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Past, Present and Future

by Paul Deyoe

At the 34th annual Strictly Business Forum, the talk at my table revolved around finding housing solutions and amenities to help us attract new employees and convince college graduates the North Country is a great place to live and work. We discussed the challenges that younger adults are facing and how employers and the government can create an environment that is family friendly. Our table consisted of a diverse group of business leaders:

Holly Black, President of Hurdle Group, a women-owned business that provides human resources and immigration services.

Michael Cashman, Supervisor of the Town of Plattsburgh, a position he has held since 2016.

Sue Matton, Vice President for Economic Development at the North County Chamber of Commerce.

Deena Giltz McCullough, the third-generation Chief Executive Officer of Northern Insuring Agency.

Brian Watts, Director of Operations at Argus Transportation.

PJ Whitbeck, Principal Owner and Realtor at Coldwell Banker Whitbeck Associates.

I began our table discussion by asking how each business/agency fared in 2023?

Cashman: 2023 was our busiest year yet for inquiries. Investments in infrastructure made years ago are attracting larger national companies that want to invest. (Just look at BETA Technology’s projected growth). To address a lack of affordable housing throughout the region we joined forces with the Clinton County Board of Realtors to develop a guide that tells businesses why they should locate here and how to make it happen. A new subdivision, the largest in 40 years, is coming to town driven in large part by our investments in water infrastructure along with development of new regulations to meet the new times and new challenges we face today.

Whitbeck: The demand for housing is at an all-time high for our region. In 2023 home sales were down 10% because there was not enough inventory. Scarcity has always been there in the Lake Placid/Adirondack Region, but now Plattsburgh and even Malone/Franklin County are seeing a problem. If someone is thinking about selling, they can expect to see a five to ten percent increase in the final sale price compared to what they had listed it for. Houses listings between $250,00 and $350,000 are the sweet spot to attract buyers.

McCullough: We experienced a terrific year. We were up five percent over our plan and while I remain as CEO, we named the first non-family president (Ed Davis) since 1941. As challenging as it is to perpetuate family business, we are proud to say we are now in our fourth-generation and fiercely committed to remaining independent. We are honored to have a terrific team and are actively providing professional growth opportunities to the next generation of leaders.

Matton: The North Country Chamber had a great year in 2023. A new federal grant will allow us to grow our On-the-Job Training program substantially. A new welding training program is helping people start a new career. We expanded our leadership and digital marketing programs to new areas of the North Country. Our Foreign Direct Investment efforts remain strong, and to help us increase our capacity to develop new opportunities, we’ve added a new member to our economic development team.

 Watts: 2023 was a challenging year as we expanded our foot print and made significant investments in our Plattsburgh and Albany markets. We definitely saw an improvement in Q4 in business opportunities and feel we have some very positive momentum heading into 2024.

Black: When people ask how my new business is going, the only honest response I can give is that we’ve been very busy. Learning the ins and outs of the immigration businesses was a steep learning curve for me. 2023 was a year of learning so 2024 can be a year of growth.

What strategies have you adopted to address the workforce challenges?

Watts: Argus needs to get customers their products on time while still making a profit, but we also have to consider the needs of a changing workforce — ways to meet drivers’ desires for flexible schedules so they can do things like go to a child’s soccer game or be available after day care is closed. It is important to know what employees consider most important such as 401k, health insurance, flexible schedules, or pay levels so we can align our benefits.

Black: Many employees are living day to day so things like childcare are important so they can work. I am working with Joel Wood, Director of the North American Center of Excellence for Transportation Equipment (NAmTrans) to try to convince large businesses in the area to work together to provide child care for all three shifts. Right now, insurance issues make it difficult to implement.

Whitbeck: We have had to adjust the type of realtors we have on our team. We prefer full time realtors, but in this region, it is hard to find someone to jump in 100%. They need to start part time to get going. then move into it full time or someone retiring can jump in to a part time career to supplement their income. We see 20 to 30 resumes a week from people interested in getting into the career and the largest interest is from the younger population.

Cashman: The Town of Plattsburgh’s approach to workforce challenges involves a strong emphasis on professional development, with a focus on supporting upskilling and soft skills initiatives. We recognized the unique aspects of government work in a civil service model which led us to introduce new programs such as Charter Day/Employee Recognition. We have also conducted specialized training for department head managers.

Matton: The labor market continues to be tight both locally and nationally. Employers who provide a comprehensive wage and benefit package along with an inclusive and vibrant workforce culture may be more successful in attracting and retaining employees, but have a limited pool of potential candidates to draw from. To help grow our workforce, we must use every tool available and invent new ones. Improved options for housing, childcare, workforce training, and presentation about career opportunities in our region will be key to our continued economic success.

McCullough: The key for us is continuing to be creative and proactive with wages and bonus opportunities, perks, and benefits. The number one goal in our strategic plan is to be the employer of choice, and our priority is our team’s emotional, physical, and financial well-being. We know it is impossible to be the right fit for everyone, though we genuinely care about our people and back that up with action. Two of the most favorite perks our team enjoys are vacation bonuses and closing at noon on Friday afternoons. We know people need extended time off to take care of themselves and their families.

How are you addressing environmental sustainability goals and calls for greater diversity and inclusion?

Cashman: Several years ago, we initiated sustainability measures to reduce the town of Plattsburgh’s environmental impact, earning recognition as NSERD inaugural clean energy community in Clinton County. In the past year, we successfully executed a comprehensive LED streetlight conversion program with NYPA. Our commitment to inclusive planning is exemplified by initiatives like the Town Center Smart Growth Plan, strengthened by robust public input. Collaborations with entities such as the Clinton County Board of Realtors remains integral to our approach. We continually assess and refine our policies to align with evolving societal needs, particularly in the areas of housing initiatives, recreational projects, and ongoing infrastructure development efforts.”

McCullough: Within the past two years, we have completely revamped our hiring process. We reviewed the questions we ask potential candidates and have made a tangible effort to be more welcoming to individuals that might not normally apply to an insurance agency. Some of this was because of the pandemic, though this change also intertwined with a sincere effort to be a more inclusive and accepting workplace.

Matton: One of the best ways to advance diversity and inclusion is to ask and to listen. How would the employees like to be included? What is important to them personally and professionally? What makes them uncomfortable or makes them feel excluded? Then follow up as quickly as possible in the ways you can to address their concerns. Let the employees know how you plan to implement DEI initiatives. If you cannot directly address the expressed concerns, discuss alternatives that may help to reach the goals of the company and the employees. Then work to continually improve the inclusive culture of your business, asking questions periodically to see if the employees feel progress is being made and what can be done to further improve.

Watts: We are proud of diversity in the company. In an industry that is often male dominant we have several females in key positions. We also have drivers who represent different nationalities. In addition, we have projects for sustainability. We have a very strong IT and analytics teams in place to look at the most effective path to future growth. We also are staying informed about electric vehicles and the role they may play in future years in freight transportation. While there are several potential pros to electrical vehicles, there are also some practical and safety concerns that will be challenging. 

Whitbeck: We have added “Green Data Fields” to our multiple listing service to highlight eco-friendly features and energy information to property listings. We promote energy efficiency as a selling factor and react to client sustainability needs to show an increasing environmental consciousness. Within our Board of Realtors, we have established a DEI committee with the mission of assisting our local board and brokerages achieve greater participation by REALTORS from underrepresented communities and provide a unified strategy of promoting diversity and inclusion.

Black: Currently we have a great team that is made up exclusively of woman, but as we look to grow in 2024, we are going to need to bring in some diversity, to shake things up, to contribute to new ideas and help us hear different voices. Diversity is important for ALL businesses. It’s not just a number we use for filing purposes and potential tax credits; diversity leads to growth and change and we all need to encourage these different voices on our teams.

Back Row: Michael Cashman, Paul Deyoe, Holly Black Front Row: Brian Watts, Sue Matton, Deena McCullough, PJ Whitbeck

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