Moderator: Carol Blakeslee-Collin | Photos by Ty Kretser
A distinguished group of community and business leaders with extensive experience in business development, government, human resources, finance, publishing, and technology, gathered for a morning conversation at the 33rd annual Strictly Business Forum. Their passion for their work and love of the area showed through their comments as they shared their many successes, frustrations, and challenges.
Steven Cacchio, President and CEO, Champlain National Bank
Cacchio has been focused on community banking in Upstate New York throughout his career. With an MS in accounting from Syracuse University, he worked for a number of years as a bank examiner and then in a number of responsible positions for Syracuse’s Alliance Bank. He then moved on to become the Chief Operating Officer of the $800 million Savings Bank of Danbury, Connecticut. In 2015, when Champlain National Bank called, he, his wife, Carol, and two sons moved to the North Country.
According to Cacchio, “The first half of 2022 started off relatively strong as consumers and businesses still had increased spending coming out of the pandemic. This related to good loan demand. As interest rates were increased to reduce inflation, we have seen a noticeable reduction in loan demand.” Cacchio says that the pandemic forced the bank to be more creative concerning staffing disruptions and the real possibility of losing more of their workforce. They needed more, “flexibility with a hybrid work environment where possible and we had to let employees know we understand and appreciate everything they do for the organization.”
Robin Pierce, Executive Director, the Advocacy and Resource Center
After long stints managing the finances of Mountain Lake Services and as Executive Director of Smith House Health Care Center, Pierce joined Clinton County’s Advocacy and Resource Center in 2019. She manages a staff of 700 who do their best to ensure that people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities reach their dreams and goals and find a full and productive life. It is no surprise that since the organization is a high stress healthcare agency, she worries about short staffing and her current staff burning out. Furthermore, as an agency that is funded mostly by government funding, ARC faces budget and operational restrictions. ARC’s rates are predetermined by New York State and therefore, cannot just increase the rates they charge. Thus, competing with other industries who can raise their staff wages makes it challenging for ARC and organizations like them. Some choices made have been to consolidate program space, stop some services or close some homes and put people in larger settings. Even after reorganizing, Pierce is facing difficult staff shortages. This is true on all levels, but it is especially challenging to recruit and retain professional level employees due to all the competing employers, especially New York State.
Lamiaa Aly, Publisher, the Press Republican
Forty-six-year-old Lamiaa Aly has been at the Press Republican for fifteen years. Originally from Cairo, Egypt, she moved to New York City in 1997 where she worked in accounting and human resources before moving to the North Country in 2001. At the Press Republican, she started in the business office but as the PR editor-in-chief Joe LoTemplio describes her, “She became a jack of all trades, and master of them all.” Her passion for newspapering and devotion to local papers made her an obvious choice for publisher. A constant worry of hers, besides waking up in a news desert, is the PR’s aging printing machines and a future lack of press operators who know how to run them.
Devi Momot, President and CEO, Twinstate Technologies
Twinstate Technologies is a fifty-four-year-old family business founded in Plattsburgh who makes it their collective mission to help small business clients thrive in selecting and deploying technology systems through a security-first, client-focused approach. There was never any doubt for Momot that she would eventually work in her family’s business. With degrees in engineering and business, and IT security certifications such as GSLC, CISSP, and GISP, Momot makes sure Tw instate keeps pace with the ever-changing technology in her industry, amid our digital transformation.
At our table, she advised us to “Look beyond where you might be able to get in comparison to your competition. Think big and be different but be calculated in your approach. Know if you are on a good path quickly and if not, take out the emotion and change course. As we believe at Twinstate Technologies™, to the point that it is part of our Vision, ‘Small and incremental innovations lead a dominant business to stay ahead, radical innovations enable it to leapfrog others.’ These types of innovations are almost always connected to technology and digital transformation. No matter if you are looking to remain ahead or leapfrog, it’s important to embrace ideas and change, then go for it.”
Ryan Lee, Client Advisor, Hickock and Boardman Insurance Group
Lee joined Hickok & Boardman Insurance Group (H&B) in March 2018 as a Client Advisor, specializing in business insurance and risk management. In 2019, Lee and H&B established their Plattsburgh office to better support their Upstate NY clients. Today, the local Plattsburgh branch has grown to a team of four with additional open positions available as well.
His firm is also trying to identify meaningful ways to dovetail technology with the services they offer. “It’s critical for us to maintain a human experience with our clients, but we can accomplish more in a shorter period of time by leveraging AI and some other technologies that are becoming available to us. A key differentiator for our firm is our local on-staff safety advisors and workers comp adjusters. By leveraging digital resources, we’re now able to provide their valuable services in a digital format that’s still customized for the client’s needs.”
Kim Manion, Director – Finance and Operations, Adirondack North Country Association
Manion grew up in Plattsburgh but then followed her wanderlust, living and traveling in many places around the world including several years at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC. With a Jesuit education (Boston College) and a BA in finance and an MA in Human Resources and Management, Manion has pursued two passions: philanthropy and small business development. Since her return to the North Country, she owned and operated Maui North Ski, Bike and Board Co. and worked with the Small Business Development Center before joining ANCA.
Manion says that it is an exciting time to be at ANCA as success breeds success. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently granted them $550,000 to fund their Adirondack Diversity initiative and climate justice projects. NYSERDA selected ANCA as a clean energy hub partner and awarded them over $4,000,000 to use for clean energy projects over the next four years. National Grid awarded them support for their Center for Businesses in Transition and the Small Communities Big Opportunities conference coming up in February where small business owners interested in selling their businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to discuss potential transitions. Their list of grants goes on and on and Manion is delighted to find herself there where she can work from home four days a week and in Saranac Lake, ANCA’s home office, one day a week.
Andrew Wylie, District Attorney, Clinton County District Attorney
Wylie has been Clinton County’s District Attorney for seventeen years. Prior to being elected Wylie was a criminal defense attorney in practice with his father, Robert P. Wylie, for seventeen years. Since taking office he has successfully prosecuted innumerable serious violent crimes including homicides, sex offenses as well as drug cases. His office now has seven Assistant District Attorneys with specific assignments for violent crimes, sex abuse, domestic violence, drug, prison, and D.W.I. cases. Wylie’s office also works closely with the Domestic Violence Task Force and the Clinton County Child Advocacy Center which Herb and Mary Carpenter were an important part of getting the Center started. Our office further works with our drug and mental health court treatment programs in Clinton County.
According to Wylie, the drug business is quite profitable in the North Country, especially in Clinton County and he says most crime is drug related, including serious crimes such as homicide as well as larcenies and robberies. He also notes that Covid enhanced the crime rate because domestic violence increased.
Virtually everyone spoke about the challenges they face hiring and keeping good people, especially with the disruptions and isolation created by the pandemic. The name of the game at our table was retention, retention and as Steve Cacchio put it, “letting employees know we understand and appreciate everything they do for the organization.” For DA Wylie, the heavy workload in his office makes it difficult to hire lawyers just out of law school. He notes that his office is required to prosecute cases whereas the courts provide public defenders. Like others at the table, he emphasized the need to find the right fit and not get the wrong type of person. Manion says at ANCA, they would rather not hire than get the wrong person. Besides hiring and keeping good people who fit the organization’s culture, better pay and notably more time off were high on employees’ list of expectations. Ryan Lee says his firm’s policy is to allow employees who need time off to take it.
Many mentioned the downturn in the number of people applying for positions and applicants not showing up for interviews. They all would like more racial diversity in their workplace, but the North Country’s ethnic mix makes that goal difficult if not impossible. However, more of a gender and geographical mix and more people with disabilities was another matter and looked at as highly desirable. Also prevalent was a situation created by the pandemic: workers got accustomed to working from home and now don’t want to go back to an office. A hybrid job with the ability to work both at home and in the office has become the new ideal. Kim Manion says she is ten times more productive working at home but is only able to because she works for an organization whose culture emphasizes accountability and above all, flexibility. As a result, everyone at ANCA is available and works together from 10am to 2pm and face their various challenges around that time.
Twinstate was prepared for remote work when the pandemic hit as they had worked from remote for decades. Post pandemic, her team is working with clients to refine business continuity systems and plans, as incidents can and do come in any form. She added that Twinstate continues to implement automation to increase the monitoring and thwarting of adversaries, keeping their clients in business and successful. TK Robin Pierce from the Advocacy and Resource Center reorganized her agency and because of the decline in employees expects to focus on increased collaboration with other agencies in 2023.
Ryan Lee and Devi Momot brought up the cybersecurity issue and the fear of hackers using impersonation of innocent people then exploiting their friends or trusted colleagues into providing money, access, gifts, etc. As Lee pointed out sophisticated hackers can be in your email for a year before you find out. Momot noted that Chinese and Russian IT students are taught how to successfully scam trusting Americans in tech school, that it is a national security issue for our entire country. She worries that future elections and our economy may be affected resulting in a loss of freedom. Ryan Lee worries that cyber policies may not cover the latest development. Both Momot and Lee believe more effort and funds should be invested in prevention.
Besides cybersecurity, information technology has impacted every industry and business at our table. Kim Manion says ANCA is always looking for new IT possibilities since much of their workforce works remotely. Lamiia Aly laments the inability of the Press Republican to afford the new printing technology now available and they are stuck with aging printers that break down. Cacchio notes that his bank is “only taking advantage of a small percentage of their existing system’s capabilities.” That seemed to be the general feeling at Table 6. They would like their company or agency to both to know and use more information technology. We’ll see what the future brings.