For 28 years the annual Strictly Business Forum attracted dynamic business leaders who sparked meaningful dialog. This year, the 29th Forum followed the same pattern. I was pleased to have the opportunity to moderate Table 1 which brought together an amazing group of people who were passionate about their business and the future of the North Country.
Joining me at the table were:
- Linda Bourgeois, President and CEO, UFirst Federal Credit Union
- Mike Carpenter, President and CEO, The Northeast Group
- Rick Dalton, President and CEO of CFES (College for Every Student)/ Brilliant Pathways
- Jim Holmes, Vice President, Abbott, Frenyea and Russell
- Jacqueline Kelleher, attorney and partner, Stafford, Owens, Pillar, Murnane, Kelleher & Trombley
- Betty Little, New York State Senator
- Bob Ross, President and CEO of St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers
- PJ Whitbeck, Vice President of Operations, Coldwell Banker/ Whitbeck Associates
Following are highlights from our conversation:
Linda Bourgeois: “In 2018 UFirst had consumer loan growth of 19.2%, membership growth of 4.42%, and double digit annualized growth in both market share and asset growth.”
With local unemployment at 3.4% and continuing to decline, and with manufacturing employment rising, Bourgeois said, “We look to hire people who have relationship and conversational skills, individuals who can listen, comprehend, communicate clearly and concisely, and have problem solving skills. We have a young workforce and any- thing we can do to help new employees in their careers is beneficial to everyone at UFirst. Retaining good employees involves competitive wages and benefits. We are looking at the possibility of assigning a mentor to each new employee — someone they can go to with questions about anything related to the credit union.”
Bourgeois is optimistic about continued growth in the community and UFirst’s ability to provide the products and services that meet the needs of its members. Her biggest concern? “The ability of our younger generation to save, live with credit card debt and remain in the area.”
Michael Carpenter: “The Northeast Group had a great year in 2018. We have grown from a small family printing business that started 40 years ago to one that includes printing, direct mail processing, product fulfillment and commercial leasing. In recognition of the tremendous growth in online retail, this year we opened a division catering to online returns, a service our clients are excited about.”
Asked about recruitment and retention of employees, Carpenter said, “It’s not just money that makes people happy. It’s things like time off and flexibility around child care and work hours, as well as above average health care benefits.” In addition Carpenter is optimistic about The Northeast Group’s newest endeavor– the MHAB Project slated to open in early 2019 in the former Clinton Community College dormitories and dining hall on the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base. MHAB will be a life skills campus that provides transitional housing and related services for people in rehabilitation. In partnership with social service agencies MHAB will work with clients in need to help them find their own version of the American dream. The dorms will offer approximately 140 rooms.
Rick Dalton: “College for Every Student, headquartered in Essex, New York, is a global leader helping underserved students from rural and urban communities in kindergarten through high school become college and career ready. We recently obtained a $11.6 mil- lion GEAR UP grant to be distributed over the next seven years that will serve students in need in seven school districts from Malone to Ticonderoga. Now, more than ever, students need to be career ready with a higher level of education. They need a degree but it doesn’t have to be a four- year degree. “
Dalton expressed his concern that students are showing more risky behaviors and have lower aspirations. “We need to make sure students get the services they need. It takes a village.”
Although CFES is his passion, Dalton has other business interests. He is the owner of The Essex Inn, which he bought eight years ago. “The Inn saw a 25% increase in revenue in 2018 with 50% of it earned during the summer months. We had been having challenges retaining good employees until I brought my son in to manage the business. With a small family business, you have to be on site.”
Jim Holmes: “It’s been a steady year for our company and for all accounting firms because there are many questions about the new tax laws that we’re still finding out about.”
A graduate of Concordia University in Montreal and a licensed CPA in New York State, Holmes is fluent in French and specializes in assisting Canadian companies doing business in the U.S. “Our firm has dealt with Canadian companies for many years. That’s our business, that’s our strength,” he emphasized.
Asked how AF&R deals with the low unemployment rates and how his company is recruiting new employees, Holmes explained the office is small and has not had a lot of turnover recently. “We are fortunate to have employees who have stayed. It’s especially hard in this business when we have to ask them to work 50 to 60 hours a week during tax time but in return, we offer flexible time off, vacation time and recognition for excellent work.”
Although Holmes is proud of the “heads-up” the firm gave clients about the changes they will see when filing their taxes for 2018, he is still not clear where New York State is on itemized deductions. “Small businesses will probably see some benefit from the 20% deduction for the business tax. We will just have to take each individual client and run the numbers,” he said.
Jacqueline Kelleher: “2018 was a busy year for our law firm. After the #MeToo movement we saw a notable increase in calls seeking advice on sexual harassment and anti-harassment training in the workplace. Beginning on October 9, 2018 New York State requires all employers to adopt written sexual harassment policies and institute training for all employees regarding those policies. This year we also received a number of calls from businesses needing advice on proposed tariffs and pending changes to NAFTA.
Regarding recruitment and retention of employees when local unemployment is low, Kelleher said the law firm gave mid-year raises to everyone. In addition they try to be flexible with time off whenever possible.
Senator Betty Little: “I like to stay in touch with the business community in this area by reading Strictly Business and attending forums like this one. Everything that will be said today is something I need to know. It has been a good year for the North Country. Grants have been evenly distributed throughout the area in order to revitalize our cities. Glens Falls and Plattsburgh each got 10 million dollars in the first round, Potsdam was the following year and this year was Saranac Lake’s turn. Governor Cuomo has been good to the North Country in that respect. The Schuyler Falls Inpatient Drug and Alcohol Rehab Center is up and running to provide not only detox, stabilization, respite and outpatient services but create jobs as well.”
Asked about her concerns, Senator Little’s response was emphatic, “Nationally it’s a nasty climate. You used to be able to disagree with people and now you have to fight with them. Fortunately on the local level, Assemblymen Billy Jones and Dan Stec and I work well together. It’s the best way to get results. We have an idea that an employer who hires a person in a recognized drug recovery program should get the same tax benefits as if they employed a veteran. We are working together to make that a reality.”
Bob Ross: “In 2018 we served more than 1,400 patients with heroin and opioid diagnoses as well as those suffering from alcoholism. We recently oversaw a $13 million renovation of our 67-bed inpatient facility and the opening of two new outpatient clinics. Our budget has tripled in the last 10 years and we have gone from 100 employees to 250. Capacity at St. Joe’s Rose Hill Adolescent Inpatient Treatment Unit was recently increased by 50% for 12 – 15 year olds suffering from addiction.
Recruiting and retaining the best employees is an ongoing challenge at St. Joe’s, like all not for profits. Ross observed, “Money is not always as important as providing a workplace with a compelling mission to help individuals and families along with establishing a Leadership Academy for employees so they can expand their knowledge, explore career objectives, and develop a sense of importance.
St. Joe’s is committed to increasing its partnerships with other organizations throughout the North Country. Ross emphasized, “Employers who provide jobs and job training for individuals greatly increase the chances for sustained recovery which benefits addicted individuals and their families. You need a good job to maintain a stable family. “
PJ Whitbeck: “The housing market had a very good year in 2018. Prices have increased throughout the state and unit sales are down only two percent. On the other hand, we are starting to see affordability slow down with the increase in interest rates. “
Coldwell Banker/Whitbeck Associates not only sell houses, they recruit new people to the area. For buyers looking to relocate who have several locations in mind, Whitbeck, a North Country native, gives personal tours of the area. As far as recruiting and retaining good employees he said the agency has fewer employees now and more independent contractors. He explained, “We reach out to future employees and other realtors through social media and we draw from the internship program at SUNY Plattsburgh to recruit. We are very flexible with schedules, which is important to a lot of people.”
Whitbeck was optimistic about future business in the North Country. “People still want the American dream of owning a home but I am concerned with the current lack of inventory – down about 25% from last year at this time — and rising interest rates.”
While each participant at our table expressed concern about recruitment and retention of employees their collective view of the North Country’s economic future was optimistic. Bring on 2019!