Forbes Magazine recently released their Special Report on America's Best Colleges and Williams College topped the list, rising from 4th place last year to the top spot. Rounding out this year's top five were:
2) Princeton University
3) Amherst College
4) United States Military Academy (West Point)
5) Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Everyone associated with Williams - faculty, staff, administration, students, alums - should be proud of their achievement. It seems to me that recognition of this type can only lead to increased applications by prospective students as well as increased development opportunities.
As a local resident and business owner, I know that I benefit from Williams presence here in many different ways, not the least of which is their role as one of the area's largest employers. By and large they are fantastic neighbors. Folks like Gary Guerin, Harry Sheehy, George McCormack, and Mike Maker have always been tremendous about helping out the local youth sports organizations that I am involved with, including access to facilities and getting Williams' players and staff to help out.
There are however three specific areas where I would encourage Williams to evaluate their strategies. If incoming President Adam Falk is looking for some advice from the cheap seats, well, here goes:
1) Spending Locally - Does Williams do everything they can to support local businesses with their spending? Our local economy could certainly use the boost.
2) Civic Leadership - Does Williams take an active enough role in the direction of the town itself? I see senior leadership of institutions like The Clark, Mountain One, and NBH actively involved in the Chamber of Commerce, for example. Where is the top-level engagement by Williams?
3) Growth - Does Williams have to remain at just over 2,000 undergrads? Why not add programs and faculty and get to 2,500 or 3,000 students? The faculty/student ratio could be kept the same, so the education experience wouldn't change at all. The local economy would certainly benefit from a growing Williams - construction jobs, additional faculty and staff, etc. Our real estate market would certainly benefit from some increased demand.
The list of Williams alums who have gone on to become leaders in the world of business, the arts, politics ... every aspect of our nation ... is impressive. Williams certainly knows how to train the future leaders of our society. I for one would like to see the institution do more to step up to the bar and accept the mantle of responsibility for its true role here as the center of our local universe. Williams' impact doesn't end at the campus border. It is time their leadership stretched further beyond there, too.
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WE HAVE TO BE BETTER, WE LIVE HERE.
I passed an appliance center delivery truck on the Pike the other day that had that statement proudly emblazoned on the side. We hear “Shop Local”, “Eat Local” and now “Bank Local” consistently these days. As members of the business community, we don’t often talk about our responsibilities to those locally-minded consumers.
Consumers believe that by spending money locally they are keeping cash in their communities. Making the choice to buy from a small locally-owned business is a statement and it comes with some expectations.
As locally-minded small business owners, we say “thank you” by consistently doing a few things:
- We work at providing excellent, personalized customer service. We know that consumers are our neighbors, the parents of our children’s friends and, very often, other small business owners.
- We try to be excellent employers, offering competitive wages and benefits, even though that often requires us to pay ourselves less.
- We do our best to give you competitive pricing on goods and services. In retail, it is nearly impossible to compete on price with large chain stores. We work hard to offer the best prices on high-quality merchandise. In the service industry, we are often forced to choose between quality and price, in regard to everything from hard goods to human capital. Maintaining a standard of quality builds trust and ensures longevity.
One of the differences between a big box store (or a national bank) and a small local business is that the decision making is centered here. The owners, CEO’s and managers of local businesses are all part of our community. They are our neighbors and they share our area’s resources. They participate in our local economy, both personally and professionally. The money generated daily in their businesses gets deposited here and reinvested in the community. It is the circle of business.
So what else can we do? We can pay attention. We can ask these questions: “what are we doing right and what can we do better?” “What do you need and how can we help you get it?” We can have an impact on the quality of people’s lives because we help to shape this beautiful place. I like that statement. “We have to be better, we live here.” It makes me think about what it means to be a member of this community and take pride in the responsibility that comes along with it.
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What will the Berkshires look like in 20 or 25 years?
I read with some interest an article on iBerkshires entitled Economic Expert Says Pittsfield Economy Weakened (Nicole Dupont, 8/2/2010). The picture presented by Charles Murray of the American Institute for Economic Research is not a pretty one.
“We look at wages and employment,” he said. “And we’ve concluded that the strongest areas have multiple primary industries such as farming, transportation and manufacturing. The weakest have smaller populations, an overdependence on a primary industry, or are overly reliant on consumptive industries such as tourism, construction, large local governments, services and retail trade.”
Later in the article, Ms. Dupont quoted an interesting comparison Mr. Murray made between the economies of Pittsfield and Fargo, ND. Evidently both cities were ranked similarly in 2004 with Pittsfield at #100 of the 366 metro areas studied and Fargo at #95. Since then, Pittsfield's economy has fallen to #245 while Fargo's has improved to #25. Mr. Murray attributed this substantial shift to Fargo focusing on primary industries (manufacturing, agriculture, and finance) while Pittsfield focused on consumptive industries (tourism, retail, and culture). Further, Mr. Murray suggested that our aging population locally is also a substantial drain on our economy. While not providing a comparison with Fargo on this factor, Mr. Murray pointed out that Pittsfield's aging population cashed over $400 million in Social Security checks in 2009.
So, where will Pittsfield and the rest of the Berkshires be in 2030 or 2035? Based on our recent past, the trend lines are not encouraging. Yet, on the one hand, Massachusetts was ranked a stunning #5 of the 50 states in "best places to do business" study by CNBC recently. And, on the other hand, for the "cost of doing business" portion of CNBC's evaluation, MA ranked #45 out of 50. Cost, of course, is a huge driving factor in any corporate investment decision. MA just isn't competitive for new investment by primary industries and we have no raw materials to exploit on the scale and scope required for massive investment. If we are going to reverse the trends, we need to address the fundamental cost of doing business issues that we have allowed to flourish here over time. (It was really easy to write that last sentence, but boy is it a mouthful!)
The 6th grade class at Williamstown Elementary School will have 45 kids in it this year, which is down from about 90 just 4 or 5 years ago. Half! Are other communities in Berkshire County seeing the same thing? Are we really on the right track here? We seem to know how to bring people to Berkshire County for a weekend in October, but we can't seem to figure out how to bring them here for a lifetime.
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That feeling in the pit of my stomach
You know the feeling. The, "Oh boy ... I hope this works." Or, "Whoa ... we better get this contract." Or any of a thousand other variations of that same sensation. One word. Doubt. The entrepreneur's worst enemy. Heck, our economy's worst enemy. Doubt. Because, doubt is ultimately what stops us from taking risks, and what keeps our economy stagnant right now.
My company, in cooperation with our printer/partner, recently published our first catalog and started mailing it this week. We worked on it for two months including building a website that complements it in look, feel, colors, etc. There is some fear involved when you are small business and you are investing in a marketing campaign like this for the first time. But, how else do you grow?
1) If you stop marketing, you stop selling.
2) If you stop selling, you stop growing.
3) And, if you stop growing, you start dying - it is that simple.
Knowing all that, there is still doubt. Amazing, isn't it?
I've been fortunate to work for some great people over the years, people I really admire. The ones I admire the most are the ones who - in their own way - have rolled the dice. Some have been corporate types, who rolled the dice by earning promotions and accepting relocation after relocation in order to move up the ladder. In a lot of industries, that's the path people must follow to become C-level executives. Nomadic. But, for some, the benefits are reaped when retirement comes in early to mid-50's with a 7-, 8-, or even 9-figure nest egg in stock and options accumulated over a lifetime spent in airports and hotels. That takes a certain type of commitment, and plenty of opportunities for doubt. Do you move when the kids are in high school? Do you go to work for this particular manager, who has a bad reputation? Do you leave one company to move to a competitor?
That said, true doubt can only be found in entrepreneurs. The kind of doubt corporate lifers experience as described above is troubling, but pales in comparison with the doubt entrepreneurs experience. Entrepreneurs have that much doubt before breakfast. To paraphrase that old recruiting commercial, "Entrepreneurs ... we have more doubt by 6am than you have all day." Doubt about making payroll. Doubt about hiring. Doubt about the economy. Make it or break it sort of doubt.
I think back to a prior job of mine. Whenever a new real estate project was going on the market, I'd wake up shaking on the mornings that the advertising was supposed to start. Maybe a million piece postcard mailing was due to start showing up in people's homes that day. Or, a two week radio and television blitz was starting. Did I pick the right newspapers? Did we buy the right mailing list? Did we put the right phone number on the postcard? I'd be on pins and needles until I got a call from the sales manager saying, "The phone is ringing off the hook here!" The anticipation was incredible. When I think about the risks that the developers were taking when they laid out the money to pay for the land, the permits, the roads, the amenities, the marketing ... well, you've got to have cast-iron guts to be in that business.
Doubt is working against our country right now. Companies have doubts about their customers, their vendors, their banks. Bankers are leery to extend credit even to each other. People are leery to borrow, fearing for their jobs. Corruption and conflict in DC coupled with national mid-term elections that are less than 100 days away further fans the flames of doubt. Wall Street teeters and totters, bullish one month, bearish the next. It is an ugly, visceral thing, this doubt. Yet, there are signs we are shaking off this doubt. The American spirit is not easily quashed. Some of us must still love that doubt. Revel in it. New companies continue to spring up. New business relationships are formed and new technologies are designed and marketed. And, new catalogs are put in the mail ...
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Massachusetts Ranked #5 in CNBC's Top States for Business 2010!
Can you imagine? Massachusetts was ranked #5 in CNBC's recent survey of the top states for business in 2010. While it should come as no surprise that the top four are:
1) Texas (1508 points)
2) Virginia (1477)
3) Colorado (1456)
4) North Carolina (1381)
I have to admit that as a small business owner who consults with a lot of other small businesses I am stunned about Massachusetts earning a #5 ranking, up from #8 in 2009 and #12 in 2007. To hear most people talk, Massachusetts is one tough place to do business. How did it happen?
Let's dig into the numbers a bit. According to CNBC.com, the states are ranked on 40 different metrics in 10 key categories. The maximum score possible is 2,500. #1 Texas scored 1,508 while Massachusetts scored 1,375. Although Massachusetts ranked relatively low in such areas as Cost of Doing Business (#39 out of 50), Transportation & Infrastructure (#39), and Cost of Living (#40), we ranked very well in such areas as Education (#1), Access to Capital (#2), Technology & Innovation (#3), and Quality of Life (#6).
Berkshire County's neighboring states certainly do not fair was well. New York is ranked #24, Connecticut is #35, and Vermont is #37. However, New York was second only to Pennsylvania in terms of year over year improvement in overall rank. Pennsylvania moved up from #33 in 2009 to #20 in 2010, while New York improved 12 spots from #36 to #24. PA's Economy improving from #37 to #15 fueled their big move. Likewise New York's economy improving from #20 to #2 drove their big gain in overall rank. At the other end of the spectrum, Vermont was the biggest decliner in 2010 versus 2009, falling seven spots from #30 to #37.
Looking at the specifics of how NY, CT, and VT faired ... New York is ranked #50 in Cost of Doing Business, #49 in Workforce, #45 in Business Friendliness, and #43 in Cost of Living. Those 4 low scores really hamper New York's ability to compete. Connecticut is #47 in Cost of Doing Business and #45 in Cost Living. Vermont went from #35 in 2009 to #42 in 2010 for the Cost of Doing Business factor and from #36 to #40 on Access to Capital which contributed to the decline in their overall ranking.
The rest of the Northeast/New England struggles, too. New Hampshire is overall #19, Maine is #39, and Rhode Island is #49 (ouch!), making Massachusetts truly the jewel of the Northeast. So, while it is expensive to do business here, you get what you pay for:
- an educated workforce who enjoy the quality of life they get here
-a tradition of incubating innovative, high-tech companies in and around our world-leading education institutions
- banks willing to finance the innovation.
Let's hear it for Massachusetts!
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