January 11, 2016

Mass. IT firm plans 200 jobs in Waterville

Photo / Courtesy Collaborative Consulting
Photo / Courtesy Collaborative Consulting
John Williams, chief strategy officer for Collaborative Consulting, at his office in Burlington, Mass.

A Massachusetts IT company will bring 20 immediate jobs and an expected 200 jobs over the next four to five years to Waterville.

The expansion of Burlington, Mass.-based Collaborative Consulting and the expected development of partnerships with nearby colleges is seen by area interests as a big plus for the revitalization of Waterville, whose economic health was formerly dependent on manufacturers now defunct.

Collaborative's arrival ties in with city and community organization goals for economic development, and with initiatives by resident Colby College, which is also in the midst of transforming the downtown area with the purchase of four historic buildings.

"There was a time when Waterville was not doing so well, with the mill closures that occurred, and the loss of manufacturing jobs," says Jennifer Olsen, former executive director of Waterville Main Street. Olsen, who left her position at year's end, cites Colby's purchases and Collaborative's arrival as synergistic developments that are also votes of confidence in Waterville as a city with great potential. "Colby's buying power leverages other investors, such as bringing Collaborative Consulting to the table. Now we're on an upswing. If ever there was a renaissance, Waterville has got it going on right now."

"Waterville is like a lot of other manufacturing town and cities, in Maine and the nation, that have seen the outflow of manufacturing jobs," says City Manager Mike Roy. "Our manufacturing jobs shut down, and now we're hoping to get things back up. Collaborative fits into our goal of being attractive to businesses that are positioning themselves for the 21st century."

Waterville has other major employers, including two hospitals and two colleges. But more companies are needed, says Roy.

"We're in need of more employment opportunities," Roy says. "In the absence of manufacturing jobs, many middle-class-wage jobs have disappeared. This helps to fill a gap in our employment picture."

In addition to its Massachusetts headquarters, Collaborative has offices in Bridgewater, N.J.; Conshohocken, Pa.; and Wausau, Wisc. In all, it has 450 employees. The business and technology consulting firm serves three major industries — financial services; life sciences, which includes pharmaceuticals, biotech and medical devices; and the public sector.

The Waterville office will be a technology delivery center that will support clients by building software and otherwise supporting their software needs, with a primary focus on financial services, says Collaborative's chief strategy officer, John Williams, who was reached by phone recently on his drive from Massachusetts to Waterville, where he planned to meet with college presidents to discuss potential partnerships. Jobs will fall into two primary categories: IT, such as software development and testing, data science and more; and business disciplines such as user experience, business analysis and project management.

"We help companies and government move into the new digital era, getting them off old platforms, helping them to create new ways of interacting with their customers and to access the data they need to improve their business and processes," says Williams.

Collaborative will be located in Waterville's Hathaway Creative Center, probably starting off with a few thousand square feet. Hathaway, a 19th century cotton mill that became a shirt factory, is itself a revitalization project, rehabilitated and today housing commercial and residential tenants. Falling within a Maine Pine Tree Zone, business tenants in certain industries, including IT, can qualify for receiving reduced or deferred state taxes. Pine Tree Zone businesses also qualify for Employment Tax Increment Financing, a state program that helps businesses hire new employees by refunding 30% to 80% of the state withholding taxes paid by the business for up to 10 years.

"We believe those programs will help us," says Williams. "They help defray the high cost of hiring and training for a company like ours. I think if the state didn't have them, Maine wouldn't be on equal footing with other states."

Partnerships with area colleges

The alliance with Colby is expected to bring student internships, faculty and staff training, and professional development opportunities in the digital world of rapidly changing technology.

For example, Williams says, Colby has strong economics and computer sciences tracks.

"Putting those two together with our people who are in the field every day, we hopefully can come up with innovations in the financial services industry. We can look at what we're seeing in the market and where we think technology can help businesses, and develop new business models. You see that kind of relationship, for example, at MIT, where their engineering school is working in the field of robotics with BMW and Raytheon on cybersecurity. This is the same idea, except in the financial marketplace."

"There's great synergy there," says Colby President David Greene. "We've been thinking about ways we might support entrepreneurship more generally, both at Colby and in the local area. It might mean, for example, we would think about putting a business incubator downtown. If we did that in connection with Collaborative Consulting, the work done there could be powerful. So we see this as an opportunity for us."

Calling itself Collaborative Waterville, the firm also plans to work with Thomas College, Kennebec Valley Community College and the University of Maine to create opportunities for technology and business skills education for students.

Williams provides a hypothetical of what the company does: "Let's say our client is a financial services company and their reps are financial advisors. They need a new way for their reps to interact with their clients: The old way is too dependent upon face-to-face meetings and manually assembled information. We might help them develop a new model for the kinds of interaction they want to have depending on the way the client wants to communicate, rather than being constrained by technology limitations. We might help them envision this new way of client communication, and also help them understand the technology that would make it possible. We design and build it for them, and we can support it for them and keep them moving forward."

An industry that feels 'migratory'

The "collaborative" in Collaborative Consulting is there for a reason, says Williams.

"We feel a lot of firms in our space don't work with their clients," he says. "They dictate to clients: 'This is what you should do and this is why.' We feel it's a conversation, and the best answers come from working together to figure out the direction forward and come up with solutions to problems."

Collaborative selected Waterville for several reasons, Williams says. Lease rates are lower here than metropolitan areas. The area also has a large-enough population and the higher-education opportunities needed to hire skilled personnel, train for new hires and develop partnerships.

"If we can build workforce in a lower-cost market, that's attractive," says Williams. "We don't look at Waterville as a low-price location. It's just better-priced than Boston. The other thing we have to have is people and Waterville is a big enough place, with enough higher education and skilled people in the market, or who want to be in the market, to make this viable. If we were to go to a place that was too small or remote, it wouldn't work."

Waterville also provides proximity to Collaborative's Northeast clients.

"We can have clients come to the facility fairly easily, and have our people drive to the clients," Williams says.

Waterville, like Maine in general, is a natural attraction for people wanting to move to Maine. Hiring is expected to be a combination in-state and out-of-state talent, with 50% to 75% of hires coming right out of college.

"What's exciting about Maine is that we find a lot of people who are in Maine who are interested in these opportunities," says Williams. "We're also finding equal numbers of people who are not in Maine but want to be. Our industry sometimes feels migratory. People go where the work is. With the Waterville center, we have people who are committed to living in the Waterville area and growing a career in Waterville. We find there are people there who are looking for a career in technology, or have gone out of technology and want to get back in. We're also finding there are people who want to move to the area. They're already attracted to the region, and Collaborative Consulting provides the catalyst to be here."

Waterville growth itself a draw

Waterville's renewal in recent years is also part of the draw, says Williams.

Various aspects of renewal here include the 2015 opening of new businesses such as The Sensory Gym, expanding from Farmingdale; and The Loyal Biscuit Co., a pet supply boutique, expanding from Belfast, Camden and Rockland. Other openings include an electronic repair business called "You Broke It?" as well as Rustic Charm Home Furnishings. Waterville-based GHM Insurance Agency owner Bill Mitchell bought two historic buildings downtown. Waterville business Holy Cannoli opened its second storefront downtown.

In recent months, Colby has acquired the Hains Building at 173 Main St., the former Levine's clothing store building at 9 Main St., a vacant building at 16-20 Main St. and a two-story brick building at 13-15 Appleton St. The acquisitions came out of Greene's meetings with representatives from the city and community that identified strategies to create a vibrant business and residential area. The buildings could be used for student housing, social services, retail, a hotel and or arts space, says Greene.

Collaborative's growth coincides with the overall growth of the IT field. According to Plunkett Research Ltd., an industry research firm based in Houston, the consulting field overall reached revenues in 2015 of $500 billion worldwide. IT needs include social networking, mobile computing, online employee collaboration and cloud computing and data storage.

"Technology is ubiquitous," Williams says. "Everything is going technology. It's becoming integrated in who we are as people. And all the ways to think about how to use technology for business and for personal enhancement is growing rapidly."


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