Moderator: Chris Chamers | Photos by Ty Kretser
The 33rd annual Strictly Business Forum was my first, both attending and moderating, and firsts were a common theme for our discussions.
The members of Table 2 included:
Maria Alexander, Executive Director of the Senior Citizens Council.
Garry Douglas, President/CEO, North Country Chamber of Commerce.
Chris Hay, CEO/President, Dannemora Federal Credit Union.
Brittany Silvestri, VP of Operations, Hudson Headwater Health Network.
Chris Trombley, Director of Operations, Country Malt Group.
Each leader emphasized the importance of holistic thinking; looking at how their businesses impacted the communities and the North Country economy. Keeping a big-picture perspective allowed each sector to help each other when needed, sometimes even absorbing short-term losses for longer-term wins.
How did your business fare in 2022?
The Senior Citizens Council was open and our Nutrition Program and Meal Delivery Program continued — increasing by 30-40% during COVID — but the Senior Center was closed for a year and a half. It reopened in August of 2021 and folks were happy to be back. Even though seniors are part of a vulnerable population, the pandemic is now in their rearview mirror. They have their lives back. We are continuously looking into fundraising opportunities to cover the rising costs of goods, especially food and gas.”
The Chamber had a very strong year in 2022. Membership grew, strong progress was made on our ambitious goals for the year, our various funding streams were sustained and grew, and at the end of the year, we learned that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had reaccredited us at the top five-star level, placing us among only three five-star Chambers in New York.
Everything hit a record high. Record responses, membership numbers, sponsorships, federal resources for our business and economic development programs, health insurance services, everything has hit higher numbers than we have ever hit before. We are on a nice path.”
2022 will be another strong year for Dannemora Federal Credit Union with strong growth across all categories and record loan production. As with most businesses, there were some staffing struggles, but overall, we were able to maintain relatively full employment throughout the year.”
Because our core business was strong, it allowed us to give back to the community, including helping members with loans by absorbing some of the federal reserve interest rate increases thus keeping our interest as low as possible.
In 2022 Hudson Headwaters was still on the frontlines of delivering vaccines. Our Network prioritized protecting and treating our communities, resulting in more than 44,000 vaccines given this year. We have also engaged in strategic plan initiatives that creatively address the future of healthcare delivery models. This year has been an opportunity for us to enhance patient experiences and implement innovative care delivery models across several of our health centers, including both Plattsburgh and Champlain.
2022 was a strong year for Country Malt Group. Craft brewers are continually adapting business plans and adopting new ways of selling beer as beer drinkers’ habits are changing. Brewers are streamlining operations, bumping up the production of canned and bottled beer. Large craft breweries were more likely to already have significant canning or bottling operations, along with an established presence in retail stores. Smaller breweries invested in canning or bottling equipment or contracted with a mobile canning company. We did well by being near the Port of Montreal, one of the best ports in North America. We were able to adapt around the transportation issues of 2022.”
An economy is considered fully employed, loosely defined as anyone — skilled or unskilled — who wants to find a job can, at four percent unemployment. The North Country’s rate, at the time of the Forum was 2.3 percent. When there are more jobs available than bodies to fill them, it becomes a challenge to find and retain employees.
What strategies have you adopted to address the workforce challenges?
As a nonprofit, I can’t touch salary. This is a feel-good job. We deliver meals. We’re preparing 600 meals for homebound seniors. I give employees time off before the holidays. We do Staff Appreciation Days. There is a total of three of us who run the Senior Center so it can be a challenge.
The Chamber is doing its part to sustain and develop tools to help our employers deal with the continuing workforce shortage. We are planning to launch several new initiatives in 2023 including a much-expanded On-the-Job Training Program with wrap-around support services such as child care assistance and specialized training for the needs of our manufacturers — including a new welding program with Clinton Community College and Lincoln Electric. Another creative initiative we are developing with our partners at TDC is North Country Neighbors, which we hope to be cleared to announce in January.
Historically we haven’t used part-time staff, but we started doing that this year, which provided some staff flexibility that has been beneficial. We also have utilized remote work for specific cases/situations.”
We have implemented some systems that have enabled members to have more self-service options while creating operational efficiencies for the staff. We have experienced significant growth without having to increase our overall workforce.
“Beyond making sure our pay is competitive, we are focusing on what matters to our employees. We are looking at caregiver support, flexible hours and advancement programs to promote growth. We also offer free access to health care to all staff members and families within the Network, and around 80 percent of our employees are patients. It’s critical we provide opportunities for employee feedback to hear directly from them about what matters to them. We can use this feedback to better understand our communities’ needs.”
“We have raised our hourly employee rates to remain competitive, which can become a struggle with our salaried employees so we have had to find a balance. We now offer remote work for salaried employees, among other things. The office dynamic has permanently changed. But what makes our company distinct is our employee longevity. There is a lot of dedication.”
Our conversation around workforce challenges led us into a broader discussion of the forces at play in the global economy.
What is your economic and geopolitical outlook and how will that affect your business?
“While we are not immune from the national and global economic environment, including workforce and supply chain challenges, inflation and a possible recession, I like the position we are in. Our two key economic pillars — our Quebec connections and our growing cluster of transportation equipment manufacturers — place us in the right businesses at the right time. Both dynamics are poised for growth over the next few years.”
“These are financial conditions that we haven’t experienced in decades resulting in the Federal Reserve increasing interest rates faster than anticipated in an attempt to quell inflation. Personally, I feel the Fed waited too long to start raising rates and also has raised the rates too quickly. This will likely lead to a shallow recession in 2023. I would hope that the anticipated 50bp rate increase in December will be the last increase and that in Q3/Q4 of 2023 the Fed will start to lower its rates. This however is all subject to geopolitical influences which could cause unexpected impacts (Russia/Ukraine, China, North Korea).”
Theoretically a rising rate environment is positive for the financial institutions, however with the rates increasing so quickly it is having a negative impact by increasing borrowing costs on consumers. This can hurt the demand for loans. With higher rates, it is more challenging for folks to qualify, especially for mortgages. As a result, we have been very slow to increase our loan rates and, as such, we have not been able to benefit as much from the higher rate environment as might have been expected. We have made this decision to help our members despite the negative impact it will have on our net interest margin over the next 12-36 months.
Supply chains are going to be our biggest issue. Between rails, trucks and ports, we have to understand and account for how delays in delivery impact our customers. We also have to account for those issues between the Canadian-US border.
The importance of collaboration and communication across groups, especially governments, was highlighted. When the spirit of cooperation leaves the building, everything becomes harder.
Cooperation and collaboration are even more important when discussing bigger, more existential issues like environmental sustainability and diversity and inclusion.
How are you addressing Environmental Sustainability Goals and calls for greater diversity and inclusion?
I’ve always looked at people when I hire them. While I believe in a level of education, if you’re smart enough, have some experience and are willing to learn, I can teach you.
The Chamber has helped to place the North Country at the heart of the green energy economy through our readiness to produce electric and other clear transportation equipment, from buses to trains to aircraft. The North Country Neighbors initiative that we and TDC will announce in January will be an exciting move towards greater diversity.
We have drafted a DEI policy that, among other things, will have us review our products and services to ensure we meet the needs of our changing community.
In 2020 we launched the Hudson Headwaters CARES (Culturally Appropriate Resources and Education Services) Taskforce. We have engaged a DEI consulting firm, Tangible Development, to help guide us and have just completed a Network-wide DEI audit to better understand areas of opportunities where we can make meaningful change for our employees and their families.
Zero waste is a great business to be in as long as folks understand it requires cooperation on both the user and supplier end to change. We’ve worked on a lot of initiatives with our customers to limit our waste stream.”
The majority of our conversation at Table 2 was spent on education and training. All agreed the most common adversity faced in North Country is socioeconomic-based. The most impactful solution to that adversity? Continuing education and training. A well-educated workforce benefits everyone. Even though the employment rate is high, with so many skilled positions unfilled, there are plenty of training opportunities for those interested.