It was a December morning, warmer outside than it should have been and too early to conduct business. But for 26 years Strictly Business has been inviting movers and shakers to the annual Forum round table discussions. This year was no different except for record high global warming temps and the palpable absence of the honorable Herb and Mary Carpenter.
Their void left a hole only to be filled by The Northeast Group’s exec- utive team of (your favorite president and mine!) Mike Carpenter and Vice President and CFO Betsy Vicencio. Their shtick, practiced and perfected in the halls at The Northeast Group, was on point. Mike handled the role of MC like a pro, finding reason to weave in Herb’s trademark phrases, “crown jewel” and “criminal cabal,” and adding his own humanitarian message, reminding the business community of its role in caring for the least among us. Betsy handled introduc- tions, fiery as ever and looking criminally good in an orange dress and killer heels.
Whether by design or strictly serendipitous, Table three was the fun table of the morning. With coffee, piles of scrambled eggs and all man- ner of breakfast pastry sustaining them, guests dove into a rousing and humorous exchange touching on important topics like healthcare, bank- ing, real estate, and education.
After learning that three times more women were in attendance at this Forum than the very first one in 1990, Tom Murphy, president of Glens Falls National Bank and Arrow Bankcorp, did a quick calculation deducing that one quarter of the women in attendance were seated at our table. To which Matt Boire, licensed real estate broker at CDC Real Estate, immediately expressed his joy at the good fortune of being sur- rounded by the fairer sex at every turn. Maria Alexander, honest and seasoned, cautioned the gentlemen against their early praise. “We’re just getting started!” she warned.
Seated next to Alexander was Maryanne Bukolt-Ryder, a shrewd upscale divorce law- yer who was one of the first female lawyers to work in Plattsburgh. Bukolt-Ryder recalled how pay discrimination lead her to open her own firm.
“I found out one day that the senior partner’s administrative assistant, who was really just his driver, was making $10,000 a year more than I was— and I was a lawyer! I demanded a raise and immediately got $5,000.”
Finding the situation still inequitable, Bukolt- Ryder set to work tracking all of the billable hours and money she collected for the firm. “After six months I assembled the data and found that I had brought in over $100,000. Not just billed, but got it in. So I went again to the managing partner and said, “I made this firm $100,000 in the last six months and you’re paying me $25,000.’”
Six weeks later Bukolt-Ryder opened her own firm. And there she remains, 30 years later with three full time employees and plans to expand to accommodate her growing practice. “I’ve had five of the best years I’ve ever had,” she said, noting the reactive nature of her industry. Bukolt-Ryder is one of many strong female personalities in Plattsburgh who add immeasurable value to our community.
A new addition to that elite group of women was Rowena Ortiz-Walters, Dean of the School of Business & Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Ortiz-Walters is a Connecticut native who started her career as a chemist, but the lure of business pulled her out of the laboratory and eventually into academia. New to the North Country this year, Ortiz- Walters is quietly studying her surroundings and working to develop innovative ways to boost the school’s enrollment while keeping stan- dards high. With an MBA and a Doctorate in Management, she is well poised to answer one of the North Country’s most pressing concerns. How do we get students to attend school here, get them their degree and a high level of skill, and then keep them here?
In a similar vein, Sylvie Nelson, executive director of the North Country Workforce Development Board works in conjunction with local organizations, the business community, government entities, Department of Labor, and the Chamber of Commerce, along with university partners like SUNY Plattsburgh, CCC, NCCC, and Clarkson University to ensure the local workforce has the skills needed to meet employer demands.
“We are also starting to work with the high school population,” said Nelson, citing multigenerational challenges in the workplace. “Younger people have a different way of approaching things and change is hard, but I think we’re at a point when things are turning around and people understand that you can’t think the same way you did years ago.”
Another challenge in Nelson’s job is working with older, inexperi- enced and often under educated job seekers throughout Clinton, Essex, Franklin, and Hamilton Counties. “We offer literacy train- ing, and if they need to earn their high school equivalency, we work with partners like CV-TEC to provide those services.”
As a father of college-aged students, Boire interjected his enthusiasm for SUNY Plattsburgh’s North Country Scholarship. The program lets 90+ average high school graduates in Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lewis, or St. Lawrence County attend school tuition-free. A handful of other easy-to-follow rules apply, but Boire said the incentive has made it easy for his 17-year-old son to move SUNY Plattsburgh to the top of his list.
As for the senior Boire’s business, he’s has a bullish outlook for the future coming off two banner years. Boire’s bread and butter is the Canadian connection, involving warehousing, whether it be leasing or sales. CDC’s immigration and economic development work goes back to the early 1980s, and Boire has been building his own cross- border development network since 1992, which only seems natural since he grew up on the border in Champlain.
Boire predicted exciting things on the horizon, which will make a tight market even tighter, lease rates will increase, more buildings will go up, and we’ll see banks providing more loans. “It’s going to happen,” he said.
At Glens Falls National Bank, president and CEO Tom Murphy is just waiting for “it” to happen. While the whole banking world remains a squeeze margin with lending rates at record lows, the balance sheet of America as a whole and as individual con- sumers is very strong. “We’re stronger than we’ve ever been,” Murphy said. GFNB has continued to increase volume as it expands into the Capital District, doubling its mar- ket share since 1997.
Correlations between banking and healthcare were soon found between Murphy and Paul Sands, chairman of Community Partners Inc. (CPI) The businesses of healthcare and banking “cannot serve our communities,” said Sands, “unless we have some real heft and clout. The healthcare industry is consolidating all over the country.”
Sands, who explained he is “retired from the fast-paced, frenetic world of broadcasting” is fascinated by the life and death business of healthcare. It’s a “fantastic, exciting, scary, blow-your-pants-off speedy business to be in.” (That’s his opinion. What’s yours?) We are living longer than ever and, with that, comes the need for many different levels of care. As the driving member for the North Country in the UVM Health Network, CPI is making population health management the primary goal at every level.
Maria Alexander’s efforts at the Senior Citizens Council go hand-in-hand with the health- care industry’s urge to “get moving.” We all know that taking care of our bodies with good food and proper rest and exercise is the simplest and most effective way to achieve and maintain good health. This is especially true later in life and Alexander is leading an incredibly successful effort to implement healthy changes on a community-wide basis. “Because of the growth of the baby boomers and the senior population we really have to learn how to change the outlook of what a senior center is. It’s not just bingo.” It’s pickle ball, Wii bowling, computer classes, and a robust county-funded nutrition program that serves 650 meals at 11 congregate sites everyday.
Herb and Mary’s presence at the Forum this year was certainly missed, but Mike and Betsy did a fine job of running the show. As Matt Boire put it, “It’s like we have a sub- stitute teacher for the day!” It’s apparent as ever that Plattsburgh is home to a vibrant small business family that values this community and the people in it. They make their businesses work in an environment that isn’t always easy to succeed in by being acces- sible, down to earth community contributors who support one another’s mission.
In closing, Garry Douglas did what he does best, firing up the crowd with lots of action verbs. Empower. Create. Accelerate. Inspire. I finally realized the secret to Garry’s bril- liance is that he’s always positive. The man won’t think a negative thought and we are all so lucky to have him as our number one champion for this region.
Special thanks to Mary and Herb Carpenter for continuing to be the voice of all that is positive in the Plattsburgh business community.