Share Holders of the North Country

30 Years Ago…

Chuck Racette was operating a real estate office and building homes in Plattsburgh. He is now happily retired.

Neil Fesette, owner/broker of Fesette Realty, was a senior at RIT majoring in Hospitality and Tourism Management, playinga final season of basketball, and working part-time jobs to pay the bills.

Deena Giltz McCullough was doing her best to master it all—as a young wife and mother, a sales executive at NorthernInsuring Agency and establishing herself as a valuable board member with local organizations. She is now the president andCEO of Northern Insuring Agency.

Assemblyman D. Billy Jones was a sophomore at Chateaugay High School and honing his work ethic doing chores at the JonesFamily Farm before and after school.

Rich Knight was the parts manager at Knight Cadillac Oldsmobile. He is now the president of Knight Automotive, Inc.

New to town, Betsy Vicencio operated weight loss clinics throughout Virginia, Vermont and Upstate New York in conjunction with a doctor from Montreal. She is now the vice president and CFO of The Northeast Group.

David Champagne was running a sterile products department at Wyeth-Ayerst in Rouses Point. He recently retired as the managing director of strategic and transitioning sites at Pfizer and is now the CEO of The Development Corporation.

This author was in first grade at St. Alexander’s School in Morrisonville. Thirty years later and we need look no further than the former halls of that Catholic school to identify local populatton trends. Now home to the newly expanded Behavioral Health Services North, what was once a thriving, if sheltered, elementary school is now an ever-growing be-havioral health clinic that can barely keep up with demand.

The MHAB Life Skills Campus tells a similar story across town, where former Air Force, and then Clinton Community College dorms serve as transitional housing for individuals in recovery from substance use disorders. The implications of these devastating trends are far-reaching and likely not yet fully felt or understood, but as the Strictly Business story goes, there was pure optimism in the air at the 30th annual SB Forum. Held for the second time at the MHAB Life Skills Campus dining hall, breakfast was prepared and served by individuals in recovery.

In their very first issue of Strictly Business, published in 1990, Herb and Mary Carpenter made a commitment to advocate for all that is good about business in our region. The pages are a steady anthology of heroic resilience and hope, from the closing of Plattsburgh Air Force Base, which Senator Ronald Stafford at the time said “has murdered us” to the coming of Norsk Titanium, which then CEO Warren Boley called “the next industrial revolution.”

So how has business fared over the past 30 years for the individuals seated at my table? An invitation to the Forum means you’ve done more than fine, but it doesn’t mean that success has come without challenges.

Treat people the way they want to be treated

As a kid, Rich Knight remembered his grandfather saying, “Anybody can make money when times are good. It’s when times are bad that you find out who the real business people are.” During the recession, sales at Knight Automotive dwindled from 90 to 30 a month for four months running (due to GM and Chrysler filing for bankruptcy). Knight persevered and brought his business back from the brink of bankruptcy.

This year, he is happy to report that while new car sales are down and used car sales are even, Knight Automotive’s service department acquired several key commercial accounts and grew by 20 percent. The trick now is finding and keeping qualified technicians. “The days of fixing your own car in the backyard are over,” he said. “Complicated electronic systems require training and I’m having difficulty finding skilled technicians who want to live in Plattsburgh.” He is prepared to pay more to attract skilled labor as his experienced technicians age out.

Knight is grateful for the success he has had in Plattsburgh and is optimistic about the years to come. His sister, WendyKnight, former Vermont State Tourism Commissioner, recently joined the business to beef up marketing and bring Knight Automotive into the digital age. But no matter how modern things get, Knight will always stick to the basics, “We operate our business with honesty and integrity and treat people the way they want to be treated. We are real. There’s a familiarity here and that’s how I want people to experience our  business.”

Belly to belly

Chuck Racette recalled a time when cars and all manner of sales were handled “belly to belly.” He said, “How good a sales-man was at caring for and understanding his customer made all the difference. Now, if anybody wants to buy something, as soon as they search online, they
have 12 companies trying to sell it to them. Our whole business relationships have changed.”

Racette and Neil Fesette reflected on how real estate listings were managed and shared 30 years ago (These two go way back.) and how the internet changed the industry by making listings immediately and readily shareable for anyone. “From a consumer standpoint, it’s good,”
Fesette said,“but the internet has caused our customers to be a bit  less reliant on us for information because it is so available to them on line.”

Fesette Realty has navigated this and many other changes in real estate over the past 20-plus years,including the unprecedented redevelopment of Plattsburgh Air Force Base. He is proud that nearly every building that was abandoned by the Air Force is back on the tax rolls. “A lot of
hard work went into that and it’s truly an amazing story.”

Fesette shared the fact that he and many others at the Forum have invested heavily in the area. “I feel like a shareholder of the North Country. Ninety percent of what I have invested is in the community.” He attributed his own success and the success of the region in the blue collar nature of the workers here “who pull their boots on very day and just get after it.”

“Our ability to always step up, and our capacity to care for others, no matter what  s something unique to our region.”

—Deena Giltz McCullough

It was a good year for Fesette Realty. Residential sales remained steady and there was growth in the commercial end of the business. An uptick in the average sale price for homes in Clinton County ($160,843) is due to lack of inventory.

Assemblyman Billy Jones explained housing is a major concern for his constituents, along with childcare and transportation. For businesses, the big issue is workforce. “We have great businesses here. Now more so than ever they are sympathetic to the needs of the community and willing to give people an extra chance,” he said, referring to the legislation he successfully proposed to provide tax credits to businesses that hire recovering addicts. Starting in 2020, the subsidy will pay employers up to $2,000 per qualified employee, employees must have worked at least 500 hours in a year and be in a rehabilitation program approved by the State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.

Additionally, as a member of the Upstate Cellular Task Force, the Assemblyman said he will focus on expanding cell phone and broadband coverage throughout the district over the next few years. “New York State is leading the broadband initiative,” he emphasized.

Leading the charge

In 2019, the New York State Society for Human Resources Management ranked Northern Insuring Agency #4 in the small business category (15-99 employees). Not surprisingly, Giltz McCullough’s business continues to grow, with personal referrals up this year. “People like doing business with their neighbors,” she noted.

When it comes to attracting and keeping employees, McCullough and her team have worked hard to create a culture that demonstrates corporate social responsibility, provides flexibility and generously meets the needs of modern professionals.

“Communities, like people, are defined by moments—maybe a tragedy or an opportunity—the things that allow you to grow and become a whole different human. Our ability to always step up, and our capacity to care for others, no matter what, is something unique to our region,” McCullough said. And if caring for others is indeed the soul of this community, she believes that better access to quality mental healthcare is a needed first step in redefining the general population’s image of Plattsburgh.

A beautiful, historical change

“Everybody was worried to death that the Air Base closing would break us,” said Racette. “And here we are, 30 years later and it has been a beautiful, historic change.”

Vicencio remembered that thirty years ago when a new business came to town it was overshadowed by the Air Base. In contrast, today when a new business comes to town it is embraced and supported by the community. She said, “We welcome new businesses and new ideas. I don’t know that I felt like that as a newcomer 30 years ago.”

Like McCullough, Vicencio recognized the potential in defining moments and believes the North Country is in the midst of one. Business is booming but societal challenges like addiction and mental health disproportionately affect the entry-level workforce, coupled with black-and-white
welfare programs that disincentivize going to work. She said that adding MHAB to The Northeast Group’s existing divisions (printing/mailing, warehousing/fulfillment, real estate, Strictly Business) has created a cultural energy that gives the organization’s 58 employees, including three at MHAB, a sense that they are working toward something that changes people’s lives.

She credited the Carpenter family with building a legacy worth expanding. “It gives Mike (Carpenter) and me the latitude to explore our passions and do things that are important to us. We are 100 percent invested in this community and Clinton County.”

Workforce development

As a former Fortune 100 company executive with a global perspective, David Champagne recognized something that this community does exceptionally well. “Going after companies that are the right size and fit for this region, and finding niches with our Canadian neighbors and building programs to support it.”

Like everyone at the table, Champagne said workforce is TDC’s top issue. With its sites 92 percent full, the non-profit will put resources into a workforce development plan in 2020 aimed at increasing the skillset of tenants’ employees and improving pipelines coming out of local schools and Fort Drum. He and his team, including a new digital marketing specialist, will capitalize on direct marketing and retargeting campaigns “to educate people about what businesses and opportunities are here.”

TDC isn’t just a commercial landlord; it makes decisions based on workforce retention and generation. And while one of its greatest assets is its ability to take risks and make large investments up front, perhaps its greatest value to the region is its potential to positively influence employers, guiding them toward necessary investments in automation and helping them understand that the cost of retention—offering professional development, wellness programs and flexibility —is less than the cost of recruiting and training new people.

Eight months into his new position, Champagne said he continues to be amazed by the consistent outpouring of community support, “from politicians to small businesses to colleges and universities, it’s inspiring to watch. The challenge is how to bring it all together to make sure we’re not missing any gaps.”

Indeed, the Strictly Business Forum is an annual reminder to business leaders and elected officials—all shareholders of the North Country—that by working together we can overcome any challenge and fill any gap.

Meg LeFevre is the Director of Communications and Special Programs at Coryer Staffing and a Counselor and Deputy Supervisor of the Town of Plattsburgh.