At this year’s 30th annual Strictly Business Forum, the participants at our table were by turns optimistic, disarmingly honest and overall pleased with the current state of business affairs.
Nate Wilson, owner and president of Wilson Appliance Center, Inc. and Appliance Import Distributors, a wholesale appliance distribution company, importing from across the globe and distributing across the country.
Maria Alexander, Executive Director of Senior Citizens Council of Clinton County, Inc. Alexander’s organization provides both congregate and home delivered meals, as well as a wide range of activities for senior citizens.
Bill Meyers, General Manager of Casella Waste Management Systems, Inc. which operates from New York State to Maine providing not only trash pickup but also recycling and landfill management.
Deb Cleary, president and CEO of ETS, Inc., a certified woman-owned staffing and recruitment agency with offices in Plattsburgh, Burlington and Saratoga.
Hannah Provost, partner in Lomanto Provost Financial Advisors. Provost is a Certified Financial PlannerTM professional and a former local bank manager.
John Remillard, president of the Elizabethtown Community Hospital, part of the University of Vermont Health Network, a consortium of six hospitals in Vermont and northern New York.
Rod Giltz, chairman of Northern Insuring Agency, Inc., the largest locally owned independent agency in the North Country. Giltz is a 30-year veteran of the Strictly Business Forum.
Starting with a look to the past 30 years, Giltz cited three seminal moments in the history of the North Country: the closing of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base, a period of steep decline in the value of the Canadian dollar and the closing of the Pfizer plant in Rouses Point. While these were challenging moments in the area’s history, those at the table agreed our community has survived and thrived, and may even be better off in the long run.
Fast forward to 2019. The local, state and national economies are largely in good shape and table’s members had glowing reviews of the past year.
Meyers of Casella called it “a very good year that surpassed expectations.”
Alexander from the Senior Citizens Council said her organization is fine financially and enjoys good support from Clinton County.
Cleary of ETS said 2019 was the company’s best year ever.
Wilson’s sales were up five percent over last year. He said, “We’ve seen a consistent level of growth in Clinton County. There is a lot of residential building going on but even more so in Lake Placid.” We have added property development to our portfolio. I believe there is a strong demand for quality affordable housing in our region. By building multifamily homes, we keep our staff working during the slower winter months and meet the needs of the region. The goal is to attract and retain young people to the North Country.”
Giltz called the year “solid” and explained Northern plowed a lot of money back into the business. They also hired an inhouse IT person, which they prefer rather than using an outside service provider.
Provost had one word for her partnership’s year, “Amazing.”
Remillard described the hospital’s 2019 year as solid, but noted it was the first full year with the Ticonderoga facility. He described their finances as vulnerable, noting heath care costs are reaching a breaking point. “Many people are living in poverty. A food pantry set up at the hospital’s Crown Point clinic has experienced such demand it is impossible to keep it stocked.”
With the unemployment rate at 3.8%, employers are having difficulty finding good workers. Remillard explained, “The most effective method we’ve found we call “Grow Your Own”. It is a program where we send an employee for further education, even to get a degree, so they will come back to work for us. That has been most successful,”
Alexander happily observed, “I’m very fortunate. Once our employees start, they never leave us” but she also mentioned a need to think about succession with an aging workforce
Leveraging the talent she has inhouse to up their skills and grow them into the leaders of the future is her approach to the employment shortage. Provost also mentioned succession planning as top of mind, noting, “People want to know that, as they age, they have someone they can trust to help them with financial planning.”
Cleary discussed a new educational initiative ETS developed called Ready4Real, a program to develop a bridge between school and work to support students entering their next phase, post-graduation.” Offered free of charge, Ready4Real is a series of engaging, interactive career and life preparedness lessons that all employees need in order to be successful and create career pathways that are fulfilling and financially viable.
Giltz cited Northern Insuring’s excellent benefit package as a key to attracting great talent. Northern also has an extensive onboarding program to help employees navigate their new career which provides a base for success. “Retention is key,” he emphasized. “Investing in new employees upfront lets them know they are valued and helps to build employees who will stay for the long-term.”
While wages are on the rise, Cleary noted there are still many jobs in our region that pay minimum wage. Meyers noted “When an employee calls in stating they will be late, or won’t make it in because of car trouble, I wonder if I am paying enough so they don’t have to worry about food, transportation or heat, and they can come to work comfortable.” It is heartening to see employers such as Wilson and Meyers paying higher starting wages and keeping their employees’ health and well-being top of mind.
Everyone agreed that poverty in our region is an issue we must continue to discuss and work to solve.
As we continued, much of our table’s discussions revolved around technology and how each organization was using it to do their jobs better, faster and safer. From huge, enterprise solutions to exciting new tech that will allow for tele-medicine described by Remillard, to supporting seniors as they navigate the use of smartphones at Alexander’s facility, technology advancements are helping and changing businesses.
Meyer’s described the use of tech in his business as a game-changer. “We are always looking for new ways to prevent accidents and injuries,” he said. Gone are the days of just having mirrors to help navigate a truck. Today’s modern waste removal trucks have eight cameras so drivers can
see every blind spot. They use GPS tech for efficiency and a myriad of solutions.
The appliance business has seen huge technology growth over the years according to Wilson. “Smart phones and tablets allow our service technicians in the field to instantly access parts inventories and product information.”
Provost described a new enterprise client-based solution being used at Lomanto Provost which allows her to have two-way conversations with clients. “Our clients can enter all of their financial assets, credit cards, bank accounts etc. into this system and link these assets to a goal. Then they are able to see, real-time, how they are faring with respect to that goal.”
With all the positives of new technology, there are also down sides when it comes to securing sensitive information. Remillard described the millions of dollars being spent by the UVM network on cyber-security for the hospitals.
Some parting thoughts by our group centered around the need to attract people to the area.
Alexander predicted a need for senior living and assisted living communities.
Remillard was hopeful that a new program to attract physicians to the area will succeed.
Everyone agreed on a desire to see the area’s power structure expanded to include more women and young people and the view that innovative ideas and creativity are needed to continue to propel the North Country forward. Underlying all our discussions was a deep sense of pragmatic, cautious optimism.
30 Years Ago…
“I was a sophomore in high school, working summers at Dock & Coal (now Plattsburgh Marina) and spending weekends fixing washing machines at my family’s appliance store.” Nate Wilson Wilson Appliance
“I was living in Haverhill, NH, had just turned one year old and was learning to walk.” Hannah Provost Lomanto Provost Financial Advisors
“I was working at JCEO teaching in the Head Start program.” Maria Alexander Senior Citizen Center
Rob Ivy has worked for the federal government and is a watercolor artist.
Deb Cleary is president and CEO of ETS.