The Strictly Business Forum is a phenomenon. There is no other event that gathers the diverse slice of North Country leaders from businesses both large and small, private and corporate, elected officials and public servants, non- and for-profit heads of state in one room to discuss their shining moments, concerns, hopes and dreams for the region they call home. Table Six personified this diversity with Pat Leary, owner of P.M. Leary Restorations; Dan Mannix, superintendent of the Beekmantown Central School District (BCSD); Stephen Cacchio, president and CEO of Champlain National Bank; Billy Jones, New York State assemblyman; Betsy Vicencio, vice president and CFO of The Northeast Group; MaryAnne Bukolt-Ryder, attorney; Bruce Garcia, CEO of the Joint Council for Economic Opportunity (JCEO) of Clinton and Franklin Counties; and Mark Lukens, president and CEO of Behavioral Health Services North, Inc. (BHSN).
In 2017, It Was a Very Good Year…
It was abundantly clear that what constituted a “good” year meant very different things to each of the Table Six participants. For Pat Leary, P.M. Leary’s niche as a water, fire, smoke, and mold and mildew home restoration company meant that growth was above the industry standard in the 15–18 percent range, great to most but actually down from the company’s early years when growth was exponential. “It is get- ting harder to grow. It’s hard to maintain the level of customer service because not many people want to do what we do,” explained Leary. “I have learned not to take every job so we can do the jobs we have very well. I would rather turn away a job than not do it correctly.”
“Our years are always good years,” said Dan Mannix. “Any time you get to work with kids and help them progress is good. A few years ago we reinvented ourselves with an entrepreneurship pathway in the high school, project-based learning at the middle school and digital teaching and learning across all levels. The recognition we have been receiving has been impressive. Every senior who started school on September 4, 2016, graduated this past year. I attribute it to our programming and people.”
“It was another solid year,” said Steve Cacchio of Champlain National Bank. “With 10 branches as far south as Crown Point, north to Champlain, and as far west as Saranac Lake, every branch has its own culture and uniqueness. Lake Placid is extremely different as we are serving hotels and restaurants and there is not as much opportunity for home ownership. Keene might not have the same growth as Plattsburgh, but it is a steady community. With state development money, we see people willing to invest. There is more growth in multi-family units as there is a high rental demand, so it is working out well.”
“My business is great,” joked state assemblyman Billy Jones. “As long as everyone at this table is doing good, I’m doing good.” Jones added, “This is my first year in the Assembly. It was a goal of mine to be the most accessible representative that the North County has seen. I have visited every one of my 37 towns, 14 villages, and every school district. There’s a lot of need, a lot of work to do.”
“2017 has been a better year for us,” explained Betsy Vicencio, VP/CFO of The Northeast Group and host of the Strictly Business Forum. “We had a couple of challenging years. The fulfillment side of our business is founded on Canadian importers bringing goods to the Port of Montreal and landing them at Plattsburgh where we pick, pack, and ship to distribution centers, stores, and end user consumers. The changes in the global economy, the stream of mergers and acquisitions, and the increased consumption of the retail and consumer market with companies like Amazon have changed the landscape. The supply chain of commodities and consumer packaged goods is changing.”
“I have just had my best three years in 30 years,” said Mary Ann Bukolt-Ryder. “My business is a bellwether for the general public’s sense about what the economy is like. I handle luxury divorces. There is a lot of confidence out there because people are coming in, they’re paying, I have fewer unpaid bills. I also have had rental units for 20 years, and right now I am at full capacity and everybody is paying on time.”
“In the not-for-profit human service business, there are two sides of the equation,” explained Bruce Garcia, CEO of the JCEO. “From a service delivery standpoint, unfortunately we have seen a significant increase in the need for our services due to food insecurity, the need for housing, and people lacking in job training. There is a segment that continues to be disenfranchised; more people are affected now than in the last 10 years, and that is not good. From a business standpoint we have assumed responsibilities for programs in Franklin County, so we have grown considerably and it has been a great year financially.”
“With a century of history and 23 different programs, we have spent the past year and a half starting the process of reinventing ourselves in terms of how we provide services,” said Mark Lukens, president/ CEO of Behavioral Health Services North, Inc. “We have seen dollars come into the system giving a lot of smaller community-based organizations a sense of security, and then the funds dry up. We had to figure out how to bring services to those in need and reduce overhead costs.” The organization has had success with school based coalitions, bringing counselors into schools so students needing mental health services miss less school and school administrators understand better what the student is up against. “We are now offering services in every school building in Clinton County,” said Lukens.
The Pros and Cons of 4.6 Percent Unemployment
With unemployment at its lowest level in decades, Table Six participants were encouraged to share their solutions for recruiting, training, and keeping employees. As a small business owner, Leary explained the challenges of training a new employee. “It’s hard to be competitive and do in-house training and not go broke,” said Leary. When someone is being trained on the job, two people are getting paid, but only one job is being completed. Vicencio offered Leary advice. “The Chamber of Commerce and NYSDOL offer OJT (on-the-job-training) programs and youth programs over the summer. IAM (the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing) at Clinton Community College is com- mitted to developing partnerships with local business to provide the training for them,” she explained.
“The cost to send one student to BOCES for half a day for the school year is roughly $12,000,” explained Mannix. “We send 60 kids, give them credentials, and they are still only halfway there.” Noting that this is an extremely expensive way to create a work force for the region, BCSD started early introduction to trades by bringing back classes like building trades, global careers class, and creating an agricultural entrepreneurship offering. When it comes to recruiting teachers, Mannix turns to social media. “We want to create the best environment to work in and then we market it. We want both teachers and students running in the door as opposed to running out the door. Beekmantown is state of the art, and it’s a spot you want to be as an educator. Hopefully, we can recruit the cream of the crop, because right now education is free agency.”
Champlain National Bank uses avenues like social media as well, along with employment sites like Indeed to get the word out when they are looking for employees. “We try to create career paths so employees can do other things. We cross train a lot, and it gives them a sense that they know more than just their own job. We try to hire someone who you can see growing within the organization,” said Cacchio.
Betsy Vicencio remarked upon the changing role of the employer. “I find that we are doing a lot more care and feeding now, including financial counseling, taking a role insuring our employees have adequate housing and support. We need to expand our role in the human services needs of employees. When we help them develop a better life, we create better employees.”
Lawyers are very difficult to recruit, according to Bukolt-Ryder. “We can’t hire professional people who are attorneys because we have to compete with the government sector, which will pay off their student loans.” As a small business owner it is difficult to pay off loans, pay benefits and also find someone who wants to live here. “I have been looking two years,” added Bukolt-Ryder.
For a service organization like the JCEO, the focus is on retention. “We try to be competitive with wages, cross train our entire staff, give them better benefits,” said Garcia. “We try to create an atmosphere so that when someone comes they want to stay. Once people get there they get satisfaction in their job. They know they are going to be busy, but they have a good environment to work in.”
Mark Lukens has a unique approach at BHSN. “The talent market is changing and it is contingent upon the employer to change as well. The workforce of tomorrow is more contingent, more transient, and more gig-focused than ever before. When you look at average tenure of an employee being three to five years versus the old days of 10 to 20, employers may be concerned about how much they are willing to invest in an employee when they know they are only going to be with the company for a few years. Another consideration is knowing that most of the initiatives that employers will need to generate the work force of tomorrow may take several years to build.”
It’s a Great Place to Work, but…
A new question posed to Forum attendees asked what the North Country needed to do to recruit residents to the region. Recurring themes for areas where the region is lacking were available, affordable housing and depth to the job market. For Leary, this was the wrong question to ask. “I think we should concentrate more on keeping the residents that we have.” Leary added, “Existing homes in the city need a major overhaul.”
“I like some of the efforts that have been made regionally from a health and fitness standpoint: improvements to the Saranac River Trail and the lakefront,” said Dan Mannix. “But I don’t look at it as the North Country’s job. I look at it as our job to recruit. It’s my job to build that at BCSD.”
“I think it is about getting our story out,” said Steve Cacchio. “Focusing on the things the community has to offer: proximity to Montreal, the Adirondack Park, Burlington. And Plattsburgh has everything you need from a service standpoint. Housing should be looked at,” he added. “It may look like people can afford to buy a home for a reasonable price, but then it doesn’t have updates and amenities, and then there are the taxes.”
“We want to recruit families; you have to have that base,” explained Assemblyman Jones. “We have natural beauty, the Adirondacks, and Lake Champlain, but we also have to have amenities and services like broadband and good schools. Those are the two things I get asked about the most.”
“This generation is more interested in experience and activities than ownership,” explained Bukolt-Ryder. “We have that advantage, mar- keting our area for the things we can provide. Maybe people can’t hop around in their jobs as much, but maybe they won’t want to. I came 40 years ago and never left.”
“We give tax incentives for businesses; why not incentivize people to come back?” asked Vicencio. “Kiplinger published a report in 2015 about U.S. cities offering thousands of dollars in cash and incentives to live in there.” Garcia echoed, “There is not the housing inventory that we need to start bringing people into the area.”
“We need to broaden the opportunities that are here. We need to create an environment that encourages business growth as diversity in employment options is important,” explained Mark Lukens. “There needs to be incubation of new ideas in the community.”
Cautiously Optimistic, Recklessly Pessimistic, or Both?
Common threads for optimism were faith in employees and the resilience of North Country residents. With the Forum taking place on the eve of the vote on sweeping tax legislation, there was grave concern. “My employees give me reason for optimism, we all grow together,” said Pat Leary. “I continue to struggle to figure out a way to keep growing. It’s out there, but it is figuring out how to be profitable. That is the biggest learning curve for me.”
“Our employees and our kids give me reason for optimism,” said Dan Mannix. “We have always looked long term so I have confidence in the sustainability of the system we have created. We provide all the kids Chrome Books, we have Wi-Fi on our buses and available for our students. We will use our Smart Schools Bond Act money to keep these efforts going. With the fact that half of our funding is related to tax dollars, with a $4 billion deficit on the state level, the federal tax break will potentially crush public education.”
“I am most optimistic about how dedicated and concerned the individuals in this community are, that these conversations are taking place,” said Steve Cacchio. “I am optimistic about our employees. There are a lot of people working very hard and the bank has been around for over 100 years. I wonder, how do you continue to grow in certain markets that are seeing population declines and how do we continue to get better at what we do? There are geographic challenges, uncertainty of the tax changes and how it will impact us, and the confidence factor makes people retrench.”
“It’s about this community, the people in this room, the events that I attend, the same group of people that step up over and over again,” said Assemblyman Jones. “We are a very giving com- munity, over and over again we have proven that. Concerns? We don’t have enough time. We have serious issues on the state level, on the federal level, the tax plan for this area is not good. New York pays the price dearly for that. It’s constantly on my mind.”
“Our greatest opportunities still lie with our proximity to Montreal and its urban population,” said Vicencio. “I am inspired by the resilience of this community; we are smart people and we are going to figure it all out—even when we don’t have control of the conditions that are put in front of us. The uncertainty and divisiveness of what is happening in government is cause for concern. The future of health care remains unclear and helping a multi-generational workforce prepare for retirement; tenets of common sense and common courtesy seem to be in short supply.”
“I am optimistic about our great people who care about each other very deeply,” said Bukolt- Ryder. “Also, as long as people hate each other, I’ll have a job. I am worried about the impact of the tax structure on schools, on charitable giving and its incentives; vital services can be lost. We just have to rely upon our North Country fortitude and say this divisiveness doesn’t hurt our people and find ways around it.”
“I am optimistic about JCEO as an organization,” said Bruce Garcia. “We have a great board of directors, a great management team and great staff. We have a certain entrepreneurial spirit. We could survive without state funding but the tax plan will most certainly result in significant deficits and an attack on social programs.”
“I am highly optimistic, but also cautious as hell. Talent shortages have a serious impact on the plans we have in place. Our goal is to Transform Care, it is a concept across the organization, and we need the people to support those initiatives,” said Lukens.
The Key(s) to Business Success
While customer service was a common thread among Table Six participants in the success of their businesses, they also cited intangible qualities like ingenuity, innovation, and problem solving. “Would you recommend us to a friend or family?” That is the question Pat Leary asks of all customers after a job is complete. He has also implemented lean management: plan, do, check, adjust. “It’s made a huge difference,” he noted.
“What are we giving our kids and how are we telling our story to our community, our taxpayers and our parents?” asked Mannix. “That story has to be buffered around innovation (3D printing, virtual reality, Telemeds, digital teaching and learning, career pathways, and college readiness), having an eye on the future and being nimble and ready to shift gears. The kids are ready for that, we have to be as well.”
The customer experience is key for Cacchio. “Physically in the branch, through an ATM, online, mobile channels—we need to be delivering service the way the customer wants it delivered to them. This requires constant change, we are not the same organization today, or two years from now. ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ is not an acceptable answer.”
For The Northeast Group, Vicencio cited ingenuity and problem solving as being key to longevity in business. “Starting or building a business is where the excitement and creativity comes in…having a dream and throwing all your resources at it. Running a business is a balance between crisis management/controlled chaos and throwing Jello against the wall. You have to have the best arsenal of problem solving and ingenuity in your pocket,” she said.
“It took me 20 years to learn how to run a business,” said Bukolt-Ryder. “Success hinges on a willingness to change, customer service, and results. If you cannot show that you are getting a better result than the next guy, you won’t be successful.”
“Not-for-profits have to continue to grow; they can’t be static, they have to be entrepreneurial,” explained Garcia. “Agencies that are strong and moving forward
and creating will get results. The ability for organizations to meet, talk, discuss, and cooperate is above par in Clinton County. It’s one of the biggest strengths that we have.”
Mark Lukens posed a novel approach to the tried and true motto of people being a business’s greatest asset. “Now, even before people, even surely before profits, it is purpose that is first and foremost. A united purpose, great people, and then the profits or success will follow.”
Collaboration and Consolidation Are Not Dirty Words
For Leary, an important part of creating a great North Country is less confrontation and more conversation. “People need to be more open minded,” said Leary. For the school system and community to function at its highest level, Dan Mannix advised, “Our funding methods to entice business to move here have a direct negative impact on our kids. There are other ways to incentivize. How do we incentivize businesses to come in a way that makes sense? If everybody pays their fair share, the tax bur- den is shared and our taxes will remain lower.”
Collaboration was key for Steve Cacchio. “What can we do to gain efficiencies, work collectively and more efficiently? How can we deliver what’s needed in a way that’s more efficient?”
“Consolidation. A lot of people don’t like that word,” said Assemblyman Jones. “They think it will take away the identity of small towns. Outlying towns don’t see the growth, we have got to get our people connected.”
“I understand that government can’t necessarily run like a business,” said Vicencio. It seems like we are imbedded in charters and doctrines that restrict us from the collaboration necessary to truly address the needs of our region. Addressing the infrastructure needs— water, sewer, utilities, roads, safety, schools, and healthcare—need to be the top priorities for government. How can we build something for tomorrow when we continue to fight about yesterday?”
“I do my job; Why don’t you do yours?” quipped Bukolt-Ryder. “Remember that you are a service organization and you are there to make our communities better. When we have a system that spends so much money getting elected, it becomes a disincentive. Lead not because it’s a job but because it is a calling.”
“I am concerned about services for low-income individuals, working families, and seniors,” said Garcia. “Don’t let those people be forgotten. They need and deserve services. How can we help?”