Facing Challenges, Finding Solutions

In its 26th year, the annual Strictly Business Forum brought together an eclectic mix of business and community leaders from the North Country. At Table 4, we had educational, industrial, and business leaders whose long experience, love of the area and desire for new challenges led to a lively and insightful discussion.

Colin Read, Professor SUNY School of Business& Economics, owner of Champlain Wine Company, Clinton County Legislator, author and journalist. Fortunately for us, Read was attracted to the North Country’s rural climate after living several years in Alaska. Before join- ing SUNY, he was Associate Dean of the School of Management at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and Dean of the School of Business at Central Connecticut State in New Britain, CT. In 2005, he moved to the Plattsburgh area to become Dean of the School of Business & Economics. Since then he has served the community in countless ways from his tireless promotion of downtown business and viniculture, to his role as an advocate for more regional economic development and cross-border relations.

Read brought up the challenge facing universities of post baby boom demographics which has created fierce competition among colleges for student enrollments. Instead of wrestling for a smaller piece of the pie, Read says SUNY Plattsburgh has to figure out how to be different and create niche programs that are relevant to the Adirondacks and sustainability. Through Vision to Action and Vision 2040, we “have been talking about community sustainability for six or so years. We did an analysis that showed just to maintain our quality of life in this area we would need to attract about 3,000 new families to stem the loss and the movement to Florida as people retire. The type of fami- lies we really need are the ones who are going to put their kids in our schools, drive the plow trucks, teach our kids, and have entry to mid- level jobs. Before we can do that we have to do two things. We have to create the jobs for them and we have to give them a reason to come here rather than go someplace else like Eugene, Oregon or Boulder, Colorado. These are the places we compete with. We don’t compete with Peru and Chazy.” Read is concerned that instead of gaining we are losing population and will end up not having enough highly skilled workers for high paying employers who want to locate here.

As a Clinton County Legislator, Read has noticed tax revenues declin- ing slightly partly because of the weakening Canadian dollar. He pointed out, “Canadians coming from Quebec have been the bread and butter of our retail industry and they are tapering off. We have faith it is just a short term phenomenon and the dollar will rebound, but it makes us very aware of how our relations with Canada really drive our local economy.”

David Coryer, part owner and Vice-President of Business Development at ETS, Inc. The Coryer family moved to the Plattsburgh area when David was in eighth grade. He went to Beekmantown Central School and SUNY Plattsburgh before heading west. He has worked in the world of employment recruitment since 1999 when he joined a large global staffing firm in Denver and later worked in Chicago. In 2004, he returned to the North Country to work in his family’s business and in 2014, his mother, who founded the firm, retired, handing the management of the firm over to David’s sister Debbie Cleary -President, his brother-in-law Dan Albert – CFO, and David as VP Business Development. ETS has been one of the area’s premier staffing and recruiting agencies for more than 30 years.

“In recent years, ETS has been fortunate as the companies surround- ing us are doing well. Every week we are in business we employ more than 400 people working at 70 plus local companies.” As ETS is posi- tioned to expand into other markets, the main focus is still the North Country. When asked about challenges the company faces, Coryer noted that attracting people who are reliable and want to work is its primary focus. The labor pool that is here is somewhat limited, but Coryer and those employed at ETS are ever optimistic. To find more qualified recruits, ETS supports pre-employment training pro- grams such as AIME, funds a local scholarship at SUNY Plattsburgh and encourages its employees to mentor students in the Adirondack PTech program at Peru School.

In addition Coryer and his co-worker Sarah Merkel have reached out to all the public schools in the region to assist their administration and career counselors in establishing a better understanding of the employment opportunities in the North Country. “We want people who go to school here and wish to live here to have good paying jobs and suc- cessful careers. At ETS we believe in a North Country with unlimited opportunity. Every day we are in business we work hard to pro- vide this ideal to all of the individuals with whom we work.”

Coryer said that in his world being reliable and showing up every day really has merit. The expectation that more companies will relocate here may create additional competition for talent, but they will also provide the strong paying jobs that will make the goal of attracting 3,000 new families truly attainable.

Bill Meyers, General Manager of Casella Waste Management in Plattsburgh. Meyers has been in the waste and recycling business since an internship following graduation from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania two decades ago. Originally from just outside Pittsburgh PA, Meyers moved to Plattsburgh in 2003. Even though he has been in the busi- ness for 21 years, the last five years have been by far the most exciting mainly because of advancements in technology, for both recy- cling and collection vehicles. He explained Zero-Sort Recycling® has been a game changer for our area. While Casella is a large corpora- tion with a small market niche based in the Northeast, Meyers’ division prides itself on its local nature with 41 employees servicing Clinton, Essex and Franklin Counties.

According to Meyers, recycling has been key to Casella’s growth. “A lot of businesses, espe- cially industrial customers, are looking for alternative ways to not only save but eliminate what they are throwing away. Instead of traditional recycling efforts, they are looking for ways to create materials from the byproducts they manufacture.” By identifying recycla- ble materials, Meyers said Casella has helped many of its clients reduce their trash volumes by up to 35%. The items that cannot be recy- cled end up at the landfill and contribute to the production of methane gas. The methane gas is in turn used to generate electricity. He invited us all to schedule a tour at the Clinton County landfill which has become a sophis- ticated designed facility.

Bob Smith, owner and president of the Nine Platt Hospitality Group. Smith moved to Plattsburgh with his family in 1956 when his father opened a Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Route 9 North. Bob started working in the family business at age 14 when his father needed a dishwasher. After college and the Navy, he returned to the family business which had expanded to nine restaurants from Watertown to Vermont. Growth continued until they found the Howard Johnson’s chain self-destructing around them. Currently Nine Platt includes the Ground Round Restaurant and the Best Western Inn on Smithfield Boulevard in Plattsburgh.

A constant for Smith through the years has been his involvement and commitment to the area’s business community. There is hardly an organization or board that Bob Smith hasn’t been involved with in some way.

For Smith, growth and competition is indic- ative of a growing community and “that is good but with the Canadian exchange rate going south on us, there are going to be a few difficult years in the hospitality indus- try and we just have to wait it out.” One of Nine Platt’s key challenges is employment and retaining people. The company prides itself on the longevity of its employees and creates a professional environment with 401k and healthcare plans which is a chal- lenge in a business with slim margins. Smith said a huge challenge for his business will be the increase in the rate he will be paying restaurant servers beginning in January. While some competitors are “finding ways to eliminate people by putting tablets in front of you instead of servers, that’s not hospitality in my opinion. That one change will affect my restaurant somewhere between $75 – 100,000. We can’t absorb that.” He noted that the move to push wages to $15 per hour will result in prices going up.

Jina Baker, Account Manager for Kaman Industrial Technologies in Plattsburgh.
Kaman began when Charles Kaman created the Kaman helicopter 70 years ago, became a major aviation supplier and then diversified into an aerospace and industrial distribution company. With 4,600 employees nationwide, Kaman is a huge, low-profile company. The industrial segment is a power transmission, motion control, electrical, automation and fluid power distributor. Every year Kaman continues to enlarge its footprint and provide innovate solutions to keep the country’s factories running. It has been a quiet, behind-the-scenes success story on Veterans Lane in Plattsburgh since 1979.

Jina Baker, a Plattsburgh native, has been with the firm for more than 25 years and manages a territory that covers a good portion of northern New York and Vermont.

Baker said that Kaman mirrors manufacturing’s ups and downs. She was enthusiastic about local business in 2016 because of the new companies coming to town, but sees a concerning trend as large corporations buy up smaller local companies and deci- sions are made from afar.

Outlook for Tomorrow and the Next 25 Years
Looking ahead the people at Table 4 talked about their love of the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain, but also the epidemic of drug abuse and addiction they have personally seen, the disparity between the “1%” and a disappearing middle class, the information overload, and students left behind in school because of the burden of poverty.

Coryer was optimistic that the number of good paying jobs will continue to increase in the North Country, especially if technology companies require their vendors to manufacture core components in the United States as has been rumored. “Global Foundries and their many suppliers and subcontractors have the capacity to increase demand for advanced technology programs in our region’s schools. This will undoubtedly provide a broader base of opportunity in our region for generations to come.”

Baker is concerned about both the challenge of training the workforce of today that often doesn’t have the traditional skills passed from father to son, and the workforce that will be needed five to 25 years down the road when the scope of most jobs will be radically different.
Colin Read is a forceful advocate for investing in our community infrastructure. “Downtown vibrancy is key to our county’s success and when people come to town on a Sunday and see it closed they are not coming back.” For Bob Smith, a great improvement would be moving the Farmer’s Market to Trinity Park next to City Hall. In addition we need to foster pride and be more positive about ourselves. He pointed out how much has happened in the last five years such as the Strand restoration, Max’s Treehouse and the Saranac River Walk.

Twenty-five years from now, Meyers hopes small businesses will still be in the discussion and challenged to keep up with the pace of get- ting products to consumers faster and smarter. Bob Smith said we will still be talking about how to manage growth, but the subject will be building a bridge across Lake Champlain and what to do with the Crete Center land.

Everyone at the table nodded as Colin Read observed that our older generation is staying active much later. “That healthfulness is making it harder for younger people to bring in new ideas. We need to make room for them. I hope in 25 years we have man- aged to do that. The responsibility is on us more than on them.”