Better Together

What do successful business people in the North Country understand that those who struggle don’t? We’re better together. It is that simple.

We live in a vibrant community with a truly unique ‘je ne sais quoi’ spirit. We see it in public initiatives like Vision2Action, Downtown Rising, and the recent Plattsburgh Holiday Parade. Strictly Business readers know that a lot of the magic happens on a much smaller scale, when great minds come together to share challenges, ideas, and solutions to help make sure our community gets even better each year. Such was the case at the annual Strictly Business Forum event this past December.

A lively cast of characters representing small and large businesses across a variety of prominent industries in the North Country gathered to compare notes about the state of business in the region:

Adam Crosley, Branch Manager, Advisors Mortgage Group
Lois Clermont, Editor, Press-Republican
Betsy Vicencio, Vice President/CFO, The Northeast Group
D. Billy Jones, Assemblyman, NYS Assembly
Eric Zeisloft, Vice President of Operations, Mold-Rite Plastics, LLC
Paul A. Grasso, Jr., President & CEO, The Development Corporation
Kristopher Renadette, Director of Advanced Manufacturing and Technology,
Clinton Community College
Justin Barrett-Stearns, Owner,
Mac’s Safe & Lock and Plattsburgh Knife Co

As 2016 draws to a close, there was general consensus around the table that business this past year was solid. Optimism prevailed in large part because of continued signs of growth and hope in the region — the raising of a new building at Clinton Community College to house the Advanced Manufacturing Institute (IAM), the promise of the booming transportation equipment and aerospace industries, and active community action groups making a difference in the quality of life here year round.

There is no doubt that the region is riding the wave of an exciting period of growth. Wise business leaders know that with growth comes change. The wisest business leaders realize that with change comes the need for swift and effective responsiveness. While each business is unique in the way it must respond to change, conversations at the Strictly Business Forum reminded everyone that we are all in this together. To that end, several common themes emerged.

Readying the Workforce
When a new company like Norsk Titanium decided to put down a footprint in the area, everyone’s first reaction was excitement at the growth of new jobs and industry. With that in mind, Paul Grasso and his team at The Development Corporation along with the staff at the North Country Chamber of Commerce have been keeping a careful eye on the number of available employees to support this growth. “We have a 37,000 workforce count in the region, and our unem- ployment rate is now below 5 percent,” Grasso said, “so what we are looking at is a pool of about 1,300–1,400 people available for work.”

During his recent campaign for New York State Assembly, D. Billy Jones heard from a lot of business owners across the tri-county region. “Being a politician, I thought for sure the number one concern I’d hear about would be taxes,” he recalled, “Instead, it was having a trained workforce.”

While there is a healthy community movement underway in the form of Vision2Action to attract 3,000 new individuals and fami- lies to the area before 2040, everyone knows this achievement won’t happen overnight. Local employers such as Mold-Rite Plastics continually struggle to retain employees who are attracted to better paying jobs at various manufacturing companies. “We have done extensive research on the local employment market and have a firm understanding of our ranking with regards to pay and shift schedules compared to other manufacturing companies,” explained VP of Operations Eric Zeisloft. “Despite challenges that exist within our employment bracket we are taking aggressive steps to better position ourselves to obtain and retain the best talent available.” Betsy Vicencio, VP/CFO of The Northeast Group shared these concerns. “With the increase of the number of jobs in the transportation equipment and aerospace sectors locally, we are going to be in huge competition for employees,” she explained, “If there are fewer than 1,500 people left in the area to choose from, and our starting wages are on the lower end, we will likely be hiring people with a greater set of challenges to be successful in the work place. Finding creative solutions to address barriers to employment and improving the skill set of these employees is essential to the greater good of our business community. We are starting to talk about that a lot.”

Our regional economic and community leaders are wide awake to the workforce readiness issue and have been hard at work crafting solutions for a number of years. Kristopher Renadette is at the helm of the new Institute for Advance Manufacturing (IAM) program housed at Clinton Community College (CCC). Renadette has been working with companies to identify their workforce needs and partner with area schools and agencies to help meet those needs. “I work with a lot of business and industry associated with manufacturing,” he said. “Their biggest challenge is finding a skilled workforce. Building that workforce pipeline through partnerships with business, industry, and education is the number one priority of the institute. The success of the workforce pipeline starts by bringing awareness to the community of the wealth of opportunities within manufacturing in our area. I am happy to say that with the announcement of the IAM and the on boarding of new companies in the community, aware- ness is climbing, perceptions are changing, and the enrollment in the technology programs has gone up 10 percent over the last year.”

In an environment where there is increased competition for solid, reliable employees, many of the business representatives around the table have already been exploring ways to increase retention of their current staff. Small business owner Justin Barrett Stearns tries to offer bonuses and pay increases as often as possible, while keeping his respect for his employees at the top of mind. “I will pay you whatever you are worth,” he shared, “I want to retain and attract talent. If I get people who are loyal, they will make the company more money and we will all benefit. Somebody’s got to give it first. Employees aren’t in the position to give more first. It is employers who have to take the lead on that.”

Mold-Rite and The Northeast Group are both putting significant efforts toward addressing the needs of their employees, many of whom are working low-skilled, low-paying jobs and struggling to make ends meet. “We have made a commitment to help those workers that no one else seems to want,” suggested Vicencio, “This is part of our strategic plan. Hopefully there will be an expansion of training opportunities for them to get some kind of post-secondary train- ing.” Zeisloft cited the investment that Mold-Rite already makes in training. “We currently invest a great deal of time, resources, and money to train employees both internally and externally. Our goal is to take a lesser skilled employee or possibly someone who has a couple of strikes against them in life and grow them to their full potential. With this growth can come significant increases in salaries and leadership opportunities.” Jones reminded the group that investing in training is not an option for a lot of small businesses. “To own a small business is a lot of work,” he explained. “They really don’t have time to train their employees.”

In addition to training needs, everyone was mindful of the need to have systems in place to care for the human side of the workforce—the side that deals with alcohol or drug issues, mental health challenges, and a myriad other personal factors that impact an employee’s quality of life and quality of work. Vicencio forecasted an increasing need for services. “If we bring in 3,000 families, they aren’t all going to be well educated, with no problems,” she warned. “It is possible that this pool of people might include those harder to retain because of social issues like poverty and mental health.” Grasso was optimistic. “If President Trump is able to push his infrastructure plans through, I think that will put a lot of blue collar people back to work,” he surmised, “I honestly believe that if more people can work a job paying a sustainable wage, a lot of the other problems we see will disappear.”

Having a good paying job might solve part of the problem, but Adam Crosley of Advisors Mortgage Group sees a bigger issue. “There are so many people out there who are just plain broke,” Crosley shared, noting a lack of education about personal finance for many. While some thought student loans were a significant root cause of the problem, Crosley disagreed. “The bigger issue is poor decision making,” he said. Crosley cited the example of auto loans as an area of concern. “You have to provide months’ worth of poof to take out a home loan, but you can take out a $70,000 truck loan with very little background paperwork.”

E-commerce Redefining Retail
With the explosive growth of e-commerce, traditional brick-and-mortar businesses are having flashbacks to a time not long ago when big box stores like Wal-Mart arrived on the scene and threatened to put them out of business. Companies like Amazon offer busy consumers the convenience of shopping from their living rooms, at deep discounts and often with free shipping. Local businesses feeling the pinch are less likely to have advertising dollars to spend, and the Press-Republican has felt the impact. “We have held pretty steady for circulation,” explained editor Lois Clermont, “Retail advertising is a challenge for all newspapers. Businesses are losing when people shop online.” The Northeast Group provides warehousing and distribution services for over 100 companies, giving them a bird’s-eye view of the impact of e-commerce. “Every one of our customers now has an e-commerce division for what they do,” Vicencio commented, “We have had to completely reinvent ourselves to accommodate what our customers need.” The Northeast Group has seen more need for packing and ship- ping directly to consumers as opposed to the usual bulk packing that has been the standard.

E-commerce isn’t all bad news. On the other hand, the internet has been critical for entrepreneur Justin Barrett Stearns. Mac’s Safe and Lock leveraged its online presence throughout 2016 as a means of expanding its customer base and reputation. “This year we sold safes as far away as Ohio. We have created a name for ourselves nationally in the high security world for safes,” Barrett Stearns shared.

Prepared for Change
In addition to competing with local businesses for a finite pool of available workers, companies are looking for opportunities to capitalize on two other highly anticipated growth areas—the Canadian market and the transportation equipment and aerospace industry. Assemblyman Jones pointed to a recent statistic that indicated 15 percent of area employees work for a company with significant ties to Canada. Vicencio shared that most of the fulfillment customers served by The Northeast Group are Canadian. Everyone agreed that no business is unaffected by the economic impact of our northern neighbors. There was significant angst around the table about a growing anti-trade sentiment that wove its way throughout the recent presidential election. Our border is so close and so powerful a fuel for our regional economic engine that any rhetoric about building walls across any border is just not good for business.

In his surveillance of the coming changes, Adam Crosley decided to staff up early in antici- pation of the growth in jobs locally. “I think there are going to be a lot of people coming in. My gamble right now is my decision to grow my team ahead of time. Being in the service industry I believe you have to give that ‘Wow’ level of service. That is how you get happy customers who are out there singing your praises,” he shared.

What Makes Us Better
One of attributes that sets us apart from other communities is the openness and solidarity with which we approach our challenges and celebrate our successes. This spirit of collaboration is at the root of initiatives like Vision2Action, the restoration of the historic Strand Theater, and the development of the region as the Adirondack Coast—a true destination. It is also evident in the Forum’s annual gathering of business leaders who are willing and eager to share their challenges and problems with others and also share new perspectives and solutions that can be applied elsewhere.

One needs to look no further than a newcomer for confirmation. Zeisloft, who has been in the area less than two years, commented about the ease with which he and his family integrated into this community. “My kids were on the front page of the newspaper before we had lived here a month,” he said. “As I look around this table, there is hardly a person sit- ting here who I have not already had some kind of interaction with. I think the strength of this community is in figuring out how we can work these pieces together.”

In spite of all the positive signs that our region has it all, there are some hurdles to overcome in the court of public opinion. Grasso cited examples of a local mindset that still includes a bit of surprise when encountering people who choose to relocate here. “Some people still ask a newcomer, ‘Why did you move HERE?,’” he explained, noting that we need to do a better job of embracing our location as a great place rather than ask people to defend their choice to come here. “When I lived in San Diego, they declared themselves ‘Americas Finest City’ by their own acclamation. They just said it—‘This is who we are’—and then went out and acted like it. We have to stop talking and acting like it is a bad thing to live here.” Assemblyman Jones agreed. “Let’s not forget about where we live. Where we live, people care. We have a way of attracting people here. We have the Adirondacks here, and we have a big city a few miles away. We can, and we should, continue to sell our area,” he added.

Press-Republican editor Lois Clermont clearly sees the role that the local newspaper has to play in sharing the good news about the area, but realizes the need for community participation to make that effective. “It amazes me how many people don’t contact the newspaper about things that are going on out there,” she said, adding that people need to remember “how important newspapers are in sharing all points of view.” The need to spread the good news about our region as far and wide as possible was acknowledged by all. Barrett Stearns suggested that to reach young people, social media can be an effective tool. “If you want to attract people in a certain demographic, you have to reach them in a way that is relevant,” he explained, “Social media can be an effective solution.”

Sitting together for the morning and discussing business in the North Country gave all participants an excellent opportunity to mindfully consider the strengths of the region and collectively prepare for the challenges that lay ahead. Vicencio was optimistic, “We share a holistic view of our workforce. I want to help my people, and you want to help your people—and when that happens we are all stronger because of it.” The event proved once again that we are a community that espouses collaboration. We talk openly about the problems we face and look to each other for solutions.