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Williamstown: Daley Sees 'Deep Niche' Businesses

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
Local businessman Hugh Daley sees potential for small manufacturing operations in Williamstown.

Editor's Note: Each of the four candidates for two open seats on the Williamstown Board of Selectmen sat down with iBerkshires.com to talk about the issues facing the town. This week, we are running excerpts from those conversations.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Hugh Daley knows about building a business and saving jobs in North Berkshire, and he hopes to bring that know-how to the Williamstown Board of Selectmen.

Daley is a principal of North Adams' Meehan Electronics, a manufacturing firm that serves the aerospace industry.

He and his wife Marisa moved to her hometown, Williamstown, from his hometown, Phoenix, Ariz., where Daley worked in finance for one of the real estate developers that helped transform the Southwest city into a booming metropolis.

Q: How did you end up moving back to Williamstown?

A: When our first child was born, Sam was born in Phoenix. We started looking at Phoenix and saying, 'How are we going to raise a kid here?' I grew up there, but it was literally ... there were a million more people in my hometown. It was really manageable as a kid, and it became much bigger.

We started talking about where we could live, and Marissa brought up Williamstown. My concern was, 'OK, so we go back there and it would be a great place to live, but how are we going to survive?'

Her family had an interest in a manufacturing company that had really hit the skids in the early 2000s because it was caught in the middle of the off-shoring phenomenon. For a long time it was a primary supplier to Black & Decker tools. They built a ton of power cords. At one point the plant had 75 people and was running three shifts. And all that stuff got sucked out of it and sent to China, and it nearly killed the company.

I came back, and in the first year and a half we stabilized, figured out what we had to do. We actually were able to acquire another local company that got us into the aerospace market, and since then, aerospace 'took off.'

Q: How many people do you have?

A: Right now we're at 20. I would say it's a different type of worker now because we are much more high value-added. We build replacement parts for Sikorsky helicopters, and when you build one of something, it's got to be perfect. And our crew delivers perfect parts. And it's absolutely amazing how wonderful they've been.

Q: How does that model get replicated, and what role does government play in creating the environment where it is?

A: Right now, what we are is what I call 'deep niche.' We have carved out a very deep place that works for us. We have 300 or 400 customers. Lots of places have five customers or they have one product they sell to a million people. We're a contract manufacturer, so Lockheed-Martin comes to us with something, General Dynamics comes to us with something totally different, Raytheon wants something else, Sikorsky wants something else.

It's finding guys who can have a broad range of offerings for a broad range of customers. I call it 'deep niche.' We've convinced Sikorsky that if they need one part, we're they guys who can build it for them. And we've proven it time and time again. Everyone wants to build a million of something, and we've turned away work where someone says, 'Hey, this is going to be a million parts a year.' We say, 'Why are you talking to us? We've got 20 people.'

The way the government can help is first to focus on the right type of company for this area. We're not going to get a spark plug plant. We're not going to get a 1,000-person plant to move here. That's not in the cards. So what we need to find are smaller, five-, 10-, 20-person shops that have a broad offering for a wide market. For manufacturing, at least, you won't survive just servicing Berkshire County.

I look to Charley Stevenson. He's a consultant to architects, and he does LEED-certified buildings. That's the type of person. He's got maybe two or three people in his shop, but his business does business nationwide. Those dollars are coming in from out of town to him, and he can live here because it doesn't really matter where he lives to do his service.

We've got to focus on that type of business. I call them one step above home offices. Home offices are great. We're happy for that, too. Anyone who wants to come here and run their business out of their home, we're all in. But you get employment growth when you get out of the home. That's what we need to have happen.

We need one-, two-, five-person shops.

Q: How do you find them?

A: I can think of two sources.

The first would be working with Williams and saying, 'OK, your alumni tend to be professional people, entrepreneurs. We need a way to reach them.' And Williams ... has a focused mission, and the reason they are such a great school is they are very focused. They do one thing very well: educate kids. They don't want to cloud the message too much by distracting their alumni and network and people from the educating kids. But doing small, low-friction things to help Williamstown, I think the college is all in.

So if it's something like once a year tapping the alumni network with a flier that says, 'Hey, if you're thinking about starting a business, think about Williamstown.' That helps Williams and helps Williamstown.

And I think the Clark Art Institute, with the number of visitors who come through there — we ought to think about a kiosk or something up there that says, 'Hey, you're here. Don't you love it here? Wouldn't you love to live here?'

We have 200,000 people a year coming to the Clark. We can't capture 20? Two? The numbers we're talking about, we're such a small scale. Forty-five thousand or 60,000 people a year move to Phoenix. If we had a 100 people a year move here, we'd be beside ourselves.

I think there are relatively low-friction ways for the larger institutions in town to help us.

We have to be regional in the sense that if somebody wants to locate a 20-person plant here, we don't have the site for them. They're going to have to locate in North Adams or Adams. We need to be open to that and say to North Adams, 'Good news, we've got this person and they want to put a plant in here. Let's put them in the Hardman Park,' which is where my business is. It might turn out to employ 10 people from North Adams and 10 people from Williamstown. That business owner might choose to live in North Adams or might choose to live in Williamstown.

Q: Is there enough infrastructure now for cooperation among the towns in Berkshire County? You've got the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, all the other Chambers of Commerce, the Berkshire Visitors Bureau. ... Do we need something else, or do we need another entity?

A: That's a great question because the chambers have done the expand-and-contract thing a couple of times. I just heard North Adams is forming its own or wants to form its own. ... Anne Skinner told the story at the League of Women Voters forum about being told by someone in South County, 'Get your own tourists.' That's the mentality here because each one of these towns is struggling with the same thing. Even Pittsfield is struggling with people leaving.

Regardless of winning or not, I'm going to participate in any economic development thing they do. I almost think of an ambassador program where you say, 'OK, you want to be in Williamstown? Here are two people you have to meet.' You see the kids walking through town showing off the college? I'll do that for businesses that are thinking of moving here. I will make the time. My wife will kill me, but we have to make the time. We have to sell Williamstown. I'd be happy to take people through our plant in North Adams and say, 'Yes, you can run an industrial plant in North Adams and you can live in Williamstown or you can live in Adams.'

I know Williams is engaged on this. They don't want the college to be a gated community. They want Williamstown to grow. They want North Adams to grow. They want the area to be a safe, productive area. When the parents drive through to drop their kids off, the world doesn't end at the Stop & Shop, and they're going to look around. They want to see a nice area. They want to see an area that feels like good things are happening there.

Q: Lots of people expect Williams to pay for everything. Build us a new high school, build us a new hospital ...

A: Everybody's trying to pick their pocket. I can understand that because they've got a lot of money. But we've got to let them protect their primary mission because most of our economy — look around you [at the crowd in Spring Street's Tunnel City Coffee]. We need them. It's OK for them to put their mission first because that helps us. By default, that helps us.

Q: But as you say, the college has a stake in seeing the town thrive, too.

A: Oh yeah, and I think we talked about it at the League of Women Voters forum. The business plan competition [Williams] put together — the kids were extraordinary. ... The best part was Williams fronted the money for the award. The rule was to get the award, you've got to locate in Williamstown. That's perfect. Absolutely perfect. It's much easier to start a business at that age, when dorm-style living doesn't bother you at all. Once you've got kids and all that other stuff, it's hard to say, 'Hey, listen, we're not going to have a paycheck for a year, is that OK?' You get more constrained the older you get.

If we can get some of these kids to start a business here ... And they don't have to stay forever, but even if there are two or three a year, that's 10 people working in town, living, renting, buying food, coming to the coffee shop.

Q: I don't want to just discuss economic development. What else do you see coming down the pike at us as a town?

A: There are a couple of things. One is the public safety building, which I think Jane Patton and her committee are doing a good job. I've said before I feel like we've got to let them propose a smart solution for us.

I really, really hope all of the entities involve realize that we are going for the much improved solution as opposed to the perfect solution, if that makes sense. The distinction being we probably can't afford the perfect solution, so everybody's got to compromise, give in a little bit.

I kind of liken it to ... For a while there with houses, it got to where if you had another kid you had to have another bedroom. Well, no you don't. There are bunkbeds. They can share. That's what we have to do. If you have a budget, you share resources. That's what you have to do.

I hope they're working in that direction. It seems like they are. ... I'm hoping for the best.

I think each one of these committees goes into their research and development phase hoping for the best. They have to be. They say, 'We're going to put together a plan that we think is the best one.' And as we learned with the Affordable Housing Committee, occasionally the plan that you propose is not going to be the plan that gets selected.

Ultimately, the Selectmen are responsible for the absolute final decision on that. They can't abdicate their responsibility for making the final decision. And they don't want to. That's why the committee systems work. It allows [the committees] to do very detailed work, and it avoids allowing the Selectmen to have any pride of authorship. A Selectman can't say, 'This is my plan, and I'm going to pass it because it's my plan.' They can look at it objectively. That's important, I think.

Q: Not to ask you to criticize anyone, but has there been a time in the past where you've said, 'I wonder why the town did this?' or something that you might have done differently?

A: In terms of the Selectmen, there's no one Selectman you'd look at and say, 'Wow, that guy's a jerk.'

Q: But in terms of the decisions that have been made?

A: I do have to say that years ago, I'm not positive we made the right decision on the water line, mostly because I'd like to see the high school on town water. But I understand the concerns that were raised about, one, having the Clark move out there because I think it works better as a total campus here.

I wasn't as concerned about the development fears mostly because I don't think that many people are moving here. There was a big fear we were going to have a thousand new homes. Well, the truth is that to have a thousand new homes we'd have to have almost 3,000 more people. That's a ton of people. Where are those people coming from. I thought the 'market' was going to determine the developability there.

What was that, 10 years ago now? But that was it.

From the elected and appointed boards perspective, it's hard for me to get angry at anybody serving on one of those boards. There's not a paid position among them. They're all doing it to be good citizens.

Q: There is one paid employee of the town who is probably not going to be there in three years, and whoever is elected to the Select Board is going to have a role in finding his replacement.

A: One of the primary jobs of the Select Board is to select the town manager. In my own company, I've run, in the last five years, two separate executive searches — for a chief operating officer and a chief technical officer. I'm comfortable in that environment, setting the qualifications and interviewing, etc. First off, it's a matter of defining the job — and then making the evaluation.

Q: What would you be looking for in the next town manager?

A: What I like about Peter Fohlin — not having worked that closely with him — is he has defined the job so he knows exactly where his job ends. I think that is important, because it allows him to say, 'This is my responsibility up to here.' You'll see him in the meetings, sometimes, 'That's a Selectmen's decision. You tell me what to do. My job is to execute.' What you want is a guy who can execute. You don't necessarily want a deliberative person in that position.

He or she needs to be informed and needs to understand our issues. Williamstown has some quirks to it. It's going to have to be a thoughtful person, but at the end of the day the job is to be a manager. It's a person who can set goals, set standards and then hold people to those standards, and I think Peter Fohlin does that.

Q: Going back to the town boards and committees, how has your experience serving the town prepared you for this step?

A: I've been on the Zoning Board, and actually, I'm the alternate Zoning Board member. I've learned two things from the Zoning Board: First off, the gentlemen on that board are extremely knowledgeable and have done a great job learning the rules and enforcing the rules in a thoughtful manner. I think most of our boards have that. Two, we need to start regenerating some of those boards because eventually those guys are going to want to hang up their hats, and the last thing we want is a Zoning Board that went from five experienced members to brand new people who haven't read the book yet.

Q: Anything else you want to get out there to the voters?

A: I would say this: The most important thing everyone should do is get informed and vote. You don't necessarily have to vote for me, but you should vote. The fact that we have a contested election right now is wonderful. I understand the periods of time when someone says, 'Boy, I really like the job they're doing. I'm not going to run against them.' I understand it, but the truth is we're not making decisions at that point. We need to make decisions at every election.

Every candidate, I like personally. I thought that forum went great. ... Not one of those guys did you look at and say, 'Whoa, not him.' Unless I was that guy. But they all seemed competent and thoughtful and not one of them was a wingnut, which I thought was great.

The point for the readers is: Vote. Get engaged and make a decision. I'd love for you to vote for me, but don't not vote and then complain.

The annual town election is Tuesday, May 13, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Williamstown Elementary School.


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