Table One – A Mix of Optimism and Caution

At Table One, the 28th Strictly Business Forum brought together a mix of financial, legal, business, employment, agricultural, and government leaders from the region. By sharing their considerable experience, they found much in common, especially their various successes during the past year, which led to a decidedly optimistic discussion.

Jesse Ringer, President of Jeffords Steel and Engineering
Ringer joined Jeffords Steel as an intern in 2005, was hired full time as a fabricated sales engineer in 2007, and became president of the company in 2014. Jeffords Steel and Engineering has fabrication facilities in Plattsburgh and Potsdam, with a combined 60,000 square feet of manufacturing space and 130 employees. They have construction projects throughout northern New York and in a good part of New England.

“We posted the best year to date in the company and we have been in the business since 1985, employment is up and we are actually in the process of an expansion project at our Potsdam location, which is doubling the size of our facility. It’s exciting,” said Ringer. He attributed the company’s successful numbers to finishing projects promptly and with few issues. He explained that prompt and issue-free delivery only happens with the involvement of Jeffords’ employees. As Ringer put it, “Asking, ‘How do you want to do it?’ goes a long way.”

If Ringer had any complaints, they were with the state regulations favoring women- and minority-owned businesses when public monies are involved. He said they are not applicable in the North Country and defeat the purpose of cost effectiveness because the regulations favor outsider participation in lieu of local firms.

Shannon Rulfs, Manager of Rulfs Orchard
Shannon Rulfs is part of the third generation of the family-owned business just south of Peru. In 1952, Rulfs Orchard began with four milk cows, three heifer calves, a dozen apple trees, and a wagon for selling fruit. Today, the business includes a new, $2 million, 9,900-square- foot farm stand with a bakery, café, florist, fresh produce, and a grand collection of pickles, maple syrup, honey, and jellies. Besides several varieties of apples, the farm produces a mix of vegetables and fruits, including exceptional corn, strawberries, and blueberries.

Rulfs said the orchard’s business is very weather driven, so this year was a great one because of good weather; however, the business also took a huge risk with its new farm stand building and would like to see more year-round traffic and an increase in tourism regionally. She also noted that Rulfs employs many students who are in their first jobs and who are having a rough time. “We are still struggling with lower entry- level jobs,” she said. “It’s a learning curve, but in the fields, we use the H2A program and hire 16 men—usually Jamaicans—April through November. It’s a really great program; without them we couldn’t make it.” On the other hand, Rulfs said that the wholesale market has been difficult. They have found that with corporations, it is difficult to deter- mine what the stores will buy from them each season.

Kent Backus, VP and Regional Banking Manager, Community Bank N.A.
Kent Backus has lived his entire life in the North Country. He began his career at Key Bank locations in Malone and Lowville. Fifteen years later, he moved to an HSBC branch in Massena, and in 2007, to a Community Bank branch there. When Community Bank began acquiring Citizens Bank locations, he was asked to move to Plattsburgh as the regional manager. From Plattsburgh, Backus oversees 19 branches of Community Bank. He likes to call it the “big little bank,” and explained that it means, “a bank that is large enough to offer the products and services that customers want and expect, yet small enough to have local decision-making that we can deliver on a very personal level.”

Backus said that 2017 was another great year for the bank with an exceptional third quarter. “When we look at our Champlain-Adirondack region, which I have the privilege to work with, it’s probably one of the most dynamic regions in the entire bank, in both core deposits and loans,” said Backus. He was very optimistic about the next five years, but said no one really knows for sure how the new tax bill will impact the consumer and businesses. As far as any concerns for the coming year, Backus added that rising healthcare costs continue to be a concern for all. “These costs significantly impact Community Bank, as well as the pocketbooks of our employees,” he said.

Bill Owens, Former Congressman and Partner at Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, and Trombley
Bill Owens served as the U.S. Representative for New York’s 21st District for five and a half years before returning to his law firm in 2015. He is a board member of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., as well as the Canadian American Border Trade Alliance. Owens has developed a deep understanding of issues affecting the North Country, especially matters related to U.S.-Canada trade, healthcare, and agriculture. At Stafford Owens, about one quarter of their business is Canadian and the firm has also experienced double-digit growth in a field that is changing rapidly due to online technology.

Owens said he often hears people say, “My kids left to go to…,” but he said it’s time to emphasize that those kids can get a good job here in the North Country. With good jobs and competition for good people, Owens said he believes there will be more pressure on wages and increased inflation.

On a broader level, Owens said one thing that troubles him is that; unfortunately, decisions made in politics are based on a minimal level of information, a level that would never be allowed in business. He added that one of the things that compounds our politics is, “People will accept in essence a slogan and they would never do that in their own business.”

Deb Cleary,President and CEO of ETS
Deb Cleary stepped into the role of CEO after working for 12 years as the director of operations and CFO alongside her mother and ETS founder, Hope Coryer. Begun 35 years ago, ETS has expanded to Burlington and morphed from a temp agency to a talent recruiter that works as a middleman between the employer and potential employee. Their direct-hire division, which has expanded exponentially in the last two years, is able to recruit and vet candidates for higher-level jobs. The company’s
contract divisions—industrial, and administrative—have also seen tremendous growth. When asked why, Cleary answered: “Because everybody needs people.” To meet the needs of ETS clients, the company’s staff has grown from eight to 25 over the last three years.

Cleary agreed that there is pressure on wages in the area as the manufacturing base has grown. “What we’ve been doing for the past two years is crunching data—exit interview information, all kinds of information, and we’re able to show companies where they stand with wages and benefits,” said Cleary. She added that ETS worked with 220 businesses last year and screened almost 4,500 people.

According to Cleary, the growth in the area has led to a housing issue. The inventory is very low. “We are doing a lot of recruiting for local manufacturing and recruiting outside of the area. Recently a young engineer almost said no to a job because she couldn’t find a place to live. She’s the type of person we want to bring to this area,” said Cleary.

Alexander Edwards, President of Alexander Edwards & Company, CPAs
For Alex Edwards, his company, now numbering eight employees, has been a decidedly family affair. Alexander Edwards and Company was begun in 1920 by Ed Gilmore. In 1946 it became Gilmore and Edwards when Gilmore partnered with Alex’s father, Alexander Edwards Sr. When Gilmore died, the senior Edwards ran the company with his wife as office manager. In 1979, when his son Alex made it clear he was staying with the firm, Alexander Edwards Sr. changed the company name to its present iteration. Now Alex’s own son, Forrest, has returned to Plattsburgh and is working for the company. In the ’70s, there were only seven CPAs in Plattsburgh. Over the years the field has mushroomed and today there are about 40 CPAs in town, including four in the Edwards firm.

Alex Edwards said his firm has had double-digit growth over the last five years, so this year’s single digit increase was no surprise. “Looking forward, I think despite President Trump’s decision that he is going to put accountants out of business, he is actually going to have to label this new tax law the ‘Accountant’s Early Retirement Act of 2017,’” he said.

Edwards said that in our tight labor market, an ad in the Press Republican just doesn’t cut it anymore. “We have done a phenomenal job recruiting new businesses with the Chamber, town, and the state’s efforts to bring jobs here. We need to make that same effort at the employee level. We have job fairs here, but we have to travel outside of Plattsburgh and recruit people on a regional level,” said Edwards. He maintained that the lack of housing in the area is due to the Great Recession, which decimated the develop- ers and construction workers who would build the small subdivisions of affordable housing.

Michael Cashman,
Supervisor of the Town of Plattsburgh
Elected in 2015 at age 34, Michael Cashman was the youngest per- son ever elected to the position of supervisor, replacing longtime supervisor Bernie Bassett. After receiving a graduate degree from SUNY Plattsburgh in 2007, he was hired by the college and worked in alumni relations and student involvement for 10 years. In 2013, he was elected to the Plattsburgh Town Council. Now in his second year as supervisor, he loves promoting his town as “a great place to live, work, play, and invest.”

Cashman was optimistic about the expansion and economic impact of Plattsburgh International Airport, the creation of the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing at Clinton Community College, and Norsk Titanium—all located within the Town of Plattsburgh. Cashman posed the question: “So what’s our role in that?” He went on to explain, “We’re a partner with business and I really look forward to continuing to support policies and procedures that will allow business to continue to grow, and to bring about a workforce that will allow us to expand our position in the region.”

He was especially pleased with the town’s aggressive water capital plan worth between $18 and $24 million. “Water is the lifeblood of a community and we are a regional water sup- plier not only to the town of Plattsburgh but to parts of Beekmantown and Schuyler Falls,” he said. “The plan is to build on three things: health and safety, sustainability, and economic development. We’re there to provide infrastructure so that businesses can continue to expand, or so that we can recruit new businesses to the region.”

Dr. Tom Gerner, D.D.S. and Co-Owner of True North Dental Group
Tom Gerner grew up in Cleveland and said the Air Force told him to move to Plattsburgh in 1977 after they paid for him to go to Case Western Reserve School of Dentistry. Gerner said it wasn’t his first choice, but he quickly fell in love with the area. After leaving the Air Force in 1981, he opened up McDental with a partner in the old mall. In 1991, he opened a new solo practice, Plattsburgh Dental Group, on Hammond Lane. In 2016, Gerner joined forces with Dr. Craig Heins and created the True North Dental Group, which also allowed him to expand the Hammond Lane facility with the latest technology and additional staff.

Gerner said he likes the Plattsburgh area because it hasn’t grown so much and prefers grassroots efforts rather than relying on grants, governments, or overarching organizations. He started a bicycling club and the Adirondack Cycling Team. “We thought the roads here were fabulous. We thought this could probably be a destination road cycling mecca.”

Outlook for the Future
Gerner’s desire for a small-town feel was echoed by others around the table. Deb Cleary and Kent Backus agreed that smallness was attractive and Michael Cashman said he could relate to the concept of controlled or smart growth, but he also saw a need to celebrate the region more— especially downtown Plattsburgh with its art and culture. Cashman truly believes that without more new people, the future is bleak. “If we do not recruit more millennials and the next generation behind us, our community will continue to be unsustainable. And I say this as almost the youngest person in the room,” he emphasized.

On the other hand, Jesse Ringer emphasized that he is optimistic because Jeffords Steel is going through a changing of the guard— with older personnel “hanging up their gloves and making their way out the door, and a lot of new professionals making their way in, which is very exciting,” he said. “It brings new ideas, new creativity.” And Ringer pointed out that the new blood brings a new environment where Jeffords can be more profitable.

Shannon Rulfs was not so sanguine about the future. She was worried about her young, inexperienced staff and how immigration changes, increases in the minimum wage, and healthcare costs are going to affect her business and the risk it took on its new building. Deb Cleary wondered why businesses aren’t banding together and supporting single-payer healthcare.

Bill Owens reminded the table of the fear in this country of government involvement. “I just read a great article about the Canadian mind versus the U.S. mind. We think of ourselves as independent and separate from government and Canadians think of themselves as connected to government, which is why they have universal healthcare (and we don’t),” he said. On the flip side and in the American spirit of free enterprise and laissez faire government, Ringer said that with the change in the corporate tax rate, Jeffords will be able to invest more in the company and increase wages down the line—a fitting theme for all businesses in the region.