Outgrowing their office space and looking to tap into local, young talent, in December 2014 David Crouch and his team at ten24 Digital Solutions moved their software development firm from Northborough to Worcester. Those 13 miles would prove an exponential impact on their business as well as employee quality of life.
To-date, said Mr. Crouch, it’s not only the proximity to Worcester’s nine colleges and universities, from which they recruit regularly, which he counts as a benefit of the relocation, it’s the surrounding success of the downtown, draw of the Theater District, impact of the upcoming Worcester Red Sox, and proximity to Mercantile Center.
“I can’t claim we had some incredible vision,” said Mr. Crouch, of his decision. The growth, in both business and employees, ten24 experienced in the past five years he said is due to “a bit of luck” and long-term perseverance on behalf of the City of Worcester and fellow businesses which led to a “180-degree” change in the atmosphere of the neighborhood.
Success comes to firms of all shapes and sizes. Over the past 18 months, however, the brightest stories among the city’s business community are those of firms, like ten24, who are small- to medium-sized, new to the city, and discovering first-hand the opportunity, access to talent, and first-class location that sets Worcester apart. Creative firms, architects, geographic service providers, and financial institutions are among those which have tested the waters and found the business community east of Rt. I-495 commercially fertile and home to a strong quality of life.
ACCESS TO TALENT
Because the majority of their clients are located outside of Massachusetts, let alone Worcester, said Mr. Crouch, ten24 could be located anywhere. They chose to operate out of Worcester because of the proximity to and volume of higher education institutions.
“We were having a hard time recruiting younger talent to Northborough,” said Mr. Crouch adding the firm also looked at Boston for relocation. However, he felt “it was more about the right location, the right talent” and with the help of the Worcester Business Development Corporation the firm chose Worcester.
Looking back, Mr. Crouch feels it was the right decision. Not only do the majority of his employees live locally, when the firm moved nearly five years ago, their payroll was 13 people. Now, he said, that’s grown to 37 people with “a manageable” three or four new hires each year thanks to the city’s strong higher education sector.
With a physical presence in Worcester, he said, “we have better access to and have a better chance of recruiting and [retaining] some of those younger developers.”
For others, Worcester is not just rife with talent, but also business to business opportunity.
While the branch opened Nov. 1, Brian Renstrom, blumshapiro Massachusetts managing partner, expects the firm’s 36 months of sustained 20 percent year-over-year growth to be supported by the opportunity – “350 to 400” potential clients – he sees in Worcester.
After announcing their launch in June, by September Mr. Renstrom reported interest was so high that five Boston employees were transferred to Worcester – eliminating their commute and employing them closer to home.
While LLB Architects’ existing Central Massachusetts clients were excited by the launch of a satellite office in late August 2018, what Associate Principal Aimee Lombardo found intriguing was her colleagues’ desire to work in the Southbridge Street office adjacent to The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts. “I’m getting a lot of requests from people interested in working in Worcester,” she said. “We’ve already expanded our office because we didn’t foresee the [popularity] … in the first year.”
And, it’s not only the world-class neighboring amenities drawing LLB employees to Worcester.
“As architects, we’re always looking for spaces in which we can make a difference,” said Ms. Lombardo. “Worcester has an amazing amount of diversity, a rich architectural history, and stock of historic buildings.”
The “activity” in municipal, higher education, and biotech sectors are “incredibly aligned with LLB’s [portfolio],” she added regarding the reason for expansion.
Breanna Goodrow, co-owner of Studio DiBella, isn’t surprised by the interest shown by LLB and blumshapiro employees. A Worcester native, she returned to the area because of its low cost of living and vibe.
“There’s a lot to do, cultural institutions in the city keep my calendar full,” said the owner of the Worcester-based marketing and events firm.
Herself a young creative, Ms. Goodrow is the epitome of the talent sought by companies citywide. With existing clients across the country as well as regionally in New York City and Boston, she and her husband/business partner searched for a city large enough to draw fellow creative talent and support their eight-month-old business.
Worcester’s status as the second-largest city in New England “made a difference,” she said.
“I love that we can own a home here,” said Ms. Goodrow. “That wasn’t an affordable option elsewhere.” In five years, she plans to have a young child and support a staff in Worcester, “this is it for me,” she added.
OPPORTUNITY LEADS TO COMMUNITY
Priced out of many regional metropolitan areas, Travis Duda and his wife landed in Worcester where they found “more bang for [their] buck” and purchased a home. Bringing with him his previously side-gig graphic design company, Hunchback Graphics, Mr. Duda said the growth he’s experienced – including designs for the upcoming Polar Park – would not have been possible elsewhere.
Working in MetroWest, “I was taking clients wherever I could find them,” said Mr. Duda. After moving to Worcester, “I got a local opportunity followed by another and another and I stopped pursuing outside work.”
The connections he’s made are more than business-to-business transactions. “I’ve never felt as connected to a place as I do in Worcester. I’ve found my people – a bunch of working-class, hard-nosed people,” said Mr. Duda.
Expressing a similar affinity for the people of the city, said Michael Feldman, president and CEO of Feldman Land Surveyors, it was the fact that he could run into a high-level executive on his way to lunch one afternoon, a true story, that sealed the deal.
“Even though we’re an established business,” he said, in Worcester, “it feels like we’re doing fun startup [work]. However, because we’re not a startup, we can talk to people” about programming we’ve perfected over years.
GETTING IN … AND OUT
Many of the businesses which have found success in Worcester are either satellite offices with headquarters east of Massachusetts Rt. 128 or are reliant on connections with clients in larger regional cities. Reliable, convenient transportation is a draw for any city and Worcester is rich in infrastructure.
“Massachusetts traffic is a business issue,” said Mr. Renstrom of blumshapiro, who plans “to place small- to medium-sized offices throughout the Commonwealth to attract clients … but more importantly allow our people to have a better work-life balance and not spend their life in traffic.”
For those businesspeople who need quick access to Boston, but don’t want to live in the capital, there’s no better choice than Worcester said Mr. Feldman.
After expanding their previously Boston-only presence to include a Worcester satellite office on Aug. 1, Mr. Feldman said: “The key to people living in places and having it be affordable is public transportation.”
Lauding the connectivity of Union Station, he added: “People can live and work out here and get to Boston on public transportation if they need.”
While Mr. Crouch said two ten24 employees can take the train to Worcester from their homes in Boston and Natick, he would like to see implementation of an express train from Boston to Worcester. This, he said, may entice more Boston-based employers to open satellite offices.
Another such transplant is Howard Stein Hudson, a transportation and civil engineering firm, whose Worcester satellite office opened April 9. Associate Steven J. Tyler, said the firm had previously found it difficult to grow business outside Boston without a brick and mortar presence. Eight months later, he said Worcester is “without a doubt” fertile ground for small to medium businesses looking to expand across the Commonwealth or launch in a less expensive city. Thanks to the fanfare surrounding the imminent arrival of the Red Sox Triple A affiliate team and the improvements to the I-495/I-90 interchange, the firm counts six new municipal clients and three new hires among their top achievements after nearly a year.
CAPACITY? NOT IN SIGHT
LLB Architects’ Ms. Lombardo is encouraged more firms will look to Worcester and follow in this cohort’s footsteps. “For us, there wasn’t a lot of competition” in Worcester compared to the “much denser” presence of architectural industries in Boston and Providence, she said. In the spirit of creating additional competitive markets, Ms. Lombardo said there is still a lot of dependence on Boston across multiple industries in Worcester.
Calling on mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers to look west, she said “I bet if they open here in Worcester, they would make a killing.”
Emily Gowdey-Backus is the director of communications at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. She can be reached via email. To read the entirety of the November 2019 edition of the Chamber Exchange, visit the newspaper archive.