The 26th Annual Strictly Business Forum kicked o on December 2nd under overcast skies. But the mood inside the Adirondack Room at the Butcher Block was anything but gray as representatives from the region’s business, education, media, healthcare, and government sectors came together to re ect on 2015. e group around Table 5 was in good spirits, with both transplants and natives to the region feeling positive about the year in review, the future and proud to call the North Country home.
President, North Country Chamber of Commerce
It has been 23 years since Garry Douglas decided to “come back home and make an honest living.” With family roots in Dannemora and Lake Placid, Douglas took over the helm of what is now the North Country Chamber of Commerce. Since then he has been developing and coaxing it to its current fighting shape of 4,200 members serving five counties. He is also co-chair of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council with his friend and partner Dr. Tony Collins from Clarkson University.
John Bernardi, Executive Director and CEO,
United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc.
It was Paul Smith’s College on the outskirts of Saranac Lake that brought John Bernardi to the region 30 years ago and his love for the Adirondacks that kept him here. The reach of the United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc. covers three counties and an extensive network of over 40 partner agencies, health and human services organizations. “We have created a network that provides service to 80,000 people and what we do is a significant part of the quality of life in our region. It is very rewarding work,” said Bernardi.
Karen Stehlin, Regional Director,
North Country Small Business Development Center
Karen Stehlin was born in New York City and raised on Long Island. She slowly worked her way north, vacationing at a camp in Jay and eventually buying property in the North Country, which she now calls home. “This is one of my favorite places. I hope to retire here,” said Stehlin. She and her staff assist start-ups and existing businesses with every aspect of business management, from marketing to business plan development to human resources. With support from SUNY Plattsburgh and the Small Business Administration, the local office is one of over 900 centers in the country.
Linda Brienza, President, Triangle Electrical Systems, Inc.
Originally from Staten Island, NY, Linda Brienza has called the North Country home for the past 25 years. She and her husband, Greg, started the business over 26 years ago, initially offering traditional electrical installations, wiring, conduit, lighting, and motor controls. They branched out into the world of solar power 12 years ago which has widened the scope of their business.
Mark Lukens, CEO, Behavioral Health Services North
When the economy soured in 2008, Mark Lukens sold his stake in one of his businesses and relocated to the North Country from Pennsylvania. Lake Placid had been a family vacation destination over the years so he was familiar with the region. Shortly after the move he was asked to join the Board of Directors for BHSN. In mid-2015, he became interim CEO and recently transitioned to president and CEO of the behavioral services provider. BHSN employs over 170 employees in 24 programs serving the tri-county region.
Devi Momot, President and CEO, Twinstate Technologies
After a stint at a Fortune 1000 company early in her career, Devi Momot returned to Plattsburgh and Twinstate, her family’s company. Now in her 32nd year with Twinstate, she works side by side with her employees through the grueling process of earning certifications that will help the communications company keep pace with changes in technology. “I am continuing the work that started with my dad — anticipating needs and trends which include cyberspace security and assessing customer’s technology requirements.”
John Homburger, VP of Business A airs, SUNY Plattsburgh
John Homburger is originally from Blue Mountain Lake, and proud of that fact. “There are not many of us from there,” said Homburger. He arrived at SUNY Plattsburgh as part of the American Management Association’s Operation Enterprise, a leadership training and career development program. He completed his bachelor’s degree while his wife got her degree and they decided to stay. “I feel like I grew up here,” said Homburger. He has been a part of SUNY Plattsburgh for 40 years.
Bob Parks, Publisher, Press-Republican Media Group
Bob Parks grew up in Erie, PA and has run newspapers in communities as diverse as Sharon, PA, Port Jervis, NY, Chapel Hill, NC and Danbury, CT over the past 40 years, all for the same media organization. He has been at the helm of the Press-Republican, the daily newspaper for Clinton, Essex and Franklin Counties for the last 15 years. While many in the newspaper business and print media are experiencing great challenges, the Press- Republican is thriving. “We have embraced the digital world,” said Parks.
Karen Stehlin sees the Chamber of Commerce’s efforts as adding to a regional cohesiveness that has had a ripple effect on the visibility of the SBDC. “We have always been a regional player because we are in six counties, but with the efforts of the Chamber, the inclusiveness is more evident than ever. They perform outreach to their regional members, pounding the pavement and helping us meet the business owners. It gives us an opportunity to explain what we do and what our services are. This year we held 23 workshops and trained 300 people in small communities like Ticonderoga, North Creek and Malone.”
The SBDC is one place where seeing fewer clients can result in a higher economic impact. “When the economy was bad, we saw peo- ple who could not find a job so they wanted to create their own. Now we are seeing some solid clients, including our Canadian neighbors. They are interested in starting or growing their businesses here. The Chamber will hold a red carpet event, introducing them to local service providers and everybody is working together. Also, the banks are becoming more active, more involved and are lending again.”
Energy and technology had stellar years in 2015. For Linda Brienza and Triangle, the loss of and changes in its manufacturing client base nudged it into solar power and now they are the go-to company for installations. “After a couple of slow years solar has picked up. This could be due to a tax incentive. The wave of the future is distributed generation or fields of solar panels, which make more sense than slapping a panel on everyone’s roof. It’s like farming the sun.”
For Devi Momot and Twinstate, cybersecurity is the hot button issue these days. “Our traditional business lines fared very well in 2015: enter- prise voice, unified collaboration, cable plan infrastructure, wireless networking. We have added innovative cybersecurity offerings including “Red Team” or offensive services, where we act as ethical hackers trying to break into systems to determine areas of weakness. “Blue Team” refers to defensive next generation firewall security offerings that help to protect a company and its assets. Twinstate is poised to end 2015 more than 22% ahead of last year, in what Momot referred to as ‘hockey stick growth’. She sees tremendous collaboration and cooperation not just in our community but regionally.
John Homburger explained the challenges faced by SUNY Plattsburgh, “Enrollment has dropped by three hundred, primarily from Education, and the competition has opened its doors a little wider.” He is referring to SUNY Albany opening its enrollment from 17,500 to 20,000 students, with other SUNY locations expected to follow suit. “We have to reinvent ourselves. We are working on graduate programs in Business Analytics and Health and Wellness. Expeditionary Studies is up and running and will be online soon.” The school’s tuition- free scholarship program shows early evidence of success, along with recruitment efforts in New York City. The university applied for and won a NYSERDA grant of more than $98,000 to conduct a microgrid feasibility study. Makerspace popups and STARTUP NY initiatives are also ways the school is thinking outside of the box.
The first half of 2015 found Mark Lukens focused on his consulting business, Method3 and his teaching at SUNY Plattsburgh. Now as CEO of BHSN, Lukens sees great opportunities ahead for the organization. He looks to increase regional collaboration with other organizations and businesses to further the agency’s mission and serve the people in our communities. “BHSN services are diverse, with many touching education and employment which have the ability to directly impact our local and regional economy,” said Lukens.
“The prison break was our Super Bowl,” said Bob Parks. “It was grat- ifying to see how well we fared against some of the national media. There must have been over 30 different organizations here and we had the home field advantage. When Sweat was shot, we knew immediately where they were headed and we got the photo. It really charged up our staff. In addition, we take a leadership position through our editorial page. Our editor, Lois Clermont, recently won an award for best editorial writing.” With the death knell continually being sounded for print media, the Press-Republican is in the forefront with its digital marketing savvy. “We are proud of the way we have worked to develop our audience, averaging one and a half to two million online page views per month,” said Parks.
The Future and Workforce Concerns
“There are several major things in the pipeline that, if even half of them happen it is going to be an extremely busy year ahead in the North Country,” predicted Garry Douglas. “We need to maximize the skills of the workforce by participation in available training programs so that our under employed may benefit from new and better jobs. Our employers will then benefit from a workforce with enhanced skills. Ultimately, we hope for new employers of a scale and type that will finally allow us to grow our workforce pool by attracting new residents.”
Bob Parks sees this “tightening” of the work- force as a challenge to existing businesses to step up their game. “They will have to make sure they are doing the right thing for their employ- ees or they will suffer,” said Parks. He added, “It is not necessarily about the workforce adapting to the employer, but the employer adapting to the workforce.” John Bernardi believes greater opportunities for workers will bring employ- ees ‘soft skills’ into harder focus. “I don’t care if you know Excel, what I want to know is, “How do you interact with people, how do you solve problems?” Karen Stehlin observed, “I can teach you Excel, I can’t teach someone how to be polite and engaged.” John Homburger contributed, “In the interview I go right to the person to see if they are able to relate to peo- ple. Can they take the initiative?”
A challenge for BHSN is recruitment and retention. “National data shows a continued decline in the number of practicing psychiatrists, a specialty core to BHSN, over the next five to ten years. We expect our demand for this specialty to increase at the same time the supply continues to diminish. Workforce needs to go beyond BHSN so an opportunity may be present to approach this challenge collaboratively.”
Fortunately for Triangle Electrical, its union workers are a highly trained workforce and Devi Momot believes Twinstate is poised to employ hundreds of additional employees over the next ten years, with little difficulty attracting talent due to the organization’s culture of learning and innovation.
2015: A Year for Regionalism, Innovation and Reinvention
Look up “regionalism” in the dictionary and you may find yourself staring at a picture of Garry Douglas. It seems as if he coined the term that has slowly worked its way into any conversation pertaining to business in the area. Douglas knows from whence he speaks, as the Chamber’s stal- wart efforts to sew together seemingly disparate entities and counties have met with great success. “We reached a pinnacle in our goals when the Akwesasne Chamber of Commerce came under our umbrella earlier this year,” said Douglas. “It was a long process of relationship building. We wanted the Akwesasne business community to understand the value that the partnership would bring to them as well as the value they bring to the North Country. New leadership recognized those benefits and this move has expanded our reach, taking us into St. Lawrence County, Quebec and Ontario.” He is proud of his Chamber team and its efforts in this regard.
In addition, Douglas reflected on a very solid year for the local business community. “There has been steady, continued growth in manufacturing employment. Its 20 jobs here, 15 jobs there. This is starting to stress the avail- ability of the work force, but it means we are growing and doing well.”
The United Way had a favorable year in 2015. John Bernardi commented, “I share a passion with Garry. I think it’s critical to link our com- munities within the region.” Recently, Bernardi had the opportunity to lend a helping hand at an annual dinner for the Chamber of Commerce in Malone. ”We got a lot of attention about the work we are doing in the greater Malone area. People see that your office can be in Plattsburgh, but you can still work in a regional way. It’s key to our continued success. We are all neighbors. There may be 90 miles between us, but the issues can be very similar.”