The 27th Strictly Business Forum brought together a diverse mix of business, education and community leaders around Table Three. With extensive yet varied experiences in government, finance, human resources, banking, and technology, they found common ground in their passion for their work, successes during the past year and the challenges they face in the future.
Garry Douglas, President and CEO of the North Country Chamber of Commerce
Douglas returned to his North Country roots and joined the Chamber 24 years ago after a long stint in Washington as executive assistant to Congressman Jerry Solomon. He has built an organization that covers Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton and northern Warren Counties in New York State and southern Quebec. With more than 4,000 members, it is the largest business and economic development alliance in northern New York.
Douglas pointed out that 2016 was nothing less than great because of the $125 million appropriated by New York State for investment in the Norsk Titanium plant, never mind the 10 other foreign companies the chamber has attracted to Clinton County. He noted, “Make no mistake it was the proximity to Montreal that was the attraction.” Douglas has made the North Country’s business relationship with Quebec a top priority for years and his persistent focus has served the area well. Besides the companies that settle in the area because of the Canadian connection, there is the $64 million expansion of the Plattsburgh airport terminal which wouldn’t exist without the influx of passengers from the north. He pointed with pride to the large, diverse and growing cluster of companies, “Right now we estimate 34 transportation, equipment, and aerospace companies are here, not just Nova Bus, Bombardier and now Norsk, which everybody hears about. There are 34 manufacturing operations in this region making transportation equipment and aerospace. 8,100 people got up this morning and went to work for one of those companies. It’s the single biggest dynamic in the employment community of the North Country today.”
Greg MacConnell, President and General Manager of PrimeLink
MacConnell joined PrimeLink when it was just a startup in the late 1990s and PARC chose it to provide telecom to its redeveloped properties. Today the company is a full-service communications company offering high quality broadband and fiber optic internet and phone services for businesses and homes from Montreal to Saratoga and a fiber optic backbone from Montreal to Albany.
In an era when internet in the home is a must and most aspects of business are driven by online technology, PrimeLink is in a perfect position to expand since businesses can flounder if they do not keep up technologically with competitors. According to MacConnell, Governor Cuomo’s commitment to spend $500 million expanding broadband to rural areas recognizes the need and leaves PrimeLink in a perfect position to grow. The difficulty, said MacConnell, is that “their growth is limited by their ability to hire good people. About a year ago I said we couldn’t continue to approach the human resources part of our business the way we have in the past which burns up six to nine months of productivity. When we have an open position we need to be able to fill the vacancy quickly, without a lengthy search. During this last year we really began open-ended recruiting that is nonstop.”
Allison Hulbert Bruce, Showroom Manager at Hulbert Supply
Hulbert Bruce is part of the third generation to run Hulbert’s Supply, a first-rate company specializing in kitchen, bath, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, water treatment and wells and industrial supplies. Founded in 1947 by Hulbert Bruce’s grandfather, the company has remained family owned even though it now covers six locations and has 50 employees.
Hulbert Bruce said Hulbert Supply recently hired a marketing firm to put a face on the varied products it offers. “Given our nondescript building, we are a hard company to market—especially because our audience is everyone, not a particular segment. Our employees are our biggest asset and the best thing we have, so we want our customers to associate Hulbert Supply with them.” According to Hulbert Bruce, Hulbert Supply is also feeling the shortage of the right kind of people for the jobs it has. “Obviously, I am a proponent of higher education, but we also have a very serious issue with the lack of people in the trades and that seriously affects my business. Not everyone is college bound. The jobs that are available in the trades are not just down and dirty, hard manual labor. When you are installing a complex heating system it is computer driven and takes someone who is highly intelligent. So we need to pro- vide an understanding to students at the high school level that there are other pathways that might not include higher education.”
David Coryer, Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Coryer Staffing
In March 2016, Coryer and his wife Elizabeth opened a new recruiting and staffing firm, drawing on 20 years of experience in the employment recruiting field. Coryer returned to the North Country in 2004.
David Coryer said their new company is making more in revenue than expected and will soon be hiring more recruiters. He has high hopes for overcoming the challenges of an improving economy and demand for workers by “getting more people to the table than have been brought in the past.” Coryer believes the answer lies in the following question, “How do we get those kids who are not college bound? How do we get them to view the region as a hopeful place once there is gainful employment after graduation? I think the secret sauce is to better connect them with Clinton Community College and the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing so they can improve their skills or perhaps attend SUNY Plattsburgh and get their degree. I always think there is value in continuing education.” Coryer also noted that purposeful route is much better than going to college for the sake of going to college.
Linda Bourgeois, President and CEO of UFirst Federal Credit Union
Bourgeois has been with Ufirst for 27 years and worked her way up from collections officer to head of the company. Ufirst has been around since 1971 when it began as a SUNY Plattsburgh Federal Credit Union serving faculty and staff. It became a community chartered credit union in 2002. Today Ufirst serves 6,700 members throughout the North Country. Bourgeois said Ufirst’s loan growth has been up 14 percent versus an average of 10 percent among credit unions nationally. “The growth is in used autos. People are buying good, used vehicles that are more affordable than new. We’ve also seen growth in new and used recreational vehicles, because people are viewing road trips as a more affordable vacation.”
With the emphasis locally on aerospace and transportation, Bourgeois thinks more young people will be attracted to the area because of the new jobs, but she worried about their struggle to save. She is aware of many millennials living paycheck to paycheck who think they can’t save. However, she would like to introduce them to some of the credit union’s products, like its Payroll Certificate of Deposit, which can help members begin an attainable process of building their savings.
Jerry Rosenbaum, NYS Certified General Appraiser and owner of Adirondack Appraisal Services
Rosenbaum said his small family-owned business has been extremely busy thanks to banks’ loan rates, but the number of certified appraisers is rapidly dwindling due to periodic increases in the requirements necessary to attain a New York State license. The result, he said, is that the appraisal business is becoming a greying industry with nobody filling the positions of those retiring out. “When I retire, I doubt anyone will take over my position. Most banks, and the big lenders, are saying that within five years we’ll have some problems. One of the biggest determinates of a loan is the value of a property, and if you don’t have someone credible valuing it, it’s going to be a difficult time for the lenders.”
Rowena Ortiz-Walters, Dean and Professor of Management at the SUNY Plattsburgh School of Business and Economics
Before joining the Plattsburgh faculty in 2015, Ortiz-Walters was department chair and professor of management at Quinnipiac University, where she spent 11 years moving up the academic ranks, and held roles as co-founder and co-director of the Center for Women and Business. Ortiz-Walters noted that she is the first generation of her family to attend college and is fierce about giving similar students—which at SUNY Plattsburgh are approximately 50 percent of the student body—the same opportunity. She also highlighted the importance of succession planning amid the school’s aging faculty, noting that “we don’t have enough of a critical mass of young people coming in.”
Amid challenges for SUNY Plattsburgh caused by declining enrollment, Ortiz- Walters is proud of the number of initiatives the School of Business and Economics has started including an online accounting program and the open- ing of a Center for Cybersecurity and Technology in the spring of 2017.
The Forum participants at the table perked up when Ortiz-Walters described one of the college administration’s new initiatives—the North Country Scholarship, which is awarded to students of merit from the local area. “It’s a way of attract- ing local students and encouraging them to stay at SUNY Plattsburgh,” said Ortiz- Walters. “It’s a good institution, a low-cost provider of high-quality education. If local students have a 90 average or above in high school and a qualifying SAT/ACT score, they could come to SUNY Plattsburgh tuition free.” Of course, scholarship students must maintain a certain GPA average, and room, board, and fees are not included in the scholarship. Students can live on campus or commute from home.
Andrew Wylie, Clinton County District Attorney
Wylie has been Clinton County’s DA since 2006 and before being elected, he was a criminal defense attorney for 17 years. Since taking office, Wylie has assigned his five assistant district attorneys to specialized areas in the prosecution of child sex abuse, domestic violence, drug, prison, and DWI cases, as well as the Drug and Mental Health Courts. Wylie dryly noted that as the economy has improved and more people have moved to the area, his office has ended up with “more suspects because there are bigger houses and cars to steal.” He shared that 30 to 40 percent of their cases relate to opiate or heroin addiction; his office hosted two large forums for the community on opiate addiction and child abuse and trauma.
Wylie feels the tragic epidemic of opiate addiction has been handled fairly well, especially with the development through state funding of a local treatment facility in Schuyler Falls. “The focus that is being given to it is helpful because it is an education for a lot of people—the ability to treat people locally. There are two sides: I have parents who come to me and say, ‘My child has been going through addiction and you’re now prosecuting him or her,’ or ‘You’re putting them in jail or prison and they’re not getting the treatment they need.’ And to that person I say, ‘This is not your child’s first time.’ I don’t just have law enforcement do an arrest and throw away the key,” he emphasized. “Sometimes we get into a situation where, to save a person’s life, I need to put that person in jail because tomorrow or next week they are going to take that fatal overdose and you won’t have them anymore.’ And then I’ll have other parents who say, ‘I wish you had arrested my child because that would have saved them.’”
Outlook for the Future
Jerry Rosenbaum voiced the thoughts of many at the table who are concerned about the large number of young people who leave the area. “Hopefully the brain drain will be stopped. For example, I have a 37-year-old son who lives in Philadelphia, who lived here his whole life, went to Plattsburgh State, Penn State and has settled there. And there are a lot of children like that who have left the area and don’t come back. We have to retain them.”
Garry Douglas also agreed that retention is a big issue, bigger than recruitment. “Some employers who haven’t had to think about the happiness of their employees are going to have to do so. There is going to have to be some introspection on the part of some of them because it is not all about money. People won’t go down the street for a dollar an hour more if they really love their employer. A lot of those things are cultural within a company. Everybody around this table could name some of the same companies that have a reputation for not being good employers. Employers are going to have to think of their employees as customers and what is going to create more satisfaction for that community of customers.”
Everyone around the table nodded repeatedly about the need to retain the younger generations with good paying, rewarding work. The other issues that met general agreement were the need to rebuild the aging infrastructure left by the Air Force and the lack of awareness of relevant training and education for young people who aren’t college bound.