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Insurance Special Coverage

Putting a Premium on Measured Growth

Current and future leaders at the Dowd Agencies

Current and future leaders at the Dowd Agencies, from left: Evan Dowd, account executive; John Dowd Jr., president and CEO; Dave Griffin Jr., senior vice president; and Jack Dowd, vice president of Personal Lines.

There’s a framed picture of downtown Holyoke on one wall of the conference room at the Dowd Agencies — downtown Holyoke circa 1870.

The view is looking west along Dwight Street by the first-level canal. City Hall, prominent in the upper-left corner, looks … exactly as it does today. The other side of Dwight Street, not so much — most of the buildings seen in the image have been gone for decades. For perspective, a horse-drawn carriage is moving east down the hill.

John Dowd Jr. said the picture was owned by a long-time client who offered it to him after Dowd repeatedly raved about it. He accepted the offer and gave the picture a prominent home — across the conference room from another framed photo, this one of the insurance company’s founder, James J. Dowd, who went into business just a few decades after that picture of downtown was taken.

Together, the pictures provide some needed perspective — about time, Holyoke, the company, change, what hasn’t changed — and how they all come together. And the juxtaposition of all this will come into even sharper focus in 2023, when the agency, which Dowd claims is the oldest family-owned insurance agency doing business in the Bay State, celebrates its 125th birthday.

“We want to continue to grow, but want to make sure we’re not growing too quickly; we don’t want to get over our skis, as we like to say.”

There hasn’t been much hard planning about how to mark that milestone, he said, adding that he and others will pick up the pace in the coming months and put together some events and programs, as they did for the company’s centennial in 1998.

“We have a few things we’re planning that are in the works,” he said. “We’re trying to do some things that involve the community; overall, it’s an opportunity for us to say ‘thank you’ to the community for supporting us for 125 years and through five generations. That’s an important ‘thank you,’ and we’re thinking long and hard about what we’re going to do.”

In the meantime, the company is taking steps to ensure that it can continue its long history as an independent agency, said Dowd, noting, for example, the latest in a series of recent acquisitions that provide needed size and flexibility at a time of continued consolidation in the insurance industry.

Just last month, the firm acquired the Ideal Insurance Agency in Ludlow, which, like many smaller, family-owned agencies in the area, became available for one of many reasons, ranging from COVID-19 to lack of a clear succession plan to the inability to effectively compete in a market increasingly dominated by larger firms.

photo of downtown Holyoke, circa 1870

This photo of downtown Holyoke, circa 1870, has earned a spot on the wall in the conference room at the Dowd Agencies.

This was the third such acquisition over the past two years, coming after Dowd bought the J. Raymond Lussier agency in West Springfield and the Wilcox agency in Westfield and Feeding Hills. This expansion has given the agency much greater size, and in insurance, as in banking and most all other sectors, size matters, and it bring benefits.

“The advantages come with volume with carriers,” Dowd explained, noting that the firm is roughly 30% larger than it was a few years ago, and almost double the size it was a decade ago. “The more volume you have, the better compensation you negotiate, as well as profit sharing, services, and other perks. We’ve been able to achieve some of that volume leverage through aggregation with other agencies and through M&A.”

Moving forward, the agency will continue to look for opportunities for growth organically, and also through additional acquisitions, said Dowd, adding that it approaches this assignment with an eye toward smart growth and not taking on too much too quickly.

“We want to continue to grow, but want to make sure we’re not growing too quickly; we don’t want to get over our skis, as we like to say,” he noted, borrowing a phrase used often in business to connote getting ahead of oneself with a specific strategic initiative. “A healthy company grows organically and also through M&A. With the M&A, it has to be measured growth, but organic growth is essential — that’s boots on the ground, bringing in new clients, retaining your current clients; that’s good, healthy growth, augmented by acquisition, which comes with debt, which obviously has to measured and balanced.”

Meanwhile, there are other matters to consider, said Dowd, including succession planning for this agency, something that is obviously taken seriously at a company that has been around this long, covets its independence, and wants things to stay that way.

For this issue and its focus on insurance, BusinessWest talked with Dowd about … well, everything conveyed by those two photos in the conference room.

 

Cover Story

Dowd told BusinessWest that the phone calls come maybe once a week, or five or six times a month on average.

They’re from representatives of private-equity firms who want to know if Dowd Insurance might be for sale, and, if so, under what circumstances. He tells them ‘no,’ and in a polite way — at least the first time they inquire.

“I’ll usually have one conversation with them and let them know that we’re not interested in selling and are happy to stay the way we are. And then when they call the next month with the same question, my patience starts to wane, and I start to wonder about how obligated I am to answer every email and every phone call, especially when I’ve already talked to them and told them my plan.”

“They are relentless,” said Dowd of those on the other end of the phone. “I’ll usually have one conversation with them and let them know that we’re not interested in selling and are happy to stay the way we are. And then when they call the next month with the same question, my patience starts to wane, and I start to wonder about how obligated I am to answer every email and every phone call, especially when I’ve already talked to them and told them my plan.”

These days, there are even more people calling and asking about the agency, he noted, and that’s because of those acquisitions over the past few years and the scale they generate.

It’s a somewhat minor annoyance, and at the same time a reminder of the agency’s track record for success, he said, adding, again, that he is polite, but only to a point.

Dowd has other matters to occupy his time, he noted, adding that, overall, the firm is still trying to make its way all the way back to where it was before the start of the pandemic, especially with “behind-the-scenes” work, as he called it, when it comes to quality, efficiency, and serving clients.

“We have a quality team that evaluates what we do and how we do it,” he explained. “They would get suggestions every month from anyone on the staff — ‘here’s an area that I think we can look at and get better at’ — and the quality team would research and come to us with suggestions for developing a plan. That’s an example of an area where we lost some momentum.”

Some momentum was also lost when it came to connecting with potential new customers, he went on, adding that this put far greater emphasis on growth through acquisition, which is exactly what the company did.

“From a revenue standpoint, we were flatlining — if we held onto everything,” he explained. “And we didn’t hang onto everything because businesses were closing. It was a scary time because there was so much uncertainty. But then came the M&A opportunity, and we looked at it and said, ‘this is not a great time to be taking on some debt, but we think this is prudent.”

John Dowd Jr., seen here next to a photo of the company’s founder, Joseph Dowd

John Dowd Jr., seen here next to a photo of the company’s founder, James J. Dowd, says the Dowd Agencies targets controlled, ‘smart’ growth, both organically and through acquisition.

Elaborating, he said the agencies that came into consideration were good fits, culturally and otherwise, and under normal circumstances, they would be consider logical acquisitions. The circumstances weren’t normal, but the times dictated some aggressive action.

“Sometimes you’ve got to stick your chin out there and, when opportunity knocks, take advantage of the opportunity,” he said, adding that this is just what the firm has done.

In doing so, it has put itself in and new different position — an independent agency of considerable size — and it is determined to sell both of those qualities.

“We’re a good-sized agency, certainly in Western Mass., and the only one of our size that is still independently owned — not owned by one of the big guys,” he said. “We like that distinction, and we use it to our advantage. We’re totally local — not only do we live and participate in our community here, we’re also locally owned, and profits go right back here in to Western Mass., and not Chicago or anywhere else.”

But with that independent status comes the challenge to compete with those often much larger concerns, Dowd explained, adding that this challenge, as in banking and other sectors, is very real and becoming more stern with each passing year.

“We’re at a point now where getting to the next level requires a higher level of sophistication in just about every area,” he said. “Obviously, technology is huge because it creates the efficiencies we need. Meanwhile, the labor market is extremely difficult and challenging right now.

“The investment in technology and the way we staff ourselves, the levels of management … all of these important areas have to be looked at and adjusted accordingly,” he went on. “You can’t keep doing things the way you were when you were half the size. You have to be forward-thinking in this business; you have to be looking ahead and be prepared for what may come, and you know the unexpected will happen. You have to be nimble enough to be able to adjust.”

 

Prudent Policy

As he looks forward, Dowd sees the agency doing what it has been doing all along and especially over the past decade or so — seeking to grow organically, but also looking for opportunities to grow through acquisition and expand geographically.

The agency currently has nine locations, all in Western Mass., but it is exploring options well beyond this area code, he noted.

“We’ve looked at Northern Connecticut, we’ve looked at acquisitions in Vermont and New Hampshire, and we’ve also looked at Eastern Mass., toward Worcester, working our way in that direction,” he said, adding that, while the agency serves clients in those areas and others, including Boston and New Jersey, it does not have a physical presence in those locations, but could attain some if the conditions are right.

“In our business, it’s about where your network of contacts takes you and what your appetite for challenge is,” he told BusinessWest. “Do you want to do what it takes to be regional and available and able to support services? You just have to be realistic that you can do what you say you can do.

“We’re careful and selective with regard to companies where there’s some distance,” he went on. “But we’re looking at some relationships in New York right now where we could possibly have an ofice and be able to operate similarly, but on a smaller scale, to what we’re doing here.”

Overall, there are a number of ways to get to the proverbial next level in terms of size and revenues, he went on, adding that, while remaining independent is the preferred route, the agency will consider all its options. “We’re evaluating what steps we need to take in order to continue to grow and build the company.”

Returning to those phone calls he gets from the private-equity firms, Dowd noted, again, that he doesn’t take many of those calls anymore.

“I feel bad about that, but not too bad,” he explained. “I get a lot of messages — they call and they say they’re from such and such firm, and he’s calling again; I talked to him a year or two ago and told him I’ll call if anything changes.”

Nothing has really changed, at least on that front, he went on, adding that there has certainly been change with regard to the company’s size, reach, and position among area agencies.

Over the course of 124 years, many things have changed, but the most important ingredient hasn’t — this is still an independent, family-owned agency.

And as it prepares to mark another important milestone, that’s a quality worth celebrating.

 

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Open for Business

Romika Odedra says the branch’s layout emphasizes the customer experience.

Holyoke-based PeoplesBank recently expanded its presence in Connecticut with a branch in West Hartford. The new location is projected to help the bank grow its already considerable portfolio of consumer and commercial business from south of the border, especially in an ongoing climate of mergers and acquisitions.

 

When PeoplesBank opened its newest branch in West Hartford on August 30, it wasn’t exactly its first foray into Connecticut’s capital region. Far from it.

“This is a retail opening in West Hartford, but half of our commercial business is in Connecticut already — actually, about 60%,” said Matt Bannister, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing & Corporate Responsibility.

“Some is up in the Granby-Windsor-Suffield area,” he went on, alluding to PeoplesBank’s first three Connecticut locations, in East Granby, Suffield, and West Suffield. “Some is down here in the Hartford region, and it actually goes all the way down to the shore. We’re kind of catching up with this retail storefront because the commercial customers want a presence here. They’ve been saying to us, ‘come down to Connecticut.’ And West Hartford just makes sense; it’s a great community, and a good place to be.”

Aleda De Maria, executive vice president of Consumer Banking and Operations, said a growing commercial presence in Hartford County cried out for a full-service physical branch.

“The banking centers are there for when they need a little more contact, when they have a little more complexity, or they just want to expand their relationship. We need to make sure we have everything.”

“We absolutely need it. The majority of our new accounts are still opened at brick-and-mortar locations. For more complex conversations, customers want to talk to a person, and they want to have that live interaction. There still is a need for that face-to-face contact.

“I think what the industry is trying to do with the self-service channels — with online, with mobile, with video bankers — is give people the ability to do the quick, day-to-day transactions when they want to, without having to park and go in and talk to somebody, and get it done quickly,” she went on. “The banking centers are there for when they need a little more contact, when they have a little more complexity, or they just want to expand their relationship. We need to make sure we have everything.”

Michael Oleksak, executive vice president and chief lending and credit officer, said all those Connecticut dollars in the bank’s commercial portfolio have not come mainly from the Granby-Suffield area, but predated those physical locations.

Matt Bannister with one of the West Hartford branch’s two interactive video teller machines.

Matt Bannister with one of the West Hartford branch’s two interactive video teller machines.

“We have a significant amount of business in the Greater Hartford area, specifically in the Farmington, Glastonbury, West Hartford communities and downtown Hartford, but we also go as far as New Haven and Greenwich. So our tentacles are fairly long when it comes to our Connecticut presence.

“Most of that is in commercial real estate, which tends to be more transactional,” he went on. “We are able to do a lot of full-service banking for these commercial real-estate customers because of our cash-management expertise and the different products we have, but without a branch presence, it’s really difficult to do business banking.”

The branch presence in West Hartford allows the team to do more commercial and industrial (C&I) lending, and complements a recent expansion of the bank’s C&I team with former TD Bank veterans, Oleksak noted.

“We have a very strong following now, and I think by having a physical presence there, we’ll become a more visible part of the community,” he went on. “We do support our current borrowers, including with a lot of their philanthropic initiatives, but it’s kind of behind the scenes because we don’t have a presence there. But with a physical presence, and with the disruption in the market with the M&T acquisition of People’s United, it will really open the door for us to be a bigger part of the community.”

De Maria agreed. “We’ve already created such a solid foundation with our name and then with the physical presence from the acquisition we did in Suffield in 2018,” she told BusinessWest. “And now, with our West Hartford presence, I think we have a solid opportunity to bring the service we provide for our commercial customers to our retail-customer world, and really marry those two sides together and make an impact.”

 

Making Contact

Many visitors to the new branch will first notice the interactive video tellers, one in the entry and one in the drive-thru lanes, bringing the bank’s total number of such machines to 22 at 17 locations. Users can call up a live teller in Holyoke who manages four or five machines at once.

“That way, we can be open seven days a week and have extended hours and not have to have people physically in the branch. And the video banker can do almost any transaction,” Bannister said, noting that Peoples is the only bank in the Hartford to offer the service. “Part of our technology story is good, consumer-facing technology.”

Romika Odedra, vice president and regional manager, said customers appreciate face time with a live person rather than interacting with a machine and the more limited options available at an ATM. And Bannister added that, with the pandemic still raging, many customers appreciate being able to conduct complex transactions in a contactless way.

“We are able to do a lot of full-service banking for these commercial real-estate customers because of our cash-management expertise and the different products we have, but without a branch presence, it’s really difficult to do business banking.”

“Video tellers are something we’re proud to bring to the market,” De Maria said. “It brings seven-day-a-week banking to West Hartford and our surrounding areas.”

Once inside the branch, customers will see pods instead of traditional customer lines — a model Peoples and other banks have been implementing for years. Customers can stand beside the teller and even see what he or she is looking at on the computer screen, if necessary. “In the beginning, people were like, ‘where do I go?’” Odedra said. “But it’s so easy — it’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s not ‘there’s the line.’ It’s nice to have that one-on-one experience.”

The branch also employs a ‘universal banker’ model, Bannister said. “Any bank employee you see out here can do all the transactions. You can go to a teller pod or pop into an office if it’s more convenient or you just want privacy to have a conversation.” In other, more specialized offices down the hallway from the main area, he added, the bank will offer a mortgage expert, a wealth adviser, and other ancillary services.

And in front, at the main entrance, is a high table, couch, and coffee bar. “We’re trying to say to people, ‘come on in and hang out; get to know us a little bit,” Bannister said. “The thought is, we want to have sort of an open storefront.”

That’s partly to reflect the neighborhood the branch is in, with restaurants and small shops lining the streets and the shopping and dining mecca Blue Back Square just down the road.

“This area really is hopping with foot traffic,” he said. “And if you’re a bank with a retail storefront, you want foot traffic.”

Those who drive to PeoplesBank will appreciate the free parking lot the bank shares with the town’s Post Office.

“I used to work at a different bank, and that was the biggest issue we had, the parking,” Odedra said. “I’m so glad we have the parking we have. We don’t have to rush the customer out; we have time to have that one-on-one with them and invite them to have a cup of coffee.”

Bannister said West Hartford has been an enthusiastic town to work with, from its Chamber of Commerce to local economic-development leaders.

“Right from the start, when we were saying we wanted to come down, they were like, ‘how can we help?’ We’re in a lot of communities, and some of them are very welcoming, and some are maybe not so much. This one has been great to work with.”

 

Opportunity Knocks

The branch is fully staffed as well, with a mix of on-site and hybrid workers, reflecting the current makeup of the entire PeoplesBank organization. Some are West Hartford natives who know the market, Bannisher said, while some were attracted by working near all the nearby restaurants and other neighborhood amenities.

Aleda De Maria

Even in an age of mobile banking, Aleda De Maria says, people still want face-to-face interaction at branches for many services.

There’s room to expand in Hartford County, he added, with plans to open at least two more branches in the next couple of years.

“We’re coming in with a message of ‘we’re here, and we’re here to stay, and we can do everything the big banks do, but with a local feel and local decisions,’” De Maria said. “And I think that’s what’s missing in banking in general nowadays — being able to bank how you want to bank but also at a community bank where you don’t have to worry about who’s going to buy them.”

That presence means civic involvement and philanthropy as well, Bannister said, noting that PeoplesBank plans to give close to $60,000 in the first month alone to local organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Hands on Hartford (which assists with food pantries and the homeless population), the United Way, Foodshare, and even two West Hartford community events the bank will sponsor this fall and next summer.

“Right from the start, when we were saying we wanted to come down, they were like, ‘how can we help?’ We’re in a lot of communities, and some of them are very welcoming, and some are maybe not so much. This one has been great to work with.”

“We feel like we’re leading with the values we want to be known by in the community, which are innovation, technology, customer service, and the community support.”

De Maria agreed with Bannister than broadening the bank’s footprint in Connecticut is a must. “We will continue to actively look for physical locations, primarily in Hartford County,” she said. “We’re not opposed to outside Hartford County should it make sense, but in Hartford County, we feel we have an opportunity for our brand to really make an impact in the community.”

And that means expanded business, including commercial lending, Oleksak said. “I think there’s tremendous opportunity in this market for us, given our size and the experience of our lending staff. We’re very diverse, and between small business, large commercial real-estate loans, and now C&I expertise, I think we bring a lot to the table. It’s a great opportunity for us.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

The Plot Thickens

Even in a normal year, Feb. 29 is an odd date to open a business.

“We really won’t have an anniversary for another four years,” Thomas Winstanley, director of Marketing at Theory Wellness, joked about his company’s third cannabis dispensary, which opened in Chicopee on that leap-year date almost six months ago.

Of course, 2020 is no normal year, and a couple weeks after opening, Theory closed its doors as part of a statewide shutdown of ‘non-essential’ businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been an interesting six months, to say the least,” Winstanley told BusinessWest. “We had a brand-new team in place, the final approvals had come through, and that team was just getting their sea legs on the retail side when the shutdown came.”

When dispensaries were eventually allowed to open, it was only for medical marijuana at first, while the vast majority of business — recreational sales — remained shut down.

And now?

“It’s dynamite,” he said. “A lot of money is coming back to the market, and our team hasn’t missed a step since coming back — and we’ve seen the team continue to grow. We’ve come back a lot stronger.”

The line that forms outside the shop each morning testifies to demand that certainly didn’t go away during the weeks when product was unavailable.

It’s a story taking shape across the state, with cannabis businesses continuing to launch and grow even as the pandemic still rages and the economy nowhere near returning to its 2019 condition. Take Holyoke, for example — a city whose leaders fully embraced the cannabis trade from the start, and where two more businesses opened in recent weeks, Canna Provisions on Dwight Street and Boston Bud Co. on Sargeant Street.

“It’s been an interesting six months, to say the least. We had a brand-new team in place, the final approvals had come through, and that team was just getting their sea legs on the retail side when the shutdown came.”

“I’m not going to lie — I was very nervous as the economy took a downturn,” said Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, about the cannabis hub city leaders have worked to cultivate, one that now includes a handful of cultivation, production, and retail businesses, with more on the way. “Oddly enough, we haven’t seen a significant stoppage in stores’ actions at this point. I can only speculate why that is.”

One reason, quite simply, is that some sectors do better than others during recessions. Marrero compared it to when prohibition was lifted during the Great Depression, and smart entrepreneurs immediately saw the long-term (and pent-up) demand for alcohol, even during tough economic times.

Theory Wellness in Chicopee

Theory Wellness in Chicopee closed in March just a few weeks after it opened, but customer traffic has been solid this summer.

“Today, we have a very robust alcoholic-beverage industry,” he said, reflecting demand that has never subsided over the decades. “So I don’t think there’s anything remarkably special about cannabis in that regard.”

Another apt comparison is the financial crisis of 2008, when the fundamentals of the economy were coming apart — a different story than in 2020. “Now, the economy is tanking because there’s no consumption, and the labor force is contracting.”

Those investing in the cannabis sector, however, are looking beyond that; they know demand for these products is likely to remain high — no pun intended — in the long term.

“This may be as good an investment as anything,” Marrero said. “We’re still seeing investments going forward at the local level; it’s a very positive outlook, even during the pandemic.”

Creating a Pipeline

The proliferation of cannabis businesses across the region, with the promise of more to come, means jobs, and that potential isn’t lost on area colleges and universities.

First, Holyoke Community College (HCC) and the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) announced the creation of the Cannabis Education Center last fall, to provide education, training, and other business resources to individuals in the region who want to work in the cannabis industry.

HCC and C3RN are designated training partners through the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission’s (CCC) Social Equity Vendor Training program, which was designed to provide priority access, training, and technical assistance to populations and communities that, traditionally, have been negatively impacted by the drug war.

Soon after that, American International College (AIC) dipped a toe into the sector by launching a three-course certificate program called Micro-Emerging Markets: Cannabis, offering an overview of cannabis entrepreneurship, business operations, and law and ethics.

This fall, AIC is launching a master’s program in Cannabis Science and Commerce — with a one-year online program or a two-year hybrid model — that takes a deeper dive into preparing students to work in this field, said Jennifer Barry, AIC’s director of Continuing Studies and Special Projects.

She cited some striking statistics — 15% job growth in the legal cannabis industry in 2019, $404 million in legal cannabis sales in Massachusetts that same year, and 245,000 full-time-equivalent jobs created nationally by early 2020 — to explain why the program is necessary.

JENNIFER BARRY

Jennifer Barry

“We want to provide opportunities to connect students with an industry where there’s a lot of room for employment growth. The idea is to connect students with experts in the industry.”

“We want to provide opportunities to connect students with an industry where there’s a lot of room for employment growth,” Barry told BusinessWest. “The idea is to connect students with experts in the industry.”

To that end, the program will be taught collaboratively by faculty members, cannabis-industry professionals, and occasionally guest lecturers, either in person or by video.

“We’re taking the academic rigor of an AIC course normally taught by faculty members and keeping it current and relevant by pulling in industry experts,” she explained, noting that classes cover topics from law and policy to the chemistry of cannabis.

“It’s hard for people who work full-time in the cannabis industry, which is such a demanding field, to make time,” she added, but quickly noted that they recognize the need to create a pipeline of talent in the region so the sector can continue to grow and avoid a skills gap. In that way, she noted, this master’s program is a win-win — helping graduates access a solid career while helping area businesses grow.

“That’s the real benefit of our program,” Barry continued, noting that it’s the first program in the U.S. that blends business, science, and the legal aspects of the trade. “What we’ve found, speaking with cannabis professionals, is you have to understand the chemical components of the plant to be prepared to sell it, package it, speak about it intelligently in the field.

“That’s why we have a chemistry course, and one that talks about cannabis from seed to sale, how it makes it through the pipeline, giving students a broad understanding of the process. Then, through individual courses, they can dig through each individual element.”

The goal, again, is to support both opportunities for job seekers and business growth, and Marrero sees elements of both in Holyoke’s enthusiastic adoption of the cannabis sector. He said Holyoke officials don’t “game the system” with host-community agreements, trying to squeeze as much from license applicants as possible. Instead, it’s a standard template that can be approved in a day.

“The CCC does its due diligence on businesses; we regulate things like land use and how businesses are integrated into the community,” he said of the city’s approach to license approval. “For us, it’s been about how to create jobs, how to help businesses get into the cannabis industry.

“It’s about creating a cluster,” he went on. “We’ve made a concerted effort to make it smooth, to work with industries to create a cluster. What it gets us is more than the sum of its parts; it’s how many jobs are created by these companies — and we have a dozen already special-permitted.”

Those services run the gamut from plumbers and pipefitters to security, delivery services, cleaning services, lawyers, and more.

“Any new company produces opportunities for other types of other businesses, and those businesses have to employ people. It’s that economic contagion that’s also attractive,” Marrero explained — one of the few times one might hear the word ‘contagion’ these days in a positive light.

A Social Contract

Winstanley said Theory’s experience setting up shop in Chicopee went as smoothly as it could have, considering the built-in rigor of the process, especially at the state level.

“We’ve always known there were a lot of policies in place at the state level and the local level. It’s a long process,” he told BusinessWest. “But we want to make sure we get it right and operate in ways that are beneficial to the local population, and we want to make sure to set an example for what legal cannabis should look like in this day and age.”

One way Theory — which also has locations in Great Barrington and Bridgewater, and employs about 200 people in its cultivation, manufacturing, and retail divisions — does that is through the kind of social-equity program the CCC made a point of emphasizing.

It recently accepted applications from ‘economic-empowerment’ applicants as designated by the commission and will select a qualified applicant to partner with, guiding and mentoring the entrepreneur through the process of opening their doors, from financial assistance to professional services to zoning and regulatory hurdles.

That financial commitment will total up to $250,000, $100,000 of which will be offered in the form of 0% interest debt financing, with $150,000 worth of initial cannabis inventory to be offered on consignment, providing a boost of capital to help get the operation off the ground. Theory will also connect the successful applicant with professional services like banking, legal, insurance, and HR.

“This is something we felt really strongly about,” Winstanley said. “We felt it’s the future of the industry, to make sure everyone has an opportunity to get into it.”

Barry is well aware of the social-equity component as well, saying it aligns with AIC’s mission to provide access and opportunity to a diverse student population.

“Each course will have a social-equity component; students will get exposure to the business through the lens of social equity, and by the end of the program, they’ll be entrenched in how we can potentially undo some of the disproportionate harm done in the past, while creating a workforce that meets the needs of the industry.”

Because, again, the opportunities appear to be increasing.

“They’ll build a network of professionals they can use as resources as they create their careers, whether they start out working for someone else or start their own business,” she added. “They’ll know it’s not limited.”

That’s true in Holyoke right now, where the next site to open will likely be True Leaf, located near the Holyoke Dam, Marrero said. “They’re a pretty sizable operation — they would be the biggest in Holyoke by square footage, and they’re near completion of construction.”

Winstanley said Theory learned a lot from its original store, in Great Barrington, the first dispensary to open in the Berkshires. Now, competition is springing up across Western Mass., but he says the company still has plenty of room to grow.

“It’s not only the growth of our company, but the significant tax revenue that’s definitely needed,” he said. “Right now, we’re just really happy to see cannabis is back, and hopefully we can continue to contribute, and the industry will provide some much-needed life in these strange times.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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