Business leaders in the Finger Lakes region appear to be slightly more optimistic about the business climate than their counterparts across upstate, although they say factors such as taxes, rising health care costs and government regulations have a negative impact on their operations.
Those are among the findings of The Siena College Research Institute’s Business Leaders survey.
The institute conducted interviews with 530 CEOs of upstate New York companies and nonprofit organizations from Nov. 28 through Feb. 4.
This year, as in prior years, the institute computes an Index of Business Leader Confidence based on four questions by which CEOs assess the economy of New York — both current and future — as well as the current and future conditions within their industry.
An index score of 100 represents a breakeven point at which optimism and pessimism are balanced. The higher the number means there is more optimism and the lower the number means respondents are more pessimistic.
Last year, the upstate index was at 94.4. Currently, the index has fallen to 68.8.
The index score among respondents from the Finger Lakes region this year was 77.
Don Levy, Siena College Research Institute director, said there could be several reasons why the index was higher among Finger Lakes respondents.
“It could be idiosyncratic, it could be the mix of businesses, or it could be that businesses there are more accepting of disruptive technology,” he said. “It shows that the area is moving a little more into the future as opposed to living in the past.”
Levy said the index among upstate business leaders is nearly identical to the one taken at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the exception that back then, CEO’s were more optimistic about future conditions.
That is not the case this time around.
“The majority of CEO’s feel current conditions have decayed, and, unfortunately, they expect that the year ahead won’t be strong,” Levy said.
Inflation is a key concern among business leaders across upstate, he said, with 52 percent of overall respondents — and 68 percent of Finger Lakes respondents — saying inflation will have a moderately negative impact on their company’s profitability.
“Inflation has eroded that confidence to an alarming point,” Levy said.
In response, most upstate business leaders (73 percent), including those in the Finger Lakes region (70 percent), are raising their prices.
The top company challenges among Finger Lakes respondents were taxation (at 67 percent) and health care costs and government regulations, each at 63 percent.
The news, however, is not all bad, Levy noted.
The fact that 64 percent of respondents in the Finger Lakes say they plan to invest in fixed assets this year is a good sign, he said, noting that investing in assets such as equipment, vehicles or computers shows that businesses are committed to competing with other businesses.
Many survey respondents also had an unfavorable view of state government.
Levy noted that lack of support — across upstate and in the Finger Lakes region — is not new, but it is problematic.
“CEO’s feel the (state) government doesn’t understand their needs,” he said. “They know it’s going to be a tough year and don’t believe the government is going to do anything that will enhance their chances of success.”
Most survey respondents also noted lack of support at the federal level of government and were not supportive of raising the minimum wage.
Additionally, 85 percent of respondents from the Finger Lakes region said there is not an ample supply of local workers trained to meet their business needs and 82 of respondents there said they are having the most difficultly with recruiting to fill open positions.
Mike Hogan, president of Macedon-based Information Packaging Corp., agrees a challenge continues to be finding new hires.
Hogan, who participated in the survey, said that sales grew by double digits in 2022 and he expects the same this year despite challenges.
Flexibility, along with new products and markets, have helped the custom printed packaging manufacturer grow, he said.
For example, Information Packaging’s largest market has traditionally been hospitality — the company makes the key card sleeves for hotels — but when that industry took a hit at the height of COVID-19, the local business was able to shift its focus with sales of its seed envelopes to the home gardening market, which grew over that time.
“We are always looking for new markets,” Hogan said, adding that over the nearly 38 years the company has been in business it has reinvented itself a few times.
Duncan O’Dwyer, an attorney and equity partner at Rochester-based Forsyth, Howe, O’Dwyer, Kalb & Murphy, P.C., also participated in the survey.
O’Dwyer said he conservatively projects a 10 percent drop in gross revenue this year over last because of the current economic climate.
Challenges from increasing interest rates to rising inflation also impact some of the industries the firm works with, including the real estate sector.
What has helped the firm — which is in its 73rd year in business — is expanding its geographic reach to serve clients across the state, he said.
O’Dwyer noted that regular budget reviews throughout the year are something all businesses need to do, adding that it is a challenging time to be a business owner.
“You need to have a strong stomach and pay attention every day,” he said. “If not, you won’t be around.”
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