RI in Business
The Ocean House in Westerly is one of the most beautiful buildings in the state. The view cannot be beat, with sweeping vistas of the ocean from Block Island all the way to New York. Every detail of the hotel and its grounds is a nod to our state’s heritage and the site’s historic significance. It is something to be proud of, and I am grateful that the hotel’s ownership has fought so hard to maintain historical integrity. It was a renovation project that created local construction jobs and put money back into the Rhode Island economy.
But what makes The Ocean House an important business in Rhode Island is its world-renowned reputation as a vacation destination in New England.
Travel + Leisure readers voted the Ocean House as the number one resort in the United States and the number five hotel in the world. Conde Nast’s Traveler magazine named the hotel one of the best resorts in the country. And remarkably, The Ocean House is one of just 97 hotels worldwide to achieve a five star rating from Forbes. The list of accolades goes on.
The travelers brought in by the resort are elite, to be sure, with the average stay costing guests $1,600 per night. The penthouse suite will run $10,000 for one night. These are not rooms that the average Rhode Islander can afford, but during my visit the hotel was completely booked, so there is clearly a market. For area businesses in Westerly, the influx of tourists means more customers. And better yet, The Ocean House is committed to shining a light on other Rhode Island names. They serve local oysters and spirits, and I was thrilled to hear that they use Daniele meat products from Burrillville. These local products are showcased in the five on-site restaurants, three of which are open to the public. On an average summer day, those restaurants and the hotel attract as many as 750 to 800 guests. Some are there to stay, others are locals who just want to have a drink on the lawn or enjoy tea service with the ocean view.
In addition to utilizing local products, The Ocean House taps into local talent. More than half of the management team is made up of Johnson and Wales University graduates, and Rhode Island college students are mainstays on the summer staff. The Ocean House has 200 employees year-round, which ticks up to 440 during the peak summer season. Some of those seasonal workers are still at the high school level, taking advantage of the hotel’s paid internship program. Once they have finished the program, they are eligible for a scholarship, part of the resort’s commitment to giving back. They also host community events regularly, benefiting groups like Special Olympics Rhode Island, the YMCA and relief efforts from Hurricane Sandy, among others.
Don’t be fooled by the room rates or the valet out front. The Ocean House is a high-end hotel, but they have a big heart. It’s great to see the ways in which they give back to the community, and I talked with the team there about offering additional internships in the future. We have an incredible hospitality training resource at Johnson and Wales, and we want to make sure future graduates have a reason to stay here in Rhode Island.
Plugged in at Schneider
To say that Schneider Electric is a powerhouse is no exaggeration. In recent weeks, I’ve read headlines about the company ramping up production on electric vehicle charging stations, rolling out renewable energy technology to 20,000 people in Africa, and reaching out to children in the developing world to provide solar lamps with which to study and do schoolwork. They are a strong, successful business with a refreshing social conscience, and their products and solutions are in workplaces, homes and municipalities.
Did I mention they have a headquarters in Rhode Island?
Schneider Electric has more than 130,000 employees in 100 countries, with 1,200 right here in their Rhode Island. Last year alone, they recruited 86 new employees, many of them to Rhode Island. Schneider isn’t just recruiting talent, either. They work with colleges and universities to help develop programs around energy and IT, and are keeping a close eye on cybersecurity advancements here and abroad. Their employment level has stayed pretty consistent, but the low-paying factory jobs of the past have been replaced with higher-paying careers that excite and challenge their workforce. During my visit, one employee explained to me that every three years, Schneider challenges each employee to step into a new position or potentially change office locations. They want to keep their team on its toes, rejecting complacency and promoting innovation.
Rhode Island is fortunate to have a company like Schneider here, and they are certainly a significant employer, but we need to do more to keep them here. Schneider owns their property, so the low cost of doing business is important, but company leaders noted that they have often felt like they are on their own. We need to increase communication and let our business leaders, including those at Schneider, know that Rhode Island wants them here. We need to let them know, loud and clear, that we are willing to work with them to make our state the undisputed best host for their business.
Rhode Island Hospitality
In February, I embarked on my RI Food Week initiative to highlight our state’s vibrant food economy and discuss how to rebrand Rhode Island as the “Silicon Valley of Food,” an expression coined by my friend, Daniele owner, Davide Dukcevich. During that tour, I got to meet many wonderful business leaders in the food-related industries, including agriculture and restaurants. RI Food Week was revived in part for RI in Business, with daily working lunches to meet with restaurant owners, Chambers of Commerce and other community leaders. I want to thank all of the restaurants who hosted us: Iron Works Tavern, Bistro 22, Easy Entertaining, Bravo Wood Fired Pizza and The Breachway Grill. All offered spectacular meals, and some truly enlightening conversation. Rhode Island really does have some of the best restaurants in the country, and they are on the forefront of the efforts to market Rhode Island as a foodie destination.
Life in 3D
Ask anyone from elected officials to business leaders and they will say that Quonset is a centerpiece of the Rhode Island economy. They have done an exceptional job recruiting new businesses and helping existing tenants to grow, and I hope that trend continues. There are so many great business success stories within the business park, and one of them is the 3D printing company, R&D Technologies. President Andy Coutu called Quonset a “hidden gem” and the perfect place to settle his company, and I would have to agree.
Currently R&D Technologies is the only company in Rhode Island doing 3D printing, and they print almost anything from office supplies to equipment for medical research. 3D printing is less expensive and faster than making products from a mold, and I learned that the company can print durable plastic structures with less plastic than is traditionally used.
Being the first company of its kind in Rhode Island, R&D Technologies has the pick of great employees, and I was happy to meet some during my tour. There are currently eight recent college graduates with engineering backgrounds from mechanical to computer to civil engineers, some of whom got the job after a college internship. It’s great to hear about a company reaching out to college students in Rhode Island and then hiring them after graduation. We want to keep our talent here, and R&D is doing just that.
My friends at R&D Technologies tell me that one day everybody is going to have a 3D printer in their home. Until that happens, I’m happy to know that we have such a great company in Rhode Island, and look forward to seeing what they print next.
High Energy at VoltServer
VoltServer has only been around for about one year, but already they are doing some truly exciting work. Located in the beautifully renovated Greenwich Mills in East Greenwich, down the hill from bustling Main Street, VoltServer’s office space is a playground for engineers and techies. The five full-time and five part-time employees are engrossed by what they do, and I believe their creativity and innovation is exactly what this state needs.
When we talk about what business we’re in as a state, I’ve mentioned advanced manufacturing, but I also think energy is on that list. VoltServer is developing power distribution products based on energy transfer technology that they patented. Their technology has the ability to harness all kinds of energy, with a focus on renewables, and their products are manufactured in large part by local companies. Keeping it local is of great importance to the company, and they hope to engage area universities in the near future and start an internship program down the line.
As he showed me around, VP of Business Development Dan Lowe said, “we’re committed to being here.”
That’s music to my ears, and to Dan and the rest of the VoltServer team, Rhode Island is committed to keeping you here.
Shaping Up Well
Shape Up (formerly known as Shape Up RI, which has become the company’s non-profit arm) started with two employees – a couple of Brown University students looking to reform health care delivery and shift to a focus on preventative care and wellness.
Shape Up is now preparing for their 100th hire.
That’s incredible growth, and the upward trajectory continues. Founder and CEO Dr. Rajiv Kumar estimates that the company could double in the next few years, and they have already outgrown their current Providence space. It’s no surprise, seeing as Shape Up works with 30 Fortune 500 companies and their client list continues to grow, working with companies with as many as 300,000 employees.
In addition to the hope of new office space, Shape Up employees are fortunate to work in an environment that values the work-life balance. The company offers fitness and relaxation classes, and they employ the same health and wellness incentives for which Shape Up RI has long been known.
Things have been on the upswing for Rajiv and Shape Up, but the picture isn’t always rosy. He sees the need for a strong business advocate at the state level, who could be the single point of contact when Rhode Island businesses have an issue they need to resolve. Rajiv also described a “talent war,” in which companies are competing for a limited pool of talent. He is fortunate to have the Brown connection, and Shape Up has done some exciting research with the university. That relationship serves the company well as they look for the best and brightest, as does their longstanding internship program, which attracts students from many area schools. Still, he is right: there is definitely a skills gap in Rhode Island and nationwide, and we need to do better as a state and as a country to train young people and funnel them into the industries where jobs exist and promise to grow.
Tucked into a mill building, just off a highway on-ramp, is Contech Medical. It’s an unassuming spot on Providence’s west side, but a quick rundown of company operations will reveal that it’s a company with huge scope. They run a tight ship, utilizing lean business practices, and they are certified by the FDA and the International Organization for Standardization. They manufacture medical supplies, among other things, shipping roughly 2,000 to 2,500 boxes of product daily. They have 60 machines supporting that manufacturing capability, with another 20 being built. And according to their leadership team, they have 75 percent market share of the dispensary industry.
I’d say that’s pretty significant.
What resonated with me the most, however, was not the scope of business (though it is impressive, to be sure), but the strong family feel of the company. The company is led by the Byrnes family, and it’s clear that they think of their employees as family, too. Providence Councilwoman Sabina Matos joined me for the tour of Contech Medical, and she noted that the vast majority of the employees live right in that area, and have expressed not just satisfaction about the company, but enthusiasm about the work environment. More than 75 percent of the workforce has been there for five years or longer, in fact, which is a testament to the quality of conditions.
Rhode Island was once known for its manufacturing, and industries like jewelry. We have to decide once more what business we are in, and I believe that biotech and advanced manufacturing – and the medical device manufacturing where their paths cross – is one of those growth industries that will put Rhode Island back on the map.
Global Business Based in RI
Yushin is a global robotics company with offices in California, Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, Indiana, the United Kingdom, India, China, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia, Canada, the Netherlands, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan.
And then, of course, they have their American headquarters right here, in Cranston, Rhode Island.
Yushin is known for its robotics field expertise and impressive technology for the plastics industry. They are on the cutting edge of technology, and I was so impressed by their staff – all of whom spoke knowledgeably about the equipment and products. In their warehouse space, with the sound of machines buzzing away just one room over, boxes towered overhead, filled with robots costing more than $25,000 each, just waiting to be shipped to the next customer.
While the company works with plastics for cars, phones, medical devices and more, what I was most excited about learning was how much they do for our young Rhode Islanders. Yushin offers paid internships for students at Davies, the Community College of Rhode Island and the New England Institute of Technology at a rate of $11 per hour - higher than the minimum wage! Additionally, Yushin offers tuition reimbursement with a five-year commitment to staying with the company. This is great news for students who need help paying for school, and for families that recognize that career and technical education is a smart, rewarding avenue for their children. Yushin gets a good deal too, by advising colleges such as New England Tech on curriculum and training, so students are ready to go when they arrive at Yushin. Young people can hit the ground running, quickly assimilating into the existing workforce, which currently includes 68 people.
Yushin is committed to its employees and to providing good jobs to the next generation workforce. They are a perfect example of how investments in workforce development pay off in the long run. I am proud to have such a strong manufacturing company based close by in Cranston, and I offer Yushin America, Inc., and its team the best of luck in the future.
Exciting Innovation at Xzito
Upward Bound is a federal program through the US Department of Education that prepares young people from low-income families and first generation college students for higher education. The goal is to increase college attendance and ultimately graduation rates for young people who are often at a disadvantage compared to their peers who have the support and experience to pursue college.
It’s a noble goal, and a program that I strongly support. Performance results are good, too, and Upward Bound touts its success rates in helping to get bright young students through school. What you don’t often get from the pie charts and statistics, though, are the real-life success stories – the names and faces that benefit from programs like Upward Bound.
For me, I don’t think I’ll ever hear about Upward Bound again without thinking of Jeshua Zapata and Jairo Gomez. Jeshua and Jairo met during college while attending Upward Bound, and they came up with an idea for a company. Juan Gomez soon came on as another partner, and the trio started Xzito Creative Solutions. The company started ten years ago as a website builder and has gradually shifted its concept to become a web developer and driver to increase returns on investment. They develop systems, workflows and other programs for companies and offer a two-part process for system development, first building the system and then identifying and implementing ways to increase site traffic.
What started as an idea has now become an established company in Johnston with seven employees that works with non-profits, businesses, political campaigns and more. Their work can be found on the sites of customers like MetLife and Fortune 500 companies, as well as the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office, where they came in to design the logo for the We Mean Business expo.
It’s good to know, and to see firsthand, how programs like Upward Bound can make a positive difference in people’s lives. Most of all, it’s good to know that young entrepreneurs like Jeshua, Jairo and Juan are so committed to doing business in Rhode Island.
An Ounce of Preventure
In 2013, Preventure, a fitness and wellness solutions company based in Coventry, hired 31 people. That was in 2013 alone. And last year wasn’t an anomaly, either. Preventure has hired at least 2 and up to 15 new employees every other year, bringing their current workforce up to 80. They’re a fast growing company, thanks in part to the growth of the industry and in part to their work ethic and business acumen.
Preventure continues to adapt to the changing environment, staying in tune with their clients and their needs. Wellness plans are tailored to each company, who in turn implement strategies and programs that keep employees healthy, raise morale and ultimately drive down health care costs. All businesses need to evolve in order to stay competitive and relevant, and Preventure has two times the challenge. Not only does their business evolve, but so do their health and wellness plans. Users are constantly challenged and motivated to reach new wellness goals through preventative screenings, education, friendly competition and rewards.
Clearly, the model is working, because just as Preventure continues to grow its workforce, they continue to grow their clientele. They were named one of Rhode Island’s Best Places to Work by Providence Business News and the good news keeps pouring in for Preventure. I can’t wait to see where they are at this time next year!
RI in Business Kickoff
August is one of my favorite times of year. Rhode Island is especially beautiful in the summertime, and I am home for the month with long summer days to meet with constituents and visit businesses. The latter is the motivation behind my RI in Business tour, an initiative to bring private and public entities together to improve our state’s business climate.
There is always room for improvement - and we must never stop working - but the picture is also not quite as bleak as some may paint it. The success stories are out there, and there is potential for so many more if we improve communication and collaboration, and work toward this common goal. Because when our businesses succeed, we all succeed.
When we talk about business success stories, we need look no further than the host of our RI in Business kickoff event. Atrion has experienced remarkable growth over the past two years, and they continue to find fresh, innovative ideas to move their business forward. What impressed me the most during a recent tour of this beautiful facility is the commitment to their employees. Atrion offers intensive training and workforce development programs, resulting in not only a talented staff, but also a team of professionals that is dedicated to its work.
I believe that Rhode Island has so much to offer. We are not defined by our past, or by a ranking in a magazine. We are defined by our successes, like Atrion and so many others, and by our shared commitment to making the future better. Each of us brings something to the table when it comes to improving our state’s business climate. I give so much credit to the entrepreneurs and workers who are in the trenches, building businesses from the ground up. The rest of us, from government officials to start-up incubators, are here to support those grassroots efforts. We often consider business to be a solitary endeavor, but if we are to succeed on a larger scale, we must be in this together.