For some Ephs, the seed is planted as early as their first years at Williams—“Someday, I want to make my home in the Purple Valley.” They might stay on for a short time after graduation to work on campus before making their next move, or return later to join the faculty or staff. Or they might wait until retirement to settle in the area.
But a select few make the decision to grow their own businesses in the Berkshires, a rewarding yet often challenging endeavor. Indeed, the very elements that make the region so alluring during college, reunions and homecomings don’t necessarily add up to a formula for business success. The Alumni Review spoke to a handful of alumni who’ve made the Berkshires work for them.
“If you can find the right people or lure them here, you don’t usually lose them. The stability of the workforce is extraordinary,” says Malcolm Smith ’87, executive VP of operations at CPower.
On the third floor of a building at MASS MoCA, a systems operator stares at maps, graphs and columns of data streaming across computer screens, monitoring the energy usage of industrial clients in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. If he sees that aggregate use threatens to overwhelm a grid’s capacity, he may have only 10 minutes to contact the appropriate facilities and ask them to temporarily cut their consumption.
How did a hub of a global energy management company end up in the Berkshires? It’s all thanks to Malcolm Smith ’87, who after 15 years in the business started Xtend Energy in Austin, Texas, in 2005. Xtend set up arrangements in which industrial customers agreed to curtail their consumption during periods of peak usage in exchange for a reduction in their electricity bills.
Looking to launch a Northeast base of operations, Smith realized North Adams would be a good fit given its proximity to major grid centers such as Albany, N.Y., and Holyoke, Mass., the low cost of doing business (a month’s rent in New York City could stretch to a year’s worth at MASS MoCA) and a labor force that included utilities expert Janette Dudley (wife of Williams philosophy professor Will Dudley ’89) as well as the mix of white-collar and blue-collar workers he needed.
In 2006 Smith moved his business to Williamstown and began hiring a 20-person staff. When Xtend merged with a larger competitor two years later to form New York City-based CPower, Smith stayed on as executive VP of operations and shareholder. Though he now travels a fair amount, he continues to oversee the North Adams Remote Operations Center.
For Smith, a former Williams trustee, the cost of leaving a large market like Austin (primarily its deep talent pool) is outweighed by many benefits in the Berkshires (including a more stable workforce and better quality of life). Nothing beats arriving at a lecture or movie five minutes before show time without worrying about parking, Smith says, adding, “The opportunity-to-hassle ratio is phenomenal.”
Keeping in touch with his far-flung workforce is one of his biggest challenges, but one he would face no matter where his business was located, says Micah Singer ’94, founder and CEO of VolP Logic.
An unassuming two-story house on Main Street in Williamstown is the headquarters of a global telecommunications company ranked by Inc. magazine in 2009 as one of the 5,000 fastest-growing private businesses in America.
The brainchild of Micah Singer ’94, VoIP Logic occupies a niche created by two developments: Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP), in which phone service travels over the Internet, and the growth of small regional phone companies around the world that lack the resources to maintain the telecommunications infrastructure and expertise needed by VoIP companies to operate.
With data hubs in Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Miami and New York City, VoIP Logic rents resources to these smaller carriers, provides them with 24/7 technical assistance and (through its own proprietary software) enables them to integrate products from different manufacturers using different technologies.
If it sounds complicated, Singer is not surprised. “If you go to our website and read it and understand what we do,” he jokes, “you should either be our customer or work for the company.”
Singer got his start working for a telecommunications startup in Los Angeles while his wife Alexandra Garbarini ’94 was getting a PhD in modern European history at UCLA. In 2002, Singer decided to strike out on his own. Two years later, Garbarini got an offer from Williams’ history department, and Singer brought his business to the Purple Valley.
Five employees in Williamstown provide back-office and marketing support. But to serve its 135 customers around the world, VoIP Logic relies on 34 software engineers and salespeople in six countries. Singer communicates with them constantly via instant message, web conference and phone, occasionally seeing them at trade shows and company retreats (including in Williamstown).
Though Singer’s not a fan of Williamstown winters (“LA thins your blood”), “We like rural,” he says. “It’s really idyllic.”
“I live in a beautiful area. I speak with interesting people all day long. I’m my own boss,” says Jo Ellen Harrison ’79, owner of The Harrison Gallery.
“If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?” The question, posed in a career guidebook she picked up after decades working in the software business for Boston startups and then teaching programming at Deerfield Academy, jumped out at Jo Ellen Harrison ’79. To her surprise, she found herself answering, “I’d have an art gallery like Louise’s,” a former Cape Cod haunt.
Soon after, Harrison was en route to New York City when a flat tire waylaid her in Williamstown. She stayed on to visit with friends and confided her dream of opening a gallery. They whisked her off to see some properties that had just come on the market, and, within a month, Harrison signed a lease for a space on Spring Street. Two months later, she quit her job at Deerfield, and in 2001 The Harrison Gallery opened its doors with the help of a home equity loan and some timely investments from family and friends.
Williamstown has proven to be an excellent fit, says the art history and studio art major. Two large, self-renewing populations—one being Williams parents and alumni, the other being visitors drawn to the Clark Art Institute, Williams College Museum of Art and MASS MoCA—continually refresh Harrison’s client base. Her more traditional taste in art (all the works she carries have some basis in nature) appeals to this market. And, thanks to the Internet, she’s not dependent solely on street traffic.
There have been some trade-offs—namely, the higher income she earned in software. Then again, she points out, she no longer has to hop on 6:30 a.m. flights, bring work home or carry a Blackberry.
“If you want to work at a cutting-edge new media company in a beautiful setting where you can snowboard and play golf and have your kids go to a country school, you’ve got one choice,” says Bo Peabody ’94, whose dot-com Tripod had a 96 percent staff retention rate. Subsequent business ventures include Everyday Health, Voodoo Vox, Health Guru, Village Ventures and Mezze Inc.
Bo Peabody ’94 launched his professional career as a Williams freshman, founding one of the earliest dot-coms with classmate Brett Hershey and economics professor Dick Sabot. Tripod began as a website offering practical advice for new college graduates but soon became known as a place where users could create free web pages.
As the company grew, its investors prodded the founders to relocate to Boston or New York. “But Dick was very clear,” says Peabody. “He wasn’t moving.”
Peabody, too, remained in Williamstown, cofounding a slew of companies since Tripod’s sale to Lycos in 1998. Many—including audio ad service VoodooVox and private investment firm Village Ventures—are based in the Purple Valley but have offices in Manhattan, requiring Peabody to split his time between the two regions. His online health information business Everyday Health, which evolved out of a local news Internet service called Streetmail and recently filed to go public, employs 330 staff in New York, D.C., Chicago, Santa Clara and Mumbai, India. Another 50—the customer service team—are based in North Adams, which Peabody considers to be a potential future epicenter of “high-touch customer service” typified by the highly educated nutritionists and dieticians working at Everyday Health.
“I don’t try to force it,” Peabody says of maintaining a presence in the Berkshires. “The business has to be successful and profitable. If it happens in North Adams, great; if not, that’s OK.” Indeed, when the New York-based CEO of Peabody’s Health Guru Media, the largest online provider of health videos, tired of commuting to North Adams, the business relocated to the Big Apple.
Over the years Peabody has wooed a fair number of CEOs and recruits to the region with meals at Mezze Bistro and Bar in Williamstown, where, during the Tripod days, he and his employees were fixtures. He became friends with owner Nancy Thomas, who one day asked him for financial advice. Peabody ended up becoming a co-owner in the business, which now also includes Allium in Great Barrington and a catering operation with jobs spanning from New York City to Vermont.
“The Berkshires is a unique place,” says Peabody. “It’s a very country atmosphere with a very sophisticated population, and that’s perfect.”
A major perk for employees is being able to live within walking distance of their Spring Street offices, which also are a prime location for recruiting college students to lead tours and cultivating trip participants from among the Williams family, say Tom ’82 and Liz Costley ’81 of Overland Programs.
Tom Costley ’82 knew he was headed from Williams to Wall Street—that is, until his fellow junior advisor Liz Colpoys ’81 asked him, “Why?” After biking cross-country the next year with a high school friend, he realized the trip had been “more fulfilling than any sport or championship, and it was an accomplishment we completely owned.” He decided then and there to start a bike-tour company aimed at offering high school students a similar sense of fulfillment.
Both taught high school—Tom in Virginia and Liz in New Hampshire—while Tom worked on a business plan. Overland Bike Tours launched in the summer of 1985, with Tom, Liz and two Williams friends leading three groups of a dozen students each on two-week trips around Cape Cod. Six days after the tours ended, Tom and Liz got married.
The couple moved to Williamstown in 1986, when Liz took a teaching job at Pine Cobble School. With her salary as their main income, Tom devoted himself to Overland, which last year provided 1,200 10- to 19-year-olds with tours of 12 countries on four continents. In addition to hiking and biking, the catalog now offers programs in writing, community service and language immersion, as well as a 12-week “semester” in Spain for high school graduates taking a year off before college. Each year 140 trip leaders are recruited from colleges around the country, supported by 14 full-time, year-round staff (all of whom walk to work, as does Tom) situated in Overland’s offices overlooking Spring Street.
Though the company has flourished, the vision that led Tom away from Wall Street and back to Williamstown has not changed: To prepare teens for life and leadership through goal-oriented, challenging group experiences that lead to a clear sense of accomplishment.