Home Posts tagged New president
Features

Into the Breach

Debbie Bitsoli

Debbie Bitsoli says her learning curve has been altered by COVID-19, but she’s made the most of the opportunity.

Debbie Bitsoli understood she was taking on a huge challenge when she accepted the role of president and CEO of Mercy Medical Center and its affiliates late last fall.

But she certainly wasn’t expecting anything quite like this.

Indeed, the first six months of her tenure have been dominated not only by a global pandemic that has tested hospitals, and especially smaller community hospitals, in every way imaginable, but also a painful and controversial decision to close inpatient beds at Providence Behavioral Hospital, one of Mercy’s affiliates (more on that later).

Overall, it has been a pressure-packed, greatly accelerated learning experience on innumerable levels, one that has left her knowing more about herself, and also about Mercy and its team; Trinity Health Of New England, the parent to Mercy Medical Center; and the community the hospital serves.

“This has given me the opportunity to learn more about the culture here at Mercy and its history,” she noted. “It’s allowed me to cherish that history more as I’ve understood it, and all the years the hospital has stood on these grounds. It’s been a different type of learning experience because I’ve had to do a lot of it virtually, but I’ve made the most of it.”

The pandemic arrived in this region just a few months after Bitsoli did, and, as noted, it has impacted the hospital and its staff on a number of levels — everything from combating shortages of personal protective equipment to the strain of treating those with the virus, to the financial trauma resulting from the inability to perform elective surgery and a sharp decline in emergency-room visits due to the public’s fear of contracting the virus.

“This has given me the opportunity to learn more about the culture here at Mercy and its history.”

All hospital administrators have been facing the same potent mix of challenges, but for Bitsoli, who came to Mercy from Morton Hospital in Taunton in early December, the pandemic has greatly accelerated but also profoundly changed the process of putting her stamp on the 147-year-old institution.

And it has left her calling on experience — and experiences — going all the way back to when she worked in the dietary department at a hospital, delivering meals to patients — a job her mother, an emergency room nurse, helped her land.

“My mother set an extremely high bar,” Bitsoli told BusinessWest. “And when she got me my first job, she said two things to me — first, ‘when you bring that tray in to that patient, you’re to think about the person in front of you, not yourself.’ And, second, ‘don’t embarrass me.’ I don’t think I ever have.

“The 12 years I spent on the front lines — in dietary, housekeeping, and ultimately in the intensive care unit by the bedside with the nurses — really helped to prepare for what it’s like in direct clinical care,” she went on. “It has provided me the empathy, respect, and admiration for the front-end work that all the caregivers — the nurses, the doctors, and all the medical staff and colleagues — contribute. I had that as background, which I think equips me very well for the future.”

While the first six months of her tenure have been difficult, Bitsoli said there have been some silver linings, if one chooses to call them that. She said the pandemic has enabled her to work with her team and her board on a level — and under circumstances — that could not have been anticipated when she arrived. Meanwhile, the crisis has enabled her to see first-hand — and in many different ways — the importance of Mercy within the community and the strong level of support the institution enjoys.

“The outpouring from the community, and the love, respect, and admiration that they feel for Mercy Medical Center, has been … I can’t describe in words how much it resonates for me and how much it means for the front-end staff,” she said. “All those contributions we received, and the prayers, respect, and recognition, have meant the world to people here and allowed them to move forward knowing they’re contributing significantly.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Bitsoli about her brief but already memorable tenure at Mercy, and how this stern challenge has tested her and the medical center — and will keep doing so for months, if not years, to come.

Background — Check

Bitsoli brings a deep portfolio of experience in healthcare management to her role at Mercy — and the current crisis — with all of it coming in the Bay State.

As noted earlier, she came to the Springfield campus after a four-year stint as president of the 110-bed Morton Hospital. Prior to that, she served as chief operating officer and vice president of Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, a position she took after serving for three years as COO of MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham. Previously, she served as associate COO, chief administrative officer, and chief financial officer at Cambridge Health Alliance; administrator of Internal Medicine at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates; and audit manager and project manager at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

She said she was drawn to the leadership post at Mercy by a number of factors, including the hospital’s somewhat unique mission as a Catholic hospital, its strong reputation for quality and caring, and its status as part of the larger Trinity Health Of New England system.

She took over a hospital that reported a $12.6 million loss for the 2018 fiscal year and had made a number of staff reductions and other cutbacks in the months prior to her arrival.

“The 12 years I spent on the front lines — in dietary, housekeeping, and ultimately in the intensive care unit by the bedside with the nurses — really helped to prepare for what it’s like in direct clinical care.”

But such challenges were common to most all smaller hospitals in Massachusetts and New England, and Bitsoli said this was part of the landscape when it comes to hospital administration in this era. And so was dealing with crises, she said, adding that she’s helped lead institutions through recessions, the fallout from 9/11, and even other epidemics, such as SARS.

But this pandemic? That’s another story, and it has changed that landscape quickly and profoundly. Indeed, in addition to treating those with the virus and safeguarding staff and the community from it, Mercy, like all hospitals, has been hit hard by the inability to perform elective surgeries and sharply declining revenues from declining visitation in the ER — conditions that have forced hospitals to trim staff and implement pay cuts, even to doctors.

To guide the hospital through the crisis and its many impact points, Bitsoli said she and the management team have been focused on three things — planning, preparing, and anticipating — to the extent that they are all possible with this fast-moving pandemic.

“We have twice-daily meetings with the executive team seven days a week, so we can plan and adjust accordingly based on what’s occurring,” she noted, adding that, in recent weeks, patient volumes related to COVID-19 have declined. “The key for me was planning, preparing, and anticipating as this unfolded so that we could make sure we had our structures and designs in place to keep our patients safe.”

Meanwhile, the decision to close the 74 inpatient beds — the pediatric, geriatric, and adult units — at Providence has brought its own set of challenges. Deemed necessary because of a lack of permanent psychiatrists, the planned closure of the units, with the intention of patients seeking care at other Trinity Health facilities in Connecticut, has been criticized not only for the level of inconvenience it imposes on area residents, but also for its timing.

Indeed, the pandemic has generated a sharp rise in the need for behavioral-health services as residents cope with everything from isolation-related issues to depression and other conditions related to job loss and financial pressures, promoting even greater need for beds at Providence.

But Bitsoli said that, for several reasons, and especially the lack of psychiatrists, the hospital cannot continue to operate those beds.

“It’s been a difficult but necessary decision in light of the fact that you need physicians to take care of the patients,” she explained, adding that the services are slated to be discontinued on June 30, although the state Department of Public Health has asked for a more detailed plan on how and where people can get help before it can approve the closure plan.

Vision Statement

When asked specifically about what is involved with leading a hospital through a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic and difficult transitions like that at Providence, Bitsoli paused for a moment as if to convey that there is a lot that goes into that equation.

She mentioned everything from leading by example, something she strives to do every day, to communicating effectively with constituents ranging from patients and staff to the community to state and federal lawmakers about the many forms of help hospitals will need to weather this storm.

When Bistosli, a CPA, was working toward her MBA at Babson College in Wellesley, she did a considerable amount of reading on the subject of leadership, and is putting what she learned from that time — as well as at all the other stops on her résumé — into practice now.

“I read historical books about great leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and I think that’s the learning there,” she noted. “One key element of leadership for me is trust and really making sure that the people who are on the direct team know that my vision for leadership is that we’re all in a boat together and we’re all united in that boat moving downstream, with the goal of looking at our workday to provide the maximum impact to patient safety and the colleagues we work with and for.

“For me, leadership is about trust and the ability to have a relationship with people to allow them to do the best work possible,” she went on. “To learn, to adapt, and to sometimes make mistakes, which is OK, because you learn from them. At the end of the day, you mature as a business owner and as a professional, and to me, that’s what leadership is all about.”

She said another key element to providing effective leadership — during a pandemic or any other time — is to inspire team members to reach a level they may have thought was beyond their reach, and then give them the support and the tools needed to get there.

“I want people to really aspire to greatness because, through my career, I’ve seen great, great people who didn’t know that they could get there, but with a little prodding and trust and a comfort zone, they’re able to rise above what they thought they were capable of,” she told BusinessWest. “They got there through a little support, mentorship, and really nudging — and that’s a the sign of a great leader; you invest in people, you mentor people, and you prod them because you know they can get to another level of performance.”

Moving forward during this pandemic, Bitsoli said Mercy, and all hospitals, for that matter, are summoning the same two-word phrase being used by every other business sector to describe the present and the near future: ‘new normal.’

Indeed, as COVID-19 cases decline — Mercy recently closed two of its COVID units — and the state slowly begins the process of reopening the economy, hospitals are, like all other businesses, looking to get back to what was normal.

But that won’t happen for some time, she said, adding that there are several factors that will determine when and if that state can be reached, including everything from possible new surges of the virus to the public’s appetite for returning to places like emergency rooms and doctor’s offices and fully addressing their health issues.

And, again, as at other businesses, the day to-day will certainly be different in this new normal.

“For Mercy and all the other hospitals nationally, there is going to have to be more state and federal funding allotted,” she said, referring to the fiscal challenges created by the pandemic. “It’s going to take a long time for hospitals to be able to open their doors as they did six months ago or even four months; it’s going to be a while.”

Elaborating, she said that so much depends on both the state’s reopening strategy and the ability of individual hospitals to convince the public it is safe to seek care at such institutions. The plan, released on May 18, allows hospitals that can meet specific capacity criteria and public-health and safety standards to resume a limited set of in-person services. These include high-priority preventive services, including pediatric care, immunizations, and chronic-disease care for high-risk patients, and urgent procedures that cannot be delivered remotely and would lead to high risk or significant worsening of the patient’s condition if deferred.

“Hospitals have to demonstrate to the public that they have sufficient areas that are COVID-free, which Mercy does,” she noted, “and demonstrate to the public through word of mouth that people are coming back, they’re seeing the signage, they’re seeing the care, they’re seeing that we’re going to great lengths to ensure that the public is safe and we’re screening at the door, handing out masks, and taking temperatures.

“It’s going to take the public seeing that continued structure in place to demonstrate that acute-care hospitals are safe for them to come back to,” she went on, adding that it’s difficult at this time to say when that day will come.

She said she couldn’t properly quantify the economic impact at this point, noting that April’s numbers are still being analyzed. What she does know, though, is that all hospitals are in the same boat, and that Mercy is fortunate to be part of the larger Trinity system. “The hospitals that are in the smaller systems that don’t have the leverage and the scale — they’re in a different bucket than a hospital that is based with a system nationally.”

Bottom Line

When asked when things might start to get better for hospitals, Bitsoli said matters are complicated by uncertainty about when elective surgeries may begin again and how a second wave of COVID-19 cases might impact that equation.

“There are criteria being established at the state level for when people can start to do more elective surgeries, and the key driver to that is your intensive-care unit and your number of staffed beds,” she explained. “As we look at the data, we do expect that there will be a second wave, so as they’re discussing opening up the doors to hospitals for elective surgeries, they are factoring in that second wave, which they think will be in the fall.

“Once the state establishes the criteria and we can start to do more procedures based on Governor Baker’s recommendations, we’re going to have a better sense of what the future projections are going to look like,” she went on.

At this time, it’s difficult to make projections about the future because there are simply too many unknowns. For Bitsoli, the plan is to continue planning, preparing, and anticipating, and to lead by example as Mercy confronts novel challenges on an unprecedented scale.

She has several decades of experience to call on, right down to the words of advice her mother gave her about how to focus on the patient when she was bringing in that tray of food.

And, like her mother, she sets a high bar, one that will be needed during this time of challenge and the ongoing work of meeting it head on.

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

Women in Businesss

Engineering Change

Ashley Sullivan

As recently as last year, Ashley Sullivan didn’t expect to one day sit in the president’s chair at O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun — but that was OK, since she enjoyed her job so much. Now, as the firm’s leader, she gets to emphasize and expand on what she likes, including a culture of mentorship and growth that encourages employees to continually learn and pursue more responsibility, all in service to clients with ever-changing needs.

There was a time last year, Ashley Sullivan said, when the principals at O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun (OTO) weren’t sure how the company’s succession plan would proceed, or who would be its next leader. But they knew they had to talk about it.

“So many other companies are at the same age, where the leaders are getting ready to retire, so what now?” said Sullivan, who was named president of the 26-year-old geoenvironmental engineering firm in January. “I kept hearing maybe they’d look for an outside buyer, and I think it was just put off, put off, put off, because they were having fun doing what they were doing.”

But the conversation had to proceed, she went on. Of the three founders, Jim Okun works part-time, Kevin O’Reilly plans to cut back as well. While Mike Talbot plans to be around full-time for awhile, the firm needed direction for the future.

“They didn’t want to close the doors. We have a great company and a great staff,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “So I think people at different stages, so it was maybe people wanted different things, and it was just put off.”

When the conversation got serious, the solution, they found, was right in front of them.

“I’ve learned through this process, and talking to other companies going through it, that it’s not an easy thing to transition from the founders to a generational company. Once you get past that, it gets a little easier.”

“I’ve learned through this process, and talking to other companies going through it, that it’s not an easy thing to transition from the founders to a generational company,” she said. “Once you get past that, it gets a little easier. So it was just something we had to work through and negotiate through. The choice ended up being, can we transition internally? Can we make this work? Do we have the people to make this work? And we just fought like hell to make that work.”

The transition has been well-received, said Sullivan, who came on board at OTO 20 years ago. Since then, she has been instrumental in growing and developing business in the geotechnical and construction services of the company. She has also been a key mentor to junior staff and an advisor to upper management, as well as an influencer on the firm’s marketing, work culture, and business development (more on all of that later).

Ashley Sullivan discusses the One Ferry Street project

Ashley Sullivan discusses the One Ferry Street project in Easthampton with OTO field engineer Dustin Humphrey and client Mike Michon.

“The energy here is fantastic. Last year was tough — when you’re working on any sort of change, it’s hard because everybody’s a little nervous: ‘what does this mean for me?’ And sometimes you lose focus on the overall goal,” she explained. “We have the clients, we have the work. We just had to figure out how to keep it going. So last year there was a little uncertainty and fear, for lack of a better word. This year, once the paperwork was done, the energy is through the roof.”

Culture Matters

It was during a time when she was working fewer hours that Sullivan came to understand and appreciate her workplace and its culture.

“They allowed me to have a flexible schedule when I had children, and it was something you didn’t see a lot at that time,” she said, noting that she cut back to 24 hours in 2005, sometimes more if she was needed, and was still working 32 hours not too long ago. Not surprisingly, she’s a strong advocate of work-life balance.

“I was still allowed to progress and advance my career in that way, and now I can say that it works. You can let people have a balance of where they want to be home. I wanted to get my kids on and off the bus, but I wanted to have a meaningful career too, and I found that difficult at 40 hours. So it’s something that I strongly feel works, and I want to continue to develop that culture here.”

Sullivan also instructs the civil engineering capstone design course at Western New England University. In this role, she guides graduating students through a mock building project where many of her peers join her in presenting practical technical knowledge, writing skills, and soft-skills training.

“I like to make a difference with the younger engineers, especially women,” she said. “We don’t see a lot of women in this field, and if girls don’t see women in those roles, they don’t even know it’s possible. But my children think nothing of women engineers. They just know it’s possible.”

Teaching also requires her to constantly learn more, she added. “Plus I was doing something I loved, working with students. The energy in a classroom … it just re-energizes me. Mike Talbot is now teaching a class because we see the benefit to being in community. I’ve hired a couple of my students — I have an intern from there now. It’s a great feed to get great engineers. It’s been so helpful in ways I never thought it would be.”

Sullivan enjoys being a mentor in other ways as well, including for young engineers at work.

“I love to build confidence in people,” she said. “I was a very shy kid, and I think engineering, amazingly, somehow gave me confidence in school, and that’s what I like to do for other people. I like to encourage them or say, ‘you can do more than this,’ or ‘here are some habits that will help you,’ and you see them just soar.

“There are so many amazing people here,” she said, and she strives to encourage them. “‘You got this.’ ‘You can do this.’ ‘Go to that meeting; you’re going to kill it.’ What can we do to help you?’ That’s what really gets me excited in the morning, helping people and seeing them achieve — and seeing how it builds on itself and builds on itself.”

But encouragement comes not just in words, but in opportunities. She cited the example of Christine Arruda, who started with the company in an administrative role, then took classes in drafting and computer-aided design, and now manages much of the firm’s industrial-hygiene work as a technical specialist.

Ashley Sullivan observes soil-investigation and foundation work

Ashley Sullivan observes soil-investigation and foundation work at the One Ferry Street project.

“It’s not uncommon here for people to come in and try different things. We have a culture of, ‘do you want to try to do that? Let’s do it.’ It’s a growth mindset, and I want that to continue and explode,” she said. “What do people want to do? What are some of their goals? Let’s get people into the roles they enjoy and then support them in whatever ways they can be supported. You get people doing the things they really enjoy.”

Much of the company’s evolution over the year has been tied to industry trends and the shifting needs of clients, and this focus on continuing learning serves that growth well, she said, again citing Arruda’s interest in radon, which is something schools have been concerned about in their buildings.

“Our big thing is, how can we provide value for a project?” she said. “There are only so many clients in this area. To be successful, we have to continually adapt to what clients’ needs are. So we’re always adapting and growing, and I think people who work here like that.”

Changing with the Times

Change — and taking advantage of opportunities — have been constant since the early days of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun. Before the three founders launched their venture in 1994, they were working together at an environmental-services firm in Connecticut.

The Bay State had just developed the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, a law that tells people how to go about cleaning up spills of hazardous materials. As that program rolled out, the three saw an emerging need for people with their skills. So they started a company.

“I like to make a difference with the younger engineers, especially women. We don’t see a lot of women in this field, and if girls don’t see women in those roles, they don’t even know it’s possible. But my children think nothing of women engineers. They just know it’s possible.”

Over the years, OTO’s services have included testing commercial properties for hazardous materials and overseeing cleanup, asbestos management in schools and offices, brownfield redevelopment, indoor air-quality assessments, and geotechnical engineering, which may involve helping developers assess how much force and weight the ground under a proposed structure can stand, or determining the strength of an existing building’s foundation and surrounding topography.

Sullivan said Massachusetts has done a good job cleaning up its largest contaminated sites, so the firm now focuses more on-site redevelopment.

“The big cleanups mostly are done, but you still have things that were left in the ground because they said it’s OK to leave them in the ground, but if you’re going to redig or redevelop that site, you need to manage it,” she explained, noting that it’s tougher these days to find untouched land to develop in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, so geotech services on redevelopment projects are becoming more important. “We shift to what our clients need.”

The end result is often satisfying, especially when a vacant eyesore, like the old mills in Holyoke and Easthampton, come to live.

“Those are some of our favorite projects, because whenever we see a property get redeveloped and reused and come back to life, that just benefits the neighborhood, the community, and us. Those are great projects.”

Suffice to say, Sullivan loves her job on a number of levels, and wants her employees to feel the same way, which is why she keeps raising the bar when it comes to culture, mentorship, and growth.

“We’re not afraid to ask for help,” she told BusinessWest, explaining that she brought in a leadership group — the Boulder Co., based in Connecticut — to cultivate soft skills and leadership training.

“We had a retreat, and it was absolutely amazing. It’s really giving people skills like emotional intelligence and how to get over fears of speaking in public and how to work together better. It’s led to a big energy change here, and you’re seeing people step out of their shells and believe they can do more,” she explained. “We always know we need to be technically proficient and get that training, but sometimes, as engineers and scientists, we forget about the other half — that all our work is based on relationships, and if we continually work on that, we’ll do well.”

It’s a message Sullivan doesn’t mind sharing far and wide.

“My goal right now is to be one of the best places in Springfield to work because I think that’s how you attract the best people,” she said. “One of the reasons I stayed here was because I was able to do these things.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Innovative Course of Action

Yves Salomon-Fernandez

Yves Salomon-Fernandez

Yves Salomon-Fernandez became the 10th president of Greenfield Community College this past summer, succeeding Bob Pura at the helm of a school that enjoys some of the highest retention and graduation rates in the state. Her primary goals moving forward are to build on the momentum generated over the past several years, set the bar higher, and then clear that bar. Salomon-Fernandez is confident in her abilities, and, like the school itself, she says she’s “innovative and entrepreneurial.”

Yves Salomon-Fernandez remembers many things about her first interview as a candidate for the presidency at Greenfield Community College — especially the cold.

It was early April, and she recalls that morning being particularly cruel as she arrived at the Deerfield Inn for that interview session. It was so cold, and she appeared so uncomfortable, in fact, that Robbie Cohn, chair of the school’s board of trustees, felt inspired to give her his gloves, and for an attending student representative to give up her shawl.

“I was freezing, and as a measurement expert, I said to myself, ‘this is going to interfere with my performance if I’m distracted by the thought of being cold,’” she recalled. “With those gloves and that shawl, I thought I could give them a better glimpse of who I was and what I can do.”

Whether it was the additional layering or not, Salomon-Fernandez warmed up enough to sufficiently impress those interviewing her to become a finalist for the job. And, continuing in this vein, it would fair to say that the rest of the campus would soon warm to her.

Indeed, several weeks later, she would be named the school’s 10th president and the successor to long-time leader Bob Pura, who retired this past spring after 18 years at the helm.

When asked what she told those quizzing her, Salomon-Fernandez condensed it all down to a few words and phrases that would also set the tone for this interview with BusinessWest.

“I said I was very innovative, entrepreneurial, and like to think outside the box,” she recalled, adding that, in many respects, those traits are shared by the GCC community as a whole, which is another reason she was attracted to the school.

Entrepreneurial? Yes, entrepreneurial.

While some in her position would be hesitant to say out loud that a college is very much, if not exactly like, a business, she isn’t. Only, the phrase she uses is ‘academic enterprise.’

“Considering the challenges we’re facing in higher education, I think we really need to look at the model comprehensively and say, ‘how can we change this model to be sustainable over time?’” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to that specific assignment.

Salomon-Fernandez, 39, a native of Haiti who emigrated to the U.S. when she was 12, brings a diverse résumé to the Greenfield campus, including a stint as interim president of MassBay Community College, followed by her most recent assignment, president of Cumberland County College (CCC) in New Jersey.
Late last fall, it was announced that CCC would be merging with another institution in the Garden State and that her job would be eliminated.

Having already moved with her family several times over the past several years, she wasn’t looking forward to doing so again, but did so (although her husband and children will remain in New Jersey for a year) to keep her career on an upward trajectory — specifically in another college president’s position.

She told BusinessWest she was quite discriminating in her search for the right job opportunity. She applied for a few positions, but quickly set her sights on GCC, the only college in decidedly rural Franklin County.

“This is the one job I wanted — this is really a match made in heaven,” she said. Elaborating, she noted that, while she likes just about everything about the region — from Berkshire Brewing’s lagers to ziplining — she was really drawn in by GCC’s mission, important role in Franklin County, intriguing mix of programs, high transfer rate, and especially the art (much of it courtesy of students enrolled in the highly acclaimed program there) adorning walls, lobbies, and tables across campus.

“The values of GCC and the Pioneer Valley are very consistent with my own and my family’s,” she explained. “The commitment to renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and rural living are all things I’m very passionate about and enjoy; this is a lifestyle that’s conducive to raising kids and a lifestyle that’s grounded.”

But fit also involves the size and nature of the challenge — in this case, a school that has been put on a solid foundation by Pura, but one that still has growth opportunities and challenges to be met.

“I’ve always been a risk taker,” said Salomon-Fernandez, summing up her mindset professionally, adding that, moving forward, her primary assignment is to continue and build upon the momentum generated in recent years under Pura’s stewardship. “GCC had the highest retention rates and the highest graduation rates in the state; that said to me that this is a very stable institution. I want to build on that.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Salomon-Fernandez about her latest assignment in higher-education administration and how she intends to grow and diversify this unique ‘academic enterprise.’

Course of Action

As noted earlier, Salomon-Fernandez brings a diverse background, a host of skills, and many forms of experience to her new role.

For starters, she speaks four languages — English, French, Haitian Creole, and Spanish — and has consulted with the United Nations and the Bermuda Ministry of Education, taught as an adjunct professor for many years, held a number of research positions, and spoken and written on subjects ranging from women’s leadership to workforce development.

Her career in education began as a data analyst working on the No Child Left Behind project and continued on an upward trajectory to the college president’s office.

After serving as interim president at MassBay, in Wellesley, and then at Cumberland County College, she found herself looking for the proverbial next challenge. And in the parking lot of the Deerfield Inn, she was looking for a way to take the chill out of her fingers and toes.

She has another anecdote from her early visits to the GCC campus, one that speaks volumes about why she warmed to the campus so quickly and why she made this the focus of her job search.

She had been visiting the art gallery at the school the day before her interview, she recalled, and she was trying to remain ‘incognito,’ as she put it.

GCC campus, as a whole, is innovative and entrepreneurial

Yves Salomon-Fernandez says the GCC campus, as a whole, is innovative and entrepreneurial, and she shares those personality traits.

“I was looking around, and a member of the janitorial staff came up to me said, ‘if you like the artwork, I can show you some more — it’s throughout our entire building,’” she recalled. “My doctorate is in measurement — statistics, cycle metrics … that’s my field. I tell people I see the world as one big structural equation model, and that was the first evidence of the culture here. I’m aggregating different data points and different kinds of data, quantitative and qualitative, to get a picture in my mind of what this place is and what it might be like to work here.”

Finishing the story, she said the janitorial staff member asked a few questions and eventually commented that GCC was a nice place to work and that a few faculty positions and even the president’s position were open. She remained incognito through all of that, but came away even more convinced that this was where she wanted to land professionally.

“For me, I was looking for a place where I could get that kind of professional satisfaction and where the faculty, staff, and educators and engaged in local issues, regional issues, national issues, and international issues,” she went on. “It’s an intellectually vibrant college, and that was huge for me — people who are deeply engaged in their discipline and who care deeply about the human potential and the world in which we live. And also a place where discourse is valued; we may not always agree, but we agree to talk about things and to find a common ground.”

Salomon-Fernandez said that, in many ways, Cumberland N.J. and Greenfield, Mass. are very much alike. While much of the Garden State is urban and densely populated, Cumberland County isn’t. It’s also the poorest county in the state — just as Franklin County is in Massachusetts — and one battling issues ranging from a lack of high-speed Internet access to opioid addiction to job creation and providing individuals with the skills they need to succeed in a changing workplace. Again, just like Franklin County.

That’s another reason this challenge was attractive to her, adding that still another has been GCC’s response to those issues.

“What I really admire about GCC is that the college has been very innovative in terms of finding ways to meet students where they are and addressing their many challenges,” she said. “For example, in our library, we rent laptops to students and Internet routers to students; we lease bikes to students and even telescopes. There are many things the college does to make the school accessible and possible, and enhance student success.

“We were the first college in the country to have a food pantry,” she noted, referencing a facility where students, many of them non-traditional in nature, can not only get a snack but shop for their whole family. “There are a number of things the college has done under Bob Pura’s leadership that are cutting-edge and forward-thinking.”

Looking ahead, she wants to continue that pattern of innovation while carrying out a vital role as the only community college in the county.

Grade Expectations

Elaborating, she said that GCC, like all community colleges, has a diverse student population comprised of both traditional students right out of high school and non-traditional students who joined the workforce after high school and are now looking to enhance their skill sets to create new career opportunities.

That latter constituency (roughly 15% of the student population) is the fastest-growing segment at GCC, and Salomon-Fernandez sees ample opportunity for further growth in that realm.

“In a county like Franklin County, where the attendance rate for higher education is so low, we have the opportunity to make college and professional preparation and workforce training accessible to many more people,” she explained.

Elaborating, she said that one of her goals moving forward is to do even more outreach — the school already does a good deal of that — within the community to help it reach those who might think that college is beyond their reach or not for them.

“They may not understand that the mission of the community college is to help them in ways that a traditional college may not,” she explained. “So spreading the word and really doing outreach, working with our partners to get the word out, is a priority for us.”

Yves Salomon-Fernandez says the enterprise model within higher education must evolve if it is to remain sustainable.

Yves Salomon-Fernandez says the enterprise model within higher education must evolve if it is to remain sustainable.

And getting people into higher education will be critical moving forward, she said, noting that the world of work is changing and the Bay State’s economy is truly knowledge-driven.

“We know that artificial intelligence, automation, computerization, all of those things are becoming more and more prominent,” she noted. “And that has implications for the careers for which we’re preparing students, and also for the pedagogies that we use. So we’ll be becoming much more interdisciplinary as a college, and there’s already a history of that here.”

Meanwhile, the enterprise model within higher education must evolve to remain sustainable, she went on.

“We have to look at whether this model is a financially sustainable model as it is,” Salomon-Fernandez told BusinessWest. “We have a number of contradictions; we hear people say the tenure model is antiquated, and at the same time, we have legions of adjuncts operating in the gig economy without health insurance, without benefits, and without pensions.

“And in some ways, as a higher education, all that is hypocritical, because we teach our students that people should be compensated fairly, and there’s some basic human rights and access to services that they should have,” she went on. “Yet, we struggle to provide that for the very people who are educating the current students.”

Overall, she notes, a school known for being entrepreneurial must be even more so in the years to come, given limited resources for the state and a growing role within the county.

“We have to look at what we can do to supplement those resources from the state because we know they are not sufficient to provide our students with the experiences we want them to have,” she said. “So what are some of the ways we can think entrepreneurially? What are some of the unmet needs within our college and within the market that we can help meet to create value, create revenue, and create experiences for our students?

“We have to think differently,” she said in conclusion. “We’re very committed to reinventing the academic enterprise model here at GCC, there is an appetite for it, and we want to do in a way that remains true to our values.”

Soar Subject

As she talked with BusinessWest on a Friday morning late last month, Salomon-Fernandez said that weekend ahead was packed with activity, including her first encounter with ziplining.

In recent weeks, she’s also had a behind-the-scenes look at Mike’s Maze, the famous cornfield attraction, gone swimming in the Connecticut River, and visited Brattleboro. She’s taking scuba lessons at UMass Amherst and is learning how to fly a drone.

In short, she’s settling into Franklin County and all that it has to offer. She’s also settling in GCC, which, like the country surrounding it, is a perfect match for her.

Like the school itself, in her estimation, she is innovative and entrepreneurial, talents that will be needed to build on the momentum that’s been generated over the past two decades and take the school to even greater heights.

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

Features

Focused on Fiscal Fitness

Last fall, while Dexter Johnson was making up his mind to take the job being offered him — president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield — a few friends and relatives had a simple five-word question for him: ‘Are you sure about this?”

He was — and is.

But he acknowledged then and now that those asking the question had every right to do so.

That’s because this YMCA, though steeped in history and tradition (it is the fourth oldest Y in the world, after all), like a number of other Ys across the country, has been struggling financially as it adjusts to a host of changes impacting the traditional Y business model, if you will.

These struggles are nothing new — they’ve been going on … well, for as long as most can remember. And a path to more-solid footing seems as elusive as ever.

But Johnson, who has been working for this YMCA for several years now and within the organization for more than two decades — and is therefore known as a ‘Y guy’ — decided that this was a challenge to embrace, not run away from.

And he’s never had any second thoughts.

But Johnson understands that the Springfield Y’s path to fiscal fitness will be challenging and, undoubtedly, lengthy. In short, some progress has been made, but there is still considerable work to do.

“This Y has operated with an operating deficit for a number of years now, “ he noted, adding that the organization has refinanced debt, tapped into its endowment, and taken other steps to cope with the red ink. “And we have to look at what our opportunities are to turn that around; our focus right now has been to get operations to a point where they’re approaching break-even status or creating a surplus. We’re doing better this year than we were last year, but we have a ways to go.”

The Springfield Y, like many others, has generally struggled in recent years due to a variety of factors, including changing demographics in urban centers and a proliferation of competition — there is seemingly a gym or two on every corner now.

But the difficult times have been exacerbated by some missteps, especially the opening of a branch in a strip mall in the center of Agawam. Attempting to duplicate the success of the Y’s Scantic Valley operation on Boston Road in Wilbraham, and armed with some data that said the venture could work (although there were some numbers that indicated otherwise) the center was opened in 2015.

“This Y has operated with an operating deficit for a number of years now. And we have to look at what our opportunities are to turn that around; our focus right now has been to get operations to a point where they’re approaching break-even status or creating a surplus. We’re doing better this year than we were last year, but we have a ways to go.”

But the ‘Y’ sign would come down only 18 months or so later, as the expected memberships never materialized.

“Looking back, that was just a mistake in judgment,” Johnson said. “After a year and a half of trying and making those efforts, we were losing significantly there to serve a really small population, so we decided to take the loss, which was painful, and move on.”

Moving forward, the Y will seek to avoid such mistakes and be more calculated in its attempts to be both entrepreneurial and fiscally prudent, said Johnson.

The key, he told BusinessWest, is to firmly identify the role this Y can play and must play in the years and decades to come. Not all YMCAs play the same role, he went on, especially given the demographic and societal changes taking place.

At the Springfield Y, for example, 60% of all revenues come from child care, with the health and wellness components contributing only 30%.

All this is explained, sort of, in new wording on the front of Johnson’s business card and in other marketing material used by the organization. Specifically, there are three new lines under the huge ‘Y’:

• For Youth Development

• For Healthy Living

• For Social Responsibility

Individual YMCAs can focus on one, two, or all three, he went on, but mostly, they have to mold themselves into what the region being served requires and what will ultimately work fiscally.

“The Y becomes what that community needs,” said Johnson. “If the community needs childcare and doesn’t need health and wellness, then we’re glad to provide that; or it could be health and wellness that goes well beyond treadmills.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Johnson about this process of becoming what the community needs while also putting the Y on more solid financial footing.

Sign of the Times

On the day he spoke with BusinessWest, work crews were busy taking the old ‘Y’ logo off the side of the YMCA building on Chestnut St., a move undertaken in accordance with a national initiative to rebrand the institution and bring more consistency to the letter ‘Y’ used by individual YMCAs. A new sign will be going up “soon,” said Johnson.

Dexter Johnson is the latest of several leaders of the YMCA of Greater Springfield

Dexter Johnson is the latest of several leaders of the YMCA of Greater Springfield to grapple with the question of what to do with the aging facility on Chestnut Street.

“They give us color options, but there is a change in the logo,” he explained, noting that the new ‘Y’ (as in the letter on the letterhead) is more rounded in its look. “All the Ys throughout the country had kind of gone out on their own and come up with all kinds of different logos, and back in 2010 the national office said ‘enough’s enough, and we need to get back to being nationally identifiable.’”

There was more than a little symbolism attached to the exercise of taking the old ‘Y’ off the building. For starters, the Springfield Y missed the seven-year deadline to rebrand set by the national organization by a wide margin, an obvious symptom of its fiscal struggles. There’s also the poetic juxtaposition of giving the letter ‘Y’ a new look, while the staff and board and of the Springfield institution have been attempting to reinvigorate the local YMCA brand on a much broader scale.

And then, there’s the physical act of taking the letter off that building. Indeed, there are a number of questions about just how much longer the more-than-half-century-old structure will continue to serve in that capacity, and in what shape and form (much more on all that later).

Like we said, quite a bit of symbolism, and sorting it all out goes a long way toward explaining the challenges Johnson faces, but also the determination and passion he brings to his work.

And with that, we need to trace the steps that brought him to Springfield and his current assignment.

Our story starts in Tampa, Fla. That’s where Johnson attended a satellite campus of Springfield College, renowned for producing future YMCA leaders, and where he began amassing experience in virtually every facet of a YMCA operation, a diverse resume he believes is serving him well at this critical stage of his career. It’s also where he worked with Kirk Smith (he actually was Smith’s supervisor), who would eventually become director of the Springfield Y and convince Johnson to join him there.

“The Y becomes what that community needs. If the community needs childcare and doesn’t need health and wellness, then we’re glad to provide that; or it could be health and wellness that goes well beyond treadmills.”

“I was going to school to be a teacher and just went to the Y to work with some kids and get some experience, and 26 years later, I’m still here,” he said, noting that he started as director of the Child Care Services/Outreach program at the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA. He would later go on to direct the Youth Opportunity Movement program there and then become executive director.

After then serving as a district executive in Tampa and as a regional training manager at YMCA of the USA in Chicago, he joined Smith in Springfield as senior vice president and chief operating officer.

“I was ready to get back into the operational side of the Y and decided Springfield was the move,” he told BusinessWest.

When Smith left for another opportunity in Florida, Johnson was named interim president and CEO, but the permanent job eventually went to Scott Berg, then associate vice president of Development at Springfield College and a key player in the opening of the Scantic Valley YMCA.

When Berg left less than two years later to become vice president of Philanthropy at Baystate Health, Johnson was quickly named his successor.

He takes over a Y that, as noted, is steeped in tradition (it dates back to 1852). But recent history has been marked by fiscal struggles and hard work to adapt to a changing landscape. And as Johnson addresses the many challenges facing him and the team he’s assembled, he plans to call on the many forms of experience he amassed.

“I definitely learned some valuable lessons during that time when I was interim president,” he noted. “But now that I’m in the permanent job, I’m definitely calling on all resources. During my time with Y USA I had the chance to make some great connections, and I have a number of CEOs and other leaders at Ys to give me counsel and help me through some of the challenges we have here.

“Nothing’s new when it comes to problems — they’ve all happened somewhere at some time before,” he went on. “So we’ll try to gain some advantage by learning from those experiences.”

Building Momentum

And an advantage will be helpful, because righting the fiscal ship has been an ongoing challenge, not just for this Y, but for facilities across the country, especially urban Ys; one in Pittsburgh recently filed for bankruptcy, said Johnson.

Specifically, the age-old challenge is generating revenues to meet and hopefully exceed expenses. In Springfield, the problem has been exacerbated by the downtown branch, an aging building that is expensive to maintain, and a facility that has seen its health and wellness membership numbers fall 40% over the past decade.

Creating the Scantic Valley Y has helped the Y cope with the rising costs and falling revenues downtown, and the Agawam facility was conceived with similar ambitions; however it need did not match expectations.

Moving forward, the Y has to implement a long-term strategic plan for its downtown branch, and the operation as a whole, with the goal of making it become what the community needs.

Such a plan was drafted during Berg’s tenure, Johnson said, and, not surprisingly, its main focus was the downtown location — meaning both the building and the various programs housed there — and on devising actions plans for both.

As for the property itself, the Y sold the 40,000-square-foot residential component of it (the tower that faces Chestnut Street) to Home City Development, and still owns what’s left in what amounts to a condominium-like arrangement. But that portion it still owns is large, old, in many cases under-utilized, and in all cases expensive to operate and maintain.

Talk of a ‘new Y’ has been ongoing for years, said Johnson, noting that several of his predecessors have grappled with the issue and its myriad complexities, especially the cost of a new building.

Rumors have persisted, and one very preliminary proposal — to move to a closed car dealership site on Boston Road — made its way into the newspapers. “There’s still people that ask me … what happened to the Boston Road thing?” said Johnson.

Nothing happened with it, and nothing has really happened with any of the other rumored options, he went on, adding quickly, however, that the issue is real and a solution must eventually be found — and inevitably much closer to downtown than Boston Road.

At present — and on an ongoing basis — a variety of options are being looked at, he told BusinessWest, including leasing space instead of owning it (the new owners of Tower Square have reached out, for example), extensively renovating the existing quarters, or eventually moving into much smaller, more efficient quarters.

“We probably have about 70,000 square feet, and we don’t need all that space quite frankly,” he said. “We have a whole racquet ball floor, and no one goes up there, really; if we decide to renovate and use this space, we would make it a smaller environment; 50,000 square would probably be more the right size to support the membership we have here.”

Building a new Y building is the long-term strategy, he said, adding that such a step would require significant fund-raising efforts and other steps. Shorter term, renting space might become an option, he went on, adding that there are pros and cons to any new location, temporary or permanent.

As for growing the Y, in terms of everything from its revenues to its presence within the community to its overall relevance, Johnson said the key, as it has always been, lies in partnerships with other groups and agencies across the city and the region.

“I’m looking to be a partner and be a part of any partnership that fits our mission, and that effectively serves this community,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve had some great partnerships with the Springfield Public Schools, the United Way, the Martin Luther King Family Center, and right now, we’re doing a multi-agency youth basketball league that is going gangbusters.

“We probably have about 70,000 square feet, and we don’t need all that space quite frankly,.We have a whole racquet ball floor, and no one goes up there, really; if we decide to renovate and use this space, we would make it a smaller environment; 50,000 square would probably be more the right size to support the membership we have here.”

“To me, no agency can do it all,” he went on. “It has to be a collaborative effort, and I want to make sure that our Y is established as a strong community partner, whether that’s leading a collaboration or being a functional part of the collaboration.”

The Bottom Line

Not long after taking over as president and CEO on a permanent basis, Johnson reached out to Steve Clay, who filled that same role two decades ago.

And faced pretty much the same fiscal challenges two decades ago.

Indeed, Johnson’s talk with Clay helped put some things in perspective and provide him still more resolve to become the leader to put this venerable institution on something approaching solid financial footing.

As noted, some might have asked him if he was sure about this career, but deep down, there was no question in his mind.

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