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Better Together

by Amy Kretser

Efficiency. Flexibility. Social Responsibility. These solid themes were represented at the annual Strictly Business Forum, presenting proof the North Country business community is nothing if not inventive. Community leaders were asked to consider 2023 and each identified unique challenges they faced throughout the year. More importantly, they continued moving into 2024 equipped with confidence, experience and new ideas that will inspire continued growth in our region.

Joining me at our Forum table were:

Heather Couture, VP Relationship Manager, NBT Bank

Mark Crawford, Partner, Burnham Benefits Advisors

Garry Douglas, President, North Country Chamber of Commerce

Mark Hamilton, Executive Director, Plattsburgh Housing Authority

Jessica Hanson, Business Manager; Riley Ford

Pat Leary, Owner, PM Leary, LLC

Connie Wille, CEO, Champlain Valley Family Center

Connie Wille began our discussion. “Last year was incredible for Champlain Valley Family Center. We were awarded a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) Grant to develop a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic that will allow us to enhance our services to children, adults and families. Also we will sign a lease today with MHAB Life Skills Campus to develop and open a Crisis Stabilization Center that will offer 24 hour a day services for individuals in mental health or substance use disorder crises.”

Mark Hamilton offered, “There is a great need for affordable, safe family housing and we are working hard to address that. 2023 has seen substantial growth for our organization in terms of the property management side of what we do. Historically a solid portion of the housing in our area has been managed by companies located outside of the region. PHA has been able to step in and take over in many cases, and our local advocacy truly benefits the residents and the community.”

Heather Couture emphasized the need to take care of employees in addition to customers. In this quasi post-COVID environment, she spoke about the importance of meeting the workforce where it is. “The most important thing we can do for our employees is to make them feel valued. We want them to feel that their work is worth something. It means a great deal to people.”

Pat Leary is making every effort to increase his current workforce. PM Leary, LLC. is a diverse company that focuses on fire and water damage restoration and provides building, plumbing, septic installation, and fire suppression systems. Having a workforce large enough to support the amount of work available is key for Leary. “In 2023 our work volume was dependent on manpower, but despite that I am optimistic. “ Leary and his team have leaned into the universal need for digital transformation to increase productivity. “Our systems have been upgraded. Every vehicle has GPS, and the dispatch process is almost immediate. Our employees carry iPads and customers can view estimates and approve work orders on the spot.”

The need to employ new technology approaches was important to Riley Ford’s success during COVID and in 2023. Jessica Hanson is proud of the initiatives Riley Ford has taken to meet customers’ needs. “We are a third-generation, women-owned, family business that focuses on guest experience. We believe that is the primary reason we see generational loyalty. Ford is pushing the electrification of vehicles, so the digital expansion obviously includes our inventory. In terms of sales, we saw growth in people utilizing the online experience. Even though people have the opportunity to purchase vehicles online, they come from all over the Northeast to buy a vehicle at Riley Ford.

Adopting strategies that involve implementing AI technologies and capitalizing on the benefits of remote work has been critical to the continued success at Burnham Benefits Advisors. Mark Crawford acknowledged changes in workforce culture and what employees are looking for drives many of his leadership decisions. “It used to be that employees would adjust their lives to meet the needs of their employer, but it’s the other way around now. Employees are aware there isn’t a long line of people ready to take their jobs.”

Hamilton emphasized, “There is a growing realization that life outside of an organization is no less important than what is going on internally. It used to be that employers would offer fair wages, good benefits and a retirement option and that was enough. It was good! Now it is expected that, in addition to those elements, we are flexible with time; we allow remote work. We provide employee assistance services to staff and partner with help agencies like BHSN.” Hamilton and Crawford agreed this employee-centric approach is what ultimately makes an agency or business a good place to work.

“People have gotten used to the benefits of working remotely and they are expecting a certain amount of flexibility from employers,” Crawford said. “We try to meet those needs in order to create the work/life balance many are looking for.” This flexibility doesn’t stop with his local workforce. Burnham uses the remote capabilities to hire. “We can and do work with people who live in places like Syracuse. COVID made it clear that we should use technology such as telehealth and access to mental health services to our advantage. “People are more open to receiving treatment for mental health, and it doesn’t stop there. They can get services like physical therapy and primary care appointments virtually.” While there is an inherent advantage to having more people access healthcare services, Crawford looks for a balance that connects efficiency with human service. “Our team may have meetings with staff digitally when it is more effective, but we still meet in person and our customers appreciate the opportunity to maintain that connection.”

Garry Douglas elevated our discussion of the crisis around workforce shortages, saying employers are being required to look further and use new avenues to find employees. “America has too few people. Businesses are starting to self-adjust to respond to the problem. You see restaurants closing on days they used to be open, businesses opening with reduced hours or dropping some of their former services.” He warned Congress needs to come up with a broad solution that substantially increases legal immigration. Manufacturers and contractors are turning away work because they don’t have the people to take on more jobs. “Every wave of American economic expansion has been built on immigration, fostering the American dream. People came ready to work hard and make a better life for their children. The current workforce shortage can only truly be addressed by Congress adopting a bi-partisan approach for legal immigration. When you have too few people, the answer is more people. For 200 years we have known that, but we go through cycles.”

Leary agreed, saying immigration is the natural answer to diversify our communities and expand business. “I have bent over backwards trying to find labor — no experience needed.” He spoke with pride about hiring people with disabilities and what a fantastic experience it has been. “I have found people who want to work. They have drive and a work ethic.” In 2023 Leary worked with a company in Rhode Island that provided 36 immigrant employees for job sites that desperately needed their skills, reliability and eagerness to do quality work. “I had to tell them to stop working at the end of the day.” Leary’s highest paid employees are women — a welcomed addition to a predominantly male industry.

Douglas emphasized history continues to repeat itself. Each generation wants better for their children. “Parents provide their children opportunities they didn’t have in the hope that children from the working class rise and do better for their own families.” With an increased push for all children to head to college, many entry level jobs get overlooked and businesses are seeing a gap as the Baby Boomer generation nears retirement. “Businesses need to fill these openings and those that are working hard to develop a reputation as a good place to work are faring better. If employers are stuck in the past and make inflexible demands on their employees, they get a bad reputation and experience high turnover. Other businesses get a reputation for being a great place to work because employees feel valued, they receive good benefits and their employer offers flexibility with scheduling.”

Hanson observed, “What is happening at Riley Ford includes embracing a holistic approach to workplace culture. When you look at the ways businesses are addressing Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) you start to see patterns in what makes them stand out as great workplaces. Customers want to know that you are addressing these important issues.” Environmentally, Riley Ford is making large and small impacts. “Our products include expanded options for electric vehicles and people appreciate this. Beyond that people notice we have switched from bottled water to large dispensers with recyclable cups. Our buildings are primarily heated with waste oil. From a social perspective, customers and partners want to know that we are connected to the community around us. We enjoy being able to give back through holiday initiatives, sponsoring local events and being socially responsible in new ways. We offer CPR certification for all employees after a customer experienced a medical emergency at our facility. We feel it’s the right thing to do both for staff and for customers. The bottom line is that people gravitate toward businesses that are making concerted efforts to be more responsible in these ways from the top down.”

There is a uniqueness to how business is done in the North Country. It was clear from participants at the 2024 Forum that sometimes larger corporate entities look toward places such as the North Country to try to understand and mimic our resilience to challenging economic and political times. As we collaborate as a region, we continue to demonstrate core values that reflect the best parts of rural life in America. Ultimately our genuine effort to grow better together is paying off in new ways and the North Country should be proud of its many accomplishments.

Back Row: Mark Hamilton, Heather Couture, Pat Leary, Mark Crawford Front Row: Garry Douglas, Jessica Hanson, Amy Kretser, Connie Wille

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