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Struggles and Successes

by Mary Carpenter

For the past 34 years, if it’s December, it’s time for the Strictly Business Forum. The purpose of the Forum is to bring leaders from disparate areas of the North Country economy together to share news about their businesses and the issues they face. This year I was privileged to moderate one of the round table discussions. Joining me were:

Kevin Brady, Partner at Long Run Wealth Advisors,

Michele Derrigo-Barnes, President & CEO of Plattco Corporation, the youngest and first woman to lead the organization in its 126 year history.

Victoria Duley, Executive Director of the Adirondack Economic Development Corporation,

Dr. Alexander Enyedi, President of SUNY Plattsburgh,

Kristy Kennedy, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at the North Country Chamber of Commerce,

Nicole Laurin, CEO of the Joint Council of Economic Opportunity (JCEO), and the organization’s youngest leader.

Jon Rulfs, Partner of Adirondack Farms, LLC,

After spirited introductions by Mike Carpenter I posed our first question and then sat back to listen as the conversation about common problems flowed and potential solutions were shared. Following are excerpts from the discussions.

How did your business fare in 2023?

Brady: Our business spans the North Country, from Saratoga to the border and west toward Watertown. 2022 was a rough year for most investments. Interest rates had gone high and markets were down, but 2023 saw a rebound. Our client base was happier with the growth of their portfolios. There was a sense that things were settling down and getting back to normal. During the pandemic we saw some folks move to the North Country and that created an opportunity for us. It motivated us to expand our business and do some hiring. While impacts of the post pandemic are still happening, it’s an interesting time for the area.

Laurin: JCEO is a community action agency providing a wide range of services in Clinton and Franklin Counties. We assist with emergency services such as rental assistance and utility bills, home weatherization for energy efficiency and to lower household expenses for low-income families, help maintain seniors in their homes, assist registered daycare providers, operate Head Start and the list goes on. In addition, food insecurity assistance is huge for us. We have over 20 locations in Clinton and Franklin Counties between our food pantries, Outreach Centers and Head Start classrooms. 2023 presented a number of challenges for us. We had fewer donations and fewer volunteers. Staffing issues and staff morale post-pandemic continue to be concerns.

Duley: We are a regional not-for-profit economic development organization that concentrates on small business assistance. While we cover 14 counties; our primary focus is the seven counties of the North Country. I am pleased to say we had a very good year in 2023. It was one of our stronger years, but not our strongest. We’re seeing a lot of interest in entrepreneurship, which is our cornerstone. We help new small businesses as well as existing businesses to grow. To do that we leveraged pandemic dollars as well as partner resources. That helped us grow a bit last year.

Rulfs: At Adirondack Farms we milk and care for 7,400 cows daily at four locations — one in Peru, one in Chazy and two in Beekmantown. We crop 10,000 acres. I am also associated with Rulfs Orchard. All of these businesses are weather dependent and Mother Nature tossed us a tough ride in 2023. In agriculture, it’s important to be able to adapt to change and “make hay when the sun shines”.

Derrigo-Barnes: We had an outstanding 2023 -- our strongest year ever! We exceeded both our sales and our shipments budgets by the end of November and, with a month to go, it's just a bonus from here. We also started to invest in ourselves in 2023. For the first time ever, we bought two brand new milling machines. In the past, we have never been able to afford to buy anything new. Any time we did invest, it was in old equipment, so this is really exciting. At the beginning of 2024, we will install a new 2,000-pound furnace in the Foundry as well, which will allow us to be more efficient. This is an exciting time to be at Plattco!

Kennedy: The North Country Chamber of Commerce promotes tourism for the Adirondack Coast. 2019 was a banner year for us and then the pandemic hit. Initially we feared it would have a devastating effect, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We had always concentrated on the Canadian market, but COVID forced us to look south to New York City and the Capital District markets. And that focus paid off for us. Then, when 2023 started, we were nervous, but I’m happy to say those markets have continued to thrive. We are at 92% of our pre pandemic numbers. This year we had a record number of requests for bass fishing tournaments and in 2024 we’re on track to welcome the most tournaments we’ve ever hosted in a year,

Enyedi: SUNY Plattsburgh does two important things simultaneously. We educate students and we contribute to economic development with a strong emphasis on supporting the North Country’s vitality. 2023 has been a mixed year for us. The university received the highest new funding allocation – more than $3.3 million — from New York State over the past 20 years. Because of COVID, we are seeing an increased demand for mental health services, academic supports, and more food insecurity than we have in the past. Student enrollment is a major challenge across all higher education right now. For many years we have seen a decline in student enrollment, but with our new aggressive marketing and recruitment strategies, SUNY Plattsburgh’s enrollment is beginning to stabilize. We are now predicting enrollment increases in each of the next three years. Our new Master of Social Work degree, which will be available as soon as fall 2024, will directly impact the North Country.

What strategies have you adopted to address the workforce challenges?

Kennedy: With the help of a grant, the Chamber was able to hire an on-the-job coordinator in late 2023. The idea is to help companies that are having trouble hiring people with the specific skills they need. Our first effort was a welding training program sponsored jointly by Clinton Community College’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing, Alstom Transit and Lincoln Welding. The first class of 12 has graduated and there will be another one in the spring of 2024.

Brady: Flexibility has been critical especially with our younger staff. Compensation is an issue as well. Fees are higher in my business, but so are our expenses. You’ve got to be realistic. The cost of losing somebody is often more significant than the raise they may want. Overpaying a little bit for good staff is never a bad move. Paying them well, keeping them happy and being flexible is likely the reality of the future.

Laurin: In a not-for-profit organization it is often difficult to compete with wages and certain benefits so we work hard to emphasize the areas that we do excel in such as generous time off, great work-life balance (family always comes first), a culture of team work and collaboration, etc. We work hard here, but we have fun too!

Derrigo-Barnes: At Plattco we've had the most success hiring acquaintances of our current employees. We will always look at someone who is recommended from the inside. When we have had a good employee put their name out there for somebody else, it has typically ended with a positive outcome.  We have outstanding staff and are always willing to listen to their recommendations. 

Kennedy: There are organizations who are challenging their employees to bring somebody to the table. They’ll say, “Here’s an extra $50, or a gas card if you bring somebody in. Research shows that if you don’t have someone who you consider a friend at work, your likelihood of leaving your job is much higher.

Enyedi: At SUNY Plattsburgh we have a focus on employee retention. Currently, the University Senate is undertaking a satisfaction survey that we anticipate will provide baseline data. We are also conducting exit surveys with employees who are leaving employment with the college. We are constantly working to recruit new employees, so a better understanding of why people choose this community is critical. We need to know what issues are most important to them. For a young family it is likely to be childcare. For a professional just starting out, they may want entertainment and a vibrant social scene. And for everyone, they will be looking to build a circle of friends and feel a strong sense of belonging in the community. What can we do to satisfy all of these criteria?

Rulfs: Adirondack Farms has many of the same challenges. Our workforce is aging. There is a lack of local labor for our operation and so we rely heavily on H2A and TSN workers. Without them, we would not be in business. We would close our doors tomorrow. We want to be an employer of choice. Right now, we have a waiting list of people who want to come to the U.S. to work for us. We’ve had as many as 14 relatives at the same time. If they want to go back to their home country, they have a family member waiting to replace them. Some of them are college educated and we employ them in management positions. We are fortunate to have them.

Duley: In 2023 we faced a perfect storm of workforce challenges. We had planned retirements, unplanned retirements, folks who were recruited away by other organizations that could pay more than we could, as well as a limited pool of particular skill areas. To survive this, we’ve gone to a collaborative, highly intensive team approach to manage our projects. Instead of assigning projects we are thoughtfully considering who are the best people to pick up a particular project. We give our people an opportunity to take on a task or to say their plate is just too full for more.

It was nearing noon and the 34th Strictly Business Forum was winding down. Time had run short. We did not get to all our discussion questions, but the positive vibes were clear. We are can-do people. There is an openness among our business leaders – a willingness to share what makes us successful and jointly shoulder what concerns us. Whether we are collaborators and competitors, we work together for the greater good. That’s how business is done in the North Country.

Back Row: Jon Rulfs, Dr. Alexander Enyedi, Kevin Brady. Victoria Duley Front Row: Michelle Derrigo-Barnes, Nicole Laurin, Mary Carpenter, Kristy Kennedy

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