed, MassDevelopment filled that void.

The plan moving forward is to essentially have the building reflect the broad goals for the district — meaning to fill it with dining, entrepreneurship, and art, said Masulis, adding there are negotiations with several potential tenants along these lines.

“We definitely want to have a food component in the building,” she explained. “We see this as an opportunity to have multiple tenants and many different components because of the size of the building.”

A number of potentially attractive options are being considered, she went on, listing everything from restaurants to smaller arts and performance venues to creative retail. “We’re open to different possibilities.”

The sign outside the property at present says “Join us in Stearns Square,” and there are many indications that more businesses and organizations will heed that advice.

Meanwhile, the Naismith building next to Theodores’ on Worthington Street is under new ownership, and plans are emerging for the former Fat Cat lounge across the street and the former dental offices further down Worthington Street.

And such private investments will be the key moving forward, said all those we spoke with, noting that the public-side initiatives are already succeeding in moving the needle in an area that was stagnant for some time.

Worthington Street

City officials report considerable interest in many of the vacant storefronts that still dominate Worthington Street (seen here) and Bridge Street.

The Big Picture

As she talked about the circumstances that brought the Community Foundation to that view of Stearns Square out its front windows, Zobel started by talking about the need for more flexibility and visibility through its space.

It had not enough of either in Tower Square, and as its long-term lease was nearing its conclusion, it commenced a search for a location that would remedy that situation, she went on, before taking the discussion in a different direction, one that really gets to the heart of the momentum currently being seen in that area of Springfield.

“We visited all the towers,” she said of a lengthy search led by the brokerage firm Colebrook Realty Group. “But they were not going to afford us visibility. But there was more to it than that; we didn’t really feel as if we were part of the community.

“Finally, I inquired about this block because it seemed like there was potential,” she said, referring to a row of retail storefronts along the south side of Bridge Street. “This had it all, and I couldn’t get over standing in front of this building and looking at the park; it just seemed like we were right here in the community.”

Elaborating, Zobel said she took in all that was going on around this location — a lengthy list that started with the innovation center but also included United Personnel’s move, the elaborate renovations of the Fuller Block and National Public Radio’s relocation there, the Union Station renovations, the city’s planned renovations of the park, MassDevelopment’s purchase of the Skyplex building, the restaurant loan fund, and more — and decided it wanted to be part of that movement.

“I thought ‘OK, this is really compelling,’” she told BusinessWest. “We have the innovation center putting a stake in the ground, we have MassDevelopment putting a stake in the ground … it just felt like we would be part of the revitalization in a very clear, obvious, meaningful way. And that’s why we made this decision — the promise and the potential is real.”

This is that catalytic effect Minkarah was talking about, and all those we spoke with are firm in their belief that the ball is really only beginning to roll in this section of the city.

Indeed, as more people begin to work in the area, as more people attend events at the innovation center, and as more people exiting trains at Union Station create a critical mass of vibrancy in the area, this should generate more businesses to support those individuals, which should, in turn, create more such businesses, which should spur more vibrancy … and so goes the theory.

But, based on what has happened in many other communities in the Northeast, Masulis said, it’s not exactly a theory any more.

She’s seen districts similar to Stearns Square become vibrant new centers of activity in Providence, Cleveland, and a host of other cities. The common denominators in those stories are a strong arts scene, dining, and entrepreneurship, and these are the pieces now coming together in Springfield.

“We’re building on those building blocks,” she said of all the initiatives listed above. “We’re also looking at what strengths we have in that district and in Greater Springfield, and saying, ‘how can we continue to build on what’s there and fill in where the private market is not doing quite as well as we’d like to see it doing?’”

Minkarah agreed, and said the momentum that is gathering is a significant force.

“When you move forward with a catalytic project, or what you believe is a catalytic project, the whole point is to catalyze something and not just sit there in isolation,” he noted. “The fact that we’re seeing other businesses and organizations moving into the district is so encouraging, and it speaks to the strength of the partnership that’s been created to advance this district.”

Age of Enlightenment

Returning to Europe for a moment, again figuratively, Plotkin told BusinessWest that his walks in many cities on that continent would generally take him as far as the last establishment with a light on.

That not-uncommon attitude certainly helps explain the general decline of the Stearns Square area years ago and the broad challenge to achieving overall vibrancy in Springfield.

That would be, simply, to turn more lights on. It’s happening within the Stearns Square area, and there is general consensus that the future of this critical urban district will be brighter in every way.

That’s because more people and institutions will, as Zobel and so many others said, want to be in the middle of the picture.

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

Employment Sections

A Legislative Update

By Peter Vickery

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A number of business-related pieces of legislation are in various stages of review on Beacon Hill, covering matters ranging from non-competes to earned sick time to credit reports. The common denominator is that they all deserve the attention of area business owners.

There are a number of bills currently under consideration within the Massachusetts Legislature that impact business owners and managers and how they run their operations. What follows is a quick look at several measures that bear watching.

Non-competes

Among the bills filed in the Massachusetts Legislature at the start of its current two-year session was one already familiar to employers, namely the Act to Protect Trade Secrets and Eliminate Non-Compete Agreements. As its title suggests, this refiled measure (originally championed by former Gov. Deval Patrick) would render null and void non-compete agreements between employers and employees.

In Massachusetts, non-competes are already unenforceable in a range of professions and occupations. In 1977, the Legislature made non-competes unenforceable against physicians; in 1983, it added nurses; in 1998, the broadcast industry; in 2004, psychologists; and most recently, in 2008, social workers.


SEE: Chart of Largest Employers


Lawyers are barred from entering into non-competition agreements under the Rules of Professional Conduct. Similarly, internal rules and regulations prohibit them in the financial-services industry. This bill would ban them across the board.

Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

Another re-filed bill of interest to employers is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and this one seems to be garnering widespread support. After the end of the last session, advocates reached agreement with some employers’ organizations, which suggests that, this time around, the bill will make it over the finish line.

If enacted, the measure would require employers to accommodate pregnancy and baby-related requests for longer breaks, private non-bathroom space to express milk, modified schedules, and time off to recover from childbirth. It is important to note that the time off would be in addition to leave already available under other applicable laws.

Earned Sick Time

On the subject of time off, H. 3155 would re-write significant pieces of the Earned Sick Time Law, which the voters approved in 2014. As well as providing that overtime should not count toward sick-time accumulation and clarifying those workers who should not be included in calculating the total number of employees (e.g. the CEO, CFO, COO, independent contractors, and employees working fewer than 20 hours per week), the bill includes a novel fact-finding provision.

Many employers use credit reports to help gauge a job applicant’s reliability and trustworthiness … But Massachusetts might be poised to join the 11 or so states that ban the practice of looking at credit reports, which advocates refer to as ‘credit discrimination’ because of its alleged disparate impact on people of color.”

Because of the effect of sick time on the bottom line, the bill would require the secretary of Labor and Workforce Development to conduct an annual survey asking employers whether the law has led them to change staffing levels, or to move their operations out of state. The bill does not say what the secretary should do with the survey results. But knowledge is power, as the saying goes.

Credit-report Ban

Some knowledge gives too much power, apparently, so efforts are under way to put it behind a statutory veil. Many employers use credit reports to help gauge a job applicant’s reliability and trustworthiness. This is perfectly legal under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (for now, at least), so long as the employer obtains the applicant’s permission.

But Massachusetts might be poised to join the 11 or so states that ban the practice of looking at credit reports, which advocates refer to as ‘credit discrimination’ because of its alleged disparate impact on people of color. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey are pushing for a nationwide ban via their bill called the Equal Employment for All Act. In the meantime, a state-level measure sponsored by State Rep. Elizabeth Malia would prohibit Massachusetts employers from using credit reports in their hiring decisions and even from asking applicants for permission to do so.

Although it would exempt certain categories of jobs from the ban (e.g. law enforcement, executive/managerial positions in financial institutions, and positions requiring national-security clearance) the proposal would strip most employers of the ability to lawfully review a would-be employee’s credit report. Violating the statute would constitute an unfair practice under Chapter 93A, the Consumer Protection Act, which generally does not apply to employment disputes, and thereby allow plaintiffs to seek multiple damages and attorney’s fees.

EEOC Transgender Enforcement

At the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidelines stating that sex-based harassment includes harassment based on “transgender status” and the “intent to transition.” Examples of such harassment include “using a name or pronoun inconsistent with the individual’s gender identity in a persistent and offensive manner.”

The new guidelines purport to apply Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment and contains this definition:

“The terms ‘because of sex’ or ‘on the basis of sex’ include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; and women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work, and nothing in section 2000e-2(h) of this title shall be interpreted to permit otherwise.”

This definition does not, on the face of it, include transgender status, and the equivalent provision in Title IX (regarding education) is the subject of ongoing litigation. Nevertheless, the EEOC has made gender-identity enforcement a priority in its Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2017-21.

The federal guidelines and enforcement plans will not change customs and practices for employers in Massachusetts, where — long before Gov. Baker signed the 2016 Act Relative to Transgender Discrimination — the MCAD had treated discrimination on the basis of transgender status as a violation of Chapter 151B, the Commonwealth’s anti-discrimination statute.

For example, in 2016, the MCAD issued its decision in Tinker v. Securitas Security Services USA and Najeeb Hussain. In October 2009, the complainant, at that point Rebecca (Becky) Tinker, started work as a part-time security officer reporting to Najeeb Hussain. About two years later, during Tinker’s gender transition, Tinker informed Hussain that he wished to be known as Alyx and that Hussain should refer to him with male pronouns. Hussain seems to have not complied.

The MCAD found that Hussain continued to refer to Tinker as Becky and with female pronouns, and to include Tinker in statements that he directed to female employees, e.g. “you girls.” Hussain also informed Tinker of the Koran’s pronouncements regarding homosexuality. Including annual statutory interest of 12% interest, the total award for emotional distress came to approximately $86,000.

Peter Vickery is an employment-law attorney with offices in Amherst; (413) 230-3323.

Class of 2017 Difference Makers Event Galleries Features

Scenes From the Ninth Annual Event

The 2017 Difference Makers

The 2017 Difference Makers

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More than 450 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke on March 30 for a celebration of the 2017 Difference Makers, the ninth annual class of individuals and organizations honored by BusinessWest for making an impact in their Western Mass. communities. The photos on the next few pages capture the essence of the event, which featured musical entertainment by the Taylor Street Jazz Band, fine food, and thoughtful comments from the honorees. This year’s class, chosen by the editor and publishers of BusinessWest from dozens of nominations, include the: the Community Colleges of Western Massachusetts; Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College; Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round; Denis Gagnon Sr., President & CEO of Excel Dryer Inc.; Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts; and Joan Kagan, President & CEO of Square One.

Sponsored by:

RoyalPC SunshineVillage first-american-logo nortwestern-mutual
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Go HERE to view the sponsor’s videos

For reprints contact: Leah Martin Photography

From left, Dajah Gordon, Sabrina Roberts, and Johnalie Gomez

From left, Dajah Gordon, Sabrina Roberts, and Johnalie Gomez, teenagers involved in Junior Achievement of Western Mass., a 2017 Difference Maker.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan, a 2009 Difference Maker, and Bob Perry, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan, a 2009 Difference Maker, and Bob Perry, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Bob Pura, president of 2017 Difference Maker Greenfield Community College (left), chats with Ted Hebert of Teddy Bear Pools & Spas.

Bob Pura, president of 2017 Difference Maker Greenfield Community College (left), chats with Ted Hebert of Teddy Bear Pools & Spas.

Joe Marois of Marois Construction (left) chats with Ed Murphy and Molly Murphy of event sponsor First American Insurance.

Joe Marois of Marois Construction (left) chats with Ed Murphy and Molly Murphy of event sponsor First American Insurance.

From left, Darlene Francis of event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Ethel Griffin and Colleen Loveless of Revitalize CDC, Kathleen Plante of BusinessWest, and Mary-Anne Schelb of JGS Lifecare.

From left, Darlene Francis of event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Ethel Griffin and Colleen Loveless of Revitalize CDC, Kathleen Plante of BusinessWest, and Mary-Anne Schelb of JGS Lifecare.

From left, Noni Moran, Dennis Murphy, and Amber Letendre of event sponsor First American Insurance.

From left, Noni Moran, Dennis Murphy, and Amber Letendre of event sponsor First American Insurance.

Al Kasper of Savage Arms with Jennifer Connolly, president of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass.

Al Kasper of Savage Arms with Jennifer Connolly, president of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass.

The community colleges of Western Mass., honored collectively as 2017 Difference Makers, were represented by their presidents, from left, Bob Pura of Greenfield Community College, Ellen Kennedy of Berkshire Community College, Christina Royal of Holyoke Community College, and John Cook of Springfield Technical Community College.

The community colleges of Western Mass., honored collectively as 2017 Difference Makers, were represented by their presidents, from left, Bob Pura of Greenfield Community College, Ellen Kennedy of Berkshire Community College, Christina Royal of Holyoke Community College, and John Cook of Springfield Technical Community College.

From left, Shawna Biscone of event sponsor Royal P.C., Julie Cowan of MassDevelopment, Tara Brewster of Greenfield Savings Bank, and Amy Royal of Royal P.C.

From left, Shawna Biscone of event sponsor Royal P.C., Julie Cowan of MassDevelopment, Tara Brewster of Greenfield Savings Bank, and Amy Royal of Royal P.C.

From left, Patricia Faginski of St. Germain Investment Management, Amanda Huston of Elms College, Jennifer Connolly of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass., and Rebecca Connolly (Jennifer’s daughter) of Moriarty & Primack, P.C.

From left, Patricia Faginski of St. Germain Investment Management, Amanda Huston of Elms College, Jennifer Connolly of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass., and Rebecca Connolly (Jennifer’s daughter) of Moriarty & Primack, P.C.

From left, from Square One, Dawn DiStefano, Bonnie Katusich, Kristine Allard, Karen Smith, 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, and Andrea Cincotta.

From left, from Square One, Dawn DiStefano, Bonnie Katusich, Kristine Allard, Karen Smith, 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, and Andrea Cincotta.

From left, Brigit Shea-O’Connell, Fran O’Connell, and Rachel Normantowicz of event sponsor O’Connell Care at Home.

From left, Brigit Shea-O’Connell, Fran O’Connell, and Rachel Normantowicz of event sponsor O’Connell Care at Home.

Michael Curran of the Taylor Street Jazz Band.

Michael Curran of the Taylor Street Jazz Band.

2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer, with his wife, Nancy.

2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer, with his wife, Nancy.

From event sponsor Northwestern Mutual, from left, Adey Thomas, Darren James, Cara Cole, Kate Kane, Donald Mitchell, and Craig Knowlton.

From event sponsor Northwestern Mutual, from left, Adey Thomas, Darren James, Cara Cole, Kate Kane, Donald Mitchell, and Craig Knowlton.

From event sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., from left, Howard Cheney, James Krupienski, John Veit, Brenda Olesuk, and Donna Roundy.

From event sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., from left, Howard Cheney, James Krupienski, John Veit, Brenda Olesuk, and Donna Roundy.

Top row, from left: Glenda DeBarge of event sponsor Health New England (HNE); Jen Stone of USI Insurance Services; Mark Keroack of Baystate Health; Ashley Allen, Jody Gross, and Jessica Dupont of HNE. Bottom row: Michelle Martone of USI (left) and Yvonne Diaz of HNE.

Top row, from left: Glenda DeBarge of event sponsor Health New England (HNE); Jen Stone of USI Insurance Services; Mark Keroack of Baystate Health; Ashley Allen, Jody Gross, and Jessica Dupont of HNE. Bottom row: Michelle Martone of USI (left) and Yvonne Diaz of HNE.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor Sunshine Village, Teri Szlosek, Amie Miarecki, Michelle Depelteau, Peter Benton, and Jeff Pollier. Front row, from left: Colleen Brosnan and Gina Golash Kos from Sunshine Village, and Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor Sunshine Village, Teri Szlosek, Amie Miarecki, Michelle Depelteau, Peter Benton, and Jeff Pollier. Front row, from left: Colleen Brosnan and Gina Golash Kos from Sunshine Village, and Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Back row, from left: from TD Bank, Gregg Desmarais, Peter Simko, Dave Danker, and Tracey Alves-Lear. Front row, from left: from TD Bank, Christina Sousa, Bela Blake, Jana Seiler, and Claudia Pereira.

Back row, from left: from TD Bank, Gregg Desmarais, Peter Simko, Dave Danker, and Tracey Alves-Lear. Front row, from left: from TD Bank, Christina Sousa, Bela Blake, Jana Seiler, and Claudia Pereira.

BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti welcomes attendees to the Log Cabin.

BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti welcomes attendees to the Log Cabin.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Karen Petruccelli, Christina Tuohey, and Susan Halpern. Front row, from left: from JGS Lifecare, Darlene Francis, Mary-Anne Schelb, and Martin Baecker, with George Sachs from Acme Metals & Recycling.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Karen Petruccelli, Christina Tuohey, and Susan Halpern. Front row, from left: from JGS Lifecare, Darlene Francis, Mary-Anne Schelb, and Martin Baecker, with George Sachs from Acme Metals & Recycling.

BusinessWest Publisher John Gormally (left) with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

BusinessWest Publisher John Gormally (left) with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

From left, Monica Borgatti and Ellen Moorhouse of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., a 2012 Difference Maker, and Elizabeth Fisk and Danielle LeTourneau-Therrien of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County, a 2016 Difference Maker.

From left, Monica Borgatti and Ellen Moorhouse of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., a 2012 Difference Maker, and Elizabeth Fisk and Danielle LeTourneau-Therrien of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County, a 2016 Difference Maker.

Steve Levine applauds 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One.

Steve Levine applauds 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One.

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien congratulates 2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer.

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien congratulates 2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer.

Features

50 Shades of … Everything

Amy Woolf

Amy Woolf

Amy Woolf, a certified architectural color consultant, says color can, and very often does, affect people physiologically and psychologically. And for these reasons, it’s very important to pick the rights ones, especially in business. Indeed, the chosen colors should reflect the products or services being sold, and the people selling them.

Amy Woolf says colors have long had meaning, importance, and symbolism; that’s not a recent phenomenon.

Centuries ago, she noted, royals and those in the clergy wore purple because that was a rare, very expensive dye, and thus that color translated directly into money and power.

And while they are still relatively few in number, individuals have been putting the title ‘architectural color consultant,’ or words to that effect, on their business card for some time now, she went on. In fact, there is a trade group comprised of such professionals — the International Assoc. of Color Consultants (IACC) — that has chapters all over the world; the one in North America stages classes once a year in San Diego.

But in recent years, color has seemingly taken on more importance in architecture, office design, and business in general, she noted, listing as reasons why everything from the growing number of colors (or shades of them, to be exact), to high-definition television, which brings everything into sharper focus; from the proliferation of decorating shows on TV to an increased emphasis — in business and in marketing — on sending the proper message, in part through colors.

These would be the colors on the walls, the company logo, the home page of the website, the business card, the fleet of vans or trucks, and on it goes. But much of her work involves commercial and residential real estate.

“To me, the most important thing is to unravel how someone wants to feel in a space, and how we can choose a color that’s going to have the right physiological outcome and the right psychological outcome,” Woolf said while trying to quickly explain what she does and how she does it. “Because color really does have a physiological impact; it changes our heartbeat, it changes how we perceive temperature, those kinds of things.”

There is such a focus on color now that Woolf — whose business is based out of her home in Northampton — and others in this profession make a decent living from what could certainly be described as a solid mix of art and science, one with many variables and focus points.

Indeed, just listen to this description of a job she worked on recently involving a lengthy search for the right color for the exterior of a commercial building in Amherst.

“The building had been brown, and the client was expecting me to specify gray,” Woolf told BusinessWest. “The tenants are diverse, including light manufacturing, a Comcast office, and a martial-arts school. The color eventually chosen, which sits between the blue of the sky and the green of the trees, settles into the landscape nicely, but provides a much more welcoming first impression than brown or gray would have. Heaven knows the world is not lacking for more brown and gray buildings.”

Also consider this summation of her work to “break a tie” among leaders at Greenfield Savings Bank concerning the exterior color for the branch on King Street in Northampton; two browns and a gray were under consideration.

“Their goal for the architectural design was to help increase the sense of a “walkable, village-like feeling for King Street,” she recalled. “I suggested they do a 180 away from neutrals and go with an olive green instead. I encouraged them to break up the monotony of gray and brown so prevalent in the King Street corridor with something fresh and friendly.”

Like we said, it’s a blend of art and what is certainly now a science.

The exterior color chosen for this commercial building in Amherst

The exterior color chosen for this commercial building in Amherst “sits between the blue of the sky and the green of the trees,” says Amy Woolf.

And one of the key aspects of this work is working in partnership with the client, said Woolf, adding that the key words in those remarks above are ‘suggested’ and ‘encouraged.’

Indeed, Woolf says she doesn’t choose colors for her clients. She advises, explains the reasons behind this advice, and works to achieve buy-in. Ultimately, the client has to be more than comfortable with the decision, she said, and essentially own it.

“I explain to my clients why I’m choosing the colors I’m using,” she explained. “I’m as much a coach and a teacher; I don’t just come in and say ‘do this’ and ‘do this’; I’m always explaining why.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the business of colors, or, more specifically, the art of picking the right ones.

No Black and White Issues

As she grabbed a large fan deck, this one created by Sherwin Williams, Woolf made an emphatic point about just how many colors there are to choose from by stopping in the ‘whites’ section.

It was not a short visit.

“Look at all of these whites,” she said as she flipped through the wheel. “And they all have a slightly different, subtle quality to them, and that’s where people get in trouble; they say, ‘I’m just going to paint white.’ But if it’s a pinky white, then they end up with pink walls.”

Helping people make sense of, and perhaps choose among, all those whites — and blues and greens and grays — is essentially Woolf’s stock and trade, only it’s much more complicated than looking at swatches and finding one that looks good, as she would explain in detail. Because ‘good’ is certainly a relative term in this discussion, and one with myriad meanings.

Other professionals involved in art, architecture, and interior design obviously work with clients on color selection, she noted, but this is all she does. She’s not sure if she’s the only certified color consultant in the 413 area code, but she does know that it wouldn’t take long at all to call the roll.

Nonetheless, hers is a vibrant business (that’s a technical term in many respects), and she quantified that by saying she’s generally juggling more than 20 clients at a time, with a healthy mix of residential and commercial, probably a little more of the former than the latter.

And her work, as she told BusinessWest, involves almost anything, design-wise and business-wise, that comes in colors. That includes flooring, window treatments, furniture, etc. (She noted that, when she mentions she’s a color consultant, many ask if this extends to fashion and coordinating one’s wardrobe; it doesn’t.)

“I liken it to an algebraic equation — everything’s a variable that all comes together in a certain way,” she said of most projects in both the commercial and residential realms. “As you tweak one thing, everything around it moves, so it’s good to look at it all at once.”

Like most of those who are certified architectural color consultants, Woolf was greatly influenced by the work of the late Frank Mahnke, who wrote the book on the subject — quite literally. It’s called Color, Environment & Human Response, and that name goes a long way toward explaining this profession.

Indeed, there are human responses to various colors, she went on, adding that these responses should help dictate which ones people, especially those in various businesses, should choose.

As she talked about all this, Woolf referenced the color chosen for the walls of her home office — called ‘cooking apple green.’

She chose it because she likes it and finds it comfortable to be in and around. But BusinessWest was among the very few people outside her family who have been in this office (Woolf obviously needs to do her work on location in almost all cases), so this played into the decision.

“This is just for me,” she said, adding quickly that it might be suitable in a traditional business office; that’s might.

“The important thing about color is that we do have these sort of prescriptive ways of talking about it — ‘this is good for business,’ or ‘this is good for a nursery,’ or ‘this is good for a bedroom,’” she explained. “But what that doesn’t really examine is the individual, personal relationship with color.

“For me, I find this green to strike the right balance between restful and having enough liveliness so that it’s somewhat energizing,” she went on, diving into the real science of her work. “But for someone who doesn’t really like green, it would be the wrong choice. So you probably need to think of it in terms of a bell curve — for a large number of people at the middle of the bell curve, this would be an acceptable color, but for some people who are maybe outliers, it wouldn’t work. The bottom line is that one needs to be careful not to generalize over colors that are ‘good.’”

For her new office in Agawam, Jean Deliso

For her new office in Agawam, Jean Deliso desired colors that make clients feel comfortable and convey a sense of trust.

So, just what goes into choosing the right color or colors, especially for a business setting? Woolf said it all comes down to how the client would like someone to feel in that space. Sometimes, that someone is the client themselves, but for a business that entertains customers, it’s more about how those individuals will feel in that space.

Business owners want that individual to feel comfortable, obviously, she went on, but often there’s more to it. In settings where the visitor might be anxious — a doctor’s office or any other place where delicate matters are discussed, for example — calming colors are required. Meanwhile, in most professional settings, like lawyers’ and accountants’ offices, colors that somehow generate trust and respect are preferable.

“In a commercial environment, you want to choose colors that send the appropriate message for the product or service being sold,” she said, adding that, while this sounds obvious, it is often an overlooked or underappreciated matter.

“I would never — OK, never is a big word … I would be unlikely to use trendy colors in an office or business environment where the message and the branding is that of solidity or trust,” she went on. “We talk about ‘IBM blue’ or ‘banking blue,’ the kinds of colors that create a sense of trust and reliability; we can use colors like that.”

And, as one might guess, there are, well, fine lines everywhere when one is talking about this subject.

Take yellow, for example. “It’s a very energetic color, it’s very buzzy; that’s why we paint school buses yellow, so we can see them,” she told BusinessWest. “But sometimes, people are sensitive to the level of energy in that yellow, and might think it’s overwhelming.

“In my training, we talk about this continuum of understimulation versus overstimulation,” she went on, “with understimulation being monotonous and boring in the environment, and overstimulation being so vivid, so bright, so much data that it becomes overwhelming and is too much. So what I want to unravel with my clients is, what does their environment call for in terms of that feeling?”

Hue and Cry

What this unraveling process has revealed throughout her career is that, while there are rules of sorts in this science and this business, they are not exactly hard and fast, and sometimes rules are made to be broken.

“The classic example is using a restful color in a bedroom,” she explained. “People want calming, soothing colors. But I did work for a physician who really wanted a wake-up call, so her bedroom is a soft orange, which flies in the face of those rules, or those shortcuts.”

One of those rules pertains to colors at opposite ends of the color circle, such as yellow/purple, red/green, and orange/blue. While celebrated artists liked to bring such contrasts together on a canvas, and doing so might work from a fashion perspective, it’s generally best to avoid such practices in a business setting, said Woolf.

“Color schemes that are high-contrast really don’t work,” she said. “Strong black and white, which arguably is trendy and in style in the architectural world, really creates eyestrain,” she explained. “My training says to keep the colors closer to the center and not to the extreme end of light and dark.”

However, strict adherence to the common practices of using all warm colors or all cool colors might not yield the kind of dynamic color scheme and interesting environment that results from working from both ends of the color wheel.

“You can do it, but do it just enough,” she said of contrasting colors, adding that this, in itself, is part of the art and science of this work. “That’s where the magic is.”

There are some other general guidelines to follow, she said, adding that it is wise, especially in a business setting, to focus on colors that work for that particular setting, meaning sending the right message, and not, as she noted earlier, colors that are ‘trendy’ at that given time.

Colors in that latter category now include turquoise and aqua, said Woolf, adding that, while they may be ‘hot,’ they still wouldn’t be suitable for a lawyer’s office. A pediatrician’s office? Well, probably.

However, businesses should look to avoid what she called “outdated” colors in order not to appear behind the times. Asked for examples, she listed dusty rose and Colonial blue.

“When we go to a doctor’s office, we want to feel like they’re up to date on everything — they’ve got the latest equipment and the newest science,” she explained. “If the color schemes are holdovers from the ’80s, you’re not really sending that message.”

conference room at Deliso Financial

Amy Woolf says the colors in the conference room at Deliso Financial were chosen to have a calming effect.

While talking about colors in the hypothetical can he helpful, Woolf said an actual project from her portfolio might help put matters in perspective. She was right.

BusinessWest accompanied her on a visit to Deliso Financial Services in Agawam. Jean Deliso, principal and financial advisor, most recently served the magazine as a judge for this year’s 40 Under Forty competition. This time, the assignment was to explain how Woolf helped her make over her new space in the office building on Meadow Street Extension, and, more specifically, how and why the colors now on the walls were chosen.

And she embraced it enthusiastically because the walls of this space, formerly occupied by a pest-control company, were white (which shade she doesn’t know), and she wanted to replace this blank canvas with something that “said something.”

“This is a great space, but it needed a transformation,” she recalled, noting that she was essentially moving across the hall and into a bigger office. “Everything was white, and it was soooo non-inviting, and I need to have something inviting, and I needed help to do that.”

Elaborating, she said she desired something that was “comfortable and non-intimidating,” which is understandable seeing that she works in financial services, dealing with a subject that the vast majority of people would prefer to not talk about. She also wanted to convey professionalism and trust, two character traits required of those handling such work.

She hired Woolf, who has also done work at her residence, and who set to work picking colors that would convey all that. For one wall, she chose a color called Wilmington tan, which is kind of like beige, but a little richer (“people think of beige as insipid, but this has a lot of depth to it”), because it has a calming effect.

For the back wall, the one a client would be looking at if he or she were sitting across Deliso’s desk from her, Woolf chose something called Newburyport blue.

Deliso likes the name — she’s a sailor (paintings of boats dominate her walls), and Newburyport is right on the water — but likes the color better. It complements the IBM blue on her business card — sort of — and that’s by design, said Woolf, who noted that Deliso had a much brighter blue (like the shade on her business card) on the walls in her old office. And that wasn’t exactly working, at least in her judgment.

“We toned the blue down a little bit,” she explained. “Because what looks great on letterhead doesn’t always translate into a comfortable wall color. We can use those brand colors as an inspiration, but you don’t, or shouldn’t, just pull it off a card and stick it on a wall.”

Elsewhere in the Deliso Financial suite, Woolf used Providence olive in the conference room, again to create comfort and a sense of ease among clientele who might be nervous upon entering, especially for the first time, and carefully positioned Deliso’s many awards and news clippings on what the client calls the ‘trophy wall,’ again to convey professionalism and generate confidence.

When asked if all this focus on color was worth the time and expense, Deliso issued an enthusiastic ‘yes’ that speaks to why Woolf’s schedule is pretty tight these days.

“My clients feel very comfortable here; they enjoy coming here,” she explained. “They feel great when they come here, and it’s a good experience, and I think the colors play a very big part in that.”

Positive Tones

In her next life, Woolf joked, she wants to be the one who gets to assign names to all those colors on the wheel — like ‘cooking apple green’ or even ‘Bedford Stuyvesant boiled chicken,’ the name one client attached to a wheat-like color she eventually chose for her summer home.

For now, though, she’s content to work with all those hues and, more to the point, help clients choose the right ones — like the color on that building that “sits between the blue of the sky and the green of the trees and settles into the landscape nicely.”

It’s rewarding work on a number of levels, one that has made for a colorful career to date, in every sense of that phrase.

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

Cover Story Sections Sports & Leisure

Polishing a Gem

Camile Hannoush

Camile Hannoush on the soon-to-be-renovated front porch at Springfield Country Club, which has a commanding view of downtown Springfield.

Camile Hannoush, managing partner for a group of new owners at Springfield Country Club, doesn’t buy into that argument that the younger generations don’t necessarily want to join a private club. He believes they will join if they’re given enough good reasons to do so. His group’s broad assignment, then — and they’re already hard at work on it — is to create more of those reasons at this venerable landmark.

Camile Hannoush says he’s been a member, and, therefore, a co-owner, of Springfield Country Club (SCC) for more than 25 years now.

“So nothing’s really changed,” he told BusinessWest as he talked about what he and a group of partners who acquired the 120-year-old club last month for $2.8 million intend to do with it, and for it.

He was saying that tongue in cheek, of course, because with this new ownership model — from member-owned to private control — and Hannoush’s new business card identifying him as managing partner, a great deal has changed.

And this is exactly the message that Hannoush and his fellow partners — his brothers Tony, Norman, Peter, and George, as well as Raipher and Joe Pellegrino — want to get across to members and prospective members: change — for the better.

It is coming, and will continue to come, in the areas where it is most needed, especially in the broad realm of financial stability, said Camile, who noted that SCC, like many private clubs, has struggled in recent years with membership and everything that comes with that challenge, especially cash flow, or lack thereof.

As we improve the situation here, once the remodeling is complete and members start coming and bringing friends and guests … once we bring that customer-service level up to five-star, I believe word of mouth will bring us the additional members we need.”

“Our first goal, obviously, is to increase membership,” he explained. “And one key to that is achieving confidence among the community that the club is a solid business and a solid place to be a member.

“One of the reasons we’ve struggled to bring in new members in recent years has been assessments,” he said, referring to the charges imposed upon members to cover everything from cash shortfalls to capital projects to course improvements. “And people don’t want to join a club where they’re not sure what their bottom line is going to be at the end of the year and how much it’s going to cost them.”

Change is also coming to the facilities — everything from improvements to the pool area to a broad renovation of the front-porch area, with its dramatic view of the Connecticut River and the Springfield skyline, to a new fine-dining restaurant now under construction (more on all this later).

What will also change is Hannoush’s typical workday. Also a partner with his brothers in Hannoush Jewelers and Giftology, a gift boutique with several locations including Longmeadow and Springfield, Camile says the country club will be his main focus for the foreseeable future. To prove it, he has taken over what used to be the “ladies card room” on the second floor of the massive clubhouse and created an office there (a new card room for women will be created elsewhere).

“I’ll be running the club this year — this is where I’ll be,” he said, adding that all the partners will be involved, but he’ll be leading the various efforts to return the club to the prominence it has enjoyed through most of its history.


SEE: Chart of Golf Courses in the the area


 

Hannoush said there is already a good deal of momentum at the club — roughly 25 new members (some of which are former members returning to SCC) have signed on since the change in ownership was announced, and he expects more in the coming weeks as the golf season, delayed by that massive March 14 blizzard, gets underway.

And once these new members bring their friends to the facility, and as word gets out about the many improvements and new amenities, he expects momentum to continue building.

“I believe in word of mouth,” he explained. “And I think that, as we improve the situation here, once the remodeling is complete and members start coming and bringing friends and guests … once we bring that customer-service level up to five-star, I believe word of mouth will bring us the additional members we need.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with the Springfield Country Club’s new managing partner about how the facility intends to refine its game, build membership, and become the region’s club of choice.

Course of Action

Hannoush said he’s heard all that talk and conjecture about how the younger generations simply are not into the country-club scene as much as their predecessors, and this is one of the big reasons why many area clubs are struggling to find members.

He doesn’t exactly buy into that argument, and adds that a quick demographic breakdown of those new members he mentioned earlier helps him state his case.

the younger generations will join a country club

Camile Hannoush says the younger generations will join a country club if they’re given enough good reasons to do so, and that’s his mission at SCC.

“Many of them— in fact, most of them — are under 40,” he said of those new recruits, adding that he’s firmly of the opinion that the younger generations, or any constituency, for that matter, will join a private club if they have the wherewithal, and if you give them enough good reasons to do so.

In a nutshell, this new ownership group has taken on the singular mission of creating more of those good reasons.

There were already many to begin with, said Hannoush, listing the club’s location — just off Riverdale Street in West Springfield and, therefore, easily accessible to downtown Springfield and a host of area communities — as one of its best assets. Others include the stately, well-appointed clubhouse, diverse membership, and a course known for its impeccable condition.

Lately, though, this mix hasn’t been quite enough, he went on, noting that membership had dipped to around 240, down considerably from pre-recession days, and just over half the high-water mark of more than 400 around the start of this century.

To get those numbers back up, the new ownership team has commenced creating more reasons to join, starting with perhaps the biggest — financial stability and far less uncertainty about what members’ financial obligations will be to the club, as he noted earlier.

Of course, this stability can only come through greatly increasing membership, he went on, but not only getting members, but convincing them to spend time and money at the club.

“There’s a lot of overhead — this is a big, big business,” he said while essentially outlining the basic strategy in the business plan moving forward. “That’s why you need a certain number of members to be here, and why you need the members to dine here and spend time here.”

This simple fact explains the current emphasis on amenities with a strong focus on families, and meeting their specific needs, said Hannoush, who said the improvements to the pool area, including a new pool house and cabana, are a good example.

“What we’re going to try to do is bring back more family-focused events,” he explained. “We want to give them more reasons to come to the club. Improving the pool area and giving them more services there will bring them back.”

The extensive renovations to the porch area are another example, he said, as he took out his phone to show pictures of a planned 50-foot ‘fire wall’ that will replace a row of hedges, a new patio, new ceiling, tiling, and other improvements that will make that space more liveable and much more popular with members.

Another big step forward, he said, is creation of a fine-dining restaurant. The club has a grille room and a banquet room that can sit more than 200 people, said Hannoush, but it has long lacked the fine-dining facility that many clubs have and that most current and potential members relish.

One is being created in the former ‘19th hole’ just off the banquet room, he said, adding that the new facility, now walled off from the main room, will seat roughly 40 and have its own bar. Meanwhile, another room, the Brooks Room, with stunning views of the first and 10th holes and the setting sun, will also be renovated and used for small parties and receptions.

“So we’ll be more aggressive with social and dining memberships,” he explained, adding that another focus of change at the club will be its menu of memberships. It will be lengthened and diversified, with corporate offerings, a weekday membership, and other options, to accommodate different constituencies, create value, and, therefore, help bring in new members.

And, as he mentioned earlier, as those new members begin to talk about the club, and as their friends and guests get to experience what they’re talking about, he expects momentum to build.

Diamond in the Rough

As he completed his quick tour of the facilities and posed for a few photos before returning to his new office, Hannoush paused on the porch, gestured toward the Springfield skyline in the distance, and then back toward the clubhouse.

“This club is a gem — it’s always been a gem,” he said. “It just needed to be polished a little.”

Spoken like someone who’s been in the jewelry business his whole life.

Actually, it was spoken like someone who has been a member, and therefore an owner, of the club for 25 years. As he said, in one respect, nothing’s changing.

But in most all others, everything is changing — and for the better.

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

Law Sections

Firm in Its Commitment

Ken Albano, Bacon Wilson’s new managing partner

Ken Albano, Bacon Wilson’s new managing partner

Ken Albano, the recently named managing partner at Bacon Wilson, said the firm has a simple yet quite complex challenge — to achieve growth and further stability simultaneously. It is addressing this assignment through a number of initiatives, including the opening of a new, larger facility in Northampton, creating a presence on Route 9 in Hadley, and continuing to pursue opportunities to bring the firm’s name and reputation to more communities.

Ken Albano has what would have to be described as a very diverse practice, one that covers a large amount of territory — geographically, within the broad realm of the law, and in societal matters as well.

To get his point across, he relays a story that one can surmise he’s told quite often over the years.

“One day, I was in a meeting concerning a multi-, multi-million-dollar acquisition in one of our largest conference rooms in Springfield,” he told BusinessWest, referring to the downtown headquarters of Bacon Wilson. “Back in those days, the accountants would show up, the insurance people would show up, the bankers would show up, and you’d have 15 people in a four- or five-hour closing trying to get a deal done. And at that particular closing, I had to leave early to go handle a dog-bite hearing in Monson.

“That was a reality check,” the Springfield native went on, adding that this happened not long after he was appointed town counsel for that small (population 8,700) town in the eastern corner of Hampden County. “I went from one end of the spectrum to the other, and quickly. But it’s been a blessing ever since; I really enjoy my municipal work, and we’ve grown that side of the business.”

Today, there are still dog-bite hearings, in Monson and also Southwick and Holland, the other communities he serves as counsel, but there are also contract negotiations, conservation matters, cell-phone-tower location hearings, and a host of other matters. And there are still multi-, multi-million-dollar deals to handle in the business and banking and finance practices at the firm — although there are fewer people in the room these days.

But now, there are still more matters on Albano’s plate vying for (and consuming) his time and attention. Indeed, he recently succeeded Steve Krevalin as managing partner of the 122-year-old firm, a role that comes with a number of responsibilities.

Such as finding a new, larger, and in all ways better location for the firm’s offices in Northampton. Which explains why he was on Center Street in that community, giving BusinessWest a tour of that work in progress, which will eventually house seven lawyers and represent a significant upgrade, facilities-wise, from the present quarters on Trumbull Road.

Also on his responsibilities list is forging a new affiliation — similar in many ways to the one struck with the firm Morse & Sacks in Northampton to give the firm a real presence there — with the Law Office of Alfred Albano (no relation to Ken) in Hadley. (More on that merger later.)

This initiative gives the firm a Route 9 address, and the visibility that comes with it, in a bustling town often overshadowed by the communities it borders — Northampton and Amherst (more on that later).

Beyond these strategic developments are the more day-to-day, but no less important matters involved with being managing partner, he said, noting these include everything from interviewing candidates for open positions (the firm has one at present) to coping with a changing legal landscape and constant pressures from a wave-riding economy.

Times are relatively good at the moment, he explained, but things can change in a hurry, and downturns, especially one like the one that started roughly a decade ago, can seriously impact a firm.

Overall, many firms have become smaller in recent years, said Albano, adding that Bacon Wilson has remained relatively steady while continuously exploring new opportunities for further growth and stability.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked at length with Albano about his practice, his expanded duties at Bacon Wilson, and the broad strokes within the firm’s business plan moving forward.

Building His Case

Albano said he finds municipal work quite intriguing, for a number of reasons, one of them being that he’s working with a constantly changing cast of leaders and different forms of government.

“I’ve grown accustomed to working with select-board members over the years; every three or four years they shuffle the deck, and someone new gets elected,” he explained. “And you’re serving under a different leadership form for each municipality, which has been interesting as well.

Ken Albano stands outside

Ken Albano stands outside the future home of the firm’s Northampton office on Center Street.

“I always say, and I tell the selectmen this as well, that there always seems to be one member who has common sense,” he went on, referring to what are generally three-member boards. “There’s one who’s kind of a hothead who doesn’t really think before he or she speaks, and there’s always one rookie who generally stays quiet and learns the ropes. That’s been the pattern, generally, and it’s always … always interesting.”

And it’s also a long way from downtown Hartford, which is where Albano essentially started his career, working in the tax division at Arthur Andersen, then one of the Big 8 accounting firms in the country, and the one that famously self-destructed through its involvement in the Enron scandal.

Albano said his work at the firm wasn’t really to his liking — “they were trying to convert their tax division into a team of tax attorneys, and I wasn’t doing as much legal work as I wanted to” — but there was more to his decision to return to his roots in 1988 than that.

“When I was working in Hartford in the Gold Building, I’d walk out in my navy-blue suit, white shirt, and red tie and feel like a robot,” he explained. “Everybody on the street had the same outfit on, and I didn’t know anyone; I didn’t get that hometown feeling working in Hartford.

“When I came back to Springfield in the late ’80s, I could walk to lunch from State Street and run into five or 10 people on the street who would say ‘how’s your mom and dad?’ or ‘how’s your brother or sister?’ or ‘say hello to this person or that person.’ There’s a real hometown feel to Springfield, and that’s a big reason why I’ve stayed at Bacon Wilson ever since.”

And over the past three decades or so, he has, as noted earlier, greatly expanded and diversified his practice to include work in a host of areas, including business/corporate, healthcare, banking and finance, and municipal.

With that last specialty, he started in Monson, where he settled after returning to the area, in 1993, and added Southwick in 2002, Holland in 2011, and Wales in 2015.

Albano said he was approached by Krevalin toward the end of 2015 about succeeding him in the role of managing partner, a transition agreed to by the other partners at the firm. The two essentially co-managed the firm in 2016, and Albano took the reins officially this past January.

“It’s been exciting — and challenging,” he said of the new role and the process of assimilating its various responsibilities into everything he was already doing. “I’m still practicing law 100%, which I’m expected to do, but I’m also getting pulled in a lot of different directions.”

By that, he meant both points on the compass and a host of management roles, many of which he was not really involved with, such as personnel.

The main direction he’s been pulled in geographically is north, where he’s essentially closing two deals that will give the firm a larger, stronger presence in Hampshire County.

Elaborating, he said many Springfield-based firms have what would essentially be called satellite offices in Northampton and maybe Amherst. These would be small facilities with a phone and conference room that would be used for closings and other meetings several times a month. But Bacon Wilson has gone further, establishing affiliations with existing practices with matching philosophies, and putting both names on the door and the letterhead.

It did this in 2005 with the firm Morse and Sacks in Northampton, and in 2006 with the firm Monsein and MacConnell in Amherst.

“With these affiliations, these lawyers came on as basically employees of the firm,” he said of the Amherst and Northampton mergers, as they’re called officially. “In time, their practices molded into the fabric of the firm, and to this day, you probably couldn’t remember when they started with us, because it feels like they’ve always been with us.”

In Northampton, he said, the firm will take its presence to a higher level with the new facility on Center Street, a building that was being built out for yet another new restaurant in a community known for its abundance of them. Those plans never materialized, so the blueprints were altered dramatically to accommodate a law firm instead.

Bacon Wilson’s lease was due to expire in Northampton, Albano went on, and was looking at a host of options, including staying put on Trumbull Road, when the Center Street opportunity unfolded.

“I looked at this [Trumbull Road] facility as a whole, and determined that the lawyers, paralegals, and staff that came here on a daily basis were in need of a better working environment,” he explained. “This Center Street location will be state-of-the-art, with all the bells and whistles.”

Meanwhile, the firm has finalized an affiliation agreement with Alfred Albano’s practice, giving the firm a presence starting this week, with the sign saying ‘Bacon Wilson, Al Albano.’

That practice is well-established, but a good bit of work that comes to it must be referred out to other lawyers with expertise in specific matters. “That work will now stay in house,” said Ken Albano, “because we have 40 other lawyers that can help out, and he won’t have to refer it any more.”

As for the bigger picture, Albano said the firm will continue to take steps to give it the size and flexibility needed to weather the various swings in the economy — the recent steps taken in Northampton and Hadley certainly fall into that category — while also looking at further territorial expansion through new affiliations.

“Our goals, simply put, are to achieve growth and stability at the same time,” he explained. “We’re always looking for opportunities to grow the firm; there may be new municipalities in the future that we would target to open a law practice, just as we have in the past.”

Greenfield might become one potential target, he said, noting the growth of small business there, and there might be others as well.

Final Arguments

Albano told BusinessWest he still handles the occasional dog-bite case in the municipalities he serves. They no longer provide a reality check, though, because he’s certainly adjusted to this new reality.

In many respects, he can the say the same about his new role as managing partner as he makes that adjustment as well. He said the many new responsibilities are quite a bit like the practice of law and the business of law themselves — compelling, but also challenging.

The biggest challenge facing Bacon Wilson, and any other firm, for that matter, is managing that task of simultaneously achieving growth and stability. It’s a work in progress, but, as they say in this business, he and the firm are building a solid case.

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

Building Trades Sections

Flush with New Ideas

Craig O’Connor says bathroom makeovers by Affordable Bath

Craig O’Connor says bathroom makeovers by Affordable Bath can include deep soaking tubs, which are growing in popularity.

It’s one of the most important rooms in the house — resale-wise, and otherwise. And yet, many people live with something that’s been outdated for 20 years or more. New materials, products, and techniques provide an array of creative and often-affordable options for giving the bathroom a new life.

 

A bathroom makeover can be functional and involve a simple update, or turn the space into a spa-like retreat with recessed lighting, a heated floor, a spacious tiled shower with multiple shower heads and built-in benches, or a deep soaking tub where the water vibrates in response to soft music.

The choices are almost limitless, and thanks to new materials and technology, there are solutions for every budget that result in a fresh, clean, updated look.

“The two rooms that affect resale value the most are the kitchen and the bathroom; they tend to be most expensive to remodel, but are also the most important,” said Jason Cusimano, owner of Bathfitter of Western Mass. in Greenfield, which specializes in customized acrylic tub liners, wall systems, and shower-to-bath conversions.

Jim Belle-Isle agrees. “The bathroom is the first thing people see in the morning and the last room they see before they go to bed,” said the owner of BathCrafters in Chicopee, which also specializes in custom acrylic tub liners, wall systems, and conversions.

 

The two rooms that affect resale value the most are the kitchen and the bathroom; they tend to be most expensive to remodel, but are also the most important.”

 

Affordable Baths Inc. in Springfield, meanwhile, does complete makeovers that begin with gutting the entire room. The existing footprint can be replicated, or the room may get an entirely new design, which allows a homeowner to be as creative as their budget and imagination allow.

“Many people are suffering with bathrooms that have been outdated for 10 or 15 years; they wait to remodel until they are ready to put their house on the market, but if you are going to spend the money, you should do it at least a few years before you sell so you can enjoy it,” said Craig O’Connor, owner of Affordable Baths, adding that a remodeled bathroom adds instant equity to a home.

Local bath remodelers say the majority of their clients are 35 and older, and are remodeling or making changes because the room is outdated or has problems due to mold and mildew. Baby Boomers also make up a large part of their business, and those who plan to stay in their homes often want the bathtub converted into a spacious shower stall with grab bars, a seat, and recessed soap holders.

“Twenty years ago, we did one shower conversion for every tub makeover. Now the ratio is one-to-one,” Cusimano said as he spoke about the growing trend. “The bathroom usually has a small footprint, but eliminating a tub can make the space seem amazingly larger.”

Trends and styles come and go, but white fixtures are the most popular, followed by neutrals that include beige and gray. Although many remodeling shows on TV feature bathrooms with intricate tiles and daring designs in shower stalls, grouted seams require maintenance, and most New Englanders want surfaces that are easy to clean and prefer wall surrounds or large, block-style tiles.

For this edition and its focus on home improvement, BusinessWest explores options offered by local remodelers that range from complete makeovers to less-costly renovations that include relining and resurfacing tubs, sinks, wall tiles, and bath surrounds, extending their life and giving them a clean, updated look.

Changing Trends

O’Connor’s Springfield showroom contains tiles, vanities, showerheads, shower stalls, faucets, lighting, countertop samples, flooring, and everything else needed for a complete bathroom remodel. The typical cost of a job in New England is $14,000, but Affordable Bath can usually do a complete remodel for $10,000, as long as the footprint isn’t changed. However, the price rises if people choose costly options such as heated floors, custom tile bath surrounds, or vanities larger than 36 inches.

The room is gutted down to the studs, and the remodeling takes a week or two to complete. It can be inconvenient for homeowners who have only one bathroom, but the new bath or shower is ready for use by the end of the first week, and clients are offered Porta Potty units.

Gunmetal-gray-colored vanities are growing in popularity, but most people choose shades of brown, and quartz countertops are replacing granite; the material is slightly more expensive, but doesn’t require maintenance and resists stains.

O’Connor told BusinessWest that many people whose master bathrooms have Jacuzzi tubs are eliminating them or replacing them with deep-soaking or claw-foot models.

Jim Belle-Isle

Jim Belle-Isle says BathCrafters can install a new bathtub liner and wall system in one or two days to give the room an updated look.

Claw-foot tubs come in cast iron, which retains the temperature of the water for long periods of time, or acrylic, which weighs less and is a good choice for second floors.

Some Baby Boomers and seniors are also looking toward the future and choosing walk-in tubs.

“The surfaces are heated, and the jets can be positioned to hit the knees, hips, or lower back,” O’Connor said, adding that roll-in showers with fold-down seats and grab bars are another option that eliminate the need to step over a wall to bathe.

“We’ve created bathrooms that range from a basic remodel that meets practical needs to spaces that provide the comfort of a private, spa-like retreat,” he continued, noting that the company recently remodeled a master bathroom and installed an oversized Jacuzzi tub and separate shower with multiple showerheads, custom tiles, a built-in bench, and a frameless glass exterior.

Although a complete makeover is the ultimate choice, there are many options for people who don’t need or want that option or can’t afford it. They include having a custom-made acrylic tub and liner installed over the existing one. The liners usually have lifetime warranties, and the entire job can be done in about two days and enhanced with a new sink with fancy faucets and a new toilet.

“We have more than 1,000 acrylic molds that fit every cast-iron or steel tub, along with multiple designs and colors,” Cusimano said, adding that bronze or brushed nickel drains or overflows are popular and an average job costs $3,000 to $4,000, although prices for tub-to-shower conversions range from $1,000 to $7,000, depending on factors that include how much plumbing is required and whether the homeowner wants built-in seats and other high-end features.

He told BusinessWest that acrylic is a very high-end plastic and far more durable than old bath surrounds that tend to be made of fiberglass. The material is easy to clean, and the finish never wears off, as acrylic is not a coating.

Many bathrooms remodelers are called upon to change have baby-blue or pink tubs and fixtures, and tiles that were also used as wainscoting and were popular in the ’40s and ’50s.

The tiles are often removed before a new wall system is put in place, and water damage caused by small cracks in the tiles or grouting behind them is repaired.

“There can be hundreds of seams in a tiled bathroom where water can get in,” Cusimano said, adding that some people have no idea that this has been happening.

Most tub liners and wall systems need beading where the edges meet, but new barrier materials are infused with mildicides and antimicrobial additives.

The wall systems Bathfitter uses don’t come in pieces, but are custom-made after taking measurements with a laser. They extend from the edge of the tub or shower to the ceiling, and the corners are bent so there are no seams inside the tub.

Soap dishes and corner caddies can be added, along with acrylic on the ceiling, and bowed rods are gaining popularity as they make the area seem more spacious.

BathCrafters also makes custom tub liners that are formed to fit perfectly over existing tubs, and if tile walls are in excellent shape, Belle-Isle said, they can be covered with acrylic liners, which reduces the cost of removing them. In addition, tile wainscoting in dated colors can be covered with tile-shaped acrylic.

“The biggest decision they have to make is whether they want a shower door. It does pose a maintenance issue, but some people want glass doors without metal frames,” he noted.

Although tub surrounds come in many colors and designs, neutral palettes allow people to change the look of the bathroom in the future without having to spend a lot of money. “People can get creative with floor tile, vanity tops, and paint colors,” Belle-Isle said, adding that he often reminds customers that it is much easier to redo a floor than a tub and surround.

“Remodeling can cost a lot, but the main issue in a bathroom is usually the tub or shower. Many don’t want to completely gut the room, but they do want a look that is modern and doesn’t require much maintenance, and we can provide that,” he continued, adding that everything he installs is customized to fit.

Miracle Method of Ludlow offers another option that is the least expensive choice but completely updates the look of a bathroom, tub, or shower area and extends the life of existing tubs and showers that are scratched, chipped, or contain outdated colors. After the tub or wall surround is professionally cleaned, a high-end coating is applied, which contains a bonding agent that fuses with the old surface.

Owner Jim Kenney says the entire process takes five to six hours and cures overnight. Prices start at $585 for a standard bathtub, and sinks, countertops, and tiled walls can also be sprayed.

“We can change the entire color scheme and use the same acrylic on tile walls, which will give the room a fresh new look and bring it up to date,” he explained.

In addition, Miracle Method does step-through cutaways in bathtubs that turn them into shower stalls and are popular with seniors. “We cut a 24-inch wide step into the side rail so it is easier to get into,” Kenney explained, adding that he leaves five inches on either end of the cutaway and can install grab bars and apply a non-slip surface to the floor before the coating is sprayed onto it. The cost of this makeover with grab bars is about $1,450, and it is a growing part of his business.

Modern Look

Bathrooms are used on a daily basis by homeowners as well as their guests, and can reflect a person’s decorating style or simply serve as a functional room that meets basic needs.

But the look and age of the tub, sink, toilet, and walls can make it a place to avoid or one that is enjoyable to visit, Belle-Isle said. “When the environment in a bathroom is pleasant, it makes a big difference in a person’s overall mood.”

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Taking Account

Principals Patrick Leary (left) and Doug Theobald

Principals Patrick Leary (left) and Doug Theobald

The field of accounting is broad, diverse, and constantly changing, so the leaders of Moriarty & Primack are rightfully proud that their firm has weathered those changes with near-constant growth and little turnover. They credit a culture of connection, where open communication is valued in the office and client relationships dig deeper than mere numbers on a ledger. As it approaches its second quarter-century, those are values the company intends to preserve.

After a quarter-century in business, it’s natural for an accounting firm to re-evaluate its place in the financial-services industry — particularly for a firm with the consistent growth record of Moriarty & Primack.

“We’re probably at the cusp where we’re not a small firm anymore, but not a large firm, either — maybe a medium-sized firm,” said Patrick Leary, CPA, Assurance Services partner with the firm, which now totals almost 40 employees. “So, what does that mean to our clients and how we market ourselves in the community?”

When he and other leaders of the Springfield-based firm sat down with BusinessWest recently, they talked about how the company’s evolution had sparked conversations, now ongoing, about its messaging and growth strategy going forward. What kept coming up was a wave of young talent.

“You can certainly say we’re younger than we were 10 years ago,” Leary said. “That certainly changes the firm’s culture — younger people with lots of energy, people who are building their careers, striving to move forward.”

They also bring their own, varied perspectives, said Douglas Theobald, Tax Services partner and the firm’s president, noting that they were recruited from both Western Mass. colleges and well outside the region, and hail from both accounting programs and other professions, bringing a richness of life experience to their jobs.

This group — which definitely doesn’t represent the old vanguard of “green-eyeshade accountants,” Leary noted — also bring key experience in modern modes of communication and connection.

“The world is changing so quickly, with social media and technology and such,” said Margie Smith, human resources director, “and they are really savvy in all those areas in a way that some of us older folks may not be.”

 

We’re probably at the cusp where we’re not a small firm anymore, but not a large firm, either — maybe a medium-sized firm.”

 

Conversely, noted Lisa Behan, CPA and director, the company’s leaders can model the close client relationships that have been a hallmark of Moriarty & Primack’s 24 years in business. “The only way to teach them that is to show them.”

To that end, Leary said, the firm’s leaders make an effort to draw younger employees into many of their client discussions, if only to help them gain experience in myriad areas. “That builds our bench; someday our clients will be going to them with these questions, and the more situations we throw our staff into, the better they’re going to be in their career.”

Smith said the younger employees appreciate that culture. “It helps them develop more quickly than they might otherwise. We also have an open-door policy here. Everyone is approachable, and they know they can come to anyone, anytime, with any questions. There’s a lot of collaboration here, and everyone is on a first-name basis. It’s not ‘Mr. Theobald’ or ‘Mr. Leary’; it’s Doug and Patrick. That open-door policy helps everyone work together and makes them feel like they can ask questions, that questions aren’t stupid.”

For this issue’s focus on financial services, Moriarty & Primack’s leaders spoke with BusinessWest about how asking the right questions, and answering them with a culture that prioritizes relationship building, has fostered continual growth since 1993, and likely more moving forward.

Making a Name

Richard Moriarty and Jay Primack were long-time employees of Coopers & Lybrand when they decided to put their own names over the door, using their experience and effective recruiting of talented CPAs to make their firm one of the standouts in the local accounting community. They started in a 1,000-square-foot office in One Financial Plaza, then expanded that footprint before moving one block down Main Street to Monarch Place in 2001.

Now in its second generation of leadership, said Theobald, the firm has come to focus on four key areas: Auditing services to business clients, nonprofits, and other business entities; tax-consultation and compliance services to business clients, individuals, and other segments; business-valuation work; and employee benefit plans.

From left, Doug Theobald, Margie Smith, Lisa Behan, and Patrick Leary

From left, Doug Theobald, Margie Smith, Lisa Behan, and Patrick Leary say the company benefits from a culture of open communication.

“Those are our core service lines,” Leary added. “It’s a fairly traditional core set of services for a CPA firm of our size.”

Theobald said the firm is well-versed in virtually every industry, but its accountants aren’t afraid to consult with someone else in the company who might have broader experience in a certain field.

“We do collaborate internally amongst ourselves. Patrick may have more experience in the construction field than I have, and if I have a construction client, I can come to him with a question. And vice versa — he might come to me with a tax issue. That’s been very successful for us; we work with individual clients with a team approach, and try to use the best knowledge we can internally.”

That’s an important part of the culture, Leary added. “We tell our people that nobody here knows everything. To me, being a good CPA means asking a lot of questions. We’re not going to go to a client and just pretend we know all the answers.”

That emphasis on candor and communication appeals to Behan, who joined the firm last year from Owens & Co. in Connecticut. “I’ve seen the whole profession change over the past 10 to 20 years around relationships as opposed to technical expertise,” she said. “What’s really important to clients now is the trust, the connections, the relationships, the experience … a lot of intangibles around our relationships with clients. Twenty years ago, what we did was more of a commodity, and less personal.”

Theobald agreed. “The only way you can be successful in this business is by driving deep in relationships with your clients. They look to you as a confidant. We clearly bring technical expertise, or you wouldn’t be working with us, but it’s also a relationship built on trust. We wouldn’t have approached Lisa to join this business if she didn’t have both those skill sets.”

Smart Growth

Behan’s arrival was one example of organic growth, Theobald said, as she brought her own client base into the firm. Other growth over the years has been driven by acquisition, referrals, and a broadening of services.

“We realize we’ve got to continue to grow, and we give our staff as much opportunity as possible to grow,” he told BusinessWest, and that means drawing in new clients from near and far. “We are committed to Springfield, and we value the Pioneer Valley; we work here and reinvest in this community. But we’re also very active outside Western Mass. — in the Boston marketplace, in the Hartford marketplace. We realize that, if we want to grow the firm, we have to expand our footprint, and we’ve done this very successfully.”

To move forward, though — beyond that ‘medium-sized firm’ status — Moriarty & Primack is now examining its growth goals and formulating new marketing strategies, which is in some ways untilled ground.

A wave of new employees over the past decade

A wave of new employees over the past decade, many of them young professionals, has given Moriarty & Primack an injection of energy and ideas.

 

“I think our success has been built off hard work and past successes with clients,” Theobald said. “We do very little in marketing, but get a lot of referrals — but we only get those referrals if clients have seen us do a good job, and are confident in our ability to work together, to bring high-end service with good ideas and good execution.”

Smith noted that the firm has also committed to boosting employee training and updating its technology and infrastructure to better serve clients, which is critical in an age when so much business is handled by electronic means.

“A lot of times growth is a byproduct of where the industry as a whole is going, and so much these days is done electronically,” Theobald said. “We can serve clients totally through electronic means. We might meet with a client twice a year but still do a lot of work with them throughout the year.”

Behan agreed. “Relationships can really be built and maintained electronically. We have clients on the West Coast … so much of it is phone and e-mail. If you stay on it and maintain these relationships, you don’t always have to be face to face with people anymore.”

Busy clients tend to appreciate doing business through those channels, because carving out an afternoon meeting can be a real commitment on their end, Leary added. “We get it. We know how clients work — they may wake up at 5:30, check their e-mail, and get a lot of work done during that quiet time.”

The challenge, Theobald said, is to be accessible at all hours, but respectful of the work-life balance that’s such a key factor in retaining talent in the Western Mass. marketplace “Young professionals don’t want to work 8 to 7 every day; they want that work-life balance, and that forces us as managers to run a business that can effectively serve clients but also be a good fit for the staff.”

Getting Involved

So far, it’s working, Theobald added. “We’re only as successful as our staff, and we have a low turnover rate, which translates into continuity of service and not having to retrain the staff every so often. Turnover is very disruptive to a firm, and that is maybe the best judge of what we are doing right as a firm.”

Moriarty & Primack keeps employees engaged in ways that go beyond their job description, he added — for example, though a social-action committee through which employees decide  where to target the firm’s charitable resources, whether through dollars or events. “They like that; it’s empowerment. They’re contributing more than just in an accounting sense.”

The company also manages a mentorship program for younger staff, who have the opportunity to give and get feedback, Smith said. “They can help grow their own careers by talking to someone more experienced, and have someone watching out for them a little bit.”

These sorts of endeavors have myriad positive effects, Leary said, notably building employees’ knowledge — about their field and what’s happening in the community — which they can bring to bear in the future as they move throughout their careers.

As Moriarty & Primack looks to its second quarter-century, he went on, its leaders are drawing on history and experience to craft a vision of what they want to look like down the road.

“We’re a much larger firm than we were 10 years ago, and we’re a more diverse firm,” he told BusinessWest. “So we’re going through a strategic thought process: how do we get from here to there, how do we continue to distinguish ourselves from our competitors? The goal is to create a good strategy and execute it.”

It’s a vision that appeals to Behan. “I admire that Doug and Patrick are looking years down the road instead of looking back. They’re open-minded to how the firm might look in 10 years.”

It will certainly look much different — and has for a long time — from that small office Richard Moriarty and Jay Primack launched 24 years ago, Theobald said. “But we owe a lot to them for what they started.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Dollars and Sense

financialaidart

Attaining a college degree is a stern challenge. These days, paying for one is probably an even bigger challenge, for both students and their families. Area colleges are responding proactively with programs and initiatives that put information into the hands of those who need it and help students and families understand all the options and opportunities available to them.

Springfield College students Olivia Otter and Emily Giardino are well aware of the cost of higher education.

Although Springfield College (SC) was Otter’s first choice and she was thrilled to be accepted, she needed to see the financial-aid package the school offered her before she could commit to entering the freshman class.

“This year I signed up to be an RA [resident assistant] so I won’t have as much debt when I graduate,” said the 20-year-old sophomore, explaining that the job provides her with free housing and a reduced rate on her meal plan.

Giardino, meanwhile, is a junior and has a merit scholarship and a grant. Her mother, Trish Giardino, found the financial-aid process daunting but said that, at one point, their financial needs changed, and they were able to benefit from the college’s appeal process.

Families have very different financial situations, but they are faced with common denominators: the cost of higher education continues to climb, and the amount of student debt is reaching new, alarming heights.

Springfield College students Emily Giardino (left) and Olivia Otter

Springfield College students Emily Giardino (left) and Olivia Otter say the amount of financial aid students receive can play an important role in the school they choose to attend.

Studies show 44.2 million Americans owe $1.28 trillion in college debt, and the average class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loans, which is 6% more than 2015 graduates owed. Graduate students incur even more responsiblity, with an average of $57,000 in loans because there isn’t much financial help available for them.

Although some people question why higher education is so costly, Stuart Jones says the demand for amenities such as great food, health and counseling services, and advanced technology continues to rise, and these are certainly factors.

“We call it the arms race,” said Springfield College’s vice president for Enrollment Management. “When families visit us, they judge our buildings and compare them to what they see at other schools. Plus, today’s students want to have fun and want to know whether the school holds events like movie nights and carnivals. They want a great education, but also want a great experience, and that comes with a price tag.”

Full tuition at SC is $36,000 annually, or $43,000 with room and board, but 85% of its students receive financial aid. “We have a responsibility to help families get the help they need, so we really work hard to keep costs down; for six consecutive years, our tuition has remained lower than the national averages for colleges of the same size,” Jones said.

Kathleen Chambers said Western New England University (WNEU) is tuition-driven: the majority of the price it charges pays for the school’s operating budget, and 90% of its students receive some sort of financial aid.

“It’s our job to help parents and students meet the bottom line,” said WNEU’s director of financial aid, adding that the school’s tuition plus room and board is $49,000.

We have a responsibility to help families get the help they need, so we really work hard to keep costs down; for six consecutive years, our tuition has remained lower than the national averages for colleges of the same size.”

Public schools tend to be less expensive, but families still typically need help to pay for schooling. Suzanne Peters, director of Financial Aid Services for UMass Amherst, said 80% of the school’s full-time undergraduate students have loans, grants, or other forms of aid. Tuition at UMass Amherst is $30,000, which includes room and board, books, and transportation, and www.umass.edu/umsa contains forms, information, and search engines for a wide range of scholarships which students are urged to explore.

“Part of going to college is learning to advocate for yourself, but we give families as much information as we possibly can and things to think about, such as interest rates and repayment terms,” Peters said, noting that private schools usually have more scholarship money to award students than public schools.


List of Colleges in Western Mass.


For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest looks at what public and private schools do to help students and their parents access the help they are eligible for so they can earn a degree that will lead to a satisfying and well-paid career.

Variable Factors

Guidance counselors at high schools have information about financial aid and can steer prospective college students and their parents to appropriate resources. Most high schools also hold financial-aid information nights, while colleges and universities hold similar sessions during annual open houses.

Peters said UMass Amherst goes out into the community and puts on 100 presentations every year for prospective students and their parents, as well as panel discussions for guidance counselors, programs for incoming families, and financial-literacy sessions on campus that remind students about the debt they are accumulating.

Stuart Jones

Stuart Jones says Springfield College is unique in the amount of money it awards to graduate students.

Catherine Ryan, director of Financial Aid at Westfield State University, said that school also gives presentations and works closely with community colleges because many students transfer there after completing two years of schooling.

In general, private schools are the most costly form of higher education. State schools are less expensive, and their price tag is determined by a tiered system: community colleges are the least expensive, state universities cost more, and the UMass system is at the top of the tuition-cost pyramid.

Ryan said Westfield State costs $9,275 without room and board and $20,000 with it.

“Some students expect to be able to borrow the full amount of the cost of their education, but that’s not possible,” she noted, explaining that there are limits to federal loans. “It’s important for families to research the cost of each college the student is interested in because there are a lot of different price tags. I tell them to be organized and look at a wide range of schools.”

There are three main sources of funding for higher education. The first comes from the government via federal loans, Pell grants, state grants, and work-study programs.

The second source is scholarships or awards from a college or university, and the third is independent scholarships that are given out by a wide array of local and national groups.

“It’s our job to educate students about where they can find scholarships and grants,” Jones said, adding that millions of dollars of scholarship money goes unclaimed every year, and students should visit www.fastweb.com, the nation’s largest scholarship clearinghouse.

“We give families the tools they need to explore options and tell them what they need to know about private loans,” he went on. “But we are very honest about the amount of debt the student is likely to incur, and although some really want to come to Springfield College, we know they can’t afford it and have to help them face that reality.”

Chambers agreed, and said 90% of students at WNEU receive financial aid, and the admissions office gets in touch with students after they receive their financial-aid package to answer any questions. But they have also had to tell some students it is not realistic for them to attend the school.

However, experts say every student should fill out the Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA, which automatically qualifies them for low-interest and forgivable federal loans if they meet eligibility standards. It is also the first step needed to qualify a parent for a federal PLUS loan, which can be used to help pay college costs.

Catherine Ryan, director of Financial Aid at Westfield State University

Catherine Ryan, director of Financial Aid at Westfield State University

Experts say the form is important even for the wealthiest families because students may qualify for merit scholarships or other forms of aid if they don’t meet the benchmarks for federal programs. In addition, the most generous private colleges have awarded need-based aid to some students from families earning more than $200,000 a year.

However, Peters noted that it’s critical to read the FAFSA directions carefully. For example, it’s important to understand where to include the student’s tax information and where to use the parent’s.

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced new income-reporting rules for FAFSA beginning with the upcoming 2017-18 school year. Instead of using prior-year income as ‘base year’ income, it will now use what it refers to as ‘prior-prior year income.’ For example, the FAFSA will report 2015 calendar year income to schools the student designates on the form for the 2017-18 ‘expected family contribution’ determination instead of 2016 calendar-year income.

In addition, for the first time, families were able to fill out the FAFSA in October instead of having to wait until Jan. 1. Students who did so right away and were accepted at colleges received financial-aid packages early, which gives them more time to consider their options.

Ryan cautions that the FAFSA should be filled out as soon as possible each year because students who file after March 1 may lose out on help, as a college may have allocated all of its resources by that date.

Different Circumstances

Although every family is expected to contribute toward their child’s education to fill the gap between what can be borrowed and what is given to them in grants, sometimes this is not possible. “The amount is often double or triple what parents expected to pay,” said Ryan. “Middle-class families don’t quality for a lot of aid at public schools, so they should start conversations about affordability long before the student is ready to enroll in college.”

Although most schools don’t have an extra pool of money to help students beyond their initial offer, experts say if a family’s circumstances change, they should alert the financial-aid office, because special situations are taken into consideration. If extra aid is not available, private loans can be an option, but a student needs a credit-worthy co-signer, and interest often begins accumulating as soon as the loan is processed.

“But if a parent lost their job, or there is a death, divorce, or other significant change in the family, they should contact us,” Ryan noted.

Jones said some families try to negotiate the amount of aid the student will receive. “Some don’t really need our help and simply want a bargain, while others really do need assistance,” he noted, adding that, in some instances, SC is able to offer them more grant money.

Ryan said Westfield doesn’t have a reserve fund, but it looks at individual situations, and students sometimes opt to attend classes part-time while they work or help their family.

But most schools offer payment plans, and if parents request a meeting with the financial-aid office, they will be advised about their options.

“We have our own scholarship program, but it is only for upperclassmen,” Chambers noted.

Ryan said Westfield State may offer the neediest students a package that includes federal loans, a Pell grant, a state grant, and grant money from the school, which in some cases equates to the majority of the cost.

Kathleen Chambers

Kathleen Chambers says 90% of students at Western New England University receive financial aid.

But when it comes to helping graduate students, most colleges and universities don’t have much to offer.

“Most graduate students who receive financial aid receive it in the form of a job as a teaching assistant or research assistant,” said Patrick Callahan, a spokesperson for UMass Amherst. “When they apply for admission to a graduate program, they are considered for this type of aid, which is typically based on qualifications rather than financial need.”

He added that some graduate students receive fellowships that help with the cost of living or scholarships that reduce their tuition cost. Fellowships can come from university sources or outside sponsors, such as the National Science Foundation.

UMass Amherst has a robust assistance program that offers tuition credits as well as health benefits, and Westfield State offers its own programs.

Springfield College awards scholarships for excellence as well as associateships that provide students with free or discounted tuition and a living stipend in exchange for work on campus that does not exceed 20 hours a week.

Chambers said WNEU’s School of Law offers merit money based on a student’s undergraduate academic record and their results on the Law School Admission Test, but noted that graduate students can get an unsubsidized federal loan of up to $20,500 for their first year of study, which is considerably higher than the amount an undergraduate can borrow.

Countdown Begins

Time is of the essence, and most colleges send out financial-aid packages by March 1 because students must decide by May 1 which school they will attend.

The amount they borrow is a very important factor, but Chambers noted that higher education is an investment. “Unlike a car or house, a degree can’t be taken from you.”

Jones added that, although affordability and financial aid are critical factors in decision making, many parents say support services, the safety of a campus, and whether the school is student-focused also weigh into the equation.

“They want to know if the school is going to give their son or daughter the greatest chance at success,” he said.

When they finish their schooling and settle into careers, the amount of debt they owe may well figure into that definition, so it is indeed a situation that deserves serious consideration — because it will affect their lives for years to come.

Entrepreneurship Sections

Pour Planning

sign

It’s one of the region’s most unlikely success stories — a brewery that doesn’t distribute its beers beyond the building where they’re crafted, yet has managed to amass a passionate following of enthusiasts who wait in long lines to buy that week’s selections. From humble beginnings in a Brimfield barn, Monson-based Tree House Brewing Co. will make its second big move later this year, into a 55,000-square-foot brewery in Charlton, which will dramatically expand its capacity, raise its profile, and put smiles on the faces of a lot more thirsty people.

It’s called Julius, and it’s a different type of IPA beer.

“Julius is a beer that is near and dear to our heart, both because we love it and because it is the embodiment of our identity: a brewery that makes carefully crafted, brightly flavored, contemplative, and pleasant-to-drink malt beverages,” said Nate Lanier, co-founder and head brewer at Tree House Brewing Co.

Describing it as robustly flavored, with notes of citrus, papaya, and mango, Lanier said Julius is typically available year-round at Tree House’s headquarters on Koran’s Farm in the rolling hills of Monson. “If you’re used to light-beer flavors, drinking a Julius will be a shock to the palate — in the most lovely way imaginable.”

No wonder, then, that the day BusinessWest visited, the line to purchase cans of Julius and other ales stretched a football field’s length from the door of the barn that currently houses the brewery’s entire production and retail space (but not for long; more on that later). In fact, fans surge into the farm’s parking lot and brave those sometimes hour-long lines every time the doors open to the public, like zealous fans who can’t find Tree House brews anywhere else.

Because they can’t.

“We’re 100% sold out of this building, and that is uncommon,” said Dean Rohan, one of the brewery’s three co-founders, along with Lanier and Damien Goudreau. But it’s not strictly by design, Rohan said.

“By Saturday, there is no beer left to put on a truck and bring somewhere. We brew 340 barrels of beer a week, and we sell every single drop of it every single week.”

beer
 

It was like nothing they’d had before. A lot of the guys out west were making big, hop-forward beers, and when Nate started brewing hop-forward beers, they were what we called ‘drinkable hops’ — they weren’t so bitter and in your face. People who don’t like IPAs say they like our beer.”

 

But the phenomenon wouldn’t exist were it not for Lanier’s wife, Lauren, who got him started in the craft of home brewing.

“He loved craft beer and would go on pilgrimages to his favorite breweries and stand in line,” Rohan said. “So she bought him a home-brewing kit as a gift. I call her the mother of this place; she started it all.”

The three knew each other through music — they’re all musicians who occasionally played together — but Tree House Brewing Co. was born from a different kind of gathering, when Lanier threw a craft-beer tasting party as his house. Everyone brought favorites, and Lanier tossed three of his own home brews into the mix; when attendees voted, his creations finished first, second, and third among some 25 selections.

That got the three of them talking about investing time and money into making beer together, which they did, in Goudreau’s backyard barn in Brimfield, after getting permission from his wife. In 2012, they applied for and received a license to sell to the public, filling growlers right from the barn.

Tree House Brewing Co. founders (from left) Damien Goudreau, Nate Lanier, and Dean Rohan

Tree House Brewing Co. founders (from left) Damien Goudreau, Nate Lanier, and Dean Rohan say the Charlton expansion will create opportunities for growth and perhaps broader distribution.

“Our business plan said maybe if we could get 25 people to come buy our beer, we’d be able to pay off the little loan we took to buy a 12-gallon, half-barrel system,” Rohan said. “Well, those 25 people came the first day, then 50, then 75. From the day we opened our doors, we had more people than we’d expected.”

That’s a story that would be repeated again and again, resulting in a move to Monson two years ago and the ongoing development today of a much larger brewing facility in Charlton. At its heart, it’s a story about the enthusiasm shared among folks who make beer, and those who seek it out and stand in long lines to buy it.

Word of Mouth

The initial response to that tiny brewery in Brimfield — and, really, much of the marketing ever since — was driven by social media, which has long been a fertile communications network for craft brewers. Beer enthusiasts like the idea of hunting down something new and different, and Lanier had already developed a reputation for his beer.

“It was like nothing they’d had before,” Rohan said. “A lot of the guys out west were making big, hop-forward beers, and when Nate started brewing hop-forward beers, they were what we called ‘drinkable hops’ — they weren’t so bitter and in your face. People who don’t like IPAs say they like our beer.”

Unable to meet the demand from people who were driving up to the barn, the partners quickly outgrew the 12-gallon system, and approached the bank for their first big loan. The funds helped purchase a five-barrel brewhouse — a 150-gallon system — from California.

“That was going to be it,” Rohan said. “We were going to be able to make enough beer in that little barn to keep people happy. But we couldn’t do it.”

Again, simply through word of mouth and social media, beer enthusiasts continued to cram into the Brimfield site. Clearly, it was time to find larger digs.

“After about a year and a half in that neighborhood, the neighbors decided it was getting to be too much, having 125 cars driving up their agricultural, residential road in Brimfield, and rightfully so. We didn’t have an inch to grow in that barn anyway, so we came here.”

The lines to buy beer at Tree House often stretch to an hour or more.

The lines to buy beer at Tree House often stretch to an hour or more.

The partners built the current brewery — a 7,000-square-foot building housing a 30-barrel brewhouse, which could pump out 13,000 barrels per year — at Koran’s Farm in Monson. During construction, they continued to sell beer out of a little red barn across the street.

“This is where we were going to retire,” Rohan said, adding that, at the very least, the farm would be the framework of a five-year plan. But, a year and a half into that plan, production still wasn’t keeping up with demand.

“We have these plans and goals for the future, and the future arrives much faster than we expect it to,” he went on. “Wait, that’s wrong — we actually expect it now.”

It was in Monson that the long-line phenomenon really took off, he added. “In the dead of winter, on days when the news people were saying, ‘coldest day of the year — stay home, don’t go out’ — we’d have 25 cars in the parking lot an hour or two before we opened.” So he started printing tickets with the line order and passing them out so people could stay warm in their cars and not lose their place.

There are benefits to selling on site only, starting with freshness, as everything patrons carry out has been very recently brewed. As the partners note on their website, people like the convenience of finding a favorite beer at the convenience store, but that convenience comes at a price. “The minute our beer leaves our loving hands, it is subjected to forces that seek to destroy it — temperature fluctuations, ultraviolet light, mistreatment, etc. These forces are especially destructive to the pale, hoppy beers we love so much.”

The no-distribution model hasn’t hindered the company’s recognition; Beer Advocate recently listed 14 of its offerings on a list of 100 favorite beers. Besides the ever-popular Julius, other brews in regular rotation include ‘That’s What She Said,’ a milk stout with elements of chocolate and coffee; ‘Sap,’ a piney IPA originally brewed as a Christmas beer; ‘Green,’ a citrus-heavy IPA with notes of pineapple, tangerine, and orange rind; and ‘Eureka,’ which boasts a delicate bouquet of passionfruit and a slight lemon flavor.

Nate Lanier crafts a brew at Tree House’s headquarters in Monson.

Nate Lanier crafts a brew at Tree House’s headquarters in Monson.

Occasional offerings may include ‘Tornado,’ which Lanier concocted in the aftermath of the June 2011 tornado that ripped through Monson and Brimfield, and features notes of pine, tropical fruit, and citrus; ‘Good Morning,’ which pours black in the glass with a creamy head and offers the flavors of milk chocolate, maple syrup, and coffee; and ‘Double Shot,’ a rich, decadent coffee stout.

Stay Awhile

Those beers and more will soon be brewed in Charlton — specifically, in a 55,000-square-foot brewery on a 68-acre parcel that was most recently considered for a Home Depot warehouse, and before that, a casino. Built with the help of a $7.7 million MassDevelopment bond, the facility will initially boast a 30,000-barrel annual capacity, with the potential to expand to 125,000 barrels. Customers will be able to sample beers, buy and fill growlers, and buy cans of Tree House beer.

“For the first time in our history, we will have a taproom where guests can enjoy pints and enjoy a self-guided tour from a mezzanine level of our new, state-of-the-art brewing facility,” Lanier said. “We were lucky to find an amazing property high on a hill off of Route 20 that will allow guests to explore the grounds and disconnect a bit from the world at large.”

The people who wait in line in Monson typically make their purchases and get back in their cars, as there’s no space inside for socializing. Lanier is excited that Charlton will provide that social space.

“Since our inception, we have never been able to make enough beer to keep up with demand. Charlton will solve that problem and allow us to focus more on curating a communal environment,” he said — a place where beer enthusiasts can sit, enjoy the selections, and pass time with friends.

With the much larger quantities Tree House will be able to produce in Charlton, it may be able to keep public hours every day, as opposed to the four days a week — and maybe 20 total hours — it keeps now. While the Monson facility will remain operational, both for testing new beers and probably a scaled-back retail presence, Charlton will become the main hub, potentially doubling the company’s 22 employees.

“Once we get up and running, we may even do a little bit of distribution,” Rohan said. “There are so many taps in Massachusetts that have been waiting for us to give them a keg since the first month we were open. We’d never be able to get kegs to all those bars and restaurants, and we wouldn’t be anything but hyper-local for the next five to seven years. The closer we keep the beer to us, the fresher it will be.”

He expects the long lines and early arrivals at the new facility as well, but said the phenomenon has grown to be endearing phenomenon. “We’re in awe that some people sit there for hours for no other reason than to be first or second in line.”

In a way, he told BusinessWest, customers have made themselves into a community and made new friendships over their shared passion for craft beer. “We’re seeing upwards of 5,000 people a week coming through the doors, and when I walk out and talk to the people in line — some of them have been here four or five times — I feel like we’re friends.”

equipment

It’s a vibe he, Lanier, and Goudreau try to maintain among their employees as well.

“We want to make sure everyone is happy and friendly and can answer questions and give people what they need. We want this to be more than just a place to come get beer — we want it to be an experience, and a good experience. That’s really important to us, and I think that started from the beginning, when they’d walk into the red barn in Brimfield, put a record on the record player, sit on the couch next to the pot-belly stove, and wait for their beer to get poured. I want to give everyone that vibe here, and I’m hoping that vibe comes back twofold or even tenfold in Charlton.”

Climbing Higher

When the founders first petitioned the state for a brewery license, they had to list a company name, and went through a few rustic-sounding options to match their surroundings.

“We thought maybe Red Barn Brewing, or Brimfield Brewing,” Rohan said. “Well, Damien had this beautiful treehouse in one of the trees right next to the brewery. We realized it had to be Tree House Brewing.”

The company’s logo — a treehouse stylized in a whimsical, flowing manner — has become a common sight on car bumpers throughout the Quaboag region, which he finds gratifying. “I can drive down the road and see the sticker in front of me and know they’re coming from the brewery or have been there. It’s recognizable.”

And it all started with a wife’s gift, a tasting party — and an idea.

“We’re riding a wave that is bigger than any of us imagined, for sure,” Lanier told BusinessWest. “We love Tree House — the beer, the community, the philosophy, and the brand — and our goal every day is to wake up and work our tails off to meet the very high standards we set for ourselves before we ever brewed a beer.”

In short, he concluded, “if the beer is good, and the attitude is right, everything else will fall into place.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Game On

Bob Adams

Bob Adams says one of the unofficial goals at Cartamundi East Longmeadow is to diversify the list of products made there, and thus the showroom in the front lobby as well.

Since Cartamundi acquired the Hasbro plant in East Longmeadow in 2015, the two companies have been closely linked — in news accounts and everywhere else. And that’s understandable, because the toy and game developer is easily the biggest customer for the East Longmeadow plant. But those managing that facility are working hard to make it clear that this facility can do much more than make games for Hasbro.

Bob Adams acknowledged there are many benefits to the recent announcement that Play-Doh — that curious, multi-colored molding compound that has been part of American culture for more than 60 years — will again be made at the massive manufacturing facility in East Longmeadow now owned and operated by Cartamundi.

They begin with what will likely be, by most estimates, an additional 20 jobs at the plant, which previously had the household names Milton Bradley and Hasbro (producers of Play-Doh) on the sign out front. But there is more to this than employment opportunities, said Adams, manager of sales and new business development for Cartamundi East Longmeadow LLC, who has worked at that plant, off and mostly on, for nearly 40 years.

Indeed, there is the publicity that came with the announcement, obviously — the Wall Street Journal and a host of other media outlets covered the story — and also the fact that the plant, the largest games-manufacturing facility in North America, now has what amounts to another huge identifying product, with the board game Monopoly long being the other.

“That brings visibility to this plant,” he said of the Play-Doh contract, which extends over several years. “When I talk to people about having Cartamundi East Longmeadow do some business with them, they have a much better chance of knowing who Cartamundi East Longmeadow is.”

About the only thing this announcement doesn’t do — and this is not exactly an insignificant development, either — is let the world know that Cartamundi, and this plant, are about much more than Hasbro and, well, fun and games.

Indeed, while Hasbro is easily the most dominant client, and games of all kinds serve as the primary stock and trade for Belgium-based Cartamundi, the company can do much more — and it wants to get this message out.

“We’re not only still making many of Hasbro’s products, but we’re out soliciting business from other customers,” he said, explaining that Cartamundi is, for the most part, a contract manufacturer and generally doesn’t put its own name on what rolls off the assembly line. “And while the customer base is centered on games, because that’s our specialty, we’re also looking to use our core competencies to support other businesses.”

With that, Adams got up from his chair, reached to a high shelf on the credenza behind him, and grabbed a box, which, if it wasn’t occupying space in his office, would otherwise be holding an assortment of Lindt chocolates.

We want to be less reliant on Hasbro and leverage our competencies to build our contract business. And to do that, we’re developing our own sales organization and building our own identity in this region.”

“This is just one of the things we can do here — we started last June, and last year we made more than 1.7 million boxes for Lindt,” he said, holding the gold-toned item aloft, adding that the company has, for example, injection-molding machines with additional capacity, and can also take on thermoforming work, box making, die cutting, assembly, and much more.

“We want to get the word out that we’re open for business,” he went on, adding that, in his new capacity, he is essentially leading the efforts to bring new business to the plant — the immediate goal is to increase non-Hasbro contract manufacturing by 30% — and diversify the list of products manufactured there.

Jeffrey Lombard, CEO of both the East Longmeadow facility and a sister facility in Waterford, Ireland, also purchased by Cartamundi, told BusinessWest that Hasbro projects (not including Play-Doh, which will start rolling off the lines during the first half of 2018) amount to roughly 90% of the production in East Longmeadow.

He would like to see that volume of work rise still higher, but the percentage rate go down as the plant takes on other work, such as games for other developers, as well as Lindt boxes and similar projects.

“We want to be less reliant on Hasbro and leverage our competencies to build our contract business,” said Lombard, who held a succession of operations positions for Hasbro and was serving as senior vice president of Domestic Manufacturing when it sold the East Longmeadow plant. “And to do that, we’re developing our own sales organization and building our own identity in this region.”

While the company is mostly ready to do that, it will be challenged to greatly increase capacity by the same issue facing virtually every other manufacturer in this region — finding skilled help.

“Short-term, like every other manufacturer in the Northeast, and probably in the U.S., we’re not limited by equipment capacity, per se,” he explained. “The problem in this region is the hiring of skilled employees; that’s the biggest inhibitor to short-term growth.”

Jeffrey Lombard

Jeffrey Lombard says Cartamundi East Longmeadow has the potential to increase capacity by 30%, but is challenged in that assignment by the task of finding qualified help.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Adams and Lombard about what’s happening at Cartamundi’s East Longmeadow plant today — and what could happen there in the years to come if all goes according to plan. You might sum it up neatly and effectively by simply saying ‘game on’ — although, as noted, that’s certainly not the whole story.

Pieces to the Puzzle

Adams and Lombard can easily trace the history of the East Longmeadow facility, because they’ve both witnessed most of it first-hand.

Adams was just out of high school in 1978 when he applied for a job at the plant, which Milton Bradley opened roughly a decade earlier, and landed a position in the warehouse.

He probably couldn’t have known then he would still be coming to work there — except for a stint in Rhode Island and a subsequent brief retirement and work as a consultant to game manufacturers, including Hasbro — nearly 40 years later. But, then again, maybe he did.

“It was a great place to work,” he explained. “It was a very well-run company, and family-oriented. My mother worked here, as did my aunt and my uncle. People came here, and they stayed here.”

Over those ensuing decades, he put a number of titles on his business card and wore a number of hats. Starting in 1985, for example, he moved into an office job as a production planner. He then moved on to work in industrial engineering, delving into everything from efforts to improve efficiency to early — and in many ways groundbreaking — initiatives in ergonomics.

Later, he became new-business coordinator, working in tandem with development teams that had been based in East Longmeadow, were later moved to Hasbro’s facilities in Beverly, and then moved back. Subsequently, he went into project management and then became leader of Hasbro’s boys’ toys project-management organization in Pawtucket, R.I., essentially to bring the best practices of the East Longmeadow operation to that unit.

After doing that for three years, and amid changes to those operations, he decided to take a retirement package at age 52 and do consulting work, primarily for Hasbro, and did that until Cartamundi bought the East Longmeadow plant.

Summing things up, Adams said he saw long ago what Cartamundi saw when it researched and ultimately decided to acquire the East Longmeadow plant in 2015 — highly skilled workers and an operation that could do so much more than manufacture some of the games that bore the Hasbro name.

“When Cartamundi bought the facility, I was very happy for the people who worked here,” he told BusinessWest, “because I knew there were tons of opportunities to grow the business and bring back manufacturing expertise to this area; there were a lot of positives.

“This was a really good fit for both sides — with Hasbro wanting to be out of the manufacturing business, and Cartamundi wanting to be in the manufacturing business,” Adams went on. “This was an opportunity for both companies to grow their business the way they wanted to grow their business, and so they made it happen.”

His current title, director of sales and new business development, is one that no one has ever had at the plant before (again, it was always an in-house manufacturer for Hasbro, and thus sales were not part of the equation). And, as noted earlier, these new assignments come down to attracting both more work in games — and there is plenty of it out there — and work that falls well outside that realm.

Marketing to potential clients through the website 360manufacturingservices.com, Adams said he’s receiving three or four inquiries a day, on average, many of them from small game-development companies looking to outsource manufacturing operations.

With the acquisition of Hasbro’s plants, Cartamundi is now the largest games manufacturer in the world, he went on, and it is well known for its production of playing cards, most of them made at the company’s plant in Texas (cards for specific games, like Monopoly, are also made at the East Longmeadow plant), so it is often a go-to source for companies seeking such services.

But, overall, Cartamundi is looking for new clients with high volumes of work, and has provided quotes on everything from boxes to plastic snow shovels.

“It has to make sense for both of us,” he said of the contract work. “It usually doesn’t make sense for low-volume manufacturing.”

Board Meetings

Without actually saying as much, Adams said Cartamundi’s primary mission at the moment — and his as well — is to broaden and diversify the shelves in the front lobby of the East Longmeadow plant.

There, on display, is a random sampling of what is produced on the factory floor. And at the moment, the shelves are crammed with all kinds of games, from stalwarts like Clue, Scrabble, and Yahtzee to speciality items, such as Star Wars versions of everything from Monopoly to Sorry, and even Operation.

There is expertise and capacity to add new items and greatly diversify what’s on those shelves, said Adams, adding that the two immediate goals are to generate new business from existing clients and add new customers to the portfolio.

“We want to work with existing customers to provide them with exceptional customer service and support so that we can grow our business with those existing customers,” he explained. “We’re also looking to grow our customer base in the main game aisle, meaning new lines of products from other game distributors, and we’re looking for local companies that can take advantage of our core competencies.

“There are a lot of opportunities out there, and that’s why I’m back,” he said, adding that there are many pieces to the puzzle, to use an industry term, when it comes to achieving the plans for growth the company has laid out.

These include everything from marketing — something else that was never really undertaken at the East Longmeadow plant — to raising the company’s profile, in part by making the 360 Manufacturing website much more integrated into the Cartamundi site, to building an infrastructure for new-business development, said Adams, whose hiring was one of the first major steps in this direction.

Other steps have been taken as well, said Lombard, referring to that sales organization he mentioned earlier. They include the hiring of a customer account representative and the planned hiring of a customer project manager to create an even sharper focus on price, customer service, and quality.

“That’s all new; everything we’re doing along these lines is new,” he said, again noting that, as an in-house manufacturer for Hasbro, such matters were not priorities, so there will definitely be a learning curve.

Injection molding

Injection molding, undertaken by machines like this one, is one of many core competencies that Cartamundi East Longmeadow is looking to sell to new customers.

Speaking of learning curves, though, perhaps the biggest challenge facing the company as it pursues those goals is finding enough qualified help.

“We don’t need more equipment to increase our capacity; we need more skilled labor,” said Lombard, adding that, like other manufacturers in the region, Cartamundi will work to make itself and its various career opportunities highly visible.

Long-term, he believes the company has the ability to grow capacity by that 30% goal stated earlier.

“We’re in the process of growing what I call our efficiently flexible capacity, and that’s really a function of getting some skilled employees in the door and trained, and we’re aggressively pursuing that,” he explained, adding that one of the keys to success in such efforts is to build the brand and establish an identity.

“One of things that inhibits us is that people in this region don’t know who Cartamundi is,” he said, adding that, through a variety of steps, including a stronger web presence, he’ll look to stem this identity problem.

The Shape of Things to Come

As every Baby Boomer — and every member of all the subsequent generations, for that matter — can tell you, Play-Doh can be molded into just about anything the user can think of. The only real limit is the imagination.

In many respects, the same is true when it comes to contract manufacturing at Cartamundi’s East Longmeadow facility. It will always be known as the place where memory-inducing game pieces — like Sorry! pawns and Monopoly houses and hotels — are manufactured. And soon, it will again be known for Play-Doh.

But as Adams and Lombard made clear, it can become a resource to make a host of products that are perhaps less famous but no less important to the companies relying on them.

So it’s a whole new game at the landmark plant, one that officials there certainly believe it can win.

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

Creative Economy Sections

Broad Strokes

Springfield Central Cultural District Director Morgan Drewniany

Springfield Central Cultural District Director Morgan Drewniany

As director of the Springfield Central Cultural District, Morgan Drewniany doesn’t see the arts in a vacuum. Rather, they’re one of the connecting threads joining the realms of economic development, social justice, and a city’s walkability and livability, which are, of course, among the keys to any community’s future. To that end, the SCCD is raising the profile of the arts in and around downtown Springfield — and that of its myriad artists as well.

Morgan Drewniany recognizes the connections in her passions. That’s why she doesn’t think it strange that she went from studying soil chemistry at Hampshire College to leading the Springfield Central Cultural District (SCCD).

The specific connecting fiber is a passion for improving society. For example, to write a thesis on the political and physical environment in Northern New Mexico, she stayed on a reservation there, and later brought 200 soil samples — packed into the back of her Volvo — on a cross-country trek back to Amherst.

When she thinks back to her early interest in environmental health and social justice, “what I loved most was working with economically disadvantaged communities, those with lower education levels, lower income levels, communities of color in general. So, when I looked for a job, I didn’t look in the science field; I looked in art and nonprofits.”

The job Drewniany found was assistant director of the Springfield Business Improvement District. “It seemed like a good fit,” she told BusinessWest, explaining that the idea of lending her skills and passions to economic development appealed to her, particularly in the City of Homes. “I grew up in Westfield, and my parents brought me to Springfield all the time as a kid, to the museums or the symphony — I thought it was the coolest place ever. So to come back and help out during its revitalization was really gratifying for me.”

Violinist Anne Marie Messbauer

Violinist Anne Marie Messbauer plays in front of New England Public Radio during last fall’s Art Stop. NEPR will again host an Art Stop gallery next month.

But another opportunity would emerge that she’d find more intriguing. In 2013, the Massachusetts Cultural Council introduced the Cultural District Program as a way to brand areas densely populated with architectural, historical, and cultural assets. A consortium of cultural entities in Springfield applied for the designation, launching the SCCD in 2014. A year later, the organization sought a new director.

“When the opportunity came up, I knew the players, I personally have a passion for the arts, I have a lot of friends who are artists … it was a pretty natural fit,” Drewniany said, adding that she was drawn by the district’s untapped potential. “We were still applying for 501(c)(3) status, finalizing our bylaws and structure, a lot of internal stuff … it was a really exciting time. Now we know who we are. We want to be a unified voice for arts culture, not just within Springfield, but statewide, and even nationally.”

Today, the SCCD is supported by 55 members, ranging in size from the Mattoon Street Arts Festival, an annual weekend event, to larger players like Springfield Museums, New England Public Radio, the Community Music School of Springfield, and the Eastern States Exposition.

Representatives of these groups have long attended conferences on the state and national levels to advocate for the role of the arts, but the SCCD can represent the entire range of arts in Greater Springfield, Drewniany explained.

“We have a mission and vision — in short, to make Springfield a more friendly arts culture through civic engagement and arts engagement. That’s very broad, so it leaves us a lot of opportunities to interpret that.”

Forging Links

The district’s website explains its mission this way: “To bring more vitality to the city by highlighting its outstanding cultural offerings and adding new creative opportunities for artists and the greater community. We aim to make arts and culture in Springfield more accessible, while creating connections between artists, cultural landmarks, and visitors.”

One of those connections is the partnership known as Futurecity Massachusetts, a joint initiative of the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Boston Foundation. Futurecity is working with mayors, urban planners, and arts and business leaders in Springfield, Boston, and Worcester on key real-estate projects in state-designated cultural districts in the three cities, targeting areas ready for development and job growth. The organization has created more than 200 such partnerships across the globe that reposition cultural assets from community amenities to marketplace drivers.

“We took on the Futurecity Massachusetts initiative with the Massachusetts Cultural Council with the idea of talking about a paradigm shift of art from nicety to necessity,” Drewniany said. “That has involved not just arts people but developers, city department heads, and city leaders talking about how, in order to create a 21st-century city, you have to integrate the arts. When you look at competitive cities right now, like London or Boston, developers are one-upping each other, saying, ‘we have art in our gallery.’ ‘Our building is totally made of art, and we have a huge sculpture outside!’”

She noted the example of London, where the developers behind a recent train-station project invested so much money in the building’s aesthetics that people started hanging out there because it was so beautiful. In short time, cafés started popping up, and adjacent vacant buildings were bought up and converted to lofts. “The revitalization of that neighborhood was based around the choice not to build a regular train station,” she said. “They didn’t just slap a mural on a wall and call it a day.”

The utility-box painting project

The utility-box painting project has brought splashes of color and whimsy to Springfield’s downtown.

That’s not to say public art of any size isn’t valuable. For example, starting last spring, the SCCD commissioned 26 artists to paint utility boxes around the district’s footprint, transforming the gray, bland boxes with a splash of bright color. The program was intended to both encourage walking downtown and provide a source of income to working artists, and was funded by matching local businesses and organizations to individual artists. The net effect has been increased feelings of positivity downtown, Drewniany said, which hopefully impacts pedestrian traffic.

“We’re so focused on walkability right now, and connecting spaces. If we have more people on the street, it portrays a more positive, friendly environment, and that affects public safety and also helps bring dollars to downtown businesses,” she explained. “And we advertised the times the artists would be painting so people could watch something be created right in front of their eyes, so it served a secondary purpose. We want people to interact with each other, even if it’s for a second. It’s a way to start building a bridge to a more connected community.”

Play and Pay

Other efforts to connect the district’s institutions through art include a new video map to accompany the Downtown Springfield Cultural Walking Tour, and the second annual Art Stop event slated for later this month.

The walking tour, first introduced in the summer of 2015, is a tool designed to be used by visitors or residents to learn more about the city’s architectural, historic, and cultural highlights. Printed maps are available at all downtown hotels, visitor’s centers, and cultural institutions.

The video map, available digitally on the SCCD website, springfieldculture.org, brings a new dimension to the walking tour. Viewers gain insight into the history of each location on the map and have the chance to learn an unexpected fact about the venue or building. Each short video (under two minutes, for easy viewing while out and about) is presented by a member of the SCCD on location.

The Art Stop initiative — essentially a pop-up gallery program — also encourages foot traffic downtown, while giving artists a chance to sell their work in one of three locations downtown: New England Public Radio, SilverBrick Lofts, and 1550 Main.

A request for proposals closes on March 8, and the exhibits will be displayed starting the first week of April. All pieces will be available for sale, with 100% of proceeds going directly back to the creators. Like last fall’s inaugural Art Stop, a joint reception will be held between the three locations on April 5, with artist talks, street art, and performances between the locations to encourage walking, and light food and drinks provided by the SCCD and artist hosts.

“Property owners had contacted me about how to activate a space, to get people interested in it, because it felt bland,” Drewniany said of the inspiration behind the program. “We felt we could provide economic impact for artists by creating galleries in these spaces, where the artists can actually sell their work. We also hire musicians and street performers and pay for their performances. That’s definitely a focus of ours — whenever artists are doing work, they’re getting paid like everyone else.”

Too many people, she went on, are too willing to ask artists to perform and produce work as a public service, when other industries don’t get treated that way. “You’d never invite an electrician into your house and say, ‘if you do this, I’ll tell my friends; it’ll be great exposure for you.’”

Other SCCD programs are one-off events intended to create buzz around often-unappreciated cultural genres. For example, in November, the district presented a free concert with three local organists in Old First Church in Court Square, playing the church’s full-size 1958 Aeolian-Skinner organ with its 56 ranks and 3,241 pipes.

The organizers hoped to both show how beautiful and versatile the Old First Church space is — demonstrating the potential in a historic building and encouraging future activity there — and, again, provide income to local artists.

Coming into Focus

While the district is prioritizing Springfield artists in its applications and trying to build a culture of artistic excellence downtown, Drewniany said, SCCD outreach includes artists from across the whole region, recognizing that Western Mass. is rich in cultural resources and individual artists. “But we want to make our downtown a place where artists want to be showing.”

Member fees fund roughly 75% of the district’s programs and expenses, she told BusinessWest, while most of the remainder is covered by grants, and a few projects, like the utility boxes, are sponsored. She treats her grant-application efforts like all her endeavors — in other words, seeking connections between art and community betterment.

“I’ve applied for public-health grants; I’ve applied for economic-development grants,” she said. “Really, the arts have such a unique way to reach people and solve problems — if you find the right partners and take the right approach. We want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to have their voice heard.”

That’s a vision worth painting — and it sure beats the cold gray of an unadorned metal box.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Tourism & Hospitality

Everyone’s Living Room

Main Street Hospitality Group CEO Sarah Eustis

Main Street Hospitality Group CEO Sarah Eustis

Sarah Eustis says the core mission of the Main Street Hospitality Group is to “create places that will enable people to connect in meaningful ways — not just to provide hospitality excellence.” The group is now doing that on a few Main Streets, with further expansion of the portfolio always on its mind.

The barstools in the Red Lion Inn’s rustic tavern creak a little, but Sarah Eustis says that’s part of the charm in a building that dates back to the late 18th century. The guests who crowded the place on a late weekday afternoon, as Eustis sat with BusinessWest and told the story of her family’s growing hospitality business, didn’t seem to mind.

It’s a story that actually begins almost 50 years ago, when Eustis’s grandmother, Jane Fitzpatrick, bought the Stockbridge hotel in 1969 with a couple of motivations in mind — to find a home for her growing curtain business, known today as Country Curtains, and to save the Red Lion from becoming a “parking lot.”

“It was a seasonal property — at the time, it was closed in the winter — and it was at risk of being taken down,” said Eustis, CEO of the Main Street Hospitality Group (MSHG). “She reopened the hotel and brought it to full operation, year-round, and the family has been running it ever since.”

Fitzpatrick had a specific vision for the 1773 landmark, Eustis added. “My grandmother set the standard of hospitality, maintaining the place as the ‘living room of the Berkshires.’ All our hotels have that identity and that spirit, meaning a place where all are welcome, a place where people can connect in meaningful ways, with the place and with each other.”

Those places now include four hotels around the Berkshires the MSHG currently owns or manages: the Red Lion Inn, Porches Inn in North Adams, Williams Inn in Williamstown, and, most recently, Hotel on North in Pittsfield, which collectively boast 350 rooms and almost as many employees.

Hotel on North was designed, like all of Main Street’s properties, to be the ‘living room’ of its community.

Hotel on North was designed, like all of Main Street’s properties, to be the ‘living room’ of its community.

“People are coming through the doors with an entire range of human emotions,” Eustis went on, “and they’re wearing invisible signs around their necks, and we have to figure out what they say: ‘I’m in the middle of a divorce.’ ‘I have to impress my girlfriend.’ ‘I’m here with my first big client.’ ‘I’m worried about my child.’ ‘I’m exhausted and hungry.’ We have to figure that out; it’s our job to connect with people in a way that makes the experience good for them, where they are, in that particular moment. We’re not perfect, but it’s what we work toward.”

When they succeed in that task, downtown hotels can be the lifeblood of a town center, she said. “They are the heartbeat that pumps blood to the arteries of cities. Hotels are always there; the lights are always on, and someone is always there.”

Independent hotels, with their unique charms that aren’t based on a corporate template, are even better, she went on. “The Marriotts and Hiltons are great, but I do think there’s something about an independently designed hotel that is unique and that people are willing to pay for.”

Third Generation

Fitzpatrick passed the business to her daughter, Nancy Fitzpatrick — Eustis’s stepmother — who has overseen the operation for the past 20 years.

“I grew up around this place and started working here as a housekeeper when I was 14,” said Eustis, who lived with her mother in Philadelphia but spent plenty of time in the Berkshires as well. “I will always stand behind hospitality training early in one’s career is a great way to start. We have so many young people come through our hotels and go into all kinds of things. If they want a hospitality career, that’s great, too. I was here every summer growing up, getting experience in every aspect of the operation. I’ve cleaned every toilet in the place, and I make a mean hospital corner.”

But she didn’t see it as her career at first, moving instead to New York City to pursue a career in retail operations, marketing, design, and brand development for big clothing labels like Polo Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, and Limited Brands. “I got good experience working for family businesses, because that’s what those companies are. And that was appealing to me.”

mainstreetporches

Two of MSHG’s properties, Porches Inn opened in North Adams a decade and a half ago, followed by Hotel on North in Pittsfield in 2015.

Two of MSHG’s properties, Porches Inn opened in North Adams a decade and a half ago, followed by Hotel on North in Pittsfield in 2015.

When her father, Jack Fitzpatrick, passed away in 2010, Eustis started thinking about the family business, and decided to move back to Massachusetts in the summer of 2012, a time that unofficially began the family’s most recent chapter, with Eustis eventually setting in as CEO, and Nancy Fitzpatrick continuing as owner and chairman.

“The Main Street Hospitality Group did not exist before that point,” Eustis said. “My aim was to explore how we could evolve and take the resources we already had on the team and deploy them further — to take the ‘special sauce’ that happens here at the Red Lion, in terms of hospitality and graciousness, and spread it around, and also develop new revenue streams.”

The first expansion had already occurred a decade earlier in North Adams. Nancy Fitzpatrick and Jack Wadsworth were both founding board members of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and decided to strike a deal.

“As the story goes, they were in the main gallery of MassMoCA, looking out across the street at these derelict houses originally designed for workers at the Sprague Electric factory. Nancy is a really creative visionary, and she said to Jack, ‘why don’t we do a hotel there?’ He said, ‘that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.’ But they signed on a napkin and did the project.”

The result was Porches Inn,  seven renovated Victorian-era buildings. Reflecting its artsy surroundings, the guest rooms and public spaces employ a synthesis of retro and contemporary designs, reflecting everything from the Mohawk Trail to paint-by-numbers art. Boston magazine praised its “hipster sensibility with downtown charm.”

“It’s been a remarkably successful venture,” Eustis said. “We wanted to instill part of our DNA into something that adds value to its landscape. It has to reflect the feeling of the place. It’s elegant, but with a sense of humor. Guests just rave about the place. We really haven’t changed it in 15 years; we just keep it polished and updated and fresh.”

City Life

Williams Inn came next, a 125-room hotel owned by Williams College that MSHG has managed for the past several years.

“The college bought it, but they don’t run hotels,” Eustis said. “They gave us our first big break as a management company. We provided return to the college on what I would call a tired asset.”

But that project, along with the Porches, gave Main Street experience working in educational and art settings, a niche it aims to further explore in the future. Hotel on North, on the other hand, became the company’s first foray into the city setting.

Around 2013, Eustis began talking with the family that owns Tierney Construction in Pittsfield, which had purchased the former Bessie Clark clothing store in the heart of that city. She’s intrigued by Pittsfield’s story as an industrial city that has struggled to reinvent itself but has launched a sort of renaissance over the past couple of decades.

“We’re very, very committed to Pittsfield. It’s right in the middle of our region — this urban center in this bucolic place — and it needs to thrive.”

A city’s renaissance is typically a 20-year process, she said, a cycle she believes Pittsfield is well into, starting with the Colonial Theatre renovation a decade ago.

“A lot has happened on North Street. We felt the momentum was there. Our partners bought the building and invited us to do a hotel with them; we worked on every aspect of the hotel together. We led the design, we staffed the hotel, we run the hotel … we’re accountable to the owners for agreed-upon results.”

Hotel on North was opened using historic tax credits in June 2015, with an eye toward being one of the key anchors downtown. Developers sought the same blend of local character, historical design flourishes, and modern amenities showcased at other MSHG properties, creating a place where, as Main Street’s marketing materials put it, “lightning-fast wi-fi beams through exposed brick from the 1880s.”


List of Airlines serving Bradley Aiport


Eustis said first-year projections may have been optimistic. “We really had to engage the community, engage the city, do a grass-roots sales campaign.” But, at the same time, the hospitality group was growing as an organization as well, and the family was learning how to leverage its economies of scale across the properties, including in Pittsfield. “We got stronger and stronger, and the hotel started to get its legs, too. Now it’s really thriving and making a lot of people happy.”

In fact, 15,000 people checked into the hotel last year as their home base to explore Pittsfield. “It’s a well-designed, thoughtful, genuinely hospitable face — it’s become the living room of Pittsfield,” she went on, again echoing her grandmother’s original vision for the Red Lion 15 miles south on Route 7. “You have to overcome the doubters and keep going and show them the positive outcomes that come from a project like this.

“Our core purpose, as we’ve developed it as a leadership group,” she went on, “is to create places that will enable people to connect in meaningful ways — not just to provide hospitality excellence, which we do anyway.”

What’s Next?

Beyond physical expansion, the company is branching out in other ways as well. Take food service, led by Brian Alberg, vice president of Culinary Development. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has been with MSHG for about a dozen years, he was at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement in the Berkshires and created a culture around that philosophy at all the group’s properties, as well as a growing niche in event catering.

In addition, Main Street recently formalized a partnership with Hancock Shaker Village — and its new director, Jennifer Trainer, herself a MASSMoCA veteran with a rich culinary background — to establish a café (opening April 15) and manage it, along with working with her on all the facility’s culinary events.

“We’re also expanding the retail piece here at the Red Lion, which is my background,” Eustis added. While the hotel has a gift shop, she envisions creating a line of tasteful logo items — think the Black Dog on Martha’s Vineyard as an example — that will expand the Red Lion brand beyond the Berkshires. “We’re thinking of things that reflect the warmth and genuine feeling of being at the hotel, whether it’s food, accessories, or home-related things. This is a part of our business that’s growing slowly this year and will grow further in 2018.”

After almost 50 years in the Fitzpatrick family, the Red Lion Inn remains the heart of Main Street Hospitality Group’s operations.

After almost 50 years in the Fitzpatrick family, the Red Lion Inn remains the heart of Main Street Hospitality Group’s operations.

As for the next big property, the company is looking at a number of projects, representing both ownership and management models.

“A new project has to pass certain fundamental criteria for us — geography, size and scope, who are the people involved, is it a new build or a conversion,” Eustis said. “It’s not necessarily about rolling out the Hotel on North or Porches concept into different markets. I’m interested in responding to the needs of the community, the fact that there may be existing hotels that need to be refreshed or revitalized.”

Still, she went on, “the way Porches and Hotel on North, not to mention Red Lion, have resonated has led us to conclude that kind of hotel can be relevant in other places and can be successful and add value to landscapes like Springfield, like Buffalo, like Albany — cities that are re-emerging as secondary or tertiary cities and benefiting from migration out of big cities.”

Yes, Springfield is a possibility, reflected by the fact that Eustis has had conversations with planning leaders there.

“Springfield is right in our backyard, and the Pioneer Valley has been interesting to us for a number of years. There’s good stuff going on there, a lot of like-minded people collaborating. We’re looking for opportunities where we can add value and the city’s ready for it.

“It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme,” she added. “You do need patient investors that have some psychic investment in a place. You can make money; it just takes a while.”

In other words, Eustis noted, MSHG is not looking to become a 200-hotel group.

“Let’s be honest — we value our lifestyle and like to see our children from time to time. Our vision is to grow thoughtfully,” she said. “Hotels always used to be on Main Street. And we want to be the heart of a place.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections

Making a Name for Itself

From left, Frank Mitchell, Chris Brucker, Jack Mitchell, and Mark Mitchell

From left, Frank Mitchell, Chris Brucker, Jack Mitchell, and Mark Mitchell show off one of the company’s custom machines — one that will slice sapphire.

Since it was launched by John Mitchell in 1920, Mitchell Machine has grown and diversified — shifting from producing parts and tools for the Springfield Armory and Indian Motocycle to designing and manufacturing complex machines for the semiconductor industry. But since day one, the company has essentially been doing the same thing — producing solutions for its clients.

 

 

It’s called a ‘sapphire wafer slicer.’

And that’s exactly what the blue-painted piece of machinery is — a device that slices sapphire substrate into razor-thin wafers for use in the production of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and other products.

As they gathered for a photo in front of this piece of equipment, which was due to be shipped out to an unnamed customer within a matter of days, those at Mitchell Machine were careful to position themselves so that they were shielding anything that might be the slightest bit proprietary in nature.

It has been this way — sort of, and in most respects — at this landmark Springfield company since it was started by Jack Mitchell’s grandfather, John Mitchell, in 1920.

Back then, said Jack, one of the third-generation owners (his brother, Frank, is the other), this was mostly a parts manufacturer, supplying several companies but especially two huge customers steeped in history and lore and located just blocks away from the Hancock Street plant — the Springfield Armory and Indian Motocycle.

Chris Brucker

Chris Brucker says Mitchell Machine has a long track record of providing solutions to its clients.

The second generation of ownership — John’s sons, Frank, John, and Richard — led the company through its first evolutionary process, into the tool and die business in the ’50s. Today, the company handles everything from production of special machinery — like the sapphire wafer slicer — to subcontract machining; from design and manufacturing of robotics equipment that can provide companies with cost-effective automation, to machine design and engineering services for companies that would prefer to outsource such important work.

The common denominator when it comes to everything that goes on in (or out of) the plant today, and what transpired decades ago, is the fact that Mitchell has always been in the business of providing solutions to many different kinds of customers.

“When people have problems in manufacturing — when they need to do something faster, they need automation, they need robotics — they require solutions, and we provide them,” he explained, adding that, as Baby Boomers retire and the task of replacing highly skilled workers becomes ever more daunting, manufacturers are increasingly looking at using technology to do (or help do) what people have traditionally done.


Chart of Largest Manufacturers in the region


Mitchell works with clients in a host of business sectors, including automotive, communications, machinery, electronics, plastics, printing, rubber, optics, and semiconductors.

Many of these solutions are one truly one-of-a-kind in nature, meaning the company won’t even make two of them, he went on, adding that such undertakings make the business unique and the work quite intriguing. But it also brings challenges, especially the need to keep a steady flow of projects in the queue.

“We rarely do the same thing twice — there’s not a lot of volume production — and this requires a lot of skill,” he said, adding that individual projects generally take anywhere from five to 18 months or more to complete. “So you need a lot of projects in the pipeline, and you need financial security, because it’s a long time between drinks.”

This need to continually bring in new work led Mitchell to become one of a handful of area companies to take part in Valley Venture Mentors’ first accelerator program for established manufacturers.

Mark Mitchell, Frank’s son, and thus a fourth-generation leader of the company, led Mitchell’s involvement in the intense, three-month accelerator program. He said it was helpful on many levels, but especially with marketing and raising the company’s profile, thus generating new clients.

“There was a lot of insightful reflection on the company, how we produce, and how can market ourselves,” he noted, adding that, while the company made some direct contacts that might lead to additional business, many of the takeaways involved operations and becoming more visible. And one of the first orders of business will be a new and improved website.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Mitchell Machine’s long history of providing solutions for customers, and how, as it approaches its centennial, it continues to find new ways to expand an already-impressive portfolio of projects.

Parts of the Whole

Jack Mitchell told BusinessWest that, when his grandfather arrived at his home in Springfield’s Hungry Hill section one afternoon in 1920, he had what amounted to good news and bad news for his wife.

“The good news was that he bought a building and was going to start a business,” he explained. “And the bad news was that he didn’t have his existing job anymore, and he had to rely strictly on himself. And he had six children; needless to say, my grandmother was quite alarmed.”

That job was as a toolmaker with Colt Industries in Hartford, he went on, adding that his grandfather’s story was typical of many machinists working for the Armory and other companies at the zenith of this region’s industrial age; individuals with an entrepreneurial bent who decided to take their assembled skills and go off on their own with a career turn (that’s an industry term) that would bring with it a whole host of risks, sacrifices, and unknowns.

To make ends meet, Mitchell noted, his grandfather would work at shops like Van Norman Machine Tool and Bosch Machine during the day, and work at the company with his own name on it at night, logging 16- to 20-hour days, usually six days a week.

What’s happened since that start, though, is far from typical.

Indeed, the company has, as noted, reached fourth-generation involvement (a rarity in any sector, but especially manufacturing) and continues to find new and different ways to grow, evolve, and, yes, manufacture solutions for clients across a wide range of business sectors.

Relaying some of the company’s rich history in Springfield, Mitchell noted that, during World War II, it made parts, gauges, and other equipment for essentially two clients — the Armory, which, by the war’s height, was employing more than 15,000 people in arms production, and Indian, which by then was producing motorcycles exclusively for the military.

“At that time, we had more than 100 people working in a very small section of our current shop,” he explained. “It was a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation during the war.”

After the war, the company acquired new, larger equipment, and subsequently diversified into the manufacturing of complete, custom machines, and for companies across the country, not simply across town.

Then, as now, it served a host of different sectors, many with a presence in this region, including the paper industry (many communities in the area had plants), tire making (those products were produced in both Chicopee and Springfield), and molded fiber, among others.

“To this day, Michelin is still a customer — we’ve been serving the tire industry since the ’50s,” said Mitchell, adding that many customers in the portfolio have been with the company for decades.

Mark Mitchell

Mark Mitchell says the company’s participation in the manufacturing accelerator has provided new business leads and insight into how to raise Mitchell’s profile in the marketplace.

The company’s next important step in diversification came in 1992 with the establishment of Mitchell Engineering, which took the company into the design-and-build realm when it came to custom machinery and robotics and to a new dimension in providing clients with solutions.

Today, such work represents roughly 60% of the annual revenues, with the rest coming in the form of subcontract machining.

As noted, Mitchell Engineering is in the business of providing solutions to problems, many of them workforce-related, he said, citing, as one example of the work it undertakes, an assignment involving Sanderson MacLeod, the Palmer-based manufacturer of twisted wire brushes.

“There’s an unusual brush that only one person could make,” Mitchell told BusinessWest. “And that individual was retiring. They came to us, and we designed and built a machine that could actually perform the task that this person did.”

Designs on Growth

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar stories in the portfolio, he went on, adding that the machine to slice sapphire — which is ideal for use in both LED and non-LED applications due to its high temperature resistance, high strength, and good electrical insulation — certainly falls into this category.

“Sapphire is harder than silicon, so it’s a more difficult thing to do,” Mitchell noted. “This is a prototype machine — nothing like it has ever been built before.”

Many of the products and solutions that roll out the door command similar language, said Chris Brucker, an applications engineer for the company, adding that the solutions are generated through intense collaboration, or interface, with the client concerning the problem and the best means of solving it.

“Our clients will have an application that they’re looking to automate, or generate better quality, less scrap, fewer direct labor hours … all those kinds of things to stay competitive, increase profits, all those good things companies want to do,” he explained. “I go in and talk to them, understand their process from their perspective, find out what they need to do,” he went on, “and then develop concepts for a special piece of machinery or automation.”

As noted earlier, projects of this nature generally take at least six months from start to finish, and many require much more time.

Thus, there is that heavy premium on constantly generating new work for the pipeline, said those we spoke with, adding that, as might be expected, it comes in two forms — additional work for existing clients, and attracting new clients.

And recent efforts have been focused on both, said Jack Mitchell, adding that this is a relationship business, and once one has been established, the goal is to grow it.

He said there are many examples where subcontracted machining has also led to work designing and manufacturing custom equipment or the promise of such work, including one case involving a medical-equipment manufacturer.

“It started with a small, complex part, and moved to a much more complicated assembly of parts, to creating a tool they could use,” he explained, adding that the next step could be work to design a production line for the company.

As for attracting new clients, word of mouth has always been and will always be the best form of marketing, said Mark Mitchell, and the company does take part in several large trade shows each year. Still, there are many who don’t know the Mitchell name and all that it stands for, and this nagging reality was perhaps the primary motivation behind participation in the manufacturing accelerator program, although connecting with new customers directly was also a goal.

“We’ve quoted on a number of projects as a result of the program,” said Mark, adding that the program reaffirmed the notion that original equipment manufacturers, including many in this area, are not fully aware of the resources (such as Mitchell’s expertise) that are available to them.

Slices of History

The small conference room at Mitchell Machine speaks to the company’s long history, and brings the past, present, and future together efficiently.
Indeed, along with a few golf pictures (which reflect a passion for the game shared by several generations of the Mitchell family), the walls feature a few framed replicas of World War II-era posters proudly touting the contributions of defense contractors toward victory in Europe and the Pacific.

“Your Work Means Victory — Build Another One” reads one poster depicting a shipbuilder.

There’s also a 10-pound block of silicon sitting on a base in the middle of the table. It’s there as a nod to the fact that Mitchell has designed and built machinery that will shape that silicon in the production of microchips.

As the company prepares to turn 100, it is still doing what it was doing when John Mitchell came home with that mix of good news and bad news — produce solutions. And along with those, it is making (and has always made) a proud name for itself.

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

Features

The Time Is Now

Invalid Displayed Gallery

After roughly 40 years of being mostly relegated to Springfield’s past, Union Station is set to begin what will certainly be an intriguing new life. As the station sets to open next month, however, questions remain about just how viable it will be as a business and economic driver. The Union Station in Worcester provides some interesting parallels and talking points.

In many ways, the giant clock in the grand concourse at Springfield’s Union Station has served as a symbol, or metaphor, for that landmark and efforts to revitalize it.

Indeed, for the better part of four decades, time essentially stood still — for the clock (its ornate bronze hands never moved during that time) and for the station itself, which sat mostly idle and, like the timepiece, continued to deteriorate inside and out.

Today, though, the 54-inch-wide clock is functional again, having been repaired by a Medfield-based company that specializes in such work and returned to its place at the south end of the concourse. And the station will soon be functional as well; it is on schedule to be open and serving as a transportation hub next month.

And the comparisons continue. The clock required an extensive makeover, including replacement of its inner mechanism and a surface overhaul. The station? Its multi-faceted renovation has taken several years, and the price tag, when all is said and done, will be north of $80 million.

The clock in Union Station’s concourse before restoration

The clock in Union Station’s concourse before restoration

... and after the work was completed

… and after the work was completed

However, it is at this point that the story lines separate. The clock has been repaired, and its future is no longer in doubt.

The same cannot exactly be said of the station, although there is considerable optimism about what comes next, at least among city development leaders.

Train travel is becoming a larger part of the economic-development picture in the Northeast corridor, and Union Station is well-positioned to play an important part in such efforts. Meanwhile, the station will be a hub for inner-city and perhaps intra-city bus travel as well.

But the station has long been touted as a much larger piece of the economic-development puzzle than that of a mere train and bus station. It is being projected as both a catalyst to further development — of both businesses and residential facilities — as well as home to a number of businesses in its nearly 100,000 square feet of available retail space, a key to its ability to function as something approximating a break-even business.

Chris Moskal, president of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA), told BusinessWest that three vendors have already signed on the dotted line for spaces adjacent to the concourse, and there is considerable interest in some of the available office space above it.

There is more positive news in the form of language within the host-community agreement between MGM and Springfield, said Moskal. It calls for the casino company to pay $7.5 million over the next 15 years toward the costs of operating the station and fitting out space for tenants — an option MGM chose over actually locating at the station itself.

This $500,000 annually should help the facility stem whatever losses it might incur in meeting what is currently projected to be a $750,000 annual operating budget (a number certainly subject to change), with the bulk of that going toward maintenance and security, said Moskal.

But since the restoration of Springfield’s Union Station began, comparisons to the one in Worcester have been inevitable and seemingly constant, and in many ways, this has been unfortunate for the local landmark, because these comparisons serve as a counterweight to the expressed optimism.

That’s because Worcester’s station has mostly been described locally with terms such as ‘under-performing,’ ‘disappointing,’ and ‘unsuccessful.’ And these words are, in fact, accurate, at least when it comes to the real-estate and fiscal performance sides of the equation; the station is expected to run roughly $600,000 in the red this fiscal year, slightly more than the average lately due to some needed maintenance work, and by most accounts, only half its available commercial space is under lease.

They were attracted to that area because of the train station. People can live there, take the train to a job in Wellesley or Newton or Boston; this rail service shortens the distance to those communities.”

But from a bigger-picture perspective, the station (and the vastly improved commuter rail service that has come because of it) are succeeding in their primary role, that of spurring economic development, said Stuart Loosemore, general council and director of Government Affairs and Public Policy for the Greater Worcester Chamber of Commerce.

Elaborating, he spoke of concentric circles and how development, in the form of market-rate housing, a new hotel, additional restaurants, and more have emanated out from the station, if you will, as train runs from Worcester to Boston have increased to more than 20 a day, including the popular, non-stop Heart to Hub trip, which leaves Union Station at 8 a.m.

“And it gets to Boston in an hour or less,” Loosemore explained, adding that commuting by car will likely take half again as long and bring other inconveniences and expenses, including parking. “That makes it much easier to live in Worcester and get to work or school in Boston; it’s bringing that city much closer.”

Whether similar developments will take shape in Springfield remain to be seen, especially since there isn’t a logical destination for riders, as there is in Worcester with Boston. In keeping with the theme of this story, time will tell.

Soon, though, the speculation about this city’s Union Station — again, about 40 years of it — will soon end, and its next life will begin.

In other words, the time is now.

Hour Town

Tom Erb says the assignment to restore the concourse clock at Union Station, as well as others at that facility, was in most ways typical of those taken on by his family business, Electric Time Co. Inc. And its condition when it arrived at the shop was also typical of what the company has witnessed at several old train-station projects in its vast portfolio, including a recent one in Kansas City.

In short, water had leaked onto and into the clock, manufactured by the Springfield-based Standard Electric Time Co., he explained, requiring extensive repair work to its brass and marble components.

“They were very sad-looking,” he said of the group of clocks and especially the concourse timepiece. “A few of them were missing numbers, which we had to recreate using an oxidizing compound to make them look old … they needed quite a bit of work.

“We replaced the mechanism in the main clock, which was in very bad shape,” continued Erb, whose company has worked on many projects in Western Mass., from restoration of the clock on the Springfield Armory Museum to installation of the massive timepiece now gracing the entrance to the Great River Bridge in Westfield. “We reused the existing clock hands and gave it a small control along with a receiver that latches into atomic time, so the clock will always be absolutely perfect, which is important at a train station.”

The concourse clock is one of many examples of blending old with the new at Union Station, said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer, as he gave a tour of the facility.

Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy says the renovated Union Station, and especially its grand concourse, will feature an intriguing blend of the old and the modern.

To get his points across, all Kennedy, who has been involved with redevelopment of the station for roughly 30 years now, needed to do was gesture with his arm across the concourse and just beyond. With that sweep, he pointed out the recently installed retail kiosks, the station’s original (and restored) terrazzo floor, modern exit lights juxtaposed against the original archways, original (and restored) sconces in the ceiling, and wi-fi hook-ups.

“This is an historical renovation,” he explained. “What stands out to me are two things — the neatness of that historical renovation, but also the modern codes of today that require these brightly lit exit signs. You have the 21st century coming together with 1926, and it’s pretty cool.”

The old and new will come together in dramatic and artistic fashion within the renovated tunnel linking the station with downtown Springfield, he went on, noting that there, elaborate murals depicting the history of the station and the city will be installed as part of a project being undertaken in conjunction with Springfield Museums.

While these murals will no doubt become a conversation piece and an attraction in and of themselves, those involved with the station project — especially U.S. Rep. Richard Neal — have stressed that $80 million hasn’t been spent in the name of nostalgia or to establish a museum.

Rather, it’s been spent to create a transportation hub — which the station was for decades before the decline of rail travel — as well as a business center and catalyst for further economic development.

There is little doubt that it will become at least the former. Indeed, 14 trains will soon be moving in and out of the station daily as part of expanded service in the northeast corridor, especially between Springfield and New Haven through what’s known as the Connecticut Line. Meanwhile, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority will make the station its hub, with roughly 700 buses running in and out every day.

Intra-city bus service remains a question mark, however. Negotiations continue with Peter Pan Bus Lines, headquartered just a few hundred feet from the renovated station, about its possible presence at the facility, and there are other intra-city companies that may become tenants as well, said Moskal.

The business and economic-development sides of the equation involve more question marks, however, and the performance of Worcester’s Union Station since it was renovated in the late ’90s creates still more.

Up-to-the-minute News

As he gave BusinessWest a tour of the available commercial spaces at the station, Kennedy pointed to the large windows while listing several reasons why the assembled square footage might be an attractive landing spot. Actually, to the windows and beyond.

The windows themselves provide large amounts of natural light, which is preferred by many types of businesses, especially those in the creative fields, he said. Meanwhile, as one looks out those windows, they can see I-91, Route 291 (and signs for the Turnpike on both of them), and the point where they intersect, which translates into convenience for employees and customers alike.

Outside some windows, people can also see the 377-space parking garage, a critical component of the station project and another important amenity for a business located downtown, and from still others, people can see downtown and the many forms of progress there.

Thus, the windows reveal a lot, said Kennedy, who noted that the various spaces in the station, stretched across three floors, with one offering views of the station concourse itself, are already attracting interest, and should draw more once a few tenants settle there.

“I think people needed to see this building completed before they could really understand what we had here,” he explained. “Now that it is completed, I think people will take notice, and when we get a few tenants in here, word will start to spread.”

The concourse area itself is already filling in nicely, said Moskal, noting that agreements have been reached for three of the small retail spaces along its east side, with a convenience store, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Subway due to move in over the next few months. A fourth is still available, and there has been interest expressed in it.

Meanwhile, the convenience-store developer will also lease two of those aforementioned kiosks in the tunnel, said Moskal, adding that he isn’t sure what will be sold from them, but expects one will likely be dedicated to cell-phone accessories.

Also, a rental car company (the name was not disclosed, but Moskal said it is a major player in that business) has signed on to do business out of the station, with cars to be stored in the parking garage.

As for the office space above the concourse, Moskal said several parties have expressed interest, and he even added the adjective ‘strong’ to describe it.

“We have a number of interested parties, and one of them is very promising,” he said, referring specifically to space on the second floor, which, as noted, has windows with a view of the concourse. “That would be huge for us; this party wouldn’t take all of the second floor, but maybe 70% of it.”

And, like Kennedy, he said signing a tenant or two will likely create some needed momentum. “Once you start to spin that kind of positive news, hopefully, others will take note.”

Overall, the SRA has been “conservative,” a word Moskal used early and often, with regard to projections for tenants and resulting revenues so as not to create unreasonable expectations and disappointment if they are not met. And thus far, those goals are being met or exceeded.

“We set conservative goals — having 30% leased by the second year, and maybe 60% by the third year,” he explained. “And this is a positive for us, because we hope to have more than that under lease.”

The $7.5 million committed by MGM provides a cushion of sorts, especially for the first three years, he said, adding that the hope is that, by year four, that kind of cushion will be less necessary.

On Second Thought

But it is with the bigger-picture perspective that greater optimism likely prevails, and here, Worcester’s station should serve as an inspiration, rather than a cautionary tale, said those we spoke with.

To emphasize this point, Loosemore started with references to what was known as the Osgood-Brady Building, named for the company, which, ironically enough, manufactured railway passenger cars and streetcars there starting in 1914.

Today, it is home to more than 250 students living in more than 80 market-rate apartments carved out of the various spaces. Most of them are there, said Loosemore, specifically for the trains running out of Union Station just a few blocks away.

“They called it ‘purpose-built student housing,’ and I believe this was the first time it was done in Massachusetts,” he explained. “They’re marketing to college students, and part of what attracted them to it is students at the Worcester colleges doing internships in Boston; living next to Union Station, you can get into various areas of Worcester, because you’re right there, but you can also get to access to the train, which will get you to the Boston region and opportunities for jobs, internships, and other expanded learning opportunities.”

A new hotel is also going up in that area, and the developer has stated publicly that commuter rail is a big reason why the project went forward, and in that location. Meanwhile, across the street from the bus depot at the station, a company is building more than 350 units of market-rate housing, Loosemore continued. “They were attracted to that area because of the train station. People can live there, take the train to a job in Wellesley or Newton or Boston; this rail service shortens the distance to those communities.

Indeed, the train station and accompanying commuter rail are creating much stronger connections between New England’s two largest cities, said Loosemore, adding that many are now finding it convenient (and also far more affordable) to live in Worcester and work or go to school in Boston or one of its suburbs.

He added quickly that, while this isn’t the loftiest of goals for the city or its chamber of commerce — both would rather have people living and working in Worcester — such scenarios do bring a host of benefits.

“If I can’t have the jobs, how can I get the workers?” he asked while speaking for the chamber and noting that reliable commuter rail has become at least part of the answer to that question.

And having the workers come back to Worcester at the end of the day has certainly helped prompt growth of the city’s restaurant district, which borders Union Station.

“People come into the station, and they can go around the corner and get dinner or a drink,” he said. “People may work in Boston, but on Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday, they’re in Worcester.”

Loosemore, who has been with the chamber for roughly two years now, and has learned much of the history of Union Station and the area around it rather than experiencing it first-hand, said what’s happened there didn’t take place overnight. It came incrementally, and as commuter rail became better, faster (the Heart to Hub run, for example), and more frequent.

Tim Murray, president of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and former lieutenant governor, expanded on this thought in a recent op-ed in the Worcester Business Journal, in which he drew parallels between progress in that city and the recent success of the region’s pro football franchise.

“The ability to gain the crucial inch that determines victory often comes as the result of hard work, preparation, and never giving up,” he wrote. “These same principles apply to the progress we have made during the past 15 years to expand commuter rail service between Worcester and Boston … hard work, persistence, and preparation has allowed a team of public and private leaders to go from six round trips a day to 20.

“This progress has contributed significantly to the unprecedented private-sector investments in and around Worcester’s Union Station,” he continued. “Developers, property owners, and business owners including the City Square, Theater District, and Gateway Park projects all tout the presence of rail service as a major catalyst for their investments.”

Whether similar developments will come in Springfield remains to be seen, said Loosemore, noting that the City of Homes does not have a logical or potential-laden destination (like Boston) for commuters — yet, anyway.

In time, more routes going north-south and perhaps east-west (many officials are calling for a high-speed Springfield-to-Boston connection) may be added, and Springfield may see some of that growth in concentric circles that Worcester has.

“Having that commuter rail has certainly been a catalyst for development here,” he said in conclusion. “And it may prove to be the same in Springfield.”

Hands Down

Part of the restoration effort involving the clock in the main concourse was refinishing the words spelled out in the middle of the timepiece — ‘Eastern Standard Time.’

Erb told BusinessWest that, decades ago, it would not have been uncommon for train travelers to cross from one time zone into another in the course of their journey, and thus they might need a reminder as to just what the hour was in the City of Homes.

Such long trips, while still doable, are not a big part of the equation in this new era for Union Station. Meanwhile, cell phones automatically adjust for time zones, and that’s how most people note the time these days anyway.

But the clock still serves a very useful function, said Kennedy, adding that, for the first time in four decades, Union Station does as well. It is a transportation hub, as it was when it opened in 1926, but it is also an economic driver, perhaps one to be as successful in that role as Worcester’s.

Time will tell, but for the first time in a long time, the clock is running at Union Station, in every way, shape, and form.

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

Cover Story

New Sheriff in Town

Nick Cocchi

Nick Cocchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete Sentences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Coming to Terms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Employment Sections

Shifting IT’s Focus

By Joanna Smiley

Keyla Centeno

Keyla Centeno, team lead and graphic designer at Tech Foundry, teaches a class on soft skills.

When it was founded in 2013, Tech Foundry, a program conceived to create a steady pipeline of workers for the IT sector, focused primarily on area high-school students. But research — and experience — revealed that these young people were choosing other destinations (especially area colleges) rather than area technology firms. So today, the classrooms feature a much more diverse group of students.

Bruce Stoller is a 58-year-old displaced worker with aspirations to forge a new career in information technology. He holds a law degree, and has a background in facilities management.

Maura Kavanh, 29, used to study political science and women’s gender studies at UMass Amherst, but took a leave from college when she noticed an interesting trend: organizations she aspired to work at, like Planned Parenthood, had a far greater need for those with tech skills than policy work.

What do Stoller and Kavanh have in common?

Both are students in Tech Foundry’s class of 2017, a group far more diverse than those that came before it. And that’s by design and out of necessity.

Indeed, the Springfield-based workforce development program was launched in 2013 and designed to prepare job seekers — and not necessarily individuals like Stoller and Kavanh — for entry-level tech careers. But a year ago, the organization decided to shift its focus from a program designed for high-school students to one that has no age restriction. Tech Foundry’s current class is an eclectic mix of students ranging in age from 20 to 60.

Jonathan Edwards, director of Strategic Partnerships at Tech Foundry, notes that the organization’s shift was about responding to employers’ needs for a bigger pipeline of IT workers.

“We know that people in mid-career transition are the perfect candidates to expand that pipeline,” he explained. “They’re looking for something different; people who wake up and say ‘I want to do IT’ isn’t enough. Introducing people who already possess strong work backgrounds to a sustainable IT career is really a great match between the needs of employers and needs of our student population.”

Brandon McGee hopes to land a job in software sales

Brandon McGee hopes to land a job in software sales once he completes the Tech Foundry program in May.

Ann Burke, vice president of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., agreed.

“The good-news, bad-news experience from the first class was that these young people became excited about fields in technology, but instead of going directly into the workforce, many decided to continue their education in community college or college,” she explained. “This was great for the students, but not for tackling the issue of developing a pipeline for entry-level technology employees.

“Tech Foundry has been piloting different approaches to finding those individuals interested in tech job opportunities,” she went on. “The student body has evolved to include a much more diverse group, including veterans, people with some community-college experience, women, and others with some work experience but not necessarily in the tech field.”

Tech Foundry still welcomes 18-year-olds who would like to go into a job in the tech field, she went on, adding that the program’s leaders found that many employers are looking for candidates with at least some work experience and soft skills, even if they do not have past technology experience.

“Tech Foundry is an innovative program that will continue to evolve to meet the needs of this growing sector,” said Burke. “It actually is interesting and exciting to see the diversity of age, gender, experience, and ethnicity in the most recent graduating class. I’m excited about how the organization is continuing to scale and prepare more candidates to be a part of the technology workforce. We know that there is a need for qualified, entry-level technology workers across industry sectors in the region.”

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this change in focus for Tech Foundry and its implications for the workforce, job seekers, and area companies.

Technically Speaking

Tech Foundry prides itself on partnering with a broad range of companies in the region, and Edwards said he has noticed a cross-section of employer size and industry. Partners range from Bay State Health to Smith & Wesson to startups that seek the type of talent Tech Foundry is producing.

Its success in meeting its important mission is made clear by several testimonials from area business owners and one elected official.

Andrew Anderlonis, president of Rediker Software, has been partnering with Tech Foundry for more than a year, and says the organization has helped him solve a major problem — finding passionate, talented, and committed professionals who can meet the continuously evolving workforce needs of the region’s tech community.

“Rediker Software has now hired four graduates from Tech Foundry, and all of them are performing exceptionally well, a testament to the strength of the program,” he noted. “Working with Tech Foundry has been a wonderful experience as they have put together a terrific program for the students.”

Michael Arian, co-founder and CEO of Prophit Insight, says Tech Foundry not only provides him with talented IT employees, but the opportunity to give back to the Springfield community.

“We’ve been working with Tech Foundry since their beginning. It has been a very important program for us,” he told BusinessWest. “Tech Foundry has allowed us to acquire talented IT employees in a more cost-effective manner, and it has been very successful so far.

“It also provides us the opportunity to give back to the Springfield community and help out some fantastic people who just need an opportunity, this is very important to us,” he went on. “We’ve hired three employees from Tech Foundry and currently have another who is interning, and we hope to bring him on full-time shortly.”

State Sen. Eric Lesser agreed, and said Tech Foundry’s model is one he is working to replicate statewide.

“In just three short years, Tech Foundry has shown itself to be very nimble and responsive to our region’s employment needs. Western Mass right now faces a substantial ‘skills gap’ between the available jobs in growing fields like technology and advanced manufacturing, and workers looking for employment. There is a particular challenge facing older workers who are already out of school, who either need to update their training or learn new skills to stay competitive as our region’s economy continues to shift toward fields dependent on technology and innovation. I’m glad Tech Foundry is taking this on. Their model has already proven very successful at getting workers the specific training they need quickly and efficiently for younger students, so expanding to older members of the workforce is welcome and desperately needed.”

Edwards said Tech Foundry’s goal is to eventually have twice the number of employers seeking candidates as there are students in the program. Currently, the agency partners with 60 companies in the area. Starting salaries for graduates of the program can range from $30,000 to $50,000 per year.

tech-foundry-logo

On a recent afternoon at Tech Foundry’s space in downtown Springfield, Keyla Centeno was teaching a roomful of students gathered around ping-pong tables how to hone their professional communication and interpersonal skills. They were taking part in a team-building exercise that required careful listening and negotiation.

“This is one of our most diverse cohorts,” she noted. “It’s a pleasure to see them help each other and come out of their shells. This older demographic we have tells me a lot of people want to change their careers and break off from what they’re doing right now; some employers even require tech training now.”

Stoller, 58, is the oldest student in this cohort. The Springfield native lived in Boston for 20 years and recently moved back to Western Mass. He practiced criminal law before retiring from his legal career to work in facilities management.

Stoller was let go during his company’s “reorg,” and because his position was eliminated, he qualified to be what’s called a displaced worker, meaning any training or schooling he attends is paid for in full for up to one year. His end goal? To land a new job at a help desk, not necessarily doing programming, but using his sales skills.

Brandon McGee, 29, was born and raised in Springfield. He found his calling in technology at the age of 13, when he would sit in his bedroom at 3 a.m. tinkering on his Dell computer. Currently enrolled at Springfield Technical Community College, he said he “took advantage of anything his professors gave me a heads-up on,” and that included a recent suggestion to look into Tech Foundry.

After working in the telecommunications industry for a number of years, McGee knew he needed an additional skill set to advance to his dream career — software sales.

“I knew I wasn’t coming from a top school, I didn’t have the greatest GPA, and I wanted to immerse myself in a way where I could be competitive and acquire transferrable skills; I want to work for a company where staying relevant is a priority,” he explained. “I started out thinking printers and passwords were IT — now I know there’s so many more avenues in the field.”

Bottom Line

McGee says he’s a “little nervous to leave the coop” in May when he graduates from Tech Foundry.

“The people at Tech Foundry have been immensely supportive — it’s a free program with huge opportunity,” he noted. “We’re all in different aspects of our life, and every opportunity here is one to get your name out there and go for it.”

Today, there is a more diverse group of people ‘going for it’ thanks to Tech Foundry, a development that bodes very well for the region, its workforce, and companies struggling to find needed IT workers.

Construction Sections

Driving Forces

An overhead view of work on the inner lanes of I-91’s Springfield viaduct.

An overhead view of work on the inner lanes of I-91’s Springfield viaduct.

In May 2015, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation signed a $148 million contract with the Joint Venture of JF White-Schiavone to overhaul the 1-91 viaduct in Springfield. The project is immense in scope, and although it has inconvenienced drivers, especially during peak hours, it is ahead of schedule and brings concrete benefits for the local economy and area businesses that manufacture or provide products needed for the repair and reconstruction of the 45-year-old section of highway.

Richard Masse says that, when the state Department of Transportation (or MassDOT, as it’s called) developed plans for reconstructing the 1-91 viaduct that runs through Springfield, it was well aware of the impact and inconvenience the project would have on drivers traveling north and south.

Indeed, state officials felt that completing the $148 million project on time or ahead of schedule was so critical that they built an attractive bonus into the contract to keep work moving along as quickly as possible.

“We established an incentive of $50,000 a day for up to 180 days to finish earlier than the contract specified,” said Masse, district project development engineer for MassDOT Highway Division District 2.

This equates to a potential bonus of $9 million for the Joint Venture of JF White-Schiavone if specific conditions are met. And those conditions are clearly outlined: the entire project does not have to be complete, but the ‘full beneficial use’ milestone has to be met, which means work on all lanes and ramps must be finished, and they must be open and functioning, before Aug. 6, 2018. This constitutes the majority of the work.

Such incentives are rare, and this is the largest ever offered by District 2, but it is tempered by a disincentive: There will be a penalty of $50,000 for every day the contractor is late in meeting the milestone.

But that’s not likely to happen. In fact, JF White-Schiavone, benefiting from mostly benign weather (the recent storm was a definite exception), is three months ahead of schedule, and workers continue to labor around the clock to get the project done.

The roadway under reconstruction is only eight-tenths of a mile in length, but the work involves far more than simply removing the old decking on the six traffic lanes and repaving them. There are 96 separate spans of bridge between the south abutment on State Street and the north abutment near the I-291 exit, and each span is supported by a pier that needs to be repaired.

Officials say the viaduct project is proceeding ahead of schedule

Officials say the viaduct project is proceeding ahead of schedule, thanks to relatively mild winters and some attractive incentives.

In fact, the $148 million contract holds enormous weight — literally and figuratively — and area businesses are benefiting due to the materials that are needed and will be used by the time the project is complete.

Specifically, crews will replace 44,000 tons of concrete with the new bridge deck and barriers, use 7.2 million pounds (3,600 tons) of steel reinforcement, install 134 drainage inlets on the bridge, erect 2.5 miles of snow fence on the barriers, and paint 28 acres, or 1.2 million square feet, of steel.

Concrete is being purchased from Construction Service in Wilbraham, asphalt paving comes from Lane Construction Corp. in Springfield, the 600-plus feet of noise-control curtains mounted in front of downtown hotels were purchased from Sound Seal in Agawam, and gravel and stone is being provided by Ginmar Enterprises in Ludlow.

In addition, Commonwealth Guardrail in Westfield is furnishing that product, all catch basins and manhole castings will be purchased from E.J. Prescott Inc. in West Springfield, and CJ’s Towing Unlimited Inc. in Springfield is part of the safety plan to remove vehicles involved in crashes as quickly as possible, which is important because traffic is already squeezed between the barriers on the viaduct.

The project has also had a positive effect on employment. The Federal Highway Administration has done studies on the impact of major undertakings and reports that every $1 billion in spending supports 13,000 jobs for a year. “Since this project will cost $148 million, that translates to more than 1,900 job years of employment that are either created or supported,” Masse said.

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at the I-91 project — what’s been completed, what’s still to come, and what the long-term benefits will be for Springfield and the region.

Route Geometry

Although some people think the $950 million MGM Springfield resort casino has affected work that is being done on the viaduct or the way the on and off ramps will be configured in the future, it’s not true and simply a coincidence that construction on both projects is taking place simultaneously.

“We identified the need for the viaduct project late in 2011 before expanded gaming was even signed into law, and the project was approved and initiated prior to any casino proposals,” said Masse.

The viaduct was constructed and opened in 1971, and no improvements were made to it other than a few limited repairs that took place between 1999 and the early 2000s. As a result, the decking deteriorated as millions of vehicles passed over it and chemicals, salt, and sand were used to combat ice and snow during frigid winter months.

“It had reached the point where emergency repairs of potholes were becoming routine. We had to go out on the road in the middle of commuter traffic without warning, and it became clear that it was time for a long-term fix,” Masse said.

MassDOT did its best to identify challenges that might occur as it developed a plan for the project. The agency determined it was critical to keep the public informed about what was happening on a daily basis, so the contract contained language that mandated hiring a public-relations firm for that purpose.

Regina Villa Associates in Boston was chosen, and the company issues frequent notices and updates about the work in progress to all local media outlines. There is also a project webpage (www.massdot.state.ma.us/i91viaductrehab/home.aspx) where people can sign up to get e-mail alerts about daily or weekly changes.

In addition, work on the project is discussed at biweekly meetings that include officials from MassDOT, the Springfield Department of Public Works, the Springfield Parking Authority (two of its main facilities are under the viaduct), and MGM Springfield.

Masse noted that the casino has initiated its own street closings and plans to install a detection system at the end of the exit 6 ramp to facilitate traffic flow and help prevent accidents; if traffic starts to back up toward the highway, the stoplight will change to allow vehicles to move off the ramp. Other work is also being done on streets around the casino, but that has no bearing on the 1-91 viaduct project.

However, MGM’s presence at the meetings is important. “It gives us an opportunity to coordinate work and exchange schedule updates,” Masse said. “Their cooperation has been an important part of the project and helped to limit disruption.”

Although some media outlets have reported that a number of drivers have avoided the viaduct and will continue to do so until the project is complete, Masse said everything possible is being done to reduce the impact on local businesses.

“We understand that our projects are generally an inconvenience, and we certainly appreciate that there can be some negative impact on local businesses. But we haven’t had any feedback of that nature,” he told BusinessWest, adding that business owners as well as the general public are invited to send comments, suggestions, or inquiries to MassDOT via the project website, and feedback has already resulted in things such as adjustments to signage.

the reconstructed viaduct will help make Springfield an attractive destination

Richard Masse says that, when it’s completed, the reconstructed viaduct will help make Springfield an attractive destination.

Another change that went live Feb. 1 was made in response to input from drivers who expressed concern about safety where lanes on I-91 South are reduced from two down to one.

The feedback led MassDOT to implement a pilot program for a ‘dynamic lane merge system,’ which is designed to make merging safer and alleviate congestion.

It’s the first time this system has been used in the Commonwealth, and it will help to ensure that vehicles familiar with the lane closure don’t bypass others and cause them to wait for a longer period of time than those who use the roadway on a frequent basis. The system works by using computer sensors to monitor traffic and letting drivers know what the best merge strategy is via electronic signage.

Paving the Way

The viaduct project has many goals, including replacement of the reinforced concrete bridge deck, painting of all structural steel, replacing the bridge bearings, improving bridge drainage and highway lighting on and under the structure, miscellaneous structural steel repairs, improving traffic signage on the structure, and other safety improvements in the immediate vicinity, such as installing new sprinkler systems and LED lighting on the upper levels of the 1-91 North and South parking garages, which are run by the Springfield Parking Authority in space leased from the state.

Masse said the project was divided into two main phases so half the decks could be replaced at a time. Last year, work was concentrated on the inside decks, and traffic was moved to the outside, and now that phase I is complete, the process has been reversed, and construction is taking place in the low-speed travel lane and shoulder portions of the viaduct, and on the I-91 northbound on-ramp to I-291 East.

The same ramps that were closed during phase I will remain closed, and the only change is that the exit 9 off-ramp from I-91 North to Route 20 West/Route 20A East will be closed until phase II is complete.

About 100 people show up to work at the site every day, and in addition to day and evening shifts, construction efforts often continue throughout the night. The noisy work of demolishing the existing decks is done during the day, and debris is carried away after dark.

“The crews use very large jackhammers mounted to excavating equipment to break up the deck,” Masse said, noting that saws are also used to cut portions of the material.

Workers recently began painting the steel girders, which is no small task — again, there are 1.2 million square feet of steel to repaint. But when the job is complete, it will help enhance the perception of that section of the highway.

“The beige paint that had reached the end of its useful life is being covered with a blue-green hue that will be much more attractive visually,” Masse said.

In addition to aesthetics, safety will be improved. “When we finish the deck replacement, the shoulder on the median side in the high-speed lane will be wider,” he continued, explaining that, in the past, there were two feet between the guardrail and the edge of the road, but a narrower concrete barrier will allow the inside shoulder to expand to four feet in width.

Other safety improvements include the construction of a barrier to stop I-291 traffic from shooting across several lanes on I-91 South to exit 7 at the Memorial Bridge.

When the project was in the development stage, Masse noted, input about this dangerous maneuver led MassDOT to make plans to install the new jersey barrier.

The number of drainage inlets will also be increased, which will reduce the amount of water that collects along the shoulder of the roadway.

Passing Thoughts

After the roadways are fully open, the remaining work will commence, and by the time the project is finished, the structural steel will be painted, municipal street lights will be installed, all final paving and traffic markings on local streets will be finished, temporary traffic signals will be replaced with permanent ones, and the temporary off-ramp from I-91 South to Birnie Avenue will be removed.

There is no doubt that the project is an inconvenience to drivers who have to schedule additional time to get to their destinations. But the benefits will be concrete: sales of products used in construction will help local companies to flourish, and drivers will have a safer and more appealing roadway to travel on between downtown Springfield and the Connecticut River.

“When everything is newly paved and painted and a modern lighting system is installed, the viaduct should help to make Springfield a more attractive destination,” Masse said. “When people see a highway that is well-cared-for, it will provide a welcoming gateway not only to Springfield, but to Western Mass.”

Commercial Real Estate Sections

Shop Class

Steve Walker

Steve Walker says the recently completed expansion at the Longmeadow Shops is an example of ongoing evolution at this retail destination.

The Longmeadow Shops recently completed an ambitious 21,000-square-foot expansion project, continuing a process of growth and evolution that has been ongoing for more than half a century.

Steve Walker says that, almost from the start, the Longmeadow Shops has had the location, the access, and a solid mix of retail that attracts both visitors and, well, more retail.

The ‘almost’ is because Interstate 91, or at least the Massachusetts portion of it, had not been completed by the time the shopping plaza, created at the east end of Bliss Road near the East Longmeadow line by Friendly’s co-founder S. Prestley Blake, opened its doors in 1963.

But even then, the location was still ideal, said Walker, partner and regional property manager for Grove Property Fund, LLC, current owner of what he called “a special piece of real estate.” That’s because the shopping complex is nestled in one of the region’s most affluent communities, sits less than a mile from the Connecticut border, and is a short ride from several other affluent suburbs, including East Longmeadow, Hampden, and Wilbraham.

I-91 simply made it more accessible, and therefore even more attractive, to a variety of retailers that are local, regional, and national in nature.

But the times have certainly changed since 1963, and the shops have changed right along with them, said Walker, citing, as examples, everything from the coming and going of Blockbuster Video to the eventual exodus of Friendly’s itself, to the demise of the Steiger’s chain of department stores, one of which was the anchor of the shops and left a gaping hole to be filled when it closed in 1994, coincidentally just a few days after Grove acquired the property.

“We got a letter two weeks after we bought the property informing us that Steiger’s was leaving,” he explained, adding that the roughly 20,000 square feet of space left vacant by Steiger’s, and other spots within the complex, have been filled in over the years, and in ways that reflect societal and retail changes.

Elaborating, he referenced developments such as gourmet coffee outlets (represented by Starbucks), specialty retail (as evidenced by several recent arrivals), and even the rise of the gourmet hamburger (embodied by the coming of Max Burger).

And the process of evolution continues today, Walker noted, citing, as exhibit A, the rise of pharmacy chains and the changing, growing needs of such enterprises.

Indeed, it was CVS’s dire need for more and better space (complete with a drive-up window and easier access) that gave rise to a recently completed, 21,000-square-foot addition to the plaza and expansion and redesign of its parking lot, said Walker.

Constructed after Grove eventually received the needed support for a zoning modification from residents at a town meeting (the process took a while), the expansion, at the east end of the property, welcomed its first tenant, J. Crew Mercantile, in late January. Verizon Wireless opened its facility just a few days ago, and CVS is expected to open its new doors on March 12, said Walker.

“It’s been a fun journey … it’s really rewarding to see our improved shopping center taking shape,” he said of the expansion effort, put on the drawing board in 2014, adding quickly that, while that project is nearing completion, the broader journey involving a constantly changing retail landscape continues.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Longmeadow Shops, the center’s evolutionary process, and how it is still ongoing.

More in Store

You might call it multi-tasking.

That’s certainly what Walker was doing as he left his office at the far west end of the shops for the walk — maybe a quarter-mile or so — to the addition at the other side.

He was getting some exercise (or more of it, to be exact; he’d already made this trek two or three times earlier in the day), posing (eventually) for some photos, giving a tour, serving up a chronology of the shops, and offering a tutorial of sorts on how retail has changed and the shops reflect those changes.

lmnshopsjcrew

He started by pointing to Max Burger, created partially out of the old Blockbuster Video and what once was a small courtyard/garden at the shops. He cited that business as an example of an emerging trend in retail (the aforementioned gourmet burger), as well as a growing regional chain (Connecticut-based Max’s), a business that scouted several area locations before deciding the Longmeadow Shops was where the search would end, and a tenant that the shops would work to accommodate.

“We took out the garden area and put in a 1,500-square-foot addition because they needed more space than we had available at the time,” he explained, adding that there was a major expansion (roughly 12,000 square feet) to the shops in the ’70s, and several minor ones in the decades since.

The multi-tasking, and especially the lessons in the history of the shops and the evolution of retail, would continue as Walker passed the storefronts and occasionally stopped ever-so-briefly to make some points.

He did so at the former Steiger’s footprint to show how it was filled with the Gap and Gap Kids, Ann Taylor, and other shops; at Delaney’s Market, to point out another of the more recent arrivals, a store created by the owners of the Delaney House restaurant to provide high-quality meals to go; at Oksana Salon & Spa to show how there are many locally owned ventures at the shops; and at Starbucks to show how the arrival of one retailer can create momentum and attract other tenants.

“We had a CVS and a Blockbuster, and that caught the attenntion of Starbucks,” he explained. “And once we had a Starbucks, we attracted interest from the Gap, and when we got the Gap here … Ann Taylor and Chico’s would follow the Gap around.

“It’s like a domino effect — these national retailers tend to follow one another,” he went on. “And the goal from the start was to get the best local, regional, and national tenants we could find.”

Dialogue continued at the storefront that will soon house Great Harvest, a bread bakery and sandwich shop, to show that there is nearly constant change at the facility; and at the current CVS, to explain, well, why there will be a new CVS.

“We recognized that this was a busy shopping center and there were some parking issues, because of the way the lot was laid out,” he explained. We approached CVS, and there was interest from them; CVS is a very busy tenant, and they draw a lot of foot traffic, so you want them at the end of the shopping center. And they were undersized, and a community like Longmeadow should have a first-rate CVS pharmacy.”

It will get one with the new, 13,000-square-foot facility, which will nearly double the size of the current store.

Walker said the expansion of the shops was considered both a necessary step and solid investment for Grove, which owns retail properties — many of them similar in scope and even look to the Longmeadow Shops — in several states, as well as a number of industrial holdings as well.

The retail portfolio includes Old Towne Village in Charlotte, N.C.; the Wharf Building and the Corner Block, both in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard; Portside Center and Bowman Place in Mount Pleasant, S.C.; Drake Hill Mall in Simsbury, Conn.; and what would be considered an outlier — the Powder Horn Building in Bozeman, Mont.

There are pictures of many of those facilities on the walls of the Grove office in the Longmeadow Shops, which is considered one of the jewels in the portfolio, said Walker, because of its location, consistently high occupancy rate, and steady demand for the spaces that do become available.

This is evidenced by the fact that there is already considerable interest in the existing CVS space, which will likely be subdivided into two spaces.

“I’m waiting to hear back from a national retailer on 5,200 square feet of it,” he said, adding that he doesn’t expect any of that space to be vacant for very long, even as Grove searches not just for a tenant, but one that will help create an even better mix.

Space Exploration

As he walked back to his office, thus getting still more exercise, Walker said the owners of the Longmeadow Shops have now filled out all the land available to them.

But the process of evolution and change within that footprint will continue unabated, he said, because society and retail are always changing, as anyone who has ever been in a Blockbuster Video can attest.

It has been this way since 1963, when S. Prestley Blake had a vision, he said, and it continues to this day, because now, as then, this is a truly special piece of real estate.

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

Features

A Real Page Turner

Diane Pikul

Diane Pikul, Northeast regional sales manager for National Library Relocations.

You might say this is a business that does things by the book. But that tells only part of the story. It also stores, moves, cleans, and inventories everything from maps to photographs; from pieces of art to railroad equipment. And if you called National Library Relocations a ‘volume business,’ that wouldn’t exactly be accurate, either. Here, they measure collections in linear inches and feet — lots of them. In fact, just last summer, the company, with a huge warehouse in Palmer, moved more than 20 miles of books.

As she walked among the seemingly endless rows of books, journals, and boxes of photographs, Diane Pikul stopped to admire what is easily one of the more intriguing items now in her care.

And one that, like those books on the shelves, tells a story. Well, sort of.

The old train lantern is from the collection owned by the National Railway Historical Society. Pikul, Northeast regional sales manager for National Library Relocations (NLR), looked for some clue as to how old this artifact was, and couldn’t find one. She did learn, however, that the lantern was put to use in Chicago.

It is stored next to a large wooden rack that once held dozens of train schedules, an indication of just how dominant that mode of transportation was a century ago and even 60 years ago. And it’s just one small part of a collection measured not in pieces, or volumes, as one might expect, but in linear feet, as will be explained later.

The story it helps tell? Well, it’s more the NLR story than anything else.

Indeed, the railway historical society’s library was kept in the Robert Morris Building in Philadelphia’s Center City, a handsome Gothic Revival structure built in 1914 by hotelier Rutherford Jennings that later served as a college dormitory and academic building and then as an office tower until 2007. That’s when it was acquired by 806 Capital with designs to remake it into a hotel, plans that were scuttled by the recession and later revamped to feature upscale apartments.

We’re unique because we can offer customers a unique blend of experience from the fields of architecture, library science, and transportation.”

To make a long story short, the NRHS needed a new home for its library collection — and it still needs one, although Pikul says it’s closing in on a site. The extended search for new quarters, which has featured a number of twists and turns, explains why this collection, which was supposed to be in NLR’s care for maybe a year or two, has now been at the company’s location in the old Tambrands complex in Palmer for close to a decade.

“It’s a really fascinating collection and a great client — they’re a joy to work with,” said Pikul, who deploys such language to talk about most every client — and means it when she says it.

Indeed, the client list includes some of the most famous and revered institutions in the world, from Harvard University to the Smithsonian to the Clark Art Institute. And what NRL provides to those clients is solutions to problems, or issues.

They range from renovations to fallout from natural disasters; forced relocations (like the NRHS’s) to simple space limitations, which many facilities are now facing.

That constituency includes Wellesley College, which currently stores thousands of books and journals at NLR. Collectively, these items fall into the category of “lesser-used,” said Pikul, which doesn’t mean not used. Indeed, requests from students and teachers at the renowned women’s college for items in the stacks at NLR come in almost daily — with the volume increasing during finals week, she noted, adding that they are overnighted and in the hands of those who requested them within 24 hours.

It also includes Bay Path College, Springfield Technical Community College, and a host of other clients, she said, adding that long-term (or what could also be considered permanent) storage is just one line on the company’s list of services.

Others include far more temporary storage for libraries dealing with some of those aforementioned issues, especially renovations and expansions, and also cleaning of collections, inventorying items, and, as the name of the business suggests, moving them as well.

“We’re unique because we can offer customers a unique blend of experience from the fields of architecture, library science, and transportation,” said Pikul, a former librarian at STCC, as she explained what sets the company apart.

And despite those rumors that the Internet will soon make books and libraries somewhat obsolete, Pikul is firmly of the belief that this is a growth industry. Indeed, as more books are published and institutions grapple with space limitations, storing lesser-used books, as Wellesley and other schools do, is far less costly than building an addition or a new library, she explained.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at a rapidly growing company in a truly unique industry, a business that continues to add new chapters to a compelling success story.

Reading Between the Lines

Pikul has a large, well-appointed office within NLR’s 28,000-square-foot home in what is now known as the Palmer Technology Center, home to dozens of small businesses. But you won’t find her there much these days.

Instead, she’s on assignment, if you will, handling aspects of a massive initiative involving several of the Five Colleges in the Amherst-Northampton area to relocate parts of their vast library collections in a huge annex now being constructed on a 12-acre parcel in Hatfield.

Due to open in the spring, the facility will have the capacity to shelve 2.1 million to 2.5 million volumes, which is sorely needed because the space now being used by the colleges — the famous Cold War-era bunker built into the side of Bare Mountain in the Holyoke Range in 1957 — has now reached capacity.

The current schedule calls for starting to move things in May, said Pikul, adding that much of her time over the past several months has been spent on this project — “I go into the office on weekends to do payroll; people like to get paid,” she joked — in preparation for the move. NLR has been hired to clean items and get them ready for travel, storage, and, if needed, retrieval.

And in many ways, the annex project, although much larger in size and scope than most initiatives, is exemplary of what the company does and how it does it.

Diane Pikul shows off the train lantern

Diane Pikul shows off the train lantern, part of the collection amassed by the National Railway Historical Society, that is one of the more intriguing items now in her care.

NLR goes  — meaning Pikul usually goes — where its clients need it to go, be it to area libraries or to the University of the Pacific’s main campus in Stockton, Calif. (she and other team members will be going there next month to measure a collection in advance of a renovation project), or to Harvard’s campus in Cambridge, where NLR handled a number of projects over the years, including the relocation of one of the its collections to China.

“That was a fun project … that library was shipped to the Ocean University in Qingdao,” she said, searching her memory bank for details on a project undertaken a dozen years ago. “We packed the books into boxes and then used conveyor belts to put the boxes into sea containers; it took a few months for the books to get there, and they used a manual I wrote to put the collection back on shelves; everything is packed left to right and top to bottom.”

Such projects help explain why Pikul, who has been with NLR for nearly two decades now, talks repeatedly about just how much she enjoys what she does.

“I love my job — I think I have the best job in the world. We have terrific clients, and helping them with their collections is very rewarding work,” she said, adding that her role blends elements of library science, architecture, mathematics (adding up all those linear feet), and even antiquities. The company moved a Gutenberg Bible on one of its assignments, for example, and more valuable items stored at the Palmer site, including some pictures of trains owned by the NRHS, are kept in what’s known as the ‘inner-sanctum room,’ which features additional security and climate control.

Our story begins nearly 50 years ago with NLR President Scott Miller. He was working for a company that was part of the Allied Van Lines family in the mid-’60s when his unit was assigned the task of moving a library. Eventually, the company — and Miller — became good at this kind of work. After struggling to find employment after graduating from college with a degree in architecture, Miller returned to Allied (and moving libraries) before starting his own venture in 1985.

Then, as now, libraries comprised the main focus, said Pikul, adding that, from the beginning, there has always been a steady supply of work, because there are tens of thousands of school, college, and municipal libraries, as well as museums and archives, and eventually, most all of them will require some of the services offered by the company.

This is made clear by a look at NLR’s portfolio of projects. It’s broken down by year, and each one has dozens of bullet-pointed undertakings.

In 2011, for example, the company did work with almost every college in the Ivy League, including Harvard (a frequent customer, as noted), Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania. But the ledger also lists work with dozens of other colleges, several school libraries, nearly two dozen public libraries, a medical library, and several ‘special libraries,’ including those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and Travis Air Force Base in California.

The consistency and high volume of work is also reflected in Pikul’s comments about next summer — and the one after that, as well — because that is traditionally the busiest time of year as colleges and public schools try to get work done when students are on break.

“This coming summer is completely booked,” she said slowly and without acknowledging there was a decent pun within that explanation. “This past week, I’ve been telling people, ‘we’ve been booked for eight months now; I can’t even give you a quote.’ They call and say, ‘we’d like to move in May,’ and I say, ‘this May, really?’

“When things are really good, we’re booked a year in advance,” she went on. “I have several projects booked for 2018 already.”

Good Story Lines

As she talked about the various forms of work undertaken by NLR, Pikul said that, as one might expect, part of it is simple physical labor — loading books onto trucks (or shipping containers, as in that case involving Harvard mentioned earlier) and transporting them to and from the warehouse in Palmer, or to other locations, including China.

But the vast majority of this work would be described as both delicate and intricate, undertaken by people — a good deal of them retired librarians or educators — who have an understanding of books and library science itself.

Indeed, Pikul and those she works with (mostly on a project basis, although she is hopeful to add more permanent employees in the future) have a thorough understanding of not simply the Dewey Decimal System, but the many other library classification methods.

These include the Library of Congress System, the Cutter System, the Pettee, or Union Classification System, and many others, she said, adding that this cumulative knowledge enables the company to play an invaluable consultative role for clients and potential clients.

Elaborating, she said NLR representatives can provide advice on everything from how much space to leave for a collection or parts of it (not only for today but years and decades down the road) to how to design a library or expansion, to the best course of action when mold attacks a book or a collection — which it often does.

And Pikul, as you might expect by now, is well-versed on that subject as well.

“My staff is trained to recognize mold issues,” she said. “Sometimes, you get dead mold, which you can just wipe right off. But sometimes it can be colorful — black or psychedelic (I’ve seen some interesting things out there), and that’s when our staff knows enough to stop, recognize that there’s something wrong, and bring the item to me.

“If it’s a small thing, we can treat it with isopropyl alcohol, isolate the item, see how it dries, and then decide whether it can go back in the collection,” she went on. “If it’s really, really bad, those spores can spread and get into carpeting and curtains and upholstery.”

Meanwhile, simple cleaning of books is not exactly simple, she said, adding that great care is taken to preserve the materials, meaning no chemicals are used in these processes.

the company moved more than 20 miles of books last summer alone

At NLR, they measure volume of business not by volumes, but by linear feet of materials; the company moved more than 20 miles of books last summer alone.

Actually, there are several options for clients when it comes to cleaning, depending on how serious they want to get with such an undertaking.

“If they’re going from one building to another, and it’s a newer collection, we can do a reverse vacuum where we just blow the dust off the tops of the books,” she explained. “We can do a light cleaning where we’re doing the spines and the tops of the books just to get the surface dust off, and then there’s a really detailed cleaning we’ve done for some clients, especially special collections, where we clean all six sides of the book and wipe the shelf down using cloth treated with mineral oil so it’s anti-static and you’re not getting dust glomming back onto the shelf.”

The vacuums are triple-filtered, like those used in hospitals, and the brushes used are made of natural horse hair so as not to scratch the items, she went on, adding that attention to details like this has enabled NLR to become one of the top companies nationally in what is now a highly competitive field.

Looking forward, Pikul said the company is looking to grow, has the capacity to do it — there is considerably more space at the Palmer Technology Park for the company to rent if it so desires, and it has already expanded several times — and the need will certainly be there.

As evidenced by the massive project in Hatfield involving the Five Colleges, schools, public libraries, and other kinds of institutions will continue to add to their collections, and many will need help storing, cleaning, and moving items, or perhaps all of the above.

Part of the growth equation is education, said Pikul, adding that libraries need to understand that those assignments listed above are not — or should not be — do-it-yourself projects.

Thus, the best marketing strategy the company has is word-of-mouth referrals, and there have been hundreds of those over the years, she told BusinessWest.

“We rely on testimonials — they’re very important in this business because of the work that’s involved and the trust that clients are putting in us,” she explained, adding that the phone is ringing even more often these days thanks to the company finally earning placement on the state bid list for such projects involving the moving of libraries.

Tome-honored Practices

As for those references to linear feet, Pikul actually summoned a different unit of measure to convey how busy this company has been.

Indeed, just last summer — remember, that’s the busy season — it moved some 20 miles of books.

How many volumes is that? Pikul doesn’t know, and doesn’t really care, because that number is not particularly relevant; 500 children’s books would certainly take up far less space than 500 books from a law library.

This is just one of the many intriguing nuances in a business where things are done by the book — and the journal, map, microfilm box, and, yes, train lantern.

That’s what makes it so fascinating, and enjoyable, to Pikul, and why it’s a business story that has become a real page turner.

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

Features

Looking Forward, Not Back

Nate Costa

Nate Costa says the first part of the T-Birds season was about paying tribute to the past; since Jan. 1, though, the team has been working even more diligently to forge its own identity.

Nate Costa was talking about how the eight months since the launch of Springfield’s new American Hockey League franchise, the Thunderbirds, has been both long and quick at the same time.

To get his point across, he pointed to his office in the team’s complex at the MassMutual Center and just how unlived in (or not ready for this writer’s camera) it is.

Indeed, while the credenza over his desk seems somewhat organized, complete with a good-sized bobblehead collection, a photo from his college commencement, and other mementos, the rest of it would certainly not fit that description. A dorm fridge sits on the floor unplugged, the energy-rating tag still attached to the door. Several photos, plaques, and other items, including a wooden clock commemorating the New York Giants’ victory in Super Bowl XXI (Costa’s a huge fan of that team), take up space on shelves or the floor, rather than the walls.

Meanwhile, there are several boxes of team replica jerseys stacked in one corner. They are destined, hopefully, for bars, restaurants, and clubs across the area in an effort to enlist their support — and wall space — in efforts to build momentum and a fan base (more on that later).

“This office … just hasn’t been a priority,” said Costa, the team’s executive vice president, uttering those words slowly for emphasis before going into great detail about what has been a priority. And this would be anything and everything that goes into building the Thunderbirds brand and making this AHL franchise part of the fabric of the community.

A long, quick eight months in, Costa believes he and his team have made significant progress on both scores, enough to imply strongly that he can already declare this inaugural season a success on many levels.

That list does not necessarily include the AHL’s Atlantic Division standings, where the T-Birds are firmly entrenched in sixth place, only a few points ahead of cellar-dwelling Hartford and nearly 30 points behind pace-setting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

But it would include average attendance (roughly 4,500, a marked increase over last year) and the demographic breakdown of those crowds (fans of all ages, but an encouraging number of young people), as well as a host of intangibles Costa noted, including ‘energy,’ ‘buzz,’ and ‘brand recognition.’ (A ‘swear jar’ placed at the T-Birds offices to store fines deposited by those who uttered the former franchise’s name, ‘Falcons,’ has been retired, because no one really does that anymore).

“The vision for this, right from the get-go, was creating a brand and creating an identity in Springfield that was centered not just on community involvement and hockey, but entertainment,” he explained. “That’s family-friendly entertainment that’s affordable and provides value. And I think we’ve accomplished much of that in terms of laying a foundation for something that’s consistent.”

Overall, Costa said his team, using its own imagination while also borrowing heavily from the success of other franchises, has succeeded in creating a game experience that is succeeding in drawing fans no matter what the team’s record happens to be. Perhaps the best example of this is Friday-night games, or the Friday 4-for-All, as the team calls them.

Live music featuring local bands precedes those tilts, which also feature free parking in the Civic Center Parking Garage (as all games do), $1 concessions (hot dogs, soda, and popcorn), and $4 Coors Light draughts.

The package has proven attractive enough to lure college students and families alike, said Costa, adding that the Friday-night games are becoming a fixture, if they haven’t crossed that threshold already.

“Friday nights … you can’t get a better value anywhere in town,” he said. “And it’s starting to spread in terms of awareness. Overall, there’s an atmosphere in the building that wasn’t there before.”

But there’s more, including so-called ‘winning weekdays’ — if the team wins one of those rare non-weekend games, attendees get a free ticket to the next one — as well as a host of on-ice game-day experiences created to attract young people and spur group-ticket sales, and an array of giveaways, special offers, and promotions.

And then, there’s Ric Flair, the former professional wrestler and consummate self-promoter, who will be the special attraction at the Feb. 10 (another Friday) tilt against Hartford.

“The Syracuse Crunch brought him in one night a few years ago, and it was a smash success — it was one of the biggest nights they’ve had in a long time,” said Costa, offering one of many examples of how the team is borrowing best practices. “We’re not sold out yet, but we’re on our way; he’s as topical as ever.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Costa about the progress achieved to date with building a fan base for the T-Birds and the challenges that remain.

Changing Their Tune

Costa grew up in Springfield — he’s a Cathedral High School alum — and has many vivid memories of watching Springfield Falcons games with his father and grandfather at the old Springfield Civic Center.

Generations of people have such memories involving Springfield teams also named the Indians and Kings, he noted, adding that professional hockey in Springfield dates back to the Roaring ’20s. This legacy was certainly on Costa’s mind as he worked with a team of owners to launch the Thunderbirds franchise last spring, and in many ways, the first part of the season was dedicated to the tradition and those who kept it alive, he told BusinessWest.

“I wanted to pay tribute to the history, because I’m a product of that,” he explained. “It wasn’t necessarily the sport, it was the experience — it was getting to spend time with my dad or my grandfather, and it was time that really stuck with me. So the beginning part of our season was really spent celebrating that history.”

Right down to “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” the rally-the-crowd song that has been played before, during, and after AHL games in Springfield for decades, which also greeted the T-Birds as they took the ice or scored a goal.

But starting with the Jan. 4 tilt against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (one of those weekday games the T-Birds won, thus sending attendees home really happy), there was a different sound being heard.

It was “Out of Our Heads” by the Dropkick Murphys, featuring the lyrics:

“Are we gonna make it
Or is this how we’ll go?
Are we gonna take it sitting down?
Hell no!
We’re going to cause a riot
We’re going to rip it up
We’re going to storm the gates
This place is going up.”

As he explained this choice and the retirement of “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Costa said it was a well-thought-out decision that in many ways speaks to what his team (meaning the one in the backroom, not the one on the ice) is doing with this franchise across the board, or across the boards, as they say in this business.

“Our internal mindset was, once we get to Jan. 1, we’re going to flip that switch and embrace that new brand we’ve created in this market around the T-Birds,” he explained. “We switched to ‘Out of Our Heads’ because we were creating our own identity, and one that identifies with a young fan.

“We hear so much about people having memories with their parents and hearing ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll,’ he went on. “I want to create those same memories for a younger generation that may not identify with ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll,’ but does identify with something that’s more current. I’m trying to look forward, and not necessarily backward, and that’s what we’re trying to do continuously.”

That sentiment applies to basically every bullet-pointed item in the strategic plan, he continued, listing everything from marketing to the strategy for group sales to those on-ice promotions, to specific initiatives like Friday 4-for-Alls.

Starting with marketing, he said that, while the team still partakes in what would be considered traditional methods and platforms, its focus is on social media and the methods for reaching younger audiences.

“We’re doing a ton of marketing in a way that’s different from what we’ve seen in years past,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re putting a ton behind digital … being on Facebook and being intelligent about what we’re doing is exposing our product to a completely different fan; the majority of people who are on Facebook, who are on Instagram, who are on Twitter are young people.”

the key to success for all the teams in the AHL

Nate Costa says the key to success for all the teams in the AHL, and especially the T-Birds, is to focus on providing entertainment, not just hockey.

The same philosophy being applied to marketing also prevails with other strategies for attracting and retaining fans, he went on, citing the Win on Weekdays promotion as just one example.

“We had two Wednesdays; we won the first one and had a really good redemption on the people coming back to the next one,” he explained. “We were able to grow our revenue, and it was a positive. Hopefully, what happens is we win a couple of those, you create a buzz, and you give people something to talk about. It’s a fun promotion.”

Changing On the Fly

As he talked about hockey, the AHL, the mindset of looking forward, not backward, and the involved process of turning league games into can’t-miss happenings, Costa focused most of his time and energy on what’s happening in Springfield.

But to put things into perspective — and also to show that everything he was talking about was certainly doable — he started by discussing what has happened in some other AHL cities, including Grand Rapids, Mich., San Antonio, Texas, where Costa cut his teeth in group sales, and especially Utica, N.Y.

That city of 65,000 people in Upstate New York’s Mohawk County, known perhaps more for the beer that’s been brewed there since 1888 than anything else, had an AHL franchise (the Devils, an affiliate of the NHL team with that same nickname) in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but lost it essentially due to lackluster support.

So when there was movement to locate the Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate there in 2013, the plan was greeted with a good deal of skepticism, said Costa, who was then working for the league in its Team Business Services Department.

“I was there when they bought the franchise,” he recalled. “And there were a lot of doubters, a lot of people who laughed a bit and said, ‘why would they put a team back in tiny Utica with its 3,800-seat arena?’”

But former AHL and NHL player Robert Esh had a different vision, he went on.

“He took a major-league attitude toward it,” Costa explained. “And he had a vision for what a franchise could do for a small city like that.”

To make a somewhat long story short, the Comets have sold out every game for the last two or three years, said Costa, and tickets have become a hot commodity.

“A Comets’ game is now the thing to do in Utica,” he said. “You can’t get a ticket, you can’t sniff a ticket now, and it’s because of the brand that he’s built. The game-night experience is unbelievable; it’s NHL-quality.”

In some ways, the T-Birds management team has borrowed from the Utica franchise when it comes to the game-night-experience side of the equation, said Costa, but also from the specific mindset of making one of the team’s games the thing to do — on Friday night, yes, but really any night they’re playing.

And the team has borrowed from other franchises as well, he said, especially with regard to the focus and drive put on group sales, which, as noted, is where Costa got his start in pro hockey with the San Antonio Rampage.

When Costa started there, the team was at or near the bottom of the league in attendance. It quickly rose in the ranks through group sales and season tickets.

“We started selling youth-hockey experiences and selling to schools — showing them experiences at the building that they couldn’t get by going to a Spurs game,” he explained. “We found our niche. You could spend $12 and sit in the same building where you would spend $200 to see the Spurs, and get a great experience.”

Net Results

In a nutshell, the assignment is the same in Springfield, said Costa, adding that, while there isn’t an NBA franchise also playing at the MassMutual Center, there are four pro sports teams just 90 minutes down the Turnpike, as well as a host of other attractions vying for the time and attention of families and young people.

Creating an experience for a fraction of the cost of one of those other options is one key to success for the T-Birds, he said, adding that the team is currently taking advantage of several opportunities it has created.

Actually, one was created by the MassMutual Center and its still fairly open schedule. Indeed, there are no other primary tenants competing for prime nights, as in most other AHL cities (San Antonio and Cleveland, where the NBA champion Cavaliers are the lead tenant, are prime examples), so the T-Birds have more Friday and Saturday dates to play with than other teams.

Another opportunity that came about is free parking, achieved through prolonged negotiations with the Springfield Parking Authority, And still another is the $1 price tag put on the hot dogs, soda, and popcorn, and $4 for a cup of Coors, said Costa, adding that they resulted from lengthy talks with Spectra Food Management, which handles concessions at the MassMutual Center, about price points that will yield dividends across the board.

“We’re jointly looking at this as a chance to provide, on one day a week, Friday, an opportunity to expose our product to more people and different fans,” he said of that specific deal, but also the combination of factors that have come together, adding that the strategy is obviously working.

“If you come here on a Friday night now, or a Sunday night when we have an extreme value like for our Sunday Fun Days, you see a ton of kids,” said Costa. “That’s not to say that there weren’t kids before — I came here, and there were absolutely kids. But there’s a different energy in the building, and it’s continued to grow.

tbirdsrick

 

“And it’s not just young kids,” he went on. “We’re seeing more 21- to 35-year-olds than ever before; we’re seeing a lot more college kids coming out on Friday nights, because there’s value, and we’ve put a premium on our game-night experience.”

So much so that Costa and his team are trying to somehow replicate Friday’s energy and atmosphere on Saturday.

But when it comes to exposing the product to new audiences, the real key is group sales, said Costa, adding that they not only help fill the parking garage and the arena, but they create experiences — from listening to local bands to being chosen to sing the National Anthem, to getting on the ice with the team — that will bring people back.

“That’s how we’re going to fill this building,” he said of group sales. “We have to get out and grab people and bring them in. With groups, a lot of them are young people, and when you expose them to the product and bring them in en masse, you make fans for life. Those are the ones who are going to go to mom and dad and say, ‘I had a great time; can we come again?’”

As for those jerseys in the boxes in Costa’s office, he ordered them with the hope, and expectation, that they would be framed and find their way onto the walls of area bars, restaurants, and clubs.

Those establishments would be sold a package (still to be formalized) whereby they would get the framed jersey and thus become part of the efforts to build visibility and buzz for the team.

“My real vision is to have this team become part of the fabric of the community,” he explained. “This bar program is part of that; we can develop a price point that’s easy for them to get to, and then they become partners with us, and we can become partners with them.

“If people go to these places, they see a piece of what we’re about, and they feel that connection to us,” he went on, adding that building these connections is essentially his job description.

A Winning Attitude

When asked when he might get around to hanging his Giants clock or even plugging in his refrigerator, Costa didn’t even bother answering.

His office hasn’t garnered more than a tiny bit of his time and attention over the past eight months, and that isn’t about to change.

Instead, he’s focused on that ongoing challenge of creating a large, stable, committed fanbase for the T-Birds, an assignment he’s embraced with vigor, imagination, and a mindset he’s seen work elsewhere and that he knows will work here.

That philosophy is to celebrate the past, but focus on today and tomorrow, and, as the Dropkick Murphys shout in “Out of Our Heads,” ‘storm the gates.’

In other words, Springfield’s hockey team has changed its tune — in all kinds of ways.

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

Banking and Financial Services Cover Story Sections
Jim Hickson

Jim Hickson, Berkshire Bank’s Springfield Regional President

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

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

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

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

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

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


List of Banks in Western Mass.


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

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

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

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

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

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

By All Accounts

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

Springfield Innovation Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points of Interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

Autos Sections

A High-revving Engine

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi says sales have been on the rise for several years at TommyCar Auto Group, and she expects this trend to continue at its dealerships.

Initial national projections for 2017 called for the recent rise in auto sales to level off and then perhaps slow down. But those forecasts have been adjusted recently. Indeed, the experts say a host of favorable factors, from low gas prices to a stable economy to the advanced age of many cars on the road, will continue to fuel increases in sales volume.

John Kupec III has been in the automobile-sales industry for 40 years. But he has never seen trade-ins with as many miles as the ones being brought to Gale Toyota in Enfield today.

“We’re seeing cars come in with more than 250,000 miles,” the general sales manager told BusinessWest.

Indeed, a poll conducted last month by market research company IHS Markit shows the average age of light vehicles on the road is 11.5 years, and the trend Kupec observed is mirrored at other dealerships.

“This week alone, I saw trade-ins with 160,000 miles, 180,000 miles, and 240,000 miles — vehicles last longer than they used to, but people have taken it to the extreme,” said John Lewis, general manager at Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram and Bertera Fiat and Collision Center in West Springfield, as he spoke about reasons that led so many people to keep their vehicles for a decade or more.

John Kupec

John Kupec is optimistic about the year ahead, and says Gale Toyota of Enfield hopes to increase sales by 10% to 15%.

The practice began in 2008 when the economy crashed. Consumer confidence plummeted, 401(k) plans lost their value, and people worried about job security and began to realize they could drive their vehicles much longer than they had believed possible without incurring a lot of repairs.

“Today alone, we took in a 2001 with 160,000 miles and a 2005 with 155,000 miles,” said Craig Dodenstein, sales manager for Toyota of Greenfield, who noted that people usually upgrade to a new vehicle when the cost of repairs becomes prohibitive.

Sales began to rise a few years ago in line with a renewed confidence in the economy that has slowly taken root. But last fall, the National Automobile Dealers Assoc. predicted 2017 would be the year in which sales would reach their peak and begin to slow down. That projection was changed, however; now, sales of new vehicles in the U.S. are expected to remain above 17 million for the third straight year in a row, and even rise slightly toward the second half of the year.


Chart of area Auto Dealers


Aging vehicles still on the road have resulted in pent-up demand, and that factor, coupled with new models, aggressive manufacturer incentives, low interest rates, reasonable gas prices, and an upswing in the economy, are fueling optimism at local dealerships for the coming year.

“Last month, our sales were up 10% over January of last year, and we expect a 20% increase in 2017,” Lewis said, attributing the number not only to the company’s reputation and the service it offers, but the fact that Subaru sales have climbed and a new $5 million Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealership is under construction, which hindered sales last year when they started working from trailers.

Fathers & Sons in West Springfield also has a new dealership, an $18 million facility that is home to Audi and Volkswagen franchises.

“We want to grow, plan to grow, and have the tools in our arsenal to do it,” said Sales Manager Ethan Prentiss. “In December, Volkswagen had the best month in company history, and this year we expect a 10% to 12% increase in Volkswagen and Audi sales, and an 8% to 10% increase in Volvo sales,” he said, referring to the company’s other dealership on Memorial Avenue, which houses the largest dedicated Volvo dealership in the country in terms of square footage.

Ethan Prentiss

Ethan Prentiss says the demand for SUVs and crossovers such as the new Volkswagen Touareg continue to rise at Fathers & Sons Volkswagen.

Incentives are also boosting sales, and Kupec said Toyota’s are higher than they have been in decades. “The manufacturer is offering 0% interest on some models, which they have never done before; hefty rebates of $2,000 to $3,000; and bonus cash on leases,” he said. “We’re off to a great start and hope to have a 10 to 15% increase this year in sales.”

Bill Peffer concurred. “It’s a very exciting industry to be in, and our outlook for 2017 is very, very positive,” said the president and chief operating officer of Balise Motor Sales, which has 24 stores in three states. “The market is very strong, and any volatility has been offset by manufacturer incentives. There are tons of new choices for customers — it’s a very good time to buy a car, truck, or SUV.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest looks at the current landscape within the industry and what the road ahead might bring.

Getting into High Gear

Last June, Volkswagen agreed to buy back its 2.0L diesel vehicles after a lawsuit that proved it had used emissions-system-defeating software. The VW Group also agreed to pay owners $5,100 to $10,000 in additional compensation on top of a fix or buyback of their car.

The negative press that ensued made sales challenging for a period of time, but buybacks began last October and accounted for a quarter of the Volkswagen sales at Fathers & Sons in December.

“These people would normally not be in the market for a new car, and the projection is that we will be able to retain 25% of them; many of our customers love the way their Volkswagens drive and handle,” Prentiss said, explaining that this situation, coupled with the new dealership and a lineup of exciting new products, is not the only reason for the projected increase in sales.

“We are now a negotiation-free dealership, which is what customers want,” he continued. “Buying a vehicle here has become all about the experience. Our salespeople are non-commissioned, and customers can find what they are looking for and complete the purchase within two hours.

“We give them our best price up front and make it fun to buy a car,” he continued, adding that Volvo sales are also up, as the manufacturer broke records last year due to the launch of a new image and the release of new products.

Toyota of Greenfield is another dealership that has undergone change. It moved into a new, $7 million dealership last winter and held a grand opening last May, so 2016 was a year of transition as they were able to move out of the trailers they worked in during 2015 while construction was underway.

“We’re looking for a 5% to 10% increase in sales this year, and if January was any indication, we are headed in the right direction,” said Dodenstein, adding that January sales had almost tripled over last year’s numbers by the third week of the month.

Although the new dealership certainly makes a difference, manufacturer incentives and new products add to the enticements. The new electric Prius Prime is a leader in its class; it gets 133 miles per gallon, beat a preliminary 22-mile electric volt range estimate with 25 miles, and gets 54 mpg in hybrid mode.

Meanwhile, Carla Cosenzi said last year was a great one for TommyCar Auto Group, which includes Hyundai, Nissan, Buick, GMC, and Volkswagen franchises. Some stores did especially well, including Hyundai, which experienced strong demand for entry-level vehicles.

“Hyundai gives customers a lot of value for their dollar, including technology, safety, and the aggressive pricing people are looking for,” Cosenzi explained, noting that consumers are excited about the fact that new technology is standard in many brands of entry-level models and ranges from adaptive cruise control to lane assist, collision warning, and backup cameras.

TommyCar is expecting another excellent year, and the sales of the new Volkswagen Golf All Trac station wagon, which has all-wheel drive, accelerated right after it was released. In addition, SUVs and crossovers are becoming increasingly popular, such as the 2017 seven- passenger Nissan Rogue and Volkswagen Tiguan.

“People want the space, comfort, and luxury they provide. They are more expensive than compact cars, but with interest rates and gas at all-time lows. they’re affordable,” Cosenzi noted.

Other local dealers agree that the demand for trucks, crossover vehicles, and SUVs is growing. They point to the fact that unemployment rates are low, people use trucks to do business, and buyers of all ages want to be able to travel in the winter.

“The weather in New England is unpredictable, and people want mobility whether they are driving to the ski slope or have the kids in their vehicle during a snowstorm,” Peffer said, adding that today’s crossovers and SUVs offer that versatility.

He noted the trend has changed over the past few decades. “Station wagons were popular from the ’40s through the ’70s. But when Chrysler came out with a minivan in the ’80s, the evolution of SUVs began, and so did the way people chose to be mobile,” he told BusinessWest, noting that crossovers and SUVs are affordable, offer more utility than mid-sized cars, and get good gas mileage.

Prentiss said Fathers & Sons sells seven-seat vehicles as quickly as they get them, and Audi’s Q7 and Volvo’s XC90 SUV models are popular because they offer utility plus plenty of cargo space. In addition, Volkswagen’s Tiguan and Golf All Trac have made the brand competitive with Honda and Toyota.

Changing Landscape

Local dealers say leasing has increased and accounts for a good portion of their new-car transactions.

“Leasing allows people to move into cars with low payments without the hassle of long-term maintenance; they can lease them to drive what they want and turn in the car before the warranty is up, as opposed to incurring costs over a six-year loan period,” said Peffer, noting that, a decade or two ago, leasing was reserved for commercial buyers, but today it has gone mainstream, and a third or more of Balise’s new-vehicle sales are leases.

Leasing is also popular at Bertera and accounts for 38% of its new-car business. “Technology is moving so fast, and people want the latest advances. Plus, a segment of the population is always going to have a payment, and they can get a brand-new car every two to three years with a lease,” Lewis said.

He explained that the average payment on a purchased $40,000 vehicle is $500 a month for six years, but the same vehicle can be leased for $300 to $350 a month with very little money down, which makes it attractive.

Kupec noted that the appeal extends to different age and economic groups, especially since people who do a lot of driving can build additional miles into a lease.

“People are more receptive to leasing than ever before,” he said, adding that 40% of the store’s new-car transactions are leases.

Prentiss told BusinessWest that a large portion of Millennials would rather lease than buy a new vehicle. “It has to do with their psychology; they think a three-year lease is long enough.”

The market for electric vehicles is also growing. Cosenzi said the Hyundai Ioniq, which is scheduled to come out in the next month, will have a battery-only model with an electric driving range of 124 miles and an EPA rating of 136 miles per gallon.

Positive Signs

From a big-picture, national-economy perspective, the road ahead is certainly marked by unpredictability and guarded optimism.

In the auto industry, through, there would appear to be fewer potential bumps in that road and apparently smooth riding. As noted by all those we spoke with, a number of factors are contributing to greater confidence on the part of consumers, and this is translating into greater activity at area dealerships.

As they say in this business, there is plenty of tread left on those tires.