Insights & Advice

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Call him Allen of the Berkshires

DALTON — What’s the obligation of any business to serve the community it calls home? By the very laws of business, none.

That’s not the purpose of business. The purpose — plain and simple — is to make money, to grow, to make more money, etc.

Unless, of course, your business is Berkshire Money Management, and you’re CEO Allen Harris.

This might come off as a gush fest. To me, it’s Allen Harris’ love letter to the Berkshires, which he spells out in actions.

I, as the writer, also want to be clear: While Allen’s firm is paying for me to write, he has no real idea what I’m putting down on paper. In fact, I’m making the executive decision right now that he won’t see this article until you do, dear readers, to keep him from meddling with the process with modesty.

The fact is that Allen would just as soon fly beneath the radar regarding his giving, and people like me and his community development director Nichole Dupont more or less have to put a verbal arm bar on him to trumpet just some of his good deeds, if only to let the community know that they have a friend in Allen.

The man loves the Berkshires

Like I said, it sounds gushy, but the man simply loves this place.

“Allen is so firmly rooted in this community, and not just as someone who owns a business here. I know that his guiding principle is that this is truly his backyard. These are his people, and when they do well, we all do well,” says Dupont, who talked with me Wednesday from her home office, where she’s working remotely.

Sure, Allen’s a savvy business owner, who guides others in strategic commerce and financial planning, but he’s also a native son, and takes that role seriously, says Dupont.

“His whole life is in this community. I’ve heard him say it he’s never had plans to leave; he loves it here; he lives here; he works here; his family is here; his life is here, and he’s going to die here,” Dupont recalls her boss saying.

These are just words that I’m being paid to write, right? OK, then. Let’s talk about actions.

When the pandemic struck here in March, not only was Allen talking down clients from the edge of panic over their portfolios, but after assessing the coronavirus threat, he immediately began ordering massive amounts of personal protective gear, knowing his hometown was going to be hit hard.

Allen found, ordered and donated thousands of pieces of PPE gear, including about 35,000 masks, all of which went to Berkshire Medical Center, area nursing homes, front-line workers, as well as citizens, small businesses and other medical centers across the Berkshires.

A rapid response and team effort

“That whole effort was because we knew what was going to happen. Front-line workers were scared. No one even had N95 masks,” says Dupont. She says it was a whole weekend of emails and texts, and with the help of recently retired financial planner Bill Schmick, the group ordered as much equipment that they could and gave it to any healthcare site that lacked it.

Soon after, Allen commissioned a local sewing group, the Berkshire Seamsters, to produce 5,250 cloth masks; many of the sewers had lost their jobs, some permanently, because of the outbreak. These masks were given to the entire community at a drive-up event at Berkshire Money Management offices at 161 Main St. “Within 45 minutes, thousands of masks were gone,” says Dupont.

Why do this sort of thing?

“We do it because it needs to be done. As far as getting press for it, we want to inspire other corporate entities to do the same, because, and I know it sounds cliche but, we really are in this together,” says Dupont. “He grew up here. We’re both small town kids. We know people here, and those people mean a lot to us and the firm.”

It doesn’t stop with the masks and PPE. No sooner did the Ccommonwealth go into lockdown, Allen and the team realized, “Restaurants are screwed.” With that began the Hometown Meals for Hometown Heroes initiative, in which Berkshire Money Management donated $20,000 to pay hard-hit Berkshire restaurants to prepare and deliver meals to the staff at Berkshire Medical Center.

“This was a massive initiative, because there are some 200 people at BMC per shift. It provided for eight large deliveries of meals. It helped small, local restaurants from going out of business and helped them to give their employees an income,” says Dupont.

Domestic violence victim, staff support

In talking with her boss, Dupont raised the problem of domestic violence spiking because of the pandemic, deadly dangerous for some people spending a lot of time at home. That turned into a donation to a regional shelter to support staff and residents there.

“Domestic violence plagues the Berkshires; we’re back in the ’60s as far as equality. Allen gets that. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to pitch something to my leader and not have it be met with, ‘Yeah, we’re going to pass,'” says Dupont.

More than a boss

Notice how she calls him “her leader”? That’s because he’s not an average boss.

“Allen gets in front of things and is very knowledgeable about human stressors, and compassionate about being a human. We’re not cogs in a wheel over here. He cares. It’s just a reaction to a reality of what life is like for people at any given time, and trying to protect the people that he cares for, and that extends to community,” says Dupont.

She shared with me a memo, in which Allen spoke to all employees of Berkshire Money Management when the coronavirus and subsequent lockdown came.

“I’m trying to figure out the best way for BMM to aid y’all in a shut-down world. hopefully it’s a little bit of help to help you mentally get through a shutdown. Is there anything else I can add to the list,” Allen writes.

‘Take care of your families’

He immediately goes on to tell his team to use the company charge account to take care of themselves and their families, no matter the need; he told his to crew to get home gym equipment, if they want it; to do a home improvement project that they’ve been putting off; sign-up for online classes; get toys for the kids; takeout or anything comforting for their families; and to plan for themselves a vacation, up to $2,500 paid for by the firm, for as soon as the pandemic is over.

“It has been beyond generous, and a huge boost to our morale and lives during such a difficult time,” says Dupont.

Allen Harris is essentially a juggernaut of giving. While I’ve highlighted plenty of check-writing, know that Allen himself isn’t afraid to get into the trenches for Berkshire County residents. It was him delivering masks and meals, along with his team and fellow sponsors. That was him in the mask and “Spiritual Gangster” T-shirt.

His hometown school district, Central Berkshire Regional, was able to hand out much needed take-home lunches and other meals for kids/families who rely on the district for food security, after a donation from Allen to supplement other funding.

Re-opening kits, on-air thank yous and an ad blackout

Allen assembled and donated re-opening kits to his business-owner clients, which included a hefty cloth bag filled with masks, no-touch thermometers, hand sanitizer, gloves, cleaning supplies, and “social distancing” tape to keep everyone safe during the first phase of reopening.

He co-sponsored a National Nurses Week Campaign with radio station 95.9 FM to send out messages of gratitude and love to our local nurses as they battled the pandemic.

And when George Floyd was murdered and Black Lives Matter protests sprang up across the nation, Allen greenlit the switch of all Berkshire Money Management ads to go totally black, in solidarity with the movement.

“We sent a message to the community that we will not be silent, and that we’re taking a stand on this, and we’re asking other business owners to do the same,” says Dupont.

A $10,000 donation to the NAACP Berkshire chapter quickly followed, in partnership with Community Fitness Pittsfield, formerly CrossFit Pittsfield, which recently rebranded after a split with its parent company after racist comments from upper management.

For Dupont, Black Lives Matter is personal, as her daughter is Black.

“When the protests started happening, after the Floyd death, I got an early, early text from Allen, and he sent me a link to just one of the stories about what was happening in and around the country,” Dupont recalls. “He asked me if we should change all of our advertising right now. And within a week, we did. We changed everything, and quickly, because that’s what we had to do.”

Dupont says, “It’s one thing when you’re proud of your company, and another thing when your CEO makes a safe place for you, to not wonder what people around you are thinking when we all go home.”

Allen is not really controllable in his giving. Dupont jokes that, “He went rogue on me.” Allen had made a personal $5,000 donation to help with the temporary homeless shelter that was closing in Pittsfield.

“Marketing is not his point. I asked him for a heads up before things like that. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘they needed it now.'”

The office has never felt more open and affirming “in all ways,” she says.

Just to relax in a healthy way

Berkshire Money Management realizes also that people need to blow off steam and unwind in a healthy way, and that’s why the firm has been offering free movies (every Friday in the summer) and yoga sessions (Saturday and Sunday) on its vast front lawn. Registration is easy on the company website.

“It’s a social justice nightmare in this country. We understand that people need to have fun, too, especially at this time. They need to feel like they can do the simple things to take care of themselves,” says Dupont about the ideas behind the free offerings. “You shouldn’t feel guilty that you want to see a movie in the pandemic.”

What’s next for Allen and his team at Berkshire Money Management? Dupont says the firm is teaming up with the Berkshire Innovation Center to offer a STEM-based scholar program, in which science-, tech- and math-inclined students will be able to work directly with professionals in aeronautics, engineering, space travel and other cutting edge fields. This program will be open to all talented students, no matter their town or school district. Allen put down $30,000 in seed money to get the pilot program BETA, as it’s called, off the ground.

A man tied to a place, its people

I’m something of a gypsy, never tied to one place, not where I was born, not where I grew up nor where I lived 15 years ago. As I learned more about Allen during my chat with Dupont on Wednesday, I began to get a better sense of how a person can be tied, palpably, to the place that they have always called home and the human beings who inhabit that space.

Those who get to know him eventually find out that Allen Harris is a fighter. He fights for himself and his town. His county. His neighbors. It’s his purpose, always fighting to make things better for all of us, bending the rules for how a business obliges itself to, and builds up, the community in which it stands.

“I know that Allen cares about things, about me, about the Berkshires and its residents. That rules the day,” says Dupont.

To talk with Allen, Nichole or the other team members who work at Berkshire Money Management, call 413-997-2006 or visit berkshiremm.com.

This article, written by Noah Hoffenberg, originally appeared in The Berkshire Eagle on August 2, 2020.