The 32nd Annual Strictly Business Forum brought together some of the brightest business minds in the region with the goal of giving them the opportunity to do one of the things they do best: work collaboratively to discuss problems and propose solutions.
Panelists represented a wide variety of industries and included third generation local business leaders as well as newly relocated professionals. In our second year using a virtual format, we dove deep to explore the pandemic’s silver lining and discovered that some of the temporary changes we had to make are worthy of keeping permanently.
Joining me in my group were:
Devi Momot, President/CEO, Twinstate Technologies. Momot offered insights related to the technology industry with a strong emphasis on cybersecurity.
Andy Sepcie, Director of Operations, Monaghan Medical Corporation. Sepcie represented the manufacturing industry from his new 65,000 square foot state-of-the-art medical device facility in Plattsburgh.
Courtney Chandler DeLaura, Vice President at Agency Insurance Brokers, Inc. Her work with protecting businesses and individuals across the region gives her a wide breadth of perspective.
Jamie L. Basiliere, Executive Director of the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country (CCCCNC). Basiliere brought 30 years of experience as the regions’ go-to childcare resource and referral agency to the table, underscoring the importance of family and parenting in the world of business.
Garry Douglas, President, North Country Chamber of Commerce. A 30-year veteran of championing business in the region, Douglas and his team have a vantage point that overlooks both the forest and the trees in our community.
Thomas J. Murphy, President & CEO, Arrow Financial Corporation. Murphy’s professional influence spans banking, wealth management and insurance services with a footprint from Plattsburgh to Albany.
Tucker Slingerland, MD, CEO, Hudson Headwaters Health Network (HHHN). Representing the monumentally burdened industry of healthcare, Slingerland offered both management and frontline provider insights to our conversation.
From the familiarity of using a virtual format for the 32nd Annual Strictly Business Forum to creatively adapting large scale events to accommodate social distancing, our panelists have clearly come a long way this year. Remote work, videoconferencing and last-minute event cancellations are now par for the course of business as usual. The good news is that we have greatly improved our collective ability to keep both business and pleasure moving safely in these uncertain times.
Grants and other funds injected into the economy were instrumental to help businesses balance their ledgers as pandemic-driven curve balls kept coming throughout the year. Tom Murphy astutely noted that when the community does well, businesses do well. “Government stimulus programs pumped money into the economy, and it is plain to see that it worked,” he commented. PPP loans were frequently cited as providing critical support. Jamie Basiliere of CCCCNC was grateful for the safety net. “We benefited from a PPP loan that helped us with cash flow while state payments were delayed,” she explained.
Staffing across all industries was largely adaptive during the past year. Many jobs required a physical presence at work. As a manufacturing organization, Monaghan Medical Corporation had to put all the PPE protections in place. Andy Sepcie explained, “These included temperature monitoring, social distancing and enhanced cleaning for the facility.” On the front lines of healthcare, these protections are even more critical. Tucker Slingerland relies on nearly 900 employees and their willingness to interact with the sickest members of the community during a global pandemic. “We are on track to cross 500,000 patient encounters this year, and that number is rapidly accelerating,” he shared. Not surprisingly, he reported that sustaining a front-line workforce has been one of the biggest challenges of the year for healthcare.
Business-to-business operations in 2021 experienced mixed success by industry. On the insurance side, Courtney Chandler DeLaura reported that the trend of small businesses closing their doors in 2020 is still impacting Agency Insurance Brokers, Inc. “That made for a tough year in 2021, but things are already improving and it’s starting to come back now,” she optimistically shared. Twinstate Technologies experienced a decline in new technology project requests for businesses. CEO Devi Momot described 2021 as a rebuilding year. “When the pandemic hit, our company was well positioned because we have a lot of recurring contracts with clients to provide support services,” she explained, “We have also added a good number of new services this past year and we are starting to see traction on that front.”
The North Country Chamber of Commerce not only supports local business, it also is a local business complete with overhead, revenue and expenses to balance. When member businesses take a hit, the Chamber also feels the pain. President Garry Douglas and his team saw some of their sister organizations across the state react to the pandemic with a down-sizing or even temporary closure of their operations. Douglas, in his infinite wisdom, took the opposite approach by expanding the Chamber’s work. “We realized that when times are tough, communities need somebody to help their businesses come through it,” he recalled, “So we threw a ‘Hail Mary’ pass without knowing what the outcome would be.” In the end Douglas reported 2021 as one of the best years of his 30-year tenure, due in large part to the support of the business community and the dedication of his team.
FINDING THE SILVER LINING
Now approaching the two-year anniversary of the massive changes that arrived with the pandemic tsunami in March of 2020, business leaders have had time to recognize the positive outcomes that emerged. As a leader in technology, Twinstate Technologies had implemented remote work strategies across their organization well before the pandemic began. “About 40 – 50% of our employees were working remotely,” Momot recalled. She and others agreed that the opportunity to work remotely is an attractive benefit to the generation of young professionals. Like many working parents, DeLaura appreciated the option of remote work both for herself and for her employees. “When your child has a runny nose and can’t stay in school, you’re struggling to find childcare openings, or you don’t feel great yourself, you now have more options than just missing work,” she explained.
In a widespread geographic region like the North Country, physical travel to events, programming and accessing centralized resources has always been more difficult. Douglas and the Chamber of Commerce stepped up webinars and electronic newsletters to keep members informed when large gatherings were not an option. They were pleasantly surprised by the response. “In the past, E-newsletters were something we had never done much of, mostly because we found our members were not responsive,” he described, “That changed when it became necessary to get information this way.” Basiliere was able to leverage the remote environment to expand delivery of training for providers. “We offered professional development for childcare professionals remotely over Zoom. This morphed into a very successful seven week simulcast “bootcamp” style training program for new staff in childcare programs,” she shared.
Implementation of telemedicine was on the two-year plan at Hudson Headwaters Health Network until the pandemic forced its rapid deployment. “The staff adapted beautifully, quickly figuring out how to integrate video encounters into routine care,” CEO Slingerland recalled. Mental health visits are particularly well-suited to the telehealth modality, and Slingerland is cautiously optimistic that these will continue to be reimbursed by insurance providers. With over 115,000 patients across a service area spanning Champlain, Plattsburgh, Malone and Queensbury, telemedicine has meant greater flexibility and access to healthcare, particularly for those with mobility challenges and fragile health.
The banking industry has slowly rolled out new end user technologies throughout the past decade. Thanks in part to mobile apps that cash checks at home, online bill payment and electronic signatures, Arrow Financial has consistently noted a decrease in teller-facilitated transactions. When the pandemic caused banks to temporarily close their lobbies, even the traditional customers who previously resisted online and mobile banking had to learn how to use their devices. “All of these products that benefit the customer and offer greater efficiency have been there in one way or another,” Murphy explained, “Since the pandemic, using them has become a necessity. It’s a long-term change and I don’t see it slowing down.”
When it comes to global supply chain issues, manufacturing companies have had a steep learning curve this year. Monaghan Medical felt the sting as soon exports coming out of China began to stall. The tremendous strain and cost increase it took to obtain the raw materials needed for production at the Plattsburgh plant prompted Sepcie to act. He and his team created a business continuity plan designed to provide resources and additional options that would minimize any future disruptions. “One of the things that we’re looking at now is starting a campaign to bring our supply chain back to North America,” he described, “This will help us have greater control and enable us to drive down into the U.S. and North American markets.”
Edging toward a return to business as usual, the challenges brought forward by participants reflected pre-pandemic priorities highlighted at Strictly Business Forum conversations of the past. Retaining employees, keeping talent local, broadband access in rural areas, and the childcare shortage were hot topics of discussion. Three main themes emerged as critical to business success, both now and in the future: technology, people and the intersection between the two.
Attracting and retaining employees has long been top of mind for local businesses. Demographics show that there are simply not enough people living here to support the growth we aspire to, according to Garry Douglas. “We can’t kid ourselves — the central problem is that we have too few people. The only solution to the problem is to add more people.” Some of the challenges that have made this growth difficult in the past include access to affordable housing, training, and childcare. Basiliere shared that the region lost between 20 – 25% of its regulated childcare capacity since the pandemic began. “If families do not have high quality and affordable childcare, they cannot go to work. We need to create a childcare pipeline of new providers across the region, and we need to pay them more if we want them to continue,” she explained.
Andy Sepcie, the new kid on the block, shared the significance of location to attract people to the region. He moved his family to the area in January of 2020 as Monaghan Medical Corporation launched its new facility. “I was surprised to learn how much manufacturing exists in this area, an area I had never heard of before,” he said. Momot added, “We have tremendous opportunities to build recreation areas that will attract tourists. We have to be sure to protect our open spaces, and air and water quality.”
MIND YOUR TECH
The need for social distancing and quarantine-catapulted videoconferencing capability from occasional use as an accessory, to an absolute necessity for getting business done. End users experience this largely through an app on a device. Momot and Twinstate know firsthand that behind that curtain lies the real magic –- broadband and internet access. Momot expressed concern that in the rush of the pandemic, many companies quickly added new platforms without fully understanding the security issues that came with them. “Now is the time to stop and look at what you are doing. Where are those business assets being stored? What is the third party doing with your data?” she asked.
Without internet access, efficiencies offered by remote work, school and healthcare visits are out of reach. The pandemic highlighted gaps in broadband coverage that the North Country’s business and government leaders have been scrambling to cover for more than a decade. Douglas was optimistic about recent federal infrastructure investments that will come to fruition during 2022. Hudson Headwaters stepped up to create mobile healthcare delivery units to reach remote areas of the region, supplementing hot spots in trouble areas where broadband service was poor. “We noticed a lot of kids would visit those parking lots to log into school,” Slingerland said, “There’s still a lot of work to do in the North Country around broadband access and the inequities related to that.”
RELATIONSHIPS: WHERE TECH AND PEOPLE MEET
Widespread adoption of remote work throughout 2021 resulted in both benefits and challenges for people and organizations. Now that we have proven that it is possible, many employees wish to keep it that way. Customer-facing industries that rely on relationship building are struggling to navigate this new normal. “When we tried to bring people back to the office for work, we lost several to jobs where they can stay at home and work completely remotely,” Murphy explained.
Agency Insurance has seen the benefit of keeping the remote work option on the table for their employees. “With the childcare shortage, this is one thing we can do to help,” Chandler DeLaura shared, “Even people who do not have kids can appreciate a quiet day working at home. We’re adapting how we’re doing business, and this has become a retention and recruitment tool.”
Regardless of the prevalence and importance of virtual meetings, it is an undisputed fact that human beings crave in person interaction with one another. Live events such as those offered by the Chamber of Commerce and the family and caregiver support of the CCCNC continue to receive excellent response. While the virtual world does not offer a replacement for the networking and connections that only seem to happen when people meet in person, the new challenge facing companies who have shifted significantly toward remote delivery and processes lies in ensuring the continuity of that human touch.