Moderator: Nicholas Southwick | Photos by Ty Kretser
As the 33rd annual Strictly Business Forum began, I welcomed:
John Bernardi: President/CEO, United Way of the Adirondack Region Inc.
April Bingel: Senior VP/Investment Officer, Wells Fargo Advisors
Heidi Breton: Human Resources Manager, Schluter Systems L.P
Michael Carpenter: President/CEO, The Northeast Group and
MHAB Lifeskills Campus
Jeff Chauvin: Buyer, Curtis Lumber
Kristy Kennedy: VP of Marketing & Business Development,
North Country Chamber of Commerce
We began our conversation with the broad question of how each organization fared in 2022. The overall feeling from the table could most accurately be described as “cautious optimism.”
April Bingel reported a challenging 2022 for investors as equity and bond indexes posted negative returns. She shared her belief that there will be a recession most likely in 2023, followed by a recovery and rebound.
Kristy Kennedy noted the Chamber increased its membership in 2022, The only losses in membership were due to retirements or business closures.
Among the newest members of the Chamber was Curtis Lumber, represented at our table by Buyer Jeff Chauvin. With its 23 locations across both New York State and Vermont, the company is in a good position, but it does face challenges from inflation and supply chain issues which have raised the costs of building materials.
John Bernardi proudly recalled that during the pandemic, the United Way never closed its doors or interrupted service. Support and services remained steady, and the organization was able to remain relevant to the community in its time of need.
Heidi Breton explained Schluter Systems grew from 150 employees 12 years ago to over 1150 today – 825 reside in Plattsburgh, NY. Due to the pandemic, the company was forced to adapt to a work-from-home model. That changed the thinking of upper management and encouraged a shift to different hybrid models that have certain staff working in the office and/or at home some days.
Mike Carpenter observed that in the last several years The Northeast Group strategically downsized and shifted its focus to measuring it success based on profit instead of pure growth. Its MHAB division flourished in 2022 due to the increased demand for mental health as well as addiction and alcoholism services during the pandemic.
A work from home model, driven by the pandemic, turned out to be a benefit to employees with children Bernardi noted. “People are looking for a different experience now with flexibility a major selling point to obtaining talent. Childcare in the region can cost up to $20,000 a year, which wipes out the earnings of low-paying jobs.” This, combined with Carpenter’s observation on the increase in demand for MHAB’s services, illustrated that going forward people are more willing to both request and expect flexibility and increased pay in exchange for their labor.
The North Country’s labor market is a mixed bag according to comments from our table’s participants. Even for Wells Fargo, which is staffed by “lifers.” Bingel. is seeing the strain on businesses caused by labor shortages.
Drivers who need a commercial license are in such high demand they control the market and can negotiate higher wages and benefits, according to Chauvin.
As for finding workers, our table spend much time discussing the benefits and issues of hiring workers with substance and personal issues. That connected lo our question on calls for greater diversity and inclusion in the workforce, as well as more environmental and social governance, which is a trend seen across businesses globally.
All agreed that while stigma against hiring people with issues remains, it is less intense in this area, in part, due to the resources available. In addition, the pandemic opened the door for more people willing to seek out these resources and for employers to be more considerate of potential new hires who use those resources. As Bernardi put it, “Employers need to offer empathy in addition to sympathy for people and not judge them without knowing their full story.”
Carpenter added that even though they are running businesses and have production and financial needs to meet, the pandemic showed that businesses can be flexible with employees, allowing them to meet their family needs.
Budgeting is critical for people to understand how to live within their means. However, both Bingel and Kennedy observed that the next generation is not taught basic finance and that hinders their ability to budget accordingly. Our group noted humorously that high school students are taught how to square dance, but that skill is not nearly as useful as financial literacy would be.
Bernardi proudly explained the United Way’s ALICE program — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — which assists people who struggle with financial instability. “ALICE is an asset to the North Country, but many people who are eligible have not heard of the program.”
Discussion of ALICE brought our conversation to the use of technology, specifically using it to reach people. Bingel’s advice on technology was, “Businesses must learn to embrace it and give new resources an honest evaluation.” Bernardi cited digital giving as a challenge and an opportunity to the United Way’s fundraising efforts.
Carpenter noted the ease of holding meeting using Microsoft TEAMS, especially for Canadian customers who were unable to cross the border during the pandemic. Kennedy commented that with technology, work from home is much easier and technology offers businesses new avenues for marketing. All agreed there is work to be done to ensure online resources are accessible to all.
Breton explained that Schluter does online onboarding through its payroll site, providing the required documents to new hires and instructing them on what documents they need to provide. Sites like Indeed, as well as social media, are also helpful for businesses to cast a wider net for new hires.
Despite new ways of doing business remotely, our participants acknowledged much work still needs to be done physically. Warehouse work for example must be done in person and, while telehealth fills a need that was not previously met, some types of mental health care require a physical connection. On that last point Carpenter cited AA meetings as an example of a service that requires a physical presence to have maximum impact.
As our conversation came to a close, we discussed how to promote the Adirondack Coast, what threats exist to our continued success and how to be more welcoming to new people.
We agreed one of the biggest strengths of the region was the connectedness of local organizations. Bernardi referenced the human services network, including faith-based communities, that both provide aid to people and families in need and also identify people who could benefit from services. Kennedy noted that businesses may want to help, but not know how. “That’s when organizations like the Chamber are able to guide them in the right direction.”
Our conversation turned to improvements to the quality of life in the Adirondack Coast. Carpenter emphasized the need for more fun things to do in the region like the shows at the Strand Theatre. Kennedy added that while we can enjoy the outdoors in our region, it needs to be more accessible for people with physical limitations.
Regarding potential threats to prosperity, we agreed that while supply chain disruptions may not be well known to the person on the street, they can cause major issues when they occur. The recently avoided rail strike would have led to devastating shortages across the nation.
Bingel stated that while increasing interest rates will help to mitigate inflation, it will make credit card usage more expensive. She also predicted that while the housing market will remain strong, a lack of units, driven in part by material shortages, will lead to unmet demand for housing.
Carpenter observed that the North Country has many women in leadership positions and that number is increasing. “To ensure that we continue this positive trend we must be welcoming to people who are different.”
Kennedy advised that people must be willing to accept that if people get to the correct answer to a problem, it doesn’t matter if they didn’t get there the way you would have. It just matters that they found the answer. “This empowers people and prepares them for future leadership, even if it takes a longer time to carry out a task at first.”
It was those comments that highlighted the ultimate theme of our table. Openness to others despite perceived imperfections, is extraordinarily beneficial to businesses and the Adirondack Coast region
Rounding out our discussion, Bernardi emphasized, “We all need to be cheerleaders for the region and remain positive.”