Business in the Berkshires
“Berkshire County is a total quality center, where the community, culture, technology, industry and history reinforce one another. This makes the Berkshires a great place not only to visit, but to work, build and grow a business.” These words from brothers Armand and Donald Feigenbaum, whose General Systems Company is based in Pittsfield but operates globally, help explain why the Berkshires have such a distinguished past and such a bright future. The region’s long history of groundbreaking innovations and technological savvy has made it home to a remarkably diverse roster of businesses, both large and small. Meanwhile, its star-studded cultural attractions, presented in a setting of famous scenic appeal, have made it a magnet for talent at a time when quality of life is an increasingly important factor in business recruiting.
Berkshire County’s high “livability” rating, for example, is one reason why it often is referred to as the “plastics research technology center of the nation.” True, GE has been a major player on the Berkshire scene since 1903, when it laid down local roots by acquiring the Pittsfield plant of inventor William Stanley, who had helped usher in the age of electricity by lighting up the main street of nearby Great Barrington a decade earlier. But it was the subsequent pioneering work of SABIC Innovative Plastics (formerly GE Plastics) that has given the region more plastics firms than any other county in the nation.
Today, the Massachusetts Office of Business Development reports that the 42-member Berkshire Plastics Network (with 100 associate members outside the county that service local plastics companies) “represents the network model” for the nation.
If the Berkshires’ strong role in the plastics industry is a good example of its 20th-century business climate, its historic role in papermaking illustrates the contributions of its innovative talents in putting its natural resources (in this instance, abundant water power) to work for employment and profit. Dalton’s Crane & Company, which last year celebrated the bicentennial of its founding, may well be the only US company of its size (approximately 1,200 employees) that has been operating under the ownership of one family for two centuries. Achieving that distinction took a good deal of innovative spirit, not to mention a strong commitment to a healthy Berkshire business climate.
One major Crane innovation was its development in the 1840s of a special threaded paper that thoroughly frustrated counterfeiters because they were not able to copy it. As a result, Crane was given an exclusive contract (which it has held ever since) to supply the government with paper for US currency and securities. Today, Crane also has a network of 21 company stores in the US and more than 3,000 retail locations worldwide, in addition to five paper mills and a stationery-converting facility in Dalton and Pittsfield, plus two printing and engraving facilities in North Adams. Not the least of its contributions to the business climate has been serving as a strong economic stabilizer during its two centuries in the Berkshires, maintaining a policy of steady growth, friendly labor relations and exemplary community service in good times as well as bad.
While homegrown companies have been the general rule in creating the Berkshire business climate, there have been a number of instances in which overseas companies have come to the area and found it an appealing and profitable location in which to put down roots. One striking example is Interprint GmbH & Co. KG of Arnsberg, Germany, which established a sales base in the Berkshires in the 1980s and now is operating a state-of-the-art production facility in Pittsfield.
Jens Bauer and William Hines, Jr., managing directors of the Berkshire-based Interprint Inc., credit the firm's employees with making it “the leading North American printer of décor papers for the high- and low-pressure decorative laminate industry.”
Hines remarked, “Pittsfield and BerkshireCounty have always been supportive of Interprint's growth plans. We fully expect this business-friendly, job-creating climate to continue as we expand our North American operations into the future." Bauer added, "Our colleagues in Germany and around the world certainly recognize our dedicated workforce as one of many benefits The Berkshires has to offer.”
Laurin Publishing — with 120 employees, including 81 at the headquarters in the Berkshire Common in Pittsfield — is a Berkshire-based company that has seen a big part of its rapid growth occurring abroad. It has offices in five states and six countries in Europe and the Far East.
Starting in 1967 with the Optical Industry Directory, Teddi Laurin and her husband, Francis T. Laurin, saw the need to provide the industry with a trade magazine covering optics, lasers, imaging, fiber optics, electro-optics and component manufacturing. Coining the term “photonics,” the science of light, they launched their flagship magazine, Photonics Spectra, which has become No. 1 in its field. The company has grown into the world’s largest publisher of trade magazines and directories for the photonics industry.
The original directory has become a multi-volume reference, and the company publishes 14 periodicals plus special editions, with more than 250,000 copies distributed to readers in 95 countries. It has received numerous awards for fostering the advancement of photonics, as well as honors for editorial excellence. A National Science Foundation panel has called photonics “the technological foundation of an information-based U.S. economy in the 21st century.”
Armand and Donald Feigenbaum, internationally recognized quality experts whose praise for Berkshire County’s business climate was quoted at the start of this article, are similarly enthusiastic about the value of a business address in the Berkshires. “Officials from around the globe uniformly react to this area and its human, environmental and cultural values,” said Donald, co-founder and vice president of General Systems Company (GSC) since its founding in 1968. “Certainly we continue to find Pittsfield and the Berkshires a valuable environment for our own business. Our selection of Pittsfield for our headquarters has worked well for us.”
Recently the company received a major tribute from two quality societies based on its contribution to international business growth. The American Society for Quality and the International Academy for Quality have focused the Year 2002 issue of their globally distributed “Best on Quality” book on articles and speeches by Armand datelined from Beijing, Buenos Aires and Berlin to Paris and Yokohama. Today, GSC’s worldwide installations have expanded into major financial services organizations and leading health care providers.
An additional source of enthusiastic comment on the Berkshire business climate has been provided by the merger acquisition of 150-year-old Berkshire Life Insurance Company by Guardian Insurance Company of America, a $30 billion, Fortune 500 organization headquartered in New York City. Berkshire Life is the nation’s 12th-oldest life insurer and ranks 30th in assets among mutual companies, while Guardian is fourth largest in assets. James Zilinski of Berkshire Life sees the merger as combining “a strong base of talent together with a great atmosphere to live and play.” He sees Berkshire County as “a growth location for Guardian, our new corporate parent,” and notes that there has already been a commitment to expand here with 150 new jobs from other Guardian business units.”
A more unusual and variegated growth industry that has capitalized with great entrepreneurial skill on the Berkshire business climate is represented by Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick of Stockbridge — best-known for having acquired the rambling Red Lion Inn in the center of that town and, to almost everyone’s astonishment, successfully converting it from a white elephant into one of the county’s most prestigious and profitable tourist attractions. But this is only the most conspicuous of the family enterprises. In terms of customers and dollars, the biggest is Country Curtains, which sprouted in 1956 when Jane Fitzpatrick began selling unbleached muslin ruffled curtains from her home under the name of County Curtains. The business now has 24 retail stores in the Northeast and Midwest but still is primarily in the mail-order business.
“We mail in the tens of millions of catalogues worldwide every years,” said Lee Williams, the company’s CEO, who notes that it’s also expanding on the Internet. Country Curtains’ headquarters are in South Lee, where a 40,000- square-foot addition has already been made to a 70,000-square-foot distribution center built two years ago. Meanwhile, designs for curtains, bedspreads and other items are created and manufactured at the Housatonic Curtain Company, an offshoot started in 1976. One of the Fitzpatricks’ daughters, Nancy Fitzpatrick, is now president of The Red Lion Inn and The Porches Inn, which is in North Adams, and another daughter, Ann F. Brown, is president of Blantyre, a Relais et Chateaux luxury hotel, which is based in Lenox and is currently one of only 28 inns designated “best in the country” by the American Bed and Breakfast Association. The Fitzpatricks have been substantial contributors to the Berkshire business climate — and vice versa. The family has more than 950 employees, making it (collectively) one of the county’s larger businesses.
Still another rapidly growing business whose fortunes rest partly on the tourist industry is Canyon Ranch of the Berkshires, offspring of the Tucson-based spa and resort group, which provides luxury services in a health-oriented atmosphere. It is perhaps the best known of several such establishments in the county and has been widely cited by the travel media as one of the truly world-class representatives of the breed. Each season, the resort hosts several thousand guests (including some celebrity figures) at its renovated Bellefontaine mansion, which was built originally for idly rich owners in 1897 as a replica of Louis XV’s Versailles chateau and its grand 100,000-square-foot spa complex. For Berkshire residents its most important contribution to the business climate may be that it adds approximately 550 jobs to the economy.
Impact of Small Firms
There are many more success stories like these. Some started small and have grown into multimillion-dollar companies with hundreds of employees, while others remain sole proprietorships. The Berkshire Council for Growth estimates that there more than 6,000 of them in the county.
This has been hailed as part of the American Dream. It is also a critical cornerstone of America’s and the Berkshires’ economy. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, these businesses employ more than 50 percent of the work force, generate more than half of the nation’s gross domestic product and are the nation’s principal source of new employment.
“Much of the job growth in this country occurs in small businesses. It doesn’t take too many small businesses to become large businesses with very big impact.” So says former Williams College Economics Professor Richard Sabot, who co-founded Tripod with his former student Bo Peabody in Williamstown in 1994. Four years later, Tripod was sold to Lycos for $58 million.
No review of an area’s business climate can ignore the role played therein by cultural institutions that are nominally non-profit but in fact may bring a great deal of hard cash into the picture. Berkshire County is blessed with an exceptionally large number of these, ranging from Tanglewood, its biggest cash cow, to its many museums, summer theaters and lesser institutions. An especially hard-to-label case is that of the county’s newest major museum, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, better known as MASS MoCA. While most museum directors like to profess that their interests aren’t mercenary, MASS MoCA’s extremely astute director, Joseph Thompson, talks candidly about it.
“Besides art,” he says, “we’re home to an innovative community of companies working in e-commerce, publishing, special effects and other technology-intensive fields. Employing hundreds of people, these tenant firms have helped position MASS MoCA as an important economic development catalyst for the entire region. In visiting Mass MoCA you will also visit a great American mill town carefully retooling itself for a future built around ideas, creativity and the digital economy.” No doubt about that. It’s part of the climate.
No discussion of Berkshire County’s leading companies would be complete without reference to two that have been critical to the physical growth of the area for the past century. One is the group of enterprises known as the Petricca companies, which include Petricca Construction, Berkshire Concrete, Unistress and Berkshire Sand & Gravel. They have in many ways changed the face of the county by successfully undertaking massive projects and have made their presence felt elsewhere, most notably in the Boston and New York urban areas.
The second major mover in huge undertakings both in and out of the Berkshires is Maxymillian Technologies Inc., which made its mark not only in heavy construction, but also as a leading “remediation contractor,” applying its extensive construction and engineering talents to a wide range of large-scale contracts for public and private undertakings throughout the region.
Banking and Finance
People doing business in Berkshire County quickly discover that they have many financial options. There are more than a dozen institutions to work with, including several credit unions, trust companies, venture capital companies, commercial banks, savings banks, cooperative banks and other financial advisors. This is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the Berkshires.
Community banks ensure that money is kept in the community and reinvested in ways that have a positive impact on the local economy. The banking industry has made a real commitment to the Berkshires, not only by giving support to area businesses, but also by providing millions of dollars toward the region’s non-profit agencies and community events as well as by allocating educational scholarships.
When several of the banks outgrew their original headquarters, they moved into — and at the same time preserved — historic buildings and sites in the county. Berkshire County is being bolstered by the commitment from the banking and financial services industry to staying headquartered and to expanding their operations here. This is especially important at a time when downtowns across the nation are in transition.
The Berkshires Capital Investors (BCI) is a regionally focused venture capital firm specializing in seed and early-stage equity investments, primarily in emerging technology companies. It is based in Williamstown and invests throughout western Massachusetts. Through a $5 million fund closed in 1997 and a $15.7 million fund closed in 2000, BCI has made equity investments in 21 companies and has been instrumental in creating more than 300 jobs in western Massachusetts.
The high level of medical sophistication of hospitals in Berkshire County is on a par with that found in larger metropolitan areas. The anchor for Berkshire Health Systems (BHS), Berkshire Medical Center (BMC) of Pittsfield, is the largest of the three hospitals in the county and is a teaching affiliate of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Recently recognized by U.S. News & World Report as operating one of the top cardiac rehabilitation programs in the country, BMC offers a wide range of specialized services on a preventive, diagnostic, treatment and home-care basis. Supported by highly accredited lab facilities, state-of-the-art equipment and advanced clinical methods, BMC has been sought as a participant in major national health and pharmaceutical studies. Its lab is one of about 5,000 among the 150,000 labs in the country that is accredited by the American Pathologists’ Commission on Laboratory Accreditation. BMC also operates the Cancer Institute of the Berkshires, the only radiation oncology facility in Berkshire County. It has a $2 million linear accelerator that is programmed by a doctor to self-shape its beam of radiation to target only cancerous areas specific to each patient.
Many from outside Berkshire County come here seeking the specialty services at BMC, Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington and North Adams Regional Hospital, where some of the top physicians and residents in the country work. “At BMC, people can be in a private practice group and also work with the residency program. Maybe local folks take that for granted, but programs like this are fewer and fewer in number each year,” said Dr. Robert D. Fanelli. A Pittsfield surgeon on staff at Berkshire Medical Center and at North Adams Regional, he was named one of America’s top surgeons by the Consumer’s Research Council of America.
Fanelli, vice chairman of the department of surgery at BMC and assistant professor of surgery at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has designed and developed four instruments — a fifth has been patented and others are in the works — used in minimally invasive surgery. One of his latest devices is used to insert stents in bile ducts. The instrument came to market last year and is already in use in hospitals across the nation. BMC’s Department of Psychiatry has also received national attention. Alex Sabo, chairman of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department, was presented with the Nancy C.A. Roeske Certificate of Recognition for Excellence in Medical Education at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association held in May. An associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Sabo is also a lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
In addition, BMC’s department of psychiatry and its collaborative partner, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services of the Berkshires, recently received an innovation award from the commissioner of the Department of Public Health for the comprehensive delivery of mental health services in Berkshire County through a wide network of services.
At a time when many acute-care facilities across the nation are encountering fiscal hardship, Berkshire Health Systems has reported profitability for nine consecutive years. The organization operated with a surplus of $4.5 million and had total expenses of $205 million, according to financial reports for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2001. Some of the surplus will be expended on a $40 million expansion of its emergency department and operating rooms, targeted for completion by 2004. Operating under the BHS umbrella, Fairview Hospital will invest an estimated $5 million in upgrades to consolidate its surgical, medical and critical care units, which will result in a projected $500,000 savings per year. The master facilities renovation plan includes a larger and more comfortable waiting area, doubling the ambulance base and the number of treatment areas inside the emergency department.
Striving to increase efficiency, North Adams Regional Hospital (NARH) has invested more than $15 million in major renovations of the physicians’ office building and facilities. The hospital is part of Northern Berkshire Health Systems, as are VNA & Hos-pice of Northern Berkshire, Sweet Brook Care Centers, Sweetwood continuing care retirement community and the REACH Community Health Foundation, whose mission is to develop philanthropic resources for community health. Ninety-nine percent of the medical staff at NARH is board-certified; the national average is 85 percent.
NARH will soon install a state-of-the-art system that uses bar-code and wireless technology to control delivery of medications, thereby reducing the chance of error. NARH will be first hospital in the Berkshires to use this system.
Alternative Health Care Therapies
Some of the area hospitals administer what has been termed alternative therapies. Numerous privately run centers and health-care resorts offer acupuncture, acupressure, massage therapy, homeopathy and chiropractic care.
Nursing Homes and Life Care
Among the dozens of highly accredited nursing homes and innovative life care communities in the Berkshires, some are privately owned, while others are hospital-affiliated. For example, Berkshire Health Systems operates Kimball Farms of Lenox. Out of 800 communities nationwide, they earned a spot in the “50 best retirement communities in America.”Laurin Publishing — with 120 employees, including 81 at the headquarters in the Berkshire Common in Pittsfield — is a Berkshire-based company that has seen a big part of its rapid growth occurring abroad. It has offices in five states and six countries in Europe and the Far East.