Berkshire Business: Even in digital age, service still drives customers, contracts to local businesses

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Paul Rich & Sons attracts North Street passersby with product. The furniture store's 30,000-square-foot, three-floor showroom contains sofas, mattresses, chairs and other items that draw customers hailing from the Northeast and beyond. But owners Tom and Pam Rich use a different "p" word to describe the primary driver of the business's success.

"People, I think, is No. 1," he said. "Without having the staff we have, the product doesn't translate the same."

The company has 20 employees, including administrative, design, delivery and warehouse staffers, according to the Riches. These individuals' dedication to customer satisfaction is one of the reasons that the Pittsfield institution has survived for decades on a street that has had its fair share of vacant storefronts. In 1983, Tom Rich and his parents, the late Paul Rich, who died earlier this month, and his wife, Betty, opened the store, renting a 10,000-square-foot space. Around that time, more businesses closed on North Street as General Electric jobs began leaving the city. The Riches expanded into some of those empty units, eventually buying a building that spans a city block.

"[We] have been through many cycles of North Street and managed to continue growing," Pam Rich said on a recent morning at the store.

In conjunction with the 2018 Berkshire Business Outlook that was published last Sunday, the Eagle looked at several local businesses that have managed to survive the ups and downs of the region's economy, and are poised to do well in the future.

The Riches believe North Street is currently experiencing an uptick in business, but they recognize that e-commerce still poses a threat to local firms. In 2017, total U.S. e-commerce sales were an estimated $453.5 billion, a 16 percent increase from 2016, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Census Bureau. Paul Rich & Sons has been affected by e-commerce's popularity.

"I would say that the online component of furniture shopping has picked away at us and continues to grow," Pam Rich said. "However, we deal with companies that protect us because they don't sell online. They don't let us sell online."

The staff's service, though, is even more vital. For example, the company's delivery workers regularly travel as far as 200 miles (and sometimes more), allowing the business to furnish Berkshire second-home owners at their primary residences in places like Boston and New York City. And the company's in-house designers offer complimentary design services, such as floor layouts and color choices, even if it's just for a new sofa. (The firm also works with independent designers.)

"It's still the kind of business, especially as you get to the better quality furniture, where there's a need to not only feel, sit, touch, see, but also to be guided by people who know what they're doing. They know color. They know space. They will come to your house and see things. It is a complete experience," said Tom Rich, who declined to offer specifics about his company's revenue in 2017.

THE PERSONAL TOUCH

Jane Iredale, president and founder of Great Barrington-based Iredale Mineral Cosmetics Ltd., said the brick-and-mortar experience still matters for her business. Her products line shelves at spas and other businesses around the world.

"Most women would still rather go into a store, touch, feel [and then] talk to a person," Iredale said in a telephone interview.

Still, Iredale said e-commerce is her company's "growth area," currently representing 20-to-22 percent of the firm's business. She started the health-focused cosmetics company in 1994 after working in the entertainment industry and seeing shoddy makeup applied to actresses' and models' skin. She moved her firm to Great Barrington in 2000. Today, 103 of the company's 180 employees work at its Church Street location. Iredale said the brand's "natural, clean" identity is a great match for the area.

"We're so happy we chose to come to the Berkshires," Iredale said.

Perri Petricca, CEO of Petricca Industries in Pittsfield, expressed a similar sentiment. Unistress Corp., a precast concrete manufacturer that is a subsidiary of Petricca Industries, recently wrapped up production on providing pre-cast concrete deck panels for the new Tappan Zee Bridge over New York's Hudson River. The $70 million contract, the largest in Unistress' 50 year history, allowed the company to employ as many as 575 people, "99.9 percent" of which were local, Petricca said. It further demonstrated that county workers could handle such an undertaking.

Petricca Industries is a third-generation family business. The company was founded by Perri's grandfather Basilio "Patsy" Petricca in 1936, 26 years after he immigrated to the U.S. from his native Italy. Perri's father, Basil "Rick" Petricca, became CEO in 1962 when Basilio Petricca died. Rick Petricca, who also died earlier this month, founded Unistress.

"We have a very strong tradition here. From going way back to the mills and GE, the blue-collar workforce here in the Berkshires is incredible," said Perri Petricca, who said the business brought in more than $100 million in sales in 2017.

The employee count will likely be somewhere between 400 and 500 in 2018, Petricca said. The number is largely dependent on landing new contracts, and the high-profile Tappan Zee project has helped in that regard. Among other potential opportunities, Petricca mentioned a parking expansion project at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut that Unistress is pursuing.

Though Petricca said applicants' drug problems have made hiring in the county difficult at times — Petricca Industries does pre-employment drug testing — the people who join the company have provided a foundation for future success.

"Finding good people in the Berkshires has not been a problem for us," Petricca said. "The work ethic here is tremendous."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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