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Twenty-three years ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition initiative called our ‘Top Entrepreneur’ award.

We would have called it ‘Entrepreneur of the Year,’ but that phrase was, and still is, copyrighted. Besides, most of the people we’ve honored over the years weren’t recognized only for accomplishments in a given year, but instead for what they’ve done over a lifetime — or at least to that point in their career. And, in many cases, we also honored their compelling vision for what might be, and their ongoing work to achieve it. Past, present, and future.

Cinda Jones, our Top Entrepreneur for 2019, falls into all three categories.

Indeed, she has already spearheaded a transformation of the North Amherst neighborhood her family business, W.D. Cowls Inc., calls home, moving on from an unprofitable sawmill a decade ago and cultivating a period of both significant land conservation — like the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest in Leverett and Shutesbury and an adjacent, 2,000-acre conservation project in Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham — and community-development initiatives.

The latter is best represented these days by North Square at the Mill District, a still-evolving mixed-use project that’s attracting residents, eclectic retailers, eateries, and what she calls ‘experiences’ (fun ones — she’s not soliciting dentists or accountants).

But perhaps the most intriguing element of this project is the vision that sustains it. It’s a vision of how people, especially young people, want to live in the 21st century — their longing for more face-to-face contact, their growing awareness of climate change, and their general desire to live in a hive of activity, not a long drive from it.

Any developer can invest in modern, well-appointed buildings and sign up whatever tenants show interest; Jones and her team aren’t settling for anyone, though. They want North Square to be an economic success, but also a rich way of life for those who choose to live and work there.

Western Mass. has been home to plenty of entrepreneurial vision over the decades and centuries, from legends like Milton Bradley and gunmakers Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson to the names BusinessWest has profiled as Top Entrepreneurs for the past quarter-century. Those range from Pride CEO Bob Bolduc, V-One Vodka President Paul Kozub, and Paragus Strategic IT President Delcie Bean — people who started companies from scratch and brought them to regional prominence — to Big Y’s D’Amour family and Balise Motor Sales President Jeb Balise, who built significantly on the work of multiple generations before them.

Again, Cinda Jones represents both models in some ways, stewarding a nine-generation family business but doing it in completely different ways, and with totally new enterprises, than in the past.

What all 24 years of honorees share, despite their vastly different achievements, is vision — to see opportunities that others had not — as well as the work ethic to act on that vision and a desire to see people’s lives improved in some way by the end result.

That sort of vision and energy is what much of the Pioneer Valley’s economy is built on, and, from our perspective, it’s not in short supply. v

Cover Story

A Breed Apart: Antonacci Family Continues to Bring Businesses to the Winner’s Circle

Frank M. Antonacci with ‘Lindy the Great.’ Frank M. Antonacci with ‘Lindy the Great.’

In the early 1950s, Guy ‘Sonny’ Antonacci started a sanitation business with a single truck. That venture has evolved into a diversified, multi-generational family business that includes a horse-racing farm, a family-entertainment facility known as Sonny’s Place, and a country club in Hampden known as GreatHorse. Each component of this conglomerate was the product of vision, entrepreneurial spirit, hard work (lots of that), and some luck. For their ability to breed winners — at the track and in business — the Antonacci family has been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2018.

Frank M. Antonacci was asked to talk about his grandfather, the late Guy ‘Sonny’ Antonacci, and put his life and entrepreneurial spirit into some kind of perspective.

It was a straightforward request, but Frank M. (the M is to distinguish him from his father, Frank A. — “I’m not a junior, and he’s not a senior”) paused and then struggled somewhat as he searched for the words and phrases to get the job done.

“He was … a special man,” he said finally. “He was a visionary; he was incredibly spiritual, but tough. He was incredibly kind, yet aggressive.”

Frank’s cousin, Guy, named after his grandfather, obviously, agreed, and also put the word ‘visionary’ to heavy use.

“He would see things 20 years before anyone else would,” he told BusinessWest. “He wanted to get in the bottled-water business in the ’70s with my father and uncle, but they asked him, ‘who’s going to pay for a bottle of water?’ He’s laughing up there now, that’s for sure.”

It was Sonny who started a trash business in New York, back roughly 65 years ago, with a single truck named the ‘Mary Anne,’ after his wife. With that one truck — more or less — he and subsequent generations would go on to build a number of successful, high-profile businesses, including the enterprise that sprang from the Mary Anne, USA Waste & Recycling, one of the largest companies of its kind in the region.

There’s also a horse farm, Lindy Farms in Somers, that has bred and trained a string of champion trotters; Sonny’s Place in Somers, named, obviously, after the patriarch, a huge and continually growing family-entertainment venue that now includes everything from miniature golf to ziplining to a century-old carousel (more on it later); and, last but not least, GreatHorse, the high-end private golf club created on the site of the old Hampden Country Club but looking nothing much like its predecessor; in a nod to Lindy Farms, there are horse references throughout, right down to the banquet hall, named the Starting Gate.

 

Guy, left, and Frank Antonacci Guy, left, and Frank Antonacci stand by a photo of their grandfather, ‘Sonny,’ in the lobby of USA Waste & Recycling.

As we examine this stable of successful businesses (yes, that’s the first of many horse and racing terms you’ll read), we’ll start by going in the wayback machine to July 1969 and, more specifically, a Sports Illustrated article (printed in an issue with Vince Lombardi on the cover) chronicling the meteoric rise of a horse called Lindy’s Pride, bought for $15,000 by Sonny Antonacci and several cousins.

All of whom, the SI writer recalled, grew up working on ice trucks before they worked on garbage trucks, and struggled for many years to build the business.

“We’re still down to earth,” a different Frank Antonacci, Guy’s cousin, told SI as their horse was preparing to race in the prestigious Hambletonian, the number-one prize in harness racing, which he would win. “We’ve all been working since we were 13; we know what a buck is. Today … there’s not one of us who’s not successful. We’ve been lucky.”

Maybe. But in many respects, this family has made its own luck, and continues to do so today. Indeed while it’s easy to say that all of this — and ‘all’ means the horses, the go-karts at Sonny’s Place, and the country club — was born of New York trash. But in reality, it was all born of an entrepreneurial spirit and an ability to see something that wasn’t there before.

Indeed, Sonny’s Place was formerly a ramshackle driving range, said Guy Antonacci. “There were days when we’d see maybe a few people come in; it was like that driving range in Tin Cup, with a pink 1960 Volkswagen Beetle out front,” he recalled, making a reference to the popular movie starring Kevin Costner, who played a down-on-his-luck golf pro and operator of a range frequented by more armadillos than duffers.

And Hampden Country Club was essentially dying on the vine when the family bought it a decade ago and decided, eventually, after an initial attempt at a mere makeover, to transform it into the most luxurious, and exclusive, club in the region.

Sonny’s Place, the elaborate family-entertainment complex in Somers, now stands on the site of a little-used driving range likened to the one in the movie ‘Tin Cup.’

For their efforts over the past seven decades or so, the Antonacci family — and yes, that includes Sonny, his brothers, and cousins — have been chosen as BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2018. This amounts to a lifetime achievement award for the family — actually, several lifetimes.

Because today, as decades ago, members of this family stay humble and understand the meaning of a buck — and how to make one as well.

This becomes clear in an extensive interview with Guy and Frank M., chosen spokespeople for a family that knows what it’s like to breed winners — as in horses and business ventures.

Harnessing Entrepreneurial Spirit

There was a light snow falling on Christmas Eve morning, and it lent even more beauty to a place where it abounds — Lindy Farms.

There, Frank M. talked about the business and especially the large, handsome horse called Lindy the Great. A trotter, he enjoyed a successful 2018, winning several races, and on this morning was getting a brushing and some R&R before heading to Florida for the off season.

“We’re still down to earth. We’ve all been working since we were 13; we know what a buck is. Today … there’s not one of us who’s not successful. We’ve been lucky.”

Lindy the Great, 16.1 hands high (not 16.2 or 16.3), by Frank’s guess, is the embodiment — one of many, actually — of the multi-faceted businesses ventures that did, indeed, spring from New York trash.

Our story begins with that trash truck called the Mary Anne and the venture that became known as the South Shore Sanitation. While remaining a relatively small operation, it provided the wherewithal to venture into horses — and much more.

In 1974, Sonny, following a priest who had been reassigned to a church in Somers, moved his family there, said Frank, adding that, while he was ‘retired’ at age 40, he didn’t stay retired for long at all.

He and Mary Anne started Somers Sanitation, again, with one truck (this one didn’t have a name), and quickly grew the enterprise, which now stretches from the Vermont border to Southern Connecticut.

What was originally envisioned as a ‘makeover’ became the total transformation known as GreatHorse. What was originally envisioned as a ‘makeover’ became the total transformation known as GreatHorse.

Today, it boasts five hubs and 16 transfer stations, serving a wide range of businesses and communities in Connecticut and Western Mass.

It was with profits from the trash business that Sonny Antonacci and several cousins ventured into horse racing. Their passion for the sport began when they attended races at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, and it went to a much higher and different level when they bought their first horse, named Galahad Hanover, and shortly renamed Lindy’s Pride, in 1967.

That horse would go on to win not only the Hambletonian, but the illustrious trotting Triple Crown, and essentially set a tone for Lindy Farms, named, sort of, after the town of Lindenhurst on Long Island, where the Antonaccis grew up.

Over the years, the operation, now in Somers, Enfield, and Hampden, Mass., has continued its winning ways and expanded on several fronts.

“Until about 15 years ago, it was focused on standardbreds — trotters and pacers,” Frank explained. “But in recent years, we’re expanded into thoroughbred racing, and we’ve had some success there, as well.”

Especially with a stallion called No Nay Never. “He might be the hottest freshman stallion in the world this year,” he said, noting that, as a 2-year-old, he won honors as ‘Thoroughbred of the Year’ in Europe.

The racing business, like the trash business before it, typifies how this family approaches business — by going all in. They don’t just want to be a player in an industry; they want to dominate that industry.

Indeed, horse breeding and racing has become a passion for three generations of family members, and the level of excellence attained becomes apparent in the number of trophies and awards on display at the offices of USA Waste & Recycling.

Sonny Antonacci is considered a visionary when it comes to breeding standardbred racehorses, said his grandson, Frank, and he bred more Hambletonian horses than any individual breeder. In 2001, Sonny, along with his cousin Frank, were elected to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame’s Hall of Immortals.

That racing tradition continued with the next generation, his sons, Jerry and Frank, who have remained active in promoting the industry. Frank is currently director of the Hambletonian Society, which oversees the development, administration, and promotion of the harness-racing industry throughout the country, and he’s also director of the U.S. Trotting Assoc., the governing body of the entire domestic industry.

And Frank M. (known as Frankie to family members) has taken up that mantle. He’s now the head trainer at Lindy Racing Stable and has been making a name for himself within the sport, winning the U.S. Trotting Assoc. ‘Breakthrough Award’ in 2010.

Positive Turns

While there are no trophies, ribbons, plaques, or prize winnings to quantify success in their other business ventures, the Antonaccis’ drive to take the lead — and keep it — in whatever field they happen to get into is clearly evident.

It can be seen with both Sonny’s Place and GreatHorse, which came to fruition the same way the trash and horse-racing ventures did — through vision and a lot of hard work.

And a conversation at the dinner table, said Guy, who vividly remembers this one regarding that old, run-down driving range the family acquired a dozen or so years ago and what might be done with it.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2017: Owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds
• 2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
• 2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

“There were days when we’d have one customer come and spend $8 on a bucket of balls, and we kept thinking, ‘what else can we do with this place?’” he recalled. “My brother and Frankie’s youngest brother were probably about 10, 11, or 12 at the time, and really looking for something that they could grow up having fun at. So we said, ‘everyone loves miniature golf; maybe we should try that.’”

They did, and from those humble beginnings — miniature golf and a food truck with ice cream — new additions have been added seemingly every year since. Go-karts and batting cages came next, followed by a full restaurant, an arcade, a pavilion, rock-climbing walls, laser tag, miniature bowling, virtual reality, live concerts, and more.

The facility has become a destination not just for families, but for a growing number of companies looking to host outings or team-building exercises. The business plan, unofficial in nature, has always been to continually build on the foundation and — in keeping with the tone of those original conversations — keep looking for new ways to utilize a large and highly visible tract of land.

The latest manifestation of this philosophy was the addition, in 2017, of a carousel with a long and proud history and, yes, a number of handsome horses.

Built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1925, the ride’s first home was Delaware Beach. It then had a lengthy stay at Lakewood Park in Waterbury, Conn., and then, after refurbishment, at Kiddieland Park in Melrose, Ill.

It was languishing in a storage container at Chicago Land when Guy’s father, Jerry, the main driver in the creation and continued growth of Sonny’s Place, found it and concluded that it was the next big piece in the puzzle.

“It’s a work of art, all hard-carved wooden horses and sleighs,” said Guy, noting that it opened for business last August. “We’re having it refinished now, and maybe a third of the 48 horses have been restored; it’s been a labor of love.”

The same can be said of Greathorse, which, like the carousel — and the old driving range itself — was a restoration effort that required some vision, and then some capital and a good business plan.

As Guy — who turned pro and played on a few of golf’s mini-tours before coming to the realization that the big stage was beyond his skill level — recalls the story, the family actually started looking for a golf course to buy nearly 20 years ago to further diversify the family business beyond trash and horses.

The search was put aside, especially as Sonny’s Place was being developed, and then taken up again at the start of this decade, with a number of options in play before settling on the former Hampden Country Club, then heading for the auction block.

“We could see that it had a lot of potential, but also a lot of scars to it,” he recalled. “What sold the place was the view, and we knew that, with some vision and some work, the place could be something.

“I’d be lying if I sat here and told you when we bought the place we had the grand vision of doing what we did,” he went on, noting that a mere facelift was the original plan. “But as we got into it … as Frankie has said, we really don’t half-ass anything; everything we do, we do to the best of our ability.”

Spring in Their Step

Frank M. says he can’t recall not being in business or entrepreneurial.

Indeed, while he was involved with the family businesses, in some capacity, since he was teenager, he was also looking to hang out his own shingle, and did, at age 15.

The venture — born from another of those Sunday afternoon conversations at the dinner table — was called College Bound Cleanups, a “concierge-type service for old ladies who needed their basement cleaned out, or their garage.

“It was a summer kind of thing,” he recalled. “I brought in a partner who was 16 — I needed someone with a driver’s license — and we had a little dumptruck and did cleanups. We had a little ad in the Reminder, and we did OK for ourselves.”

Like the generations that came before him, he added, noting that he eventually put his own venture aside and focused on horses and trash, sometimes in that order, sometimes the other. And there was, and is, always talk about new opportunities and paths to go down, like Sonny Antonacci projecting a need for bottled water.

“Business … it’s part of every conversation we have,” said Frank, referring to the family’s entrepreneurial DNA and a passion for finding and developing new business opportunities. And these traits have been passed down from one generation to the next. Frank can even see it in his young children.

“I drive around with my kids, we’ll go past various strip malls, and they’ll look to see if it’s the good guys or the bad guys picking up the [trash] containers,” he said. “I see it my older son [age 7] already; he’s trying to understand how business works.”

Within the Antonacci stable of enterprise, business works maybe a little differently than in most places, said the third-generation spokespeople.

“What people have a hard time understanding about our business and our family is that it’s different — I call it ‘sloppy,’” said Frank, who understood that he needed to explain that term and did.

“We’re not very structured,” he told BusinessWest. “The way we do things is a little unorthodox, and there isn’t the bureaucratic organization you see in other businesses or families. People will say, ‘what’s your title?’ or this or that. It’s a lot looser than that.”

‘Loose.’ ‘Sloppy.’ ‘Unorthodox.’ Whatever it is, it seems to be working, and in the traditionally challenging setting of a multi-generational family business, or set of businesses, to be more precise.

There are actually four generations still involved. Indeed, Frankie and Guy said their fathers, Frank and Jerry, have breakfast with their mother every morning. “And they’re probably running things by her every day,” said Frank M.

The second generation, as noted, remains passionate about all aspects of the business operation, but especially the horse breeding and racing, they said.

Meanwhile, there are many third-generation members involved, or soon to be involved, including Guy’s brother Matthew, 24, and Frank’s brothers, Chris and Phillip.

Overall, said both Guy and Frank M., the generations have worked well together, and each has been allowed to make their mark — and their own contributions.

“Our fathers and uncles have allowed us to follow our passions, expand the businesses, and bring our own look and feel,” said Frank. “And to this point, everyone who’s been involved in the businesses has helped them grow and prosper. Why change the formula?”

Why indeed?

At the Finish Line

‘Sonny’ Antonacci never did get into the bottled-water business, his sons having persuaded him that there was no future in it. That’s family lore, anyway.

“His famous line was, ‘you’ll see … bottled water will be more than a gallon of gas,” said Frank M. “And he was right — and that’s just one example.”

Indeed, while the Antonacci family never became part of the multi-billion-dollar bottled-water industry, it has certainly had far more hits than misses. In business, as in harness racing, it has found the winner’s circle far more often than most.

Having capital from the trash business has certainly helped, but so too has been the ability to see other opportunities where others did not, having true entrepreneurial spirit — and, yes, being kind but also aggressive.

‘Sonny’ had all those attributes, and so have the generations that have followed him.

That’s why this family is BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2018.

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

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Bob Bolduc Cooks Up New Ways to Better the Lives of Young People

005_bolducbob-diff2017When Mavis Wanczyk scored the single largest lottery win in U.S. history last August — with a ticket purchased at a Pride station in Chicopee — she wasn’t the only winner. No, the store — meaning its owner, Bob Bolduc — got a $50,000 bonus from the state as well.

A few weeks later, Bolduc distributed $1,000 checks to more than 20 Springfield elementary schools to help teachers make classroom purchases they’d normally have to pay for out of pocket. The rest of the 50 grand was distributed among a variety of youth- and education-centric organizations that Bolduc already supports year-round.

“I decided to give it to the kids,” he told BusinessWest, shrugging off any suggestion that it was a tough call. “It’s a windfall; it’s not my money. So it was an easy decision to make.”

Mary Anne’s Kids was another recipient of a $1,000 bonus. An arm of the Center for Human Development, it’s a fund that provides opportunities for children in foster care that would not typically be paid for by the state, from summer camps to extra-curricular programs.

We didn’t even ask for it; he just gave it to us. He’s the grandfather of Mary Anne’s Kids, and a wonderful man. He’s been a godsend to our program.”

“We didn’t even ask for it; he just gave it to us,” said Jim Williams, the fund’s long-time director, before detailing some of the ways Pride’s support of Mary Anne’s Kids through the years makes the $1,000 gift, really, just a drop in the bucket. “He’s the grandfather of Mary Anne’s Kids, and a wonderful man. He’s been a godsend to our program.”

Indeed, since its inception and for more than a decade since, Bolduc has contributed significant dollars to “children who otherwise would not have funds to go to college, go to prom, all the extraordinary things your children and mine have the opportunity to do,” Williams explained. “Bob has basically been our big-ticket guy. He was there when we started, and he’s been there every year.”

Take, for example, the $20,000 or so worth of gifts that pour in every December from Chistmas trees set up in all Pride stores, adorned with tags listing a child’s age, gender, and gift request. Customers buy most of them, and Bolduc covers the rest. And as the holiday approaches, he closes the diner he owns off Mass Pike exit 6 in Chicopee and hosts 120 foster children for a party with Santa Claus.

Williams said Bolduc has personally funded purchases ranging from a handicap-accessible bicycle to a gravestone for one foster child’s brother, who was killed in a drive-by shooting.

“I can tell you this: throughout my career at CHD, Bob has been such a genuine man,” Williams said. “I can’t tell enough good things about him.”

When he sat down with BusinessWest, Bolduc characterized supporting one’s community as an imperative for local businesses, one he came to understand early in his career building the Pride empire, when he and his wife became involved with a number of nonprofits and he began to recognize the needs they had.

“Every nonprofit needs money,” he said. “So I called the people we buy from — Coke, Frito-Lay, all the big companies — and asked, ‘would you give me some money for this little nonprofit that’s trying to help people?’ They’d say, ‘no, we only do national ones — March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Society, American Cancer Society — so we can’t give to all the local companies.’

“A light went off for me — ‘a-ha! If they can’t give, who’s going to give? It’s got to be the little guy,’” he continued. “That’s when we decided to put all our money locally. And it was a no-brainer. The more nonprofits you get involved with, the more you realize how many needs there are, how many kids are really hurting.”

Indeed, kids — youth welfare and education, to be specific — are the beating heart of Bolduc’s philanthropic bent. To name just a few examples:

• Pride recently raised $10,000 to support Square One’s work with high-risk children and families;

• Bolduc has been a business partner for Lincoln Elementary School in Springfield, where he sends volunteer readers and donates supplies as requested. He and his wife also supply hats, mittens, and socks for all the students. “We realized these kids don’t have hats and gloves for wintertime — some of them don’t even have toothbrushes,” he said. “This is happening right here, in Springfield”;

• Pride participated in a North End Community Task Force dealing with gang violence and related problems;

• In partnership with Brightside for Children and Families, Bolduc provided a van outfitted as a mobile library, as well as a driver and warehouse space. The van travels around the area in the summer, providing kids with summer reading books;

• Pride collaborates with WMAS on its annual Coats for Kids campaign; and

• The company regularly fund-raises for various causes such as Wounded Warriors and Puerto Rico hurricane relief, by supplying donation cans at all Pride stores.

But what makes Bolduc a true Difference Maker, as if his philanthropy weren’t enough, is the way he sees his role as not just a businessman, but someone with the opportunity to impact individual lives — of kids in need, yes, but also his employees, many of whom come from poverty — and watch as they turn around and collectively impact their communities for the better.

Food for Thought

Born in Indian Orchard, Bolduc graduated from Notre Dame University with a degree in mechanical engineering, then earned an MBA at Purdue University, before returning to his home state.

After working as a quality engineer at American Bosch in the 1960s, he enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam. Back in the States, he briefly went to work at his father’s gas station in Indian Orchard in 1970 before buying him out, thus becoming the third generation of the family to run that business — a business, by the way, that just marked its 100th anniversary.

Bob Bolduc and Pride Stores President Marsha Del Monte (right) present a $10,000 check

Bob Bolduc and Pride Stores President Marsha Del Monte (right) present a $10,000 check to Square One’s Kristine Allard and President and CEO Joan Kagan.

In addition to running the station, Bolduc became a tire and auto-parts wholesaler, specifically a distributor for BF Goodrich and Continental, and became proficient enough at it to be chosen to address a national sales convention of Goodrich retailers at age 30.

But in 1976, he made the shift that would define his career, buying a self-serve gas station in Indian Orchard. Over the years, he would gradually expand his business, creating the chain of stores known today as Pride. But, more importantly, he developed a reputation as an industry innovator by marrying the self-service station with another emerging phenomenon, the convenience store.

Other innovations would follow; Pride would eventually become the first chain in Western Mass. to put a Dunkin’ Donuts in the stores, then the first to incorporate a Subway. But where the company has really made a name, in recent years, is with its own fresh-food production.

“The industry has gone from repair shops to convenience stores, then convenience stores started selling coffee,” Bolduc recalled. “The convenience stores got bigger — lots bigger — and started selling more food items, then they got even bigger, to what we call superstores; we’re talking stores between 5,000 and 7,000 square feet, with at least six pumps, sometimes eight or 10, and selling lots more food items.”

But several factors have hit convenience stores hard in recent years, he noted. Fuel efficiency is up. People are driving less, and public transportation has improved. Cigarette sales are way down, and online lottery purchases are cutting into in-store sales.

“All these things that drive our business are disappearing, and we’re looking at a business where the future expectation is for decreased sales, not increased sales,” he noted.

On the other hand, “people still have to eat three times a day, and they’re looking for convenience all the time, and families aren’t sitting down for breakfast and lunch anymore, and sometimes not even dinner; they’re buying food at restaurants or convenience stores.”

The goal, then, he said, has been to improve food quality at Pride to the point where people will see the chain not as a gas station that sells food, but as a food store that sells gas.

To support that shift, the Pride Kitchen, located at the company’s headquarters on Cottage Street in Springfield, runs two shifts of staff making fresh sandwiches, salads, fruit and yogurt parfaits, and — in a bakery that opened in 2017 — fresh muffins, donuts, cookies, brownies, and pastries. A third shift belongs to the drivers who bring all this fresh fare to stores across the region, making food service at Pride a truly 24-hour operation.

Newer stores feature a Pride Grill, where morning visitors can down fresh-cooked eggs before picking up a made-to-order sandwich for lunch at the deli, as well as drive-thru windows and mobile ordering. This isn’t, as Bolduc noted repeatedly, the convenience-store food of the past.

By studying trends and repositioning the company as a place where revenues will grow, not decrease, he’s not only boosting his own bottom line, but also the gaggle of nonprofits, schools, and individuals that benefit from his philanthropy.

See the Need, Meet the Need

It’s a passion, he said, that was sparked during his time at Notre Dame, when he volunteered in a disadvantaged area of Chicago during spring break.

“That was an eye-opener,” he said. “We stayed with an African-American family with a 14-year-old boy. We brought him to see a Blackhawks game because he liked hockey. That was the first time he’d ever been downtown.”

Having grown up in a family with a successful business, he saw up close for the first time how not everyone had the resources he took for granted. Once he and his wife, who also had a heart for volunteerism, resettled in Springfield and found success with Pride, they got involved in a number of nonprofit boards, and — thanks to his failed pitches to the likes of Coke and Frito-Lay — quickly came to understand the importance of local philanthropy.

The Pride stores themselves often function as vehicles for this work, such as his partnership with Square One. He and the early-education provider came up with the idea of selling ‘Square One squares’ at Pride locations for a dollar, where donors could write their names on squares to be posted at the cashier’s counter.

“Bob took the donations and matched a portion of them, rounding them up to a $10,000 gift to Square One, which was awesome,” said Kristine Allard, chief development and communication officer at Square One.

After Mavis Wanczyk scored her record-breaking jackpot at this Chicopee Pride station, Bob Bolduc distributed the store’s $50,000 bonus “windfall” to dozens of schools and nonprofits.

After Mavis Wanczyk scored her record-breaking jackpot at this Chicopee Pride station, Bob Bolduc distributed the store’s $50,000 bonus “windfall” to dozens of schools and nonprofits.

“That’s the kind of thing we rely on the business community for, to provide us funding to offset where our greatest expenses are,” she added. “When we’re able to approach someone like Bob, who understands that and sees the value in that, it helps us get the word out to other businesses, and we can leverage those dollars and leverage those opportunities to show other businesses what Pride is doing for our community. So it’s good for his business and good for Square One.”

Bolduc wishes more businesses could understand that synergy — or at least acknowledge the needs that exist.

“There are more than 200 homeless kids in the city school system, who go back to shelters at night,” he said. “People don’t know that they don’t go home; they go to shelters. Or, they don’t know that Square One gives kids a better meal on Friday, because they’re not going to get another good meal until they go back to school Monday morning. This is in Springfield. It becomes pretty obvious when you dig deeper and you see it — then you say, sure, the American Heart Association is wonderful, but the big people are taking care of them. The more you see locally, the more involved you get.”

Allard, for one, appreciates that attitude.

“From a development standpoint, from a fund-raising standpoint, it’s really refreshing to see someone who thinks the way he does,” she told BusinessWest. “By supporting the work of nonprofits, it’s good for his business, which is good for his employees. By investing in the work being done to help the community, it works out for everybody.”

On the Way Up

Bolduc was quick to note that his company has long supported arts, hospitals, and religious institutions — the types of entities that create quality of life in a community. But perhaps the most critical component is education, particularly in a city — Springfield — where around half of high-schoolers drop out. He says efforts to change that have to start early, which explains his support of Square One.

“If you don’t get a good education, you can’t get a decent job, and the cycle continues. So what’s the one solution to break the cycle? Education.”

He noted that the first person in a family to attend college is usually not the last, which is why he and his wife provide scholarships to area students. “That’s my message — we need to support education and help kids break out of the cycle.”

But he’s helping them break out in more ways than one. Since transforming one of Springfield’s most visible eyesores, at the foot of the North End Bridge, into a thriving Pride superstore almost a decade ago, he has drawn a steady stream of young employees from a neighborhood with high levels of poverty, and helped them embark on careers. And soon, he plans to do the same with new store in the McKnight area of Mason Square.

“At Pride, we’re happy with the fact that we provide jobs and careers,” he said. “We don’t have a human resources department; it’s called Career Development. We are very happy to take a young person who wants to grow and teach them the business and watch them grow up into management, provide for their families, bring in relatives and, in some cases, their kids as they get older. We’re very proud of that.”

The McKnight Neighborhood Council unanimously endorsed the development, he added. “They asked, ‘will you employ local people?’ We said, ‘100%.’”

He noted that the North End Pride station has seen crime drop significantly in the area over the past five years, thanks to the community policing program he has supported, but also, perhaps, due to growing employment opportunities like the ones Pride provides.

“These are good people. I tell them, ‘come to work every day, and we’ll teach you and give you good pay,’ and there’s an amazing turnaround. Some don’t take to it, but a lot of them do. We see the success stories. My goal is to someday see them do the same things for someone else. It’s that simple.”

That legacy and culture Bolduc aims to create is why, seven years after being named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for his innovative business growth, he is now being recognized as a Difference Maker, recognizing far more impactful successes.

“These are his future employees and his future customers,” Allard said. “We need to invest in our youth. If we’re not looking at our youth as the future of our community, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.”

That’s a message Bolduc wants every local business to hear, and to respond to in any way they can afford, because the needs never go away.

“For anyone who wants to get involved, give me a call,” he said, “because I guarantee you’ll get more out of it then you put it.”

That investment doesn’t have to be a $50,000 lottery windfall, but such good fortune certainly doesn’t hurt.

“He’s a great person,” Allard said. “When that [lottery] news came out, no one would have minded had he kept it. But he said, ‘why not give it away?’ It was really refreshing to hear that.”

For a career spent saying ‘why not?’ — in both his business and the community — Bob Bolduc has plenty to take pride in, as he continues to make a difference.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

Over the past 22 years, BusinessWest has had a number of intriguing recipients of its Top Entrepreneur award.

Many would fall in the category of ‘traditional’ when it comes to entrepreneurs, including last year’s honoree, Paul Kozub, creator and president of V-One Vodka, and the 2015 recipients, the second and third generations of the D’Amour family, owners of Big Y supermarkets.

But some honorees would definitely be considered non-traditional, or outside the box (there’s an entrepreneurial term). These would include former Springfield Technical Community College President Andrew Scibelli, who, among other things, created the Technology Park across from the main campus at the start of this century. That term ‘non-traditional’ would also describe former Cooley Dickinson Hospital President Craig Melin, who not only led that institution back from the financial brink, but spearheaded the creation of a number of cutting-edge programs.

At first blush, it might seem fair to label this year’s honoree — the owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds — to be a non-traditional selection, or at least a combination of both. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox being named Top Entrepreneurs, or the Alabama Crimson Tide, for that matter.

But this team’s owners and managers exemplify all the basic tenets of entrepreneurship — from risk taking to meeting a recognized need within the market; from introducing a new product to thinking outside the box (there’s that phrase again).

Wait, introducing a new product? Hockey isn’t a new product. Yes, and that’s a point we’ll come back to in a minute.

First, the risk-taking part. It was a calculated risk, but a risk nonetheless. After all, when the owners of the Springfield Falcons decided to move the team to Arizona, there were many in this region saying that Greater Springfield was not a hockey town and could not support a professional sports team.

They put their faith in Springfield native Nate Costa, a veteran administrator with the American Hockey League who had previously gained significant experience in group sales and other aspects of team management and promotion with the league’s franchise in San Antonio.”

But a group of owners, led by Paul Picknelly, owner of Monarch Place, decided that Springfield not only needed a hockey team at this critical time in its history — with MGM already building its casino and several other forms of progress in evidence — but that it would support one as well.

They put their faith in Springfield native Nate Costa, a veteran administrator with the American Hockey League who had previously gained significant experience in group sales and other aspects of team management and promotion with the league’s franchise in San Antonio.

He came to Springfield with a game plan, and it called for bringing a lot more than hockey to the residents of this region.

Indeed, he and his front-office team have delivered experiences, rather than three periods of hockey. These experiences have included live music, special promotions (a Star Wars-themed night, wrestling greats in attendance, and bring your dog to the game, for example), and tributes to some of the sport’s greats (like Willie Oree) and the legacy of hockey in Springfield.

This is thinking outside the box, and it culminated with bringing Red Sox legend David Ortiz to the MassMutual Center in November for a night they’ll be talking about for years.

As for those owners, they didn’t just buy the team and hand the keys to Costa. They’ve invested time, energy, and imagination to the task of bringing people to the MassMutual Center — and bringing them back repeatedly — and building the brand they’ve created.

Call it teamwork, another one of those fundamentals of entrepreneurship.

All of them are on display with the Thunderbirds, a team that has captured the region’s attention and held onto it by doing what all good entrepreneurs do — finding ways to continuously improve and deliver what the customer wants and needs.

An outside-the-box choice for Top Entrepreneur? Maybe, but not really. This is just a good business success story. v

Opinion

Editorial

Back at the start of this century, BusinessWest awarded its coveted Top Entrepreneur Award, established just a few years earlier, to Andrew Scibelli, then president of Springfield Technical Community College.

The choice, while heralded by some, drew some rather cynical e-mails and phone calls from observers who really couldn’t understand how an educator — and a state employee, no less — could win an award for entrepreneurship.

Such thinking, while in some ways understandable, is nonetheless narrow and shortsighted. In fact, this region’s colleges and universities have provided some of the best examples of entrepreneurial thinking over the past few decades — and they keep coming.

So much so that when the decision makers at BusinessWest gather to discuss potential honorees for the Top Entrepreneur Award, several from the ranks of higher education typically come under consideration.

Bay Path University’s new doctorate program in Occupational Therapy (see story, page 27), the school’s first, is only the latest of dozens of entrepreneurial endeavors launched by the school since Carol Leary became president in 1994 — including, ironically enough, an MBA program in Entrepreneurial Thinking & Innovative Practices — and Bay Path is just one of many schools to embrace an entrepreneurial mindset.

Indeed, other examples abound, from UMass Amherst’s opening of a campus in downtown Springfield to American International College’s introduction of new programs and aggressive pursuit of students not only across this country but in other countries; from Westfield State University’s large investment in a school-operated dining service (inspired by UMass Amherst’s hugely successful program) to Western New England University’s new Pharmacy program; from Elms College’s aggressive investments in new programs (which have brought it back from fiscal distress) to new campus-center projects at STCC and Holyoke Community College.

The list goes on, and on, and on.

But let’s back up a minute and put all this in perspective.

First, what does it mean to be entrepreneurial? It means moving a business or organization forward by recognizing opportunities and seizing them effectively. Some would call it calculated risk-taking, and that description works as well.

Successful entrepreneurs know that, no matter what field they’re in, be it manufacturing, healthcare, or financial services, they can’t stand still, expecting to do things as they’ve always done them, and hope to succeed.

It’s the same in higher education. These institutions can’t stand still, especially at a time of immense change — including smaller high-school graduating classes — and competition.

Back in 2000, Scibelli was honored for many initiatives, but especially his work to create partnerships with a host of major corporations that created learning (and job) opportunities for students, and also for his work to convert the former Digital Equipment Corp. complex located across from the STCC campus into a technology park that has brought hundreds of jobs to this area.

Today, schools are being entrepreneurial in a host of ways, all designed to create opportunities for those schools (meaning much-needed revenue) but also deliver all-important value to those that are meeting the high cost of a college education today.

The cynics would say it’s easy to be entrepreneurial when you’re spending the taxpayers’ money — which is what the presidents of the public colleges and universities are doing, in essence — or when you have huge endowments to draw from as you consider building new science buildings and dormitories.

But our public schools are not well-supported by this state, and, by and large, the private schools are not sitting on Harvard-like endowments. The investments they’ve made have definitely been calculated risks, but risks nonetheless.

Standing still was not, and is not, an option.

And there are lessons here — both literally and figuratively — to be learned and embraced by all area business owners.

Opinion

Editorial

Milton Bradley. Horace Smith. Daniel Wesson. Curtis and Prestley Blake. Paul and Gerry D’Amour. Everett Barney. Theodor Geisel. Paul Kozub?

OK, maybe it’s too soon to place the founder of V-One Vodka in the same paragraph as the founders of Friendly Ice Cream, Dr. Seuss, the inventor of the clip-on ice skate, iconic gunmakers, and some of the other entrepreneurs who have shaped the local landscape.

But, then again, maybe not. While Kozub doesn’t have anything from his company on display at the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History (the unofficial litmus test for being one of the region’s truly historic entrepreneurs), he shares many traits with those (and that’s everyone else listed above) who do.

These include a thirst for risk taking, a fervent imagination, a large dose of determination, and a willingness to confront — and tackle — the innumerable and constant challenges standing in the way of a successful business.

For these reasons, Kozub has been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2016 (see story, page 20). Those others mentioned above came decades, if not a century and a half, before the award was established in 1996 (the D’Amours started Big Y too early to be recognized, but successive generations were honored just last year for their efforts to grow and diversify the corporation), but Kozub is in the right place at the right time.

Not to simply win our award, but to capitalize on the growing popularity of what he called ‘craft vodkas,’ a phrase that certainly sums up V-One.

The Top Entrepreneur award honors those who possess entrepreneurial spirit, but, more specifically, those who have been able to harness it effectively and fashion a success story.

V-One is already what most people would consider a success — a brand that is now available in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and, yes, some airports in Europe, and hundreds of specific locations, generating a few million dollars in sales annually.

But Kozub wants to make it more of a success, naturally, by taking the brand national, a move that will require capital, patience, determination, and above all else, a solid battle plan and the tools necessary to carry it out.

For putting that plan together, and for leaving no stone unturned, as he put it, in preparation for this national launch, Kozub has been recognized as the Top Entrepreneur for 2016.

He’s in good company, as the chart on page 28 reveals. Indeed, in addition to the D’Amour family, previous winners include Peter Rosskothen, who co-founded the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House; Jeb Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales; Timm Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC; Holyoke Gas & Electric; Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride; former STCC President Andrew Scibelli; and many others.

And we hope Kozub creates more company for the years to come.

Indeed, as we’ve said on many occasions, there are many effective economic-development strategies for this region, and one of them is to encourage entrepreneurship and mentor those who choose that route.

While most think of economic development as filling industrial parks and attracting large employers such as CRRC and MGM, this is only one component of a larger strategy, and a small one, given the immense competition for such major employers today and the geographic disadvantages hindering this region.

Spurring entrepreneurship and mentoring small-business owners is a strategy that requires considerable time and patience; there is no instant gratification here. But it often yields lasting results, and it can put a region — as in the cases of Silicon Valley and the city of Cambridge — on the map.

Encouraging more would-be entrepreneurs to join Smith, Wesson, Bradley, Geisel, Barney, and, yes, Kozub is one of the reasons we launched the Top Entrepreneur award 20 years ago.

The larger reason was to recognize those who are taking risks, building companies, and creating jobs. And we look forward to adding more names to an already-impressive list of winners.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Continuing a tradition that began more than 20 years ago, BusinessWest will profile the winner of its ‘Top Entrepreneur’ award in its next issue, to be released Jan. 9.

The award pays homage to the region’s more-than-250-yeard-old tradition of entrepreneurship, said Associate Publisher Kate Campiti, and honors individuals, families, and companies that are carrying on that tradition.

Previous winners of the award, first presented in 1996, include Peter Rosskothen, co-creator of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, former Springfield Technical Community College President Andrew Scibelli, the D’Amour family, founders of Big Y, Timm Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC, the Holyoke Gas & Electric, Jeb Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales, and many others.

Business Management Sections

Anatomy of an ESOP

Delcie Bean recalls that he was advised — by more than one individual and on more than one occasion — that it might not be wise to initiate an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) while the company was still very much in a strong growth mode. But he decided this self-described gamble was certainly worth taking — and for many reasons.

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean likened an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, as one is commonly called, to an onion.

By that, he obviously meant that it has many layers of intrigue and complexity, as he found out while researching, planning, and eventually executing one for the company, Paragus Strategic IT, that he founded 17 years ago, when he was just 16.

“My initial understanding of an ESOP amounted to this 30,000-foot view,” he explained. “Over the past 2 ½ years, we kept peeling back the layers. I’ve learned more about this over the past few years than I could ever have imagined.”

Despite all these layers, Bean, as he explained why and how he went down this path, said there are two basic truths that he started with and that were still there when he peeled away all those layers: That this is, at least in his mind, the proper and fair course to take, and it is also (and this is in nearly everyone’s mind) a gamble.

“There’s a big part of me that believes that it’s the right thing to do — the fair and equitable thing to do,” he explained. “It’s not like I work that much harder than anyone else here, and there are people here who I’m sure work much harder than I do some days.

“To me, I always just felt uncomfortable with the fact that this young company was growing so fast and amassing a decent evaluation,” he went on, “but, for the most part, that was predominantly just to benefit me; I didn’t really like that.”

As for that second basic truth, Bean said he’s gambling that if he fast-forwards 10 years … 60% of the valuation of the business (as an employee-owned company) will be roughly the same or more as 100% of the valuation if he had remained the sole share holder in the venture.

“And I’ll never really know the answer to that, because we won’t be able to see both, obviously,” he told BusinessWest. “But it is something I really believe is possible. However, it takes a lot more than just forming an ESOP — there’s a lot of cultivation, education, and motivation needed. But if we get it right, then I think we can leverage the ESOP to grow the company, not only faster, but better, making it healthier, more stable, and more resilient than it could have been had I owned it and just had a bunch of employees.”

Referencing this ‘gamble’ part of the equation, Bean noted that he was actually advised — very early and quite often — against taking this step now, when the company is still very much in a growth mode, as opposed to full maturity or something approaching it, when ESOPs are a far more attractive option.

“They told me I might be leaving a lot of money on the table,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to wait 10 years or even 10 more months, because he thinks this gamble is well worth taking, and one he believes other business owners should take as well.

Paragus owners

Delcie Bean, third from right, joins other Paragus owners at a recent reception to mark the closing on the company’s ESOP.

Why? Primarily because giving employees an ownership stake in the company can — that’s the operative word here — bring advantages ranging from greater ability to recruit and retain talented workers, to improved morale, to an even sharper focus on growth and strategies to enable a company to function more effectively and more profitably.

And as one small, yet hopefully effective example, Bean pointed to … the company’s postage machine, or, to be more, precise, to the fact it’s been retired in favor of simply placing stamps on envelopes (no one has to lick them anymore).

“One of the employees pointed out that the cost of our postage machine we were renting, for the amount of postage we were using, just didn’t make sense,” he explained. “We thought ‘we’re a business, we’re supposed to have a postage machine; no one puts stamps on envelopes anymore.’ But she ran the math and figured out it would save us $1,800 a year to just pay for stamps and put them on, even with the labor added in.”

But overall, ESOPs are undertaken for more far-reaching, and more long-term, strategic thinking and implementation, he went on, noting that with ownership of the company comes what amounts to a greater stake in its success.

For this issue and its focus on business management, BusinessWest uses the Paragus ESOP as a window into this complex and often misunderstood business tool, and also at what Bean believes it will mean for his already-highly-visible company.

Taking Stock

To help explain just how onion-like and complicated an ESOP is, Bean said the plan to initiate one was actually announced to staff at a company retreat nearly three years ago, and he had undertaken preliminary research and calculations long before that.

Then, as now, the company was defined by strong growth (roughly 24% per year has been the average), as well as physical expansion — the company is already starting to feel snug in new quarters opened in Hadley just two years ago — a constantly growing staff, and the mounting challenge of finding and keeping talented help in that climate.

In all ways, the arrow was pointing decidedly up.

And this is not the time, as noted earlier, when business consultants advise ownership to go the ESOP route.

But Bean, who has generated headlines in recent years for all kinds of reasons — from almost-permanent residence on Inc. magazine’s fastest-growing companies list, to BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2014, to the opening of new businesses and a unique training facility to prepare people for careers in IT — decided it was time to generate one of a different kind.

And, again, he said there were many motivations, and primarily a desire to share the wealth — in part because it should be shared, in his thinking, but also because doing so would benefit the company.

Seeking to feel more comfortable with the manner in which the pie would be divided, Bean started doing some research.

It involved books, articles, case studies, and some recent examples, locally and nationally. As noted with the onion reference, he learned that ESOPs are quite involved and require planning, execution, and a large team to handle both.

As part of the exercise, Bean became closely acquainted with the ESOP undertaken by a Springfield, Ill.-based company that remanufactures and resells engines. That case was considerably different — the venture had been bought, the buyer announced its intention to sell it or shut it down, and the employees, fearing the loss of their jobs, secured the capital to buy it — but the machinations were similar enough to make it a learning experience.

There were others, including the ones at Harpoon Brewery and Chibone Yogurt, Bean went on, adding that his research revealed that in most cases, ESOPs are initiated by companies looking to raise capital for equipment purchases and other reasons, or by owners looking for an effective exit strategy.

“As Baby Boomers look to retire, if they don’t have a succession plan already created they may use ESOPs to help them with that challenge,” he said, adding that given current demographic trends and the lack of succession plans at companies large and small, it’s likely that there will be an uptick in ESOPs in the years to come.

Despite his aggressive research, though, Bean found it very difficult to find an ESOP quite like the one he was planning, for all those reasons stated earlier.

“I’m not looking to go anywhere,” he said, adding that this was a point he had to drive home to his employees over the course of the nearly three years it took to bring the plan to fruition. “Rather, it’s a commitment that I’m all in.”

ESOP’s Fable

And as he explained ‘all in,’ Bean offered some specifics as to how this ESOP works, and, more importantly, how he expects the company to leverage it in the years and decades to come.

He started by saying that unlike those cases where an ESOP is an exit strategy, no funding was raised by employees and no cash changed hands. In essence, 40% of Paragus (roughly $1.4 million) was gifted to the 40 or so employees in the form of a trust that is wholly owned by the employees of the company. And this share of the company becomes a type of retirement plan, or another retirement plan as the case may be (there’s a 401(k) program already in place).

“Once a year, employees will get a statement showing how many shares they have in their account, and what the valuation (of the company) is, and therefore what those shares are worth and what their account is worth,” he explained, adding that the ESOP becomes a perc — in his mind, a very attractive one.

We need to help the employees understand, from the context of their job, the things they can do to have an impact that matters and that can change the bottom line. We have an obligation to simplify the business down so that every position has a metric that they can understand, that is tracked, is clear, and that ties into our profitability, so they know what they can do.”

Indeed, the company has a 10-year goal for growth and valuation ($40 million to be specific), and if it is hit, he projects that the average ESOP account, governed by ERISSA, will be worth “in the low six figures.”

As for leveraging the ESOP, which closed June 8, Bean said the company had already generated a culture of ownership — reinforced with rewards — throughout its ranks, but the ESOP will hopefully take it to a higher level.

“In order for this gamble to work, there is an obligation on the part of the employee, but there’s also an obligation on us,” he explained, meaning company leadership. “We need to provide education, training, and motivation.

“We need to help the employees understand, from the context of their job, the things they can do to have an impact that matters and that can change the bottom line,” he went on. “We have an obligation to simplify the business down so that every position has a metric that they can understand, that is tracked, is clear, and that ties into our profitability, so they know what they can do.”

Elaborating, he said that each position has such a metric, and, therefore, steps, or operating strategies, that can improve profitability. Examples include everything from purchasing policies, to the level of customer service provided by service techs, to that postage machine.

At present, the company is looking at every position from the vantage point of creating a metric and providing employees with the tools, and motivation, to know where and how to work harder and better.

“If they don’t know where to invest the effort, then even if they want to, they won’t do it,” he explained, adding that one key through all of us is to take steps that improve profitability while not negatively impacting quality of service.

The Bottom Line

When asked if and how the company would begin to know if this gamble was paying off, Bean said a look at the numbers about 16 months from now would provide some clues.

“We’ve been averaging about 24% growth over the past seven years; if we can increase that number, I think we can be fairly confident that it’s because of the ESOP as the biggest factor,” he explained. “We’ll know at the end of 2017, when we’ve had a full year with this; we’ll see if we beat that 24% number.”

But the company is looking well beyond the end of next year, he added quickly, noting that the key isn’t achieving more-profound growth, it’s sustaining it.

“It’s not about a short-term bump, it’s about a long-term sustainable approach,” he said in conclusion, adding that he firmly believes an ESOP can help attain all that, and that’s why he took this gamble.

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

Daily News

LONGMEADOW — Bay Path University’s 12th Annual Innovative Thinking and Entrepreneurship Lecture will feature Delcie Bean, Founder and CEO of Paragus Strategic IT.

Bean, a serial tech entrepreneur, will speak to the lens of innovation and also discuss the role it has played in his successes and failures during his presentation, “Innovation: The Great Differentiator,” on Thursday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 a.m. on the university’s Longmeadow campus.

Having started his first company at age 8 and a nonprofit at the age of 13, Bean is a born entrepreneur who thrives on coming up with ideas, building businesses, and having fun in the process. His mission is to use business and technological innovation as a positive force to impact the lives of clients, employees, colleagues, and the community as a whole. A frequent speaker at local and regional events on technology and entrepreneurship, Bean was named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2014, and received the Continued Excellence Award at BusinessWest’s 2015 40 Under 40 Gala.

Inc. magazine has acknowledged Paragus as one of the 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies in America four years in a row. In 2013, CRN Global ranked Paragus the 30th-fastest-growing IT company in the U.S. In 2014, the company was awarded the coveted Employer’s Choice Award by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast and the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce.

“Innovation: The Great Differentiator” is sponsored by the Bay Path University Advisory Council and the School of Science and Management. This event is free and open to the public, but registration is strongly recommended. To register, visit www.baypath.edu.

Daily News

Delcie Bean IV

Delcie Bean IV

HOLYOKE — Serial entrepreneur Delcie Bean IV took home BusinessWest’s inaugural Continued Excellence Award at last night’s ninth annual 40 Under Forty gala.

It was yet another honor for the owner of Paragus Strategic IT, who was named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2014. For the Continued Excellence Award, which will be awarded annually to a former 40 Under Forty honoree who has continued to expand his or her business accomplishments and community impact, Bean was among about 40 individuals nominated by their peers and judged by an independent panel.

“Nothing I have done has not been without the help of at least 100 other people,” Bean said to more than 650 attendees of the 40 Under Forty event at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. He cited, as one example, the 24 high-school students who graduated this week from Tech Foundry, a nonprofit he started to provide IT workforce training and job skills to young people.

A member of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2008 when he was just 21, Bean has since seen Paragus grow 450% and earn status as one of Inc. magazine’s fastest-growing companies on several occasions, and recently earn the Top Employer of Choice Award from the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. He’s also started a second business venture, Waterdog Technologies, a technology-distribution company.

Meanwhile, within the community, he has been active with Valley Venture Mentors, River Valley Investors, and DevelopSpringfield; is a board member for Up Academy Springfield; and serves as a board member for the Mass. Department of Elementary & Secondary Education’s Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards Panel.

In his short acceptance speech last night, Bean put the focus not on himself, but on the promise of the Pioneer Valley.

“I’m just one of many people who helped me get to where I am,” he said. “I’m so incredibly grateful to be here, to be part of the Valley. And you know what? I think there’s so much more we can do. I really, really think this Valley has a huge story ahead of it. I’m excited to be a part of that, and I hope you guys will join me. And, with that challenge, let’s see what’s next.”

The other four finalists for the Continued Excellence Award were Kamari Collins (40 Under Forty class of 2009), dean of Academic Advising and Student Success at Springfield Technical Community College; Jeff Fialky (class of 2008), partner at Bacon Wilson, P.C.; Cinda Jones (class of 2007), president of Cowls Lumber Co.; and Kristin Leutz (class of 2010), vice president of Philanthropic Services for the Community Foundation of Western Mass.

The judges for the inaugural award were Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors; Eric Gouvin, dean of the Western New England School of Law; and Kirk Smith, former director of the YMCA of Greater Springfield.

Features
Continued Excellence Award Finalists Are Announced

40under40continuousExcellenceAwardOnlineThe judges have cast their ballots, and their scores have determined the five finalists for BusinessWest’s first Continued Excellence Award, or CEA.

And, as with the 40 Under Forty competition that inspired this new recognition program, the defining element for the list of finalists is diversity.

Indeed, those with the highest scores among nearly 40 nominees for the CEA include a serial entrepreneur, an attorney, one of the forces behind the region’s hugely successful Valley Gives program, the current president of one of the state’s oldest family-run businesses, and an administrator in the region’s large and prestigious higher-education sector.

“We created the Continued Excellence Award to recognize 40 Under Forty honorees who have done anything but rest on their laurels,” said BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti. “We wanted to single out for recognition those who have built upon their strong records of service in business, within the community, and as regional leaders. And these five finalists have certainly done that.”

The winner of the inaugural CEA will be announced at this year’s 40 Under Forty Gala, slated for June 18 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House.

The finalists, as determined by scores submitted by three judges — Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors; Eric Gouvin, dean of the Western New England School of Law; and Kirk Smith, former director of the YMCA of Greater Springfield — are:


Delcie Bean IV

Delcie Bean IV

Delcie Bean IV

A member of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2008 at age 21, Bean is the founder of Valley Computer Works, now known as Paragus Strategic IT. Since that time, he’s gone on to be named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2014, seen Paragus grow 450% and earn status as one of Inc. magazine’s fastest-growing companies on several occasions, and recently have his company earn the Top Employer of Choice Award from the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. He’s also started a second business venture, Waterdog Technologies, a technology-distribution company.

Meanwhile, within the community, Bean started the nonprofit Tech Foundry, an organization that provides training and workplace skills to high-school students. He’s also been active with Valley Venture Mentors, River Valley Investors, and DevelopSpringfield; is a board member for Up Academy Springfield; and serves as a board member for the Mass. Department of Elementary & Secondary Education’s Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards Panel.

Kamari Collins

Kamari Collins

Kamari Collins

When nominated for the 40 Under Forty Class of 2009, Collins was an academic counselor at Springfield Technical Community College and an individual devoted to helping young people get on the right path — and stay on it. Over the ensuing years, he’s built upon his professional résumé and become involved in many different programs aimed at providing guidance and mentorship.

Collins was promoted to director of Academic Advising at STCC in 2012, and in 2014, he was named dean of Academic Advising and Student Success, and currently leads a staff of more than 25 professionals.

Within the community, he lends his time, energy, and imagination to several organizations, including the Children’s Study Home, the Urban League of Springfield Inc., the Community Foundation Education Committee, the Pioneer Valley AHEC/Reach Advisory Board, and the Lower Pioneer Valley Career and Technical Education Center’s Building and Property Maintenance Advisory Board.


Jeff Fialky

 Jeff Fialky


Jeff Fialky

Another member of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2008, Fialky has added a number of lines to the résumé that helped him earn that distinction.

For starters, in 2012, he was named a partner at the Springfield-based law firm Bacon Wilson, which he joined as an associate, and is active in leadership capacities with the firm. But he has also become a leader within the Greater Springfield business community.

Former president of the Young Professional Society of Greater Spring-field, Fialky currently serves as chair of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, and is also on the board of trustees of the Springfield Museums. In his capacity with the chamber, he has spent the past several years working with city officials and groups such as Valley Venture Mentors to foster economic development in the city and advance a 10-year economic strategic plan for Springfield.

Cinda Jones

Cinda Jones

Cinda Jones

When she placed among the highest scorers in BusinessWest’s inaugural 40 Under Forty competition in 2007, Cinda Jones was noted mostly as the ninth-generation president of Cowls Lumber Co. (one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the nation) and as president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. Over the past eight years, she has built upon that résumé in many ways.

Indeed, she has expanded the Cowls business in several directions, but primarily through an initiative to convert the company’s sawmill into a multi-purpose arts and entertainment facility called the Mill District. One multi-use building, the Trolley Barn, hosts the Lift Salon and Bread & Butter Café, along with several residential units, and additional development is planned on the sprawling site.

While entrepreneurial, Jones is also a staunch protector of the environment. In 2011, for example, she brokered and closed the state’s largest-ever private conservation project, the Paul C. Jones Working Forest, a 3,486-acre conservation restriction in Leverett and Shutesbury named for her recently deceased father.

Kristin Leutz

Kristin Leutz

Kristin Leutz

A member of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2010, Leutz has added to an impressive list of business accomplishments and initiatives within the community over the past five years.

As vice president of Philanthropic Services for the Community Foundation, she played a leading role in efforts to bring Valley Gives from a concept on a drawing board to a hugely successful three-year pilot program that raised more than $5 million for hundreds of nonprofits across Western Mass.

Within the community, meanwhile, Leutz, who has started several businesses, has become a mentor to other entrepreneurs, donating time and energy to Valley Venture Mentors and contributing to the launch of its Accelerator program.

She has also been involved with a number of nonprofit groups, including the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., and often meets with nonprofit leaders, volunteers, and staff to coach them, especially with regard to fund-raising and organizational development.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The judges have cast their ballots, and their scores have determined the five finalists for BusinessWest’s first Continued Excellence Award, or CEA. And, as with the 40 Under Forty competition that inspired this new recognition program, the defining element for the list of finalists is diversity.

Indeed, those with the highest scores among the nearly 40 nominees for the CEA include a serial entrepreneur, an attorney, one of the forces behind the region’s hugely successful Valley Gives program, the current president of one of the state’s oldest family-run businesses, and an administrator in the region’s large and prestigious higher-education sector.

“We created the Continued Excellence Award to recognize 40 Under Forty honorees who have done anything but rest on their laurels,” said BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti. “We wanted to single out for recognition those who have built upon their strong records of service in business, within the community, and as regional leaders. And these five finalists have certainly done that.”

The winner of the inaugural CEA will be announced at this year’s 40 Under Forty Gala, slated for June 18 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House.

The finalists, as determined by scores submitted by three judges — Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors; Eric Gouvin, dean of the Western New England School of Law; and Kirk Smith, former director of the YMCA of Greater Springfield — are:

DelcieSidewalk-copyDelcie Bean

A member of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2008 at age 21, Bean is the founder of Valley Computer Works, now known as Paragus Strategic IT. Since that time, he’s gone on to be named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2014, seen Paragus grow 450% and earn status as one of Inc. magazine’s fastest-growing companies on several occasions, and recently have his company earn the Top Employer of Choice Award from the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. He’s also started a second business venture, Waterdog Technologies, a technology-distribution company.

Meanwhile, within the community, Bean started the nonprofit Tech Foundry, an organization that provides training and workplace skills to high-school students. He’s also been active with Valley Venture Mentors, River Valley Investors, and DevelopSpringfield; is a board member for Up Academy Springfield; and serves as a board member for the Mass. Department of Elementary & Secondary Education’s Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards Panel.

Kamari-Collins-copyKamari Collins

When nominated for the 40 Under Forty Class of 2009, Collins was an academic counselor at Springfield Technical Community College and an individual devoted to helping young people get on the right path — and stay on it. Over the ensuing years, he’s built upon his professional résumé and become involved in many different programs aimed at providing guidance and mentorship.

Collins was promoted to director of Academic Advising at STCC in 2012, and in 2014, he was named dean of Academic Advising and Student Success, and currently leads a staff of more than 25 professionals.

Within the community, he lends his time, energy, and imagination to several organizations, including the Children’s Study Home, the Urban League of Springfield Inc., the Community Foundation Education Committee, the Pioneer Valley AHEC/Reach Advisory Board, and the Lower Pioneer Valley Career and Technical Education Center’s Building and Property Maintenance Advisory Board.

Fialky-copyJeff Fialky

Another member of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2008, Fialky has added a number of lines to the résumé that helped him earn that distinction.

For starters, in 2012, he was named a partner at the Springfield-based law firm Bacon Wilson, which he joined as an associate, and is active in leadership capacities with the firm. But he has also become a leader within the Greater Springfield business community.

Former president of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield, Fialky currently serves as chair of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, and is also on the board of trustees of the Springfield Museums. In his capacity with the chamber, he has spent the past several years working with city officials and various agencies to foster economic development in the city and advance a 10-year economic strategic plan for Springfield.

CindaJones-copyCinda Jones

When she placed among the highest scorers in BusinessWest’s inaugural 40 Under Forty competition in 2007, Cinda Jones was noted mostly as the ninth-generation president of Cowls Lumber Co. (one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the nation) and as president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. Over the past eight years, she has built upon that résumé in many ways.

Indeed, she has expanded the Cowls business in several directions, but primarily through an initiative to convert the company’s sawmill into a multi-purpose arts and entertainment facility called the Mill District. One multi-use building, the Trolley Barn, hosts the Lift Salon and Bread & Butter Café, along with several residential units, and additional development is planned on the sprawling site.

While entrepreneurial, Jones is also a staunch protector of the environment. In 2011, for example, she brokered and closed the state’s largest-ever private conservation project, the Paul C. Jones Working Forest, a 3,486-acre conservation restriction in Leverett and Shutesbury named for her recently deceased father.

KristinLeutz2Kristin Leutz

A member of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2010, Leutz has added to an impressive list of business accomplishments and initiatives within the community over the past five years. As vice president of Philanthropic Services for the Community Foundation, she played a leading role in efforts to bring Valley Gives from a concept on a drawing board to a hugely successful three-year pilot program that raised more than $5 million for hundreds of nonprofits across Western Mass.

Within the community, meanwhile, Leutz, who has started several businesses, has become a mentor to other entrepreneurs, donating time and energy to Valley Venture Mentors and contributing to the launch of its Accelerator program.

She has also been involved with a number of nonprofit groups, including the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., and often meets with nonprofit leaders, volunteers, and staff to coach them, especially with regard to fund-raising and organizational development.

40 Under 40 40 Under Forty Continued Excellence Award

Delcie Bean IV

Delcie Bean IV

HOLYOKE — Serial entrepreneur Delcie Bean IV took home BusinessWest’s inaugural Continued Excellence Award at last night’s ninth annual 40 Under Forty gala.

It was yet another honor for the owner of Paragus Strategic IT, who was named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2014. For the Continued Excellence Award, which will be awarded annually to a former 40 Under Forty honoree who has continued to expand his or her business accomplishments and community impact, Bean was among about 40 individuals nominated by their peers and judged by an independent panel (nomination form is HERE).

“Nothing I have done has not been without the help of at least 100 other people,” Bean said to more than 650 attendees of the 40 Under Forty event at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. He cited, as one example, the 24 high-school students who graduated this week from Tech Foundry, a nonprofit he started to provide IT workforce training and job skills to young people.

A member of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2008 when he was just 21, Bean has since seen Paragus grow 450% and earn status as one of Inc. magazine’s fastest-growing companies on several occasions, and recently earn the Top Employer of Choice Award from the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. He’s also started a second business venture, Waterdog Technologies, a technology-distribution company.

Meanwhile, within the community, he has been active with Valley Venture Mentors, River Valley Investors, and DevelopSpringfield; is a board member for Up Academy Springfield; and serves as a board member for the Mass. Department of Elementary & Secondary Education’s Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards Panel.

In his short acceptance speech last night, Bean put the focus not on himself, but on the promise of the Pioneer Valley.

“I’m just one of many people who helped me get to where I am,” he said. “I’m so incredibly grateful to be here, to be part of the Valley. And you know what? I think there’s so much more we can do. I really, really think this Valley has a huge story ahead of it. I’m excited to be a part of that, and I hope you guys will join me. And, with that challenge, let’s see what’s next.”

The other four finalists for the Continued Excellence Award were Kamari Collins (40 Under Forty class of 2009), dean of Academic Advising and Student Success at Springfield Technical Community College; Jeff Fialky (class of 2008), partner at Bacon Wilson, P.C.; Cinda Jones (class of 2007), president of Cowls Lumber Co.; and Kristin Leutz (class of 2010), vice president of Philanthropic Services for the Community Foundation of Western Mass.

The judges for the inaugural award were Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors; Eric Gouvin, dean of the Western New England School of Law; and Kirk Smith, former director of the YMCA of Greater Springfield.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — When Delcie Bean started Waterdog Technologies, his goal was to disrupt the traditional IT distribution model by offering the best products and backing them up with the strongest support. In a field saddled with overseas call centers, terrible response rates, poor customer service, and an overload of substandard products, Bean said Waterdog’s direct, hands-on business model has connected with IT resellers all over the continent.

As Waterdog quickly found success, he realized it had to generate more funding in order to support the growth. Waterdog was able to secure more than $500,000 in funding from River Valley Investors, the Springfield Venture Fund (SVF), and a selection of area business owners. The funding will be used to hire additional staff to keep up with the demand.

“The money from SVF ensures that we will be in Springfield for the long haul,” Bean said. “When we were first seeking funding, we were afraid that we might have to go outside of the area. We couldn’t be happier to be able to stay right here in downtown Springfield and be part of the city’s growth.”

Waterdog is located on the second floor of 1391 Main St. but is currently in talks to build an expanded office space on the top floor to make room for the staff expansion. The company has taken on eight new staff members since this time last year, including Crash Lowe, an experienced, high-level sales director who relocated to the area to take the position. Waterdog plans to hire up to six more in 2015. And that’s just the beginning.

“Waterdog is on a path to reach the $10 million mark with about 30 employees within five years and the $100 million mark with around 50 employees within 10 years,” said Bean, who was recently named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2014 for his work with Waterdog, Paragus IT, Tech Foundry, and other ventures.

Added Lowe, “Waterdog’s growth so far is a drop in the bucket compared to what’s ahead. We have found a niche where the competition is stale and boring, but the market is enormous and growing.”

Opinion
A Role Model on Many Levels

Two decades ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition initiative. We called it our ‘Top Entrepreneur’ award. (We would have called it ‘Entrepreneur of the Year,’ but that phrase was, and still is, copyrighted.)

And besides, most of the people we’ve honored over the years weren’t recognized for accomplishments in a given year, but instead for what they’ve done over a lifetime — or at least to that point in their career.

We started this award to honor those who are continuing what would have to be a called a tradition of entrepreneurship, not only in Springfield, but across the region. It’s a tradition started by people like Milton Bradley, gunmakers Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson, Everett Barney, inventor of the clip-on ice skate, and many others, and continued by people like Peter Rosskothen, co-creator of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House (honored by BusinessWest in 1997) and the extended Sandri family in Greenfield (honored just last year for the expansion and diversification of their energy business).

In the process of telling these stories, what has become clear is that the winners, while entrepreneurial at heart, are committed to much more than making money. Each one has been passionate about giving back, and in a number of ways.

This year’s honoree, Delcie Bean, is no exception. He’s being honored, in large part, for his exploits with Paragus Strategic IT, a company that can essentially trace it roots to when Bean was 14 years old (that was just 14 years ago, by the way), and is now a fixture on Inc. magazine’s list of the fastest-growing technology companies in the country.

But his story goes much deeper, and it should serve as an inspiration to all business leaders in this region — and well beyond.

Indeed, Bean made it clear in his wide-ranging interview with BusinessWest (see page 14) that, while he’s passionate about growing his companies and taking them to the next level, that energy also applies to his desire to play a large role in the revitalization of Springfield and the region as a whole.

He’s off to a very solid start, not only through the creation of Tech Foundry, a unique educational facility designed to address the Valley’s nagging skills-gap problem, but also through his involvement with Valley Venture Mentors and other groups and initiatives focused on creating what’s been called an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region.

As part of these efforts, Bean mentors young entrepreneurs, both formally and informally, and helps individuals (especially young people) determine if they have the many skills and attributes needed to be a successful entrepreneur.

As he mentioned to BusinessWest, Bean has a number of mentors himself, or business leaders who inspire him. Chief among them is Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, who is committed not only to continually growing his company, but also to playing a direct part in efforts to revitalize sections of Las Vegas, which was devastated by the Great Recession and its aftermath.

“It’s rare that somebody with that much money, where there’s so little that he’s going to gain from this personally, is so passionate about a city and its revitalization,” Bean said of Hsieh.

Rare indeed, but this is the philosophy that also drives this year’s Top Entrepreneur.

Who knows where and to what levels his business exploits will take him in the years and decades to come? As he mentioned, to continue growing at its current and profound rate, Paragus will certainly need to expand its footprint well beyond Western Mass.

What seems apparent, though, is that, when it comes to returning this region to its status as a center of entrepreneurship, innovation, good jobs, and vibrancy, Bean is in it for the long haul.

And the Valley will certainly benefit as a result.

Cover Story
Doctors Express Franchisees Are Our Top Entrepreneurs for 2012

Neither Rick Crews nor Jim Brennan remembers many of the specific details from that lunch they had together at Max’s Tavern in the late fall of 2009.

What they do recall is that, by the time the check came, they had a plan — or at least the resolve to begin the process of putting one together.

And it was certainly an ambitious plan.

Indeed, instead of going into business together and operating a single franchise of a growing national chain of urgent-care centers called Doctors Express — which was one of the options they discussed at that lunch — they decided instead to become what’s known as master franchisees, overseeing not a location of this chain, which offers an alternative to crowded emergency rooms and the primary-care physician’s office when it’s closed, but a region, in this case most of New England.

Taking that step would be a radical career departure for both Crews, who was essentially downsized from his job running the Springfield office for the financial-services giant UBS and looking for his next opportunity, and Brennan, who owned an investment-management company bearing his name that specialized in small-business investment, mezzanine financing, and commercial real estate.

But they believed they had the necessary ingredients — from entrepreneurial drive to trust in one another’s instincts and abilities — to take the plunge.

“The enthusiasm that we both showed for the idea was a big factor in allowing us to move forward,” said Crews. “We both saw a great opportunity, and we were on the same page on a lot of different things; we had, and still have, a shared vision of where we can go.”

Fast-forward roughly two and a half years from when they opened the doors to their first location on Cooley Street in Springfield. The two partners now have two locations locally (the other is in West Springfield), with plans for others in the formative stage. They also have two locations in the Greater Boston area (with three more on the way) opened as part of a large initiative funded by a capital raise in 2011, as well as five other Eastern Mass. sites now operated by franchisees. And there are plans being considered to take the brand into a number of other markets, from Central Mass. to New Hampshire and Maine.

Brennan said the goal is to have perhaps 30 locations throughout their New England territory within two or three years.

Beyond the physical expansion, though, what has been equally impressive is the trailblazing nature of this enterprise, which operates in a field, urgent care, that is still a relative unknown in some parts of the state and the New England region. The two partners have become a model operation for others exploring the Doctors Express franchise with regard to everything from marketing and generating press to finding new and different ways to improve the patient experience.

These include everything from high-definition TVs in examination rooms at some locations, to help ease the wait for the physician, to water bottles and cookies for all patients.

In recognition of the speed and efficiency with which Crews and Brennan have taken the Doctors Express brand across the state, and for the aggressive yet calculated way in which they carried out the plan they outlined over lunch, Crews and Brennan have been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2012.

Thus, they are the latest recipients of an award the magazine initiated in 1995 to pay homage to this region’s long history of entrepreneurship and to recognize those who are adding to that legacy and writing new chapters for an ongoing story. They join an eclectic roster of winners that includes Balise Motor Sales President Jeb Balise, former Springfield Technical Community College President Andrew Scibelli, Maybury Material Handling President John Maybury, Cooley Dickinson Hospital President Craig Melin, the Holyoke Gas & Electric Department, and last year’s honoree, Herbie Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and aggressive investor in downtown Springfield.

“Rick Crews and Jim Brennan embody the true spirit of entrepreneurship,” said BusinessWest Publisher John Gormally. “They’ve dared to dream big and, in the process of doing so, have assumed a great deal of risk. They’re ambitious, confident, and imaginative, but above all else, they’re determined to succeed.

“And their impressive track record to date and promise for continued expansion makes them worthy recipients of our Top Entrepreneur award,” he went on. “Together, they’re a great addition to a long list of inspiring entrepreneurs and those who run their organizations with a decidedly entrepreneurial mindset.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at how far Crews and Brennan have already taken their joint venture, and where they want to take it next.

 

Taking the Pulse of a Business

The front lobby of the West Springfield Doctors Express location was crowded on this Friday afternoon, with most of the two dozen chairs occupied by people of different ages and with varying degrees of discomfort.

Most were exhibiting flu-like symptoms, said Brennan as he sat down with BusinessWest for this interview. Both he and Crews would then go on to quote both newspaper articles and medical-industry reports about what was already a heavy flu season and would likely get worse as the winter wore on.

“With this epidemic of the flu, we’ve had to adjust our staffing model and put on more providers and healthcare staff,” said Brennan. “These are things that weren’t planned on and forecasted, but they’re part of doing business in healthcare today; you adjust to the need that’s out there.”

This subject matter is a world or two away from what Crews and Brennan knew professionally only four years ago. It’s certainly a far cry from what they might have been talking about had things gone differently when Crews took his search for a new career path to a higher level in the summer of 2009 after opting to leave UBS and take a severance package rather than go from full-time to part-time.

By then, he had logged several meetings with Steven Rosenkrantz, owner of the local office of a franchise called Entrepreneur’s Source, which, as the name suggests (sort of), matches aspiring entrepreneurs with franchises.

“I was looking for something where I could be the boss, and also run a business where people would leave happier than when they came in — those were the two priorities,” said Crews, adding that Rosenkrantz put a number of possibilities in front of him, from Cartridge World, a toner-cartridge sales enterprise, to Sports Clips, a haircutting chain. He even looked at opening a sports bar in South Hartford.

“I’m really glad I didn’t go that route,” he told BusinessWest, adding that Rosenkrantz eventually put Doctors Express, a chain started in Baltimore by an emergency-room physician, on the table for consideration.

Actually, there were two proposals — a single location of that franchise, or the master-franchisee designation, which would involve Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and a portion of Connecticut.

“I liked the master-franchisee concept, but I’d knew I’d need a partner to do that, and Jim was the first person I thought of,” Crews explained, while setting the scene for that aforementioned lunch on Springfield’s riverfront.

The two had known each other for years by then and done some business together, and there was also the requisite comfort level and shared vision needed to create a business partnership.

“He coached my son in basketball, and I coached his son in baseball,” said Crews. “We had a good friendship prior to this, and we would often talk about going into business together someday.

“We got along, and we had a lot in common,” he continued. “We’re great dads, good husbands, we’re family-oriented and community-oriented … we coached sports. We made for a good team.”

Equally important, though, were the things they didn’t have in common, said Brennan, noting that their vastly different business skill sets have meshed nicely.

“Rick has been with a Fortune 500 company and managed 30 type-A personalities plus administrative staff, and that’s not my forte,” he explained. “I’m more independent, and while I don’t want to say I’m more creative, my skill set would be creative financing, expansion of a growing business, mezzanine financing, real estate, and small-business speculation. Having these skills and putting them together with Rick’s has made for an outstanding relationship, and that’s the key to our success.”

 

In the Right Vein

As they talked about all that’s happened since they became business partners, Brennan and Crews said that, while success has seemingly come quickly and easily, there have been some intriguing learning curves and growing pains to contend with, and that process is ongoing.

It has involved everything from honing the art and science of choosing locations — the basic theory is to choose a site with 50,000 people within three miles of the front door, but it’s far more complex than that — to the process of educating patients and healthcare professionals about the emergence of urgent-care facilities, especially in the Boston area, where it is still very much a foreign concept.

And then, there was simply the matter of learning the business of providing healthcare itself, which was outwardly daunting, because neither had anything approaching experience in medicine.

Crews took on that assignment aggressively and creatively, making himself chief administrator of the Cooley Street location for the first nine months of its existence. When asked what he learned on that job, he glanced toward the ceiling, offered a heavy sigh, and said, “what didn’t I learn?”

As he explained, “I wanted to learn the ins and outs of the business, and what better way to do that to actually run the center? I learned about healthcare — about insurance companies, coding, billing, staffing, scheduling challenges, working with doctors … how to run an urgent-care center.

“It was challenging, but it was also fun,” he continued. “Every day I was learning something new.”

Tracing the progression of their venture, or franchise territory, Crews and Brennan said that, even as they were cutting the ribbon on the Cooley Street location, there were discussions taking place about where to go next.

And ultimately, those decisions involved both ends of the state. Locally, after consideration of several locations, the decision was made to expand into West Springfield, with a facility that could draw residents from several neighboring communities, including Agawam, Westfield, and Holyoke; that location opened in 2012.

Meanwhile, only a few months after the Springfield facility opened its doors, the partners embarked on a capital raise aimed at netting $4 million to fuel a push into the Greater Boston area. That offering attracted the attention of investors locally, but also from across the country, said Brennan, adding that the first location funded by that group opened in Saugus early last month. Another, in Dedham, will open soon, and a letter of intent for a third, in Arlington, was recently inked. Eventually, there will be five sites sprung from that Boston offering, for which Crews and Brennan are general partners, with a 50% stake.

In addition, the partners operate a management company with five Boston-area franchisees under it. Those locations are in Braintree, Natick, Waltham, and North Andover, with another facility to open soon in Watertown.

This growth has necessitated expansion of the company’s corporate offices in Longmeadow, said Crews, adding that the team now includes Project Manager Melissa Nelson, charged with helping franchisees get their operations off the ground and running efficiently, as well as Controller Tim Sterett, who helps the partners plan and forecast for the future.

There are also people on the ground in various markets, including Western Mass., but especially the Greater Boston area, educating various constituencies about urgent care, how it is cost-effective for those who seek it, and how it can reduce congestion in the emergency room while also becoming a feeder service for hospitals.

“We have a business-development manager who is out in the community every day talking about urgent care,” said Crews. “We’ve also formed a co-op amongst all our franchisees, with the money to be spent monthly on advertising. Starting in a week, we’ll be doing our first TV commercials in Boston; we’ve been doing radio for the past month.”

 

Charting Results

Together, the team that Crews and Brennan has put together is scouting new locations in several areas of Massachusetts and a few bordering states, while also continuing that process of educating the public and the healthcare community about the concept of urgent care, and also striving to constantly improve the patient experience.

Which brings Crews back to those TVs in the examination rooms — now standard equipment in the Boston-area facilities and likely to be added at local locations.

“When someone goes into an exam room, they don’t like to wait for a doctor,” he explained. “So we have a policy that no one is supposed to wait more than 10 minutes for a doctor. However, depending on what you’re there for, you could be in the exam room for a long period of time. Having a TV in there helps to distract them from thinking about how long they’ve been there, and that’s especially true if you have children; it’s nice if they can put on Spongebob or the Disney Channel.”

Such attention to detail and the patient experience has helped Doctors Express gain acceptance and solid word-of-mouth referrals, said Brennan, adding that, from a big-picture perspective, success has come by creating relationships and making connections on a number of levels.

“When we go into a market, it’s important for us to create relationships not only with the primary-care physicians and hospitals, but also the medical groups in those areas,” Brennan explained. “There’s a new world of ACOs [accountable-care organizations] out there, and it’s important that we stay in contact with them and provide our services to those groups.

“Whether it’s Boston or Worcester, or wherever we go, one of the first things we do is reach out,” he continued. “We need to explain our story and what our plans are, and to date, we’ve been received very well. Originally, it was ‘who are you guys?’ because no one had ever heard of us, not just in our marketplace or in Boston, but in general. Now, most people have at least heard of Doctors Express.”

Looking ahead, the two partners said they are exploring a number of growth options. Locally, they’re looking for a location north of Springfield, perhaps in Chicopee. Meanwhile, they’re eyeing the Worcester market as the next possible expansion point, but also looking at potential opportunities in New Hampshire and Maine.

And from a bigger-picture perspective, they’re considering the possibility of taking their territory public, a move that would provide the infusion of capital needed to place dozens of proverbial push pins on a map of New England.

“That’s an aspiration, and there’s a way to get there,” said Brennan. “It all starts with the success we’re having, and we need to keep growing — it’s a snowball effect. I don’t think we’re there yet, though; we need to expand our business and get a good handle on what our revenues will be. If we continue to grow the way we are, maybe in a year we’ll know a lot more about whether that’s something we want to do.”

But the success of this venture can’t be measured simply by how many, and how quickly, locations can opened, said Crews, adding that there must be a balance between physical growth and maintaining high standards of quality in the locations already up and running. And the partners work hard to achieve that balance.

“You can’t just open center after center after center,” he told BusinessWest. “You have to make sure each location is successful and doing things properly, and that the service you’re providing is consistent and excellent. So there’s a lot of detail involved with every center that we open, and we also have to make sure our franchisees are opening with the same level of detail, service, and everything else. You have to spend the time and make sure you’re doing it right with each one — and it does take time.”

“And that’s the great thing about the master-franchisee concept,” he went on. “We can bring in great people under us to replicate exactly what we’re doing.”

Evidence that they are doing things right comes from the steady stream of phone calls from current and potential Doctors Express franchisees looking for advice and guidance about everything from marketing to staffing levels.

“I think I field at least two calls a week from people around the country, either current franchisees or potential franchisees,” said Crews. “They’re interested in what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why we’re so successful.”

Added Brennan, “with continued success, opportunities arise. Our goal is just to keep moving forward, continue growing, and keep our focus on what has made us successful and not deviate from that.”

 

Polishing the Script

Looking back, both Crews and Brennan are quite happy that they didn’t take the Cartridge World route or open that sports bar in Greater Hartford — not that they wouldn’t have been successful with either entrepreneurial gambit.

They just believe that, in Doctors Express, they’ve found a perfect match between a potential-laden business opportunity and their own talents and entrepreneurial drive.

“There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t gotten out of bed and looked forward to going to work — I love it,” said Crews. “I love the challenges — getting pulled in a million directions is where I thrive, and as we get bigger and busier, I get pulled in more directions. Yes, there are a lot of challenges that we face, but it’s exciting to work through them.”

Listening to that, it’s clear that the prognosis is continued progress for BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2012.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: The Holyoke Gas & Electric Department
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports in Holyoke
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

 

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

Opinion
Continuing a Proud Tradition

In the fall of 1995, BusinessWest created a new recognition program. Called ‘Top Entrepreneur’ (‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ was and still is copyrighted), it was launched to pay homage to the strong tradition of entrepreneurship in Western Mass., recognize its vast importance in the development of this region, and honor those who are continuing that tradition today.
Past winners have included Jeb Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales; Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College and catalyst for the Technology Park on that campus; the Falcone family, founders of the Rocky’s Hardware chain; and the Holyoke Gas & Electric Department, chosen last year for its entrepreneurial exploits in the realm of regional economic development.
This year, the honoree is Robert Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride, the large chain of stores that has become a significant part of the local business landscape. Bolduc, who started his operation with one small, full-service gas station in Indian Orchard, later to become one of the first self-service facilities in the region, grew it in every way it can be grown — from geography to the products on the shelves — and could have been honored at any time over the past 15 years.
He was our pick this year not merely for his body of work, although that was certainly a big factor — but also for the way in which he pressed on and continued to expand during the past few years, when most business owners in this region were hunkering down and merely trying to survive.
Bolduc’s story, which is chronicled starting on page 24, is an inspiring and effective way for us to re-emphasize the importance of entrepreneurship to the growth and vitality of this region. As we’ve said on many occasions, while it’s possible that one or more very large employers could be attracted to this region, thus spurring employment opportunities, it is far more likely that real and substantial growth will come organically from small ventures growing into larger employers.
History has shown this to be the case, including such stories as those of Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, who started small in Springfield before becoming one of the largest gunmakers in the world (and a company that, coincidentally, will soon be adding more than 200 new jobs); Milton Bradley, who reinvented toymaking; Michael Kittredge, who started Yankee Candle, and countless others.
These individuals all started with good ideas, but also had the skill, vision, persistence, courage, and, yes, healthy doses of luck to turn them into successful ventures that have contributed to the overall health and vibrancy of our region.
It is this tradition that we’re honoring with our Top Entrepreneur award, but we hope this recognition program does more.
Our other motivation in starting it was to inspire the colleges and business-development groups in the region to continue to find new ways to foster entrepreneurship. This means everything from educating elementary-school students that owning one’s own business is a very reachable, very worthwhile career option, to developing new facilities in which fledgling companies can get started and perhaps, if the individuals behind them have the wherewithal, get to the next level and beyond.
So as we honor Robert Bolduc for all that he and his team at Pride have accomplished, we also pay tribute to all those who carry on the tradition, and hope that these stories continue to fuel both the imagination and the spirit of entrepreneurship so vital to progress in the Pioneer Valley.

Sections Supplements
Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame Steers into Its Second Decade

Ira Rubenzahl says that, a decade after its creation, the Western Mass. Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame has earned a place within the region’s business community — and so has the banquet at which inductees are announced and celebrated.
There are now 57 inductees. Some of them are individuals (Theodor Geisel, Mary Lyon, Milton Bradley, and Primus Mason are in this category), a few teams of partners (Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, Charles and George Merriam, and Silas Lambson and Abel Goodnow), as well as a couple of organizations (such as Baystate Health, for example). But most are families that started businesses and ran them for decades.
Those family names include Picknelly, O’Connell, Fontaine, Steiger, Sandri, Balise, Roberts, Falcone, Scherff, and many others. They are now etched into plaques that hang in the main lobby of the Scibelli Enterprise Center in the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College.
And there will be more names added to additional plaques, said Rubenzahl, president of STCC, who told BusinessWest that, a decade after its founding, the hall of fame will continue to honor and celebrate the region’s tradition of entrepreneurship.
“This has been an important event for this region,” he said of the annual dinner. “The college and the college foundation wanted to continue this, and we’re enthusiastic about the program moving forward.”
But there will be a few changes moving forward, said Rubenzahl, with most of them involving the annual induction dinner.
For starters, the event, traditionally staged in November, will be moved to the spring, with the one honoring the class of 2011 slated for April 14 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House. Meanwhile, inductees, which have been announced each May for the past decade, will now be introduced at the college’s annual Top of the City party, with the next one slated for Jan. 20. And moving forward, proceeds from the dinner will go toward scholarships for entrepreneurship students at STCC; in the past, they were used for youth-oriented entrepreneurship programs.
Another change will be the larger role being taken by BusinessWest, which has also been honoring the region’s rich history of entrepreneurship and will collaborate with STCC in matters involving the Hall of Fame and the annual dinner.
The magazine, which has, since 1996, presented its Top Entrepreneur Award (the Holyoke G&E was chosen for 2009), will honor its latest winner at the Top of City party. In addition, BusinessWest will play a prominent role in introducing the inductees for a given year and handling logistics of the annual banquet.
“This region has a strong heritage of entrepreneurship, and it continues today with a number of new and exciting ventures and the expansion and evolution of many family businesses,” said Kate Campiti, associate publisher and advertising manager of BusinessWest.
“We’re looking forward to collaborating with STCC to recognize people from the past and present who are continuing a tradition of innovation and excellence,” she added.
Also working with the college on matters involving the Hall will be UMass Amherst, said Rubenzahl, noting that the university recently entered into a collaborative effort with STCC on the management of the Enterprise Center and its Springfield Incubator. Marla Michel, director of Strategic Communications and Outreach for the university, is now a shared executive, working two days each week as director of the incubator.
Representatives from UMass will be among those chosen to serve on a committee that will select the inductees for 2010, said Bill Kwolek, director of Development at STCC, adding that the panel will also include representatives of the college and several area economic-development agencies.
Here are the inductees for the first decade of the Western Mass. Entrepre-neurship Hall of Fame.

Class of 2009
• Bacon Wilson, P.C.;
• The Cambi Family (Springfield Foodservice Corp.);
• Larry Derose (Texcel Inc.);
• The Desrosiers Family (Hadley Printing);
• John Gormally (BusinessWest, ABC40/FOX6); and
• The Peters Family (Universal Plastics)

Class of 2008
• Baystate Health;
• The Jacobson Family (OMG Inc.);
• The Samble Family (Belmont Laundry);
• The Scherff Family (Student Prince restaurant); and
• The Young Family (W.F. Young)

Class of 2007
• Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss);
• Charles and George Merriam (Merriam-Webster Inc.);
• The Bassett Family (Bassett Boat Co. Inc.);
• The Falcone Family (Rocky’s Hardware);
• The Gordenstein Family (Broadway Office Interiors); and
• The Roberts Family (F.L. Roberts)

Class of 2006
• The Balise Family (Balise Motor Sales);
• The Fontaine Family (Fontaine Bros. Inc.);
• The Grenier Family (Grynn & Barrett Studios);
• Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson (Smith & Wesson); and
• The Lanier Family (Springfield Food Systems)

Class of 2005
• Sister Mary Caritas and the Sisters of Providence;
• Joshua Brooks (Eastern States Exposition);
• William L. Putnam (WWLP TV-22);
• Mary Lyon (Mount Holyoke College);
• Fran and Teddi Laurin (Laurin Publishing); and
• Joseph Napolitan

Class of 2004
• Albert and Amelia Ferst (Camfour);
• Silas Lamson and Abel Goodnow (Lamson and Goodnow);
• Joseph V. Gosselin Jr. (Commonwealth Packaging Co.);
• Emanuel (Manny) Rovithis (Manny’s TV and Applicances); and
• William Skinner and Family (William Skinner and Sons)

Class of 2003
• Channing Bete Family (Channing Bete Co.);
• Samuel Bowles (the Republican);
• Milton Bradley (Milton Bradley Co.);
• The Hannoush Family (Hannoush Jewelers); and
• Daniel J. O’Connell Family (Daniel J. O’Connell Cos.)

Class of 2002
• The Carroll Family (Riverside Park);
• John E. Reed (Mestek Inc.);
• The Sandri Family (Sandri Cos.);
• Stephen Spinelli Jr. (American Oil Change Corp.); and
• Albert Steiger (Steiger’s)

Class of 2001
• The Davis Family (American Saw and Manufacturing Co.);
• Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick (Country Curtains);
• Primus Mason;
• Peter C. Picknelly and Peter L. Picknelly (Peter Pan Bus Lines);
• George W. Rice and Caleb Rice (MassMutual); and
• Amos Rugg (Rugg Manufacturing Co.)

Class of 2000
• Frank S. Beveridge (Stanley Home Products);
• Curtis Blake and S. Prestley Blake (Friendly Ice Cream);
• Zenas Crane (Crane Paper Co.);
• Paul D’Amour & Gerald D’Amour (Big Y Foods);
• Joseph J. Deliso Sr. (HBA Cast Products);
• Michael Kittredge (Yankee Candle);
• Albert G. Spalding (Spalding Sports Worldwide); and
• Rita M. Tremble (Valley Communications Systems)

Opinion

BusinessWest launched a new recognition program late last year. It’s called Difference Makers, and as we said in our initial announcement, while that name says it all in some ways, in other ways it really doesn’t.

That’s because the phrase ‘making a difference’ is somewhat overused and has lost some of its meaning and its punch. With this new program, BusinessWest wants to bring some attention and acclaim to those who really are making an impact in the community we call Western Mass., and are inspiring others to do the same.

When we unveil the first round of winners in early February, you’ll see what we mean.

But let’s back up a minute.

BusinessWest already had a few recognition programs with its name on them. One is the Top Entrepreneur award, given since 1996 to individuals who exemplify the proud tradition of entrepreneurship in this region, a tradition shaped by people like Milton Bradley, George Davis, Everett Barney, and Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, and carried on by recent winners such as Jeb Balise, the Falcone family (founders and operators of Rocky’s Hardware), and the recipients for 2008, Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, who have created two businesses that have changed the face of health care business operations.

We also created 40 Under Forty. Well, actually, we started our own version of what has become a national trend among business publications — to recognize up-and-coming talent in a given market.

Both programs have become huge successes, and play key roles in helping this publication relate the accomplishments of some very talented people. But something was missing.

Not all people are true entrepreneurs (although most in business are at least entrepreneurial), and, alas, certainly not everyone doing important things and making lasting contributions is under 40. So we created another program that can, and will in many cases, recognize those who don’t fall into one or either category.

These can be individuals who are making great strides in business and thus perhaps changing the fortunes of a company, a business sector, a community, or a region. They can be individuals who are making an impact in the community through donations of money, time, energy, and inspiration to nonprofits and those served by them. They can be leaders who are at the forefront of change and improvement in the quality of life for people who live, work, and play in this region.

The timing of this program is important. While we didn’t exactly plan it this way, Difference Makers becomes a counterbalance to the successive waves of negative news about the economy, the stock market, job losses, and the incredible toll all this is taking on individuals and communities. There are still good things happening in the region, and some of that news is being buried in the avalanche of negative press.

But BusinessWest is not a ‘good-news journal.’ That’s not our purpose, and it never will be. Instead, our mission is to simply hold up a mirror to the region and especially its business community and effectively reflect that image — good, bad, ugly, or promising.

Difference Makers is part of all this mirror-holding work that we do.

It was created to reflect the work of people (some of which goes largely unnoticed or underappreciated) that contributes to progress in this region and makes Western Mass. special.

The stories vary, of course, but they all start with unique people who, well, want to make a difference — and are doing so.

So who are the first Difference Makers? For that, you’ll have to wait two weeks. We need to build up some suspense.-

Departments

Breakfast of Champions

State legislators and early-education advocates joined with Mass. Department of Early Education Acting Commissioner Amy Kershaw in celebrating the state’s recent passage of ‘An Act Relative to Early Care and Education’ on Sept. 26 at the Springfield YMCA. Pictured with local preschoolers is leading early-education advocate Margaret Blood, founder and president of Strategies for Children Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Boston. Breakfast cereal boxes featuring legislators who supported the early-education law — Champions for Early Childhood — were distributed at the event. Other participants included representatives of Cherish Every Child, the Pioneer Valley Plan for Progress Pre-K and Early Education Strategy Team, and the Western Mass. early-childhood community. A representative of Gov. Deval Patrick’s office also attended. The new law formally establishes the universal pre-K program in the Commonwealth and supports strategies encouraging the early-education workforce to further their education. The act will also overhaul regulations of early-education programs and sites setting health, safety, and quality standards. Cherish Every Child is an initiative of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and is working to realize the goal for every child entering kindergarten to be ready for school, healthy, and fully prepared for learning success.


Capitol Ideas

Last month, 45 area business owners and managers, elected officials and economic-development leaders attended a three-day symposium in Washington, D.C. coordinated by the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield and hosted by U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal. Attendees heard from several speakers, including U.S. Rep. Barney Frank; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; Charles Rangel, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee; and nationally known columnist and commentator Mark Shields.


A Big Check, on the House

Through the efforts of sales associates and employees of the Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage offices in Belchertown, Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, and Westfield, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Cares, the fundraising arm of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, donated $25,000 to benefit Habitat for Humanity. The funds enabled the Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity to complete the 171 Cabot St. project. Additionally, the brokerage offices have been supporting the Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity through a variety of fundraising initiatives and volunteering. Last year, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Cares donated nearly $67,000 to the organization.


Celebrating Entrepreneurship

Springfield Technical Community College staged its 9th annual Western Mass. Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame induction banquet on Oct. 2 at the Log Cabin, and announced the launch of the Web site www.eshiphall.org. The event celebrated entrepreneurship in many ways, from videos about the inductees to presentation of the Hall of Fame’s County Achievement Awards, to BusinessWest’s formal presentation of its Top Entrepreneur Award. Above, members of the Class of 2008 pose with the Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame awards: from left, Mark Tolosky, president and CEO of Baystate Health; Esther and Art Jacobson of OMG Inc.; the Samble family of Belmont Laundry; the Sherff family of the Student Prince Restaurant; and the Young family of W.F. Young Co. Below left, BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien, left, presents the BusinessWest Top Entrepreneur Award to John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling Company. Below right, County Achievement Award recipients, from left, are William Kristensen Sr. of Hi-Tech Mold and Tool (Berkshire County), Martha Borawski of Pioneer Valley Travel (Hampshire County), Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans (Franklin County), and Steven Richter of Microtest Labs (Hampden County).

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur
John Maybury : Driven to Succeed
January 7, 2008 Cover

January 7, 2008 Cover

John Maybury was only a few months out of high school when he embarked on what started out as another in a series of odd jobs, but would eventually become a career and very successful entrepreneurial venture. He began selling workbenches, shelving, and industrial stools, but soon partnered with his father to start a diversified business in the competitive field of material handling. Today, the company reflects Maybury’s passion for technology, commitment to excellence, and drive to continuously improve. His success — and methods for achieving it — have earned him BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur Award for 2007.

John Maybury says that for him to get involved with something, there usually has to be some element of danger.

He’s an avid snowmobiler and skier, and he’s scuba dived, skydived, and flown planes (he doesn’t so much anymore). “If it has a motor, then I’m interested in it,” he said, noting that he probably had 20 cars before his 18th birthday. The only time you’ll find him on a golf course is for a charity tournament, and he’s taken part in many. He has to drive the cart, and he’ll invariably tinker with it to get it to go faster than the club pro might like.

He approaches all these danger-spiced activities with a philosophy, or thought process: to know and understand the risks, push the envelope — but not too far, and have fun. And this is the approach he takes to business and Maybury Material Handling, a venture he started while attending Western New England College 32 years ago, and trying to figure out just what to do with his life.

He took a cue, of sorts, from his father, who worked for many years as a salesperson then sales manager, specializing in, among other things, items in a field known as material handling — meaning equipment used to move, store, retrieve, and catalog inventory, records, parts, and other items.

The Younger Maybury started off as a free agent, selling various product lines to companies like American Bosch, Moore Drop Forge (later known as Danaher Tool), and other large manufacturers, using mostly contacts from his father to get his foot in those doors. He enjoyed enough early success to inspire his father to take a leave of absence from the company join him a venture that would put the Maybury name on letterhead, if not over the door — they started out as a home-based operation, but quickly outgrew those facilities.

Over the past three decades, Maybury has grown his venture into a highly diversified operation now specializing in sales, service, rentals, and training for equipment ranging from forklifts to work stations; from mezzanines to modular offices. The company has expanded and moved several times, the latest step being construction of a 42,000-square-foot building on Denslow Road in East Longmeadow, not far from where he and his father built the company’s first home on the site of an old tobacco barn.

But it is not merely what Maybury has accomplished that has earned him BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2007 award. Rather, it’s also the how that has made him this year’s honoree.

To say that this is a company that reflects the character and drive of its owner would be a real understatement. It is, like Maybury, technology-focused, employing the latest hardware and software to enable employees to do work better, faster, and cheaper. It’s also excellence-driven; it was among the early winners of the Pioneer Valley Excellence Award, and Maybury has his sights set on a Mass Excellence Award, and has the ambitious goal of earning the coveted Malcolm Baldridge award within the next decade.

And this company is people-oriented, with an emphasis on fun. At the 2007 All Associates Year End Gathering, for example, staffers were broken into teams for a spirited contest of ‘Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?’ featuring several special guests from nearby Mapleshade Elementary School.

The teams were formed with the goal of breaking down departmental barriers and inspiring people in different capacities to work together toward a common goal — in this case, triumphing over the other teams and winning some cash ($4,000 was put on the table).

This philosophy of working together is at the heart of the company’s success, said Maybury, noting that he stresses teamwork in every facet of the operation, and it has yielded steady sales growth, cutting-edge continuous-improvement practices, and a workplace that attracts and retains top talent.

In this issue, BusinessWest examines what drives Maybury — literally and figuratively — in his quest for excellence, and why his story of entrepreneurial daring is an uplifting, and ongoing, saga.

A Real Spark Plug

As he gave BusinessWest a tour of the new plant and posed for a few pictures, Maybury displayed some of that passion he has for all things motorized.

He jumped onto one of the newest and most versatile fork truck models, showed all that it can do, and then maneuvered it in out of some tight spaces. “I can handle these better than most people who drive them for a living,” he said, noting that he’s fluent with every piece of equipment on his showroom floor, and needs to be if he is to properly serve his clients.

Maybury got his first practice on a forklift back in the fall of 1975. He was a freshman at WNEC and also working several part-time jobs to help pay his tuition. One of them was at Milton Bradley — now known as Hasbro Games — and its East Longmeadow plant. He worked in what was known then as Department 26, moving around pallets of games like Monopoly, Life, and Chutes and Ladders, for loading onto boxes that would be packed into freight cars for transport on a rail line that no longer exits.

When Maybury returns to Department 26 these days — he’s made several visits over the years and still runs into people he worked with three decades ago — it is to help Hasbro stay on the cutting edge of material-handling equipment and processes. The toy maker is just one name on a long and distinguished client list. Others include regional and national manufacturers, distributors, and retailers including Friendly’s, Big Y, Lenox, J Polep, JCPenney, Macy’s Target, Wal-Mart, and even Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

Maybury supplies racks and shelving, conveyors, forklifts, and other equipment to the casinos to move and store money and chips. It also played a lead role in helping Mohegan Sun set a record a few years ago — with an 18-foot-tall, seven-tiered wedding cake weighing 15,032 pounds, or 7.5 tons. Maybury engineers created the huge platforms, or cake separators that the cake rested on (they were supported with steel pipes made by the company and painted to match a frosting sample) and also positioned massive, 30,000-pound-capacity scales in order to give the casino the exact weight.

The current, ever-growing client list and show of diversity and imagination put on display at Mohegan Sun provide evidence of just how far this company has come from its humble beginnings. How Maybury has orchestrated this evolution and progression is a story of entrepreneurial drive, vision, and ample doses of both luck and determination — mostly the latter.

Recalling how things got started, Maybury said that in addition to his forklift adventures at Milton Bradley, he also worked at Big Y, SIS (now TD Banknorth), and other area companies while trying to choose a career path. Instead, one chose him.

Growing up, he recalled, the conversations around the dinner table often revolved around his father’s work in material-handling equipment, and he eventually gravitated toward it himself.

“I grew up with it, and was kind of fascinated by it,” he said, re-emphasizing his childhood interest in all things mechanical, which manifested itself in early exploits in snowmobiling, mini-bike and motorcycle riding, and an endless parade of cars. “I would go into where my father was employed, go out back, and see all that equipment; it was something that really interested me.”

That company was Stanley Handling Equipment Co., later to be called StanLift, in Agawam. It was sold while Maybury’s father was executive vice president, and he then left and did consulting work for a similar venture based in Boston.

“It was at the supper table one night … I asked my father if he thought I could sell the things he used to sell,” Maybury recalled. “He said, ‘let’s give it a try,’ and we did.”

He started as an independent agent of sorts representing dealers trying to penetrate the Western Mass., market, selling workbenches, industrial stools, shelving, pushcarts, and other items needed by manufacturers that didn’t require help with installation, and was helped considerably by some of his father’s contacts.

“I’m 18, 19 years old … these people basically adopted me like a son or a grandson, because I was so young,” he explained. “I would go in, show them the book, show them the prices, tell them how much I needed to make, and they were cutting me orders.

“If I had any questions, I would go and ask my father,” he continued, adding that as the orders started rolling in, the father-and-son team saw a business opportunity unfolding before him. With a $25,000 loan from what was known then as First Bank — “they enjoyed the signature of the 40-year-old father much more than the 19-year-old son,” said Maybury — they were off and running.

Hitting on All Cylinders

Beyond the changes in street address over the years, the company was also in a constant state of change and diversification, said Maybury, patterns that have made it unique in the material-handling sector.

After starting with benching, shelving, and stools, the company moved into larger shelving installations, and two-story installations, including some work for Subaru of America. These installations would require lift trucks, he noted, adding that in the beginning the company would rent such equipment for jobs, but later purchased a fleet of the vehicles to ensure it could get a job done — and on time.

These ‘installs,’ as they were called, were usually done over a weekend, when a plant was shut down, he continued, adding that the mechanics hired to do these jobs often had little to do during the week, so the company started subbing them out to other businesses.

This was the beginning of Maybury’s power equipment division, which sells, leases, and maintains forklifts, scrubbers, sweepers, and other pieces of equipment and accounts for roughly 50% of total revenues.

Maybury remembers when the fleet consisted of one van (he still keeps a picture of it his files) and five hand trucks. Today, it’s 30 vans and more than 300 left trucks serving an area that stretches east to Worcester and south into Northern Conn., but Maybury says the company goes wherever its customers want.

It’s done work in Pennsylvania for Friendly’s, for example, and also in Nebraska, Texas, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere for other clients.

This constant evolution has yielded a company that Maybury describes as a “solution provider,” and one that has no across-the-board competition.

“Our competitors are silo businesses,” he explained. “We have lift truck competitors, shelving and rack competitors, conveyor competitors, and mezzanine competitors, for example, but there aren’t any real solution providers that can address the full scope of material handling like we do.”

Summing up what his company does, and simplifying matters as he does so, Maybury says his team of 100 employees helps clients become more efficient, thus making them more profitable and competitive in the face of increasingly global competition. And throughout its existence, the company has essentially practiced what it has preached — using technology, processes, and teamwork to simplify and streamline operations and provide new opportunities for growth.

“We’re about as paperless as a company like this can get,” said Maybury, citing just one example of how the company works to take time and waste from its processes, while also serving customers more efficiently. The company has used self-directed work teams, the Kaizen process, and other strategies to reduce process times and reduce errors.

These efforts were rewarded with a Pioneer Valley Excellence Award in 2005, what Maybury calls the first step in an aggressive drive to winning a Baldridge within the next decade. Established in 1988, and named after former Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge, a strong proponent of quality management, the award is given to companies to large and small judged to be outstanding in seven areas: leadership; strategic planning; customer and market focus; measurement, analysis, and knowledge management; human resource focus; process management; and results.

Maybury said that while his goal is on winning the award, his focus is on doing the things necessary to achieve that end, which means not achieving results, but sustaining them, which is the key to not merely filling a lobby with plaques and trophies, but also taking a company to desired heights in terms of efficiency and profits.

And for this, Maybury returns to the subject of teamwork, specifically a team of ‘Level 5 leaders’ as defined by business writer Jim Collins, author Good to Great.

“I have a human resources manager, a controller, a power equipment division manager, a material handling division manager, and a sales and marketing manager, and those positions support our strategy and our goals,” he explained, “and our initiatives and action steps are carried out by that group of people.

“Into everything we do over the course of a year we come up with some critical impact factors that will impact our business either in a positive or negative way, and then we develop strategies and action steps and come up with goals and plans so we deploy a common theme,” he continued. “If it’s self-managed teams, then it’s self-managed teams until we get it; if it’s paperless, it’s paperless until we get it; if it’s proper deployment of technology, it’s that until we get it; we don’t just say ‘let’s do this,’ and then it never happens.”

Gasket Case

There has been considerable deployment of communications technology over the years, said Maybury, adding that the progression of steps, such as the outfitting of service technicians with tablet PCs to eliminate all use of paper, is consumer- and service-driven.

“We don’t have technology just to have technology — we have technology to be the accelerator for our processes,” he said, noting that the use of the tablet PCs and aircards that provide Internet access eliminate the need for everything from paper receipts to repair manuals.

Which is significant, because each technician needs vast amounts of information at his or her disposal to maintain or repair the wide range of equipment sold and serviced by the company.

“With the technology and advancements, our technicians now have the ability to go online,” he said, “and go to the manufacturers’ sites, get their technical service bulletins, get schematics, get parts resources, and communicate by E-mail with the supplier so we can get all the information we need without having any books on the trucks.”

There are countless other examples of putting technology to work to streamline processes, allow people to do more work in less time, and even save a few trees, he continued, noting that technology is just half the equation; the other is the people who use it, and the company is careful to invest heavily in them, as well.

This strong focus on people was on display at the All Associates Year End Gathering, a tradition at Maybury for nearly 20 years now.

As the name implies, everyone who works for the company (and they’re called associates, not employees) is required to attend. In recent years, the date was moved from just before Christmas to the middle of the month to make it easier to fit into the holiday schedule.

As in prior years, this day-long program had a packed agenda, starting with a welcome from Maybury, a quick review of the safety record (169 days without a lost-time accident by Dec. 14), and then a comprehens
ve review of the company’s 401(k) program delivered by Charles Epstein, president of Epstein Financial Services.

“This is a good time to be a having a review,” said Maybury, noting the stock market’s rocky third and fourth quarters and the questions it would generate. “This is a time when people need information about their money and what to do with it to make it grow.”

The agenda continued with reviews of the health and dental plans, a look back at the accomplishments of 2007 and a glance ahead to the goals for ’08, a celebration of anniversaries (there was a 25th and two 20ths, among others) and new associates, a question-and-answer period, and that spirited round of ‘Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader.’

The associates’ day, and the specific parts of the program, are reflective of Maybury’s desire to make his a people-oriented company, one focused on helping employees balance work and life.

Finding that balance is something Maybury has had to work at himself, noting that, over the years, he’s managed to make time for his family, community activities, chamber of commerce duties (he was president of the East Longmeadow chamber for two years), work on boards such as the one at Baystate Health he’s a member of, and even some snowmobiling.

“When I balance my family with my business and the community, that makes me feel better,” he said. “I could probably lock myself in here for several more hours a day, but I wouldn’t have the same self-satisfaction. And I like to learn — I’m a constant learner … I don’t think I’ve every stopped.”

Growth Engine

The Maybury company may be essentially paperless, by its president proudly hangs on to an item that could have been recycled years ago.

It’s a placemat from the Fort restaurant in Springfield, on which Maybury scribbled the preliminary business plan for a subsidiary, or sister business, he started with a partner in 2005 called Atlantic Handling Systems. Based in the New Jersey community of Ho-Ho-Kus, it offers entry into a new, large market, and provides new opportunities for growth.

There was and is that requisite amount of danger with the Atlantic venture, he explained, adding quickly that this latest endeavor, called ‘Baby Maybury’ by some, amounts to a calculated risk, one that has worked out very well and holds considerable promise for the future.

And getting it off the ground has been fun, which, like that element of danger, must be part and parcel to everything that intrigues our Top Entrepreneur for 2007.

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