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Technology

High-tech Harvest

Vice President Paul Whalley

From its humble beginnings in a Southwick basement 40 years ago, Whalley Computer Associates has become a technology company with remarkable reach, providing a host of services to more than 3,000 business clients, ranking WCA in the top one-tenth of 1% of all computer resellers by sales volume. That growth has come through constant evolution in response to industry needs and trends, but also simply by making life easier for clients, who increasingly demand no-fuss solutions to their network needs.

Paul Whalley knows his company might have a larger brand presence in a larger city.

“Our biggest challenge, marketing-wise, is being in Western Mass. — because you know what they think of us in Eastern Mass.,” he said. “And then we’re in a town called Southwick, and if you look up Southwick, you see a farming community, and the name of the company is a family name. So I think people have an image of my brother and me with pitchforks, milking the cows in the morning and feeding the chickens when we get home, and maybe selling one or two computers.

“But that perception isn’t what people get when they walk through here,” he quickly added, and for good reason.

Out of its 62,500-square-foot headquarters in Southwick — it also maintains facilities in Westfield, Milford, and Providence, R.I. — Whalley Computer Associates (WCA) has grown to be the 175th-largest computer solution provider in North America. That’s among more than 200,000 such companies, placing Whalley squarely in the top one-tenth of 1%.

What started as a software-consulting firm is now an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), building computers and other devices for 25 brands, a few of them major national names. In so doing, WCA is the largest reseller of Lenovo products in the U.S. and has been the top reseller for Dell in the Northeast many years.

“I think people have an image of my brother and me with pitchforks, milking the cows in the morning and feeding the chickens when we get home, and maybe selling one or two computers. But that perception isn’t what people get when they walk through here.”

Initially, the firm served customers mostly based in Massachusetts and Connecticut. However, in the past decade, it has expanded its range, providing technology products and services across all of New England and Upstate New York.

It’s not easy to pin down what WCA does in a few words. Early in its history, it focused on imaging and configuration, delivery and deployment, and maintenance and repair. But today, services include pre-sales consultation, system design and implementation, infrastructure, data storage and management, client and server virtualization, disaster recovery and business continuance, VoIP, wireless cloud computing and cloud infrastructure services, server, storage, and network health checks — and more.

The company provides services to more than 250 school systems, 50 colleges, and 3,000 businesses, while continually expanding its range of offerings as the technology world continually evolves.

“It’s the full life cycle,” said Whalley, WCA’s vice president. “We’re consulting on what they should buy, selling them what they should buy, preparing what they bought, delivering what they bought, taking care of what they bought, managing what they bought — perhaps even remotely — and then, at the end of its life, gathering it back and disposing of it or returning it to the leasing company or giving it to a school, whatever the customer wants.”

Up from the Basement

Like many high-tech success stories, WCA grew from humble beginnings. As a part-time programming consultant in the Agawam school system in the 1970’s, math teacher John Whalley — Paul’s brother — purchased a small software-consulting firm. Working after school and during the summer from his Southwick basement, he built a small customer base.

Then, in 1979, incorporating his experience teaching his students programming on the school’s new computer, he started Whalley Computer Associates. He moved to new quarters in Southwick twice, all the while trying to convince his brother to come on board.

Paul started helping out part-time, and in 1985, they both dove in full-time, with John (still the company’s president) leaving his teaching job and Paul resigning from his position as a programmer at MassMutual, in the process becoming WCA’s fourth employee. The acquisition of customers such as Northeast Utilities, United Technologies, General Electric, and Cigna helped drive the company’s rapid growth.

Dean LeClerc says WCA’s engineering training lab helps keep the team on top of current technology.

That growth necessitated several moves in Southwick, from John Whalley’s cellar to a former hair salon, to a 1,500-square-foot office, to an 18,000-square-foot building on Route 202, to the current headquarters on Whalley Way, in the industrial-park section of town, built in 1999.

Through all that growth, Whalley said, the idea has always been to make life easier for customers. For example, the Southwick facility has hundreds of linear feet of ‘bench space’ where computers and other devices are not only built, but tested by connecting directly with the client’s network.

“The benefit for the customer is they can just walk to the desk, unplug the old one, plug in the new one, and walk away. Otherwise, they’d have to go the desk and spend 15 minutes with the product and get it fully configured on their network. It’s much more efficient and cost-effective, and allows them to work on more strategic things. Their IT staff doesn’t really want to be doing this. They’re certified at a pretty high level and want to be doing more challenging things.”

Dean LeClerc, director of Engineering, pointed out one bench that was being used to test Chromebooks headed to a Holyoke school.

“They leave here as if it had already been brought to Holyoke and connected with their network and tested,” he explained. “So they’re opening a box they already know works on their network.”

LeClerc added that Whalley can even set up each device for the individual student who will be using it, and a WCA representative will often visit sites to hand them out to specific users.

Early in BusinessWest’s recent visit, LeClerc showed off one of the facility’s newer features, an engineering training lab outfitted with WCA’s most commonly sold storage devices, switches, and servers — a half-million-dollar investment in making sure the engineering team stays on top of technology.

“Our engineers are doing it for the second, third, or fourth time before they’re getting to a customer’s environment,” he explained. “They’re not doing it for the first time at a customer’s live environment.”

In addition, if a customer is in a bind with equipment going down that could affect the flow of business, the lab might loan a piece of equipment for a day or a week to get the customer up and running again immediately instead of having to wait for shipment of a new product.

“If you listen to anybody in technology, they’ll tell you the majority of problems come when people aren’t being vigilant and open e-mails they shouldn’t be opening.”

“So we try to balance it,” he said. “This is our lab for our engineers, but if we have a couple extra pieces of equipment that we know we can bring out to get a customer back up and running, we can do that.”

Safe and Secure

WCA has evolved in other ways as well, Whalley said, mostly in response to changing industry needs and trends. Take security, for example, in the form of building security, surveillance cameras, access-control cards, and other products and services.

“We weren’t even thinking about that stuff 10 years ago, but it’s becoming a bigger piece of our business now,” he said, adding that WCA has a contract with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as an ITC71 vendor for security systems.

Cybersecurity is another growing niche, he noted. “We’ll do assessments, look at the network, and help them prevent someone from attacking them. Even the biggest companies get attacked. We’ll build up a robust system with a lot of redundancy so if something does happen, whether it’s ransomware or malware or a virus, they experience no — or very little — downtime.”

He recalled two incidents, one involving a customer of WCA’s managed services, who had invested in a needs analysis and network cybersecurity protection and monitoring. “Within seconds of a ransom attack, we shut everything down, isolating the problem to one desktop, and brought the whole network back up, so they were down for only minutes, and then worked on clearing out that one bad desktop where the ransomware came in.”

Meanwhile, another local company, not a customer of those managed services, got attacked, and it took three weeks and 100 hours of engineering time to get it back up and running, Whalley noted.

“One computer down for an hour, versus the entire network down for three weeks. One did the preparation and the engineering ahead of time to have a robust defense of their system, and because it was monitored at the point, we immediately knew there was a problem and could quarantine it and get the rest of the company working again. That’s the power of having the combination of the managed-service group and Dean’s engineers.”

WCA also sends a trainer to conduct security-awareness trainings for clients, because so many breaches result from human mistakes, he noted.

“If you listen to anybody in technology, they’ll tell you the majority of problems come when people aren’t being vigilant and open e-mails they shouldn’t be opening. So we offer a very affordable service, coming into a company and going through a two-hour presentation on how to stay out of trouble and how not to make those mistakes that put your company in jeopardy.”

Staying atop such trends and others is critical, which is why WCA presents the annual Foxwoods Technology Show, the biggest technology event in the region solely for IT professionals. Every year, it attracts more than 1,000 attendees, including 300 representatives from 60 different manufacturers.

“We’re in an industry where you either change or you die,” Whalley told BusinessWest. “Everything’s moving so fast now. You either change and embrace the change — and try to lead the change — or you go out of business.”

Growth Pattern

In a business market where 80% of computer companies fail in less than five years, WCA employs more than 150 computer professionals and continues to grow its client base. It’s not exactly a small company, but tries to maintain a small-firm spirit, through events like monthly breakfasts, lunches, and birthday parties, as well as kickoffs of baseball and football season, where employees wear their favorite teams’ jerseys. Just this month, employees gathered to celebrate WCA’s best September ever.

“We pride ourselves on being a family business,” Whalley said, with the concept of family extending beyond the company’s founders, reflecting a general spirit of camaraderie in Southwick as well as the other sites.

At the same time, its work is serious business — and a long way from milking cows and feeding chickens.

“Our challenge is to stay as ahead of the curve as we can, but provide the stability and assurance to our customers that we’re not just jumping onto the new shiny penny and abandoning our core business,” LeClerc said. “We’re large enough that we can afford to do that. We have enough resources to stay ahead of the curve but still deliver traditional services to our customers until they’re ready for a change.”

Whalley agreed. “We try not to jump around from one thing to the other; we just try to add additional capabilities and continue to be exceptional at the legacy of services and products that we provide.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Blasting Off

A team from Feeding Hills gets ready to put their robot to the test.

A team from Feeding Hills gets ready to put their robot to the test.

Seeing a group of middle-schoolers design, build, and program robots that perform specific, detailed tasks on cue is an impressive sight. But the impact of the FIRST LEGO League, which boasts teams in numerous schools throughout Western Mass., goes far beyond engineering training. It’s also teaching young people communication skills, teamwork, and confidence — all key traits to take into whatever career they choose, whether in the STEM fields or not.

As the robotic rover methodically navigated a landscape of obstacles, it relied on its programming to perform any number of tasks, from extracting core samples to angling a solar array to crossing a crater. If the programming — honed over months of diligent trial and error — failed, so did the robot.

That’s OK, though — this wasn’t a billion-dollar piece of outer-space equipment at stake, but a robot built from LEGO Mindstorm parts, and performing tasks on a colorful, space-themed table. And these weren’t astronauts or NASA engineers performing experiments, but area elementary and middle-school students showing off their prowess at the recent FIRST LEGO League Into Orbit Challenge at Western New England University.

Three dozen teams of students from Agawam, Brookfield, Chicopee, Greenfield, Holyoke, Longmeadow, Northampton, South Hadley, Springfield, West Springfield, Westhampton, and Wilbraham took part in the competition, reflecting a surge in growth for school-based robotics programs.

“It’s more than just the robots. Yes, the engineering is important — the math and the physics behind it — but more important than that is the teamwork, the critical-thinking skills, and the communication skills the kids develop.”

After competing head to head with each other, seven of those teams advanced to a statewide competition in Worcester a week later, and from there, the top teams moved on to championship events this spring.

“It’s all about taking your classroom lessons — the math, the science — and applying them in a real-world situation,” said Dana Henry, a senior mentor for the regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program, who first connected students with robotics in Agawam 18 years ago.

“It’s more than just the robots,” he told BusinessWest. “Yes, the engineering is important — the math and the physics behind it — but more important than that is the teamwork, the critical-thinking skills, and the communication skills the kids develop.”

The FIRST LEGO League challenges kids to think like scientists and engineers. During this year’s space-themed season, teams choose real-world problems to solve and then build, test, and program an autonomous robot using LEGO Mindstorms technology to solve a set of missions.

Last months’s event, the Agawam Qualifier, is in its 11th year, moving to WNEU this season after outgrowing its previous space at Agawam Junior High School, Henry noted.

Dana Henry says FIRST LEGO League competitors are applying classroom lessons to real-world problems, and gaining a raft of skills while doing so.

Dana Henry says FIRST LEGO League competitors are applying classroom lessons to real-world problems, and gaining a raft of skills while doing so.

“We have four programs in Agawam, and we help other teams, at other school systems in the area, get up and running,” Henry said of his role with FIRST. “Western New England came in with the facility and some resources, and they are working with a couple of local teams themselves. It’s been a pretty great ride so far.”

Suleyman Demirhan, a science teacher at Hampden Charter School of Science in Chicopee who oversees that school’s robotics club, explained that the faculty coach’s role is to teach students the basics of building and programming the robot — and researching issues as they arise — but it’s important for students to learn how to accomplish their goals with minimal hand-holding.

“They learn a specific topic for their project, and how to design a robot and program it. The coach is there just to guide them, to provide the right materials and supplies for learning the robotics, and then we get to see their progress. We’re teaching them how to solve problems. It’s a learning process,” Demirhan said.

“Actually, they teach each other and learn from one another,” he went on. “I see it like working at a company, like being an engineer, but at the same time being a middle-schooler. They’re learning to solve all these engineering problems, and then they learn how to solve the programming problems.”

Values Added

The FIRST LEGO League, launched 20 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen and LEGO Group owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, now boasts 320,000 participants and 40,000 teams in 98 countries.

At the cornerstone of the program are a set of core values, through which participants learn that friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals, and that helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.

According to the league website, those core values include discovery (exploring new skills and ideas), innovation (using creativity and persistence to solve problems), impact (applying what we learn to improve our world), inclusion (respecting each other and embracing our differences), teamwork (understanding that we are stronger when we work together), and fun (enjoying and celebrating what we do).

The student-designed robots are all different, taking myriad approaches to tackling similar challenges.

So the goal is more than learning robotics, engineering, and programming. But even the tasks themselves extend far beyond the robots. Each year, teams are mandated to research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, etc., and then develop a solution.

As part of this year’s Into Orbit theme, teams considered the challenges humans must overcome to travel around the solar system — such as extreme temperatures; lack of air, water, and food; waste disposal and recycling; loneliness and isolation; and the need for exercise — and research and present a project, not unlike at a science fair, that aims to solve one of those problems.

“With this year’s theme, they designed a project that helps astronauts in space travel improve their physical conditions and mental health, or it could be anything that supports astronauts,” Demirhan said, noting that his school’s two teams took on the problems of growing food in space and designing an effective trash compactor.

The competition itself centers around the LEGO robots designed and built by the students, he went on. “Each challenge needs to be solved by a robot which is running autonomously. So the students program the robots and make specific attachments that work with different challenges. They don’t only design these attachments, but design and write the programs.”

If the programming is off by the slightest margin, the robot will miss its target on the table — and miss out on critical points needed to post a high score and advance.

“With each one of these challenges, they encounter difficult areas with the programming,” Demirhan went on. “Some programs might work in a specific environment and might not work in a different environment, and they’re trying to write the best program that can work in many different conditions. For example, light could be a factor — robots have light sensors, and the amount of light in the practice room could be different than in competition. So the student needs to solve this challenge and write a really good, efficient program that can run in both these environments.”

For students inclined to this type of work, Henry said, it’s a fun way to learn to apply STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) concepts while developing critical-thinking and team-building skills, and even soft skills like how to talk to the judges about their robots in an engaging way — yes, they’re judged on that, too.

“Not only do they have to build a robot to compete on the table, but they’re also being judged on a project, and they have to adhere to all the core values throughout the FIRST program,” he added. “It’s about communication skills and critical-thinking skills. It’s much more than just robots.”

Time to Shine

Through the FIRST LEGO League, Kamen and Kristiansen always intended for young people to discover the fun in science and technology but also develop in a positive way as people. Henry said he has seen exactly that.

“We had one kid that came through the program who was very shy, ate his lunch in the corner all by himself at his junior high school, but he came into high school and absolutely bloomed. He got into college, and now he’s an engineer with NASA. I’m telling you, if he doesn’t go to Mars, he’s going to be one of the engineers that gets us there.”

Other students in the program have gone on to non-science fields, like teaching, music, and the culinary arts, he continued, but the lessons they learned about solving problems and working with others are applicable to any field.

For those who do aspire to a career in engineering or robotics, however, the FIRST program does offer a leg up, Demirhan said, both in the college-application process — schools consider this valuable experience — and gaining career skills at an earlier age than most future engineers do.

“They’re all doing real-world engineering. Once they go to an engineering school, they’re seeing problems like these and learning how to solve them. So this is really a tiny engineering program that has massive applications. We’re teaching real-world problems and coming up with good solutions to them.”

In short, students are creating ideas, solving problems, and overcoming obstacles, all while gaining confidence in their abilities to positively use technology. To Henry, that’s an appealing mix.

“The STEM part is important, absolutely, but it’s more than just that,” he said. “I can’t stress that enough. We’ve seen kids blossom in so many ways.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Better Living Through Apps

Today’s smartphone apps are countless, with uses ranging from entertainment to enrichment. In the latter category, apps help users manage their personal finance, improve their fitness, and give their brains a workout. With that in mind, here are some of the more popular and well-reviewed apps available today.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when everyone couldn’t access virtually all the world’s information in their hand at a moment’s notice. Besides the accumulated knowledge available on a smartphone, myriad apps are available to help users with a wide range of tasks, from managing their finances to tracking their fitness goals to getting an education in various topics.

For this year’s roundup of what’s hot in technology, BusinessWest checks in on what the tech press is saying about some of the most popular smartphone apps.

Money Matters

Smartphones have put a world of personal finance in people’s hands. For example, Intuit’s Mint gives users a real-time look into all their finances, from bank accounts and credit cards to student loans and 401(k) accounts. The budgeting app has attracted more than 20 million users, and it’s easy to see why, says NerdWallet, which identifies the popular service as one of the best budgeting and saving tools available.

“The free app automatically syncs to bank, credit card and investment accounts, pulling data with little effort on the part of the user, and provides free credit-score information. It’s a tool for reluctant budgeters — many people fall into that category, and they’ll be happy keeping tabs on their spending with this service.”

As its name notes, You Need a Budget, or YNAB, “makes no bones about the fact you need to manage your money rather than the other way around,” according to PC World, noting that the popular program, which started life more than a decade ago as manual-input desktop software, is now a subscription-based web app that can sync with users’ financial accounts.

“YNAB includes customizable reports that break down your income and expenses by category, account, and time frame,” the publication explains. “Its greatest strength, however, is its huge community of devout users who freely share their tips on the app as well as the larger enterprise of personal budgeting. The home site is also rich with support resources ranging from help docs to weekly videos to podcasts, all with the aim of helping you get and keep your finances in order.”

For people who find it difficult to track their expenses while trying to reach their savings goals, Wally might be able to help, by giving users a total view of their finances.

“Wally’s interface is simple and easy to navigate, which makes setting your budget and entering expenses a breeze. The app delivers plenty of features without crowding the screen,” Bankrate notes, adding, however, that “what you put into Wally is what you get out of it. The app makes it simple to track your expenses in the hope that you’ll stick to your budget and reach your goals, but it largely depends on the user being diligent in uploading every expense. If you can do that, Wally will be a tremendous aid in helping you reach your savings goals.”

Finally, Acorns is modernizing the old-school practice of saving loose change, rounding up the user’s purchases on linked credit or debit cards, then sweeping the change into a computer-managed investment portfolio.

“Acorns goes after its target market — young, would-be investors who have little money to invest — by waiving management fees for up to four years. College students are ripe for this kind of service and could wind up with a nice little pot of money after four years of rounding up,” Nerdwallet says. “We’re behind any tool that encourages mindless, automatic saving. If you don’t have to think about saving, you’re more likely to do it.”

No Pain, No Gain

What if physical wellness tops one’s priority list? No fear — there are countless apps for that, too, providing users with information on what they’re eating, how to exercise, and how to stay committed to better habits.

One of the most popular nutrition apps is MyFitnessPal, which offers a wealth of tools for tracking what and how much the user eats, and how many calories they burn through activity, explains PC Magazine. “Of all the calorie counters I’ve used, MyFitnessPal is by far the easiest one to manage, and it comes with the largest database of foods and drinks. With the MyFitnessPal app, you can fastidiously watch what you eat 24/7, no matter where you are.”

Added BuiltLean, “MyFitnessPal is not a one-size-fits-all app. Personal diet profiles can be changed to fit a person’s specific needs, whether they are on a strict diet or have certain recommendations from their doctor or dietitian. The program calculates caloric need based on height, weight, gender, and lifestyle.”

Seven-minute workout challenges have become popular for their ease of use, and the 7 Minute Fitness Challenge app is among the more popular apps promoting this activity.

“I like that the video instructions are led by both male and female trainers, and they do a great job guiding you through each exercise via video, audio, image and text,” notes a review in USA Today. “When you upgrade to the paid version, you can also track your weight and visualize your progress, which might help you stay motivated. It also shows a calendar of all of your workouts and lets you see them at a glance. I’ve had this app for three years now, and they do a great job of updating it regularly to add new exercises and respond to user requests.”

Strong offers many features found in scores of other apps — creating custom routines, logging workouts, and tracking weight over time — but does some things that are particularly useful, according to the Verge.

“Each time I start a new workout for my arms or legs, Strong notes how much I lifted the previous workout. It does so automatically, and it’s amazing how such a simple thing has had such a powerful effect on me,” the reviewer notes. “Bumping that number up over time has become a game to me, and it’s pushed me to gently ramp up the difficulty level on my exercise more than anything I’ve tried short of a personal trainer. The first time I successfully did 40 push-ups, I could scarcely believe it. Previous apps I used required me to update my routines manually; automating that has made all the difference.”

What about emotional wellness? There are plenty of meditation apps available for that. For example, “the moment you open the Calm app, you might feel a sense of … calm. Relaxing sounds of falling rain play automatically in the background, but you could also opt to be greeted by a crackling fireplace, crickets, or something called ‘celestial white noise,’” according to Mindful.

The relaxation continues with Calm’s free meditations — 16 in total, lasting from three to 30 minutes. “Like many other apps, you can set a timer for silent meditation or meditate to intermittent bells,” the site notes. “For nighttime relaxation, Calm features four free ‘sleep stories’ — bedtime stories for adults on everything from science fiction to scenic landscapes to help you transition into slumber.”

App-lied Learning

Countless popular apps focus on education and learning for all ages. For kids, the Children’s MD blog recommends Khan Academy, which collaborates with the U.S. Department of Education and myriad public and private educational institutions to provide a free, world-class education for anyone.

“It’s incredibly easy to use, there are no ads, and it’s appropriate for any school-aged child that knows how to read,” the blog reports, noting that Khan Academy started as a math-learning site but has expanded to many other subjects, from art history to economics. “My kids will spend hours looking at computer-science projects that other kids have shared and incorporating ideas into their own programs. The Khan platform combines educational videos with practice problems and project assignments.”

Meanwhile, Brainscape promises to help students learn more effective ways to study with their classmates, while helping teachers track and create better study habits for students. “This app is a very effective way of using and creating flashcards in a digital manner,” Education World notes. “It’s not much different in terms of creating flashcards and learning from them; however, one cool feature is the ability to set up study reminders, which slightly deters you from procrastination.”

However, the publication notes, the paid content “is a bit of a turnoff from the app, but not to worry — it makes up for it with the ability to create your own digital flashcards. Once the cards are created, you can go through the questions and guess the answer before revealing it, just like normal flashcards.”

Meanwhile, Photomath focuses on, well, math, and does it well, Digital Trends reports. “For high-school students who just need a bit more guidance on how to isolate ‘x’ in their algebra homework, Photomath is essentially your math buddy that can instantly solve and explain every answer. Simply snap a photo of the question (you can also write or type), and the app will break down the solution into separate steps with helpful play-by-play, so that you can apply the same principles to the rest of your homework.”

For older students and adults, The Great Courses is one of the more venerable services out there, created by the Teaching Company during the 1990s with the goal of gathering educational lectures on a video format.

“What helped the Teaching Company to grow more and more famous is their strong ethic toward a lifelong learning, meaning that, for them, learning is not only a short-term journey with an end, but more of a lifelong adventure during which anyone should keep gathering knowledge,” Gria.org notes. “Users have access to an entire online digital video library, but they also get other supports, such as CDs and DVDs or hard-copy materials such as workbooks and guidebooks.”

In short, whatever you’re looking to improve in your life, as the famous ad slogan notes, there’s an app for that.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Members Only

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbers Don’t Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loan Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Sections

Showing Their Metal

Bob LeDuc, seen here with sons Kurt, left, and Eric, started in a chicken coop and has recorded steady growth ever since.

Bob LeDuc, seen here with sons Kurt, left, and Eric, started in a chicken coop and has recorded steady growth ever since.

Bob Leduc says that, in many respects, there’s been a world of change since he affixed his last name to a sheet-metal fabrication company a half-century or so ago.

After all, he got his start in a 20-by-40-foot chicken coop in his backyard, taking some odd jobs and essentially moonlighting to help feed his growing family. Today, the venture he launched, RR LeDuc Corp., is in a state-of-the-art facility on Bobala Road in Holyoke near the West Springfield, and he has established clients ranging from Lockheed Martin to IBM to Whalley Computer Associates. He also has about 50 people working for him, including two of his sons, Eric and Kurt, both serving in vice presidents’ roles.

But looking at things another way, things really haven’t changed a whole lot since the photo on display in the company’s conference room was taken, the one with Bob sporting decidedly early ’70s clothing and a hairstyle to match, an image he finds almost cringeworthy today.

For starters, the 81-year-old not only comes to work every day, he is remarkably hands-on and involved in seemingly everything taking place at the plant — just as he did when he was by himself in the chicken coop, when that assignment was much easier.

More importantly, he noted, business is still being done just like it was back then, with a laser focus on the customer, on being flexible and responsive, and on not only meeting but exceeding expectations, an operating mindset that has created a steady growth curve over five decades.

“One of the keys to staying in business this long is really knowing your customer and partnering with them to meet their needs,” he said while summing up what amounts to his success formula.

Overall, the past 50 years have been marked by evolution and expansion. Indeed, the company that started by fabricating and installing HVAC ductwork and catwalks in Holyoke’s paper and textile mills — usually on weekends when the machines were quiet — now produces a wide range of metal enclosures and other products from a host of business sectors, including defense, communications, medical, electronics, and many others.

“All the cool stuff is on the inside, but we make the skin,” said Eric LeDuc, adding that the company fabricates this skin (enclosures) for everything from computers to ATM machines to portable generators.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest talked with the LeDucs on the occasion of their silver anniversary about where this company’s been, and where these two generations of leaders want it to go.

Manufacturing Milestone

The LeDuc company celebrated 50 years in style late last fall.

There was a party on the front lawn featuring a jazz band and catering by the Log Cabin. The invitation list included customers, vendors, a few elected officials, and employees past and present.

Those gathered were marking a half-century in business, a considerable feat in its own right, but they were really celebrating all it took to reach that milestone — entrepreneurship, evolution, persistence, innovation, and teamwork.

Those qualities came through clearly as the LeDucs collectively — one would often pick up where the other left off and fill in needed information — related the story of their first half-century in business.

The chicken coop gets brought up often, because it provides a colorful, down-to-earth start to the story. But it is only the first chapter.

Actually, we probably need to go back a little further, to the Holyoke Trade School, where LeDuc, concentrating on sheet metal, graduated in 1954. He served a four-year apprenticeship with the E.H. Friedrich Co., worked there for a few years, and then worked for a few other firms, including one in New Haven, which he served as supervisor, that specialized in HVAC ductwork.

He built a house in Chicopee, and on the lot was a World War II chicken coop, he told BusinessWest, adding that soon thereafter he began that aforementioned moonlighting.

“I bought some sheet-metal-bending equipment and shearing and welding equipment as well,” he recalled. “After eight hours of work, I’d come home, eat supper, and work until Jack Parr came on.” (That would be 11:30 p.m., for those too young to know that Parr preceded Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show).

In that chicken coop, the elder LeDuc mostly handled the HVAC ductwork he had become versed in, and as his workload became more steady, he eventually quit his day job — and soon flew the chicken coop — and moved into a sub-basement in a building on Sargeant Street.

His client list was dominated by the paper and textile mills surrounding him, and for those companies, LeDuc fabricated ductwork and also handled so-called trim work on the paper machines. He soon gained a reputation for quality work and flexibility that enabled him to stay busy.

“I would work for a couple of hours, change clothes, and go out and make sales calls,” he told BusinessWest. “I remember one customer saying, ‘what can you do for us that the people working for us now can’t do?’ I said ‘I can work for straight time on Saturdays and Sundays.’ That raised some eyebrows, but most of their machines were down on the weekend, so that’s when they needed someone.”

The work would evolve over time, involving a shift to working with stainless steel, which required investments in new equipment, and new assignments such as catwalks, guards for machinery, and exhaust hoods.

As the mills closed down or moved south in the ’70s and ’80s, the LeDuc company had to reinvent itself, said Eric, who, like Kurt, essentially grew up in the company, starting on the shop floor and working his way up. And it did, becoming a precision sheet-metal fabricator, essentially a contract manufacturer serving a wide range of clients.

There would be a move from Sargeant Street to Samosett Street in the Flats area, several expansions of the location there, and then a major investment in a new, 60,000-square-foot building on Bobala Road.

In the early ’90s, the company was approached by Atlas Copco about adding powder coating of the casings (skin) LeDuc was manufacturing for its portable generators to its roster of services.

“There was no one in this country that was doing it at that time,” Bob LeDuc recalled, adding that powder coating has become a strong component of the company’s overall roster of services.

Today, the company has a diverse portfolio of clients and an equally diverse portfolio of products it produces for them. And one of the keys to both is a tradition of continually investing in state-of-the-art technology, said Eric, noting that the company has made great strides in automated, or lights-out, manufacturing, as it’s called, because it can be done 24/7, or when the lights are out, at least for employees.

Recent additions to the shop floor, complete with many letters and numbers in their names, include:

• An EMK3610NT CNC punch press with ASR multi-shelf sheet loader, which enables multiple programs to run unassisted 24/7;

• The Astro 100NT automated bending robot, which, as name suggests, is the answer for forming parts unassisted (automated tool changing allows the sequencing of multiple programs);

• The FO 3015NT 4,000-watt laser, capable of cutting steel and aluminum in a wide range of thicknesses; and

• The EM3610NT CNC punch press, which, along with lights-out manufacturing, allows mass production of high-quality parts.

There are many other pieces of equipment on the floor, said Eric, adding that all those numbers and letters add up to flexibility and responsiveness, qualities that have enabled the company to continue to grow its client list over the years.

Shining Examples

There are a few other artifacts in the company’s conference room, including the time-worn ‘RR LeDuc’ sign that hung on the property on Sargeant Street.

It stands as another indicator of just how much things have changed for this company since Bob LeDuc would come back in from the chicken coop in time to watch Jack Parr.

But equally important is what hasn’t changed in all that time — the focus on the customer and forming a partnership with it to meet goals and needs.

That focus has enabled the company to shape opportunities in the same way that it has shaped metal.

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

Daily News

FLORENCE — Florence Bank recently earned four industry honors at the first annual Banking Choice Awards in areas such as quality and service, with recognition based on an independent survey of customer feedback.

At the event on April 26 at Boston’s Omni Parker House, Florence Bank ranked first in the Western Mass. region in Overall Quality, Customer Service, and Technology, and second in Community Contribution.

“These rankings came from an independent survey performed by a recognized leader in tracking and measuring the customer experience,” President and CEO John Heaps said. “It’s nice to get recognition from those we aim to serve well. I couldn’t be prouder of our employees and this achievement.”

Added Beverly Beaulieu, senior vice president and director of Retail Banking, “it’s evident our customers truly appreciate our approach. That’s because our employees embody our mission that customer service drives everything we do.”

Florence Bank employees were among staff from 33 banks across the state at the Banking Choice Awards, developed jointly by the Warren Group and Customer Experience Solutions.

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Addition by Addition

While there are plenty of banks doing business in this region, Jeff Sullivan says, there is an opportunity for a new one that is based locally.

While there are plenty of banks doing business in this region, Jeff Sullivan says, there is an opportunity for a new one that is based locally.

 

Jeff Sullivan has spent more than 30 years working in and around the region’s banking community, most recently as chief operating officer for United Bank.

So he understands fully when people use that term ‘overbanked’ to describe this area. In fact, he’s used that word himself over the years as he’s watched branches proliferate in a host of area communities.

But over the past few years as he’s done consulting work for the industry after leaving United following its merger with Connecticut-based Rockville Bank, Sullivan says he’s come to understand that just because there are branches on almost every corner in some cities and towns, that doesn’t mean the region’s population — and especially certain segments of it — are adequately served.

“There’s plenty of good local banks around,” he told BusinessWest. “But there is opportunity, because the largest financial institution based in the city of Springfield now is a credit union. So there is opportunity for a Springfield-based institution with local decision making.

“I was getting asked by a lot of people — individuals I would just bump into on the street or in the supermarket — ‘can you send me to a good lender?’ or ‘can you give me a good bank to go to?’ or ‘are you going back to work? I need to make a switch,’ he went on. “After that happened 10 or 12 times in a relatively short period of time, I began to think there was room for a new bank.”

And these sentiments, grounded in what Sullivan considers more scientific analysis and sound due diligence, has led him to partner with attorney Frank Fitzgerald and Jim Garvey, owner of St. James Check Cashing, to begin the process of adding a new bank to the landscape.

It will be called New Valley Bank & Trust, the partners announced late last week, adding that the team is now seeking approval from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) to form the new institution before launching a capital raise aimed at amassing $25 million to $30 million.

This will be the first new bank launched in the area since NUVO Bank (since acquired by Community Bank) opened in 2008. New Valley Bank & Trust almost certainly will open in better economic conditions — NUVO had the misfortune of launching just as the country was heading into the Great Recession — and it will have a different model, said Sullivan.

Indeed, while NUVO was focused on a mostly digital banking model — it has just one branch, in downtown Springfield — New Valley will have slightly more of a brick-and-mortar foundation, he explained.

It will be headquartered in downtown Springfield and will start with a full-service branch somewhere in the city (the location has not been determined) and a second location on the west side of the Connecticut River (again, that community has not been chosen) within a year after opening.

New Valley, like most banks now doing business in this region, will offer a full range of business and retail banking services for residents and small to medium-sized businesses in Massachusetts and Northern Conn.

Like NUVO, though, this proposed new institution will focus considerable energy on commercial lending, said Sullivan, who has spent most of his career in that realm. Despite stern competition in the commercial market and a huge number of established players, he sees room for opportunity.

That opportunity — on both the commercial and residential sides of the ledger — results from the spate of mergers and acquisitions in recent years, he told BusinessWest, an ongoing development that has decreased the population of community banks and, as he noted, left Springfield without a bank headquartered within its boundaries.

“With fewer local banks servicing the region, we have heard from countless residents and small to medium-sized business owners that are looking for a level of customer service and credit that is simply not available in the market today,” Sullivan said in a press release announcing formation of New Valley. “Our focus will be on meeting this demand with personalized attention and cutting-edge technology that will shorten wait times for funding decisions and opening accounts.”

On the commercial side, the bank will focus on smaller loans and quick turn-around times, said Sullivan, adding that the mergers in recent years have created opportunities to meet a specific niche.

“We have a lot of good banks around here, but they’ve grown to a larger size,” he explained. “And they’re focusing on larger deals than they probably did 10 years ago. I think there’s a real opening for personal service being delivered to small businesses.”

But another point of emphasis for New Valley will be what Sullivan described as a still-large population of area households that are “unbanked and underbanked.”

Elaborating, he said research continues to show that the volume of business at check-cashing establishments has remained fairly stable — and comparatively high — in this region, despite considerable improvement in the economy over the past decade.

Sullivan and his partners estimate there are some 20,000 households in Hampden County alone that use a bank sparingly, if at all, and in these numbers, he sees more opportunity in the form of need for a new bank.

“These are working women and men whose barrier to entry into the banking system has been too high for too long,” her went on. “As a local bank, we want to find opportunities to serve this significant segment of our community and create lifelong customers in the process.”

Elaborating, Sullivan noted that, in many cases, individuals or households don’t use banks because of a lack of trust or because of a bad experience — or several.

“The biggest reason, the FDIC says, is lack of trust,” he explained. “They don’t trust the system. People have had bad experiences; they got kicked when they were down, and it’s led to a lack of trust.”

In response, New Valley will offer products and services designed to build trust, he went on, such as bounce-proof checking accounts, incentivized savings accounts, and financial-literacy programs.

Sullivan said the need for a new, locally based, bank can be verified by the makeup of the 60 founding sponsors — what he described as a “large and diverse group of business owners and entrepreneurs from throughout the region — and the enthusiasm shown for the concept, especially among young business owners.

That’s significant, he said, because they will have to be the backbone of the customer base moving forward.

“We decided that, if we were going to do this, it has to be about a younger generation of business cohort,” he explained. “So we needed to know if the Millennials and the Gen-Ys care enough about this kind of stuff.

“We had a series of focus groups — we put about 100 people in a room, 20 people at a time, and we pitched them on what we were trying to do,” he went on. “About 60 people wrote checks to give us the seed money to get started, and of those 60, close to half of them were people under the age of 45. We were pleasantly surprised by that, and based on that response, we decided to take things to the next level, which is where we are today.”

—George O’Brien

Daily News

CHICOPEE — Elms College announced that it will launch two new majors this fall, in computer science (CS) and computer information technology and security (CITS).

The CITS major prepares students for careers as information technology (IT) professionals, providing a breadth of knowledge and the skills necessary to become IT technicians, system administrators, network administrators, and cybersecurity specialists. Required course topics for this major include databases, networks and security, system administration, digital forensics, hardware maintenance, cyber ethics, web design, and more.

The CS major focuses on the design and development of software and the algorithms that make code work efficiently. Students will become proficient in C#, Javascript, HTML/CSS, SQL, and other programming languages. Required courses for this major will focus on programming, data structures and algorithms, databases, system administration, cyber ethics, web design, and more.

“Our students are very excited about these new majors,” said Beryl Hoffman, associate professor of Computer Information Technology at Elms. “Computer-science graduates are in high demand, and computer security is one of the fastest-growing job markets within IT.”

Both majors will include a professional internship that will give students real-life experience in computer science or computer information technology and security. Electives for both the CS and CITS majors will include artificial intelligence, game design, mobile-app design, graphic design, and video.

Daily News

AMHERST — The Light Microscopy Core Facility, housed in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) at UMass Amherst, was designated as a Nikon Center of Excellence at a recent grand-opening event. It is one of eight Nikon Centers of Excellence in the U.S.

The microscopes that make up the core facility have been purchased by UMass Amherst with funding from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Education Consortium and furnished by Nikon at a discount. They will allow the campus and the surrounding region access to cutting-edge technology and foster economic development, according to James Chambers, director of the IALS Light Microscopy Core Facility.

“This new equipment will allow for the exploration of uncharted research on diverse topics including cancer biology, reproductive science, neuroscience, microbiology, and polymer engineering,” said Chambers. “One of the great benefits of our facility is that the microscopes are all in one room, providing easy access to staff and other researchers.”

Chambers said part of the mission of the facility and IALS is to foster collaborations between academics and industrial partners as well as bolster the training of the Massachusetts high-tech workforce. During the short time that the facility has been in operation, more than 150 trainees have become users and have learned microscopy skills that they will carry on into future endeavors.

Chambers added that the impact of this new facility on the region and campus is already being felt through numerous new lines of research opening up for researchers who were once geographically isolated from some of the higher-end technology such as structured-illumination, super-resolution microscopy. This technique allows the study of bacteria and cells at a level of detail not possible just a few years ago.

The Center of Excellence Designation from Nikon allows UMass Amherst to continue receiving discounts on purchases from Nikon, as well as supply scientists and students with expert training and technical support. Additionally, UMass will be able to beta-test new equipment from Nikon before it becomes available on the market.

Researchers from both academic and industry, including those in the Boston region, can get access to the facility by emailing Chambers at [email protected]. Training in basic and advanced light microscopy, as well as quantitative image analysis, is quick and efficient, and users can generally start collecting their own data within two hours. Staff are always present to help users by answering questions, providing suggestions, or discussing new ideas. Additionally, facility staff can assist or work on their own, acquiring data for clients.

Daily News

GREENFIELD — Brian Kapitulik has accepted the position of dean of Business, Information Technology, Professional Studies, and Social Sciences at Greenfield Community College (GCC).

“After a thorough search, we were excited to offer the position of dean to Brian,” said Catherine Seaver, chief Academic Affairs officer. “Brian brings extensive experience as a faculty member, then department chair, to the role of dean. He hit the ground running and quickly established himself as the leader of the Business, Information Technology, Professional Studies, and Social Sciences division.”

Kapitulik has 18 years of professional experience in the Massachusetts public higher-education system and, in particular, during the last decade, in community college. Before his current role, he was chair of the Department of Social Sciences and professor of Sociology at GCC. He has also taught at UMass Amherst and Quinsigamond Community College. During this time, he evaluated and developed curriculum, assessed and reviewed programs, created new courses, and hired and mentored new faculty, all while teaching students, publishing papers, organizing professional-development workshops in his field, and serving the college in a number of leadership capacities ranging from search committees to faculty mentor for online pedagogy.