With representation from the financial, political, government, real estate, hospi- tality, legal, global manufacturing, insurance, and communications industries, the discussion at Table Four during this 27th Business Forum was diverse, clear- sighted, and overwhelmingly optimistic for the North Country’s economic future.
Profits in some businesses held steady for 2016, in others they increased. The plummet in the Canadian dollar, beginning in 2015 and now at $.76, had a significant impact on the banking, real estate, and hospitality industries, but not as much on the global manufacturing, legal, or communications industries. All participants lauded the expanded Plattsburgh airport (which will begin to host international flights), the arrival of Norsk Titanium, the expansion of courses and certificate programs at CV-Tec, and the ground-breaking Institute for Advanced Manufacturing (IAM) at Clinton Community College.
On schedule to open in the fall of 2017, the IAM, the North Country’s first advanced manufacturing institute, is a 30,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility designed to serve as a regional hub for manufacturing education. It will house Clinton Community College’s technology programs as well as provide flexible teaching space and courses for manufacturers to advance their workforce.
As the discussion at the table continued, the business leaders shared these reflections on 2016 and their thoughts about the year ahead.
Thomas J. Murphy, President and CEO, Glens Falls National Bank
“Fortunately, our company has done very well this year,” said Tom Murphy. “Although interest rates remain low, and have not moved at all in several years, they are just now starting to inch up. This could actually cause movement in the market. If consumers see that interest rates are rising, they may just decide that now is the time to borrow in order to buy that home, or purchase a vehicle.”
Murphy continued, “Because of this historically low interest rate environment, our team has had to work harder just to stay even. Because of their hard work, we have had increased revenue and earnings in a very difficult market. I am very proud of their efforts.”
Bob Smith, President, Nine Platt Hospitality Group
“I’m in the hospitality business,” explained Bob Smith. “The drop in the price of oil has affected us greatly. Our core customer is Middle America. A couple of years ago, it cost $100 to fill a pickup truck, now it costs $50. For restaurants, this means a family is more inclined to use that discretionary income to go out to eat. In the hotel, during the vacation season of summer and fall, American families may travel more, thus helping to offset the drop in Canadian business. The drop in the Canadian dollar means we are doing less business along the border.”
Smith explained that he has been investing in infrastructure: upgrading telephone system, repairing the roof, and installing a water softening system—improvements which the customer doesn’t see, but they demand. “Last year, we began more cosmetic, more visible renovations at our Plattsburgh hotel,” said Smith. “But the bottom line is you can only do so much with your brick and mortar facility. Where we can do more is hospitality. We try to make every guest feel like they’re visiting friends.” And, with connectivity becoming increasingly crucial, each room has five internet connection sites. “We assume everyone has at least one device,” explained Smith.
Lee Ann Pray, Human Resources, Swarovski Lighting
Celebrating her 16th year with Swarovski, Lee Ann Pray shared that the Custom Contract department did very well. “Overall, the department doubled our expected sales in 2016,” said Pray.
“Customer buying habits have changed,” she continued. “We have a very aggressive digital marketing strategy. In fact, part of our monthly marketing debriefing includes metrics such as how many “Likes” on Facebook a product gets, and how many “Shares” for particular posts. Social media has completely changed how we get information to our customers.”
Understandably proud to be a U.S. manufacturer, Pray welcomes the new programs being developed for students in the North Country. “PTec (at CV-Tec) and IAM (at Clinton Community College) are going to change how young people look at manufacturing,” Pray predicted, “and train them for rewarding jobs.”
Deena Giltz McCullough, President and CEO, Northern Insuring
“Business is up 4 percent this year,” shared Deena Giltz McCullough. “We are also proud to have won a Best Practices Award, and that is industry wide.”
Overall, insurance rates were “flat” in 2016, except for auto- mobile insurance. “There were increases in automobile insurance due to the rising number of collision accidents attributed to distracted driving,” said McCullough. “This can be problematic for folks where a good driving record is a condition of employment.”
According to McCullough, people don’t look for jobs in the traditional ways. “Networking in person is always very valuable, but networking on social media sites, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, is how people are finding jobs today.”
A deeply held concern for McCullough is employees who struggle with mental health issues. “Employers must be sensitive to this and assist them in finding the help they need. Healthcare professionals are too few in the North Country, and an employee needs to have the insurance or other resources to take advantage of what is offered. We must be advocates for a compassionate community that has a genuine empathy for others,” emphasized McCullough.
James Co ey, Attorney-at-Law
“Being an attorney, I am impacted by the economy to a lesser degree than most businesses,” said James Coffey. “However, I am keenly aware that there are a large number of people, many of whom have advanced degrees, who are having a very difficult time finding employment that is commensurate with their education. It appears to me that currently the economy, nationally and locally, is bifurcated with some people doing very well and others struggling.”
Coffey expressed a hope that the large businesses coming into the North Country pay attention to our infrastructure, especially with regard to workforce talent and our school systems. “There needs to be a balance,” he said.
Devi Momot, CEO, Twinstate Technologies
“Our year has been exhilarating,” said Devi Momot. “Cyber attacks are increasing because it is an easy way to extort revenue. The U.S. is a big target, and responding to incidents is a major concern. Ransomware and malware are prevalent on the networks throughout the region. To alleviate this, we’re working with government organizations to protect individuals and companies, and our organization is expanding our national presence.”
In 2016, Twinstate hired 14 employees. Momot explained, “We’re growing a lot of cybersecurity jobs, especially in areas such as assessments, incidence response, defensive technologies, and consulting. The key in cybersecurity has been to provide big business solutions on small business budgets. We are able to protect more businesses better than ever before. Our other business lines have been strong as well including infrastructure (cabling and wireless) and unified communication (voice). We are well positioned to not just survive, but thrive.”
Elizabeth Little, NYS Senator
Known to her constituents as “Betty,” Senator Little is pleased to be serving her seventh term representing over 300,000 residents in Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Warren, and parts of St. Lawrence and Washington counties. With a district the size of Connecticut, and the Adirondack Park right in the middle, Little must strike a delicate balance between the need to create and sustain employment for year-round residents with the environmental restrictions and concerns for precious wilderness.
“In addition to getting re-elected, both of my cities (Plattsburgh and Glens Falls) won the $10 million challenge,” announced Little. “I am convinced that the way to make a downtown grow and be prosperous is to have people actually living there. We need more year-round residents across the board, and they need consistent and reliable broadband and cell service. Businesses have to have internet in order to offer employees flexible work hours, and people, especially rural people, need connectivity.”
To encourage Canadian visitors, who continue to visit here even with the unfavorable exchange rate, Little suggested that more charging stations be installed throughout the North Country. “A lot more Canadians drive electric cars,” she said.
Neil Fesette, Broker/Owner, Fesette Realty
“We had a good year,” contributed Neil Fesette. “The residential and commercial real estate market experienced an uptick, which I attribute to consumer confidence and the low interest rate environment. It will be interesting to see what happens once the new presidential administration takes hold and how the economy will be affected by fis- cal policy changes. One area of our business that has been under pressure the last few years is our full-service camping facility, Plattsburgh RV Park. The decline in value of the Canadian dollar has reduced our overnight business by 25 percent. There are simply fewer Canadian visitors coming to Plattsburgh, and this is solely caused by their weak dollar.”
A concern Fesette expressed, that was echoed by all at the table, was the current tax structure in New York State. “I think we have a resilient, hardworking business community, and I’m happy to be part of that team. My concern is New York State’s tax structure makes it hard for many small businesses to make a reasonable profit. High taxes definitely make it challenging to attract new businesses to the area.”