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Building on a Solid Foundation

Matt Flink was recently named president and CEO of Appleton Corp., the real-estate and property-management arm of the O’Connell Companies. He brings with him considerable experience in this field — and the football field, as a coach. He intends to lean on both as he takes the helm of the company with a solid foundation and opportunities for growth in a number of established niches.

Matt Flink enjoys going to the office every day.

But he especially likes Thursdays. That’s the one day of the week when all employees at the O’Connell Companies are asked to be in the office, with most of them working remotely at least a few of the other four days.

“I love Thursdays — all my friends are there, my colleagues are there — there’s a sense of energy and a liveliness and a vitality that I don’t necessarily get the other days of the week,” he explained, before adding a large-sized ‘but.’

“It’s not about me and what I want, it’s about what’s in the best interest of the company and the best interest our employees,” he went on, adding that remote work is popular, it has become a benefit — and an expectation — at O’Connell, and, as he put it, “the work gets done.”

This same dynamic is playing out in businesses large and small across the region and across the country, and that’s just one of many issues and challenges Flink is facing as he takes the helm at Appleton Corp., the division of Holyoke-based O’Connell Companies that provides property-, facility-, and asset-management services, along with accounting and financial services, to managers and owners of commercial and residential properties across a wide swath of New England.

“We can’t get caught up in old-school thinking that says, ‘it’s always been this way, so it has to continue to be this way.’”

He now presides over a portfolio of managed properties that includes everything from several transportation centers, including Springfield’s Union Station, to the Springfield Technology Park, retail shopping centers, medical offices, and industrial properties. It also includes a number of residential properties, including senior-living facilities.

The broad goal moving forward, said Flink, who was named successor to the now-retired Paul Stelzer last month, is to maintain and grow that portfolio and specific niches within it, such as those transportation centers. There are now several in the portfolio, including 12 in Connecticut, he noted, and the company will aggressively work to build on its track record of success in that realm.

As for the phenomenon of remote work and what it means to office properties here and elsewhere, Flink said property owners and managers, including Appleton, must be imaginative and open to alternative uses for those facilities, because he just doesn’t see things going back to the way they were.

“We can’t get caught up in old-school thinking that says, ‘it’s always been this way, so it has to continue to be this way,’” using that phrase to describe both the office setting and remote work, and how property owners should be looking to fill their spaces.

Flink brings more than 30 years of experience to his new role, a diverse résumé that includes work in Illinois, Colorado, Florida, and 10 years with O’Connell, during which he has served in various roles, including director of Capital Project Management.

 

He intends to tap that reservoir of experience, which includes work in construction, real-estate development, property management, and sales and leasing, while leading O’Connell to what he expects will be continued growth in an evolving, highly competitive marketplace that is acting and reacting in response to a number of forces, everything from shifting dynamics in the workplace to a still-changing retail landscape to the aging of the population and the need for more senior housing.

He also intends to borrow from his experience coaching youth football, especially when it comes to management and helping team members “understand that they’re probably even better than they think they are,” as he put it (more on that later).

“This opportunity with O’Connell gives me an opportunity to bring all that experience to bear in one location and participate in leading not only what we do Appleton, but in the larger effort that we make with our parent company, the O’Connell Corp.,” he said. “To me, it’s the most logical place for me to land at this point in my career.”

 

Space Exploration

The Appleton Corp. is approaching its 50th birthday, said Flink, noting that it was launched in 1974 by the O’Connell Companies, a Holyoke fixture for more than 140 years now. The larger corporation also includes Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, a large regional general contractor; Western Builders; the O’Connell Development Group; and New England Fertilizer Co.

Appleton is the property- and facility-management company in what Flink called a “vertically integrated stack.” Appleton manages commercial properties, industrial buildings, warehouses, educational facilities, and multi-family housing properties, including many that are subsidized, especially to senior populations, although some are market-rate.

“We manage properties that we own,” he explained. “But we also manage a lot of properties for third parties that own buildings; we do a lot of management of facilities owned by government entities, such as the technology park and the rail stations.”

It’s a diverse portfolio, as he noted, and it includes everything from an Amazon ‘last-mile’ facility in Holyoke to a biotech research facility on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. There are some established niches the company has developed, he said, adding that senior housing has long been one of them.

“The things that I learned about coaching my players transfer so wonderfully to our life at the office. I learned that I can’t coach every player, and every employee, the same way; people respond to different types of motivation, different types of stimulation.”

Meanwhile, transportation-facility management has become another niche, he said, adding that there are unique qualities to managing such properties, including the “interface between the public and private,” as he called it.

“Springfield’s Union Station is a perfect example; you have users of the bus facilities here — the PVTA, Peter Pan, Greyhound — and you also have Amtrak and CT Rail bringing people in on the tracks overhead, and all the people using those facilities circulating throughout the concourse,” he explained. “At the same time, you have several businesses that function there, so you have private folks parking in the garage, walking through the concourse, grabbing something at Dunkin’ Donuts, and then going upstairs.

Springfield’s Union Station.

Matt Flink says Appleton has developed a solid niche managing transportation centers, including Springfield’s Union Station.

“Maintaining safe conditions, clean conditions, secure conditions, is an important element in managing those types of facilities,” he went on. “For us, it is a niche market, and one we will continue to pursue.”

Moving forward, and from a strategic perspective, Appleton is focused on two key areas — business development and continuous improvement of the service provided to customers.

Overall, Flink said he has inherited a strong foundation and healthy portfolio from Stelzer, so he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, just maintain and build what is in place, with a focus on people and giving them the tools they need to succeed.

“It comes down to keeping our current portfolio stabilized, looking for continuous process improvements along the way, making better use of technology to better serve our customers, and making better use of technology so we ourselves can become more efficient,” he said. “And, at the same time, continuing other lines of our business and, as with those transportation facilities, looking outside of our traditional windows of opportunity. I think we’re well-positioned and well-placed to do that kind of work.”

the Springfield Technology Park.

The Appleton portfolio includes a diverse mix of properties, including the Springfield Technology Park.

As he goes about all this, he will call on not only previous work experience — and there is plenty of that — but also time spent coaching, especially football, at both the youth and high-school levels.

“The things that I learned about coaching my players transfer so wonderfully to our life at the office,” he said, by way of explaining how his work on the sidelines has shaped his management style. “I learned that I can’t coach every player, and every employee, the same way; people respond to different types of motivation, different types of stimulation.

“Some just need me to sit and listen to them and hear them and not even comment much, but just know that I’m hearing them,” he went on. “Some want a really deep and intense dialogue and to take a deep dive into the issues, and want me to act as a sounding board and really spend time devoted to solving problems or envisioning problems and coming up with mitigation strategies. As much as anything, I’ll be a coach trying to help each of our employees find a better version of themselves every day, with the goal of being a little better today than I was yesterday. And tomorrow, I really hope I’m better than I am today.”

 

Changing Dynamics

Returning to the subject of the office market and what will happen moving forward, Flink said there are many unknowns when it comes to this issue, and it will certainly take some time for the market to fully shake out.

By that, he meant everything from whether office workers will return and when — some are back, but across the country, many are not back or are working in hybrid arrangements — to how properties might be repurposed if they are not used for offices moving forward.

It’s a complex matter, he said, using the O’Connell family of companies as an example of how businesses managed to get work done, and done well, during the pandemic with almost all employees working remotely.

“For 475 days, plus or minus a day or two, we were essentially shut down in our corporate offices with just a few of us there,” he recalled. “What we learned in that period of time is that we can do that very successfully. We can allow people to work at home, we can give them the time they need to attend to things in the middle of the day, but all of us got our work done; we paid bills on time, we responded to requests for proposals on time … we did everything we needed to.

“Our experience in that space is similar to what we’re seeing around the country in that space,” he went on. “The pandemic forced people to rethink how they deliver their work product, what vehicle they use to deliver their work product; at the same time, there began to be a demand, a desire, to stay home once the pandemic eased up and people could return to their office space.”

This concept of remote work has turned into a benefit, he told BusinessWest, much like a 401(k), a vacation, or health insurance. And there is an expectation for it among job seekers and existing employees alike.

These factors have collectively reduced the demand for office space, he went on, adding that there are a few cases within the Appleton portfolio where tenants, specifically large call centers, have contracted substantially.

In one case, space was successfully backfilled, largely with government entities, Flink noted, adding that this may prove to a blueprint for many properties moving forward.

“Repurposing some of those commercial spaces for other user groups is going to be important,” he said. “Going forward, owners and managers of commercial real estate, at least for the short term, and maybe for the long term, depending on how the market responds to this concept of remote work, are going to be clever in how they look at various user groups.”

Imaginative reuse has been the watchword in retail for some time, he went on, noting that, as more shopping is done online, there has been less need for bricks-and-mortar facilities. Larger properties such as indoor malls and strip malls have adjusted by repurposing space for bowling alleys, laser tag, trampoline facilities, and more. Meanwhile, the cannabis industry has had a profound impact on the commercial real-estate landscape, absorbing large amounts of different kinds of spaces, from old mills in Holyoke and Easthampton to storefronts in many communities to a portion of the Springfield Newspapers building.

“Whether it’s that [cannabis] or seeking government entities where you may have looked to place a private tenant before, all this speaks to the need to be clever and really think outside the box and be open to other possibilities in that commercial marketplace,” said Flink, noting that the tech park at STCC is an example of this dynamic. A large call center has moved out, but over the next few years, he expects those spaces to fill back to something close to pre-pandemic levels.

 

Goal to Go

Getting back to football coaching and how it influences how he manages people, Flink summoned that often-used saying — among coaches and business owners alike — about people needing to give 110%.

“You don’t have to be a math major to know that this is literally impossible — you can’t give more than 100%,” he told BusinessWest. “What it comes down to, whether you’re coaching young athletes or spending time with senior-level executives on our staff, is redefining for people what their true capacity is. Very rarely do we operate at our true capacity; we’re blocked at times by our own negativity or the negative thinking of others. But we’re all capable of being more than we think we are, and helping people to understand where their 100% exists, and how they can live in a world that touches on that more often, is something that I’m passionate about.”

That’s one of many passions, and lessons, from past experiences that Flink will bring to his challenge, one that, as he said, is the logical place for him to be.

 

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

Banking and Financial Services Business of Aging COVID-19 Daily News Employment News

FLORENCE — Florence Bank announced that president and CEO Kevin Day will retire on Nov. 25, and a focused search is underway for a new leader.

Day took over as president in January 2020 and became CEO in May of the same year.

When Day took the helm at age 64, he promised that nothing would change at the bank. Little did he know, he’d be called upon to usher Florence Bank through some of the most tumultuous times in history, including a pandemic and the resulting financial strife. Day led the bank in ensuring that countless homeowners and businesses were able to defer their payments during the pandemic and in helping business customers connect to grants and other available funding.

These measures helped customers navigate the financial turmoil and gave them much-needed time to adjust to new financial situations.

The bank also expanded over these past two years, opening a branch in Chicopee; creating a work-from-home program for employees; and granting hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofit organizations in the Valley.

Day takes pride in the bank’s stability but shares the credit with the full banking team.

“Our goal in this transition is to identify an individual to lead the bank into the future while preserving the values and mission of the past that have proven so successful here,” he said. “I am proud to say that Florence Bank is fundamentally sound in every way. We have an experienced executive management team, a solid officer team and a dedicated staff. I am confident that the bank will continue to prosper for many years to come.”

Day joined Florence Bank in 2008 as chief financial officer, responsible for finance, facilities and risk management. His responsibilities expanded to include compliance in 2013, residential lending in 2014 and retail banking in 2016. He was also promoted to executive vice president in 2016.

Health Care

‘A Wonderful, Wonderful Fit’

 

Dr. Lynnette Watkins says she is most definitely her father’s daughter.

By that, she meant she is a second-generation ophthalmologist, following the lead set by her father, L.C. Watkins, who is one of the first African-Americans practicing in that specialty in St. Louis.

“When I say that I stand on the shoulders of giants, I don’t take that lightly, and first and foremost is my dad,” she noted. “He’s been my biggest supporter, mentor, and point of light.”

But there were other influences as well, including her mother, an educator, and, more specifically, an early-childhood-development administrator, who was one of many who taught her the importance of giving back.

“It was always expected that, with the privileges and opportunities that were afforded to me, there was an expectation to serve and to give back,” she said. “Which is why, with each position and opportunity that I’ve pursued, I’ve always had that mindset first and foremost in my mind; it’s why I wanted to have a career in healthcare.”

This is the philosophy Watkins brings to her latest assignment, as president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. 

She takes the helm at CDH after a lengthy stint as chief medical officer for the Baptist Health System/Tenet Healthcare – Texas Group, and arrives at an obviously stressful, tenuous, and uncertain time for all healthcare providers, one still dominated in every way by the COVID-19 pandemic and its latest surge.

“While there’s been a lot of challenge and a lot of sadness during the pandemic, there’s also been some wonderful lessons and teachings in the resilience of people.”

Watkins, who arrived at the hospital on Sept. 27, brings to this challenge, and CDH, a wealth of experience. Like a growing number of those leading hospitals and healthcare systems, she has made the transition from direct patient care to managing those who provide that care. For her, it was a seismic but, in many ways, natural change.

“Many people have asked if the transition was difficult, and I’ve said that it was not,” she explained. “That’s because I found myself at peace moving from a clinical role to one that still has clinical elements, but instead of being the one-on-one patient-physician relationship, which is incredibly treasured, it’s one where I have the ability to impact multiple patients and improve the working lives of staff, medical staff, and other providers. I can make a bigger impact on a broader scale.”

She said there were many factors that went into her decision to come to CDH, summing them up with that often-used phrase “it was a perfect fit.” Elaborating, she said the area served by Cooley Dickinson, mostly Hampshire and Franklin counties, is one with a great deal of need, and she has experience working with such populations, as we’ll see.

Beyond that, she said this opportunity allows her an opportunity to take what she has learned at many different stops during her career and apply them to what will be a different — and obviously significant — challenge.

Lynnette Watkins says one of her first priorities will be meeting with as many community leaders and constituencies

Lynnette Watkins says one of her first priorities will be meeting with as many community leaders and constituencies — as well as frontline caregivers and hospital staff — as possible.

Watkins said the learning process has continued through COVID, which she believes has brought out the very best in those working in healthcare, while also putting an even greater focus on teamwork, collaboration, and innovation.

“While there’s been a lot of challenge and a lot of sadness during the pandemic, there’s also been some wonderful lessons and teachings in the resilience of people, resilience of systems, the importance of self-care and downtime, and the importance of working with others and understanding that it’s OK to say, ‘I need help,’” she explained. “What this has also done is challenged us to innovate, whether it’s in processes, such as supply-chain initiatives with PPE or the distribution of vaccinations and other pharmaceuticals such as monoclonal antibody infusions, or working together in groups to really take care of our community.

“That resilience, that collaboration, that innovation, that devotion to self and others have really been positive,” she went on. “The patience and working with a team have really helped me grow — as an individual, as a physician, and as a healthcare leader.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Watkins about her latest assignment, why she came to CDH, and … how being her father’s daughter will help her as she takes on this latest career challenge.

 

Background — Check

In some ways, Watkins said, coming to CDH is like coming home — or at least coming back to that part of the country where she did her residency.

Specifically, that would be Mass Eye and Ear in Boston. But she did get out to the Northampton area on several occasions during those residency years, so she’s not a total stranger to the 413.

There were several career stops between Boston and CDH, including a lengthy stint back at Mass Eye and Ear, where, from 1999 to 2004, she directed the Emergency Ophthalmology Service and walk-in clinic and was an attending physician in the Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery Service. And Watkins said all of them have helped her grow as both a provider of care and a manager of people. And she intends to put all of that experience to work at CDH.

Our story starts in Missouri, where Watkins, as noted, became intent on following her father into the medical field and earned her undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Missouri – Kansas City and an internship in internal medicine at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City.

“I grew up wanting to go into medicine, and I was asked quite often if I was going to be an ophthalmologist like my father,” she recalled. “Candidly, I got tired of the question. It was through a series of rotations and the fact that I needed money for car insurance that my father said, ‘why don’t you come work for me in my office?’

“I did, and I liked it,” she went on. “I didn’t tell him for a while, but I did make that transition, and eventually declared that this was the specialty I wanted to be in.”

This decision brought her to Mass Eye and Ear in 1995 for her residency and stint at the at the walk-in clinic and Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery Service. She was there during 9/11, a moment in time and her career that convinced her to be closer to family and, in her words, “focus more on family.”

Elaborating, she said she went into private practice in Indiana and eventually became managing partner of a multi-specialty group, one with a large geographic footprint.

The administrative leadership of that group would later put it in “a significant financial disadvantage,” as Watkins put it, adding that she was thrust into the role of interim CEO. She said she would eventually wind down the two parent companies into multiple spinoffs, which are still ongoing today, an experience she described as both challenging and rewarding, and  one that would in many ways inspire her transition into management and leadership roles.

“We were able to keep patients seen, keep people employed, and move colleagues forward so they were able to practice — it was a huge, huge learning experience,” she told BusinessWest. “I joined one of the spinoff groups, but found myself wondering why I went through that experience.

“And it was actually a couple of colleagues, neither of whom had medical backgrounds but did have healthcare-industry backgrounds, who said, ‘this happened to you for a reason; you have this knowledge — why don’t you consider leading a hospital or healthcare system and pursue healthcare administration?’”

She thought about it and talked with family members, especially her father, to get buy-in and support. After securing it, she started pursuing healthcare administrative positions.

Her first stop was at Trinity Health in South Bend, Ind., and from there she joined Tenet’s Abrazo Community Health Network in Arizona as chief medical officer.

When that position was one of many eliminated in a round of budget cuts, she used connections she’d made to land a job as chief medical officer and chief operating officer at Paris Regional Medical Center in Texas, a system that was and is surrounded by some of the poorest counties in Texas and neighboring Oklahoma. Her time there was another important learning experience.

“One of the great joys of working there was working with people who keep in mind the individual who has limited access, limited transportation, and limited resources,” she said. “And in rural facilities where often there is one specialist or one type of provider, and there is limited access, having a high level of collaboration, particularly with the medical staff and the provider staff, is very important.

“Overall, that was an incredible learning experience, understanding the intricacies of running a facility that’s technically complex,” she went on, adding that, as chief medical officer and chief operating officer, she had oversight over just about everything except nursing, finance, and HR.

 

Right Place, Right Time

The learning experiences continued at the Baptist Health System/Tenet Health Care, where that system confronted not only COVID, but the severe — and highly unusual — weather pattern that visited most of Texas near the end of February.

Some called it ‘Snowvid,’ said Watkins, adding that healthcare systems had to confront not only the pandemic, but extreme cold that knocked out power and water to many communities.

“We had COVID patients, we had no electricity, we were on generators, and we did not have water, she recalled. “Managing through all that was a challenge, although what each of these events has shown is that it has not changed why we do what we do, but it does force us to change how we do it.”

Elaborating, she said some recent developments or trends will continue for the foreseeable future, including telehealth, which she described as a game changer for both the inpatient and outpatient sides of the equation. This became evident in Texas, as well as the hospital that would become the next line on her résumé.

Watkins told BusinessWest that the position at CDH came to her attention through a recruiter, and after more talks with family and friends, she decided that managing a smaller community hospital would be an appropriate next step on her career journey.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful fit,” she said of CDH, adding that her views on the delivery of healthcare and areas of focus are in sync with those of the hospital and its staff. “First and foremost, I’m a physician, and I want to make sure that we’re delivering safe, high-quality care and that we’re great stewards of resources, whether it’s finance or personnel or capital, and that’s what Cooley Dickinson does.”

Elaborating, she said the opportunity to lead a hospital that is an affiliate of the Mass General Brigham system, formerly Partners Healthcare, was also appealing.

When she talked with BusinessWest before her arrival, Watkins said one of her first priorities is to familiarize herself with the community and meet with many different leaders and constituencies — in whatever ways COVID will allow. Which means a lot of Zoom meetings, some phone calls, and, when possible and appropriate, in-person gatherings.

“My goal is to get out there and meet the community where they are at as quickly as possible,” she said. “I think it’s also important that I meet the team; meet our front-line caregivers, staff, and providers; and understand what’s working well and where we have opportunities.”

Returning to her thoughts on the lessons learned from the pandemic, Watkins said that  managing through this crisis has enabled her to grow and mature as a leader — out of necessity.

“Physicians inherently have trouble delegating,” she told BusinessWest. “And I fully disclose that I am one of those physicians. It’s been a journey, but the pandemic has really helped me to leverage and trust the team and be a better partner, a better collaborator, and a better support.

“One of the things I work hard to do is listen and gather information before executing,” she went on. “And that’s been incredibly important during this time.”

When asked about the management style she brings to CDH, Watkins started by saying she is an optimist by nature, and she believes this is an important trait in this business.

“We have the singular privilege of being able to take care of patients and the community, whether it’s one-on-one or on a larger scale,” she explained. “And from that optimism, I assume good intentions and assume that those who chose this profession want to take care of people as well. We will have challenging conversations, and it will be important to challenge and push each other to do better and innovate, but I would like to consider myself to be collaborative, open, very much driven, direct, and someone who feels it’s important to have fun at work. That’s because this work makes for long days, and there needs to be some form of celebration, some sort of fun.”

 

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

Women of Impact 2020

President and CEO, ServiceNet

She’s Grown Her Agency by Recognizing Needs and Welcoming New Ideas

Sue Stubbs

Sue Stubbs

Sue Stubbs has always thought like an entrepreneur.

“Even as a kid, I was thinking about business opportunities,” she said, recalling that, during her studies at Northeastern University, she’d walk through Boston’s Back Bay — which was littered with dilapidated buildings back then — between her train stop and the campus.

“I tried to convince may parents to buy a brownstone in the Back Bay, and they thought I was nuts. Now, look what’s happened in that neighborhood. It would have been a good idea.”

Fortunately, Stubbs has been able to shepherd myriad good ideas into practice as president and CEO of ServiceNet, which she has led since 1980. Actually, she worked for Valley Programs back then, and later oversaw its merger with Northampton Area Mental Health Services and Franklin Hampshire Community Mental Health Center; the new organization became ServiceNet in 1995.

Through those years and well beyond, she has grown the agency from 25 employees to 1,750 and its annual budget from $500,000 to $70 million. From its origins running a few group homes, ServiceNet’s range of services has expanded to include residential and day programs for people with mental illness, developmental disability, autism, and brain injury; outpatient behavioral health clinics in five communities; addiction services; vocational services; shelter and housing programs for people working their way out of homelessness; children’s services; and more.

“We’ve been open to new opportunities, always looking at the next thing coming down the pike and asking, ‘how can we meet a need or take advantage of an opportunity?’”

“It’s very gratifying,” she said of that growth and her 40 years of, well, impact. “Not just in terms of staff and money, but in terms of the people we’re serving. And it’s not just due to me — it’s due to a lot of people, and a lot of collaboration with the state. We pride ourselves on being a good partner with the state.”

Among its many innovations over the years, ServiceNet:

• Established Prospect Meadow Farm in Hatfield, a working farm — staffed by individuals with developmental disabilities or autism — that has become one of the largest producers of log-grown shiitake mushrooms in Western Mass.;

• Created two multi-faceted enrichment centers for people with brain injury, which provide intensive rehabilitation services in partnership with area universities’ training programs, as well as social networking, programming in fitness and the arts, and opportunities for community service — a model that has become a standard across Massachusetts;
• Has become the first mental-health agency in Massachusetts to adopt an integrated electronic medical record, using aggregated data to track the impact of various outpatient clinical services over time;

• Partnered with academic leaders at area universities on applied research projects with ServiceNet’s own research team;

• Launched the Western Massachusetts PREP (Prevention and Recovery in Early Psychosis) program, an intensive, evidence-based day program for young people, designed to speed recovery and help prevent long-term, chronic mental illness; and

• Developed intensive residential programming for individuals with developmental disability who have also been diagnosed with mental illness.

“Some agencies keep doing the same thing for years and years, and they have one mission, and it’s narrow, and that’s all good,” Stubbs told BusinessWest. “When someone comes to me with an idea or a need that’s been identified and nobody else is stepping up, we’ve had a tendency to try to problem-solve and step up.

“That’s how we’ve grown,” she continued. “We’ve been open to new opportunities, always looking at the next thing coming down the pike and asking, ‘how can we meet a need or take advantage of an opportunity?’”

 

Calculated Risks

She’s always done so with an entrepreneurial mindset, thinking like a for-profit business might, with an eye toward calculated risk taking and a willingness to seize opportunities for growth and diversification when they come into view rather than remaining on the sidelines and playing it safe.

Sue Stubbs, pictured with Allie LeClair, assistant director of Prospect Meadow Farm in North Hatfield

Sue Stubbs, pictured with Allie LeClair, assistant director of Prospect Meadow Farm in North Hatfield, says the farm and its store have been revenue generators in addition to the farm’s therapeutic benefits.

Take, for example, day programs for people with acquired brain injuries. There were no such facilities in the region, said Stubbs, before ServiceNet began developing its own — and the state changed its outlook on the need for such programs. While services existed for people with developmental disabilities, she noted, “brain-injury patients usually ended up in nursing homes, where they weren’t getting the help they needed. The state now funds those services.”

Another example is Prospect Meadow Farm, which was developed around the value of connecting with living things, both animals and plants, for many clients with intellectual disabilities, autism, or brain injury. While it indeed serves that purpose — Stubbs tells of clients who have opened up like never before — its shiitake production and a café produce revenue that supports other ServiceNet programs.

That entrepreneurial mindset isn’t shared by every social-service organization, she noted.

“I guess some people are more risk-averse and worry more about bad outcomes. My feeling is, if something doesn’t work out, you have to be prepared to admit you’re wrong and you have to be prepared to fail fast,” she said, adding that ServiceNet has done exactly that on occasion.

“You can’t hold on to a project when you find fatal flaws or it’s too much of a struggle and it diverts energy from other things. You have to be willing to say, ‘this is not a project we should be doing,’ and be willing to cut your losses.”

She admits she may be more cautious these days — “I took more risks when I was younger, and didn’t think as much about contingency plans” — but one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s a focus on hiring people with both good business sense and “fire in the belly” when it comes to helping people, two traits that go hand in hand, she said.

“People ask, ‘how does an organization get its culture or its outlook, and how does the CEO make people feel the same way she does? How does it happen?’ It’s kind of an organic process, where people tend to hire and promote people who fit in with how they think.”

So, even though the management team at ServiceNet is diverse when it comes to age, gender, and nationality, “they’re people who have that entrepreneurial spirit, or step-up kind of spirit, that I have, and they end up being people who resonate with my way of thinking, so I promote them.”

That team has had a difficult year for sure, especially challenging the group homes, which obviously couldn’t close when much of the economy shut down in March; some managers worked extra hours, while temporary staff were brought in to cover those who were unable to work due to COVID-19 concerns.

The outpatient clinics had a different challenge, but ramped up virtual appointments quickly once the state made them billable.

“That allowed therapists to work at home, and we hardly skipped a beat in seeing our clients. It’s amazing how quickly therapists and clients adapted to it and liked it,” Stubbs said, adding that, while it can never replace all in-person visits, the remote model does have a future; for one thing, it has decreased the no-show rate.

“For some people, it may be a better option,” she said, adding that ServiceNet has also been able to expand its workforce pool by allowing employees to work at home. “Sometimes, out of adversity come good discoveries. We hope we can keep billing for remote forever.”

 

Making Things Happen

In her Women of Impact nomination form, Amy Swisher, ServiceNet’s vice president of Community Relations, called Stubbs “a visionary leader, insightful therapist, and restless entrepreneur who never stops innovating. Sue understood the power of possibility thinking long before this concept hit the mainstream.”

That remains true today for someone who has never been afraid of new ideas, and always encouraged her team to think outside the box.

“If we’re sitting around with our management team and somebody says, ‘hey, I have this idea, but it may sound crazy,’ everyone goes, ‘no, it doesn’t sound crazy. Maybe we can make that happen,’” Stubbs said. “People fill out each other’s ideas — and we’ve made a lot of things happen that way.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Healthcare Heroes

His Efforts to Coordinate the Region’s Pandemic Response Saved Lives

Mark Keroack

Mark Keroack

Dr. Mark Keroack doesn’t feel like a Healthcare Hero. But he’ll gratefully accept the honor on behalf of everyone who does deserve the award.

In his estimation, that’s a lot of people.

“Whenever some new challenge comes up, it’s been our tradition to step up and play a leadership role in Western Mass.,” said the president and CEO of Baystate Health. “I wish I could convert my award into an ‘unsung heroes award.’ So many things happened behind the scenes to enable us to step up.”

And so many people stepped up. Like Dr. Sarah Haessler, an epidemiologist who has long had a keen interest in emerging infections. “She got us to construct an ebola-treatment unit in 2014, and she put together a small team of people interested in unusual infections,” Keroack said. “That team reassembled this year, in early January, when they started issuing alerts looking out for anyone traveling from China.”

Or Dr. Lauren Westafer, an emergency medicine physician who helped determine, early on, that not rushing to place patients on ventilators actually decreased COVID-19’s mortality rate. “We were far ahead of the curve on that,” Keroack said.

Or Baystate Medical Center President Nancy Shendell-Falik, a former nurse who understands patient flow, he said, noting that Baystate, on an average day, has about 720 patients, but was able to open up hundreds more beds by postponing elective surgeries and finding other creative ways to open up space and redeploy staff.

Or Dr. Andrew Artenstein, the system’s chief physician executive — and, like Haessler, an infectious-disease expert — who led Baystate’s Incident Command Center. In addition to his day-to-day role coordinating the system’s pandemic response, he drew national attention after penning an account of a rendezvous at a small mid-Atlantic airport, where he and his team brought a $3 million check to purchase a large shipment of face masks and N95 respirators — and were temporarily accosted by the FBI.

“We realized we were on our own,” Keroack said of those early days, noting that the health system also received PPE donations from the construction trades and local manufacturers, who had shifted to making such equipment. It was a lesson to the region that local players could produce what they needed and not have to depend on a fractured global supply chain.

“I wish I could convert my award into an ‘unsung heroes award.’ So many things happened behind the scenes to enable us to step up.”

But he mostly applied the ‘hero’ designation to every frontline provider who continued to push past their health and safety anxieties and do their jobs. “They were able to do the right thing in spite of their fears, and are heroes in my book.”

That book includes story after story of collaborations Baystate forged in support of prompt community outreach, testing, education, and information, all with the goal of limiting the spread of COVID-19 and helping make Massachusetts — one of the hardest-hit states in the pandemic’s early days — an eventual model of how to control it.

On the local level, Keroack participated in Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s weekly COVID-19 press briefings, leading the mayor to note that “Dr. Mark Keroack’s leadership and medical insight has truly been a great benefit for our city of Springfield as we have worked together to defeat and mitigate the spread of this virus.” Baystate also tested the homeless population and expanded testing to key neighborhoods in the city at the request of the state and local officials.

Keroack also convened calls with Westfield Mayor Don Humason regarding clusters of positive cases in Westfield’s Russian community and possible spread beyond its borders. Meanwhile, he conducted weekly calls with the Western Mass. legislative delegation and other area hospital CEOs, while crafting a plan with state officials on how Baystate would provide surge beds for the region.

“I set up an independent command center, and every day at 7:30, we’d call a group of people who included hospital presidents, heads of medical groups, people from infection control, supply chain, finance, communications … 15 people got on the Zoom meeting every day,” he said, adding that information from those sessions would be distributed as a bulletin at 11 a.m. “It was the most widely read thing at Baystate. Everyone knew every day where we were.”

Mark Keroack (right) and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal take part in an outdoor roundtable on COVID-19 issues in the spring.

Keroack also served as the only Massachusetts hospital CEO appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to the state’s Reopening Advisory Board. “The Reopening Massachusetts plan needed to balance restarting commerce while avoiding a surge of virus cases,” said Mike Kennealy, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development. “Dr. Keroack’s medical expertise and healthcare-sector experience, and his perspective as a resident of Western Massachusetts, helped to ensure those dual objectives were addressed.”

For his part, Keroack praises the state’s phased approach, which has understandably been frustrating to business owners.

“We’re using data to move from one phase to another, and we’ve had good coordination between authorities and scientists, as opposed to some states, where they butted heads with each other,” he added. “In Massachusetts, there hasn’t been any daylight between what science is telling us and what local and state officials are saying.”

If there was an unseen ‘hero’ amid all the named ones, Keroack suggested it may have been a public that understood its role, and today still largely adheres to guidelines around social distancing, mask wearing, and other protocols.

“I’m proud of how we worked together and came together as a community,” he told BusinessWest. “Parts of the country were at loggerheads, fighting with each other about masks, getting their hackles up about personal liberties. I look at that craziness and think, thank God we didn’t have to go through that.”

On the other hand, the community’s responsibility was clear. “We had the advantage of knowing what happened in Italy and New York, so we didn’t have to twist people’s arms to take this seriously. The public understood the issue around shutting down.”

At the same time, he’s proud of Baystate’s role in working with local boards of health and the Department of Public Health around contact tracing. “In six months, from the announcement of the first case, we have gone from having to beg to get a person tested to being a regional testing center that does 1,000 tests a day,” he said, with the total tests approaching 100,000 toward the end of September.

About a third of those tests, he added, have not even been Baystate patients, but patients from other hospitals and folks living at nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and homeless shelters. “We got outside the walls of our own system into the community and really played a role in public health.”

While the pandemic is far from over, Keroack already recognizes some of the changes that might emerge from it, from an expanded role for telehealth to a better understanding of where society’s safety nets have proven inadequate.

“This has kind of exposed some of the shortcomings of our healthcare system and of our social support system, like the number of people in this country who don’t have paid sick time, and go to work even when they’re sick,” he said.

Some of the long-term impacts of COVID-19 are still emerging, he added, but Baystate — and the team of heroes with whom he insists on sharing his honor — will continue to, as he said, step up and play a leadership role.

“Every time a pandemic hits society, people who live through it are changed forever. That’s true of every pandemic throughout history,” Keroack said. “We’ll look at the world differently in terms of healthcare as a right, or childcare and sick leave — we’ll look at these issues very differently than we would have just a few years ago. At least, I hope we will.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020

Giving Back Has Always Been a Big Part of His Life — and His Work

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Steve Lowell vividly recalls the conversation he had with his wife, Anne, when he decided to apply for a position at a bank located on Cape Cod — roughly half the state away from their home in Upton.

“She said, ‘Steve, you can go ahead and take the job, but I’ll tell you right now that we are not moving Emily out of school to go to another place,’” he told BusinessWest, noting that his daughter was in the second grade at the time. “If I wanted the job, I was going to have to commute.”

Long story short, he took the job, and he did commute — 90 miles each way — for 16 years. And, as we’ll see, he didn’t just commute to the office. In fact, he was at so many community events, and became so involved with all that was happening in that area of the Cape, that people just assumed he lived there and were often shocked to find out he didn’t.

This ‘giving back’ has always been a big part of who Lowell is, as a person and as a financial-services professional. And he certainly brought this trait to another job he pursued and eventually won — president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank.

Pretty much since the day he took that job early in 2011, Lowell has been active not only in Monson and surrounding communities, but also across the region as a whole, through his work with agencies ranging from the United Way of Pioneer Valley to Link to Libraries.

And when we say ‘from the day he took the job,’ we mean it.

Indeed, just a matter of weeks after he arrived, a tornado ripped across the region — and downtown Monson. As the community began the arduous task of digging out, many looked to the bank, one of the pillars of the community, for guidance and support.

Lowell and the bank responded in all kinds of ways, from helping to clear debris — he remembers cutting up fallen trees himself — to providing some leniency on mortgage and loan payments for those who needed it to emergency loans to help businesses reopen their doors.

For Lowell, who recently announced that he’ll be retiring early next year, ‘giving back’ isn’t just something he does. It’s something he preaches, if that’s the right word. Over the course of his more than 40 years in banking, he told BusinessWest, he’s had mentors who taught him the importance of community banks — and the people who work for them — to be involved in the communities in which they do business. And for decades now, he’s been teaching others.

Steve Lowell, center, is among the many dignitaries cutting the ribbon at the YMCA of Greater Springfield’s new Learning Center in Tower Square, sponsored by Monson Savings Bank.

“I learned early on, if I was going to be successful in this work, that it was important to be involved and give back — not only your monetary contributions, but your time and talent,” he said. “I’ve tried to live by that, and it’s worked out well.”

Thus, he has been a very effective role model for countless young professionals, and also something else — a true Difference Maker in Western Mass.

Saving Grace

Lowell said he could hear the tornado roaring down Main Street in Monson that fateful afternoon, noting that it really did sound like a freight train — a phrase so many have used to describe it. And that sound told him he needed to move. Fast.

“I hid in that bathroom right over there,” he said, pointing to a door in his office within the 150-year-old Lyons House, a large, handsome former residence now home to a few businesses, including some of the bank’s offices. “I looked around at the glass chandelier and all these windows and decided this was not a good place to be. And when I came out…”

He started shaking his head for emphasis as be recalled what he saw as he ventured out of that bathroom and then onto the street.

“It was over quickly, and there was dead quiet; I went outside, and it looked like a war zone,” he recalled, noting that trees were down, roofs had been torn off buildings, and a peaceful, rural town had been turned on its side, figuratively, but almost literally.

Lowell, who, as noted, had only been on the job a few months, hadn’t had a chance to meet too many people or find out just what kind of community Monson was. Suffice to say, the tornado greatly accelerated that process, thus providing the only real bright spot he could see from that catastrophe.

Steve Lowell, seen here with Link to Libraries executive director Laurie Flynn and students at Elias Brookings School, has made Monson Savings one of the leading corporate supporters of LTL.

“As traumatic and as bad as that was for the community, it provided me with the opportunity to meet a lot of people right away,” he said. “People from the town were reaching out to us, saying, ‘how is the bank going to be able to help?’ I got to meet a lot of people that it would have taken me years to meet.”

Only a few months before the tornado, Lowell was taking Anne on a drive to see Monson. He was applying to be president of the community bank based there and admits now to not actually knowing where said community was.

A headhunter had alerted him to the opportunity, and he was eager to consider it because the president of that bank on the Cape was just a little older than him and not ready to retire any time soon.

The subject of community involvement came up repeatedly during the many interviews for the position, and Lowell recalls being eager to answer those questions.

“I told them what I did on the Cape — I had been chairman of the United Way, chairman of the local YMCA, involved with the EDC, and involved with a host of other things, even though I didn’t live on the Cape,” he recalled. “So it was easy for me to let the board know what kind of commitment I was willing to make.”

And, as noted, it didn’t take long for this commitment to manifest itself, in all kinds of ways.

Starting with the United Way of Pioneer Valley, a story that is also related to the tornado in some ways.

Active Interest

Indeed, Dora Robinson, then executive director of the United Way chapter, knowing of Lowell’s involvement with that organization earlier in his career, asked him about being on her board.

Before getting to that, he informed her that many people in the Monson area were critical of the United Way’s response — or a perceived lack of a response — after the tornado struck. Upon being informed the agency was highly involved in relief efforts, Lowell recalls telling Robinson, “no one knows that — and you have to tell them; you have to take credit.”

And so he became not only a board member, but a very active one, taking on a role as “advocate” (his word) for those living in the many smaller towns in the eastern part of Hampden County.

“I have a hard time saying ‘no’ when people ask me like that,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his stint with the board, including his recent work as president, has been one of extreme challenge as the United Way chapter has battled through fiscal woes (as many have) and leadership changes, eventually coming into a partnership agreement to essentially share an executive director with the United Way of MetroWest, a move that has brought about many economies of scale.

Like most others, Lowell found it impossible to say ‘no’ to Link to Libraries (LTL) founder Susan Jaye Kaplan when she came to talk with him about that still-fledgling nonprofit soon after he arrived in the area. The occasion was a check presentation; soon after Lowell arrived, the bank created a program whereby the public could help decide how the bank gave back to the community through cash donations by voting for nonprofits via Facebook. Link to Libraries was one of the highest vote gatherers.

But upon learning more about the agency, Lowell took the bank’s involvement to a much higher plane.

“I was fascinated by the mission,” he said, adding that, through introductions made by Kaplan, the bank soon sponsored two schools — one in Monson and the other in Hampden — as part of LTL’s Community Book Link program. Today, the bank sponsors five schools — Elias Brookings School in Springfield, Springfield Public Day Elementary School, Springfield Public Day Middle School, Quarry Hill Community School in Monson, and Stanley M. Koziol Elementary School in Ware — the most of any company in the region.

“Steve Lowell’s generosity and passion for this community, particularly with regard to children and education, has had an enormous impact on our work at Link to Libraries,” said Laurie Flynn, president and CEO of LTL. “Through their sponsorships, community-giving initiatives, and emphasis on volunteering, Steve has created a culture of giving at Monson Savings Bank. Through their sponsorship of five local elementary schools in need and the numerous Monson Savings Bank employees who volunteer to read in classrooms each month, Steve Lowell and the bank have impacted the lives of more than 1,000 underserved children.”

Lowell has also become involved with Baystate Health, serving as chairman of its Eastern Region, as well as with the Monson Free Library, the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, and a number of other groups and institutions.

But what really makes him a Difference Maker is that culture of giving that he has helped create and the way he mentors others to give back.

“One of the things I really enjoy is helping my staff move up within the organization,” he said. “And I tell them all, ‘if you want to get ahead here, you’re going to have to be involved in the community.’ I tell them it’s not really important to me what they do, but I encourage them to find something they’re interested in and that they enjoy. I tell them they need to buy into that, and they need to be part of it.”

Common Cents

Returning to that commute from Upton to the Cape, Lowell said that, over the course of those 16 years, he became quite fond of books on tape — “I was very well read” — and adept at knowing when the traffic would be worst and how to avoid it.

“I made it work,” he said simply, adding that those years helped cement a legacy of giving back and getting involved.

But in Monson, he has taken that philosophy to an even higher level, putting the bank at the forefront of a number of efforts to improve quality of life and secure a strong future.

Today, he enjoys a much shorter commute, affording him time to be even more of a Difference Maker.

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

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